Impressions of … Sound of my Voice [Zal Batmanlij]

unconvincing, that’s really all I have to say about this, but …


… I suppose it’s worth pausing to consider why that might be:

the scenario is quite simple, a twenty-something couple are planning an exposé of a mysterious cult, the documentary will launch their careers, but deeper personal motives drive their interest in the subject, will the mysterious leader be exposed as a charlatan? or will their (hidden) scepticism be overcome by the enigmatic leader, Maggie?

yet it’s not entirely clear what is at stake?

for us to want Maggie to be exposed, we’d need to be shown examples of the damage she has done, but the script (by director Batmanliji and star, Brit Marling) doesn’t go there, not until the final act and then it only hints previous activities, in fact, after treading a precarious line between faith and reason, the script falls on the side of the believer, the two would-be journos are naive and presumptuous – they haven’t done their research – and one of them, Peter, is clearly in need of long-overdue therapy, this is where it gets interesting, could it be that Peter’s vulnerability will lead him to destruction? almost, the script goes there, but it leaps into the final act too soon, before they’ve had time to dig the hole deep enough

I suspect it was for the viewer the screenwriters were digging the hole, the revelation at the end may surprise Peter, but it is designed to confound our sense of certainty – “so you thought you knew the score”, it seems to say, and I’d reply “yes, and so what?” … nothing is at stake and the film ends just getting as it was getting interesting

(sometimes screenwriters mistake twists for endings – but “peripeteia ain’t no catharsis,” as Aristotle Onassis used to say)

I’m getting ahead of myself here, it wasn’t the end that was the film’s undoing, it was the beginning, the poorly-handled exposition:

we join the two journos as they are guided through the elaborate procedure which precedes the meeting of the cult members, it’s their first time, but we’re told they’ve also been through a long preparation, you have to wonder what was the substance of that preparation because the script has Maggie deliver an introductory speech, telling us how she came to be in this world and kindly dramatized for us in flashback, after the meeting the two journos discuss why they’re making this exposé, as if they hadn’t already been through it, in other words, it is written as it were day one, when for those involved day one has long gone, more egregious exposition is yet to come, we’re served the back stories of our two journos as flashback montages with a voice-over, without any justification

this is poor writing, but there’s also a lack of substance:

the softly-spoken sylph-like Maggie is not your usual charismatic prophet, it’s an interesting choice, seduction over sulphur, but because she’s a bit of a tease and favours hints over hard sell, neither we nor the cult members get much of an idea of what she promises, they must have some idea, but we never find that out, you’d have thought the journalists would’ve been curious …

you wonder what the story would have looked like if told from the point of view of a genuine believer, the arc from conversion to disillusionment would have been far more precipitous, in learning the truth they might have lost something, and there would be opportunities for more drama, passing through betrayal, then the twist could work

it might also be a pretty good set up for a TV drama series



Impressions of … Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)


there’s something impenetrable about this film, like watching the action pressed up against the (convex) glass (of the lens), the film doesn’t let you in, and what is annoying is that the effect seems deliberate, or the makers disinterested, as if Soderbergh doesn’t care

the sound mix (or the system I heard it on) didn’t help, with the dialogue fighting to stay above the surface of the funky Lalo Schifrinesque score, Soderbergh is self-consciously experimenting with sound, dropping foley and sound effects from some action sequences to see if he can create emphasis and impact when it suddenly returns, but what this also produces is distance, you don’t feel the action half as much, and this loss is more noticeable because the production design is relatively realistic, with a very detailed and specific use of location

Soderbergh isn’t the only one exercising his technique, screenwriter Lem Dobbs (who also scripted Soderbergh’s ‘Kafka’ and ‘The Limey’) is playing a game of delayed exposition – better than premature exposition! We are playing catch up throughout, piecing together the conspiracy, but this does not significantly increase our identification with the protagonist, as it might have done (in a Hitchcock thriller). In fact, we are not being placed in the protagonist Mallory Kane’s shoes, but rather we find ourselves in the position of the innocent dude who helps her escape from the first fight in the diner. Mallory takes his car (at gun point) and, not wanting to lose it, he accompanies her. For some reason, she recounts the whole story as he stresses in the passenger seat. She tests him on it, as if she were trained him as her witness, though there is no pay-off to this at all. The kid just disappears from the plot.

it’s a chase movie told in for the large part in expositional flashbacks, so it’s significant that the protagonist effectively narrates (or cues) these flashbacks from the driver’s seat and also that she does not appear to be struggling to piece it together – it is we who are struggling! (So what is the status of the flashbacks scenes in which she is not present? Is she imagining them, guessing that they must have occurred, or has the screenwriter forgotten his own structuring device?)

it’s a chase movie so what’s at stake is obvious – the bad guys want to kill the protagonists – and yet these stakes are insufficient to make us (me) care, no effort is made to induce identification or sympathy with Mallory – all we can do is cheer her on as she kicks her opponents corrupt arses, this is not unusual in martial arts action flics, the story model is the ‘hero who will not be stopped’, but this places a greater burden on the star’s charisma, unfortunately, Gina Carano’s doesn’t register very high on the scale (neither does Steven Segal’s or Chuck Norris or JCVD, et al.), though I confess I found her very fetching and wanted to be the one she came home to after a long day’s of pointing guns at people

it also places a burden on the action: the close combat was pretty enjoyable, when the sound effects were present, in particular the quasi-sexual business with Michael Fassbender

I didn’t quite get why was she leaving her employer? This is crucial to the plot and would’ve been a way in to her character, but the exposition was opaque or perfunctory on this point, effectively, the Barcelona job, the centrepiece of the plot, was her last job (for him), and yet the script shys away from stating this – too hackneyed? Her employer knows this, but we don’t see him make a concerted effort to persuade her stay and, wait, he turns up at her apartment immediately after the job offering another gig and she doesn’t tell him she’s through, she merely complains about having to leave again so soon and not doing ‘eye candy’ roles. Why don’t they have it out there and then? Are they too poker-faced to even discuss things? Was the script hinting at a failing romantic relationship? Was she not planning to leave at all? (If so, why set her up at all? Is this last job so lucrative that he won’t need to work again?)

the plot, with its delayed exposition, exposition after the fact, was an intellectual puzzle no more than that

she retreats to her father’s isolated house in Arizona (?) or thereabouts, where an anticlimactic fight takes place, but this character is  inert, and, for an ex-military man, a writer of action thrillers (or were they military history?), surprisingly passive. Opportunities were missed with this character. He could have been the key to getting inside Mallory’s world. The story doesn’t push far enough. She has this eternally safe place, her father. It should have taken it away from her. Either by killing him, or threatening to, or alternatively, by involving him in the conspiracy, making him betray her … he could, for example, have been more of a righteous ‘patriot’ and repudiated her for her alleged crimes. Losing her Daddy would have been an emotional trauma for the hero …

you need to open the doors and let the viewer feel the warm breath of the human, if only for a moment, as they cry in despair

this film was too cool and clever for its own good

Cravan vs Cravan (Isaki Lecuesta)

Arthur Cravan, the ‘boxer/poet’, may be a footnote in the annals of the Parisian and New York art scenes of the early twentieth century, but his story is one of the more intriguing – sometimes the best material sinks to the bottom (of the page).

Born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, in provincial Switzerland, Cravan ‘made his name’ in Paris as a dandy, a drinker, a critic, and all round provocateur. Inspired, or exalted, by the knowledge he was the nephew of Oscar Wilde, he sought sensation and scandal and turned most things into a fist fight, at which he excelled. His writing, expansive and opinionated, was less regarded than his exploits; his greatest creation, as historian Charles Nicholl puts it, was himself.

Cravan vs Cravan‘, Isaki Lecuesta’s 2002 documentary, participates in this game of self-mythologizing, treating Cravan as a kind of fiction, historical, but elusive, a figment of other people’s desires (so much so, there are moments when you fear it might be a hoax). One of those people is Frank Nicostra, an ex-boxer turned writer, who seems totally absorbed by his ‘identity’ with Cravan, the boxer and poet. Lecuesta builds his film around Nicostra: using him as narrator, interviewer, stand-in, and possibly, a patsy.

“This is the story of a ghost. This is my story,” intones Nicostra over a brooding, nocturnal image of the sea and then we find him standing apart, as if unseen, at an art gallery reception. Frank Nicostra as the ghost of Arthur Cravan eavesdropping on the chattering classes picking over his remains? The idea is contrived, tenuous, but it gives a different spin to the trail of photographs, sites of interest, and testimony from historians and enthusiasts. For what emerges is a portrait of a man (Cravan) with a restless appetite for life, aggressive, voracious, brutal. Full of bravado. Protean and contradictory; elusive, perhaps, but not enigmatic and certainly not a ghost.

Or is Frank Nicostra the ghost, the shadow, pale and admiring, of a man whose way of living inspired Dadaists, Surrealists, and a modernist poet?

The title of the film seems to pit the two men against each other. Outside the ring, it would have been no contest. Nicostra was a European champion, but in the story of Arthur Cravan, he is less than a footnote.

[An ex-boxer turned investigator on the trail of a rogue whose fate increasingly resembles his own: now that’s a nice noirish premise. Angel Heart meets Out of the Past?]

Johanna, or Film as Opera

‘Stop and ask yourself if this great idea of yours really is a movie, or is it maybe a TV series, a novel, a play? Or something you should keep between you and your psychoanalyst?’

You hear this advice a lot. Good advice, I suppose. Yet, in the list of alternatives, there is an omission: opera. It’s always TV series, novels, etc. Perhaps script readers and screenwriting pros don’t give opera a second thought, unless they’re dealing with middle-class homosexuals or a boxing sequence. Perhaps they figure an opera starts with the notes on the staves and not drama or dialogue. Perhaps so. But opera and film are not so far apart and sometimes they’re the same thing.

Kornél Mundruczó and Viktória Petrányi’s ‘Johanna’ (2005) was a contemporary classical opera conceived and produced for the cinema screen. An audacious enterprise, commercially – there’s no obvious audience out there – but, artistically, it made sense: the form suits the subject and the medium suits the form.

The fruit of a long-standing collaboration with young composer, Zsófia Tallér, who scored the majority of Mundruczó’s films, ‘Johanna‘ was essayed two years earlier as a short film, ‘Joan of Arc of the Night Bus,’ and as that title suggests, it’s an up-date of the Maid of Orleans story.

In this version, Joan (or Johanna), a heroine addict, offends the medical establishment by using, at God’s command, extremely unorthodox, para-medical methods to heal every seriously ill middle-aged male patient she can find. To put it bluntly, she fucks them back to health. (A strictly heterosexual treatment, it seems. Women and children have to take their chances with traditional medicine.) A young doctor, infatuated with Johanna’s fragile beauty, becomes enraged with jealousy and leads the inquisition against her.

The film begins in realistic mode accompanying an ambulance on its way to a major traffic accident. We follow a doctor through the corridors of an underground hospital (the old asylum in Budapest), where the casualties are being treated. Until another doctor enters the ward and starts to sing: a gravelly baritone, declaring the end of the training exercise. The opera announces itself. Realism and its artifices undercut in the same coup de theatre.

From then on, the music doesn’t stop, except to pause for dramatic effect;  it’s supple, expressive, but tonally dark. (I wonder if the project was influenced by Bela Bartok’s brooding one-act masterpiece, ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’ [1918].) The camera roams the windowless rooms and corridors filled with sickly greens, over-exposed whites, and what I can only describe as murky, diluted iodine. Shadowy and sepulchral. Unreal.

If Mundroczó’s goal was to achieve a synthesis of music and image, in a heightened register, he must have been quite satisfied. The argument of the highly symbolic narrative is less persuasive, if only because, as is typical of Saint Joan, our sympathies are never stretched beyond the beatific Johanna, despite the amorality of her activities. Here, the most interesting character would have been the lust-lorn doctor, in whom the idealism of medicine and the selfish demands of sexual attraction resolve themselves in self-deluded act of murder.

Johanna‘ is available on DVD in the UK.

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.

Le Petit Voleur, or How long is a feature film?

How long is a feature film? Eighty, ninety minutes? Two hours? Two hours ten? Seven and a half? (You know who you are, Bela Tarr.)

All of the above. I don’t mind. A film should be as long as it needs to be, and no shorter. Yes, you heard me, no shorter. More films have been ruined by the knife, cutting to contract, than have benefited, I have no doubt.

How short can a film be before it stops being a ‘feature’? Multiplexes will expect a minimum of eighty minutes, I suspect; while film festival regulations provide a simple rule: a feature film must be over one hour in length. That’s a nice round figure, and fair enough when you consider film festivals deal primarily with low-budget, independent productions which, let’s face it, sometimes have to go ‘with what they’ve got.’ But how many films of sixty-odd minutes have you seen? Not many, I imagine. Kaurismaki has given us a couple, ‘The Match Factory Girl’ and ‘Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana,’ and they’re both full value, though I wonder if he set out to make them that length or if they just end up that way.

Clocking in at 63 minutes, Erick Zonca’s ‘Le Petit Voleur‘ (1998) must be the shortest feature I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t mess around. It is an object lesson in not messing around.

Consider the opening sequence: in an empty bar, a young guy finishes a solitary beer, he turns up to work at a bakery, he’s obviously been AWOL because there’s a new kid working there and the boss fires him without ceremony, he loses the room that came with the job too; cut to a bar, where the guy tells a girlfriend he’s through with ‘work’, from now on he’ll be the one “screwing others,” she’s not too impressed, but she offers him somewhere to stay – she trusts him; they fuck; he steals her wages; and then, here’s the big one, we cut to a bunch of scumbags chafing on about other people’s wealth and we find our guy among them, listening; then they’re away ripping off some rich person’s villa.

We don’t know how our guy fell in with these scroats; we don’t know how he got there, or whether it’s the same city – it may not be, in fact. No exposition is slipped into the dialogue like a valium. We don’t need it. Our guy’s signed up for a life of petty crime and he’s at the bottom of the pecking order. We get that. And that’s all we need to get.

The betrayal of the girl’s trust is important here. By taking her wages, he commits to a course of action, he crosses a threshold. He pitches himself into a world of machismo, of crime, violence, envy, and greed. That is where we find him in the next scene. No messing about.

If ever there was a subject which suited such brutally compressed exposition … I wanted to get out of that world. I didn’t like it there. Mercifully, Zonca and his co-writer, Virginie Wagon, deliver us in little more than an hour.

A film as short as it needed to be.


Erick Zonca’s ‘Le Petit Voleur‘: “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Le Petit Voleur is not available to rent or purchase on DVD, outside of France, as far as I know.