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Posts Tagged ‘avant garde’

Day One (October 12th)

As you may be aware, I’m never averse to a bit of a chat and maybe even some badinage with the people I buy my cinema tickets from; it helps me to sustain the delusion that going to the pictures eighty times a year is somehow a valid substitute for a conventional social life. Still, it comes as a shock when one of these conversations concludes with the person selling the tickets saying ‘Good luck!’ – and this is what happened on this particular occasion.

I half turned back to them and possibly cocked an eyebrow. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘Well, it’s a bit long, isn’t it,’ he said with a grin.

Well, maybe he had a point: there are not many films which you buy your ticket for in instalments, let alone ones where you get a discount for undertaking to watch the whole thing. But we were in the curious world of Mariano Llinas’ La Flor (Spanish for The Flower), where things are very, very different from the form they usually take.

There are lots of unusual figures associated with La Flor – for instance, the film was nine years in the making, more or less – but the key one is 808. 808 what? you may be wondering. Well, friends, 808 minutes, which is a) about thirteen and a half hours and b) the amount of your finite and precious lifespan you will have to commit, if you want to watch La Flor in its entirety. Yes, the mind boggles, does it not (and this is far from the last time, should you decide to go for the full La Flor experience).

Why would anyone want to go and see a thirteen and a half hour long movie? Well, I guess for the same reason they always used to climb Mount Everest: because it’s there. Also, I suspect, out of a sort of misguided cinematic machismo – are you really serious about all forms of cinema? Really serious? You may think so, but have you actually watched La Flor? Oh, well then…

As regular visitors will know, I’ll go and see most things at the cinema, but even I was given pause by the sheer scale of the commitment required here – La Flor is not so much a movie, more a sort of lifestyle choice: the full experience involved turning out for four Saturday afternoons in a row. In the end, though, sheer curiosity won out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UPP was not packed to bursting when the projectionist finally got things underway: only half a dozen or so brave souls had turned out (one of whom appears to have a form of Tourette’s, which could lead to frayed tempers before we reach November). Will everyone last the course? Will friendships bloom amongst La Flor devotees? Shall we have a commemorative medal struck for everyone who makes it to the end?

La Flor opens with a shot of generous duration depicting some scaffolding at the side of the road and traffic going past. Once this has sunk in, the director and his dog turn up to introduce the film and explain the structure of it, with the aid of some diagrams he draws in felt tip. The structure of the film is rather like that of a flower, hence the title, but already a big question was forming in my head – this isn’t so much a massive thirteen hour movie as just six regular-length films bolted together, linked by the same lead performers. Why not just release the component episodes individually? Is there something special to be gained from watching the whole thing, other than a deep-vein thrombosis? Oh well. We were already committed by this point.

The first episode of La Flor‘s six is a horror B-movie concerning some archaeologists (Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, and Laura Paredes) who find themselves stuck in a remote office building over the Easter weekend, keeping an eye on an Inca mummy which has unexpectedly been foisted upon them. Low-key creepiness ensues, as first the institute cat and then one of the women begins to behave extremely strangely, eventually violently so. Are supernatural forces at work? Another woman who is essentially a government-employed exorcist (Pilar Gamboa) turns up to try and deal with the situation, before making a disturbing discovery…

This is, according to Llinas anyway, ‘the kind of B-movie that Americans can’t seem to make any more’, but I’m not entirely sure the torch has been cleanly passed – at least, not to Argentina. Episode 1 of La Flor isn’t scary enough to work as a full-blooded horror movie, but not knowing or funny enough to really succeed as a pastiche or a spoof of the genre. Or so it seemed to me: we all got up to stretch our legs during the interval (only two and three quarter hours in) and I overheard some of the other voyagers enthusiastically discussing how creepy the bit with the mummy had been. (Then again I suspect they are art-house lovers and haven’t seen as many schlocky genre movies as I have.) In the end… well, the thing is that the story is not resolved – a big revelation seems imminent, and then the story is abruptly abandoned as we move on to Episode 2.

This is, naturally, a complete change of pace, and is basically the story recounted in the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me, or maybe yet another version of A Star is Born – a singing duo is on the verge of breaking up, and are preparing to record a song apparently inspired by their collapsing relationship. The setting is a little obscure (it’s mostly done in close-up, often in unusually long takes). Gamboa makes up for her late arrival in Episode 1 by making all the early running here, giving a very impressive acting and vocal performance. The lead-up to the actual performance of the duo’s duet (Hector Diaz plays the male singer) is cleverly managed, leading up to a terrific moment when the individual elements come together.

However, this is La Flor, and the quasi-musical story appears to have got tangled up with a peculiar tale about a cult attempting to find the secret of eternal youth through experimentation with the venom of a rare scorpion – this is linked, one might almost say spuriously, by Gamboa’s PA (Paredes) being mixed up with the cult, and her emotional involvement with the singers’ situation is interfering with their experiments. The tonal mismatch of the two plot threads is hugely jarring, and the two threads come together at the cliffhanger which marks the end of the first instalment of La Flor. Is there to be some resolution, or (as indicated by the director) have we reached the point where the film once again abruptly switches to a new quasi-narrative?

 

Day Two (October 19th)

Some more numbers, while we’re at it: Episode 3 of La Flor apparently lasts for five-and-a-half hours, occupying all of Day Two and overspilling into Day Three. I have heard rumours that the closing credits alone last for forty minutes (I can’t confirm this yet, as I’m writing the review a week at a time). Perhaps the most pertinent figure relating to Day Two of this voyage into art-house cinema at its most impenetrable is a meagre three, which is the number of people who turned up.

Yes, that’s half the number from Day One, which was a bit dispiriting, although at least the chap with Tourette’s syndrome was one of the no-shows this time around. Apparently the evening screenings are proving more popular, as more people are more willing to give up four weekday evenings than a month’s worth of Saturday afternoons. Funny old world, isn’t it?

Having laid in a supply of doughnuts and chocolate-coated spherical honeycomb biscuits, I was prepared for this latest encounter with La Flor, and almost at once the burning question in my mind was answered: the cliffhanger from the end of Day One was destined never to be resolved, as we were straight into Episode 3 and another new genre and storyline. This opens with another one of those extraordinary moments unique to this film – a bad guy out of stock casting, complete with dark glasses, cigarette, and submachine gun, patrols in front of a field of blossoms, managing not to notice someone sneaking up on him within the flowers until he is killed by a knife-thrower.

Yes, only in La Flor. For (I think) the first time in the film so far, all four of the leads share the screen for an extended period, as we embark upon an existential spy thriller set in the 1980s. The quartet play black-clad intelligence operatives on a mission to kidnap a scientist from a secure location. But is there something else going on? It transpires their handler is conspiring against them and another team (also of four women) has been sent to assassinate them. It all becomes a bit bleak and fatalistic, some amusingly cack-handed martial arts choreography notwithstanding, as the four leads settle in and prepare to do battle for their lives.

At this point Llinas pops up again, rather unexpectedly, and pretty much the first thing he does is apologise for the fact that this is not yet the latest intermission. He also reveals Episode 3 has another three-and-a-half hours to go, most of which will be flashbacks. He also has a go at indicating where we’ve reached in the structure of the film, not that this really means very much. Then we’re back to the story.

One thing that has already become very clear is that La Flor is not a movie gripped by a great sense of urgency. Everything happens at a very languid pace, to the point of seeming rather self-indulgent. It’s almost as if they’ve decided that, as this film is going to run for an absurdly long time anyway, there’s no need to cut anything at all – the sheer, ridiculous duration of the thing has become its raison d’etre. If you released Episode 3 on its own, without the rest of the movie around it, it would still be vastly longer than most conventional films. Never mind a lifestyle choice or a mini-film festival, you almost start to suspect La Flor is some kind of absurd situationist prank.

And then it comes along and does something genuinely accomplished and involving, like the first two flashbacks to the past lives of the agents in the main story of Episode 3. First off is the tale of Gamboa’s character, who is a mute Englishwoman (I’m not sure whether playing a mute character in a five hour narrative counts as a smart career move or not). Lots of voice-over here (it’s a bit of a feature of this episode) but the story is, as noted, a very involving one, and Gamboa continues to give eye-catching performances.

That said, the film’s attempt to capture the British idiom of speaking is hilariously misjudged, and there’s a mind-boggling sequence where Gamboa’s character is taken to meet a senior figure of the British establishment. This turns out to be a bizarre, horse-riding, cigar-smoking version of Margaret Thatcher (played by Susana Pampin), who is addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’ by those around her. Is this a deliberate, Comic Strip-style send up, or is the film as genuinely off its medication as it seems? It’s impossible to tell.

The final mini-narrative of the day concerns the prior history of Valeria Correa’s character, a violently psychotic warrior-woman raised as a soldier by Colombian revolutionaries. This is another very strong segment in terms of its storytelling and central performance, let down once again by the film’s attempt at using the American idiom and perhaps some of the supporting turns.

Frankly, three-and-a-half-hours of the same (not exactly action-packed) story, with no sign of resolution in sight, was a draining experience, but at least it peaked late on in the afternoon, when I was running short of doughnuts. With three and a bit more episodes to come, split over the last two days of the La Flor experience, there should at least be a bit more variety from this point on. Will there be anyone else there watching it with your correspondent? We shall have to wait and see.

 

Day Three (October 26th)

Well, to my total astonishment the number of Floristas turning up for the third day of the screening was actually up on that of Day Two: four, rather than three. In addition to your correspondent, there was a Spanish guy (who hadn’t actually come to Day One), a woman from the same neck of the woods, and an Australian woman. I had to wonder why anyone would turn up to watch only the second half of La Flor, and (making full use of the camaraderie born of collective adversity that a situation like this engenders) managed to chat with both the women during the intervals.

It turned out the Australian was only really interested in seeing Episode 6 (showing on Day Four) and had turned up a week early by mistake, while the Spanish lady was watching the evening showings of Days One, Two, and Four, but couldn’t make the third night and had decided to catch it in the afternoon instead. Quirks of scheduling meant that not only had she committed to watching a thirteen and a half hour movie, she was cheerfully watching it out of sequence.

I was honestly starting to wonder if La Flor was not just a mini-film festival or a baffling prank, but actually some kind of celluloid equivalent of The King in Yellow, a fiendish construct intended to ensnare innocent cinema-goers and reduce them to a state of obsessive dementation. In an attempt to make sense of it all, in the week I had managed to track down an interview with Llanos where he explained his vision for the movie.

I gather the idea was – well, when you see a movie like (for example) Unforgiven or The Shootist, the emotional impact of the piece isn’t just derived from the script and performances. The whole past career of the main actor and your pre-existing relationship with them informs your response to the film. La Flor is apparently an attempt to create a similar effect with respect to the leading quartet – you spend so long watching them in a variety of roles that a special bond is forged with them over the course of the (very, very long) film. It’s an interesting idea, but if bonding with audiences is what these actresses are looking to achieve, I wonder if they might not have been better off going out and having conventional careers rather than just spending the best part of a decade working on La Flor.

Day Three of the movie kicks off with what may very well be a knowingly self-deprecating gag (and by no means the last) – seven hours into the movie, we are treated to a lengthy interlude of someone snoring. Soon enough, however, we are back in the depths of Episode 3, exploring the back-stories of the four lead characters.

These really are one of the highlights of the film, and Laura Paredes’ episode is possibly the best of them. She brings an irresistible soulfulness to an understated tale of assassins silently falling in love with each other between assignments – the particular stylistic quirk of this segment is that none of the four have any significant dialogue, most of the exposition being handled by a poetic, if somewhat verbose, voice-over.

The back-stories conclude with that of Elisa Carricajo, who plays a Soviet bureaucrat who finds herself tasked with finding an infiltrator intent only on causing chaos and disrupting the state (he is known only as Boris, and you can insert your own joke at this point if you really must). We are back in existential territory, as the search for the mole consumes Carricajo’s life and she finds herself roaming the endless ‘sad and filthy’ hinterlands of Soviet Russia via its railway network. When she eventually catches up with Boris the mole, he is played by Llinas himself, although by this point the film has to work much harder than that to be surprising.

Needless to say, Episode 3 concludes before any of this is properly resolved, but this too is hardly a surprise. What did take me a little off-guard was the fact that the Spanish Florista, who’d missed Day One, left the cinema during the interval and never returned. Clearly he was only interested in Episode 3, although I’ve no idea why.

It was somewhat comforting to know we were now definitely half-way through the La Flor experience, and it was just a question of what Episode 4 had in store for us. Courtesy of the kind of narrative shift that could leave the unprepared with whiplash, we go from a spy thriller genre movie to metafictional self-parody: Episode 4 concerns the travails of a frazzled film director (not actually played by Llinas himself, but there’s a deliberate resemblance), who’s bogged down six years into making an insanely ambitious art-house movie entitled The Spider, so-called because the structure of the film, when shown as a diagram, resembles one.

The main problem is his relationship with the four actresses in the movie is disintegrating; they have become difficult and demanding, complaining about the lack of a script and the fact they have to keep learning different languages for each new episode. The director realises he’d much rather go off and film trees than deal with these four, and slowly comes to believe they are actually witches intent on destroying his life.

Rather to my astonishment, this turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the film yet – it’s clever, and very funny, and really rewards anyone who’s sat through the preceding nine hours or so to get to it. The humour varies from the off-beat (there’s an extended sequence where the director records his feelings about the film in his diary, rather incoherently, while the bemused crew stand around eating bananas) to the actually absurd (the witches are of the pointy-hat-wearing, broomstick-riding kind), but the in-jokes and meta stuff hit the mark – the director decides he doesn’t want to work with the (fictional) four actresses, with the result that this is a segment in which the (real) four actresses don’t get much screen-time. What exactly is La Flor doing, sending itself up so energetically? I’m not entirely sure, but this has been the strongest day yet.

 

Day Four (November 2nd)

I was half-expecting it to be a full-on battle to the finish just between me and the movie from this point on, but the Spanish chap who missed Day One entirely and then went home at the interval of Day Three reappeared for this final encounter. I must admit to feeling vaguely disappointed by this, but even so: I can proudly claim my medal for being the only one there throughout the Saturday afternoon screenings of this movie (they will have to pry said medal from my hand in order to get the straightjacket on me).

To be honest, I was also expecting to go straight into Episode 5 today, but this just shows my dodgy grasp of mathematics – I knew that Episodes 5 and 6 are considerably shorter than the others (put together, they’re still probably shorter than any of the other episodes), and yet today’s screening was the longest yet, at over three and three quarter hours. Something else had to be in the mix, and part of that was the second half of Episode 4.

Well, I suppose it qualifies as such, but the story goes off at a weird tangent (to be honest, from this point you may as well insert the adjective ‘weird’ at any point you wish). The protagonist is suddenly Gatto, a character who briefly appeared last week, when he seemed to be a character in the B-movie the director of the film-within-the-film was working on. Either this is not the case, or the fictional realms of La Flor have begun to collapse into each other. Gatto is some sort of paranormal investigator, who is called in when a car is found up a tree. Close by are a group of madmen, whom we recognise as the film crew from the start of the episode.

This leads Gatto into investigating the disappearance of the film director, mainly through reading his diary. I am making this all sound much more straightforward and coherent than it actually is. It really does feel like we’ve shifted into yet another story, or perhaps a collection of them, jostling together without much in the way of structure. There’s the story of Gatto, told mostly through his letters to a colleague, Smith. There’s a very peculiar subplot about a psychiatric colony which has fallen under the strange, almost supernatural erotic thrall of a mysterious Italian-speaking inmate. There’s a long scene in which a woman just stares into the camera while the director declaims poetry. There’s a bit about the director collecting early 20th-century weird fiction, with a particular namecheck going out to Arthur Machen – had they bigged up Robert Chambers I would have been convinced that my theory about La Flor really being The King in Yellow was on the money. There is a segment about Casanova falling under the sway of four different women (guess who) and becoming convinced they are members of an ancient secret society.

It goes on and on like this, almost overwhelmingly so. (Is the mysteriously alluring Italian inmate supposed to be Casanova, time-slipped to the present day?) In the end it dissolves into a montage tribute to the four lead actresses. Can this be it? Is the film actually finishing nearly two hours ahead of schedule?

No, of course it isn’t. After another interval we find ourselves back at the truck stop from which the director has been making his occasional, shambolic interventions. The sense of the film being essentially finished, though, persists, as he casually sets up Episode 5 and 6. ‘The girls aren’t in Episode 5,’ he confesses, ‘which is a bit strange, but it seemed like an interesting idea at the time.’ Few film directors apologise for their own work, but Mariano Llinas may be unique for doing it within the film in question. He gets his stuff together, clambers into his car, and is off.

What is the point of Episode 5? It’s a remake of Jean Renoir’s (unfinished) A Day in the Country, about two likely lads who have a bit of fun with the wife and daughter of a wealthy bourgeois businessman on a day out. It’s made in black and white and is almost totally silent, except for a sequence at one point which abandons the ongoing plot in favour of showing highlights of an aerobatic display at a provincial air show. (Twelve hours into La Flor, you almost come to expect this sort of thing.) Telling a story without any kind of sound takes a degree of skill, and the episode is impressive on these terms if no others, but even so. I guess it’s the equivalent of that pause at the end of a concert where there’s no-one on stage, giving the crowd a chance to call for the stars to do their encore, or curtain call.

lf2

Which is, I suppose, what Episode 6 is. Uniquely, it has an end but no beginning, and is a nominally historical drama concerning four women who’ve escaped from native captivity making their way back to civilisation (the fact this is the end of a long and strange journey is obviously resonant at this point). Only the leading quartet appear (two of them appear to be pregnant at this point), but the only dialogue comes from a voice-over accompanying deliberately primitive inter-titles. ‘Primal’ perhaps would be a better word: the whole episode appears to have been filmed through a camera obscura, with an intentionally grainy, distorted image. It is a strange and unsettling experience.

And then we are done, it is all over bar the closing credits. Of course, this being La Flor, the credits last over forty minutes and accompany upside-down footage of cast and crew celebrating the final wrap on the movie, then packing everything up, getting into their cars and driving off into the sunset. In the end a solitary film-maker is left, enjoying a cigarette from the comfort of a deckchair. And then it’s all over.

Friends, I did stay for the whole of the credits, even though not very much happens. My thought process was essentially, ‘Well, I’ve stayed this long…’, and I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which the film is playing mind-games with you. Certainly it lures you in by starting relatively conventionally, only to raise the stakes in its own unique brand of strangeness as it goes on – genres bang into each other, stories multiply, narratives expand to extraordinary length, and so on. Much of Day Four felt like the film was losing any real sense of itself as a single entity, and becoming completely unravelled (not that it was ever especially ravelled to begin with).

Is watching the whole of La Flor actually justified? Well, as an act of endurance, it’s certainly something of a feat, but as a piece of art I’m not sure. The relative absence of the leading quartet for much of the second half is really at odds with Llinas’ stated aims for the piece, and it is the performances of the actresses that really lift the best sections of the film. There are parts of Episodes 2, 3, and 4 I would unreservedly recommend as terrific pieces of cinema – but there’s also a lot here which is very indifferent, and even some parts which are actively frustrating and annoying. This was certainly a unique experience – I’m just not sure I’d call it a uniquely rewarding one.

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We have again reached that time of the year when the flow of interesting new releases seems to have slowed down somewhat, although we are still a few weeks away from the onset of proper blockbuster season: mid-budget genre movies seem to be the standard release at the moment. This is just a very long-winded way of saying that there wasn’t anything showing at the multiplex this weekend that caught my interest but that I hadn’t seen or didn’t have plans to see (I am aware this explanation itself is not notably short-winded; sorry).

Normally on these occasions I see what’s on at the two niche cinemas in the area, which can usually be relied upon for an interesting revival now and then. Well, it turned out that the Phoenix was showing The Wild Bunch, which I saw just the other month and didn’t really fancy seeing again so soon (it’s the Phoenix’s turn to be doing a classic western season). Meanwhile, the frequently-surprising Ultimate Picture Palace was launching their latest season with Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror (Zerkalo in the original Russian; The Mirror when it’s in the USA, apparently).

In the UK, at least, Tarkovsky is best known for Solaris (all together now – ‘the Russian answer to 2001‘) and – to a lesser degree – Stalker (a film once described by one of our more low-brow TV listing magazines as ‘three men messing about on a building site for nearly three hours’). Mirror is a different kettle of fish. It may not be a kettle, however. And whatever is in it, they may not be fish. This is that sort of film.

I am always very curious to see what kind of turn-out these various revivals attract – Breakfast at Tiffany’s had a very healthy crowd last month, while a few years ago I went to a showing of Touch of Evil that was practically sold out – showings of Robocop and Plague of the Zombies around the same time were sadly under-populated, on the other hand. Given it was the first really nice weekend of the year, and that Mirror is a little-known foreign-language piece of experimental cinema, I was expecting there to be plenty of space inside the UPP – well, in the end I think there were somewhere around fifteen punters present, although as a whisper of ‘Oh, is it in Russian?’ went round the auditorium as the film began, I suspect some of the people there were friends of the volunteers who run the place.

So. Andrei Tarkovsky. Mirror. Voted one of the ten greatest films ever made in a poll of directors, yet largely unknown to western audiences. How can I begin to impart to you the nature of this remarkable film? Well: an adolescent boy receives hypnotherapy for his speech impediment. A country doctor takes a wrong turn on the way home. A shed burns down. An emigre bullfighter now living in Russia loses his temper. There is a potential slip-up at the print works, but it turns out to be a false alarm. Someone kills a chicken. There are fun and games at the firing range where the boys are training during the Great Patriotic War. Other things happen too.

You know, writing down a synopsis for a film is very much a kind of left-brain activity, a question of cause and effect and logical, material connections between things. Mirror is probably one of the worst films possible to try and summarise in this way, as it is really a right-brain movie, almost a kind of waking dream that attempts to draw the viewer into a kind of complicit trance with it. In the past I have written about how difficult it is to remember any details of experiences you don’t actually understand – the occasion was another impenetrable art-house foreign film, The Assassin, which didn’t so much put the audience into a trance as send some of them to sleep – but it’s not quite the case in this instance, for it’s clear what the film is about: recollections of growing up in the USSR in the middle part of the 20th century. It seems like a safe bet that some elements of this film are at least partly autobiographical, given that various members of the Tarkovsky clan turn up in different roles: the director’s father Arseny provides the voice of the narrator, his wife Larisa plays the main character’s neighbour, and his daughter Olga also has a small role. (While we’re getting all genealogical, we should also note that father and son actors Oleg and Filipp Yankovsky also appear.)

The twist that makes the film that little bit more unusual, and potentially baffling, is that while it concerns itself with two generations of the same family – the main character, Ignat, and his father, Alexei – multiple key roles are played by the same actors: so both Ignat and Alexei are portrayed by Ignat Daniltsev, while both of their mothers are played in their youth by Margarita Terekhova. This is in no way elucidated or exposited, only becoming apparent through the accumulation of tiny details and the fact the same people are addressed by different names in different scenes (the film’s events naturally unfold out of strict chronological order). If you were not in the know or expecting something like this, it might pass you by entirely and just leave you more bemused (as it did me).

On the other hand, it does suggest a reason for the title of the film, which is otherwise not obvious (well, a mirror does appear at a number of moments). The mirror of the title is the way in which Alexei’s life reflects and echoes that of Ignat, and the similarities are emphasised by the casting decisions. As I say, I didn’t actually figure this out while watching the film, which probably did have an impact on my appreciation of it, but that is not to say that I found this film to be a baffling or frustrating experience. Nor was I particularly aware of the very long takes peppering the film (the reason for its appearance in the current UPP season entitled ‘Long Shots’, including films with famously long single takes such as – here’s a coincidence – Touch of Evil). Perhaps I was in that zen state of simply enjoying the film as a piece of art, with some beautifully composed shots and sequences, and some very striking pieces of sound design. I’m not sure this film is transcendentally beautiful in quite the same way as some others I could name, but there is clearly an artistic sensibility at work.

In the end I’m a bit at a loss to really give a coherent opinion about Mirror, given that it seems very likely that there are whole swathes and levels of meaning and significance to this film which I completely missed the first time around. It is a challenging watch; you really have to go with the film and let it sweep you along in its dreamlike way. Fortunately it is well-enough made that surrendering to it is quite easy to do.

 

 

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As a long-time partaker of the wonder and glory that is the Eurovision Song Contest, I have to admit that it has changed over the years, and not necessarily for the better. I’m not necessarily referring to the influx of vast numbers of formerly Soviet countries, although this has obviously had an effect, but some of the other little rule changes along the way. I speak, of course, of the change in rules that means that these days everyone is allowed to sing their song in English, regardless of whether or not it’s a dominant language in their country or not. You might think this was an absolute positive, and I suppose in terms of simple comprehension it has something to commend it. But what it has robbed the world of are the many creative solutions different countries found to the problem of how to write a song which connects to a vast audience which doesn’t share their native tongue.

This is, of course, gibberish. (I mean that the solution is gibberish, not the preceding paragraph, though I admit this is probably open to debate.) I direct you to such classic Eurosong entries as 1975’s Ding-a-Dong, 1968’s La La La La, 1969’s Boom-Bang-a-Bang, and 1967’s Ring-Dinge-Ding. The best way, it seems, to write a song which makes sense to the whole of Europe, is to write a song which only marginally makes sense at all. And I think the world is lessened just a little by the fact that this sort of thing doesn’t really go on any more.

Having said that, of course, the question of how to connect to a wide audience in a world without a common language is a real one, and one solution that several people have discovered and rediscovered over the years is to dispense with language entirely. Michel Hazanavicius scored a big international hit five years ago with his faux-silent movie The Artist, although he seems to have struggled a bit to convert this into continued international success. It’s interesting to compare his career with that of another notable French film-maker who also came to prominence with a black-and-white, effectively silent movie, and went on to forge a significant, if not entirely respectable, career: Luc Besson, whose first full-length film as director was 1983’s Le Dernier Combat (E-title: The Final Battle).

The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with buildings reduced to ruins and the countryside replaced by a blasted desert. Quite how this has come to pass is never really explained, mainly because whatever catastrophe has befallen the world has also robbed people of the ability to communicate – writing and even speech seems to be beyond most people, without chemical assistance anyway.

Naturally, with this sort of premise, there’s a limit to how much back-story you can give the characters. Chief amongst these is a man known only as the Man (Pierre Jolivet), who as the story opens is trying to complete a home-made plane, presumably so he can escape from the wasteland and find his way to somewhere better (the temptation to start ascribing motives and goals to these characters is almost impossible to resist, as you can see). The local gang of survivors present some difficulties, but eventually he completes his project and flies off.

Elsewhere, a semi-derelict hospital is under siege, if you can call it that when the attacking force only consists of one man. He is the Brute (Jean Reno), and the reason why he is so keen to get access is not immediately apparent – but his persistent efforts are the source of much dismay to the one remaining doctor (Jean Bouise) living in the building. When the Man’s plane makes a forced landing in the vicinity, he finds himself drawn into the struggle between the Brute and the occupants of the hospital. But in this bleak and violent world, is there any chance that basic human compassion can survive?

If I was the sort of person who went around wrangling comparisons between films, Le Dernier Combat would give me lots of material to work with. But, of course, I’ve sworn off that sort of thing. So to describe it as being very much in debt to Mad Max 2, with perhaps a delicate seasoning of Alphaville, is not something I would ever find myself in danger of doing. Nevertheless, this is obviously another of those decaying society/barbarism in the ruins sort of films. It’s a little unclear whether the decision to shoot in black and white is a stylistic choice or one forced on the film-makers by the meagreness of their budget, but the film looks as good as a well-photographed black and white movie always does. I’m not quite sure, but I suspect this may be one of those films which started off low-budget but then received an injection of cash just to get it ready for release – the production was apparently originally designed to make cost-effective use of the large number of ruined and derelict buildings dotted around Paris in the early 1980s, but the final product also includes scenes filmed in Tunisia, and at least one striking VFX shot (the office building standing incongruously in the middle of the desert).

The no-dialogue gimmick is a reasonably good one and does at least mean that Le Dernier Combat travels better than many French movies – one notes that as his career progressed, Besson eventually accepted the inevitable and started making films in English. However, I found the movie had the same problem as, say, your typical Hammer dinosaur movie – by dispensing with dialogue, it becomes incredibly difficult to have more than a fairly simplistic plot, with only rudimentary characters and virtually no humour.

Of course, many people would argue (a bit unfairly, if you ask me) that simplistic plots and rudimentary characters have been Luc Besson’s stock in trade throughout his career ever since. Are there some inklings of his future success to be derived from this movie? Is there something essentially Bessonian about it?

Well, apart from the presence of Jean Reno and music from Eric Serra – both of whom went on to become regular presences in the Besson rep company – there may be a few indicators. Besson is a noted writer and producer of headbanging action movies by the skip load, but many of the films he’s actually directed have either definitely been SF or carried a faint whiff of it about them. The opening shot of this movie is up there in the surreality stakes, including a deserted office, a partially-constructed plane (in the actual office), and a man disporting himself with an inflatable rubber woman (no one does brazen, lunatic excess quite like Besson). And there is something unreconstructedly blokey about it – all the main characters are male, with women kept largely off-camera as objects of desire. Which isn’t to say that Besson movies don’t feature interesting female characters, but they do tend to be impossibly glamorous ass-kicking babes.

So, anyway… Le Dernier Combat is an interesting movie, and you have to admire the invention that’s gone into it, but it’s very obviously the director’s first time doing this sort of thing. As you might expect, the story is a little slow and not very much happens, but it looks good and the storytelling is solid. Definitely an interesting movie for fans of low-fi SF and Besson himself.

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There was a time when any science fiction film that wanted to be taken seriously found itself helplessly caught up in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey – SF wasn’t SF unless it was cerebral, austere, and concluded on a note of either pessimism or wilful obscurity. This tendency is visible in movies from the late 60s until about a decade later – even the coming of George Lucas’ stellar conflict franchise didn’t quite kill it off, with Disney’s 1979 entry to the robots-and-ray-guns subgenre, The Black Hole, concluding with a bafflingly surreal sequence.

Even so, very few of these movies are quite as out there as Phase IV, a 1974 film directed by Saul Bass. Bass is best remembered as a legendary graphic designer and creator of some of the most memorable credit sequences in cinema history, and this was his only feature film: it’s clear throughout that as a director his focus is overwhelmingly on the visual element of the movie.

This is an early example of a film which dispenses with a conventional title sequence entirely (somewhat ironic, given who the director is), simply opening with the caption ‘Phase I’. Ten full minutes elapse before we actually see a human being, with the story being told via montages and voice-over. Some kind of cosmic event has occurred (the film is unspecific about what it actually is), but its key terrestrial consequence goes unnoticed by almost everyone: across the world, different species of ants, normally in competition with each other, cease their hostilities and begin to work together. But to what end? Strange geometrical structures, constructed by the ants, appear in the desert of Arizona, along with crop circles (the film predates the modern crop phenomenon and may in fact, it’s been suggested, have been one of its inspirations).

Entomologist Dr Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, best known to a generation of British viewers as fruity-voiced tycoon Edward Frere in Howard’s Way) cottons on to what the ants are up to and persuades the powers that be to fund an investigation into what exactly is going on. A lab is set up in a geodesic dome out in the desert (this is the kind of SF movie lab where the equipment includes grenade launchers, but, you know, go with it) and Hubbs sets about annoying the ants in the hope of learning what has happened to them, and ideally teaching them not to get uppity with the human race. Hubbs’ assistant, mathematician Lesko (Michael Murphy), is more cautious and inclined to take a moderate approach, but soon enough the scientists are besieged by hostile ants, along with a young local woman (Lynne Frederick) whose farm was destroyed by the formic hordes. Can Lesko find a way of communicating with the ants, whose collective intelligence is no longer in doubt, or is this just the first stage in a battle that will decide the fate of the world?

Fairly heavy stuff, I think you’ll agree. The film would probably agree, too, considering the intense and very serious way the story is handled – there are no moments of lightness or humour and the actors are all playing it absolutely dead straight. The result is quite a bleak and austere film, rather cold in tone despite the desert setting.

This isn’t the man-vs-killer-ant movie you might be expecting – I vaguely recall it turning up on TV in a double-bill with Them! at some point in my youth – and the striking central image of the movie’s poster, that of an ant gnawing its way out of the centre of a human palm, occurs relatively early on, and not quite as a moment of full-on horror, either. There’s less death-struggle and more philosophical and mathematical discussion as the two scientists discuss what’s going on in fairly abstract terms.

Even so, the most memorable parts of the film don’t concern the human characters but the ants themselves. There are numerous weird, long sequences of ants rattling around in the nests, doing significant but obscure things, clambering around inside human machinery, and so on. It’s a masterclass in editing skill, I suppose – the way the footage of the ants is assembled manages to suggest intention and a vague sense of what is supposed to be happening – but also betrays Bass’s fascination with playing with images and storytelling on a purely visual level. There is, obviously, a lot of miniature photography of ants in this film; there is also time-lapse photography, slow-motion filming, and various other optical effects too.

Many of these are accompanied by an expository voice-over from Murphy, and I wonder if this was something the studio insisted on as the movie started to take shape – the voice-over adds to the impression that this is a rather odd B-movie, but it does stop the film from becoming completely oblique and wilfully enigmatic. As it is, much is left for the viewer to decide – are the ants being actively controlled by some cosmic force to reshape the nature of life on Earth? Or has some random influence caused the ant hive-mind to experience a form of uplift, and it’s the ant superbrain itself which is responsible for everything that happens?

It’s all left very unclear – not least because the studio cut about five minutes from Bass’s preferred climax, leaving it a very brisk 84 minutes in total. If the extant film is off the wall, then the original would have been downright freaky – a reconstruction of the original ending exists on the internet, apparently depicting what the world will be like after Phase IV is completed, and the bizarre impressionistic symbiosis of human and ant that is shown in it is not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.

Despite all the fascinating and unique things about Phase IV, however, this is still one for the ‘novel but deeply flawed’ category. The B-movie premise and characterisations don’t help the film when it comes to achieving the level of rarefied sophistication it’s clearly aiming for, while the visual storytelling, while innovative and memorable, is just a bit too slow and abstract for the film to work as a thriller or conventional drama. The film’s visual distinctiveness and general air of weirdness mean it is worth watching, if you like abstract SF movies or maybe even art movies generally, but as a conventional piece of movie entertainment this is basically a tough and probably not especially rewarding watch.

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Certain long-running TV shows, when a special occasion looms and they feel the need to do something distinctive, occasionally revert to an ancient form and indulge themselves by doing a ‘live episode’ – that is, one broadcast as it is performed – a conceit, of course, denied to movies by their very nature, which means that directors seeking to perform the same sort of stunt are obliged instead to indulge themselves in odd variants of form such as the ‘one shot movie’, this being one where the action takes the form of a single continuous take, whether genuine or (more often) falsified, and the latest example of this sort of thing is Sebastian Schipper’s film Victoria, which has arrived trailing critical acclaim, much of which strikes me as being entirely deserved, inasmuch as the film manages to combine technical virtuosity with a genuinely engaging story, which concerns a young Spanish girl named Victoria (played by Laia Costa), recently arrived in Berlin, who at the end of a long night out finds herself falling with a group of slightly iffy young men, one of whom (Frederick Lau) she makes a certain connection with, only to discover that he has questionable obligations of a rather worrying kind, which she finds herself compelled to assist him with, finding herself rapidly out of her depth and mixing with very serious underworld figures, with the result that the movie starts out looking almost like an update of Before Sunrise before turning into another entry to the heist-gone-wrong genre (heavens above, this is incredibly difficult, how on Earth Bohumil Hrabal managed it I’ve absolutely no idea whatsoever), the director’s underlying theme seemingly being the almost imperceptible way in which a person can slide into increasingly serious forms of criminality, although the nature of the movie means that this is telescoped to a rather absurd degree – not many people go from a little mild shoplifting to being involved in gun battles with the police and kidnapping in the space of two hours, after all – but I suppose the odd formal nature of this film to some extent excuses the peculiarities of the narrative, the performances also being strong overall, particularly that of Costa, who is after all on screen virtually non-stop for over two hours (the film was apparently completed at only the third attempt), although this should not overshadow the remarkable achievement of the director in managing to keep the narrative convincing and involving and not especially contrived, constantly varying location, composition and other factors in order to prevent audience fatigue – the occasional eruptions into the film of non-diegetic music arguably serve a similar purpose – and indeed to some extent one almost forgets the ‘stunt’ nature of proceedings, naturally assuming one must have missed a sneaky edit at some point, and letting oneself get pulled along by the story, the question with this kind of film always being that of whether the story would be worth watching were the experimental manner of its telling not there to lend it interest, and the answer in this case being, I would suggest, ‘yes’, for the film manages to combine moments of warmth and character and well-observed atmosphere as well as its more generic, action-oriented elements, all choreographed with impressive skill and no obvious signs of cheating, the end result being something genuinely distinctive and engaging on a number of levels beyond simply that of novelty – one can’t help but be sincerely impressed by Schipper’s ambition and achievement, although being inspired to similar feats of untrammelled ceaseless exuberance in other media would almost certainly be a bad idea, and probably best avoided. But you can’t have everything.

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There’s a website which I regularly visit, fairly admirable when it comes to news relating to all things in the horror, SF, and fantasy genres, but just a little bit taxing in some of its politics. How can I describe the ethos of the place? ‘Dogmatically progressive’? That makes it sound like I’m some kind of baleful reactionary, which I hope is not quite yet the case. But even so, the view that any story must necessarily be improved by making the characters more diverse is one I have trouble subscribing to. Look at, for instance, John Carpenter’s The Thing – I don’t think you can improve this movie, all you can do is make it different. Perhaps less accomplished, but equally distinctive and even less diverse is Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, in which five straight white blokes wander about the countryside for about an hour and a half.

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Well, there are obviously other things going on, but I don’t really want to commit to saying what any of them are. The movie opens with Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a cowardly astrologer, fleeing the carnage of the English Civil War. He finds himself in the company of various other ne’er-do-wells – deserters and idiots – heading for the dubious haven of an ale-house. However, through slightly obscure occult means – hallucinogenic mushrooms also appear to be involved – they find themselves in the ominous company of the magician O’Neill (Michael Smiley), who is intent on uncovering an obscure mystic treasure secreted in a nearby field…

At least, I think that’s what it’s about. This is not a film which feels the need to offer much in the way of easy answers, or indeed normal narrative coherence. ‘Non-naturalistic’ doesn’t begin to do justice to this film’s weirder sections, but then it does scream ‘experimental film-making’ too. Shot for well under half a million quid in less than a fortnight, it was also the recipient of an equally adventurous release strategy, being shown on TV the day of its cinema release (which, of course, was also the day it was released on DVD and for download).

Perhaps they would have been less unconventional with a less unconventional film, for A Field in England is deeply strange: Ben Wheatley specialises in a particular style of deeply ominous horror, occasionally married to a very black sense of humour, but even compared to something like Sightseers, this is an unashamedly unsettling film, by turns earthy, comic, graphic, and surreal: filmed in black and white, almost always an intentional distancing device nowadays, it also features strange posed tableaux of the various characters at key junctures, and at one point cuts to one character singing a folk song straight to camera.

If we’re going to talk about English Civil War horror movies, the inescapable thing-that-must-be-acknowledged is, of course, Witchfinder General, and the influence of Michael Reeves’ film is clear, if subtle. The main difference is that Witchfinder General, despite its title, is fundamentally about very mundane human evil and corruption – but there is a sense of darker forces being in play here, and the structure of the world breaking down.

Magic mushrooms are a recurring presence in the film, and it seems to be implied that whatever forces O’Neill commands are in some way connected to them – his character seemingly materialises out of thin air while most of the other characters are high on them. They also seem to fuel the deeply bizarre hallucinatory visions afflicting Whitehead at one point during the climax, but then the whole film has a skewed, nightmarish feel to it. People appear and disappear almost without reason, abruptly vomit up stones inscribed with strange markings, even rise from the dead without any explanation being given.

It’s quite possible the whole thing is intended to be allegorical on some level – the film is structured so it concludes practically in the same way it began, and you could interpret the whole thing as some sort of solipsistic psychological crisis undergone by one of the characters. Certainly the nature of the treasure everyone is after remains wilfully obscure, and there’s arguably a sense in which the story is about discovering your own inner strength, surely the greatest treasure of all. Then again, I could be completely wrong, of course.

What’s certain is that Ben Wheatley’s direction retains its usual dark magic, while Amy Jump’s script gets the balance between dreadful strangeness, earthy splatter, and identifiable characters just about right. Michael Smiley, resplendent in a rather magnificent hat and cloak, is revelatory, and Reece Shearsmith’s performance is also just about the best thing I can remember him doing. A Field in England is small and strange, but it always looks and feels like a proper movie, and one which has clearly been made with great skill. Despite all that, however, it’s more hypnotic to watch than it is genuinely enjoyable – or so I found it, anyway. The atmosphere of brooding, dislocated menace throughout it makes it slightly uncomfortable to watch, but still probably worthwhile. I was looking forward to Wheatley’s forthcoming adaptation of High-Rise already, but this has stoked up my expectations still further.

 

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You know how there are people and things in the world who you generally approve of and sort of suspect you might really like, but whom you feel no real driving urge to actually investigate and become familiar with? Well, that’s really how I feel about Nick Cave (if I can get to the end of this review without appearing to go off on an odd and over-familiar tangent about Nicolas Cage, it will be down to a triumph of editing), the Australian singer-songwriter, and sometime novelist, actor, and screenwriter.

Cave has long struck me as My Kind of Artist, despite the fact I know very little of substance about him. For example, I can barely recall the lyrics of his biggest UK hit, Where the Wild Roses Grow, but could probably perform the Shirehorses’ reworking of it, Hapless Boy Lard, without needing to consult notes (sample lyric: ‘They call me the Hapless Boy Lard/Why they call me that I do not know’/’Because you’re a fat gormless pillock’/’Yes, I suppose so’). The opportunity to become at least a little better acquainted arises, however, with the release of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth, a pseudo-documentary about Cave.

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I say pseudo-documentary as this is actually a partially-scripted, carefully assembled film. The central conceit is that the film depicts the 20,000th day in Nick Cave’s life (54, before you start reaching for the abacus, although given he was a bit older when the film was shot some rounding down has obviously taken place), and the camera follows him around his adopted home town of Brighton while his voice-over muses on his identity as an artist and a human being. He visits his therapist, has lunch with old friend and collaborator Warren Ellis (I was initially baffled to discover that the writer of Transmetropolitan, DV8, and Supergod – amongst many others – was also an accomplished musician, but apparently it’s not the same guy), pops in to where his personal archive is being curated, and then performs a gig with his band the Bad Seeds. Intercut with this is some rather more conventional footage of Cave and the band recording some new material – at one point the singer seems about to launch into an unlikely cover of Lionel Richie’s All Night Long but this never materialises – while Cave’s adventures in motoring are spiced up by some of his more notable past collaborators materialising in the car with him for a brief chat: Ray Winstone and Her Kylieness are probably the two best-known of these (according to the credits Kylie brought her own hair and make-up designer to the project, just adding to the not-inappropriate impression that she’s teleported in from another, somewhat more commercial movie).

Okay, so we are somewhat in the realms of the arthouse here, and this is certainly not your conventional rockumentary. Then again, Cave is not your conventional rock star, as anyone who’s heard his brand of apocalyptic blues-rock will testify, but the uniqueness of Cave and his persona is not really an issue here. Not only does he have serious charisma, but he is also clearly a very bright fellow, and his insights into art, celebrity, and the creative process are compellingly presented – needless to say, Cave co-wrote the movie with the directors. Lack of familiarity with Nick Cave and his work is not necessarily a barrier to the enjoyment of this film.

On the other hand, the nature of the film – a very slightly pretentious meander through a fake day, complete with suddenly-manifesting and vanishing celebrity interlocutors – will probably be enough to put some people off it. This is what gives the film its own, very strong identity, though, and one of the most impressive aspects of it is the way that it illustrates many of the things that it is saying. In the interview and spoken-word sections of the film, Cave repeatedly returns to his ideas about the transformative nature of live performance, and his desire to adopt another persona while on stage – and in the footage of live performances that form the closest thing the film has to a climax, the truth of this is unmistakable, Cave’s concerts having something of the intimate, personal intensity of a religious revival, the singer becoming something akin to a preacher on stage, testifying to a mesmerised congregation.

Nick Cave’s involvement in the scripting process means that this is very much the authorised version of the singer’s persona, and genuine insights and surprises into who the singer really is are few and far between – his wife barely appears, for example, and his sons only turn up very briefly (Cave the devoted father is shown watching Scarface with his clearly-underage brood) – but then this was never the intent of the film. And perhaps the very artificiality of the film allows it to be a bit more genuinely revealing about its subject. It didn’t turn me into a raving Cave fan, but it has certainly made me a bit more likely to check out his back catalogue. A very different sort of film, but in a good way.

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