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Posts Tagged ‘avant garde’

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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The path to making epically facetious comments about Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is a treacherously inviting one, but you know what? I’m not going to. Oh, well, maybe just one, but I’ll secrete it in the body of the review and see if anyone notices. This movie has acquired a bit of a buzz around it in the UK, which is frankly bizarre, given its subject matter and tone. Even stranger, upon popping down the arthouse cinema to check it out I was utterly astounded to find the showing practically sold out: there had been talk of a works do to see it, but it was just as well this never happened as there was no way we could have got more than a couple of seats together. Considering the kind of film Le Quattro Volte is, this was a practically cortex-melting discovery.

Based on one of Stan Lee’s less celebrated comic books, Le Quattro Volte is the story… well, it’s not really a story in the conventional sense. There is no dialogue and only one main character. Even the full extent of his involvement is debatable, on the deepest and most metaphysical level.

Most reviewers writing about this film have concentrated on the earlier sections when it comes to attempting some kind of coherent synopsis. Fair enough: they concern an elderly and clearly infirm goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda) who spends his days endlessly taking his caprine charges up to the meadows where they graze and back. Apparently in an attempt to fortify himself he is taking nightly infusions of a horrible-looking elixir largely composed of grit off the floor of the local church. Ugh.

Look, I normally try and avoid spoilers, but this isn’t a conventional movie so I can’t really do a conventional review. Spoilers Looming. You were warned. Quite unexpectedly, given he’s the central character, but not surprisingly given his poor health, the old man dies, off screen, and is buried. The camera lingers for a long moment on a shot positioned inside his sealed tomb: pitch blackness and total silence dominate the screen.

Then, abruptly, we’re seeing the back end of a goat in the act of giving birth and the new-born animal suddenly becomes the new focus of the film. There is no implication on screen that the animal has any connection with the old man but in terms of the grammar of the picture the death of one and the birth of the other cannot help but seem significant.

And so the film progresses and the significance of the title becomes clear: Le Quattro Volte, the four times we must know ourselves, according to Pythagoras (I didn’t actually know this, I nicked it from another review by someone more erudite). Human, animal, vegetable and mineral each become the focus of a section of the film, the transitions between them subtly linked and never completely arbitrary.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film quite like this one before. It’s not as rampantly and barkingly strange as that French movie about the murderous psychokinetic tyre I saw a month or two back, but it’s quietly and firmly disconnected from practically every principle of conventional cinematic storytelling.

(It certainly seems to have set film writers struggling for things to say about it: ‘Redefines the act of perception,’ said some guy in America, managing to be memorable yet usefully vague. The pamphlet from the arthouse is even more all over the place, opening with the frankly baffling and unhelpful ‘Buster Keaton with goats!’ and wrapping up with a reference to the transmigration of souls, which is bang on but not exactly enticing.)

The narrative, such as it is, is delivered entirely through a kind of implication, and as a result it occurs largely in the viewer’s head – on the screen there are simply a series of carefully composed and rather beautiful shots of rustic Italian life. Le Quattro Volte takes a laid-back approach to things, and Frammartino appears to be very relaxed in his direction. One static and naturalistic shot succeeds another, animals and people wandering about the screen apparently at random, the only sounds being the wind, the coughing of the shepherd and the clangour of goat bells. However, it’s quite clear that this is a film that’s been made with the greatest precision and rigour.

After about half an hour, Frammartino unveils the scene from this movie that has attracted the greatest attention. Abruptly, the camera slowly swings around almost 180 degrees, showing the other end of the same country lane it started by showing, then swings back, and then swings again. This takes what feels like about five minutes, but in context it carries as much impact as anything Michael Bay has ever done. Even more remarkable, something happens towards the end of this long, long shot that surely must have been planned in advance, but appears to be utterly spontaneous and natural. It’s an astounding coup.

Once you get used to the slower pace demanded by a film where the main character for some of the time is a tree, Le Quattro Volte is an absorbing and rather rewarding movie, if extremely difficult to describe. Talking about what’s on screen just makes it sound banal; talking about one’s own intellectual and emotional response to it is to potentially intrude upon another’s experience of the film. Please disregard everything you’ve just read and scrub this review from your memory, should you be planning to see it. But do see it if you fancy something thoughtful and very, very different.

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Changes in the way films are partaken of have resulted in what seem, to me, like odd experiments in distribution. For me the life-cycle of a movie is that it’s trailed, then released to theatres, before coming out on DVD a few months later and then eventually turning up on TV a couple of years after that, thus maximising the makers’ profit margins. For many years, after all, describing a film as going ‘straight to video’ was another way of saying that either it was a failure or fatally lacking in ambition or credibility.

Nowadays the makers of some low-cost films seem to be taking a different approach, maximising the profile their publicity budget allows them and releasing their movies in cinemas (usually in a limited way), on DVD, and over the internet simultaneously. I can sort of see the logic of this, and I for one would happily make the journey to a cinema to see a new film simply because I enjoy the filmgoing experience – but, then again, I am a weirdo and fundamentally unrepresentative of normal everyday people.

 

Anyway, one of the films benefitting from this kind of shotgun release strategy is Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber, a… how on earth am I supposed to describe this film without sounding demented? I don’t know. Here goes.

In the deserts of the American southwest something relentlessly evil is stirring. These are the stirrings of a malevolent tyre, sprung suddenly to life. Possessed of a implacable hatred of all living things the tyre sets out on a rampage of bloody carnage, using its newfound psychokinetic powers to slaughter anyone who crosses its path…

Well, what can I say? It’s French. Actually, I haven’t come remotely close to doing Rubber justice as the film is much, much, much weirder than that brief synopsis suggests. This isn’t the laughing-up-its-sleeve gory B-movie spoof that it first appears to be (and which its advertising strongly suggests it is) but something much archer and more cerebral. Indications of this come almost at once as some of the main non-pneumatic characters appear and do elaborately inexplicable things, before one of them (Stephen Spinella) gives a speech to camera listing supposedly inexplicable things that occur in great movies. Things happening (or not happening) for no reason are a major component of style – or so the argument runs – and one should not therefore dismiss a movie in which – say – a tyre comes to life and goes on a killing spree for no reason, simply because it’s self-evidently nonsense.

And we still haven’t got to the heart of Rubber. The central tyre-on-a-murderous-rampage plot is simply a hook on which the film-makers hang a great deal of post-modern commentary about the process of making a movie and anticipating the audience’s reactions while watching it. Most of the characters in Rubber are either members of an audience supposedly watching the film, or characters in the story who are well aware of their fictional status.

Rubber‘s central thesis – that having an irrational story can work to a film’s benefit – is fatally undermined by the fact that its own deeply irrational story is the heart of a film which isn’t nearly as brilliant as it thinks it is. Most of the stuff with the tyre is actually a lot of fun and technically adroit – the skilful use of cutting and camera angles somehow manages to give the tyre a distinct personality, and if nothing else it’s a more engaging screen presence than Mark Wahlberg – and the scenes where it does things like checking into motels and taking showers are entertaining in a deadpan sort of way. But we’re constantly dragged off into post-modern wiffling and characters commenting rather predictably on the film they’re appearing in.

I’m not sure Rubber is actually a bad film – as a piece of avant-garde absurdist surrealism it has a certain arch charm, it has a few genuinely funny moments, and at least at only 76 minutes long it doesn’t outstay its welcome – but the way it’s being marketed is, to be honest, deceitful. ‘The best killer tyre movie you’ll ever see!‘ shouts the poster. Not a new device, to be honest – a few years ago I was describing Ghost Rider to friends as ‘The best Nicolas Cage as a demonic burning skeleton motorcyclist vigilante movie ever made’, but at least Ghost Rider really was a movie about Nicolas Cage as a demonic burning skeleton motorcyclist vigilante. Rubber isn’t really a movie about a killer tyre. It would probably be a lot more fun if it was. It’s an ultimately interesting film, but very hard to like. It’s not nearly as energetic, schlocky, and – above all – entertaining as it might have been had the makers had the guts to play the concept straight, rather than seeking refuge in postmodernism. A disappointment – but the advertising department’s as much to blame as the director.

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