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Posts Tagged ‘Miranda July’

More prime counter-programming material comes along in the form of Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, another example of just why many people keep going on about how we are currently living through the Golden Age of Feature Documentaries. This film was probably a particularly appealing project, as it’s made up almost exclusively of thirty-year-old archive footage, which just needed editing together (and perhaps having a few captions and animated sequences added).

We have the French scientist couple of Maurice and Katia Krafft to thank for all the film, by the way. The Kraffts were celebrities, sort of, in the world of vulcanology, and were never happier than when scrambling up the slopes of an erupting caldera or dodging lava bombs at close range. In addition to doing some genuinely valuable scientific research – the holy grail they ended up devoting their career to was trying to identify the ‘trigger point’ at which point a volcano became actively energetic and troublesome, information which would make evacuations and the saving of lives much easier – the couple managed to make a living filming and photographing volcanic events at extremely close range.

The film is up-front about the fact that their research led them to a fatal encounter with a pyroclastic flow on the slopes of Mount Unzen in June 1991, which you might expect would bring the mood down a bit. The general tone remains poetic, with a definite subtext of isn’t-nature-incredible?, although this is fighting for space a tiny bit with what-a-powerfully-romantic-story-this-is!

Frankly, despite some heavy lifting from the title and a breathy, slightly pretentious voice-over from Miranda July (no-one else does breathy and pretentious quite as well), the notion of the film as an account of the Kraffts’ love story never quite works. The material just isn’t there – there’s plenty of footage of Maurice cautiously making his way towards a crater, stopping only when his shoes spontaneously combust, but very little of the duo not being professional vulcanologists together. Even the script admits that no-one’s quite sure how the Kraffts first met each other, and suggests that – in any case – this was always a marriage with three participants: Maurice, Katia, and whichever deadly geological event they were up close and personal with at that particular moment.

They don’t appear to have been a particularly demonstrative couple, anyway – when they do talk about their relationship on camera, it’s in rather joshing terms. Katia says she is quite happy to follow Maurice up the side of a cone, mainly because he weighs twice as much and so anywhere that doesn’t collapse under his weight must be safe for her. Maurice comes back with a gag about how there are so few vulcanologists living together in the world. Why? They are constantly erupting at each other!

The jokes may not always sparkle but the footage shot by the Kraffts is truly breath-taking stuff, the natural world at its most terrifying and extreme. You only have to visit a place where the water boils on its way out of the ground to appreciate the almost mystical allure of this kind of site, but to build your life around visiting such immensely hazardous places is another matter entirely. At one point Maurice expresses a wish that he could eat rocks, which would mean that he never had to return to civilisation.

It seems like the Kraffts did their best to stay out in the wild anyway, funding their travels by selling photos and films of their work, as well as attempting serious scientific research. The film features a roll-call of all the volcanos they visited in the course of a two-decade career: Etna, Stromboli, Anak-Krakatau, Mount St Helens, and many more. The stunning images are probably the best reason for going to see this movie, although some of the most striking are not the work of the Kraffts – the pictures of the Mount St Helens eruption in 1980 are genuinely astonishing, but the couple were at home in France at the time. Not being there in person apparently left Maurice in the mood to commit a massacre, even though a close friend died in the eruption.

It may not have been Dosa’s intention, but rather than a moving account of the relationship of two people united by their love of geophysics and near-death experiences, Fire of Love more often seems to be about the rather peculiar psychopathology of people who do this sort of thing. The film does make clear that the Kraffts did important scientific research on their various trips, but there does seem to have been a certain amount of legend-building going on to. The documentary points out the various ways in which the Kraffts’ own films seem to have been rather artfully assembled, while Maurice seems to have enjoyed the idea of being a legendary daredevil at least as much as a respected scientist. The film sees him repeatedly talking about his plan to float down a river of lava in a metal canoe lined with asbestos blocks – this Quixotic, if not outright demented scheme never came to pass, though the film does include another almost-unbelievable exploit in which he and an assistant ended up adrift in a lake of sulphuric acid for three hours, with only a second-hand rubber dinghy between him and a fate probably best not contemplated (‘Of course it was a second-hand dinghy, we weren’t stupid,’ says Maurice on the soundtrack).

In the end Maurice comes across as an engaging and charismatic fellow, though probably not someone you’d want to get stuck in a lift with. Katia is quieter, indulgent towards her husband, more aware of the ramifications of their work, perhaps. But the fact that Maurice at least was engaged in creating a public persona, and that the film is almost exclusively made up of their own material, means that any glimpses of who they really were as people are fleeting and slightly suspect. I had a much stronger emotional response to the footage of eruptions and the power of nature than I did to the human story – the film doesn’t fit comfortably on the peg where the title and voice-over are trying to hang it. But the Kraffts’ work speaks for itself, given half a chance.

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Looking back on the last few months, I see that most of the really interesting and thought-provoking films that I’ve seen were the ones showing at the arthouse, rather than the multiplex. That shouldn’t really be very surprising, I suppose: we could talk at some length about the relatively parlous state of modern mainstream cinema, but it would be neither cheering nor particularly surprising.

What may be slightly startling is the news that the really hot ticket down the local arthouse is not a screening of a movie but a selection of filmed highlights of an art exhibition. Yes, it’s that Leonardo show that’s currently getting all the press: ‘Leonardo Live’, as the filmed version entitles itself, is doing a roaring trade. Certainly the showing tonight was sold out. I know this not because I was planning on seeing it (stand down, troops) but because a group of disappointed ladies of a certain age who’d turned up for it but couldn’t get in decided to make their second choice the same film I was going to see, Miranda July’s The Future.

And why was I going to see this film? Well, I have to say, folks, it’s been a pretty thin week for new releases, but I do enjoy going to the cinema, no matter what’s actually on. Machine Gun Preacher has been showing too late, and I was warned off the Tintin movie, despite the gallimaufry of talent associated with it, in no uncertain terms by a colleague who’s seen it (I really should stop giving so much weight to the opinions of someone whose style guru is clearly Rastamouse). So off I went to The Future despite a few misgivings.

As the movie begins we are introduced to Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (July herself), a couple in Los Angeles. He works from home as an IT specialist, she teaches children to dance. They are clearly devoted to each other in a slightly mawkish, tooth-grindingly schmaltzy-sweet way. They are also expecting to soon adopt a cat (with a injured paw – ahhhh!) from their local animal shelter. However, on visiting the beast (which they christen, with grim predictability, Paw Paw), they learn that the cat’s life expectancy is considerably longer than they thought would be the case – maybe even five years!

‘In five years we’ll be forty,’ quavers Sophie, shocked at the prospect of such a commitment. ‘And forty’s nearly fifty. And once you’re fifty…’ Jason agrees that once the cat takes up residence their lives will be as good as over. And so they both quit their jobs in order to spend their final month performing acts of profound self-realisation. Jason becomes a door-to-door visitor for an environmental charity and strikes up a friendship with an octogenarian after buying a hairdrier from him. Sophie aspires to become a dancer on YouTube but ends up having a very creepy affair with a guy whose phone number she finds on a bit of paper. (Let me just reiterate: all this is only happening because they have decided to adopt a cat.)

One is never allowed to forget the, er, cat-alyst of all this nonsense, as the film is narrated by Paw Paw him or herself (the cat is portrayed by July, doing a little yowly voice). Paw Paw’s contributions are not especially notable but they at least perform the valuable function of making the rest of the movie seem less colossally self-indulgent and twee by comparison.

Normally I don’t quote from proper film critics in this column (it’s tantamount to putting up a big sign saying ‘ You may as well read someone else’), but Peter Bradshaw has essentially described the experience of watching The Future as being rather like 91 minutes of fingernails-down-a-blackboard screeching and I have to say this is absolutely on the money. This is probably not the worst film I have seen recently, but it is certainly the most consistently annoying one.

It may well be that Miranda July (who in addition to directing, starring, and voicing the cat, also wrote the thing) has insights to offer into the nature of human relationships and the ways in which they fail, and how that affects the participants. But if so, they are utterly undiscernible, completely swamped by the affected and utterly pretentious tone of this movie.

The story rattles along with the pace and inventiveness of a tranquilised slug, pausing occasionally for another update from Paw Paw, and completely omitting numerous key events – we don’t see Jason actually becoming friends with the old man, nor do we see Sophie’s relationship with her new lover develop: one minute she’s going round to his house on a business pretext, the next she’s (cover granny’s eyes) bent over the sofa and bracing herself. Linklater is reasonably convincing given the lines he has to deliver, but July herself…

…sorry, I had to pause to calm down for a moment there. July’s character spends the entire movie looking like she’s constantly having new insights into the deepest secrets of creation, and utters every line as if she’s sharing one of them with us. After a while the urge to deliver an admonitory headbutt becomes almost uncontrollable.

And all this is before we even get to the film’s excursions into fantasy (sorry, it’s probably meant to be ‘magic realism’ or something like that) in its latter stages: Jason accidentally stops time and has a heartfelt conversation with the moon about what he should do about it, while Sophie finds herself being stalked by old clothes. And so on.

Those of us watching this movie endured it fairly stoically for a bit, but a clatter of seats like a volley of gunfire about forty minutes in indicated the moment at which the Leonardo ladies gave up and walked out. Everyone else hung in there, so far as I could tell: but towards the end people were no longer bothering to stifle their derisory laughter at the banality of what was up on the screen and the seriousness with which it was being treated – a scene in which July spends what feels like minutes rolling around on the floor with a t-shirt over her head was the point at which the balloon went up and everyone appeared to concede that this film was simply not working as a piece of drama.

I know Miranda July’s background is as a performance artist and she does not come to cinema with a traditional narrative sensibility. And it may be that much of the strangeness of this film is intentional, designed to make a point of some kind. But if you’re going to make a narrative film, then you’ve surely got to stick to the ground rules and have characters who behave like recognisable human beings, and a plot that actually hangs together, doesn’t go off on weird random tangents, and actually has a sense of closure come its end.

In the past I have made numerous cracks about the now-defunct UK Film Council and its impressive ability to invest serious money in deeply underwhelming films of various kinds. Its successor agency, part of the BFI, has its logo at the beginning of The Future. The legend continues…

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