thoughts on cinema as a world wide phenomenon

Saturday, January 14, 2012 3:07:52 PM
film making, film
We often forget that while cinema was “invented” in the Anglo-French world it reached the rest of thew world pretty much at the same time. The first film screening in the world, by the Lumières, was in Dec 1895; by the end of the following year, films had been screened in Bombay, London, Montreal, New York, Alexandria Egypt and Buenos Aires.
We think the history of cinema is the history of Hollywood, but it isn’t. Or at least, that’s not the whole story. Mark Cousin’s book and TV series The Story of Film is the best account of the real history of cinema yet produced, while David Puttnam’s Undeclared War has a great account of the rise of Hollywood form a European (UK) perspective.
But too often film industries in English speaking countries believe they have to do the impossible: compete with Hollywood. We can’t. Ever. Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand… we can never play the Hollywood game. We can’t make the kind of films they do. If we want to, we have to go there. And we do.
But is that what we are: breeding grounds for Hollywood – supplying them with the creative and technical people they need to make more US-focused US-market Hollywood films?
What is the role of cinema: is it just a business, where the return on the investment is all? Or is it a valid and important (even crucial) form of creative national expression? It’s so expensive to make films that it’s hard to put cinema in the same category as literature – which after all is just not as costly to produce. Nobody can argue the importance of literature as creative national expression (imagine Russia without Bulgakov, England without Orwell, America without Ginsberg). Yet cinema touches more lives these days than literature does. We understand the world though storytelling and always have. And today our stories are mostly told in the form of moving images.
So, how do we as English speakers, create valid national cinemas that don’t compete with Hollywood but deserve a place in world cinema?


a dangerous mess

Saturday, February 18, 2012 6:00:20 PM

film making, Cronenberg, Freud, canadian film, Jung, film

A week ago I went to see David Cronenberg’s new film A Dangerous Method. I did so although I had had doubts about this version of a play based on a nonfiction book about the relationship between Freud and Jung and a female patient of Jung’s, especially in view of the fact that the over-exposed Keira Knightley was in it. Well, I did not like the film one bit and I was not the only one in the audience that felt this way.
I believe the film did not do justice to Jung in any way (if you know Jung’s work you’ll be offended by the way he’s portrayed, if you don’t know his work you’ll go away believing he’s a smug, self satisfied weak bourgeois nonentity trying to get one over on his Big Daddy Freud.)
But my problem with the film is its failure as film not a question of representation. Again I find the key problem is the failure to achieve a successful adaptation of a stage play. Film has the power to “open out” the story from the confines of the stage yet this power bears within it the risk of dissipating the intensity that a live stage play engenders. As with Incendies (but much worse), this film is boring, the characters histrionic displays in the wide open landscape are puerile and decontextualised. We don’t see the wider society the two men are operating in, so we don’t really know what they are grappling with. And it was “talk talk talk.” Any opportunity for nuance was ignored.
I feel that Cronenberg simply did not have a “feel” for the material, that he did not care about it or did not understand it. It is strangely hollow and empty, tiresome and slight while at the same time trying to be portentious. Yet the subject matter in itself is quite gripping.
Still I have never been keen on Christopher Hampton’s screenplays. I far preferred Valmont, Milos Forman’s version of the Choderlos de Laclos novel to the Frears-directed Hampton-scripted Dangerous Liasions, though it was a very free adaptation from the book. But it was more dramatic and filmic. I don’t think many people agreed with me on that one. But there were certainly some unusually forthright scoffs in the audience last Monday for A Dangerous Method.
©G. McIver 2012 all rights reserved

Waiting for Anatolia

Friday, March 2, 2012 10:02:32 AM

Uzak, film making, Turkish cinema, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ceylan, Three Monkeys, film art, films, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, film

I’m waiting to go and see Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, due out soon. Meanwhile here is an interview with the film-maker:

Ceylan’s films are amazing, really slow burners but once burnt you are scarred forever. For example I went to see 3 Monkeys and found it – well not boring exactly but it didn’t quite gel for me. A few days later i happened to mention it someone, and suddenly found myself bursting out with some kind of deep understanding not only of the film itself but even of a deeper level of insight caused by the film… It was strange. I realized it was one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.

was the same, although I saw it on DVD (I regret that now, Ceylan is cinema, needs the big screen). Ceylan’s films are about relationships and how we never really know anyone and how we often don’t even know ourselves. yet we know people in ways they don’t know themselves. On the surface there is bleakness but this is shallow, beneath it is a huge compassion because however unknowing we are, we do strive to know.

©G. McIver 2012 all rights reserved

Blank City

Monday, March 5, 2012 7:44:48 PM

Beth and Scott B, Blank City, Celine Danhier, film making, VHS, super 8, Richard Kern, Vivienne Dick, DVD, Suzanne Tabata, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Nick Zedd, DOCUMENTARY, films, Lydia Lunch

Blank City review

It’s interesting how the cultural history of the recent past is interesting to young film makers who seek to unearth the hidden history of the counter cultures and bring them forth. Such as Suzanne Tabata’s Bloodied But Unbowed (2010) investigation of the unique Vancouver based punk music scene in the late 70s – early 80s, which I have ordered but not yet seen as it’s not released yet in the UK (like most Canadian films).

Now we have Blank City also 2010, by Celine Danhier a young French film maker fascinated by the New York “no wave” scene and particularly its film makers. Blank City did get a UK release and the DVD is due out in April. And its well worth a viewing.

Both films uncover a specific period when music, film and art were resolutely uncommercial: that cusp between the “hippie” counter culture’s morphing into stadium rock and the super-commodification of all art forms which happened during the 1980s. The “no wave” films of Irish artist Vivienne Dick (always worth seeing), Beth and Scott B, the transgressive films of Nick Zedd and Richard Kern … I remembered them from the 80s, from the magazines, and the occasional showing in grimy screening rooms and parties, on crappy VHS tapes.

Blank City shows us clips of a decaying New York, a city that in the 70s was slowly falling apart, and in the nooks and crannies of ruin were growing the green shoots of a new creativity. Yet that isn’t actually the narrative. These artists for the most part just did their thing, and didn’t go all commercial, they just kept doing what they did and sometimes made money from it. Even the biggest “stars” to emerge from the “no wave”, Steve Buscemi and Jim Jarmusch, are still industry mavericks, fully independent and continuing the do what they want. (I say this now, hoping Jarmusch does not sign to direct Ocean’s 21 next week). Instead, the narrative is of a vibrant art scene in a derelict city, getting pushed aside when the city discovers money. Yes, “regeneration” another word for development and financial hubris caused by real estate prices.

Watching Blank City, it’s interesting to imagine what might have happened if the same crew of young artists hit NYC today, full of dreams and spit and vinegar. Within a few months they’d have been famous. Nick Zedd would have got a modelling contract. Lydia Lunch would have her own chat show. Scott and Beth B would have been enroute to Hollywood before you can say “Sundance.” Vivienne Dick probably would have not bothered, and gone to Berlin instead. Richard Kern would have been shooting fashion and celebs – actually that is what he does now, but really well, with style and – dare I say it – some integrity. Basically they would have been recuperated in the blink of an eye and resold to us packaged neatly and with the rough edges smoothed down. And if they could not handle that, hounded by the press until they died, à la the beautiful and wondrous Amy W.

What struck me though was how the aesthetic that emerged from the No Wave movement, the thrown-together fashion, crude makeup and sunglasses, still hits us as the definition of “cool”. I’m sure the folk back in the 70s and 80s were dressing like that because they had no money and went to junk shops, and because they wanted to look as far rorm the hated “hippies” (with their fringed suede jackets) or, later, the vile “yuppies” with their feathered hair. Today though, as soon as anyone wants to be taken seriously as “cool,” they don the glasses and affect the no wave look. Half of Shoreditch has been dressing like John Lurie in Stranger than Paradise for years now.

Anyway, that’s a total aside. back to the film. I really recommend it. It’s very well done. Danhier lets the subjects do the talking, and cuts together a series of remarkable and fascinating and apparently very open honest interviews with all the key players of the era. It’s aided by some clever editing and design that updates the film, and counterpoints the imagery of the original films which were made on super 8 and VHS. If I have one criticism it’s that I’d have preferred the see more longer pieces from the subjects, not so much quick line by line cutting.

I was most impressed I guess with Nick Zedd, whose insights and views were particularly stimulating and thought provoking and which seemed ot me the most relevant when considering the potential of the “underground” of today.

Blank City was joy to see in the cinema, the images big and glorious, the full splendour of the crude super8 clips showing us why HD is just not mysterious enough …

The sheer fun of (relatively) badly made, spirited, energetic and defiant cinema.

Another review No Wave Revisited: Celine Danhier’s BLANK CITY March 6, 2012 By Sophia Satchell Baeza

©G. McIver 2012 all rights reserved

How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 12:44:41 PM

famiily drama, british film, cold war, DOCUMENTARY, film, film making, vodka, How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire, Hilary Powell, Dan Edelsteyn, film art

How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire

image from

Around about 2007 my friend Dan and Hilary invited me over and Dan told me that he’d been rooting around in his mum’s attic and found a remarkable document. A memoir written by his grandmother, a White Russian from Ukraine who fled the revolution and landed up in Belfast. Dan was mooting trying to make some kind of film about it. It seemed like an enough interesting story, but to be honest, not especially original. I already knew several people who had White Russian grannies and landed up in Paris, New York, Montreal and various other places. Sadly the history of the 20th is one of human displacement. Everyone has a granny and unfortunately for many of us, our grannies had to get the hell out of wherever they were brought up and make new lives for themselves in godforsaken places. In some cases, like my own, by the time granny left, the whole country disappeared and so there was literally nowhere to go back to. So initially I was, I admit, not overly enthusiastic. But I had forgotten one thing.

I knew Dan as a low-no budget independent even perhaps “underground” film maker, who supported his creative work by doing the usual: a bit of teaching and a bit of corporate/commercial work. Like all of us. But when Dan was making one of his first films that got attention (Berlin: Abandoned Heroes), and he was trying to find a name for his production company, he came up with “Optimistic Productions.” That should have told us all something. Dan’s got spirit. Bags of it.

And he seemed particularly taken with his granny Maroussia’s story. To be sure, unlike me and my other friends’ grandmothers, Maroussia had produced a well written, lucid account of her life, so there was something concrete to go on. Within a month or so, Dan and his wife Hilary went off to Ukraine with a Z1, to see if they could find his granny’s home town. They came back very, very excited.

Seven year later Dan’s film about the whole experience, How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire, is in the cinema. I can only describe it as a labour of love. Love of film making, love of family, love of art, and a great love and trust between Dan and his many friends and supporters who have championed Dan’s dream.

The film traces the whole story of Dan’s discovery of the memoir, his initial visit to the winterbound Ukrainian village, his discovery of the vodka factory and his decision to try to bring the vodka to Britain as a social enterprise, to try to keep the factory going and bring some prosperity to the town. The whole process is documented by Dan and Hilary.

So, is it a good film? I was hoping it would be. I had faith in Dan and Hilary’s talent, but still I wasn’t sure. But I had a lot of questions. Is the story interesting enough? Don’t we have enough stories of exile and “discovering my roots” pics already? Didn’t it risk being maudlin?

I need not have worried. The inventiveness and visual artistry of the film – Hilary is an amazing artist and her art direction makes the film quirky, beautiful and highly original – lifts is straight out of conventional doc territory. The “silent film” re-enactments of Maroussia’s life, played out by Dan and Hilary and friends, are a brilliant self -reflexive counterpoint to the documentary footage. And they drive the story very well – we want to know equally what happens to Maroussia and what happens to Dan on his quest. Dan himself is an engaging, occasionally bumbling, charismatic and clearly stubborn character that we warm to. As I know Dan, I have to say that he really is what you see on the screen. The self-honesty is beautiful.

As a film about “discovery of roots” it’s less interesting, and hopefully it won’t be marketed that way. Pearl Gluck’s 2003 documentary Divan is a much more effective as a story of Jewish diaspora experience, as the film maker goes to Hungary ostensibly in search of a piece of family furniture, exploring Jewish culture and identity along the way. Maroussia’s story isn’t about Jewish culture at all, though in making the film Dan does consider his Jewish roots – this feels much less important in the overall story. His contact with the history of his long-dead father is much more affecting and important. And of course the key to the story is his relationship with the isolated and depressed little Ukrainian town. This is a fascinating story, bringing together the 1917 revolution the Cold War and the post-Iron Curtain situation – history made real and personal. It’s a great film about how history is not abstract, not even a “subject” but it’s us, it’s about us. After seeing this film I wanted to officially change the word “history” to “ourstory,” because it is!

Dan himself is not sure how much of Maroussia’s memoir is real, and how much she embellished for literary effect. It does not matter. Her story is real enough, and it produced the greater story, the story of how one hopeful, optimistic, slightly mad film-maker and his visionary artist wife went to the frozen Ukraine to search for a story that might have been a dream, and came back with a bigger question, How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire?

So, there you have it. Once I saw a great piece of graffiti on a Montreal wall: “Sex, Lenin, Vodka” it said. That’ll do for a byline. Go and see it.

©G. McIver 2012 all rights reserved

Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 1:34:52 AM

Ken Russell, british film, The Devils, film art, DVD, britain

I went tonight to see the little seen director’s cut of Ken Russell’s 1971 masterpiece THE DEVILS. Based (fairly loosely) on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, itself a novelisation of an actual historical event. The story is broadly true and depicts very clearly and honestly the way that religion and politics come together in a toxic relationship when power is on the line. As such, very timely.

The film is magnificent, helped by the British Film Institutes’s superb screen. Derek Jarman’s sets together with Russell’s clear-headed and moving script, encourage the excellent cast to deliver some of the best performances of their careers. Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as the obsessed nun Sister Jeanne is absolutely jaw dropping in its intensity and one comes out convinced that it no performance, but real. I’ve always admired Redgrave but this something special. A performance of sheet guts and brutal will, framed by the actor’s ethereal beauty.

An unexpected and welcome Q and A with some of the (surviving) cast ended the night. I was very happy to hear Dudley Sutton and Murray Melvin in particular sharing their highly-charged and idiosyncratic anecdotes of their time working with Russell. Both are fabulous character actors, the sort of people that have made British theater, cinema and television what it is. It was a pleasure to see them.

The Devils did bring me around to thinking about films that portray religion, especially the Catholic Church. As someone brought up in the Church I think sometimes that it’s a really easy target. All that mysterious pageantry, the strange symbolism, the theatricality – all of it borrowed direct from the temple of the High Priest of Amun-Ra by the way, nothing to do with the Torah – it makes for great cinema. But because it makes such great cinema it can make the church look so much worse than other institutions that do similar things but not quite so glamorously. However, Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General did a good job of the Protestant witch trials in England, and Arthur Miller’s Crucible is an interesting take on similar real-life material (although that really is allegorical as Miller was actually interested in the McCarthy trails and didn’t really understand the Salem situation, he should have read Cotton Mather more thoroughly). All of these films capture very well the relationship between organised religion and power, and how credulity and repression are engineered by the systems in power, to support that system.

But I have to admit that as a Catholic, however lapsed, I do find films about the Devil and witchcraft and the Church and all that, really appealing. Probably much more than if I hadn’t been raised in the church. The frisson of forbidden excitement is really there.

“The Devils” DVD is out now, the X-certificate version that is not quite the director’s cut but I guess is as good as we’ll get – and I do recommend it wholeheartedly. But I am so glad I jumped quickly and booked those BFI seats and got to see it on the big screen.

©G. McIver 2012 all rights reserved

Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea, seen at the BFI

Thursday, April 26, 2012 8:47:55 PM

hermit, Two years at Sea, cinematography, cinema, british film, 16mm, film art, films, Ben Rivers

Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea UK 2011. 88mins

This is a very unusual film in every way. It is a cinematic feature film that has been made with a sensibility and process we are more used to seeing in the gallery based category “artists film.” “Artists films” are not movies. Yet Two Years at Sea is a movie, in the original and best sense.

It’s a film that is at first glance appears to be a documentary but it isn’t. It’s about a hermit who lives at the edge of the world in an eerie, unpopulated place living off the detritus of civilisation. In his isolation he does odd but rather fun things, like putting a caravan on the top of a tree so he can hang out in it and sway with the wind. The hermit seems to be unaware of the camera, as he goes about his self sufficient, taciturn routines.

Yet that’s not the truth. Rivers has built a fiction, yet it retains a sense of the mystery of quiet observation. It’s not a documentary. The man is a real person, Jake, and he does live in a remote place but it’s Scotland which, while rural is still fairly populated. And he is playing a character, a hermit called Jake* who barely speaks and who virtually melts into and merges with the physical world in which he lives. Hints of a past, smudged images in the form of still photos whisper of a previous life but deliver nothing specific. We watch, not sure what to believe but compelled anyway. Actually it’s Jake and Rivers who’ve built this fiction, in a careful collaboration that starts with Rivers’ interest in hermits and builds to Jake’s co-creation of a character based on him, but not him. Silent, yet articulate in gesture and movement, Jake is an eloquent work of nature.

Rivers runs the camera himself and also hand-processes the 16mm film stock. This is so unusual it’s worth talking about. Because most artist film makers actually practice the same kind of system that commercial cinema does, no matter if the final product is revealed in the gallery instead of the cinema: that is, they do not operate the camera. Yet, unlike commercial cinema, they don’t usually credit their DP or editor, but instead claim authorship in a way that mainstream directors can never dare to. An odd state of affairs, if you think about it. Rivers by contrast, is DP, director, lab and editor, a tour de force of skill that, combined with his singular artistic vision, is truly remarkable and delivers something very, very special.

The film gifts the viewer with something very unusual, not only in cinema but in daily life as well: time. The film is about time but not the portentous symbolic quasi religious sense of time that Tarkovsky and his school of film makers practice. River’s time is more prosaic, more humble yet all the more compelling for that. He allows us the sheer luxury of focusing on the minutiae, on the details of life. The sequences pull us into the intricacies of the small rituals of life, lived in its fullest material sense. The title hints at the sense of time that the film unfolds: Two Years at Sea is not a literal title, there is not sea and we have no idea if the film takes place over a two year period or not. But there is that same sense of time slipping past, the waves of wind substituting for the waves of the sea. What is sea or land, or seasons or weather? We experience time, yet we don’t because it is so imperceptible.

A dark room, a beam of light, and rows of upturned faces bathing in the luminance of shifting, flickering moving images. That is cinema. Rivers, together with his distributor Soda, is reasserting the most important principle in “artists cinema”, that it is – or can be – cinema. That it must be seen in a cinema and appreciated as cinema. We should be very grateful that for 88 minutes at least, Rivers has allowed us to experience a definition of cinema that returns us to its very roots.

Two Years at Sea released by Soda Pictures from 4th May 2012

A review by Jonathan Romney in Screen

* Rivers first worked with Jake Williams in “This is my Land” a short which I saw in the Bloomberg Space in 2008. I took my class of first-year undergrads to see it, they were captivated and abandoned all the other films in the group show to rewatch “This is my Land” several times.

©G. McIver 2012 all rights reserved