Tuesday, 28 September 2010

'Welcome to sunny East Finchley'

Love him or hate him, Mark Kermode knows what he's on about. He's like Kim Newman in that his encyclopedic knowledge of film is sort of depressing; there's no way a yawning airhead like me could cram that much knowledge into my tired little brain. Some people say he's arrogant, too hyperbolic and sure of his own opinion. But I don't reckon that's true. It's not arrogance, it's a willingness to contribute. Followers of Mark Kermode's Film Blog will be familiar with his habit of sharing notoriously audacious views via a short video - and then encouraging viewers to respond to said views in the 'comments' section. A few weeks later, he'll discuss those comments in a follow-up video. Those who comment are wise to be equally audacious. It's a way of building a public forum where everyone's opinion is valid. His recent discussion of the impact of 3D cinema is a good example.

I find it all a bit heart-warming. That's possibly because I'm an emotional wreck. Anyway, his latest post was even more self-indulgent than most:

I defy even the most fervent Kermode-hater not to have their cockles warmed by his passion and enthusiasm for the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. Especially when he keeps going on about how 'glamorous' it is these days. I mean... is it? My own equivalent would have to be the Vue cinema in Clifton Moor, York, back in its hey-day when it was a Warner Village Cinema. That's certainly never been a glamorous place, stuck in the middle of a retail park, adorned by a carpet warehouse and a Tesco's. Its car park is awfully popular with teenage boys on mopeds. But back when I was a wee bairn, my Grandad Syd and I spent every weekend at the Warner Village / Vue cinema in Clifton Moor. Once, when I was 9, he took me to see The X Files movie, which was rated 15. Nothing more exciting had ever happened to me, ever. Another time I took a day off school to queue around the building to see Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace. Oh fuck off, I was only little.

What I'm getting at is that Mark Kermode's attitude to cinema evokes these kinds of memories. It's inclusive, not exclusive. Everybody's experience of film is worth talking about. The stronger the impact of that experience, the more passionate your opinion of it, the better. So just remember next time you hear about that time he got ejected from the Cannes première of Lars Von Trier's The Idiots for screaming, from the back of the cinema, 'C'est de la merde! C'est de la merde!': he only says it because he cares.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

'At least they do things with a certain elegance'

Went along to the BFI Southbank last night for a screening of Federico Fellini’s 1960 movie La Dolce Vita. Aside from a notably snooty atmosphere (there wasn’t much crunching of popcorn or rustling of crisp packets; the man in the next seat looked ready to vomit in horror when he noticed me taking a few notes on my Blackberry), the film itself looked great up on the big screen. It’s aged well. Fellini’s dreamy crossfades and precise, swooping tracking shots benefit from the cinema treatment. A packed cinema – however pleased by their own choice of movie - made the experience feel even more worthwhile.

La Dolce Vita, one of Fellini’s most popular and accessible works, isn’t really about much. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is a journalist and man-about-town who wanders endlessly across Rome from one decadent party to the next, followed by his loyal troop of paparazzi. Along the way, he wades through the Trevi Fountain at night with the beautiful starlet, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), and later covers a woman in feathers so she looks like a chicken. Yeah.

Although the film follows a number of characters from Marcello’s perspective, Fellini has little interest in narrative arcs that allow to them gleam any valuable life experience from their endeavours. La Dolce Vita’s running time stretches to three hours but there’s little room for character development. The films just glides from party to party, presenting a series of vignettes of languid aesthetes. Their hedonism is coldly compelling. As Marcello’s girlfriends puts it, ‘at least they do things with a certain elegance’.

He resists making any overt moral judgements, but Fellini hints at the unfulfilling nature of his characters’ lives. Throughout there is an emphasis on performance. Sylvia sashays from her private jet to her adoring photographers, only to repeat the action so they can get a better picture. This kind of faking it for the cameras occurs elsewhere, and often. This life might be sweet, but it’s not real. When Marcello and his father visit a nightclub and watch a performance by a tragic clown who bumbles from one calamity to another, for the audience’s pleasure, the message is clear.

Towards the end of the film, a tragedy occurs that is all the more surprising because it comes out of nowhere. What’s interesting is that Fellini largely ignores the aftermath of the event. Instead, he focuses on paparazzi swarming around the family member left behind as police break the news. In an earlier and unrelated scene, one photographer asks Sylvia, the famous actress, ‘Do you think Italian Neorealism is dead or alive?’. A self-reflexive joke that got a (self-satisfied) laugh from last night’s audience, the line now suggests how everything becomes a commodity in the end, even a person’s life.

Surprisingly watchable for its lack of any narrative development, La Dolce Vita is haunting for its cold observational distance. It is a subtle and poignant exploration of life lived elegantly wasted. It’s definitely worth a viewing. Just maybe not at the BFI Southbank, unless you want to get tutted at for breathing.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Metropolis 2010. Reconstructed. Restored. Really long.

A reconstructed and restored version of Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi epic, Metropolis, was released in cinemas on Friday. It's brooding, surreal, at times even Kafkaesque. An account of the subterranean proletariat working in squalor to maintain a thriving city of wealthy playboys, the film has long existed on DVD in an incomplete form. In Buenos Aires a couple of years ago, though, a 16mm print featuring twenty-five minutes of 'lost' footage was discovered. Work began to create a full and definitive version.

Much fun is to be had in recognising the additions that make up this 'complete' version; they are badly damaged and grainier than the rest of the film. It's actually difficult to imagine how Metropolis could have existed in any other form (I admit it, ashamedly: this is the only version I've seen). The restored scenes and shots work to explain relationships between characters, even establishing back stories, and define narrative developments that might otherwise have been unclear. Even without an entirely coherent narrative, though, it's easy to see why any version of Metropolis has been lauded. After I left the cinema, two images in particular stood out. Three streams of thousands of workers backed up over the landscape begin to converge, united in revolt, and it's still stunning. In another instance, mad professor Rotwang reveals the robot he has created, accompanied by a soundtrack of shimmering violin and tinkling bells; a beguiling combination. I've included the latter scene below. This version doesn't boast restoration of the original 1927 score, as the version I saw this weekend did, but it should give you an idea anyway (and perhaps even a reason to see the film).

This reconstructed and restored version of Fritz Lang's masterpiece is quite something. I expected Metropolis to be as cold and detached as Rotwang's robot, a chilly dystopian vision of machinery and clockwork and lost individuality. On the contrary, it's warm, human and in places genuinely funny (if you decide that's at least half the intention of the histrionic 1920s acting). Subplots such as an exploration of the Thin Man's role in Joh Fredersen's metropolis (Fredersen is leader of the city) flesh out the world Lang has created. An explanation of Rotwang's vendetta against Fredersen threads together a narrative that had apparently not always been so satisfying. The dual-identity plot generated by the physical similarity between Rotwang's robot and its look-alike Maria evokes the use of mistaken identity in Shakespearean comedy whilst also seeming very modern (evil twin narrative devices have been exploited by franchises like Star Trek and Superman) - encapsulating the timelessness of the film. This is the first time in eighty-three years that Metropolis as Lang intended it has been so readily available, making this seem like more of a cinematic event than just a regular cinema trip. Any two and a half hour silent movie is going to stretch a modern audience brought up on music videos and summer blockbusters, but it's worth persisting with and highly recommended.

The 'new' reconstructed and restored version of Metropolis is playing nationwide now and will be available on DVD/Blu-ray in September.

Image via Google

Sunday, 5 September 2010

'Most people here don't even have names. Everyone's just passing through'.

Proenza Schouler make expensive ladies' clothes. Harmony Korine makes weird marginal weirdo films for weird marginal weirdos. Naturally the two came together to make an advert / short film to promote the brand's Fall collection. A disillusioned teenage girl's echoey voice-over laments that 'the Earth is a big ball of shit'. So you'd better jazz it up by spending loads of money on graffiti pants. The film, Act Da Fool, features plenty of trademark Korine imagery: the prickly Nashville heat and shabby neighbourhoods littered with abandoned cars and shopping trolleys and skanky mattresses. After being shown Proenza Schouler's Fall collection, these are the images he was apparently inspired to create. Like always with Korine, the line between beauty and ugliness gets blurred.

Not sure what it all means? Not sure it means anything? When the New York Times asked Korine - in reference to Act Da Fool - if he felt his early success had emboldened his confidence in his distinctive aesthetic style, he replied: 'Yeah. I don't know. I don't even think about it. I just do what I want to do. I don't really ask too many questions. I drink lots and lots of malt liquor and snort white-out and just follow the rainbow.' That's that cleared up then.