The Final Curtain

29 10 2009

'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

Al Pacino stands at the top of a staircase, machine-gunning the army of hired killers that has overwhelmed the defences of his mansion. With scant regard for his own safety, he wanders to and fro, loosing off insults and volleys of bullets in the direction of the intruders below. Eventually, inevitably, he is shot; not once, not twice, but many, many times. As his shirt turns tomato-ketchup-red, he fights back, killing and maiming as many of his persecutors as he can, before collapsing into a water feature, a bloody, lifeless mess.    

But that’s OK, because it’s only a movie. Whatever we think of Tony Montana, we can rest easy that some day soon Al Pacino will be back, pouting and strutting around our screens as if none of this ever happened.

You see, in the movies there’s death and there’s Death. The former is something that we’re very comfortable with. It’s Martin Sheen being pushed off a rooftop in The Departed; it’s Ali MacGraw slowly slipping away in Love Story; it’s Guerrilla Number 7 having his neck snapped by an angry Rambo. Death with a capital D is very different. When a Heath Ledger or a River Phoenix or a Marilyn Monroe dies – I mean really dies – between films, we find ourselves cheated and curious, and left with a whole new kind of relationship with the images they left behind. 

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In Search of African Cinema

22 10 2009

'Johnny Mad Dog'

Here’s a little pub quiz question for you: which country has the second largest film industry in the world?

If you answered the US, China, India or France then YOU WRONG, as they used to say on Banzai!. You very wrong indeed. In terms of the number of films produced every year, it is the Nigerian industry that holds this accolade, its annual production of 2000-odd features surpassed only by the might of Bollywood.

And yet I’ve never seen a Nigerian film, and I’m willing to bet that you haven’t either. ‘Nollywood’ films are produced predominantly for the local market, where they go straight to DVD and outsell the Hollywood competition by ten-to-one.

The Africa that we outsiders normally see in the cinema is very different. In films like The Last King of Scotland, The Constant Gardener and Shooting Dogs, Africa is a place where white foreigners venture at their peril; a place where they encounter the raw savagery of nature firsthand and uncover a dark, corrupt, hitherto-unknown side to themselves. Even in the best of these films, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the continent and its people are nothing more than an exotic backdrop to this process of self-discovery. 

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Difficult, Difficult, Lemon Difficult: British Film Today

15 10 2009


Alan Parker famously once said that he would leave the UK if Peter Greenaway were allowed to make another film. This was back in the Eighties, when threatening to leave the country was something of a pastime for the rich and famous, but it did reflect a frustration that Parker and others had about the direction in which the British film industry was going.

We make too many artsy films, they argued, the kind of films that confuse the man in the street and do little to promote the growth of the domestic industry. Instead we should be focusing on lively and entertaining cinema, films that pull in the crowds and tell a good story well.

Since then the British film industry has too often operated with these extremes in mind, unable to commit to one or the other. For much of the Nineties and Noughties we saw, on the one hand, self-consciously populist films that proved to be far from popular at the box office and, on the other, serious films that didn’t quite have the balls to take any serious risks artistically. Despite occasional successes (The Talented Mr. Ripley, My Summer of Love, Trainspotting, Ratcatcher) the overall mood was one of gloom, compromise and squalor.

Imagine my surprise then, when coming back to the UK in August after almost a year away, to find the country in the midst of a mini cinematic boom and myself with a whole lot of catching up to do. Ingmar Bergman in his later years reportedly watched every metre of new Swedish film that was released, and I found myself trying to do the same with DVDs, tracking down as many of the key works of this new British renaissance as I could find.

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8 10 2009
'Looking for Eric'

'Looking for Eric'

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are standing in a movie line waiting to see Bergman’s Face to Face. Behind them, a man in a tweed jacket pontificates loudly to his date about the ideas of cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan and the failings of Fellini. When challenged by Woody, he proclaims himself to be an academic who teaches a course on media at Columbia University and who thus has plenty of valuable insights into such matters.

Woody responds by bringing Marshall McLuhan out from behind a pillar. “You know nothing of my work,” he tells the unfortunate academic. “How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” 

The scene is from Annie Hall and the cameo is the way that cameos used to be: brief and to the point. Whether it was Hitchcock walking a couple of terriers in The Birds or Richard Branson being frisked at an airport in Casino Royale, the point of the cameo was to provide a little, usually comic, diversion from the main narrative.

Recently though, this seems to have changed. In films like Being John Malkovich, JcVD and now Looking for Eric the cameo has become the narrative, with stars taking leading roles in films about themselves and using the opportunity to examine, unravel and poke fun at their own celebrity status.

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The Patron Saint of Indie Film-Making

1 10 2009
Michel Simon in 'L'Atalante'

Michel Simon in 'L'Atalante'

Tuberculosis is, I think we could all agree, a bit of a bugger. Not content with inflicting its sufferings on the rank-and-file of humanity, the disease has, over the years, sought out and killed some of the greatest names in world literature. D.H. Lawrence, Anton Chekhov, Emily Brontë, Franz Kafka; all died well before their natural time, leaving us to speculate on what treasures or disappointments we might have been left with had they lived longer.  

Tuberculosis gave the world of cinema one of its first martyrs too when, on 5th October 1934, Jean Vigo died at the age of 29. The director left only four films behind, of which only one is a feature. Nevertheless, 75 years after his death, Vigo’s reputation continues to loom large in world cinema. His feature, L’Atalante, frequently crops up in lists of the top ten films of all time, while the director himself, who had to fight against almost impossible odds to realise his artistic vision, has become something of a patron saint for indie film-makers everywhere.

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