Taking the Broad View

18 07 2010

Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, White Material

'White Material'

 Why are there so few female film directors? That’s a question that’s long been chewed over by critics, academics and the viewing public alike. Does the film industry, consciously or otherwise, marginalise female talent? Is it hopelessly macho and sexist? Or is the very act of film-making – arranging people, lights and cameras, ordering and categorising the world – one that speaks to male needs and neuroses much more deeply than it does to those of most women?

Beats me. But in a way, a more interesting question is: what kind of films do female directors make when they get the chance to do so? And are the stories that they choose to tell qualitatively different from those of their male contemporaries?

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Notable Films of the Noughties

18 12 2009

Walking the walk. 'Elephant'

And so here, with all of the usual caveats, and in no particular order, is a list of films that have moved, excited and inspired me over the last ten years.

The Great

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

A long, lazy stroll around the scene of a gathering storm, Elephant uncovers both the very particular, private world of the American teenager and the kind of wider social malaise that finds an outlet in the occasional high school massacre. It’s an angry film in some ways, but also by turns calm, dreamlike, and level-headed, and filled with unforgettable moments (that scene with the bulimic girls: need I say more?).

Syndromes and a Century / Sang sattawat (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)

I’ve said it elsewhere on this ‘blog recently, but to my mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or ‘Joe’ to his friends) is one of the few contemporary film-makers who’s genuinely interested in finding new and exciting possibilities in cinema. This 2006 film tells mirrored stories of love in a rural and an urban Thai hospital, and is my favourite of his. Like all of Apichatpong’s work, the film is split into two halves, with scenes that unfold with a gentle, unforced naturalism, and much to think about once you’ve left the cinema. If you let it (and you should) Syndromes… will hypnotise you. In a good way, of course…

Hidden / Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

A thriller of sorts from everyone’s favourite Bad Santa Michael Haneke. Here the subject matter is class and colonial guilt, and the director’s gaze has never been harsher. Juliette Binoche is intense and French, Daniel Auteuil is conflicted, and the film itself is a veritable puzzle box for the unpicking. Also contains possibly the most shocking cut (so to speak) in Noughties cinema. Ouch!

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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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Leave It to the Non-Professionals

10 09 2009


Katie Jarvis in 'Fish Tank'

Katie Jarvis in 'Fish Tank'

There’s a story that when Luchino Visconti was filming La Terra Trema, his 1948 neo-realist study of the lives of Sicilian fishermen, he tied fishing wire to the toes of his actors. This wasn’t, as you might imagine, anything to do with keeping them inside a boat or preventing them from wandering off. No, the wires were there so that the director and his crew could pull on them to give a prompt whenever it was time for an actor to speak.

You see, the actors in La Terra Trema were all non-professionals, real-life fishermen who Visconti had selected for their hard-worn looks and thick Sicilian dialect. The fishermen certainly looked the part, but often had difficulty remembering lines or knowing when it was their turn to speak. Visconti was finding out the hard way that working with non-professionals is not always as straightforward as it might seem.  

Since then, hiring non-professional actors has become the trademark of directors searching for a certain kind of authenticity in their work, almost to the point of cliché. Everyone from Gus Van Sant to Shane Meadows is at it, the former casting his 2007 film Paranoid Park through an advert on My Space.  

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