Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's Time

The Australian Film Institute announced that it is moving to establish an Australian Academy for the purpose of expanding and improving what are now known as the AFI Awards. The announcement is a tacit admission that the AFI’s only remaining real purpose has devolved down into managing and presenting its annual awards. Its claim to be Australia’s foremost screen culture organisation no longer has any validity and the announcement regarding the establishment of an Academy simply recognises this fact. For most of the last couple of decades the AFI has been slowly gutted and shredded of any of the duties undertaken by other national film institutes. Government funding for these activities has over time been callously, ruthlessly and in some cases ridiculously withdrawn. But it is now where it is.

The AFI was at one time an organisation which provided research facilities for scholars, managed a library of independent Australian and foreign films, exhibited cutting edge other stuff in its own cinemas, published material on film culture, history and production, managed a national cinematheque and ran the AFI Awards. Drip by drip the activities dried up and now only the awards remain though a check of its website indicates some other small and probably inconsequential activities are undertaken. Even the status of the Awards is under challenge with the emergence of the IF Awards as a rival for public funding and attention.

At present AFI members and film industry professionals vote for the AFI Awards in a complicated system that does not require those voting to see all the entries. Whether this produces the best result rarely matters. It usually produces the only result ever likely. Our good films are so few that egregious mistakes rarely occur. So…where are we now.

1. The AFI has lost its authority and its prestige. It is fighting for attention and relevance and has only its Awards with which to fight. It will get no extra help from the Federal Government funding body. (That body is now operating at such a level of philistinism as to produce despair. If this needs examples you need look only as far as the withdrawal of funding from Real Time and from the world’s greatest internet film site, Senses of Cinema).

2. We need a prestigious and valued Awards system to recognise and promote excellence

3. The models are those of the American and British Academies as well as those national arrangements that hand out the Cesars, the Davids and the Goyas.

4. The people who make up the industry have to become intimately involved and in particular those who are the high achievers have to put body and soul into the transformative effort.

If the AFI is to get this done it will no doubt be over a few bodies who nostalgically long for the return of days when the AFI did all he things mentioned above. It may also be over the bodies of the general members who no doubt still enjoy attending the AFI Award screenings. But an Academy made up of the industry’s long time best and brightest, if that’s what’s envisaged, does not have a place for them.

In creating an Academy, which I would expect would need to be followed by a name change to reflect this sole task, the AFI and those nostalgic for what once was should feel no guilt. Times have changed and the work the AFI once did and the things it once sold memberships for is being done by such institutions as the AFTRS and university film and media departments, continuing education, ACMI, GOMA, the NFSA, the Media Resources Centre of SA, the National Cinematheque (notwithstanding its total absence from the biggest city in Australia), the myriad of festivals, the expansion of film circulation via DVD, cable, online downloads and the coming national broadband network. When you think back to even thirty years ago most of those didn’t even exist.

The AFI played a major role in bringing many of them into existence but that role is over and if it is to achieve anything in the future it will be by massively expanding the profile and prestige of a national awards system whose voting is respected by the public and whose activity (sole) is the source of national interest. Good luck Al Finney. ….and maybe under this regime the now late Cecil Holmes might even gain the recognition that has long been denied him by the current system!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Suburban snow job

Spoiler alert. Some of the key plot elements of Snowtown are discussed here.

Success comes in the most unlikely places. I saw Snowtown just after it got a rave review in the Adelaide Advertiser and was announced as the winner of the audience popularity award at the Adelaide Film Festival. Wiser heads from outside the jurisdiction told me to ignore this home town bias. So as the film about the bodies in the barrels in the bank screened in a Sydney preview theatre, I squirmed with the rest of the audience during its slow revelations of paedophilia, murder and a few other unpopular human activities and felt distinctly uncomfortable in its most brutal sequence, a long torture/killing during which the young man at the centre of the film finally joins in the mayhem. I kept wondering who would want to put themselves through the unedifying ordeal of watching this movie and indeed paying to be put through it.

I found it interesting that the film-makers were concerned to show their social and community concern and the press book, which a friend passed on to me, set out in detail not merely how the production had been informed by consultations with the community to ensure respect but also by casting locals in many of the parts including key roles. The mother and the son were both amateurs who were spotted somewhere in the vicinity. Earnestness of intention was manifest.

Added to that, there are two sequences during the film where the locals sit around drinking, swearing and discussing things and they focus on what should be done to homosexuals, paedophiles and other social undesirables to rid the community of them once and for all. In the second of these discussions the smiling visage of the protagonist serial killer is a smirking, slightly superior presence, goading and provoking those in attendance to be ever more explicit about their desires to take revenge and inflict physical punishment on perceived miscreants. They are scenes where the roots of frustration, ignorance and a predilection for violent solutions are unearthed among the working and under classes of the suburbs. They are I suppose also an explanation as to why there was no great community outrage at any mysterious or unexplained disappearance of gays and others from that local community. I suspect that any locals seeing the film might take exception to this portrayal of callousness and indifference arising from their homophobia.

It’s a rich mix as they say and not without its detractors. I saw one tirade against the film delivered by some fresh-faced ranting know all on morning television. The know all did make one point however in wondering why the film had not been classified R. I thought that it warranted that as well though I have for decades been told that I am a fuddy duddy where it comes to matters like watching a few fingernails prised from their sockets.

But the surprise to me is that Snowtown has opened to very good business indeed. This may be partly explained by the mostly very supportive reviews it has received and its prize at Cannes, described in a press release by the film’s publicist as the “President of the Jury Special Award Grand Prix 2011 Critics' Week”. The first weekend screen averages on its 16 screens were over $10 grand. It might rake in a million or more if it keeps going at that rate.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sidney Lumet - New Yorker

Way back in 2004 I fronted up to a screening in one of those high quality but low comfort repertory cinemas in Paris where the then editor of Cahiers du Cinema, Emmanuel Burdeau, introduced a revival of Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind. Made in 1959, based on a play by Tennessee Williams and starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, it was a film that had taken on interest in the forty plus years since its release and subsequent plunge into near-oblivion. If its authorship was placed anywhere it would have been with Williams and no doubt the studio which made it was hoping for a repeat of the success of the earlier Brando/Williams movie A Streetcar Named Desire. Lumet, explained Burdeau, was not a director in whom Cahiers nor most other of the ‘serious’ critics had any interest back in the late fifties and early sixties. His first films were literary and/or theatrical in their origin and Lumet himself appeared to be just another of those technicians who had graduated from live New York television, a place where earnestness, importance and left-liberal sensibilities were predominant. At least that’s the picture we got, not having any opportunity to see any of the so-called legendary live presentations by the likes of directors as dissimilar as Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer and Lumet. Andrew Sarris lumped him into the ‘Strained Seriousness’ level in his seminal tome and it took a while for there to be any disagreement about that. Notwithstanding this somewhat neutral to negative view he was regarded as a good director of actors and over the course of a long career, from start to finish, I think he was one of those directors who when Sidney came calling, actors would say what time do you want me there rather than how much are you offering. After dealing with Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil, Lumet had the misfortune to make the earnest Fail Safe (1963) at the same time as Kubrick made Dr Strangelove. But his career was into full stride and during the decade of the 60s he seemed to be a reliable director with a broad range of subjects, most of them with a violent edge. Notable successes were The Pawnbroker (1965), The Hill, a heavyweight expose of military prisons during WW2 starring Sean Connery as a prisoner and a sadistic Harry Andrews, an adaptation of the Mary McCarthy’s literary sensation The Group and the second Le Carre adaptation and the first on-screen George Smiley (James Mason), The Deadly Affair. It was hard to escape the idea that he was a director for hire with a good sense of quality material, a metteur-en-scene of some skill but not an authorial figure. What began to emerge in the 70s was Lumet’s ability to tell robust and exotic stories of life in the various strata of New York society. He never relocated to Los Angeles, preferring to live his life in Manhattan and his familiarity with the quirks of that city started to feed into a line of his work that marked out his territory. Starting with the crime story The Anderson Tapes (1971) again starring Connery as an ex-con who embarks on an elaborate robbery without understanding that the art of surveillance has dramatically increased and improved since he went up the river, Lumet managed to make a small group of his forty four films about police and criminal life on the streets of New York. That group will forever be the work that underscores his reputation. Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), Family Business (1989), Q & A (1990), Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) and, in one of those astonishing bits of bravura with which just occasionally old directors finish off their careers, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). There are more than a couple of masterpieces in that group and Lumet seemed to be able to bring to this his specialty subject an eye for the various milieu of New York that opened up the city to scrutiny from a perspective that suggested a unique fondness and amiable love for the place and all its foibles. What diminished Lumet’s standing over the course of his long career was his preparedness to take on other things no doubt on a whatever comes along basis that the director for hire must take to keep the wolf from the door. What else can explain his willingness to get involved in such mediocre projects as The Wiz, Guilty as Sin, The Appointment, Murder on the Orient Express, A Stranger Among Us (an amazing misfire given its New York setting, but what can one expect of a movie with Melanie Griffith cast as a hard-boiled cop!) and several others. There were of course a couple of big time triumphs as well, most notably the Oscar-winning Network, a film which still strikes a chord, notwithstanding its rabble-rousing sensibility which one might have thought otherwise anathema to Lumet’s liberal outlook. The other triumph is his less well-known contribution as writer and producer to the TV series 100 Centre Street (2001 & 2002) in which Alan Arkin stars as an agonising liberal judge trying to deal humanely with the flotsam that comes before him each day. This is brilliant television, as good in its day and its way as The Wire would also be later in the decade. Here, in his quintessential New York setting, Lumet and his collaborators were able to put on the screen a parade of the quotidian reality of his beloved city and he did it without fanfare in a quiet and clearly generous way. Sidney Lumet died in his Manhattan home on Saturday 9 April aged 86.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Spy Games

Spoiler alert. Do not read this if you dont want know the main plot twist in The American. You have been warned.

When I sit down to write my personal history of spy fiction I shall digress only for a moment to consider where the genre incorporated elements of crime fiction and elements of intellectual authors at play (often under pseudonyms) to hide a paucity of observation. In the Le Carre world, spy fiction has always provided the opportunity to expansively examine other matters in which the author’s real interests are exposed – the futility of cold war politics was superseded in Le Carre’s world by adventures and explorations of colonialism, pharmaceutical conspiracies, American imperialism, Russian adventurism and so on.

But for those seeking only to write something generic the cheapest plot device was always the trope of the lonely agent/hitman whose task, unbeknown to him, is to arrange for and participate in his own assassination. It was a trope of the cheapest order and one which was and is fallen upon with monotonous regularity. At some point the avid spy fiction reader could pick it coming, often far too early.

I don’t think George Clooney is an avid reader of spy fiction. How else to explain his decision to make The American and for this hoary old chestnut of a device to be wheeled out yet again and presented as if it were new. There’s even the same ludicrous ending of many a tatty tale where the would be assassin of the professional assassin is assassinated by another who then tries to kill the professional assassin. Like duh!

From the credits on the movie George didn’t have that far to go from the comforts of his palatial quarters near Lake Como to make the movie. He also didn’t bring any mates to help him do it. But I guess a good time was had by all during the course of production. Aside from George, there’s not a major name anywhere on the acting or technical credits of anybody known beyond Anton Corbijn the tyro director of rock clips and movies about rock stars. Who sold what to whom about the project is mysterious to those of us without access to the great man (still the most handsome leading man since Alain Delon, notwithstanding the pepper and salt beard in the early scenes; still the most charismatic and watchable American star since Clark Gable) but I guess its not important.

The shots of the village, the countryside, the cafes, the meals prepared by the priest (Italian glug) and that swish restaurant with that rather out of character waiter (surely more old-style French than modern Italian) create a deep wistfulness and nostalgia for days and trips gone by.

And it would be nice to think you can now go in to an Italian post office and be served immediately.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Arthur Penn

I heard of Penn’s passing just as I headed out the door so no time then to contemplate the career of a director who for cinephiles at least had a very hot streak from The Left-Handed Gun (1958), through The Miracle Worker, Mickey One, The Chase, Bonnie and Clyde; Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves and The Missouri Breaks (1976). That’s close to a couple of decades of remarkable film-making, all of them in some way peering under the skin of American history and society and finding a lot of pent-up lawlessness and violence.

Back in those long lost 60s when discovering new directors was the game and we awaited solitary events like the Melbourne Film Festival for our first glimpse of the directors that cahiers and Sight & Sound were praising, coming across an American director like Arthur Penn at the very start of their career and then watching in quick succession a run of increasingly assured films was then, still is I suppose, quite a rarity. But nowadays when maybe ten thousand new films are made each year and you have access to thousands more of them very quickly, the discovery doesn't have quite the uniqueness it had then. Penn was in that tradition of Losey, Aldrich, Siegel, Fuller, Anthony Mann, Nicolas Ray, Raoul Walsh and no doubt many others of lesser ability and reputation who did their best work on violent subjects, or maybe subjects where America's peculiar closeness to guns, brutality and death was most nakedly and simply on display.

In retrospect the fact that the run seemed to end with what on paper must have looked like a sure fire success, a western with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. But it turned off critics and the public alike, one of those ironies of the business. Bonnie and Clyde will preserve his reputation for ever and the line in Night Moves comparing watching a Rohmer movie with watching paint drying probably made it into all the obituaries.

We never saw any of the ‘live television’ which first made Penn’s name in the 50s That pre-historical part of his career may yet come to light but not so far. We did see The Left-Handed Gun, Penn’s film of Gore Vidal’s television play about Billy the Kid and it became apparent there that Penn had a sense of adventure. The long static shot simulating the taking of a photograph was repeated countless times by others, the shot directly into the sun which allows Billy to appear as a ghostly presence before he blasts one of his enemies into oblivion, these became signs of a director wanting to experiment within the confines of Hollywood film-making. When he got the chance, after his second film The Miracle Worker won a bagful of Oscars, Penn took the opportunity, with Warren Beatty, to attempt to be an American Fellini, with Mickey One. That film remains a fascinating artefact of its time. The Chase and especially Little Big Man were fine westerns. The former has one of Marlon Brando’s very finest performances in amongst its story of over-wrought Texas oilmen and its sub-text of the forces that led to the Kennedy and subsequent Lee Harvey Oswald assassinations.

In the end Penn just faded away. Towards the end he even made a movie with the magicians Penn and Teller but nobody I asked has ever seen it. Since I mentioned it David Stratton has been in touch to say he's seen it and has passed on his noted about what he saw. Not something to write home about. Still the memory of the films from that hot streak period will live on and his place in the Expressive Esoterica section of the Pantheon, I think, is secure and something to be admired.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eastern Promises

Vancouver’s special niche in the world film calendar has evolved, over two decades, from a small hometown event into one of the key portals for new films out of East Asia. Programmed by Tony Rayns and Shelley Kraicer, the Dragons and Tigers selection of 43 new feature films and 20 shorts, draws on productions big and small from 14 countries. The range is huge. Prestigious films from the major production centres Japan, China and South Korea, most previously premiered at earlier competitive events in Europe, repeatedly filled the festival’s biggest cinemas. At the other end of the spectrum, the eight film Dragons and Tigers competition for first time directors presented in the luxurious intimacy of VIFF’s own Vancity Theatre, again drew hardcore cinephiles and adventurous viewers. Neither element disappointed. Between these two groups were another set of movies having their international or North American premiere.

But first to the competition and the big shock. The jury comprised three of the biggest names around – Bong Joon-Ho, (the continent’s hottest director and one whose next film is currently the subject of much speculation even in the pages of the latest Film Comment which reports a rumour, not true says Bong, that he is teaming with JJ Abrams), supported by French-Canadian Denis Cote, a recent double prize-winner at Locarno, and Chinese master Jia Zhangke. They gave the prize, and the cash from local arts patrons Brad Birarda and Robert Sali, to Hirohara Saturo’s Good Morning to the World, a smart and beautifully directed story about a loner schoolboy searching for answers about a dead man he finds in the street. Honourable mentions went to Xu Ruotao’s Rumination, a very playful, neo-Godardian, portrait of China during the years of the Cultural Revolution played out in a desolate abandoned industrial estate by a troupe of actors summing up Chinese history in gestures and mime and to Phan Dang Bi’s Don’t Be Afraid, Bi!, a surprisingly frank examination of Vietnamese sexual desires.

The shock however was that the judges completely ignored Jo Sung-Hee’s End of Animal which might just be the most remarkable debut film from Asia since well, let’s make it personal, Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu back in 1997 or Bong Joon-Ho’s Barking Dogs Don’t Bite in 2000. A broke down by the side of the road movie which might have been made by a young David Lynch, End of Animal is replete with enigmatic characters with psychic powers, last minute plot swoops, violent unexplained events, dark secrets, mysterious flashbacks and some blackly humorous collisions of all of the above. The assurance of its direction is extraordinary and it is aided immeasurably by the performance of young star Park Hae-Il’s performance as the mysterious stranger who knows all. Park, a star in the making with a couple of standout performances already under his belt was so impressed by the script that he agreed to do the movie for nothing. The film is next being screened in the London Film Festival so maybe its time will come in that neck of the woods.

While big names Miike Takashi (13 Assassins), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee who Can Recall his Past Lives), Sono Shion (Cold Fish), Lee Chang-Dong (Poetry), Jia Zhangke (I Wish I Knew), Hong Sang-Soo (Hahaha and Oki’s Movie) and Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock) expectedly delivered for their audiences, VIFF’s usual capacity to spring suprises was also on show with several international premieres. Imaizumi Koichi’s The Family Complete will make its name because of the seriously sexually explicit material it contains. A former gay porn star, Imaizumi’s third feature apparently continues his exploration of gay sexuality, this time around an SF plot involving a family struck down with a mysterious virus which firstly traps them into never aging but, more hilariously, produces sexual desire which causes all family members to only seek satisfaction with their own grandfather. Imaizumi, somewhat heroically given the context and the requirements of the plot, plays the grandfather himself, while his film riffs off Ozu and all the other Shockiku home dramas of Japanese cinema history. Very droll indeed but, as we were warned, only for the broadminded and maybe a tad too explicit for a nation which recently refused a local festival permission to screen Bruce La Bruce’s LA Zombie, a film which drew happy midnight screening crowds in straight-laced and innocent Vancouver.

Zhu Wen’s Thomas Mao is a droll two part exposition of the relationship between the esteemed painter Mao Yan and his long time friend the German art curator ‘Thomas’. Where the fiction begins and the documentary ends is the jokey sub-text to a movie which sets out to describe the friendship in two parts – the first in the wilds of Inner Mongolia and the second in Mao Yan’s studio where the painter makes yet another portrait of his fetish subject. Shades of Apichatpong.

Finally, leaving the intellectual world for a moment and the best for last, to a film that, literally I kid you not, caused among its large audience of young Korean women, gasps of pleasure, shrieks in fact, especially at the moment when its star Won Bin, last seen playing the son in Bong’s Mother, took off his shirt. He revealed both a bullet wound and torso of such honed and rippling musculature that the audience seemed to collectively swoon. But that was barely part of the excitement. Lee Jeong-Beom’s The Man from Nowhere, a huge domestic hit, posited a story of an ex-CIA (South Korean branch) hitman/agent, now passing his days in anonymity as a pawnshop proprietor, coming to the rescue of a drug addled neighbour and her child. Jokes abound, especially with the drug dealing community longing for a return to the certainties of military dictatorship, but it’s Won Bin’s magnetism and Lee’s breakneck pace direction and superslick editing that keep you on the edge throughout. There is enough plot for three movies but some seriousness as well in the background milieu of child prostitution and organ harvesting. You would like to think that the film’s reward might be as a sure fire international hit and something that might even attract the attention of American remakers.

For the record, Australia was represented at VIFF by Julie Bertucelli’s The Tree, a handful of docos and two shorts included in a compilation under the rubric ‘High School Stories/Teenage Hell – Felix Thompson’s (an expat) Bedford Park Boulevard and Alexander von Hofmann’s Tinglewood....unless of course you think we should claim Michael Rowe and his enigmatic Leap Year as one of our own.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Walsh St Wager

The bet that Animal Kingdom makes is that audiences wont be sated by the extravagant vulgarity of Underbelly and will be prepared to come out to the movies to see something resembling a film a clef about another notorious piece of Melbourne’s criminal past. It shares one interesting element with The Wire. The most odious characters are neither the criminals nor the police but the lawyers. In The Wire the character who most makes your blood boil as he efficiently, and for high fees, frees his criminal clients from jail, turns a blind eye to gangland executions and exploits every loophole is the egregious lawyer who cheerfully gets his clients off a host of major violent crimes. In Animal Kingdom we accept gangland executions, revenge killings of and by police, the murder of a child, but we find really disgusting the amoral behaviour of the solicitor Ezra White, portrayed as a man of straightforward, nothing surprises me, efficiency by Dan Wyllie and, even worse, the smiling female criminal barrister who get their clients off. It’s an interesting turn of events. Somehow the notion of watching criminals do what they do has always been fascinating and touches something in us that admires slippery behaviour even when it’s violent. Watching lawyers go about their legitimate business of defending the interests of their crooked and violent clients is stomach turning.

The character of Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) also has some elements of interest. In a couple of scenes his psychopathic side gets a run through. The murder of the girl/child of course is one but at other times such as the scene where he meets his brother in the supermarket or harasses his brother Darren with questions as to whether he’s gay you get just a touch of a sense of the obsessive. The questions to the ‘gay’ brother are done in an outwardly friendly way along the lines of I don’t mind one way or the other but I just want to know but, like all psychopathic behaviour, Pope doesn’t know when to stop. But the scene ends with a whimper. It’s hard to know just how much Ben Mendelsohn’s performance throttles this aspect of Pope’s behaviour. Mendelsohn is not the sort of actor you cast when you are looking for someone whose mere demeanour can convey threat or menace. David Wenham has dibs on that trope but he’s already been there and much more effectively.

The best Oz feature film to delve into the domestic lives of the criminal underclass remains Rowan Wood’s The Boys. That was a film where the sons, at least all bar John Polson’s wimp, could turn violent at a moment’s notice and you believed it. Fuelled by drugs and life choices, they were far more animalistic than the relatively ‘sane’ family here where only one mad dog, Craig, stands in for the uncontrolled and impulsive. Michod actually seems to want to emphasise the ‘nice’ suburban nature of the family, carefully setting his action in houses set among quiet tree lined streets.

The image we have of the criminal and police classes in the noughts is physical similarity. The crims, at least the Williams and Morans who appear in the paper are all overweight as if they have too much time to sit around at home eating or in cafes drinking cappuccinos. Policemen today, especially detectives in suits, are rotund and have round bald heads as if they have been over fed on too many late night Chinese noshups. (Even Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness has a paunch.) Or maybe with the cops at least somewhere there’s my memory trace of watching sixty hours of The Wire and seeing the police team dominated by guys like Bunk or the Sergeant or even McNulty who just eat and drink too much. (Except of course for the magnificent musculature of Lance Reddick as Daniels who gets to show off his pecs and abs at regular intervals, especially after he leaves his ambitious wife and takes up with the ambitious prosecutor.) In Animal Kingdom the ultra wiry Guy Pearce’s only nod to cop normality is a poorly cultivated moustache.

The one character/performance that is note perfect is that of James Frecheville as Josh. He captures perfectly male teenage hesitancy, insecurity, inarticulacy, diffidence and an ability to bottle up all the emotion. His hunching of his shoulders and downcast look has an exactitude about it that one hopes springs from great acting. In one so young it is remarkable to see.

Otherwise David Michod’s mise-en-scene is fairly lacklustre in giving his quite engrossing script any extra oomph. The scene where Josh runs away from Pope, begs a lift and, just as we think he might be getting away, has the car slammed, is done as near to blandly as you’ll ever see from a director who presumably has misspent his youth, like all others of his generation, watching Scorsese and David Lynch pictures. You have to wonder whether TV shooting styles, fear, good taste or simple reticence produced such a damp squib moment. It just moves the story along rather than giving some rawness and visceral excitement of the kind you find in the French Mesrine diptych for instance. Which I guess is about where the film mostly lands.