Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

LFF 2015: Taxi Tehran

by Ben Diamond

Taxi Tehran (Panahi 2015, 82m)

What’s it like to be an outlaw in the film world?  Jafar Panahi should know.  He was banned from making films for twenty years by the Iranian government in 2010.  That hasn’t stopped him, though.  He made This Is Not a Film in 2011, shot on an iPhone inside his apartment, a creative re-imagining of the film he wanted to make before he received the ban.  The film was reported to have been smuggled to the Cannes film festival on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake.  And now we have Taxi Tehran.  Panahi moves from the prison of his own apartment to the open prison of the city itself.  I find the whole conceit of this film deeply amusing – Panahi moonlighting as a cabbie (what use is a film-maker who can’t make films?) for some extra cash during his state-enforced creative dry spell, but at the same time engaging in his altruistic tendencies – in good spirits for most of the film, he waives his passengers’ fares.  The taxi itself becomes a space for dialogue, exploration and interrogation.

This is a film which starts playing games on the audience from the very first minute and never lets up.  Panahi has set many tricks and traps which force us to consider what a film is.  The first two people to get in his cab have an argument about crime and punishment (what else is there?).  It feels like a documentary.  But the third observer in the back of the cab, after the other two have left, challenges Panahi, says he recognises him as a filmmaker, that the other two must have been actors, and that the speech one of them delivered was very similar to that of another character in one of his previous films, Crimson Gold.  But, of course, this man is also an actor.  Deceptively simple in concept, Panahi actually, upon consideration, appears to have created a piece of art which performs daring feats of intellectual somersaults.  And underlying it all is a real sense of dread, and menace – despite no violence or threat occurring onscreen, the feeling that Panahi is being watched and shaped by hostile forces is ever present.  This opening scene is a good example of the film’s dizzying dance around the ideas of what is planned, what is unplanned, and who is in control of the script – Panahi?  Or is he simply trying to capture things that are out of his control?

Panahi’s most important passenger is his young niece.  She has a camera of her own and has been instructed to make a short film as part of a school project.  But her teacher has issued the class with a whole list of instructions – what she can’t film, what the protagonist should look like, what the content of the film should be.  Panahi leaves his taxi at one point and the footage switches to his niece’s camera – she tries to capture something herself.  But it doesn’t go to plan – so she starts to direct the young boy she is filming from the window of the taxi – which goes horribly wrong.  Of course, once again, what is real and not real is blurred.  The whole thing is scripted and planned, surely?  By now, we are so far down the rabbit hole of films within films that a thrilling fog has shrouded all intentions and meanings in the film.  But Panahi’s deep, deep meditation as he switches his focus to the young girl – the next generation of filmmakers, who will all grow up with smartphones capable of filming anything, all the time – radiates from Tehran outwards.

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LFF 2015: Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen

by Ben Diamond

Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (Kitano 2015, 125m)

Takeshi Kitano, perhaps best known in the UK for being the host of ’80s gameshow Takeshi’s Castle, but also known for having made some great ’90s films – Sonatine and Hana-bi – has returned with a light-hearted comedy in which old Yakuza member Ryuzo reunites with his old mob buddies to wreak havoc once more, and reminisce about the good old days, back when the Yakuza were respected by all, left alone by the police, and unencumbered by anti-corruption laws which have been put in place since the gang became inactive.  Kitano himself plays a police chief who occasionally watches on with a mask of inscrutability as his old Yakuza acquaintances make prats of themselves.  I often have a problem with directors inserting themselves into their own films (or other people’s films), especially in the case of Quentin Tarantino.  But whereas Tarantino is a nerd who should stay behind the camera, Kitano has that cult-cool about him that gives him an edge onscreen, even if he isn’t doing much.  Of course, it’s hard to tell if he delivers his lines well or not.  Perhaps a blessing in disguise when his films cross over to the West.

But fart gags are the esperanto of comedy, and translate across geocultural borders.  Hence, the film is laden with methane.  I don’t mind the heavy reliance on rectal gas, but the rest of the comedy is incredibly broad.  The camera often lingers on a sight gag or a gurning face too long, well after the penny drops with the audience.  Similarly, a lot of the political content seems completely unsubtle and appealing to our most basic sense of Japanese history, although admittedly there are some very funny moments with an old kamikaze pilot that still have bite.  I don’t quite know how the film managed to run past the two hour mark – the plot feels stretched, and at least half an hour could’ve been cut.  The genuinely funny gags are too sparse, and looking back, the plot was virtually nonexistant, a shaggy dog story for a series of set-pieces and pratfalls.  I like the idea of Kitano making a film which considers the anachronism of the Yakuza man in modern society.  It feels like he’s thinking about his own place in the world as he approaches his seventies.  It’s still a Kitano film, even if it looks like the Japanese equivalent of a Hangover or a Horrible Bosses-type outfit.  He successfully avoids giving the characters any sort of moral compass.  They are complete bastards.  That is funny and rings true.  But after a good start and a strong set-up, the film loses its way and never finds its way back, despite a few very strong scenes.  By the end it was long past its sell-by.

Ryuzo is still worth seeing for the odd moment of Kitano brilliance.  The inspired scene in a restaurant where Ryuzo and his buddy gamble on what customers who enter will order felt like a shake-up of Japan’s film history, a violent riposte to Ozu’s moments of tea-room calm, like his own school reunion scene in An Autumn Afternoon.  Kitano’s still got it – he might’ve mellowed, but we still get flashes of the old spirit.

LFF 2015: The Club

by Ben Diamond

The Club (Larraín 2015, 98m)

Pablo Larraín put himself on the map in 2008 with his film Tony Manero, set in Santiago in 1978, where, against the backdrop of Pinochet’s brutal regime, a man goes on his own psychopathic killing spree whilst simultaneously trying to get onto a reality TV show to perform a Saturday Night Fever dance routine.  In his new film, Larraín continues to delve deeply into the dark Chilean heart, once again combining a very dark humour with an exploration of the very worst in human behaviour.

Set in a remote Chilean town by the sea, the film centres on a house for excommunicated Catholic priests, some of whom have been accused of being paedophiles.  The house is run by the tender yet firm Sister Mónica, who has her own demons to grapple with too.  Although the priests are forbidden to talk to anyone outside the house, their one release is when they decamp to the local greyhound track to watch (from afar, with binoculars) Sister Mónica race their own dog, who they have been training, for cash.

Everything is shaken up when a disturbed character called Sandokan turns up outside the house and starts to recount, to everyone and no-one in particular, in the most graphic detail, all the abuse he has suffered at the hands of a priest as a young child.  Father García turns up, despatched by the upper echelons of the Catholic church to make an assessment of the mental stability of the residents of the house, and, more importantly, to discern whether they are repenting for their sins or simply having a relaxed retirement at a seaside retreat.

In Father García we are given our psychological crowbar to pry open the inner psyches of the exiled priests.  He conducts interviews with all of them individually about their past crimes, all of which are different, and their attitudes towards those crimes now, all of which are different.  In these interviews, when the camera is on Father García, it is crisp and clear, and when it turns to face the cast of the interrogated, it becomes blurrier, more out of focus, as if the degradation of memory as time wears on, and the moral fog it produces, has warped the stock of the film itself.

Less a film trying to do a boot-job on the Catholic church, Larraín is more interested in the three-way struggle for power between Sister Mónica, who appears to command the respect of the priests but at the same time is implicit in their immoral slouch towards indifference, the priests themselves, and the reforming Father García, the outsider who arrives as the Lord’s judge.  As Father García starts to exert his influence – no more alcohol in the house, no more dog racing, less meat and more vegetables, things start to get more tense.  The conclusion is unexpected and open-ended.  I would single out Roberto Farías for praise as the Christlike and troubled Sandokan.

By Our Selves

by Ben Diamond

By Our Selves (Kötting 2015, 83m)

By Our Selves combines the considerable intellectual and creative talents of director Andrew Kötting and writer-psychogeographer Iain Sinclair as they attempt to recreate John Clare’s 80-mile, 4-day walk, from the lunatic asylum in Epping Forest where he was being interned, to Northamptonshire, looking for a lost love who had actually died some years ago.  Sinclair wrote a book about this in 2005 called Edge of the Orison, but this time they have enlisted the help of actor Toby Jones to embody the spirit of Clare, as well as his dad, Freddie Jones, who reads some of Clare’s poetry (as he did for a BBC dramatisation of Clare’s work many decades ago) to enhance and enchant the sonic backdrop.  Toby Jones is accompanied on his walk by a man dressed as a straw bear, for reasons that are explained in an illuminating conversation with a Clare expert towards the end of the film.  I would say the film is roughly one third documentary, one third re-enactment, and one third is simply left to random chance, edited together to make a moody, unique blend.

I was very impressed with Kötting and Sinclair’s last film, Swandown, where they climbed into a swan pedalo at Margate and made their way to the main site in east London for the 2012 Olympics.  The stylistic hallmarks of Swandown are present here, but somewhat exaggerated, perhaps to reflect the state of Clare’s troubled mind.  This time they have chosen to film in stark black and white photography, but continue to expose the underwiring of the filmmaking process – quite an important aspect of the film is the sound, which is often shown being captured by the boom-mic operator onscreen.  Confusingly, the sound that is being captured onscreen often does not correspond to what we are hearing simultaneously.

Sound and vision are set free here.  In a beautiful single take, a handheld camera is left to simply float upwards, high up into the trees, slowly arc 180 degrees, and then descend, upside-down, back to the forest floor.  Repeated sonic snatches recombine and gain new meanings with repeated takes.  The horrendous audio snippet of someone saying “John Clare was a minor nature poet, who went mad” is repeated over and over again, taking various tragic and comedic turns, until it simply becomes mental wallpaper.

Why John Clare?  Because he fits with Sinclair’s agenda and interests.  A working-class poet.  A ‘mad’ poet.  A poet working at what Professor Kövesi in the film implied was ‘the end of the poetry era’ (Sinclair, a poet himself, operating well after the era of the poet).  A poet who took refuge in the flora and fauna.  And a poet who appeared to be operating on some other psychic plane, embodying the spirit of others, notably Lord Byron.  A brilliant conversation with author and wizard Alan Moore turns to his native Northamptonshire, a psychic black hole in Albion, where the dead come to rest, and people never leave.  Sinclair has an interest in ley lines and is no doubt fascinated by the pull Northamptonshire had on Clare and others.

But perhaps the most beautiful moment in the film is simply Freddie Jones trying to remember Clare’s most famous poem, ‘I Am’.  He starts confidently, stumbles, and then triumphantly picks up again at the final stanza.  An amazing poem, and just for a second, you can see Clare glinting in Jones’s eye.

Sacro GRA

by Ben Diamond

Sacro GRA (Rosi, 2013, 90m)

Sacro GRA (Rosi, 2013, 90m) is a film about space.  Specifically, the space and spaces of the ‘no-place’, a purgatory of sorts – a no-man’s-land, clinging to the titular ‘GRA’ or ‘Grande Raccordo Anulare’, the ring road that surrounds Rome.  It’s the counterpart to the glitzy and decadent, but equally soulless Rome depicted in The Great Beauty, with tarmac, rather than champagne, coursing through its veins.

It starts on the road itself, inside an ambulance, where a medic keeps an old man warm who has fallen into a canal, whilst the ambulance speeds its way along anonymous stretches of highway.  The GRA itself is established as both a vessel for the business of death – the network through which ambulances ferry people to hospitals, and also a source of death in itself – later on, the paramedics attend a car crash that has occurred on the ring road, where the victim displays a morbid sense of humour, the scene itself a distillation of the internal machinery at work at the heart of the film – finding redemption, beauty, and humour underneath the noise and the mundanity.

Elsewhere, the people and scenes the film visits also explore the the concept of death, albeit in a more metaphysical, death-in-life way, the inhabitants of these places consigned to live out their days as lonely ghosts who seem to have absorbed their surroundings and as a result offer cryptic insights into what such a life does to you – how you develop a philosophy to deal with your lot.  Sacro GRA is a documentary, but everything is carefully framed, set up, directed, premeditated.  Characters rarely move in the frame, and their monologues, each a distinct vignette, are given added layers and meanings by the detritus that surrounds them.  If they are accompanied by other people in a scene, they’re often not being listened to.  Each person is a singularity, a law unto themselves.  They are treated by the camera with dignity, but also with a coolness and sense of detachment.

I don’t know where the filmmakers found these people, but they are, without exception, fascinating.  No questions are asked from behind the camera and no interviews as such occur, leaving an air of mystery as to each person’s circumstances, how they came to be who they are, what led them to do what they are doing.  The GRA is depicted as a barren place, and it seems to have some mystical qualities which inexplicably draw people in and render them infertile, as is the case of the two tabletop dancers who perform at a horrible, unglamorous dive bar, scantily clad but distinctly unsexual and disinterested (the patrons of the bar seem fairly nonchalant about the whole business too), their dance having less to do with fertility, and more to do with money.  Elsewhere we catch sex workers, but during their downtime, where their existence appears to have been nullified, purposeless and shooting the breeze in an existentialist, absurdist manner which would feel at home in one of the more banal moments of a Beckett play.

Such is the film’s insight and craft that waves of horror and creeping dread wash over you, without anything particularly horrifying or dreadful being revealed.  In fact, such is the relentless exposure to death in all of its forms, both real and imagined, that it takes on a beauty all of its own.  ‘Death is an artform’ might be this film’s manifesto.  When inhabitants of flats look out of the window, they don’t find horror in other people, because there’s no-one around, just flats in the building opposite, with the lights on – but nobody home.  Instead, the true angst comes from the wasteland, the empty space – and the ringroad beyond.  Fenced out, but also fenced in.

Night Will Fall

by Ben Diamond

Dark humour. It’s an interesting term, and an interesting phenomenon. I would describe it as using serious and upsetting scenarios or themes as fodder for comic effect. But, at the same time, the person employing the technique has to show a level of empathy and understanding which turns the misery we see, or read about, into something universal. This, in turn, allows us to laugh, and appreciate the attendant ironies. It is also this sense of empathy which distinguishes it from pure schadenfreude. It is a sophisticated technique, hard to pitch exactly right – the pitfalls being that when deployed it either veers off into total existential hopelessness (not funny at all), or, on the other hand, it is too conventionally funny, and therefore ceases to pack a punch when it comes to the true awfulness underlying the situation in question.

For all the failures of Martin Amis’s latest novel, ‘The Zone of Interest’, you could not accuse him of looking at The Holocaust from a tired angle. And he is brave to use dark humour as a way of understanding, filtering, and processing those awful events – perhaps brave in a way only someone who isn’t Jewish would allow themselves to be, or could get away with. The novel derives much of its twisted and awful comic sense from the fact that the events unfolding at Auschwitz are mere background details to the central ‘protagonist’, the amoral German officer Angelus Thomsen, who derives no pleasure from the atrocities he is implicit in, but at the same time feels no real shame in what he is doing either. Instead, he is more interested in the camp commandant’s wife, Hannah Doll. Thence the dark humour: the huge, unignorable genocide, the thing that no-one can ever forget, is eminently ignorable for Thomsen – a mere inconvenience, something that rattles around in the back of his mind. In contrast, the romantic interest for Thomsen, of no interest to anyone other than himself, is blown up in the narrative to his primary interest, never mind the advancing march of the Russian army or any moral considerations about his involvement in the running of a concentration camp. His sense of proportion is all wrong. Ha Ha.

It’s OK that we’re still thinking about The Holocaust. It’s OK that people are still writing books about it, and making films about it. We’ll probably never stop doing that. As WG Sebald said, “No serious person ever thinks of anything else.” But Night Will Fall (Singer, 2014, 75m), curious in its failures if nothing else, seems to duck all the interesting questions, and hides behind shocking images, some of which are new, and most of which, in one form or another we have seen before. To simply inform us about the atrocities of the concentration camps doesn’t cut it for me, I’m afraid. Save it for a BBC documentary.

It’s one of those films where you go in thinking you know what you’re in for, and halfway through you realise it’s not the film you expected. To be wrong-footed like this can be refreshing. But Night Will Fall doesn’t seem to want to wrong-foot its audience on purpose. It just runs out of intellectual steam, or courage, to do something different, halfway through. It bills itself as being a film about a film – it’s a documentary about the joint British-American attempts to make a film after WWII using footage soldiers shot during, and shortly after, the liberation of the Nazi work camps and death camps.

There’s so much here that could’ve been looked into. How did the US, British and Russian soldiers, trained in the use of camera equipment specifically so they could document the German atrocities, feel about their job? This film doesn’t really tell us. Instead we hear from the editors in London who received the footage and watched it for the first time. They were all shocked by what they saw, apparently. This seems like a fairly obvious revelation. All the interesting details are glossed over – Alfred Hitchcock’s involvement in the project, for example, and the tussle for directorial control over the film once the US and the British realised that Germany was a potential Cold War ally, and one who they didn’t want to demoralise too much by bludgeoning them over the head with evidence of the atrocities that they were all complicit in.

Instead, we are shown lots of footage from the original documentary, all of which is horrifying – skeletal corpses piled high in mass graves – but all of which looks familiar. It seems both gratuitous and unnecessary, and also something to hide behind. The film, at times, feels like it would be more at home in the archives of the Imperial War Museum or British Library, largely because of the reliance testimonies given by the survivors. Singer often falls back on these interviews, playing it safe with more familiar and comfortable territory. It feels like a film which is deeply insecure about its own identity.

We’ve passed the stage in Holocaust filmography where we must come face to face with the shocking and the visceral.  We need to move on to other ways of seeing.  At one point a British officer being interviewed (as new footage, not footage from the post-war project) is talking about how the women, once liberated from the camps, appeared to return to ‘some semblance of normality’ surprisingly quickly. He says, somewhat patronisingly, that within weeks they were cheerfully nattering to each other whilst deciding which clothes to wear. But, of course, how could they have any semblance of normality within weeks of being liberated from a concentration camp? Some Holocaust survivors that are still alive today still struggle to feel, or behave, in a ‘normal’ way, let alone a few weeks after liberation. It seemed to me, watching the film, that the officer was desperate to impose his wish for normality on the situation – the alternative was too awful to think about. But he isn’t pressed on this point of view. Indeed, this level of emotional subtlety seems to be out of reach for Andre Singer.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube clip from a much more interesting and bold film about The Holocaust: American Radical: The Trials of Normal Finkelstein. It is everything a documentary should be: puzzling, engaging, electrifying, interesting and unsettling. Norman Finkelstein is a Jewish academic, controversial because of his anti-Israel views, and because he operates within an academic system with a strict line on the conflict, which is dogmatically adhered to by the academic mainstream. The clip documents one of the most tense moments on his book tour, where he takes a strong line on the inappropriate nature of the invocation of The Holocaust when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. A brilliant orator, he takes on a hostile audience with many angry Jewish people amongst them. You wouldn’t have thought that there could ever be such a palpable sense of danger present in a lecture theatre. What a fascinating angle American Radical took – Holocaust and Israeli history being chewed up and spat out again by a Jew, who himself is a fascinating character study. If only Night Will Fall had been so bold.

Moebius

by Ben Diamond

Moebius

“Moebius”, Dir. Kim Ki-duk (2013)

It’s a rainy evening at the ICA, I’m fairly wired on a strong cup of coffee and on the screen in front of me there’s a nob on the floor, blood everywhere, and everyone is screaming. Essentially a stereotypical end to Friday night dinner at my parents’, except with more nobs on the floor, and more blood. But slightly less screaming.

I’m sure there are lots of lovely films coming out of South Korea that we could do with watching, but only the most extreme seem to filter down to our small island. Perhaps those are the only ones that catch my attention, but that’s the way it seems to be. Perhaps this tells us something about our own cravings for watching depraved behaviour on the big screen. Regardless, when they do arrive, they usually screen for a pitiful few days at a handful of cinemas and then disappear into the ether again.

Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, 2013, 89m) is certainly extreme. If this were a Friday night cinema audience, there would’ve been walk-outs. Luckily I sat with a tolerant crowd who chuckled through the most shocking bits. Whether this was to lighten the mood and make things bearable, or because there are dark echoes of comedy in the most ridiculous moments of the film is unclear. But what is clear is that Moebius is not extreme for the sake of being extreme. It has something to say. Albeit not with words.

As if this film wasn’t enough of a hard-sell already, it has no dialogue. Shouts, screams, gasps, moans and the odd chuckle – yes. But if you were after some sort of Korean version of a Mike Leigh film (with more castration), you just just jog right on, squire. The film kicks off with a mother trying to castrate her cheating husband, who reacts fairly badly to the whole proposition, naturally, and basically doesn’t let her do it, so she saunters on to her son’s room and de-nobs him instead. Obviously. When knives are being wielded and (dis)honourable members are being threatened, it becomes clear that there’s actually hardly need for any dialogue at all. You just fight for your life and try to hold on to your meat and two veg.

From there, Moebius re-configures and re-visits various key scenes which are established early on, mainly consisting of either masturbation or rape, or in some cases both, but with the sliding scale of consent for both parties artfully set askew each time, and with various different people taking the part of each role. In essence, it’s a fascinating look at the extremes in perverse sexual gratification we have been driven to (well, I can only speak of my own depravity, but if your internet history is anything like mine you should be ashamed of yourself). It’s simultaneously a satire of extreme pornography and a (semi-sympathetic) exploration of how, and on what, we ‘get off’ these days. A memberless father, for instance, works out a way of masturbation whereby he can achieve orgasm by roughly rubbing a stone against his foot until he starts to bleed. This pain-pleasure principle then evolves into one of the most shocking practices of the film, whereby a woman stabs a knife into the shoulder blade of various (willing) men, and proceeds to wiggle it about in the wound, the face of the male nestling on her shoulder, contorted in a rictus of agony and ecstasy.

In all the scenes of sexual activity, of which there are many, consent is never achieved. Which is not to say that the person on the receiving end of someone else’s blunt sexual desire doesn’t ever appear to be getting off on the act themselves. Instead, there is a by turns fascinating and uncomfortable dynamic where opposite poles of sexual desire send everyone spinning like repelling magnets. Sometimes even a person sans genitals attempts to engage in sexual violence. Does this count as sexual violence?, the film seems to ask. Well, it certainly felt like it.

At one point the son in the film is at his desk reading a comic. Maybe it’s a manga comic, containing depictions of extreme fantasies. Maybe it’s just a regular comic. Tellingly, the father comes in and the boy stands up. They look at each other for a moment; a pregnant pause. It’s as if there are empty speech bubbles hanging above their heads. Everything to say, yet they are unable or unwilling to say it with words. The film mirrors the comic-book format in many ways, often lingering in close-up on a face after an ‘action’ scene, similar to a speech-less tile in a graphic novel, the face alone describing the emotions within. As the film fizzed along, the madness made more, rather than less, sense, even as things got progressively weirder. I bought into the manifesto. I left the ICA with a slightly tender shoulder and a renewed gratitude for the continuing presence of my genitals, and their attachment to my body.

The Creation

by ftilbyjones

Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” (c.1512)