Sunday, March 31, 2019

BFI Flare: the Great Deception

So, to the final day of BFI Flare although I shall avail myself of the online screeners to do more posts later. If there has been a trend in this festival it seems to be a move away from happy endings and even decisive endings. I can only think of one film that offered a conventional happy ending and that was a woman joining a threesome so not that conventional.

JT LeRoy
Tonight's closing film was JT or JT LeRoy or, as imdb has it Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, so perhaps the distributors have yet to settle on a title. The uncertainty suits its subject, a shape-shifting author revealed to be two women in a great literary scandal that passed me by in the early noughties. I had vaguely heard about it but was never invested in the original books, fictionalised memoirs of a gay teenager who did sex work. Or so the devoted readers and celebrity endorsers thought. In fact, Laura Albert, a frustrated novelist living in San Francisco, had created the works under the LeRoy nom de plume and then enlisted the help of her partner's sister, Savannah, to provide the face of JT. As played out in JT et al, it's quite fascinating to consider their intentions and how caught up they both became in becoming what Savannah (Kristen Stewart playing it low-key) calls a tearaway teen or words to that effect.

I had concerns over just how queer the story would be and how well it would suit Flare, but it turned out to be quite polymorphous. There is an interesting thread about taking on another body that is quite resonant of trans identity issues. Savannah hints at gender dysphoria and is only too happy to avoid carbs in order to keep "curves" away. She also has a fling with a glamourous actress who is apparently based on Asia Argento. Laura (Laura Dern unleashed), for her part, has previously done sex work and dated women and is quite happy to have phone sex with the aforementioned actress to keep her sweet. It's quite astonishing to think that it happened or at least a version of it did: this is Savannah's story and she was heavily involved in making the film. Her brother even provides the music.

Even more bizarrely, Courtney Love, one of the original duped celebs, turns up in a small role as an LA producer who wants to turn one of the novels into a film. I only realised when her name came up in the credits, and I had to go back and work out which role she played as she is unrecognisable. Hole's "Celebrity Skin" is used over the credits, adding an extra meta reference. The film raises many important questions that linger: what is truth? how much reinforcement do we need from others? who gets to be a public voice?
And true to form, the ending leaves us hanging as Savannah looks to New York for her next move. It's worth googling all involved to see what they did next.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

BFI Flare: Fantasy + Reality

Just before I set off to visit BFI Flare on the Southbank yesterday, the news broke that the great Agnès Varda had passed. "Oh, No! I expected her to live forever!" was my absurd thought. But, why not? Cinema should allow its makers to live forever and Varda, who almost made it to 91, had a life full of extraordinary experiences and important work. I hope she gets all due recognition from upcoming cinematic gatherings across the globe. I spent this morning watching her turn at the 2017 Governors Awards and marvelled at how few prizes her films accrued from the big festivals. Quel dommage.

My visit to Flare was a mixed bag--couldn't get into Making Montgomery Clift; discussed Whigs and Tories in the reign of Queen Anne; and saw my last film at the festival, Marie Kreutzer's psychological puzzle, The Ground Beneath My Feet. If I say that everyone around me was abuzz afterward, it will give some flavour to this film. I would say it is my favourite so far, but that does not mean I understand it. I had seen some of Kreutzer's previous work, so knew that she does not make it easy on audiences. Her debut The Fatherless was a masterful family drama-cum commune portrait that grappled with memories and their impact in the present.  

The Ground Beneath My Feet wrestles with the pressures of family and work on the psyche while playing with reality and fantasy. What we wondered at the end was: "What was real?" Businesswoman Lola is constantly on the go jetting between Vienna and whatever city houses her current project restructuring failing companies. She has a secret affair with her boss Elise on the go but does not seem happy. Meanwhile her sister Conny has been sectioned after yet another suicidal episode and Lola treats her with disdain, making arrangements but offering precious little human emotion. As the film unfolds, she keeps receiving phone calls from Conny, improbable as this may be as the woman is locked up with no access to a phone. So, who is calling her? Cue Twilight Zone theme. Sadly, Kreutzer was sick and unable to attend the screening to answer our myriad questions, but I found the film quite gripping and at times witty in its delineation of Lola's tightly controlled life, with a scene in which she puts her sister's cat into pet care offering some much-needed levity. The scenes in which she is sexually harassed by clients and gaslight by her lover are grimly true to life. Agnès V would approve.

Knife + Heart
 My other big find of the fest is Yann Gonzalez's wild Knife + Heart, which improbably stars Vanessa Paradis as a lesbian producer of gay male porn in 1979 Paris. From the moment I heard Malaria's "Thrash Me" playing on the soundtrack in an early club scene I felt I would love the film, even if that song was released in 1983. Paradis plays the domineering but alcoholic Anne who runs a company churning out skin flicks while attempting to reconnect with her ex Lois who just happens to be the company editor. Cue mega dyke drama as Anne makes drunken phone calls and begs and pleads for Lois to come back. Anne ends up in an enchanted forest trying to track down a long-dead bird that may be connected to a series of murders. And then things get really weird. The film is wildly uneven in tone, referencing Cruising and a host of other films while paying hommage to both porn and the process of old school film-making: the cuts, rewinds, and grain of actual film. The credits reveal it was shot on Kodak, as should be the case. I loved it but I imagine others may not be so keen.

I also viewed Canadian drama Giant Little Ones, though I have no idea what the title means. Floppy-fringed teen Franky finds himself turfed out of his perch as one of the cool kids once a drunken fumble with best friend and alpha male Ballas becomes the talk of the school. While sidelining the plotline of whether Franky is gay, the film really zeroes in on toxic masculinity, peer pressure and the pleasures of finding friendship in unlikely places. Plus Kyle Maclachlan pops up as Franky's out dad. A pity Maria Bello as his mum isn't given that much to do, other than make reassuring noises. Franky's relationship with Natasha allows both to explore barriers and inhibitions and his dad gives sound advice when he says something like, "Pay attention to who you are attracted to and don't worry about putting a label on it."

Thursday, March 28, 2019

BFI Flare: Virtual Lives

This year my viewing is a combination of online and in-person visits. It seems fitting then that the two films under scrutiny feature teenagers who seek connection in the possibilities provided by the internet as well as in their rather bleak surroundings.

Nevrland
 Nevrland is a debut feature from writer-director Gregor Schmidinger who attended the screening with his lead actor, first-timer Simon Fruhwirth. The film is billed as horror which set up expectations of scary things emerging from the shadows. Instead the film delivers a dazzling mix of bewildering images and creepy sound design that builds up atmosphere but never delivers a satisfying plot. 17-year-old Jakob lives in an all-male household somewhere in Vienna but in an insular, grey world which always seems to be dark. He goes to work at an abattoir processing pigs and experiences flashes of an alternate world in which he is in a green forest or diving into a lake. After a mental breakdown, he meets mysterious Kristjan online. This character seems to be North American and yet is name is spelled Germanically, just one of many confusing details. As their relationship unfolds, Kristjan exposes Jakob to many firsts, such as tripping and visiting an "underground club" where the teenager seems to return time and time again in increasingly fraught circumstances. Is it real? Is it part of his metal illness? Who knows? Schmidinger reeled off a string of influences in the post-screening Q&A, which included Kubrick and Noe but also Jungian psychology and the film suffers from over-intellectualising and under-emotionalising. What should be a stunning climax of Jakob breaking free from his repression feels like a set piece. Schmidinger clearly has vision and great technical skill but this film feels more like an exercise than powerful story-telling.

The Spanish film Carmen y Lola is also a frustrating watch, for different reasons. Two 17-year-old gypsy girls, the titular characters, fall in love in Madrid but are held back by their community's lack of acceptance. The story-telling is languid to the point of soporific but the two characters are intriguing, soft-spoken Lola wanting to pursue studies but realising she has few opportunities and sassy Carmen initially following her destiny of marriage and children before rethinking. Lola knows she likes girls and goes online to search, but then backs out of any meetings, while Carmen seems to be a model het. But life is not that simple. The supporting character of Paqui is left underwritten and her relationship to Lola is never clear--boss? best friend? crush object? The setting is striking and the glimpses into modern-day gypsy life are revealing but the story reaches no great dramatic resolution and one is left pondering how the story might have been more sharply told.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

BFI Flare: the Swarm

My first visit to BFI Flare yesterday coincided with the big anti-Brexit march and, consequently, I found myself in Waterloo station buffeted by hordes of blue-hatted folk carrying quite amusing and thoughtful placards. Some were even making them as they waited to move on, hand-lettering their messages in felt tip pen. Everyone seemed determined, energised and focused--quite unlike the government! It made me terribly proud to be un-British, as it were.

Tell It to the Bees
Anyway, on to the festival, where I viewed a feature, Tell It to the Bees, and a shorts programme, Challenge Accepted. The former reminded me a bit of Carol, if that were set in a small Scottish town and everyone dressed in black. Actually, it is a bit different. There is an upper class-lower class romance, a child and a villainous husband combining in 1952. But Tell It to the Bees has an odd surrealist cast, most notably in its depiction of the titual bees. The child, who is the narrator for the tale of repressed lesbian love, is a budding bee whisperer and it is his ability to call forth the bees for a key swarm (no spoilers) that forms a key moment in the plot. The lovers, buttoned down Dr. Markham (Anna Paquin) and down on her heels single mum Lydia (a radiant Holliday Grainger), are not welcome in the town any more than the interracial romance of her sister-in-law is. A price will have to be paid.... It is a pleasure to see Anna Paquin, whom those of a certain age will remember as the girl in The Piano, all grown up and back playing a Scot. Even more intriguing that she is the key influence on the child, a role reversal of sorts. The chemistry works well between her and Grainger and if the ending is a bit puzzling, it's an affecting film.

The swarming reminded me of a scene in Vita & Virginia, the opening night film I saw in preview, in which Virginia Woolf rushes out of a house and is confronted by a murmuration of black birds that suddenly descend on her, pecking at her as she cowers and flaps. But they are all in her mind, as the members of her party look on in bemusement. I also felt bemused but for different reasons. Oh, dear. Where to start? How about the casting? Gemma Arterton as Vita Sackville-West? The two would have been about 30 and 40 when they met. Arterton is 33 and her co-star Elizabeth Debicki, playing Woolf, is 28. Moreover, as we all know, Sackville-West was an androgynous woman. Butch, we might say now. She favoured tweeds and extravagant hats and disguised herself as a man to pursue her affair with Violet Trefusis, as depicted in Portrait of a Marriage, in which she was memorably portrayed by Janet McTeer. Watching Arterton and Debicki, one sees in them more of the Sackville-West/Trefusis coupling than Sackville-West and Woolf.

Vita & Virginia
 Arterton, a fine actress, plays Sackville-West as a coquettish, lovestruck puppy dog, batting her eyes at Debicki and then playing hard to get. Her Vita is a power femme, not the "scandalous ruffian" of Woolf's description. Debicki, meanwhile, tries valiantly to grasp the complexity of Woolf, her repression, her wit, her fantastic way with words. But most often she is reduced to staring off vacantly into space. It is a most frustrating film, fraught with contemporary touches like a club soundtrack more at home in Heaven and jarring addresses to camera. That type of eccentricity worked brilliantly in The Favourite. But here it smacks of a director, Chanya Button, not quite sure what to do with the material. Ironic, really, for two such accomplised writers to be left so high and dry.

And then there was Challenge Accepted, which was led by people of colour, though this was not mentioned in the notes. There really should have been a trigger warning for Masks, which presents a budding romance between two girls disrupted by a mass shooting clearly based on the Pulse attack in 2016. The insistent gunfire was incredibly disturbing, but the film, a student project, was of a very high standard. Other films in the programme seemed to be proof of concept projects, establishing a premise but not really seeing it through. I was most taken by Piscina (Pool), a Brazilian drama in which a woman seeks out a woman from her grandmother's life. The references to the Second World War were poignant and if it tailed off at the end, leaving the audience and the elderly woman hanging, well, there was quite enough to suggest a longer version would be well worth a watch, as would Concern for Welfare, an Aussie short in which a trainee police officer finds herself out at work but still closeted at home.

As I made my way home in the evening, thwarted by a disappointing lack of seating at the BFI, I found myself among the returning swarm of the march, more placards waving, hats being doffed and plenty of selfies being taken, as the people had their say.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Dorothea Tanning

In a marriage made in heaven, Tate Modern gives Dorothea Tanning her first retrospective in 25 years, meaning her first posthumous one. Born in 1910, Tanning only died in 2012, her life and career spanning the 20th century, with all that implies. The exhibit is a wide-ranging delight, offering eight generous rooms encompassing 100 works.

Children's Games, D. Tanning
 I found myself wandering open-mouthed through the space, agog at her wild imagination. I had seen her works online but never in-person and found standing inches away from the oil paintings an illuminating experience. Who knew Children's Games (1942) was so tiny? Such detail and such emotional power in a painting smaller than an A4 notebook. And side-by-side with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) a more spacious work connected by the grouping of transfixed girls in tattered clothing. The two could be scenes in the same film. Interestingly, they also connect with a later work in a different room, Maternity (1946-47), with its spaced-out mother, babe in arms and their human-faced dog. With this, Tanning carried Surrealism into the post-war years.

Even decades later she was still offering jarring juxtapositions with her fabric sculptures. These were displayed across one large room but several were encased or placed in corners, which my friend K., a sculptor, found irritating, as sculpture should be seen from all sides. The ones that were presented in the round were extraordinary. The giant Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1979) looked like a spiny shark to me, beached on a low plinth. Other works offered variations on two figures embracing or wrestling or fighting. One is not sure. I found it to be quite contemporary, suggesting nightmares, dystopias and dysfunctional relationships. Stranger Things, indeed.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Colette: the writer's life

Having just seen Colette, the biopic of the French writer starring Keira Knightley, I found myself pondering the quite complex relationship depicted between her and her first husband, the rogue about town called Willy. As the film unspooled and Willy offered her feedback on and revised her writing, I thought to myself: "Willy is a great editor. He is really good at shaping and refining other people's work." Where he went wrong, of course, was in denying other people's talent and claiming their work for his own. Bad Willy.

Denise Gough as Missy and Keira Knightley as Colette
 In the film, Colette struggles to throw off his control while thriving under his command. Even her mother suggests she rid herself of him and write under her own name but she declines to do this for quite some time. Is she that insecure or does she draw some strength from what seems quite the toxic relationship? He presents himself as her husband and headmaster but cannot see her as an equal or even a creator. Such is his delusion. If he had just been content to be an editor or even an agent, theirs would have been quite the partnership.

Colette is a curious film in that it depicts the early life of a great female figure, while offering a standout role for a man. Willy is wily, controlling, charismatic, louche and loud, and Dominic West is a hoot in the part. As Colette, Keira Knightley offers only a hint of the writer's inner journey, while displaying her usual charm and affable blankness.

Kudos to the film for not shying away from Colette's bisexuality and giving due weight to her affairs and predilection for cross-dressing. It seems admirably contemporary, right down to her calling her AFAB lover Missy "he" as their relationship develops. The two scandalised Paris by kissing onstage at the Moulin Rouge, a memorable scene in the film, and Missy asks some very pointed questions of Colette, offering her quiet support and never trying to dominate her, unlike Willy. The ideal partner in many ways. Sadly, the film ends before the two set up house together. A sequel is surely warranted.

I saw the film at Genesis Cinema as part of its regular Write Along With monthly series, in which films about writing are shown and the audience is invited to stay afterward to do some writing. It's a great idea and while I have yet to produce anything decent, I do enjoy having a go while sipping some tea and gazing into the middle distance, as you do. For something so solitary, it's great to have the odd collective activity.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

DIY Life

It's been quite awhile since I posted as I have been busy making my film, Lactasia, which has been quite the process. We completed shooting in January after a four-year journey from script to shoot. There will be the best part of another year editing and getting it ready for the festival circuit, but things are much less hectic. I am looking forward to taking a bit of a back seat now and letting other people take the lead.

I have, however, had some thoughts on how it went that may inform how I work in future. Having been highly influenced by the feminist and queer groups I started my activism with in the 1990s, I was keen to have a flat structure and lots of ideas contribution from the participants, but others seemed more keen to have me lead in a more traditional way, which I found difficult. It's hard to strike the balance between being authoritative and authoritarian, I feel.

This being the most complex project I have ever undertaken, and not being in optimal health, it's been quite the ride and incredibly mercurial. Doing things the DIY way is not really in vogue now, at least as far as creative projects go. I have seen negative comments on Facebook forums assuming industry norms, and this is not how I have ever worked.  I have been producer-director-location manager-catering manager, and a host of other roles.

In future, I may need to go back to doing my singular small films which require much less logistical planning. But there is a huge buzz in seeing a cast and crew assembled and giving their all. The last day of our shoot we shot a live band performance that had my hair standing on end. Such are the moments that make one want to do it again.