Sunday, March 29, 2020

Flare online: A Dog Barking at the Moon

A Dog Barking at the Moon is a film about family drama and is also made by family in that it is written and directed by Zi Xiang and the cinematography is by her partner, Jose Val Bal. They also co-produced it. One would think that this would lend it a cohesive feel, but that is not the case. A young woman and her husband fly into China to stay with her parents before her baby is born. The mother is angry, as her husband wants a divorce. The daughter advises her to get the divorce or stop complaining. So, the stage is set for family drama, but the film is a frustrating watch. 

A Dog Barking at the Moon
For one, the cinematography is almost static. Entire scenes play out as wide shots that drag on and on with no camera movement and little action. The story moves back and forth in time with very little explanation and then suddenly scenes are dropped in that make no sense, the actors interacting with no props or costumes on a stage. I wish that lent it an air of intrigue, but I was just bored most of the time.

The actress playing the daughter barely shows a flicker of emotion, massively underplaying, while her mother lashes out in furious rages, chewing the scenery. The other characters barely register and it is confusing to keep track of the different family members, especially as there are so many flashbacks. I had an inkling that two characters shown as young women might develop into something interesting, but this did not seem to be happening. 

And then in the last 15 minutes, wow--suddenly there is drama, character, emotion and a painfully played out reaction shot. I can't say it makes up for the previous 90 minutes but at least there was something to watch. A dance number, flashes of colour and life. And then it ends, oddly. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

Flare online: Rettet das Feuer

Continuing with the oh-so-topical self-isolation viewing, I watched the doc Rettet das Feuer, directed by Jasco Viefhues. I was keen to see this story of an artist living with HIV in 1990s Berlin, although not familiar with him or his work. Sadly, by the end of the film, I still felt I knew very little about him. Jürgen Baldiga, we learn, was a photographer and artist whose words and images fill the screen throughout the film, his diary entries read out by the filmmaker. 

Rettet das Feuer
 But the film spends most of the time in an unnamed archive (I guessed the Schwules Museum) with unnamed people poring over his donated works. I tried to work out who was who but failed. First names are thrown around but it is very hard to assign a name to a face or understand their relationship to this man who seemed to be very important to them.

Nor is any context given for Baldiga's life--where did he come from? What was Berlin like at that time? What was the drag scene that he photographed like? What was the situation for people with HIV? All of this information is withheld from the viewer and so we are left with black and white photos and chaps sitting in white rooms. I was completely nonplussed. It feels like an extended home movie where you have to already know who everybody is. Very frustrating.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Flare online: Good Grief

So, to the first post of this year's Flare, cancelled to all in person, but happening in various forms online. I do not have access to the BFI player where many films are screening, but I do have the limited screeners available to press online, from which I shall be selecting.

The first feature viewed was My Fiona, an impressive debut from writer-director Kelly Walker. Tackling the thorny subject of grief and surviving, My Fiona picks a delicate path through denial, bad object choices, staying put and moving on with great élan. Jane has to pick up the pieces when her business partner Fiona takes her own life. When she takes on caring responsibilities for Fiona's son Bailey to relieve the burden on Fiona's widow Gemma, it leads to drama and a lot of unresolved feelings coming to the surface. Oh, my.

If it loses a bit in the last 15 minutes, that only shows how well the preceding 85 has been presented. I had a giant "Oh, No!" moment about half-way through, which I will decline to reveal. But it's a big 'un. The leads, Jeanette Maus and Corbin Reid, are outstanding and the boy is super cute, displaying his own anguish and anger at the departure of his mother in an understandable way. I quite liked how Walker dropped in bits of dry humour throughout, without it coming off as glib.

I have also viewed several shorts, the outstanding find of which is Fawzia Mirza's I Know Her, a hilariously relatable 3 minutes of pillow talk which features another big reveal which I must keep scrum about. Awkward does not cover it. Mirza was the lead and writer in Signature Move three years ago at Flare, but I have not seen any of her previous directorial work.

Do catch Five Films for Freedom before it ends on the 29th. My favourite is the short doc, When Pride Came to Town, which pits a small-town Norwegian LGBT community against Christian conservatives who don't want Pride to come to town. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the filmmakers interviewed the committed Christian who admitted she once liked women and even looked like a boy (!) but then realised what she really needed was Jesus. Awks.

Friday, March 20, 2020


So, things have taken an odd turn, eh? Two weeks ago I was planning to attend Flare, visit Bristol next month, start a new job, etc. And now I find myself at home most of the time, quite busy but quite  bemused.

Never mind. The last few days have brought a host of social connections, from FaceTime chats about writing, to drag aerobics to an enjoyable cabaret session, the latter two courtesy of Facebook Live.

I intend to cover Flare entirely from online viewing as the festival has been, like so many other social events, cancelled. It won't be the same, of course, but the show must go on.

Keep safe, stay in if you can and keep doing art.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Poly Styrene Weekender

Coming up is the Poly Styrene Weekender, which seems to only be one day, 1 June, but it's packed full of activity.

Disappointingly, I cannot attend but am very excited to hear there are an exhibit, a biography and documentary in existence celebrating the human dynamo that was Poly Styrene. A punk legend, she wrote for and fronted X-ray Spex before going solo and then vanishing from the public eye for many years. I attempted to make contact with her when I arrived in the UK in 1995 but never did and she was taken far too soon, in 2011.

But let's celebrate her wonderful achievements in music. This is one of my favourite songs ever, an excoriating 3-minute examination of identity.

This is a very odd profile of her which appeared on the BBC in 1979, hinting at some existential melancholia.

And this is her last release. Enjoy.

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."