Monday, 31 October 2011


SENNA (Asif Kapadia; UK; 2010)

I am gloriously chuffed that this film has attained the positive critical and audience-based response it has, considering it wears its grainy, shaky archival-footage completely on its sleeve. I find it fascinating that the film has been attracting the “you don’t have to like motor racing to find this film compelling” plaudits, as it helps to provide some perspective on my own thorough enjoyment of this film. Y’see, I do like motor racing, (or at least I used to – year by year I find F1 in particular to be increasingly bland), and prior to this documentary have always found the subject of Ayrton Senna’s ability and personality to be somewhat fascinating, a driver who seemed to be traversing a higher realm than any of his colleagues both on and off the racing track. So, even if this film ended up being just a simple primer on his life and death, I would have perhaps gleaned some level of appreciation of this film. But what the director has done, and what the acclaim attests to, is to not merely rest on the laurels of presenting a synopsis of an extraordinary life but to sculpt and shape a riveting story from the pre-existing recorded fragments of his life.

The key to this film is the creation of a great story through intricate and masterly editing. A wonderful narrative arc is carved purely from archival footage and the voices of interviewees, starting with the brash and rapid ascendancy of a young star happy to be successful in a sport he loves, moving to his first hurdle via an incrementally bitter rivalry, peppered with the rewards of success and a growing sense of self-assurance, and steadily moving into quiet frustration with the changes in the sport (moving more to a kind of technology that largely eschews driver talent in favour of formidably unbeatable machinery), and then pensively and melancholically into furrowed foreshadowings of his own demise. This is where Kapadia utterly excels in creating a masterful film, purely from editing – as the film progresses, and Senna suffers both the frustrations of changing technologies and the concerns regarding safety on the track, we see more and more often a pensive Senna, a man trying to rub tension and worry out of his eyes, staring into the distance, lost inside his own thoughts.

And it’s here, in these moments as well, that another key to the film’s success lies. The director often selects footage of Senna in a reflective mode, the camera closing in on his face, honing in on him and lingering upon his face, capturing us in Senna’s world of quiet emotions. With precise and well-timed guidance from the voices of interviewees, we are compelled to read Senna’s thoughts and feelings. The accumulative use of carefully selected footage creates something akin to an actor’s performance from Senna’s gestures, smiles, facial expressions, body language. Hungarian film theorist Bela Balazs referred to the power of the close-up in cinema, with the ‘silent soliloquy’ of the face providing an unspoken revelation of a character’s inner state of mind. Senna exemplifies the richness evoked from deep concentration on the physiognomy of a person’s face. There is no close-up that I have recently seen that bests the silent appraisal of Senna’s face as he sits in the cockpit of his car, waiting to start what would be his final race. For a mere ten seconds we see a face that appears to register a swathe of silent emotions – sadness at the loss of a fellow driver the day before, frustration with the recent performance of his car, a melancholic half-smile showing a desperate attempt to latch on to some kind of social normalcy, and an intense pensiveness that seems to exude the impression that Senna was aware of some impending, pre-ordained tragedy.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Rain and Pain (and an interview with Dorsky)

As thick smoke-grey rainclouds descend over the city, I realise I've been watching these clouds for ten, maybe twenty minutes. Looking out the window sitting at my desk, the book in my hand thoroughly ignored as I watch these clouds drift and descend. And for some reason I feel like I'm watching a film. My own version of James Benning's Ten Skies, perhaps. Rain comes after many minutes, hard and fast, and soon the mightiest of thunderclaps makes me jolt slightly. I'm in a kind of visual-meditative reverie, and I wonder how much cinema has contributed to the desire/ ability/ werewithal to simply watch and listen for a long period of time.


I was recently in the mood to watch Tsai Ming-Liang all over again, and queued up The River. Had to stop after a while, as the protagonist's mysterious neck-pain made me focus too much on my own recently-operated shoulder. It wasn't that it reminded me of my pain - it just made me aware of myself rather than being taken out of myself. Cinema does not have to be taken as a palliative, and I'm not condoning pure escapism, but sometimes the viewing experience is uncomfortably jarred if I'm reminded of my own physical self. I can recall trying to watch horror films with brutally nasty hangovers, and it is simply the worst kind of spectatorial experience on the planet. For hangovers, you need comedy - sometimes stupid lowest-common-denominator comedy is the best for a mind-dsearing hangover. Somehow laughter eases the pain - horror, especially icky body-horror, is just a reminder that your body feels like it's going through some kind of meat-grinder. And being hungover can be massively depressing, so horror ain't the best of medicines. I remember watching Night of the Living Dead by myself, totally hungover, when I was much younger and incredibly stupid. A bleak bleak experience, I can tell you.


I'm still waiting for the pleasure of seeing a film by Nathaniel Dorsky, but in the interim I've found this great interview with the filmmaker. There's three segments, here's your starter for ten.

ENTREVISTA CON NATHANIEL DORSKY (I) from Revista Lumière on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

If Fassbinder were still alive....

Rainer Werner Fassbinder created 41 full-length films, for both cinema and TV, in a short period of 13 years, from 1969 until his death aged 37 in 1982. According to my quick calculations, he pumped out films at a rate of 3.15 per year – thus, if he had lived, and kept up that phenomenal work rate, he would have directed a further total of 91 films. Of course, if it’s true that he took large quantities of drugs and booze in order to maintain his hectic work schedule, then it’s unfeasible to truly imagine the possibility of a further 91 films over 29 years - the only reason fellow drug-and-booze fiend Keith Richards is still rocking on is because The Rolling Stones only release an album every eight years these days, and they're so crap he can't have worked that hard on them in the first place.

Still, it’s fun to play the ‘what-if?’ game. 91 possible films added to his actual 41 makes a forbidding total of 132. Surely with that huge total he'd dominant 'canonical' meta-lists like the "They Shoot Pictures Don't They?" Top 1000 Films Of All-Time. He already has 6 films on that list, so we work a bit of rough-and-ready quickfire calculating, and hey presto he'd have another 14 films on that list. Take that, John Ford.

If he made a 15-hour masterwork out of Doblin’s 400-page Berlin Alexanderplatz, then what would he have done next? Tackled Robert Musil’s 1000-page A Man Without Qualities, and created a 40-hour marathon? Or turned Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past into one of the largest TV epics of all-time? Would he have followed in Wim Wenders footsteps and popped over to the U.S., to try his hand at Hollywood film? Would he have beaten Todd Haynes to creating a neo-Sirkian melodrama set in the 1950’s? Would he elicit tortured performances from actresses such as Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, thus making Lars von Trier’s career entirely redundant? Would he infiltrate the world of modern US televisual entertainment, and create a Teutonic-version of Mad Men? Would he remake some of his German films in the US? Remake Fox and his Friends and stick Tom Cruise in the lead role, for the sake of perversity? Or maybe he'd also get into the 3D doco thing, like his New German Cinema pals Wenders and Herzog - but what would he make? Pina seemed suitably Wender-esque, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams has 'Herzog' written all over it, so what kind of doco subject is suitably Fassbinderian? A biopic on Tiger Woods? In 3D? Hmmm.

Saturday, 15 October 2011


GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy; USA; 1933)
[after spending an eternity writing yesterdays post one-handed, todays post will be a little brief and choppy}
A month or so after viewing this film, I’m trying to drum up my best recollection of what I saw. And, as with nearly all Berkeley-choreographed films I’ve seen, all I can remember are near-hallucinatory fragments. Forget the socio-economical alignment with the Great Depression. All that ever seems to linger are the kaleidoscopic set-pieces. Legs. Women as coins. Not just coins, but sexy coins. Compartmented silhouettes of women undressing, like some proto Robert Wilson theatre spectacle. More legs. Dick Powell’s grating and trebly singing. Men desperate to unrobe tincan-camisoled women, resorting to prying them apart with a can-opener. More legs. Rows and rows and rows of legs on Dr Seuss-styled never-ending twisty-twirly staircases. Women as spinning dollops of cream. Giant coins erupting from women’s hands and groins. I swear, I watched this before tripping off my nut with pain medication, not during.

Friday, 14 October 2011


AN IMAGE (Harun Farocki; Germany; 1983)

“This film, An Image, is part of a series I've been working on since 1979. The television station that commissioned it assumes in these cases that I'm making a film that is critical of its subject matter, and the owner or manager of the thing that's being filmed assumes that my film is an advertisement for them. I try to do neither. Nor do I want to do something in between, but beyond both.” (Harun Farocki, Zelluloid, no. 27, Fall 1988)

The ‘thing’ being filmed is a photo shoot for Playboy magazine, and this 25-minute film reveals the boredom, labour, tedium, and painstaking obsessive detail that goes into this supposedly glamorous and erotic scenario. The first few scenes literally build the framework, showing the construction, painting, and design of the set. It’s only five minutes that we see the model for this first time, and it takes another 3 minutes of film-time after that before the first photo is taken. This photo is then thoroughly dissected by the chief photographer and other senior staff, before we return to the set, spending minutes on the director trying to get the model to lie in the perfect position. He obsesses about her hand – through his lens, it looks ‘spastic’. The staff talk about having to retouch the photos to get the best effect. Everyone leaves the set, and the final few shots show the set being taken apart.

Farocki’s quote refers to not wanting to find the ‘in-between’ of critiquing the subject and promoting the subject, but instead to go ‘beyond both.’ Thus, he wants to transcend both criticism and advocacy. Does he manage to do this? Maybe he does, if we consider his film from this perspective; everything we see is just work. The film is no longer a dissection of a Playboy shoot, or a paean to this vocation, but a briefly detailed examination of the work that takes place in this world. We see the work of being a set designer, a make-up artist, a photographer, a model. There’s no glamour, but there’s also no condemnation. It’s just work – plain, tedious repetitive work.

But. Let’s go back to the original idea of not wanting to critique nor advocate. Although he wishes to do neither, in terms of how the film can be interpreted/ approached/ absorbed, isn’t it more likely that the film is going be viewed as a critique, and far less likely that it will be seen as an ‘advertisement’?

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Have just had shoulder surgery about a day ago. Am currently operating with just one arm, but should be up to speed with two arms soon. Here’s a bunch of films I won’t be watching these next couple of weeks, not because I don’t like them (in fact, I love the first film on the list), but because these films include one-armed characters, and I can’t be bothered with that kind of cinematic reinforcement.

1.      Bad Day at Black Rock
2.      The Fugitive
3.      127 Hours
4.      Max
5.      Richard III
6.      Little Big Man
7.      True Grit

Monday, 3 October 2011


DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (David Lean; USA; 1965)

I’m left cold. No matter how I try to frame it, I’m just left utterly utterly cold.
It’s not that I’m averse to epic films. It’s not that I bemoan deviations and abridgements to the original novel, which I read so long ago that I can’t even remember it anyway. It’s not that I’m constantly finding flaws in the acting – true, I’ve seen Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, and Tom Courtenay pull out better performances, and Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin were just a little too stiff and wooden for my liking, but by and large it’s not the performances that seem to cast an icy chill across my viewing pleasure. It’s not the length – 197 minutes is a breeze, I’ve knocked off much longer films in my time, and have often been riveted for nearly minute. It’s not even that I totally screwed up my viewing experience by watching the film out of sequence – split over two discs, I ridiculously sat through the entire second disc before thinking, “hey, this is odd, where was the opening credit sequence, and why the hell is it ending after only 90 minutesssss hang on, craaaappppppp…….” Yes, I’m sure this hilarious cock-up forever skewed my enjoyment of this film, but, heck, I did the same thing years ago (thus displaying a larger amount of stupidity than I’d like to admit) when I watched Bela Tarr’s 7-hour magnum opus, Satantango – it took me about 40 minutes to realise that I was watching Disc 3, not Disc 2 – but this didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the film at all, it merely turned a 7-hour film into an 8-hour film.
It’s just one of those anomalies that seems to occur in the realm of film-viewing. Grand and detail-rich scenes do not matter, and a decade-spanning story-arc does not matter either. Ultiamtely, it seems to be a film trying to be so many different things that it falls between the cracks of it’s own genres. It seems to be presented as a romantic epic, a war epic, action-packed, gripping – posters referred to it as ‘turbulent’ and ‘fiery’.  But it is none of these. It’s defiantly sluggish. It’s interminably lacklustre. It’s like an ant mired in molasses, determined to keep moving forward, but unable to get anywhere.

...and back again (sigh)....

On 8 September, 2011, I wrote "I'm Back." Then, I subsequently went away again, having to deal with urgent family matters back home in New Zealand. So, I'm back again. Despite best wishes, the blog this year has had more stops and starts than Lindsay Lohan's acting career.

So, whatever I said in the last post, yes, it still stands. (And the surgery has been postponed til next week, so I have about ten more days of the use of two arms before my brief career as a one-armed bandit).