Category Archives: Film

Be Somebody Else, for a Change

Last night I met Matthew, a film production student at Sheffield Hallam University who is currently directing a short film, Given Identity. I offered myself as a Rockabilly extra, but it looks like Matthew might actually be writing in a small part for me, which is very cool. I’m quite excited about the film – something Matthew said made me think of City of Lost Children, I mentioned this and Matthew admitted that it was a big influence (Given Identity will have a vaguely similar 1940s sci-fi feel).

Something led me on to thinking why I want to act, or at least why I have recently got back into acting (from the ages of 11 to 18 I was in several plays, first as a member of Bernice Warrens’ Childrens’ Theatre, then with Youth Action Theatre where my contemporaries were Rufus Sewell and Martin Freeman). I remember when the idea first came to me: I went to see the Ecclesfield Priory Players in 2000 and it brought back memories of the fun of being involved in a production. It also made me long to try my hand at some more weighty roles: when I was younger I tended to get bit parts of the “second policeman of the left” variety; either that or I would be asked to play some authority figure (“Securicor”, president of the galaxy in “Dazzle Star”, the White King in “Alice”) only because I was much taller than everyone else. And all I ever did (from what I can remember) was learn the lines, go on stage and speak them: I don’t recall ever thinking about how I ought to say them, or indeed doing any sort of work on my “character”.

This led me first to thinking that I would like to see what would happen if I acted a part and did think about the character, and from there my thoughts stewed onwards. I started wondering what it meant to be an actor, and in particular what it meant to be a good actor. Although I could see various skills involved, often it seems that a good actor is just a person whose own personality and behaviour makes an audience naturally drawn towards them (for instance, About Schmidt aside, I think I’ve only ever seen Jack Nicholson play Jack Nicholson; not that I have a problem with that, he makes a very good Jack Nicholson). When Channel 4 broadcast its list of 100 Greatest Movie Stars I got even more worked up about this idea.

So, finally I got to try it when I acted in Marriage. And of course, it was everything: far more work that I was prepared for to make a really convincing character, but at the same time most of what you give out on stage is what you’re already born with. It’s made me wary but possibly even more excited about trying new stuff, aware of the many areas in which I need to improve (at the moment I think that voice training is a real priority), and wondering how much better I can inhabit another person’s being next time around.

So mainly I act to test myself, to see how far I can push myself and how well (by other peoples’ standards for the most part, because I am still not a confident enough judge of myself) I can take on a role and win over audiences. But of course there’s the other reason why I (or anyone) wants to act: sheer bloody egoism, “look at me”. I sometimes think that’s an element of any creative endeavour, it’s a desire to show the world how well you can do something, how beautiful and mind-affecting you can make it, but with acting it’s stripped down even further than with, say, painting or composing, because the canvas on which you’re showing is your own body and voice.

Stage Beauty

Last night’s rehearsal ended fairly early, and Gill had given me instructions not to arrive home while she was putting the kids to bed, so I wandered down to the Showroom to see whether there was anything interesting on.

Turned out there was nothing I’d been dying to see, but there was Stage Beauty which I’d heard both good and indifferent reviews of. I went in. Glad I did.

For the first half-hour or so I found it moderately enjoyable, though spoiled a bit by the driving Afro-Celt Sound System-esque music which came on at full force as Maria ran through the streets of 1660 London.

But as the film progressed there were moments of brilliance, with some great acting and some hilarious jokes (many of them very, very subtle. Others anything but). And Rupert Everett’s Charles II emerging rosy-cheeked from his bedroom after a blowjob from Nell Gwyn was absolutely perfefct. The Hollywood-style happy ending detracted slightly, but overall it was a really good film (no doubt made better by the large glass of wine I drank while waiting for it to start), 4/5.

Fahrenheit 9/11

I took myself off to see Fahrenheit 9/11 tonight – and remembered that it was Bowling for Columbine which first taught me that the cinema is a good place to watch documentaries, and that two-hour documentaries can be fun. Thanks to that film I’ve been to see, and enjoyed, The Fog of War, The Agronomist, Standing in the Shadows of Motown and others. This one wasn’t as good as Michael Moore’s last, I thought, but it did get me angry in all the right bits.

On the way home, I heard and then saw a wonderful thing. A parade of bashed-up little cars, all with hazard lights blinking and horns blaring, driving along in convoy, Asian men, from anywhere between Iraq and Pakistan, leaning out of the windows shouting. In the middle was a stretch limo. The little cars nipped out onto the wrong side of the road to pass it and jockey for position. The last car in the line had its sunroof open, a man was leaning out with a megaphone, blowing a horn into it and occasionally shouting in Arabic.

Then I heard jeering behind me, a miserable English voice. “Fuck off. Shut the fuck up”. I turned around to see a pair of surly young men griping. “Get a sense of humour” I told them. I half expected to be hit, but instead one said to me “I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to him”. Why the fuck couldn’t they just enjoy the spectacle for what it was? I depair of humanity. Gill was watching some reality TV, Wife Swap, the other day. I could see the entertainment value, but told her I was already misanthropic enough without needing that kind of shit to fuel my prejudices.

As we crossed the ring-road together, the two bitched and jeered. “Anyway, we beat you! Yeah, we beat you, fucking pakis”. “Fucking bastards, think they can come over here and do that. If I went to Belgium…”

HUH? What the fuck? What has Belgium got to do with anything?

“If I was in Belgium, nobody’d have a fucking clue what I was saying.” Erm, I think I missed the exact meaning of that thought (if I can justifiably call it that). My brain struggled to find a one-liner, but couldn’t manage much more than a chirpy “visit Antwerp”. I don’t think they even heard me, they were so out of it and wrapped up in self-righteous anger. “If you were in Belgium you’d get done after your first joint” replied his mate.

I walked on. “Watch out mate” one of them shouted as a car approached me. “It’s alright, it’s green”, his only slightly more perceptive friend pointed out. I put on a spurt, and escaped into misanthropic thoughts of my own.

Recent Films

Since returning from Belgium, I’ve been immersing myself in film again. Got a rather dodgy video of Fellini’s Satyricon from the local library; been fascinated in all things Satyricon-related since reading about it in Against Nature (and I finally managed to get hold of a translation of Petronius’s original – thank you Keith). Watched it on the small screen, I think it deserved bigger, when I watch stuff on TV my attention gets distracted, it doesn’t feel as compelling. As a result, I felt that I missed a lot of what was going on in the film, most of it went over the top of my head. But I loved the beautiful-ugly sets and grotesque characters. I think I need to hire it out again and watch it bigger. But one thing I did really notice was the music and soundscapes. At one point some electro-accoustic noises jumped out at me and I thought “that can’t be anyone but Ilhan Mimaroglu”. Checking the credits, I was right. Also some music by Tod Dockstadter in there: I didn’t realise he was working in the 60s, thought he was a lot younger than that.

Then yesterday I hoofed it over to the Showroom to see Uzak: I’d wanted to see this film since I read a synopsis when it played at Cannes, and when Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian Review said “It is one of the best movies of the year, perhaps of many years – the work of a brilliant film-maker” then I knew I had to go. Well, perhaps not my favourite film of many years, but very good nonetheless, and extremely touching. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film with such long dragged-out painful scenes of nothing happening (except perhaps for Eraserhead). Yet despite this, the scenes are never too long, never dragged out to unbearability. The Turkish title of the film translates as “distance”, and everywhere in the film there is distance, particularly between the main characters but also between… everything else in the movie. It was wonderful.

Then even more perfect… in the evening we finally got around to watching the DVD of Requiem for a Dream. A perfect pop-video of post-Koyaanisqatsi narrative, this was gripping and moving every minute of the way. Wow. Didn’t exactly go to bed happy though.

Next week: Jules et Jim.

The Agronomist

I just went to see The Agronomist – an absolutely brilliant documentary. It’s strange how much the title of a film, or the short description given in a brochure, can put you off seeing it. I would never have imagined myself going to a film called “The Agronomist”, and often recently I find myself reading a short description of a film and thinking, now I have the story synopsis, there’s no point in seeing the full version. How wrong. God is always in the details.

Anyway, The Agronomist. It’s a documentary about Jean Dominique. Although he trained as an Agronomist, the title is slightly misleading: his life’s work was as a journalist and broadcaster, the owner of Radio Haiti.

At first the film seemed amateurish: rough-cut, hand-held footage. Incongruous sound-effects: every time Jean Dominique mentions a gun or a bell, the Foley man adds the relevant sound effect, something which sits very oddly in an interview context and would no doubt have Radio 4 listeners reaching for the green biro. But as the film progresses, all of these idiosyncracies make sense. The soundtrack, complete with Kreyol beats from Wyclef Jean and Jerry Duplessis, matches Dominique’s incredibly animated delivery. At one point, where Dominique is broadcasting a spoken description of a voodoo festival, the effect is pure jazz (the English subtitles are moving, the French/Kreyòl original is hypnotising). Dominique demonstrates the semi-linguistic sounds that are vital to Kreyol, the tchaas and tkkks, and demonstrates that, rather than a visual or a tactile person, he is clearly guided by his nose, which takes huge rushes of air as he talks about the smell of events.

The story is spellbinding, the man inspirational. And when, on April 3rd 2000, he is assassinated, I was incredulous. A man this alive couldn’t possibly die, it’s not imaginable he is not sharing this world with us now. But the still head poking out of his coffin, and the gourd full of his ashes which emptied slowly into the river, seemed to confirm this. But then, to confound the evidence of my senses and confirm what I knew all along, his wife put Radio Haiti back on air on 3rd May 2000, and in her first broadcast to the people of Haiti she tells them that Jean Dominique is not dead, he has been protected by Haitian magic and he has been seen walking in the hills, filling up his pipe in the unmistakable way that only he did. A shiver of voodoo runs down my spine, a touch of magical realism makes the story more magical and more real. And instead of leaving empty, I leave full.

There’s an excellent piece on the film, and interview with the director, here. Also, you have to check out the trailer and see/hear for yourself the amazing Jean Dominique. And lots of good reviews here.

Katherine Mansfield, American Splendour and Hats

I finally got around to reading some Katherine Mansfield, after reading glowing praise from M John Harrison and others, and spotting Harvey Pekar reading one of her books in a scene from American Splendour. I picked up a pleasingly 1950s-looking hardback “Collected Stories” from the book stall on the South Bank, under Waterloo Bridge.

Last night I was reading Je Ne Parle Pas Francais, my mind particularly sharp, and almost every phrase within the story dripped with significance. She starts it off by saying:

I don’t believe in the human soul. I never have. I believe that people are like portmanteaux�packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle.

I was cheering with the appropriateness of this simile, until a few paragraphs further down she puts herself down, calling this a:

rather far-fetched and not frightfully original digression

But the bit which really had me sitting back digging into my own mind for resonances was this:

I’ve no patience with people who can’t let go of things, who will follow after and cry out. When a thing’s gone, it’s gone. It’s over and done with. Let it go then ! Ignore it, and comfort yourself, if you do want comforting, with the thought that you never do recover the same thing that you lose. It’s always a new thing. The moment it leaves you it’s changed. Why, that’s even true of a hat you chase after; and I don’t mean superficially �I mean profoundly speaking . . . I have made it a rule of my life never to regret and never to look back. Regret is an appalling waste of energy, and no one who intends to be a writer can afford to indulge in it. You can’t get it into shape; you can’t build on it; it’s only good for wallowing in. Looking back, of course, is equally fatal to Art. It’s keeping yourself poor. Art can’t and won’t stand poverty.

Suddenly I was cast back to the days when I had a hat. I was seventeen, studying for my A-levels at Richmond-upon-Thames college. I’m sure that to most people who saw me at the time, I was defined by that hat. I’d picked it up at Kensington Market, during one of my many trips to that magical bazaar, a floppy wide-brimmed felt thing with a light-blue cotton scarf tied around and dripping over the brim, pulling it down on one side. I wore it everywhere. I felt strangely connected to it as my main distinguishing feature.

Then I went to Southampton, for a meet-up with fellow players of the Saturnalia play-by-mail game. I cruised the drinking establishments of Southampton’s red-light-districts with the Southampton Uni students who ran the game, got very drunk, crashed the night in Mo’s flat listening to eternal B52s, left early the next day to catch a train to Woodcraft Folk camp in the Forest of Dean.

I soon realised I’d left my hat behind, in the room of a particularly obnoxious student who had been limbering up for his finals. We corresponded, the hat was still there. He finally brought it along to the next meet-up. Unfortunately, by then the finals had passed, as had post-exam drinking binges, and in a night of excess he had returned to his room to find only one receptacle suitable for holding vomit: my hat. He’d tried washing it, but it had lost its shape, it was not the hat it had been before. I tried wearing it, but it didn’t feel right. Of course, this was largely down to the negative effect of puke on the shaped-felt, and I did lament my hat and wish that I had it back in its previous form, but I think that sick-receptacle or not, that couple of months spent separated from my headgear had changed both me and the hat in ways more subtle that those immediately obvious. Even if it had looked the same as when I’d left it, I don’t think I’d have gone back long-term to wearing the hat. Time had divorced me from my hat.

Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Yojimbo

Finally made it to the Kurosawa yesterday – Gill allowed me the evening off (funny, I always think of my “free time” as being my London trips, and Gill gets as many evenings as she wants in return, but it made a really nice change going out in Sheffield by myself. We must get a babysitter so we can do it together next time – although Gill can’t stand Kurosawa, so it’ll have to be something more mainstream).

Stayed on for both of the night’s showings – firstly Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s adaptation of MacBeth. I’m not too familiar with the original, though have a vague idea of the story, so knew pretty much where it was going. My leg’s got a bit twitchy towards the end – I wasn’t 100% engrossed – but it was an awesome film nontheless. It’s a shame that it was so crackly – about 90% of the film seems to consist of long, meaningful silences, but during these I could hardly hear myself think for the fizzes and pops coming from the screen. Most impressive part was the samurai clobber – I was in the British museum the other day checking this stuff out (could have stayed there for hours, had not my mobile phone rung & I been ejected unceremoniously from the galleries), the lacquered (sp?) armour and other items are incredible – like space-age 70s ornaments, but made centuries before. The various clan symbols – Washizu’s centipede and Miki’s rabbit, the little designs repeated on their fabrics, the flags strapped to retainers backs, flapping away in the perpetual wind to create a haunting susurrus, I want flags strapped to my back! Throughout the film, the sounds (and lack of them) were one of the strongest parts – although there were so many strongest parts (the darkness of Mount Fuji’s volcanic ash, the fog and the wind, the trees’ branches tangling across your view… the realisation of MacBeth as a Noh play, and the incredible stylized performances of Toshirô Mifune (as Taketori Washizu – the MacBeth character) and Isuzu Yamada (as Asaji, his Lady MacBeth) are incredible. Check out Michael Coy’s review at IMDB for a much better description than I could give.

The second film was Yojimbo, which as more of a Western-style action movie (you can easily see the temptation for Leone et al in remaking Kurosawa’s films in the West – there is something in the remoteness of the rural villages, the banditry and lawlessness, the ronin figure, which ties up beautifully… but the samurais had better costumes) was easier to sit through for 2 hours without getting twitchy. I had seen half of the film before (yeah, it was a Sunday afternoon… I fell asleep, I’m sorry – nothing to do with the quality of the film) but wanted to see the rest, and wanted to see it on a bigger screen (which reminds me… somthing I’ve thought about lots lately, and was debating with Gill’s mum and sister – where do you sit in the cinema? I never used to think anything of it until I started going with Gill, and she never took her glasses so we always ended up near the front. Now I find it hard to sit anywhere else – it’s so great having the action fill your entire view. June and Cath argue that you have to sit near the back, otherwise you can’t see everything on the screen, but I don’t think that’s the point – did the director even intend you to see everything on the screen? The action is usually central, or at least in one place, and by sitting close-up you can truly immerse yourself in it. Sit and the back and you may as well be watching on TV). Enough of that… where was I, oh yeah, the film… well, what can I say except for a bunch of wasted superlatives. The ultimate ronin movie (which is interesting, in light of what we are doing with Bradonpace). Mifune is awesome again as the samurai, surely teaching Clint everything he knew (right down to the chewed matchstick). There’s even a thug character in Ushi-Tore’s gang who looks just like Richard Kiel as Jaws :-). Some of my favourite scenes are the shots lingering on the samurai’s expression, totally confident, chuckling inside at the chaos he is wreaking and the fun he is having. But… every detail of the film is enchanting. Wonderful.

Digital Watches Beeping on the Hour

Sitting in the cinema, listening to all the usual post-film warnings about turning off mobile phones etc., reminded me of something – didn’t there used to be a time, around about the late 70s, when digital watches had just arrived in a big way and you witness the passing of an hour anywhere without a synchopated chorus of beep-beeps (interspersed with more restrained beeps). I seem to remember that being a big problem in cinemas at the time.

I was reminded of it because the other day I was in a meeting with Adam when his watch (I think it was his) beeped on the hour. It’s years since I’ve heard that sound. Of course, there was never any point for anyone having a watch that beeped hourly (unless they had some kinda very intensive regime of medicines or something), especially what with time being a relative concept and all, but still… why was it so popular at the time, and why is it now so passé? I guess we just did it because we could, and before too long the novelty wore off. Will mobile ringtones go the same way? And Naff screensavers etc?