Archive for May, 2013

For me 2013 has become ‘the year of the film festival.’ In February I attended my first big international film festival, the Berlinale, as part of the Berlinale Talent Campus. Bitten by the festival bug I immediately arranged to cover the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which was happening upon my return. Then I heard that Nisi Masa were running a workshop in Cannes, which required a team of young writers to produce a magazine (Nisimazine) on young filmmakers with new features and shorts showing at the festival. I applied and was selected, and so we began planning under the guidance of the very organised (and busy) Fernando Vasquez.

The team was comprised of critics from around Europe, which was then split into two teams; one to cover the first week of Cannes, the other to cover the second. I was part of the second group, working alongside great young critics from France (Melanie and Elisabeth), Germany (Patrick and Sophie), the Netherlands (Kris) and the UK (Piers). Also writing were Fernando himself and Luisa from Columbia.

I woke up at the reasonable hour of 2.30am (BST) on Monday the 20th of May, after a robust four hours sleep and made my way to Gatwick airport where I bumped into Taylan, a friend from film school. We arrived in Nice just after 9am (CET) and promptly met with Kris. Tired, but enthusiastic, we made our way to Cannes via a train that we caught by a matter of seconds. After meeting with Fernando outside Cannes station we went to collect our festival badges (and were introduced to the festival badge caste system), before heading to the apartment to meet with the team as they arrived and discuss our plans for the week ahead.

Our Heroes Died Tonight (Dir. David Perrault, France)

Our Heroes Died Tonight (Dir. David Perrault, France)

That night I caught my first film of the festival, it was British film The Last Days on Mars, which was showing in the Director’s Fortnight (the Director’s Fortnight is one of three ‘festivals’ that exists within the Cannes Film Festival. The other two are the Critics Week and the Official Selection.) It is a low budget sci-fi feature that managed to make its way to Cannes on the strength of an impressive opening scene and a strong ending, topped off with a number of good performances and some great design. However, I could not help the feeling that I was watching a b-movie and, given that this was one of the few British films appearing this year in Cannes, I felt a sense of bewilderment as to why my native film industry was not more daring when represented somewhere so prestigious.

On Tuesday (21st) I went to see my second film of the festival, the French wrestling drama Our Heroes Died Tonight (Critics Week.) It is a tremendously bold piece of work, which probably shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Combining stylistic traits of the Nouvelle Vague and Béla Tarr, a historical backdrop of the Algerian war and 60’s French wrestling, director David Perrault has successfully made a memorable and entertaining work that will surely develop a significant cult status.

Following Our Heroes… I went to the short film corner to see The Opportunist (Critics Week) by American director David Lassiter. Since I was interviewing David later, it was important to find plenty to discuss in the film and I was very fortunate to discover an accomplished short full of nuance and ideas. In the film a young man blags his way into a party and then proceeds to take advantage of the hedonistic pursuits available to him. It is a deeply unsettling short film, but it never steps into extremes, allowing the tension to bubble beneath the surface.

My Sweet Pepperland (Dir. Hiner Saleem, Iraq/France/Germany)

My Sweet Pepperland (Dir. Hiner Saleem, Iraq/France/Germany)

On Wednesday morning (22nd) I caught Até ver a luz (Director’s Fortnight), which was screening in the critics week. I was there to review the film for Nisimazine and was impressed by the naturalism achieved by director Basil da Cunha. The loose script however, which was slackened considerably by heavy improvisation, was a problem as the narrative failed to grip me. Clashing with the screening of Até ver a luz was Only God Forgives, which my colleagues enthusiastically went to see (before enthusiastically berating the film.) Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for me, I failed to catch the film a further two times; this became a running joke. However, that evening I did experience one of the festival’s pleasant surprises: My Sweet Pepperland (Official Selection) by Iraqi-Kurdish director Hiner Saleem. Like a Leone western, set in Iraq following the demise of Saddam Hussein, My Sweet Pepperland is a bold and stylish satire that will make viewers grimace and guffaw equally.

When Thursday (23th) arrived I way particularly excited, as Jodorowsky’s Dune (Director’s Fortnight) was on the cards for 22:00 that night. Prior to that I had plenty of writing to grapple with and a bunch of short films to watch and review. I lined up shorts from China (Butter Lamp), Israel (Babaga) and Argentina (All The Things) respectively. They were something of a challenge to review, given their varied cultural backgrounds, but this made for a particularly fruitful day. I broke up my intensive writing session with a trip to the Turkish pavilion with my colleagues, where we drank Turkish beer, took amusing group photos and chatted with a man who reassured us that Ryan Gosling is a nice guy.

The Dance of Reality (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chile)

The Dance of Reality (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chile)

When Jodorowsky’s Dune finally arrived my expectations were high. I had been waiting for this film for two years. The film more than delivered, brilliantly exceeding my expectations. Director Frank Pavich has created a film that is a testament to Jodorowsky’s vast imagination and ambition in trying to film Frank Herber’s epic sci-fi. He also captured Jodorowsky’s unique humour, combined with his frantic passion unlike any previous documentation (including The Jodorowsky Constellation and Jonathan Ross Presents for One Week Only: Alejandro Jodorowsky.) After a brief exchange of Jodo-enthusiasm with Pavich, I left the theatre completely ecstatic; yet this was only half of the Jodorowsky/Cannes experience.

On Friday (24th) I did something strange for a film festival: I did not see any films. That isn’t to say I didn’t try. I attempted to gain entry to the Only God Forgives market screening. Alas, the badge caste system was not in my favour and it was fruitless. Nevertheless, it was a good day, because I had a meeting with Lee Marshall (Screen International, Sight & Sound), in which he advised me on the writing I had done over the past few days. Lee’s experience writing for important trade magazines and critical outlets was invaluable and I greatly appreciated his enthusiasm for the unusual titles that I was covering. Later in the day we also met with Dana Linssen, who put me on to the Nisimazine in the first place. Dana is a real idealist among film critics and a great inspiration for young writers, who face the challenging and sometimes cynical world that is film journalism. It is critics like her who continue to make film criticism a truly worthwhile endeavour.

Saturday (25th) was my last day of film watching, and it was the best one. Kris, Melanie and I queued early for Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur (Official Selection). When I realised that the film would take place within one confined theatre space I was filled with despair. Yet, Polanski managed to win me over, with a film reminiscent of his classic The Tenant. However, it was Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality (Director’s Fortnight) that completed my week. Returning to the Director’s Fortnight with Patrick, I saw a film that was everything I expected from a Jodorowsky film and more. The film is an emotional, surrealist, occasionally hilarious critique of the way that ideology contorts the human soul. It features an absolutely extraordinary, operatic performance from Brontis Jodorowksy as Alejandro’s Stalinist father. The film moved me unexpectedly, perfectly concluding an exciting, intensive week of hard work, great people and vibrant cinema.

Of course there were films that I really should have seen, but didn’t. Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour, Camera d’Or winner Ilo Ilo and Mark Cousins’ A Story of Children and Film too. But I will see them when the time comes. Regardless, my first experience in Cannes was truly a great one. I hope to return to the festival in years to come to encounter wonderful, familiar faces and more inspiring cinema. It may be a lot to ask, but I sense that Cannes can deliver.

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[vimeo 65934475]

The film contains strong imagery from the start, viewer discretion advised.

We are proud to announce the release of our first short documentary, Modern Panic: Dreams and Freedom, directed by Reflections Editor Tom Cottey. We teamed up with our friends at Guerrilla Zoo (lead by curator James Elphick) to produce the film, which explores the themes and ideas behind their acclaimed and controversial Modern Panic exhibitions.

The film includes interviews with artists including Carrie Reichardt, Alexandra Unger, Iain Macarthur, Andrew Hladky and counterculture figures Daevid Allen and Rikki Stein (who discuss the legendary Dreamachine.) The film also features performances by Lydia Darling, Nicola Canavan & Jon John, Alexandra Under, Mad Alan and Kimatica Studio.

Shot at their last Modern Panic exhibition the film is a sequel of sorts to the original Modern Panic film produced in 2011. Guerrilla Zoo’s series of exhibitions are inspired by the work of the original Panic Movement (Mouvement Panique), which was comprised of filmmakers and artists Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor, who created provocative and shocking live arts events in France in the 1960’s with an aim to liberate their audience.

The release of this film coincides with Guerrilla Zoo’s call for submissions for the next Modern Panic exhibition in London. If you are an an artist and are interested in submitting work for the next exhibition please follow this link: www.guerrillazoo.com/artist-submissions

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Reimagining the story of a Hollywood icon like James Dean is not a task exempt from pressure and expectation. With A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree 1951, LA based director Matthew Mishory has crafted an bold black and white episodic film that captures the star at perhaps the most interesting point: his transition into an acting genius. Here Matthew talks to us about James Dean, the filmmaking process and the state of cinema itself.

A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree 1951 is a really interesting take on the biographical film, how did you approaching making the film?

We were very aware making the film that there had already been several very conventional biopics made that dealt mostly with the very short and I thought not very interesting time in which he was actually famous. So our approach was to do something very, very different, to make a film that was episodic in structure, it was almost like a filmed essay that really asked the question ‘what were the antecedents of the really remarkable life and career that come a little bit later?’ And to me that’s really the most interesting question in any life…

What does the location of the Joshua Tree desert say to you about Dean?

To me the Mojave desert is where people in California come to be inspired, to create for a very long time. Its hard to describe to somebody who hasn’t been there. He did actually go to the desert. It happened a few years later when he was sort of plucked off the stage by Elia Kazan and brought to California to do East of Eden. You know, Dean had spent an entire winter in New York and the studio sent him and his roommate out to the desert to tan; that’s a fantastic metaphor for everything that comprises a Hollywood career. That this very, very profound and serious person was sent to a profound and serious place for the completely trivial purpose of getting a tan.

The scene in the desert was quite pertinent when the character Violet tells Dean that he will never get his mother back…

We all become artists out of the need for some lack, I think that’s been proven many times in history and obviously intrinsic in the desire to be an actor is the desire to be loved by a greater audience and usually to atone for some lack of love in every day life. I think that was a part of Dean’s story as well.

He certainly had a father who, well he might have loved him, but certainly didn’t know how to show it and we do deal with that in one episode in the film and I think it haunts the rest of the film. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that perhaps the most extraordinary Dean performance is in a father, son story, in East of Eden. And that was actually the film that really drew me to him as an actor in the first place.

At what point did you decide to make a film about his homosexuality, or his bisexuality? That’s an angle on the story that people might be surprised by:

Yeah, I suppose I’m always surprised that people are surprised. Maybe I should be playing up the shocking or controversial nature of the film to sell some theatre tickets and discs, but to me what has basically been common knowledge for decades is completely uncontroversial. I think his friend Elizabeth Taylor really said it on national television one night and nobody really bats an eye.

We certainly weren’t starting out to make any great statement about sexuality or Dean’s sexuality. We just made the film as the characters were. I think one thing I do like about the film is that there is no handwringing or angst or well, there’s just no angst about sexuality in the film. I think that’s reflective of the time in a way in that people were often, especially in Hollywood much more sexually libertine in the late 40’s and 50’s than they are today, but that entire world just happened behind closed doors and you didn’t have paparazzi cameras and cell phone cameras thrust in everybody’s face all the time.

How did you decide to include the literary references? Because perhaps people don’t use literary references as a part of how they see themselves as much these days:

Well, I do, but maybe it makes me antiquated. I hope people would go and look them up and discover that the most interesting and rebellious and violent rock star who ever lived was Arthur Rimbaud and certainly he’s very interesting to read about and I hope that people might use that as an entry point to those references, but for me it’s a fabric of the story and it was a different time, people did commit entire poems to memory, you know they read incessantly.

You know a great contradiction in Dean was that he could barely read. He was most likely intensely dyslexic. He had a very hard time reading and an immensely hard time memorising scripts. He had people read to him. He took quite a few pictures with his nose in a book, which I think is actually a reflection of how difficult it was for him to actually read. But he had people read to him and he was a great sort of intellectual sponge who absorbed from all sides.

I’m interested in another textural aspect, the use of colour. What was your concept there? I felt that the shots of him in colour looked like they were showing us a glimpse of what he was going to become, the Dean of Rebel Without A Cause, and the black and white was him becoming what we know him to be…

Wow, that’s quite profound. If we ever get a special edition DVD maybe you can write the essay book for the DVD… I agree! I think that for me colour in the film suggests subjectivity and particularly the subjectivity of The Roommate. You know these Technicolor sequences that are very rich and lush on the hillside and that to me represents the subjectivity of The Roommate years later, maybe thinking back on those moments, because we do sometimes see our own history in romanticised terms.

I think Super 8, which is very rough and raw, kind of a sexy format and usually evokes memory, family films, that sort of thing. But we used it in a different way where its kind of raw and in the moment and to me that reflects the subjectivity of The Roommate in that moment, where he’s quite literally watching Jimmy and imagining what he could become…

It’s interesting that you’ve used Super 8 as a flash forwards, rather than a flash back and that’s so opposite to the way its normally used.

Yeah, I think often in this film we’re using materials you wouldn’t expect. I like to shoot on film, I like to use small gauges, there’s also Super 16 in the film. I think that audiences will hopefully find that there some surprising choices in the materials. It makes for a different viewing experience also I hope.

It absolutely does, the film is very bold in its style. That also brings me on to your previous film about the work of Derek Jarman:

I did I made a film about… well I guess its also about the work of Derek Jarman. Its about his childhood, a moment from his childhood, but its really a… I suppose it’s a homage, it’s a visual love letter to Derek Jarman’s work and also to the idea that childhood experiences, early life experiences can inspire us to do something very unusual or great in our lives.

It’s interesting because you have said that you watched East of Eden when you were very young. Since you’ve made this film (Portrait of James Dean) now, this seems like a very pertinent theme for your work:

I suppose it’s just all very personal and obsessive for me. It’s very difficult to make films, it’s especially difficult now in America because we don’t have any public or arts funding for films anymore. It’s just such a difficult, torturous process now that you really have to make films that you really care about and it’s such a lengthy process. Its takes several years to make a film and I think now the way distribution works, distribution is a several year process. We took this film to just dozens and dozens of film festivals before it was even in theatres.

I was wondering what your references making the film were, aside from James Dean’s himself?

The cinematographer Michael Pessah is a very good friend of mine, this is our third collaboration. We didn’t really talk about a lot of films when we prepped to make the movie. We looked at Todd Haynes’ Poison and I’m Not There, we looked at The Tarnished Angels and some of the black and white work that Douglas Sirk was doing. We even looked at Swoon. And then more generally we looked at things like and Manhatten.

I mean we went back and looked at things that we thought were a group of really great black and white films and then realised that none of them really reflected the style that we were going for and what really influenced us was stills photography and also painting. You know for me the greatest filmmaker of all time is Caravaggio and he wasn’t even making films, but everything we do in film lighting comes from the work of that school of painters.

But we looked at a lot of stills photographs, you know the studio photographers of the day, Irving Penn and others. And I think most significantly not just because we were shooting in the California desert but also because of his work with colour filters and black and white photographs, Ansel Adams, a lot of his work also.

How did you go about casting the film?

Yeah so we found James Preston, who I think is really fantastic in the film, in the most conventionally possible way. When James came in and did his final audition we were all pretty sure we had our guy. What I like about his performance is it’s not a mimicry.

I told James who had spent a lot of time researching every personality tick he could find in James Dean biographies, to throw all that out the second he got on set and just play the character as he was, as this young man who makes his way to Hollywood from somewhere in the centre of the country, in his case Indiana, in James’ case its Texas and finds himself basically eaten alive in Hollywood and that was James’ story as well.

We needed an actor who was frankly so young and green and fearless that he was willing to take it on and James was that actor. He played it without fear because he didn’t know any better. Sometimes that’s the best possible thing.

What have you learned now you’ve directed your first feature?

I think that really its important to do it your way and at least for the first film to carve out one’s own unique voice and way of seeing things and maybe it will work perfectly and maybe it wont and maybe some audiences will really connect with it and others wont. The system of finance and approvals exists to sort of stamp out those voices and bring everybody to the mean, as close to the centre as possible. You know young filmmakers have an entire career to get there, you have an entire lifetime to become utterly boring and irrelevant.

I think what’s really important, what’s interesting, because I’m not just a filmmaker; I’m a consumer of film. I like seeing films that are strange in some way, that make me see the world a little bit differently. The United States doesn’t really make those kinds of films anymore, its really a shame, but we don’t…

Where do you think or who do you think is making the most interesting films if they’re not being made in the States?

I’m just finishing serving on the jury of the South East European Film Festival and I really like the films that are coming out of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It’s a completely insane part of the world, I mean just immeasurably crazy. It’s a group of countries that have not only fought a war with each other, but have often fought internal wars at the same time, so its an incredibly fractured and strife ridden part of the world but its also home to some of the most interesting culture.

Romania and Hungary, Turkey has a really interesting cinema now. I think the Persian cinema is very, very interesting. I thought one of the most interesting films I saw last year was a Persian film called This Is Not A Movie. The director was held under home arrest. A friend of mine is a French documentary director Jerôme De Missolz and his last doc Kids of Today was I probably my favourite film of last year.

Do you feel like its difficult as a filmmaker working in America to find a voice?

I think it’s a paradox. Certainly the industry here is not pushing at all for that kind of storytelling. Yet the most interesting and talented people all seem to find their way here even if for a short period of time. It’s sort of a gathering place and I think there’s something very appealing about making strange films right in the middle of Hollywood. As this film’s gone out and played around the world, often one of the questions we get is ‘what was it like making a film with a European point of view in the United States?’ and I guess we didn’t really see it that way. We just made the film we wanted to make and maybe it doesn’t entirely align with traditional Hollywood sensibilities.

What can we expect next from you?

Yeah sure, a couple of personal documentary projects, one of which is in post, one of which we’ll shoot in North Eastern Romania in Moldova in the fall and then I’m doing a bigger feature in the winter. It’s a political thriller and it’s a star vehicle for a young actor whose the grandson of the great British actor James Mason. And Morgan Mason who produced Sex, Lies and Videotape is producing the film.

It’s in many ways a bigger and more mainstream project but in other ways I think it is actually an interesting follow up to Joshua Tree because its also a Hollywood portrait, it’s about a young actor, but it deals with a related and contemporary theme which I alluded to earlier: the complete non-existence of privacy in celebrity life, so I see it as the sort of a second in maybe a series of films dealing with the strange paradoxes of the machinery of star-making. In its own way it’s a homage to the great paranoia thrillers of the 70’s, like the Parallax View. It’s being shot on Super 16, so more unusual materials.

A PORTRAIT OF JAMES DEAN is out on DVD now from Peccadillo Pictures. Buy now from Amazon or Play.

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While the 1970’s has now been recognised as a golden age for American cinema, there is still the occasional minor gem that has slipped through the cracks. Scarecrow is one such gem, a shambling character study of two drifters that fits right in with peers such as Two Lane BacktopFive Easy PiecesMidnight Cowboy and countless other works. What is intriguing about Scarecrow‘s disappearance from public view is that it was triumphant at the Cannes film festival on its release and had two star names in Al Pacino and Gene Hackman. Sometimes there is no rationale for which films will linger and which will fade away.

The story is pretty straightforward; two listless drifters cross each others paths while hitch hiking across America’s fairytale backroads and quietly begin to form a bond with each other. While elder traveller Max (Hackman) works best as a lone wolf, he is won over by the young Lionel’s (Pacino) winning goofiness. We later learn that Max has just come out of prison, Lionel the Navy- and they both have the scars to bare. Max enlists Lionel to help him achieve his dream of opening up a car wash business in Pittsburgh, but first they have to visit Max’s sister and see Lionel’s child in Detroit.

Scarecrow is a film that follows in the footsteps of a great American tradition, the Road Movie, but it feels fresh and engaging rather than predictable. Garry Michael White’s fine, nuanced screenplay is laced with mischievous humour and dramatic pathos, chronicling each characters journey without resorting to histrionics. There is little sentimentality here, or if there is, it is hemmed in until the third act. Vilmos Zsigmond captures both the open road and the characters who walk it with gentle observation, never making any flashy movements. The bittersweet sun hued vistas that Max and Lionel traverse are , like for many road movie characters, a reflection of their characters. Two outsiders struggling to adapt back into society and the responsibilities it asks of them.

Gene Hackman has stated that it his favourite performance, and it is difficult to argue. Max is deeply flawed, prone to violence and infuriatingly stubborn…and yet, Hackman imbues him with a charm and vulnerability that means the audience will never turn on him. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Max begs, “I need someone I can trust”. Pacino is a revelation as Lionel- so often we see him playing the macho, streetwise characters, yet here he is almost childish. Lionel is immediately likable, a confused young man with a penchant for pranks. Pacino shows a little seen lighter comic touch, while exuding effortless charisma.

Jerry Schatzberg’s film was made in a different time and culture for American cinema, one which was fuelled by a free wheeling optimism and verve, when film makers could take risks. Like many of the films made in that era, Scarecrow seems to hark back to the great American literature written by Steinbeck and Kerouac, but paints it in pictures. This is a film that deserves to be more widely seen, however, just for the two superb central performances by two great actors just starting their careers.

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Matthew Mishory’s A Portrait of James Dean – Joshua Tree 1951 takes the myth of James Dean (James Preston) and re-writes it with a convincing queer slant. Shot in a penetrating black and white style, with interjections of colour 8mm, this is a carefully crafted and unashamedly art house homage to Dean’s gay history. Only occasionally does Mishory’s impulse for cool European style overtake substance.

The film revolves around the desert of Joshua Tree, California. James Dean is in the process of becoming an actor, studying drama at the University of California and is intent on staying true to his own instincts rather than being molded by the Hollywood machine. With Dean in the desert is a character known purely as The Roommate (played by Dan Glenn, presumably based on William Bast) and actress Violet (Dalilah Rain) who represents a victim of the Hollywood machine.

The scenes in the desert are central to the film’s portrayl of Dean (an intense, barren, yet open character sexually and otherwise), yet the dramatic material is slight. Lead actor James Preston immediately makes his mark portraying Dean with boyish looks and a smoldering intensity. Scenes with Violet also communicate how easy it is to become lost when following the dream of fame.

Yet the film is not restricted to the desert. It actually begins at the desk of French writer Rimbaud in the eighteen hundreds. Rimbaud represents a philosophical signpost for Dean, as he attempts to transform himself into a poet. Preston carries this off convincingly, particularly during the captivating acting lesson scenes, where he watches his fellow students with enormous zeal.

For its impressionistic style, the film is fairly frank in its portrayal of sexuality. Dean is shown to have intercourse with several men and women. While a homosexual (or bisexual) understanding of Dean is clearly a key consideration, it does not distract from the actor’s other interesting facets. Talking about a bullfight, Dean asks a male lover to “explain it exactly as you saw it.” It is this piercing attention to detail that clearly drew Mishory to Dean, for it is something they both seem to share.

One of the film’s most memorably constructed sequences sets a montage of slo-mo poolside shots of naked sunbathers to a shimmering guitar. Mishory’s use of music takes on greater relevance throughout the film, most apparent in the Chet Baker-esque performance of I Fall In Love Too Easily. The lyrics to the song resonates fittingly with the film, capturing Dean’s style, his tempestuous personality and his fleeting relationships with men and women.

Though the film may prove much more contemplative than the films in which Dean actually acted, A Portrait of James Dean – Joshua Tree 1951 is a fitting portrait to the Hollywood legend. The film is a multifaceted view of James Dean: bisexual, intense, studious, talented, troubled and mythic. In fleeting moments it also provoked me to wonder, had Dean ever collaborated with a European master such as Fassbinder, what would the results have looked like?

A PORTRAIT OF JAMES DEAN is out on DVD now from Peccadillo Pictures. Buy now from Amazon or Play.

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