Posts Tagged ‘Gus Van Sant’

The story of Kurt Cobain is a well trodden one, immortalised several times in the film medium – such as Nick Broomfield’s murder investigation Kurt And Courtney (1998), Gus van Sant’s semi-ficticious imagining of Kurt’s Last Days (2005) and AJ Schnack’s more faithful documentary in About a Son (2006) – as well as in biographies, as people remain endlessly fascinated with the enigmatic front man and one of American rock music’s key icons. One would ask what, in 2015, a whole 21 years after the singer-songwriter of Nirvana’s suicide, is left to say about the subject, but the answer in Brett Morgan’s Montage of Heck, is that this is the first fully authorised account, with full access and backing from wife Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain who serve as executive producers and in the case of the former, as an interviewee.

Much like Kurt’s posthumously published diaries, this instantly contains a pretty questionable situation in whether it is right to invade the privacy of a dead person, regardless of their celebrity status, especially when said person struggled so publicly with being launched into the brightest of media spotlights. One of the clearest things we ascertain from Montage, if it wasn’t well known already, is that Cobain struggled massively with being heralded as some sort of voice of a generation, when he largely hated the generation he was supposed to be leading, which is displayed through archive footage of his awkward interviews and glib sound-bytes. So one can’t help but wonder that the reclusive artist would most likely not approve of having his life sprayed out on a screen, but in death it was perhaps a sad inevitability.

Moral questions aside, Montage of Heck is a questionable piece of film making in style and form, let alone in problematic, potentially invasive footage. To it’s credit, the film introduces Kurt’s upbringing excellently through home video footage and interviews with his parents and first girlfriend, scored by a sweet, lullaby version of Nirvana’s classic “All Apologies”, giving us Cobain’s difficult childhood and adolescence with great, interesting detail. This gives us an interesting context which, again, while perhaps not that surprising to anyone, paints a well rounded picture of what growing up in Aberdeen, Washington was like.

But once the film moves towards the success of Nirvana, context and narrative more or less goes on the window. While Morgan does well to avoid martyring Cobain, and with it his biggest problem with becoming a celebrity, he instead relies way too heavily on the idea of using Kurt’s diaries as a gateway to his genius. In the film’s way too long second half, a staggeringly wasted amount of screen-time is devoted to visualising Kurt’s scribblings, be they lyrics, phrases or drawings, as some sort of explanation for Nirvana’s against-the-odds world conquering music. This happens to the point of tedium, especially as the disappearance of context or a narrator to guide us through these tormented images. While I respect the choice of excluding a narrative voice for fear of wanting to impose a direction of thinking upon his audience, Morgan loses almost all impact by just simply relying on re-creating Cobain’s “Montage of Heck” (which we learn is a audio collage he created during his early days as a musician and artist).

This means, returning to the questionable personal footage, by the time the big reveal of Kurt and Courtney’s home life is given to us, there’s little to no effect left to be had, so exhausting is the endless animations or out-takes of music videos and sound-checks, sound-tracked by saccharine, operatic covers of the band’s most famous songs. While there are some revealing moments; largely that a couple addicted to heroin still seem mostly legitimately happy and stable bringing up a child, the general effect of this is pretty numb by the time it arrives on screen.

In the end, Montage of Heck, fails to leave much of an impression as an original piece of work. The film’s best moments are generally found in already familiar footage, the place where Nirvana and especially Kurt Cobain always looked his most comfortable; on stage, performing. There is amusing and enjoyable archival footage to be had from the band’s interviews, as well as some revealing answers from present-day Courtney Love and Kurt’s mother, but in the end, the focus of Montage of Heck does not highlight how the band came to be such an influential force, changing the face of rock music forever, but on the sad mental condition of the genius artist Kurt Cobain.

While there is nothing wrong with focusing with the band’s (at the time) easily most recognisable member, the idea that we are supposed to gain entry to man’s mind from endless animations of his notes is ineffectual when very few of us ever really knew the man himself. While Cobain comes off as sympathetic and humane in the footage, his whole ethos (as highlighted by the film) is not to be concerned with his creative process, but to appreciate and relate and judge his published work only, which this film is frustratingly at odds with.

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Montgomery Clift’s Chuck Glover, a modern man, finds himself in the midst of a dated landscape with a forward-thinking mind-set, making him a very commendable cinematic character at the centre of this wonderful 1960 modernity drama from Hollywood master director Elia Kazan.

With a great change sweeping through America by the late 1950’s, Wild River came at a time where some doubted the Government’s initiatives, and racial injustice took over headlines. The 1930s setting that Elia Kazan’s film takes place in is an archaic, bigoted one, prone to debate. The depiction of such morals thirty years after 1930 – and now eighty-five years after – shocked and enraged; Kazan’s power is to realistically portray these events, attempting a timeless, non-biased approach to them.

Wild River has had such a great influence on the country-folk vs the Government storyline that its blood still pumps through modern day cinema. Take Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, about Matt Damon’s fracking salesman trying to persuade a local town to sell some of their land. This, compared to Clift’s Tennessee Valley Authority buying people off their land in order to flood it and build a dam, is along the same lines decades down the line. Not only does the story allow for contemporary audiences to and enjoy it without jarring context, but it is shot and acted in a very modern manner. Many older films have the tint of age over their aesthetic, the notion that this is from a long time ago and difficult to engage with, but Wild River is consistently absorbing.

There are a few drags in the plot though, with a love story that feels forced, yet Kazan has a very meticulous handling of narrative. The 110 minute run-time passes by in a flash for the most part, with a satisfying ending that neatly ties everything up. Coming from the director of On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden, there shouldn’t be much doubt as to the tactful handling of humanity. Chuck is, on paper, a wooden product of the “system”, trying to take the land off of rural innocents. However, Clift, Kazan and writer Paul Osborn present him as a humble state employee. We watch him on tender-hooks, hopeful that he will succeed, especially as he loses so many battles. The abject realism, akin to John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, draws you in, largely thanks to Clift’s performance.

Perhaps forgotten over time by wider audiences (despite its selection for preservation in the United States National Film Registry), the newly restored and released version of Wild River should hopefully elevate its status yet again. There is a lot of beauty and heart in the film, perfect for a Sunday afternoon watch. We often take for granted these studio films of old, but Wild River has never really had its due – do yourself a favour as a film fan and seek it out.

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If we think about horror films as a medium to explore human fears at their most primitive, then you would think that there was an infinite space for filmmakers to plough through. For the most part, however, it feels like a genre devoid of invention or respect, an easy commercial outlet relying on a raft of cheap tricks. Occasionally you will see a film that seeks to subvert these tropes and try to bring some creativity to the genre, which David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has.

The film is a subversion of horror films, not something completely new. A teenage girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) living in American suburbia has intimate relations with hunky Hugh (Jake Weary). Things start to go awry when we realise that Hugh has ulterior motives; he is being stalked by a shape shifting monster that will only relent if he passes on the curse through intercourse. Only when Jay has sex with another person will Hugh be safe, and so the chain goes on.

It is a simple but effective premise, familiar enough to slot it alongside other slasher films but with a touch of surrealism that marks it out. What makes It Follows terrifying is the execution of this set up, with the creature taking on a different form each time. It could be a grizzled mother, a demonic schoolkid or a hulking giant. As Hugh warns us, they are always walking towards their prey. The prey can never stand still, they always have to be wary of the figure in the distance.

While the concept is fertile, Mitchell’s overall vision of the film is also striking. Setting out to make an ‘arty horror film’ in his words, It Follows has an eerie, dreamlike quality, almost like Gus Van Sant had decided to swap his Bela Tarr boxset for a John Carpenter collection. Filmed around Detroit, the film has the feel of a ghost town, the teenage characters leading an almost idyllic existence where adults are almost entirely absent. If one was to read anything into the film, you might say that it explores the idea of innocence being corrupted. One fellow viewer described it as a potential miracle for sex education teachers.

Mitchell creates a beguiling mix of innocence and threat through soft, hypnagogic visuals and floaty tracking shots. The pacing of course ramps up a gear as the creature nears, but for the most part it is a languorous film. Music plays a huge part, and in Disasterpiece’s pretty and dangerous Italo Disco score we have a formidable contributor. The minimalist electronica is a throwback to the scores of the Italian giallo horrors of the 70’s, by directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

The film was never meant to be about the actors or their dramas, but they all give solid performances mannered in the horror style. They have a naturalistic, candy floss quality to them, again reminiscent of the characters in Van Sant’s films. Yet  Mitchell invests enough in them to make the audience empathise with their plight; she is an innocent thrown into a situation she doesn’t deserve, and has the moral quandary of inflicting her curse on someone else or submitting to a grisly death.

I saw a few films at Cannes but none of them were as exciting or refreshing as It Follows. A horror film for people who don’t like horrors, It Follows subverts the genre enough to feel new while still retaining the core essential scares. It is an aesthetic delight and its simplicity works wonderfully. We may just have a cult film in the making.

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