Monthly Archives: March 2018

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 52 – Annihilation

 

 

annihilationAlex Garland’s curious sci-fi adventure comes to UK cinemas – for one single evening. A disappointing theatrical release in the US made Paramount fear that the film wouldn’t make money elsewhere and thus sold it to Netflix, foregoing a theatrical release in most territories outside North America. But we waited for the special event to see it properly. And it was worth it, its stunning visual design singing on the big screen.

But what did we make of the rest of it? Has it stayed with us? Does it cohere? What would we have liked to have seen more of, what surprised us, what did it do well, how do we evaluate its representational strategies? No matter what we make of the details, it’s certainly deserving of a second look, and now we can be grateful rather than rueful that Netflix gives us that opportunity.

Also, Mike bangs on for a bit about Ex MachinaLifeAnomalisa, and The Beach.

 

 

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We appreciate your feedback so do keep on sending it.

José Arroyo and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Sound work in Latin America: Interview with Jose Homer Mora Acosta; La Escuela de Diseño; Altos de Chavón, Dominican Republic; March, 2018

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I’ve just returned from teaching at the Altos de Chavón School of Design in the Dominican Republic. The Romana campus not only offers a degree in film and all aspects of the audiovisual but has a very particular connection to film history: Charles Bludhorn, who owned Paramount pictures during the years it produced hits such as Love Story, The Godfather films and Chinatown, bought and developed the Casa del Campo, the extensive landholdings in the Dominican Republic which houses the school; the buildings, squares and even the church in Altos de Chavón’s Village of Artists, where the school operates from, were designed by the great Roberto Coppa, set designer for Visconti, Fellini and many other celebrated directors.

Aside from my own teaching, one of my goals for my one-week residency was to come home with three or four interviews with film professionals operating in and around the school. The idea behind it was two-fold: a) to learn about various aspects of cinema usually credited below the line but absolutely essential to filmmaking;  b) to learn about the praxis of filmmaking in Latin America today. My only ambition was to make a record of it so that at least if no one was interested in these interviews today, there would be a record for future reference that researchers on, and students and fans of, Latin American Cinema could consult. Due to various problems, from scheduling to excessive ambient noise, this one with José Homer Acosta was the only one I could complete. The sound is not the greatest, and all my fault: you will hear cats meowl, glasses clink, and my voice much louder than Homer’s. In spite of that, I hope people will find it of value.

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Jose Homer Mora Acosta is at 29 years old, only the third accredited sound person in his Honduran homeland. One of the things I was curious about was how some one from a small Latin American country ends up being a sound person, and he tells me how the interest in film really started as an interest in music, which he’s been playing since he was 13. After graduating from University, Homer began working in advertising and subsequently landed at a newspaper. After, the coup d’étât in Honduras in 2008, the newspaper was shut down so the team that ran the newspaper spread out to work in documentaries as a way of re-starting the paper and keeping themselves in work. Homer recounts how there was work to be found in documentary filmmaking in Honduras, largely because NGO’s wanted to record and disseminate what they were doing there, thus documentaries on the coffee crises, rural electrification, poverty. These were all small-scale projects where Homer got professional experience in production management, camera and editing. He also learned how to present and manage a project so as to make it eligible for funding and then how to go about to actually getting that money. During this time Homer earned a Master’s degree in Production Management.

Homer and I then go on to talk about what led him to study sound at EICTV in San Antonio de los Baños in Cuba. Aside from the formal training he says that EICTV has afforded him a family, “I don’t feel alone with that crazy stuff that recording emotions and feelings brings out. The school offers support. It’s a place where others understand. You arrive knowing nothing but it’s OK because cinema is more than technique or tools. It’s another thing.’

Homer and I discuss the various projects he’s worked on and also his goal of recording emotions and feelings. Some of this involves doing research into recording methods, sometimes even restoring old microphones and seeing what different sound qualities result. He talks about how in 3/4 inch tape or celluloid the work on sound can be tactile ‘You can touch the sound’.

We discuss several films as well: Blow Out, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Man Who Lies and Lucrecia Martel’s work. Lucrecia Martel had run a workshop whilst Homer was teaching at Alto de Chavón and we talk of her practice of beginning with the dialogue, moving onto structure and then images, something I’d rarely heard of before. Homer points out that you can create a whole world in the film by the use of sound, particularly in the way offscreen sound becomes the world inhabited by  characters within the frame.

Homer also tells me of a particular experiences of working in film. He’s lived in Honduras, Costa Rica, Cuba, now the Dominican Republic; and his work has led him to shoots in Mexico and Peru. A transnational experience of cinema quite common for countries with a relatively small audio-visual production industry.

It’s a late night conversation fuelled by rum and cigarettes, meandering, interspersed with cat’s meowl’s, recorded imperfectly, yet interesting for the history Homer so generously shares, and for the insights into the work on sound in film.

The podcast can be listened to here:

José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 51 – You Were Never Really Here

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If there’s ever a movie that needs to be seen on a big screen this is it. A poetic film, a great film made by a great artist. A story that’s told aurally and visual using a wide range of devices. We discuss the extraordinary power of its images, the imaginative use of sound, the depiction  of violence; whether it has a psychologically traumatised editing pattern; how it’s a film that requires visual literacy and what that might mean; the narrative is that of an abused child who goes to the military, suffers post-traumatic stress syndrome and eventually becomes a hitman who’s sent on a quest to rescue a young girl who’s been trafficked sexually. A linear story told in a fragmented way with the narrative making — and changing — sense as it unfolds. Mike is excellent. I remember names better than usually.  At the end of the podcast, we comment on the oscars describing debates the broadcast led to and we forgot to include that engendered by the best foreign language winner: A Fantastic Woman.

 

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We appreciate your feedback so do keep on sending it.

José Arroyo and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

A Fantastic Woman/ Una mujer fantástica (Sebastian Lélio, Chile, 2017)

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Like the lovers in Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (1997), Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) dream of visiting the Iguazu Falls. Marina and Orlando have just moved in together, and in fact Orlando has bought tickets to go. But he’s older, can’t remember where he’s put them and offers her an IOU. That evening, they go to bed in their usual manner but he suffers an aneurysm during the night. As she searches for the car keys, he goes out the door and falls down the stairs. At the clinic, they ask Marina about her relationship with Orlando, begin to twitch that she’s transgender, and the problems begin. As Orlando is declared dead at the clinic, those problems will get worse.

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Everything’s against Marina

The police arrive, and since the change in her ID is still in process, insist on addressing her as a man and treating her as a criminal rather than a bereaved partner. Gabo, Orland’s brother, arrives and apologises to Marina, ‘I’m sorry you had to go through this.’ But his obligation is to ‘the family’, which she is most emphatically excluded from. Soon, the ex-wife comes in to kick her out of the apartment that is the home she shared with Orlando. It starts off polite but ends up being forceful; the police come in, ostensibly to help, but really to humiliate her; the son and his friends will kidnap Marina, distort her face with tape, and dump her on a side street. I expected much worse and find it interesting that the film chooses to end it there and not focus more on physical violence.

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Who Am I?

 

The violence in A Fantastic Woman is all psychological but no less powerful for that. Marina is denied her history, her identity, her relationship, her apartment, her dog; and even the right to mourn the person she loved, which she insists is a human right. Any gay man d’un certain age will be familiar with this story, particularly those who lost loved ones at the height of the AIDS years and before wider legal and social acceptance of homosexuality. The partner who you loved and cared for dies and you’re left with not even a place at the funeral in case your very presence might offend the congregation. The fight for trans rights is a logical continuation of the fight for lesbian and gay rights; this film vividly, in a very personal way, demonstrates the hows and whys.

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The violent deformations of ‘respectable’ people

A Fantastic Woman is a complex and fascinating meditation on mourning and on the complexities of identity. Instead of, as is typical, showing us Marina’s effects on people, everything, including that effect, is filmed from her point of view. Her feelings, identities, wishes, desires, dreams are the focus on the film. And people’s well meaning but ignorant, passive-aggressive and ultimately violent denial of her humanity is what the film movingly demonstrates. But she will withdraw, survive and live to fight another day, and with beautiful music.

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The film is imaginatively shot by Benjamín Echazarreta and there are some very striking and evocative images. The film is directed with a poetic touch as well, as it moves into dance numbers to evoke Marina’s feelings; dream sequences that evoke the complexities of her situation and her desires, and there are thrilling musical moments, first when Marina performs a salsa song in a nightclub (Periodico de ayer) later, the classic numbers she sings, particularly at the end (Handel’s Ombra mai fu).

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On genitals and Being.

The film has been compared to Almódovar’s work, which surprises me. Yes, there is a transgender protagonist; and yes, it’s a great film. But what strikes me most about this film is the absence of camp. Marina is strong and she suffers; and there are moments of rage; but it’s her quiet, polite, elegant, strength that is the focus of the film. In her home, she might box away her frustration. But on the street she’s soft-voiced, cultured, polite with a quiet strength that will not compromise winning a particular battle for the thrill of an easy laugh. It’s the quiet strength necessary to achieve justice, one embodied by Daniela Vega’s impassive but understanding gaze, that is to me the central thrust of the film. Particularly, in instances where she gazes directly at the camera, as if saying, ‘bear witness to what the world is doing to me; to what it takes for me to live in this world, your world’. I’d like to see it again.

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Singing Handel

Currently available to see on Curzon Home Cinema

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies 50 – Lady Bird

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Our 50th! We finally get around to seeing the one Best Picture nominee we were missing, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. It’s been highly praised, but has the hype hurt it? We discuss its female-centric twists on coming-of-age teen movies, the mother-daughter relationship, its attitude to sex, and the Everyman Cinema in Birmingham, which we visit for the first time.

Recorded on 27th February 2018.

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We appreciate your feedback so do keep on sending it.

José Arroyo and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Camouflage/ Barwy ochronne (Krzysztof Zanussi, Poland, 1977)

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The awarding of prizes for an academic paper in a linguistics summer camp in a Polish provincial University is the setting for Zanussi’s great exploration of hierarchy, power, knowledge, justice, democracy, morality, conformism, corruption, ethics. A jaded, cynical professor, Jakub (Zbiniew Zapasiwicz) tries to enlighten and manipulate an earnest and idealistic younger colleague, Jeroslaw (Piotr Garlicki) and the verbal jousts between them are the occasion for the explorations of the issues the film dramatises. ‘Why not take things at face value’ asks the younger man? ‘Because it’s not all that simple or honest’ responds the elder.

Zanussi’s frame is always full of people or landscape – students staging sit ins, gangs swimming naked in the river, classes replete with students, dozens at dinner — in a way that makes one realise how thinned out much of contemporary cinema has become, not just visually, but thematically. Here when two characters speak in a two-shot it carries the context of the social so many people earlier helped depict. Place, and society are always the background to the protagonists’ thought and actions.

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It’s no surprise that the film was read as an allegory for Poland in the last years of the Communist regime. It’s a film in which signs are often read by the characters as having other referents than its popularly acknowledged ones, but these other referents can only be divulged through avenues of power and knowledge. People are often compared to nature through animals: the cat will have its prey, and only by collaring it with bells will those poor birds and mice have a chance. But the analogy with nature has its limits. Human groups build their own value systems we’re told. But are those honest, just, democratic, ethical; and do they pave the way to knowledge and progress? At the end, Jaky thinks he’s brought out the beast in Piotr but Piotr makes clear that if he had, he’d be dead.

A film that seems particularly relevant in the light of present discussions on the role and purpose of universities. A great film.

 

Camouflage is currently available to view on MUBI.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Wùlu (Daouda Coulibali, France/Senegal/Mali, 2016)

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A fine gangster film, novel for being an excellent debut feature from Daouda Coulibali and set in a region of Africa (Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Niger) that is a nexus for transporting cocaine from Columbia to Europe.

The film begins with a series of titles contextualising and explaining as follows:

‘In the Bambara culture, fraternal societies must train their followers to make them into valuable members of the community. In the Ntòmo society new members must pass through five levels:

  1. The lion level teaches a man where he came from
  2. The toad level tells him where he is going
  3. The bird level teaches him who he is.
  4. The guinea fowl level considers the man in the cosmos.
  5. The final level enlightens the member on his place in society. This is the level of the dog (Wúlu).

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 11.58.58The Wùlu of this story is Ladji (Ibrahim Koma), who works in a collective taxi. He’s the one who decides who to pick up and he’s figured out all the angles: avoid the elderly, fat and infirm: they can lose you a lot of money. He dreams of driving his own bus. But in spite of being excellent at his job, he’s passed over for the boss’ nephew, who’s got nothing going for him aside from his relations.

The film starts in 2007 in Bamako, and the corruption is shown to pervade everything and everyone, even Ladji’s sister, Aminita (played by singer Inna Modja) is turning tricks to get by. It ends in 2012. Ladji, the dog, can’t live with himself; his sister, the whore, is sunning herself by the pool in the lap of luxury. The final title card tells us:

‘In creating divisions at the heart of the army; in inciting competition between different tribes, and in constituting one of the sources of financing for terrorist organisations, cocaine trafficking largely contributed to the failures the State of Mali underwent during the course of 2012.’

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Ladji washes away the blood

A very good crime film about the rise and fall of the gangster figure; as in so much of the genre, it is as much a critique of the society its portraying as a depiction of particular characters. And that is a chief attraction for someone like myself: we not only get a film with likeable characters, excellent action and a poetic touch, but we get to find out about the cultures depicted: the tribalism, the meaning of art in these cultures, the corruption of politicians, the way white people are seen, what a rich house looks like to these people, the value of a bus. This is a gangster film in which negotiations takes place in a tent in the desert, in which the way out of a shootout is through a boy with a donkey, a place in which an intelligent, thoughtful and responsible young man has no way out but gangsterism, drugs or death and in which death is preferable to drugs; It’s where whores survive but dogs are put down (there is a slight tinge of misogyny in the film).

Olivier Rabourdin plays the French Entrepreneur who is also the drug kingpin

Screened on MUBI as part of South by South, a collaboration with the South London Art Gallery

49 – Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

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We try out Mubi, a curated streaming service that gives you 30 films at any one time, and only 30 days in which to watch them. Our choice is Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, a 1970s Italian satire on police corruption and the politics of power. It leads to discussions on its expressive imagery, its topsy-turvy plot, sexual kinks, peccadillos, and lifestyles, the performance of power and authority, and male jealousy and rage.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is one of the best political films of all time, with a great opening sequence. A satire on politics filmed and played in high style. What does an establishment figure have to do to get arrested?

Winner of the Academy Award of Best Foreign Film in 1971 and with a great score by Ennio Morricone.

 

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We appreciate your feedback so do keep on sending it.

José Arroyo and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

48 – I, Tonyah (Craig Gillespie, USA, 2017)

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The story of Tonya Harding raises all manner of issues for us to delve into. I, Tonya is a film about class, domestic abuse, celebrity, opportunity, achievement. We examine its visual design and use of competing aspect ratios, its use of direct address to camera, and the conceptualisation of the working class characters and mother-daughter relationship. Mike believes it insists upon Tonya Harding’s fame too heavily, not aware of how she’s only really remembered in the USA. Jose finds its portrayal of working class people uncomfortable. An energetic discussion.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We appreciate your feedback so do keep on sending it.

José Arroyo and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Six Shooter (Martin McDonagh, UK/Ireland, 2004)

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Donnelly (Brendan Gleeson) bids goodbye to his dead wife at the hospital, placing a photograph of their pet rabbit to accompany her on her way. He gets on a train with a loud-mouth kid (Rúaidhrí Conroy) who unsparing in his observations and picks a fight with fellow passengers, particularly a couple (David Wilmot, Aisling O’Sullivan) who’ve just lost their baby in a cot-death: ‘Oh here come Fred and Rosemary’ with the photo of the baby that ‘looks like the gay guy from Bronski Beat’ . It turns out that the trouble-making kid has also lost his mother the previous night. He’s the one who shot her; and so brutally ‘she had no head left on her’.

Thus a carriage encased in grief and anger, differently expressed by each, but so febrile with sadness and pain anything can ignite it into violence, which it will. Three deaths that will in turn result in at least three more deaths. All this told through McDonagh’s trademark vibrantly vulgar phrasing, jokes that erupt out of darkness, sharply unsentimental point-of-view, equal parts mean and funny, and with flashes of surreal violence, the centrepiece of which here centres on a cow inflating from too much gas. ‘Oh Jesus, what a fucking day!’ is the last line in the movie. All we know and like of McDonagh is already fully realised here in this short movie, which I highly recommend.

 

Part of the McDonagh retrospective currently showing on MUBI

Nominated and won the Best Live Action Short Academy Award in 2006

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies 47 – Phantom Thread – Second Screening

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Phantom Thread offered us so much to think about that we decided to revisit it, this time with Stephen Glass, who is both a filmmaker and Mike’s brother: very handy. This is our second viewing, Stephen’s fourth. We note how little time these great films now remain onscreen in Birmingham but focus on various aspects of mise-en-scène and performance: are the dresses meant to be not quite right? How fantastic is the Chelsea Arts Ball scene and the wonderful superimposition from the Alps? We discuss the power struggle between Alma and Cyril; the connection between Alma and Reynolds’ mother; the changes of lighting in relation to the characters from the beginning of the film to the end; the narrative deployment of the Barbara Rose character and the use of music. A film that’s endlessly interesting.

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We appreciate your feedback so do keep on sending it.

José Arroyo and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.