More so than any other year that I can attest to, the 53rd London Film Festival was characterised by a series of conflicts, contrasts, frustrations and absences. During those two long, thin weeks, a few masterpieces were discovered (Jacques Rivette’s 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup, say, or Frederick Wiseman’s La danse – Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris), retrospectives enjoyed (Loin du Vietnam, Hapax Legomena), disappointments endured (for one: Gustav Deutsch’s Film Ist. a girl & a gun), and a mass of middlebrow, here-today-forgotten-tomorrow cinema wilfully passed over.
Masterpieces first: 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup (All Around a Small Mountain) is a serene, august film about the passage of time (the onset of age, the waning of tradition), and the role of performance and humour in art and life. As always, Rivette’s mise-en-scène points as much to the concreteness of natural sound as that contained by the physical frame, and the narrative progression hangs in the balance of the wind in the trees. 36 vues’ casual rhythm, pastoral drift and enforced brevity owes much to Renoir, and perhaps comes as close to the air of Partie de campagne as anything achieved since. In its meticulous framing of windows and the looks that search beyond them, Manoel de Oliveira’s Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura (Eccentricities of a Blonde-Hair Girl) might also owe something to cinema’s patron, but its drollery of form and wit resists a direct circumscription of influence. Eccentricities is a deeply classical portrait of desire, obsession, and doomed love, as shrewdly structured as a Rohmer moral tale, and as patient, disciplined and precise as late Ozu. Frederick Wiseman’s La danse comprises a brilliant counterpoint, or sequel, to his 1995 Ballet, rarely straying from the walls of the institution this time, and scarcely diverting its attention from the performative rigour of its subject. Unlike the slightly awkward stage performances in the second half of the former film, which seemed to me to stretch Wiseman’s hands-off observational style to breaking point, the camera is never less than fully responsive to the mobility and rhythm of dance here, tracking to and cutting on movement with renewed grace and clarity. La danse displays a commitment to work, effort and gesture barely glimpsed during the rest of the festival, and stands as yet another essential instalment in Wiseman’s life-long document of the structures that shape our politics and culture.
La danse was screened digitally, but otherwise the routine festival pleasure of taking in projected 35mm film day after day was present and correct, despite its increasing rarity across the UK arthouse circuit. The photochemical make-up of film as film marked out the delicate afternoon light of Eugène Green’s A Religiosa Portuguesa (The Portuguese Nun), the cold, fogged mornings of Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, and the fragile apparitions of David Gatten’s Film For Invisible Ink Case No. 142: Abbreviation For Dead Winter (Diminished By 1,794). Gatten’s stunning film presents a series of dark fibrous blurs staining the image at fleeting intervals, emerging from a tweak of focus only to fade into a succession of ivory frames. Grain coagulated into inky patterns and text (Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) carved out the frame, embodied and refracted by the flickering light of the projector. The digital side of the coin was perhaps most notably represented by Visitors (the latest instalment of the Jeonju Digital Project), and paled in comparison – the thin lines and surfaces of Hong Sang-soo’s Lost in the Mountains quivered nervously, and Lav Diaz’s soft, greyscale Butterflies Have No Memories almost threatened to fade from the screen (more on that later). Although London must be congratulated for resisting the onslaught of digital projection, elsewhere the festival felt marred by an equivalent lack of unity, a lack of serious commitment to cinephilia, and a curious negation of the very modernity (or innovation) which it presumably exists to represent.
London appears to have taken something of a backseat amidst the autumn pile-up of Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Venice and the Viennale, and makes little effort to fight for a status comparable to those totems of the annual calendar. This, of course, is no bad thing – there is no such thing as a “London film”, in the vein of what might be a “Sundance” (take your pick) or “Viennale” film (a new Straub or Rousseau, perhaps), and nor does there need to be. Measures of scale are rarely significant as indicators of quality or vitality either – what the small may gain in character or individuality, the large can compensate with resources and scope. However, it is worrying that London seems so timid with regard to taking a stance, articulating an outlook, supporting or even attempting to nurture a particular type, or idea, of modern cinema. In an article in Cineaste last year (reprinted in Wallflower’s essential Dekalog volume On Film Festivals), (1) Mark Peranson talked of the increasingly aggressive split in festival practice between a prioritisation of business or audience, and London probably now falls into something of a no man’s land between these two categories. At first glance it appears to belong to the latter, but displays far too many conservative hallmarks of the former to even come close to an audience-based ideal in its current state. The festival is of course propped up by corporate sponsorship, hosts a number of prominent premieres (this year: Fantastic Mr. Fox and Nowhere Boy) and enjoys a visible Hollywood studio presence, but at the same time it refrains from functioning as a notable market or competition event, invests little in new work, and solicits the bulk of its programming from elsewhere. London is pitched as a survey, an overview, a service for the city, and advertises itself as such – the ubiquitous trailer shows a number of residents dazzled by the bright lights of “the best in world cinema” that the programmers dump before their eyes, seemingly rapt and satiated. Perhaps the festival does succeed in providing what its habitual audience desires of it, but if that is the case then we should be asking much more.
Robert Koehler, in his chapter of the Dekalog volume, calls for the necessity of “an informed philosophy of cinephilia, a practice, an essential way of being and approach to cinema” to form the core of curatorial processes. Any festival’s outlook and selection is, whether it likes it or not, not only an act of criticism but an argument, an assertion of values defined by, in Koehler’s words, “two equally important components: those films that are included, and those films that are left out”. (2) I can’t help thinking that London, especially this year, is defined by the latter. It was surprising to see new films from so many regular stalwarts neglected – Alain Resnais’ Les Herbes folles, Tsai Ming-liang’s Face, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, James Benning’s Ruhr, as well as other films already well-received in Cannes or elsewhere – Raya Martin’s Independencia, Ben Russell’s Let Each One Go Where He May, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective. Then, a windfall of less hyped or travelled omissions – of which a sample: Jean-Marie Straub’s Le Streghe: Femme entre elles (or perhaps Joachim Gatti and Corneille – Brecht, both of which premiered at Viennale), Luc Moullet’s La Terre de la folie, Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II, Nobuhiro Suwa’s Yuki and Nina, Peter Nestler’s Tod und Teufel, Abel Ferrara’s Napoli Napoli Napoli (or, for that matter, Chelsea on the Rocks), Martin’s Next Attraction, Heinz Emigholz’s Loos Ornamental, and, of lesser length, Lisandro Alonso’s S/T, Marcel Hanoun’s Deconstruction, or Jean-Claude Rousseau’s Série noire and Pas cette nuit. Or, still absent, Christian Petzold’s Jerichow or Philippe Garrel’s La frontière de l’aube. And how about Lav Diaz’s Melancholia or Wang Bing’s Crude Oil – or, at least, Wang’s considerably shorter, and perhaps more “viable”, Coal Money? (Thankfully, other major new works like Pedro Costa’s Ne change rien, Harun Farocki’s In Comparison and Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Months of August have received their London premieres in the last couple of months regardless.) It’s probably worth noting that 193 features and 113 shorts were screened, with no room spared for the above.
The handful of these films that I’ve been able to see through other (vastly inferior) channels have proved equally as strong as the stand-outs of those two weeks in London, and it’s conceivable that us attendees might never have a chance to form an opinion about much of the rest. Even accounting for the fact that only the most powerful festivals are regularly able to secure the films they want, leaving players like London at the mercy of sales agency wrangling, costly negotiations and other intrusive corporate politics, a lack of concern with regard to the visibility of contemporary aesthetic practice is all too evident. In Koehler’s words again, “any festival driven by serious cinephilia should still manage to get many of the films it wants on its radar”. If the success, or at least the attitude, of a globally-oriented festival can be judged as readily by the nature of its omissions as its inclusions, London leaves far too many questions to be asked. The first of those might as well be: how can a progressive, diverse modern world cinema grow if it is neglected by the foremost cultural institutions that are, increasingly, its only lifeline?
Across its many sidebars, much of London’s line-up seemed to comprise a mass of inflated mediocrities, a wash of stylistic conservatism. The worst offender that I saw was probably Patrice Chéreau’s Persécution, a gruff and bloodless exercise in middle-brow “realism”, fronted by Romain Duris’ pantomime scowl and afflicted by grey, bland, jerky cinematography by Yves Cape (either stumbling or slumming it before his expert work on Denis’ White Material and Dumont’s Hadewijch). Or the pair of found-footage films from Experimenta: Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take and Gustav Deutsch’s Film Ist. a girl and a gun, both of which circle around their central conceits whilst working curiously hard to keep them at a non-committal arm’s length. Double Take presents an elusive, knotted chain of coincidences (shards of history, newsreel footage, Hitchcockian doubling) that simply occur rather than converge – a trickster’s gambit more Stage Fright than Notorious, and one that succeeds in wilfully frustrating its own ideas as much as the spectator. Deutsch’s film, on the other hand, certainly offers ample visual and sonic pleasure: an immense Fennesz score; a sea of lurid tinted reds, florescent greens and sickly sepia yellows; images of everything from erupting volcanoes to medicinal oddities, early pornography and saucy parlour games. But the paucity of its ambition is laid bare by the last three shots: a hand fiddling in a pouch of gold match-cuts to a similar action performed upon a vagina, followed by a rolling out of that chestnut image of Porter’s outlaw executing the audience. “Film ist a girl and a gun” in a nutshell, little more. Disappointingly, the rest of Experimenta was not exempt from this neutered sense of interplay between style and ideas either – for every film like Lewis Klahr’s beautiful and haunting False Aging, a collaged journey through an unclear fall night scored by A Dream from Lou Reed & John Cale’s Songs for Drella (“…and nobody called, and nobody came”), and Greg Pope’s violent, brutal(ising) Shot Film (little more than a strip of celluloid shot to rags and dragged through the projector, emitting a deafening sonic barrage of cracks and thuds in the process), there was an insufferable performative stunt like Mara Mattuschka’s Burning Palace, a sort of Eurotrash INLAND EMPIRE filtered through the worst excesses of Matthew Barney – a garish, abrasive assault on the image that made this viewer yearn for the material sensitivity of Gatten, or the absent Straub or Rousseau.
Curious selections abounded throughout the World Cinema selection, and it was difficult to escape the impression that the Asian strand comprises little more than a watered-down version of the “Dragons and Tigers” program that Tony Rayns (alongside Shelly Kraicer) curates for Vancouver. One of the most intriguing bookings was Indonesian filmmaker Edwin’s Babi buta yang ingin terbang (Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly), supported over the last couple of years by a number of eminent voices, but I failed to warm to its erratic parade of minor eccentricities. A series of events that involve the oral consumption of firecrackers, YouTube skits and tone-deaf karaoke renditions of “I Just Called to Say I Loved You” reaches its apotheosis in three shots: an anal rape (both a vacuous and vulgar metaphor), followed by a shot of jizz dripping onto a pair of sunglasses and a cut to a porcelain rabbit. Why? Beats me. Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay, no doubt picked at the expense of Martin’s Independencia, is another exercise in hardball realism, and an all-out assault on the audience’s sensibilities. Chronicling the kidnapping, rape, murder, and disposal of a stripper in compressed “real-time”, the film pulls few punches but never feels like anything more than an exercise – in visceral hyperrealism, graphic violence and unremitting gloom. A protracted night-time drive (illuminated solely by headlights and neon road signs) courageously takes up much of the second act, but is constantly blighted by Mendoza’s habit of cutting around the interior of the vehicle like a restless back-seat passenger, seemingly unsure of whether to build narrative suspense or an atmosphere of creeping menace. This might also be the time to mention Lav Diaz’s Butterflies Have No Memories too, a considerably less vicarious yet equally political narrative of a botched kidnapping. The sense of (human) desperation and (landscape) desolation is familiar from Diaz’s previous work, but here his trademark hollowed-out narrative time drags rather than intensifies, hobbled by a series of soft, frail compositions. Absent is the masterful sense of mise-en-scène that marks out the seven hours of Melancholia (2008), organised around a string of stares as long (and close-up) as you like, and angled depths that seem to point to the edge of the world. It’s a shame that Butterflies has served as the festival’s introduction to this major filmmaker’s work, and a booking of the strange, radical Melancholia (or its white noise cut-up cousin Purgatorio) would surely have helped to redress the balance.
Another dubious aspect of the festival’s programming lies in the fact that the array of Gala and other screenings resemble little more than a “coming attractions” for the inland Picturehouse-commandeered arthouse circuit (The White Ribbon, Bright Star, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of my Children, etc.), leaving little space for essential films without a UK distributor in the first place. Only Eugène Green’s The Portuguese Nun, Hong Sang-soo’s Like You Know It All and the handful from Experimenta mentioned above occupied the latter position. Hong’s new film is another comedy of manners, barely anchored by its structural play this time, but littered with many of his familiar tropes – the discomfiture of imposed social relations, jealous derisions, misplaced affections, lucid dreams and volatile primal urges. The material suggests autobiography (a series of mishaps and misunderstandings that take place during and after a festival jury duty) and occasionally falls back on affected quirks and contrivances, almost as if Hong were attempting to build too thick a divide between cinema and reality. It is perhaps disappointing that he has followed up his strongest feature (Night and Day) with his most casual, but, as always, there is much to enjoy. A reprise of the arm-wrestling scene in Night & Day plays out as another hilarious suturing of male bravado, and the interrogation of cinema as a mode of thought and remembrance feels more organic than in A Tale of Cinema. In a way, The Portuguese Nun follows LYKIA’s listless drift, devoting its first twenty minutes (or so) to a leisurely stroll through Lisbon’s old town, and gaining very little structure after that. Green’s accented editing, frontality of framing, and emphasis on the enunciation of words – their very punctuation and resonance – papers over the narrative cracks, and roots any thematic overambition (a cycle of ruminations on suicide, motherhood, religion, fantasy, myth) in a language as idiosyncratic as anything in modern cinema. Best bits: the appearance of many Oliveira regulars, carrying with them echoes of Eccentricities, and Green himself gamely boogieing away in a nightclub, clearing all floor space in his immediate vicinity.
The fate of my three favourite new films of the festival – La danse, 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup and Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl – were already sealed, thanks to Soda Pictures and the now invaluable New Wave Films, and will be granted a limited national release over the coming months. The guarantee of future opportunities to see such a large proportion of films (easy to come by and less arduous on the wallet) diminished any need to attend the swathe of “buzz” screenings. This raises another question – other than the slate of retrospective screenings (a stunning restoration of Margot Benacerraf’s Araya , a 35mm blow-up of Loin du Vietnam, and plenty which I had to forego due to scheduling conflicts: Night of the Counting Years, Gance’s J’accuse, Asquith’s great Underground), where is the incentive to travel to the festival, not merely from overseas but even from within the UK? Prioritising the fixed slate of local distribution holdings to such an uneven degree amounts to either wilful cabalism or a lamentable denial of the ever-out-there of global cinema; its far-flung corners, its chancers, its troublemakers, its richness and density.
Nevertheless, saying all that, it’s tempting to assert that the complete screening of Hollis Frampton’s Hapax Legomena (1971-72) offered enough risk, invention and sheer formal rigour to fuel a good few dozen festivals. Viewing the cycle in its total incarnation is an intensive, exhausting experience, perhaps a reminder that Frampton deemed the individual parts “detachable” for commonsensical as much as logistical reasons. Coming second to last, directly after the accelerated image-sound juxtaposition of Ordinary Matter, the one-image-per-frame barrage of Remote Control no doubt achieves its greatest effect (or affect) in this context, surfacing as a pure experience of speed and excess – a visual overload that hurtles toward oblivion. About halfway through the flood of TV captures (soap operas, cop shows, boxed movies, news footage) and barely perceptible video noise, I thought I kept catching glimpses of Robert Ryan embracing Ida Lupino in Ray’s On Dangerous Ground, but had no way of knowing whether I was simply imagining their presence or not. Remote Control visualises the ever-increasing proliferation of images in our culture, and its sheer multiplicity forces the mind to throw down an anchor no matter what. The very indeterminacy of my recognition might well be its point, or at least its riddle – what is cinema if not an endless series of interchangeable light projections, one long film strung out from the Lumières (or would it be Muybridge?) to the present, a hide-out for spectral doubles, disembodied memories and material ghosts? As a whole, what makes Hapax Legomena so unique is that it almost manages to perform the impossible: a complete metahistory of this unwieldy art, from its photographic origins ((nostalgia)), ties to narrative and the written word (Poetic Justice), the essence of drama or central conflict (Central Mass), the eye of its vision (Travelling Matte), the physicality of its movement (Ordinary Matter), the mass reproduction of its objects (Remote Control), and, lastly, the very limits of the frame itself (Special Effects). Closing the cycle, Special Effects’s deafening violent convulsions (four dotted lines pummelling the surface and edges of the image) seemed to protest not only against the arbitrary dimensions of the shape given to the screen, but our very perception and understanding of its potential. Within the context of the rest of the festival, Hapax Legomena put forth a fearless critical manifesto, an argument practically mute elsewhere. Let’s hope somebody was listening.
London Film Festival
14-29 October, 2009
Festival website: http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff/