The unpredictable notion of control is beneficial for conflict in storytelling, particularly in the features and documentaries of the 22nd Revelation Perth International Film Festival, seemingly spilling out of them into real life. The rainy stormy opening night was appropriately heralded by the submarine disaster film Kursk (Thomas Vinterberg, 2019). Revelation’s control over the programming and events were exemplary as always, but the control seen on screen was of another nature – compliant audience members can do nothing but gaze as it slips further and further away, without a chance of re-equilibrium.
This sort of plot instigation can be an essential key of genre films, particularly gritty crime capers, something that a festival like Revelation isn’t often warm to, but S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete (2019) snuck in like a Trojan horse, retaining a ‘70s American inner-city edge, but dressed up in a European sense of pacing and precision. Saving best for last (and here in this article starting with the best), its last session ended this year’s festival with a bang, though a very sustained and elongated bang, not the exciting climatic kind, but one that violently unearths the quietened economic frustrations of these characters (none of whom can be safely labelled as a ‘protagonist’).
On paper, this sure sounds too much like an action genre piece to be ‘festival’ worthy: Brett (Mel Gibson) and Anthony (Vince Vaughn) are two on-the-street cops, forced into robbing from the robbers when they’re put on suspension (without pay) and are both in desperate need of finance. But this kind of tale, laid out so simplistically and even logically, wouldn’t warrant its 160 minute run-time if it weren’t for Zahler’s air-tight control over the spacious timing that brings in breathing room and a ponderous atmosphere.
Zahler and co. have ironed out the few problems that have been in his previous films. Benji Bakshi’s unglamorous desaturated cinematography of Bone Tomahawk has now evolved into stunning work here, displaying the climatic forty-five minute shoot-out across a gorgeously lit anamorphic canvas, with the master shots in particular benefiting from the cinema’s grand screen. Coming from a literature background, Zahler’s films are all certainly written, with each line as precisely scribed as Bakshi’s precisely staged shots, accentuating what little class these morally questionable characters have. Dragged Across Concrete is one of those rare special kind of films – it can portray a boring circumstance like stakeouts without ever being boring itself, and that’s mostly thanks to Zahler’s dead-pan humour that is executed with equal stone-facedness by the leading men (“The best part of a stakeout, other than when it ends, is when you’re eating,” Anthony claims as he scoffs down a pastry delight, to which Brett replies “a single red ant could’ve eaten that faster”). ‘Faster’ isn’t Zahler’s M.O., but his own melding of arthouse aesthetics and grindhouse content continue to make him carve his own accessible, yet unique corner of thrilling slow-burn cinema.
One of the main-stays of Revelation over the years has been the films of Ben Wheatley, which have all appeared at the festival since Kill List (2011). His work has covered crime-horror, acid-western, sci-fi satire, action-farce, and now with Happy New Year Colin Burstead (2019), he’s reverted back to simple drama-comedy, utilising his very simple docu-drama cinema verite style to allow the actors and dialogue to do most of the cinematic work. Conceptually, he’s stripped back any fancy distractions or gimmicks, this film playing out similarly to Free Fire (2017), but with the bullets replaced with family-centred insults, outbursts, and confessions. More than any of his previous films, this focuses the most on both illustrating the varyingly tense relations between characters and on featuring the jokiest dialogue. It’s to the credit of Wheatley’s screenplay and directing that he can dive so thoroughly into the characters whilst keeping up the highest level of humour that he’s ever had in his filmography, though this level of unrelenting cringe may be in his British DNA, with Mike Leigh’s TV-movies (Abigail’s Party, Grown-Ups) and Ricky Gervais’ The Office no doubt acting as influences.
After so many family tensions reach boiling point, the climax is a small let-down, resulting in an overly-ambiguous third-act-less “is that it?!” kind of ending. Wheatley caps all things off similarly to the rushed endings from Ken Loach, simply opting out once the drama reaches its depressing zenith. But this underwhelming ending is smoothed out by a terrific end credits sequence, representing the behind-the-scenes joys, but the stark contrast in partying imagery and mournful music perfectly summarises the dual moods this film constantly and consistently provides. Happy New Year Colin Burstead was filmed under its original title, Colin You Anus (as it’s loosely based on the Shakespeare play ‘Coriolanus’), which clearly has more attention-grabbing appeal, but really, Colin isn’t the only character who’s an anus, and he’s certainly not the biggest one. He can do his best controlling the party and the estate it’s being held in, but he can’t control the anuses that are his family and their extended members.
Taking ownership over our own bodies and musing over how they may be controlled was a comforting theme for Chained for Life (Aaron Schimberg, 2018), despite being rendered confusing and frustratingly incomplete. The ‘behind-the-scenes’ comedy subgenre tempts an insular sensibility with plenty of film set in-jokes, and Chained for Life is yet another perpetrator, though it still clearly has the intention to set itself apart from similar films because of its serious humanistic overtones that it still treats light-heartedly.For this film within the film, a variety of disabled actors are on set of a schlocky ‘mad scientist during wartime’ horror to play the parts of the ‘freaks’, who one night borrow (without asking) the camera to make their own film. Chained for Life is engaged in the act of acting and how our own fleshy vessels inform such performances – one of its best moments is actually the opening crawl of a Pauline Kael quote that comments on how much an advantage traditionally beautiful people have in the world, especially if they are actors.
One delight of this film was the return of actor Adam Pearson (who showed up for Q&As at each of the four screenings), a campaigner who then broke into acting as The Deformed Man in Under the Skin (2013, which also played at Revelation), and permeates this otherwise undecided and unconfident film about ‘others’ and their representation with an effortlessly humane and humble presence. Chained for Life has meaningful intentions, but never goes beyond just scratching the surface of its themes or satisfyingly completing their natural journey, with the guerrilla film made by the disabled cast getting little pay-off.Even digging down into the less serious subject matter, its world of filmmaking it presents is haphazardly realised. Most film-within-films in these behind-the-scenes films are portrayed as terrible, though very few actually realistically terrible. The horror film the characters are making features the usual, from melodramatic acting to overly self-serious writing to clearly insensitive portrayal of the failed experiment ‘monsters’, but it’s unfortunately not believable as anything other than a purposefully terrible film. Behind-the-scenes kind of films like these usually purport to be cineliterate, so it’s a tad embarrassing if they’re getting even the basics of the filmmaking technical aspects confused. The film-within-a-film here is shot on a humorously miniscule digital camera, yet the dailies that are later seen are clearly shot on 16mm (like the rest of the film). Such indecisiveness all round make Chained for Life stuck between two forms of storytelling: it’s certainly not non-narrative, but it’s ambling enough to convince you otherwise. The only through-line is the hospital where the filming takes place, but the melding of the worlds (between traditionally beautiful stars and the disfigured co-actors) comes to a finish that confuses inconclusiveness for ambiguity.
Some of the nature documentaries in the programme could be seen as a bridge between the features and documentaries, offering up mysteriousness and obliqueness as they’re comparatively less talkative or directly informative than the other documentaries. Revelation 2019 traversed from the vast dead-woods of the Baltic Sea in Acid Forest (Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, 2018) to the raging oceans and monolithic ice structures of Lake Baikal in Aquarela (Victor Kossakovsky, 2018), the latter of which is a thoroughly wet on-screen journey, yet still comes across as a dry cinema experience.
Its best moments are the first and last segments, the beginning establishing a story of tension and nervous humour as workers try to keep themselves and their vehicles from slipping through the glacier they are stood upon. The ending is more scattered with its images, but traverses suddenly between disparate cultures, showing the different responses (aversion or acceptance) to nature’s brutal watery behaviour. But between the two, making up the majority of the runtime, is an array of giant waves upon waves, along with glaciers and ice islands, that repetitively wash by the screen and speakers, the tedium putting (or boring) the audience into a meditative state.
I guess the filmmakers unfortunately couldn’t find quite enough odd and arresting images to make up a feature length film, because they had enough for about twenty-five minutes worth: an SUV, full of miscellaneous junk, being pulled out of the water from underneath a glacier; very calmly gliding through the desolate humanless main streets nearby a Hilton Hotel and a Burger King as its ravaged by Miami’s mighty Hurricane Irma; pigs and dogs sadly cornered on a house’s porch surrounded by a flood; and the mesmerising concluding footage of the impossibly towering and imposing waterfall that is Venezuela’s Angels Falls. To interject a climate change message in reading Aquarela’s messy array of nature-acting-badly images would be a cinch, its visceral and assaultive cinematography and sound design tying into our current tale of nature vs. man. Though Aquarela may try to convince you its key fascination is with the power of water around the world, its actual fascination may be more withthe power of contemporary filmmaking technology.
Revelation is never lacking in documentaries on the arts, with filmmaking itself getting a generous six entries. Memory: Origins of Alien (Alexandre O. Philippe, 2019) was the most special, not because of itself, but because it played alongside the classic 1979 sci-fi horror. Beginning with an alarming, yet deceptive opening showing a kind of oddball organic reframing of the alien birthing cycle, this unusual and insubstantial homage is thankfully ignored as the documentary then takes a more standard approach, running through some reasonably intriguing analyses of this forty year old film, though not intriguing enough to be appropriate outside of a podcast or YouTube video.
Alongside them were a handful of ever-enlightening behind the scenes revelations, the only scene inspected from a production stand-point was the most famous: the chestburster scene, interspersed with interviews with Tom Skeritt and Veronica Cartwright, clarifying the “improvisational” nature of the scene’s filming – they knew projectile blood gushing would be involved, but weren’t too sure where it’d be sprayed once the cameras were rolling. Appropriately for a classic film involving one of the great body horror moments, my own lack of control over ill health proved problematic, with my screening of this documentary disrupted by pain, and had me absent for the one-time screening of Alien afterwards. I dipped in and out of its second half, treating my own chestburster, and didn’t quite catch an overarching theme to this analysis/retrospective film – perhaps there is none, and the seemingly unending analyses from the variety of critics, professors, and podcasters featured in the documentary prove how much can be mined from a film, especially a powerful genre film like Alien.
With one documentary revolving around a single film, the other documentaries-on-films were expanded out to cover entire filmographies (or warped careers). British documentarian Mark Cousins is one of the key names for his insights into the spectacular corners of the film world, so the exhaustive-sounding The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018) sounded like no mere reiteration of the legendary filmmaker’s work, but a tangential Montage of Heck-esque approach that closely observes the illustrations he created that were not in his first (or second or third) area of artistic expertise. Despite Cousins’ name attached to this documentary dedication to Welles, it was hard to get excited about the unearthed storyboard-esque scribbles and doodles Welles made for his films, unless you’re a fan of every single artistic excretion he ever produced.
I instead went for that documentary’s polar opposite, something with a precise and undistracted focus on the great work from a great man: The Great Buster. Written, directed, and thankfully narrated by the bed-time story voiced Peter Bogdanovich, The Great Buster’s only subversion from any other hagio-doco is that it saves the best for last, chronicling Buster’s on-stage career from his early days to his first foray into acting (and later directing) with Fatty Arbuckle, then skips his artistic high throughout the 1920s, Bogdanovich telling us we’ll return after we’ve been through the lesser-known third act of Buster’s life (which is the usual unfortunate third act for many artists and filmmakers – betrayals, shoddy company deals, alcoholism, health issues, the usual stagnation in quality). If you happen to have seen and are extremely familiar with every one of Buster’s short and feature films, then this documentary wouldn’t be of much use for you. Otherwise, it’s refreshing to have a documentary about a film star that simply shows the highlights of their work – it may sound easy and cheap, but no-one can describe the antics of Buster Keaton better than seeing the man in his films for himself.
Amidst these greats in filmmaking, whose works and lives have been thoroughly combed over in retrospectives, the sexually explicit Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk finally got the documentary he’s deserved, one that uncovers and evaluates his immense contribution to erotic cinema, as well as his aversion to it. Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (Kuba Mikurda, 2018) is an amiable, if spotty account of his career that takes a gleeful delight in the outrageousness of the sexual content he put on the virgin silver screen, yet also makes a point to separate his analogical and somewhat classy erotic films from traditional trashy ‘erotic films’ of this era. There’s plenty of footage from Immoral Tales (1973) and The Beast (1975) to be seen, and as you may expect, the Beast’s costume (penis, testicles, fake semen and all) is examined and even unearthed at the Swiss Film Archive, where it casually lays nearby many old film projectors and statuettes of the Simpsons family.
With these two most popular of his films explored, Love Express unfortunately has blank spots in its otherwise commendable chronology of Borowczyk’s filmography, with certain underseen works of his appearing and others not. There’s plenty of his early animated work on display, his cut-and-paste stop-motion appropriately complemented by interviewee Terry Gilliam’s praise, and afterwards some footage from his first non-animated feature Goto, Island of Love (1968) that illustrates how his animated aesthetic transitioned to live action filmmaking. But unfortunately, there is little evidence of his first animated feature Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre (1967), Blanche (1971), orThe Story of Sin (1975), with no footage seen of these films and only intertitles referencing them at all. The ‘disappearance’ in the title may refer to the great irony of his career, one that sadly marked his directorial career downfall from which he never recouped: his “erotic” films were merely representative of new-found liberations, as opposed to the financial lucrativeness of erotic exploitation like the ‘Emmanuelle’ series. Then Borowczyk is disgraced when his film starring Sylvia Kristel and Joe Dallesandro, The Margin (1976),is affixed with the alternative name Emmanuelle 77 in West Germany. And then Borowczyk, succumbing to the financial state of erotic films, went on to direct Emmanuelle 5 (1987), which had him storm off the set when hardly much had been filmed – he later claimed that his “film within a film”, entitled ‘Love Express’, that opens it up is the only true part that he directed. These revelations make Love Express towards its end a frustrating watch, not to the documentary’s fault, but because of how Borowczyk become yet another landmark filmmaker whose work was unjustly undersung and only become regarded as he should’ve been years after the fact.
Alongside these greats of filmmaking were their outsider counterparts, like The Insufferable Groo (Scott Christopherson, 2018), about a man who has directed far more films than Orson Welles, Buster Keaton, and Walerian Borowczyk put together, though they’re of the more run-and-gun shoot-from-the-hip brand of filmmaking, a no-budget kind of charm and relentless dedication that attracted the attention of Jack Black, Groo’s new biggest fan. Genres were also broken open and vivisected, such as Romantic Comedy (Elizabeth Sankey, 2019) that takes a nostalgic dive through this genre in cinema history (through mostly the ‘80s and ‘90s), unpacking what makes them so attractive and repellent to audiences (mostly women), whether at a young susceptible age or an older and more discerning age. The 43 minute Extra-Terrestrials Ecologies (Retroflections: The Astronaut, The Robot, The Alien) (2018, Ralo Mayer) similarly and personally explored its chosen genre, but in what looked like a more avant garde essay film fashion, examining the relationship between science fiction and factual science – very fitting, given Revelation 2019’s programme of older sci-fi films, like The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Quiet Earth (1985), Things To Come (1936), and the aforementioned Alien.
Moving away from films and filmmakers (esoteric or not) to heroes of the real-world, XY Chelsea (2019, Tim Travers Hawkins), as the title may indicate, was unfortunately less a documentary about the greatest leak in USA history and more a documentary about the person that devised the greatest leak in USA history.Some of the details into how Chelsea Manning explored the various files and managed to move them from the military’s computer system are put under a light, though this documentary doesn’t feel it has any conviction to inform viewers of any of the leaked material other than what we very likely already know – the Baghdad Airstrike footage is shown here, but no light at all is cast on the other very illuminating material. And as this documentary captures much of the time of Chelsea through her release from prison, her assimilation back in the world, coping with her sudden fame and infamy, and lastly her foray into politics, this spends much time acting as a character study at the cost of otherwise spending this time unpacking not just the leaked material itself, but the ethics of such widespread mass leaking, which is a very new phenomenon that is worth a timely examination. Similarly to Citizenfour (2011), an exposé like this is privileged with intimate footage of the whistleblower, though unlike Citizenfour, not of any of the whistleblowing itself. Also unlike Citizenfour, Chelsea isn’t humbly taking a back-seat so the documentary can focus on the leaked materials, but instead her trials and tribulations are given far more dramatic priority than the content of the leaked materials themselves – given their historical importance, this makes XY Chelsea feel all the more poorly uninformative.
With a misguidedly suspicious question mark in the title, Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, 2018) actually has zero qualms about any praise towards Satan, Lucifer, the Devil, Uncle Nick, or just the general codes of Satanism (as Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves mentions, Satan himself is merely proverbial and the group are now stuck with this red-skinned devil-horned character). It presents a grounded and calmly thoughtful insight into the workings and philosophies of this modern belief system and the atheistic Church of Satan, and gets to gleefully intersperse archival footage of the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, showing how the push-back against this misunderstood and crudely maligned religion has ultimately failed and Satanism now thankfully has an assured place in the United States. But the tale Hail Satan? hinges on regards the unconstitutional merging of state and church, which occurs when in 2015 the Oklahoma State Capitol erected a monument depicting the Ten Commandments. The Church of Satan decide to protest this in the cheekily mocking manner that they ought to be known for – by proposing their own monument to be erected beside it, one that’s far more radical, shocking, and very much more badass.
As a Satanist historian interviewee claims, this fairly new and fairly esoteric religion thrives on its parodic power, used to highlight the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the traditional religions, and he suggests that the actions on behalf of this Church are clearly the work of politically-minded trolls. This protest demonstrates two identifiable aspects of this contemporary non-ecumenical religion/subculture: their cheekiness and playfulness that isn’t steeped in any archaic tradition; and their willingness to police traditional religions and the government when they act unconstitutionally. Some Satanists are shown to go even further and more seriously with their activist means, such as Satanic Temple spokesperson Jex Blackmore, though director Penny Lane sets her sights more on the communal aspect of the widely-growing community, a diverse range of ex-Christians, ex-Muslims, and agnostics alike who are unified by their calm and sensible temperament when criticising other religions, which is in blatant contrast to the hysterical and deceptive fear-mongering that Christians and Catholics attacked them with in the ‘80s (and continue to do so, but thankfully now with little success).
Humans are now in a peculiar part of history where predicted fears over artificial intelligence (as expressed through fiction) are now coming to fruition. With the industrial and service usage of robots becoming increasingly more complex and ubiquitous (and certainly more dangerous), humanity’s control over this spiritually and existentially reflexive creation is now examined through their manslaughter habits. The Truth About Killer Robots (Maxim Pozdorovkin, 2018) hinges itself on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (taken from his seminal sci-fi novel I, Robot) that each concern themselves with not harming humans, which come into uncomfortable conflict with the robot-related deaths this documentary highlights. Pozdorovkin merely uses these rules as guides through robotic manslaughter that is alarmingly on the rise (though there is no mention of robot on robot killings, like the robot security-guard that was killed by a self-driving car recently), but it doesn’t use them for any deep reflection. Very few philosophers and futurists appear as interviewees, pontificating on where this volatile human-robot relationship is heading (and how fast it’s travelling there), instead most interviewees are engineers explaining the basics of robot functionalities, particularly for how they work for the less exciting jobs like automated hospitality (scenes of which definitely trigger ‘uncanny valley’). But as we soon face more similar documentaries that chronicle our furthering co-existence with our robot counterparts, the simultaneously alarmist and relaxed approach The Truth About Killer Robotstakes may likely make it fall into obscurity. Its focus is too broad, as it also aims to uncover the truth about non-killer robots (unless making a killer slice of pizza counts).
Why knows what will kill us first: robots, climate change, or, as we always expected, each other? The exact predicted moment of the end of the world as we know it is highly contested, but in this meantime, films are one of our main gateways into watching this corrosive slip of control. When we are all gone, our films will likely remain and they can tell the tale of how we loved to watch it all go wrong.
The cinemas in Perth are even more attentive at bringing in some of the festival highlights to their screens for those who missed out or wish to experience them at full cinematic capacity again. With a handful of films from this year’s Perth International Arts Festival now getting a wider release (with what looks like even more than in previous years), many of the forward-thinking features and documentaries from this year’s Revelation Festival will more than benefit from a wider release later on, particularly as many of them are only becoming more relevant as time goes on.