EIFF

EIFF 2013: A Story of Children and Film

Following the making of his fifteen and a half hour epic documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey - a project that took six years to shoot – Mark Cousins made the poetic film essay What is this film called Love? in just three days, a film that was a meditation on the nature of happiness (among other things). What is this film called Love? functioned as a kind of creative palate-cleanser for Cousins and, unlike the herculean effort of The Story of Film, was spontaneous, unplanned. A Story of Children and Film (that indefinite article is important) feels, in more ways than one, to be a meeting of the two films, a historiography of cinema through a personal prism, prompted by a chance incidence of home recording.

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

The film was inspired by an unplanned recording of Cousins’ niece and nephew playing in his Edinburgh flat one morning and takes its structural queues from the themes he found in this ad hoc footage (and then some). These themes encompass shyness, social class, the strop, enacted parenting, conflict, dreams and adventure (among others). In his distinctive and captivating (captivated, even) Ulster brogue, Cousins leads us through fifty-one films from Denmark in the ‘40s (Palle Alone In The World), Iran in the ‘70s (Two Solutions For One Problem), Japan in the ‘90s (Children In The Wind) and the USA of the current decade (Moonrise Kingdom); his selection encompasses directors as diverse as Bill Douglas, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel to explore his chosen themes.

At one point the unnatural (actually somewhat creepy) performance of Shirley Temple in Irving Cummings’ Curly Top is contrasted with Margaret O’Brien’s bum note laden duet with Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St Louis, Cousins remarks that "We are spellbound by [O’Brien]” – we are, but we’re spellbound by this film too, entirely apposite given its subject; we marvel with childlike wonder at both children in cinema and at cinema itself. This only serves to illustrate and underline the thrust of the film, “Could it be that kids are movies? That the movies are kids?” That would be an eye-rolling moment had these questions come at the end of a film that did not so subtly nudge us towards this conclusion all the way through, and it’s a very convincing argument, beguilingly executed. Cinema in its purest experience is open to the world and open to everyone, everything; it is egalitarian, simple, profound, honest, fantastical - these qualities only get disrupted when adults (or, perhaps, ‘adults’) get in the way.

Andrew R. Hill

EIFF 2013: Leviathan

A documentary that is prefaced with a quote from The Book of Job rarely creates anticipation for a light-hearted romp. Leviathan begins with such a quote in white text on black, an extract from chapter 41 regarding the titular beast. We fade to black; deep metallic groaning as water laps in surround sound, light leaks in, red and then an image forms: waves, the deck of the boat, a fisherman’s gloved hands – our hands in fact, as the camera’s eye is the fisherman’s. We’re hauling in a catch, an enormous net, the trawler leaning toward the sea. We could go in those waves at any moment and then, apparently, we do. Have we gone overboard? No – this camera moves about as it pleases, possessing fishermen, swimming in the wake of debris, climbing nets, writhing among gawp-mouthed fish, defying gravity. The camera is our narrator. From that slow fade in, we plunge into a semi-psychedelic miasma of images and sounds, edited into a practically seamless hallucination. This is no ordinary documentary.

Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

In acid-droppers’ parlance, this is a bad trip. The fishermen live on a knife edge, everything is poised on the brink of destruction at all times, it’s dark and it’s wet and it’s choppy as hell. The camera eye, our eye, is unflinching: fish writhe and suffocate, and are beheaded and gutted with ruthless efficiency by the fishermen – in this initial sequence – mostly faceless, sou’westered automatons. The physicality of their job combined with the harshness of their environment makes it hard to believe they’re human sometimes. In one grimly hypnotic sequence, two fishermen remove the fins from stingrays, hooking them through the eye, hacking off the fins and then throwing the three dismembered pieces into buckets - hook, hack, chuck; hook, hack, chuck; hook, hack, chuck – a (presumably) routine process in their day’s work, a routine of metronomic brutality. Later, we see blood and slurry pouring from the side of the boat, back to the sea.

The unsettling horror sequence of the first hour is abruptly interrupted and the film turns round into a more human affair. The fishermen, below deck for the most part, are now human; they still conduct their business in a well-worn manner but we can see their bare faces: physically and emotionally exhausted, damp and hollow eyed. Fish are processed, cranes are operated, incomprehensible New England gutturals exchanged. A hefty, moustachioed man in a vest blankly watches television beneath deck, he doses off and we’re in another frame of consciousness again. A slow-motion, woozy drift, the camera floats in and around the ship, in and out the black water - is this the fisherman’s dream? Is it ours?

To call Leviathan a documentary is in many ways inadequate, a convenience of categorisation. But while it does so in an extraordinary, hypnotic, hypnagogic manner, it actually cuts to the heart of its subject matter by simply showing us, unencumbered by narration or a narrative. In among the viscera of the operations of the boat, we feel the brutality of nature and the brutality of industrialised human consumption. To call Leviathan a horror film is something of an exaggeration too but it might be just as accurate as calling it a documentary: like the best horror films, one is relieved when it’s all over - but the pull of the dark currents, the impulse to plumb those depths again, recurs too.

 Andrew R. Hill  

EIFF 2013: FRANCES HA

“This apartment is very aware of itself”. A throwaway comment; a not-so-casual insight into the realm of one of the EIFF's biggest films.

Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha has so far been received with glowing reviews – critics have even invoked the spirit of 'sacred masters' like Woody Allen's Manhattan (it's shot in black and white and deals with the emotional struggles of aimless pseudo-intellectuals), and François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (the plot is episodic, the opening  montage has a light-hearted freshness that recalls the early work of the French director, and we even hear the work of much-loved composer Georges Delerue).

 

Image courtesy of Metrodome   

Image courtesy of Metrodome

 

Greta Gerwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old who lives in New York and works as an apprentice for a modern dance company. She seems reasonably content with her life until her best friend Sophie decides to move on with her life and leave their flat. Frances soon realises that she is not equipped for dealing with the challenges of adulthood (“I am not a proper person yet”): she is clumsy, has a penchant for saying the wrong things at the wrong time, and is constantly defined by her closest male friend as 'undateable'. We follow her journey through five different locations – the film is structured in five chapters, all opening with a title card providing the new address Frances lives at: Baumbach seems obsessed with the concept of personal space and what it says about people. The protagonist's struggles begin when she can no longer afford the flat she shared with her best friend and end when she finally gets her own place and puts a label with her name on to her new post box (she can't quite fit her full name in the provided space – a visual gag that not only gives the film its title, but perhaps also a comment on her skewed attempts at being  a 'proper' adult).

Even if at times she seems a bit like a a stereotypical 'adorkable' lead character, it's hard not to sympathise with Frances, as she is surrounded by self-absorbed and narcissistic rich pseuds. Unfortunately this is when film's lightness of touch becomes a weakness.  Just as we begin to see our protagonist crack under the pressures she faces and we start scratching beyond the bitter-sweet hipster surface, Baumbach goes for the easy way out and opts for a lazy sugar-coated resolution. It's a shame, because the sequences that have real emotional depth could have conjured a much more interesting portrayal of what is like to  grow up and realise that your dreams might be unachievable. The sequence where Frances awkwardly describes her ideal relationship is genuinely moving as her idealised vision of love completely contradicts what we have seen on screen; her meeting with a disillusioned and drunk Sophie in their old college surroundings is also an impressive portrayal of the fragility of relationships.

 

Frances Ha will be distributed in the UK by Metrodome. It is an Audience Award nominee at the EIFF.