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Absent Crew: A Filmmaking Experiment

Film&Bone is finally going on holiday. One week in a tiny shack in Northern France.
Nothing’s been packed, little’s been planned but one thing’s been decided.

We’re making a film.

This isn’t a film for anyone in particular. It doesn’t have a storyboard, it doesn’t have a schedule, it doesn’t really have a story but it does has one thing: some rules.

For each ‘scene’ we will have only:

1. One DV camera shooting one shot
2. One Zoom ambient mike
3. One take
5. No script
4. As many different scenarios as it takes to make it interesting

It’s not very original but then that’s not why we’re doing it. We just want to see if we can make a film without a crew, leisurely edited on the fly, with as unprofessional an approach as we can manage.

It’ll be truly amateur, voyeuristic (not in that way) and easy-going. We aren’t going to worry much about lighting or production design or even drama. And we probably won’t worry too much about the rules above. It’s a holiday for gods sake.

Hopefully there will be something to show for it and hopefully we’ll learn something about the advantages or disadvantages of being unprofessional.

Amateur experimentalism.

Sounds good and pretentious

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BULLHEAD (Rundskop) : another sort of Review

It is not very often that films come along that I add to my to-do list, as though they are essential to the short term course of my life plan. Its even less often that the first thing I have to do is go hugely out of my way to source the film because there is no tangible way to get near to seeing it in my country of residence. The UK usually does ok importing foreign language films at some point. You can usually count on Artificial Eye, Tartan or Optimum to take the hit.

Not so far, however, in the case of “Bullhead” (Rundskop), the Belgian contender for the foreign language Oscar, by first time director Michael R. Roskam, that beat the odds, taking the place of the Dardenne’s film “The Boy With the Bike” in the country’s Oscar race. There are currently a couple of trailers floating around for this film. Its been out and about since its native release in 2011, but it was the US trailer, put together no doubt with the help of indie archivers Drafthouse Films, that really caught my eye.
The pulsating fade-cuts and the hypersensitive sound design were heart-grabbing. The preoccupation with flesh and the landscape, the dark underexposed mafiosa scenes mixed into the melancholy sense of rural autarchy turned anarchy made me watch the trailer at least three times.

Once I had procured the film through a network of unnamed sources, in a way that was probably a little too similar to the hormone traficking world of the film, I sat down with breath-held anticipation.

Cut to the otherside, credits rolling, and I was left a little cold. Sure, Bullhead is a film that I will almost certainly revisit, even if simply to see the hulking, bestial performance of Matthias Schoenaerts as the central character Jacky. It is a good film, without doubt, but it is not the abnormal film I had hoped. I had wanted to be shocked and surprised, to come out a little emotionally burnt. Instead, the feeling was one of having spent too little time getting to understand Jacky, or really getting a sense of the moral matrix of the film. Things ended on a rather murky note and not one that convinced me to rethink my idea of clarity.

I did, however, really enjoy the messier elements of the film like the rather comic portrayal of the french speaking garage workers that added a clown like dimension to the drama and complemented the sense of narrative scale rather than detracted. This was the seesaw tragedy of renaissance playwriting where the world could remain absurd and messy despite the monomanical drives of revenge, power and regret that dominated the other strands of plot. It added at times a Jeunet-esque element to the dark brooding. Something almost self-consciously flippantly French to contrast with the heavy trudge of its Flemish counterparts.

If I was going to pick holes in the film, I would really like to flag up the very unlikely transformations of characters from childhood to adulthood. The hormone acceleration of Jacky might account for the transformation from cherubic child to bull-like, roman-nosed adult but the shift between the young and old Bruno, the dangerous, disabled son of the local Boss, was indescribably unlikely. And on top of that the ending had alot to answer for but then I should at least feel sorry for a film that must have kicked itself when it saw itself in the mirror of an uncannily similar penultimate scene in Nicholas Winding-Refyns “Drive”.

Drive, is infact very relevent to Bullhead because however good the film is my main grudge is that we have seen much of this before. What I hoped would be a sincere, brutal and eye-opening exploration of Belgian rural crime became another Tax-Driver-esque journey of revenge and delusion, desire and frustration wading about in crime and repercussion. A winning combination, without a doubt, but I was more surprised and excited by Jason Reitman’s take on individual disenfranchisement-cum-delusion in the uncomfortably dark Young Adult and even that felt its way round the tortured human body with more intuition than Bullhead ever could.

Nothing can take away the fact that there are central performances in Bullhead and a lateral thinking sense of direction that makes it a brilliant example of how to do a certain type of film very well. These elements make it a film that I won’t forget, or file away. At the same time, however, it will always be overshadowed in my mind by David Michod’s 2010 film “Animal Kingdom” where comedy and terrible tragedy sit uncomfortably on top of one another to provide a terrific sense of mounting tension. In Bullhead, much of the tension fails to get any further than Matthias Schoenaerts hormone inflated body and we are left not much more enlightened to the dark channels of capital that run in the vast ranches of Flanders fields.

I really want to feel a world exposed when I see a film that sets a familiar formula in an unfamiliar location. Bullhead just misses the mark but it does so with so much energy and conviction that I’ll be likely to be bumping heads with it again in the future.

MIRAGE by Srđan Keča – A sort of Review (LSFF 2012)

My favourite film from this year’s London Short Film Festival was fairly certainly MIRAGE by Srđan Keča. It was so good I actually caught up with it twice. First in the boiling inferno of the Hackney Picture House hosted ‘Architecture of Reassurance’ Screening (don’t worry I’m sure they’ve fixed the air-conditioning) and second right at the end of the LSFF awards ceremony accompanied by good old Kirin Ichiban after it picked up the Best Documentary Award.

It opens with a sustained shot of bleached desert contours, shifting almost indiscernibly with the wind. It holds the shot. It really holds it and If by this time you’re aware of the fact that it is 40 odd minutes long you would be forgiven for wondering where the nearest exit was. I did. I really, genuinely did. What follows, however, is an absolutely stunning piece of meditative documentary. Thoughtful, quiet and at times very moving the film moves maturely and steadily as it pieces together what Keča calls an ‘iconography’ of the ‘anxiety’ in the urban landscape: here Dubai.

The iconography that collages itself together through the verbatim accounts, letters home, claustrophobic interviews and the floating tracking shots of Keča’s camera takes on a fully spiritual resonance. The excess of Dubai at times becoming an unlikely Cathedral of reverie and optimism and at others emerges from the desert like the corpse of a giant insect civilisation, all iridescent carapace and exoskeleton.

This architectural grandstanding is contrasted with the individual suffering and hope of the migrant workers and the rather worn out hedonistic un-life of the expats.  One languid eyed bikinied expat, caught by Keča in uncomfortable searching close up as she swims at a pool party laughs: ‘This place makes you have so many experiences’ catching the irony of their factory of fun in the hollow phrase. Dubai is figured as a switch board, a lattice of capital intersection. It isn’t a place for individual agency, it ‘makes you’, you don’t ‘make’ Dubai. As one of the Migrant Workers says : ‘there is nowhere to go’.

The film makes the most of these ironies, whether its the golf buggy that travels absurdly small distances carrying its lone golf partner or the terrifying sign that tracks into view as Keča’s camera rides the central monorail. We read:

<< WE BUILD AROUND YOU – DUBAI PROPERTIES >>

a slogan that certainly poses a threat as much as it does a promise. It is the sense that the city is now its own agent, with a ravenous appetite for further development and expansion that makes the film’s ability to get close to some of Dubai’s inhabitants so powerful. One scene mysteriously shows a man in tears at the Western Union exchange, wiping his eyes with his hat, indicated out, without unexplaination by a gruff looking security guard. We have no knowledge of context or history. Another moment has a reveller seemingly filming drag-queen dancers on his phone at an stag-do out in the desert. He appears to be filming the spectacle but the camera lingers over the blue-green mobile screen long enough for us to question whether he really is filming, or rather watching some other kind of entertainment on his mobile device. Boredom in the desert, imported entertainment. The film passes through these captured moments like a dream, scored by the aching strains of Messien, leaning heavily on our imaginations for any kind of reassurance in a place that seems built to reassure. Someone, at least, its hard to know whom.

In the film Srđan Keča marks himself as a visual artist of some stature, composing a long-form portrait of a city that goes some significant way beyond the sneery cliche’s and opposing PR feeds that have defined Dubai in recent years. The picture is humane and penetrative, suggesting levels of documentary access and trust that are seldom achieved at this level of film-making.

It is as he claims, an iconography; austere, stark and lacking in the kind of perspectivism that often just serves to create self-serving drama in less thoughtful documentaries. There is a startling lack of judgement in the camera, and what little there is that smacks of a moral stance is outweighed by the overriding sense of careful puzzled observation. The film is steady but never settles, it shifts uneasily, with a laboured gaze but the sincerity of that view is never compromised. It is a work of startling insight and impressive control which in its sanity, exposes the madness and sadness of its midas-like, prematurely aged subject.

STALKER Syndrome : Tarkovsky and Me

Beware

This is a light-hearted, personally problematic, psychological tale about my experience of watching Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film STALKER (1979). Now I was aware that Tarkovsky was a big deal. Along with Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bela Tarr and the gang he ranks pretty highly in the great director stakes. Someone once said something along the lines of:

<< WHILST BERGMAN COULD ONLY PEEK INSIDE THE DOOR OF THE SOUL, TARKOVSKY QUITE REGULARLY WONDERED ABOUT IN IT AND CHECKED OUT ALL THE FURNINSHINGS >>

This post is basically an attempt to corroborate that statement and share my rather embarrassing reaction to a film regularly credited with changing people’s world view and spiritual outlook. It blew my doors off.

I’ll set the scene.

Today is the day we are going to watch STALKER. I’m pretty excited about the whole thing. My film partner is playing along. She has already seen it. Its early evening so the light is going and by turning all the lights off we manage to achieve a gloamy sort of darkness. We are going for sensory deprivation. We don’t want anything to detract from my EXPERIENCE of STALKER. Its like i’m dropping acid for the first time. I know that by using the word ‘dropping’ I’ve ruled out the possibility of anyone ever believing I have the slightest experience of LSD.

(Family readership – check)

Once we are comfortable on the sofa I realise that we haven’t covered the time code on the DVD player. For most people this is easily ignored. For this STALKER initiate the heightened state of anxiety renders such tolerance impossible. A DVD case is propped in front. Next the indicator light on the TV becomes a problem. Electrical tape solves the problem. Press play.

Big mistake.

Fast forward to the end of the film. The credits are rolling.

‘What did you think?’ my companion asks.

‘I didn’t like it’ I reply, feeling like the world is about to collapse. I find myself scratching my head as though I’m trying to trepan a hole in the skull capable of letting in spiritual understanding. Or any kind of understanding.

‘I just don’t understand’ I reiterate. ‘No…No…uh…No’

My companion is looking me in both horror and disappointment, trying to grasp what the hell is wrong with me. We make some kind of conversation. I can’t recall any of it because I’m having a mild panic attack but trying to let it go unnoticed.

We turn the lights back on, which seems in the moment to be the best idea we’ve ever had.

I’m shivering but again I’m trying to keep quiet about it. I start aimlessly wandering around the living room while my companion escapes to the bathroom, probably to warn as many people as possible about how odd I am. Now I think I’m paranoid. Now I am paranoid, and to make it worse I’m self-consciously paranoid. I’m meta-paranoid.

At this moment, I wish I could say I blacked out or something faintly dignified. Instead I just burst into tears and held on to the only person available (who was incidentally the best), and wept. I just suddenly felt absolutely broken by my inability to understand the thing I had just spent almost three hours giving every inch of my brain power.

Stalker Syndrome

What I decided after this weirded out episode was what made me like the film so much i’ve thought about it a lot in the time since. What STALKER seemed to be an anti-story. The narrative was crafted in such a way that what you experienced refused to lead you anywhere. So you would arrive at a place and the way you had got there would not tell you anything about it. This is obviously analogous to the structure of The Zone, the physics defying setting for the majority of the films action, where Tarkovsky’s filmmaking makes anti-causality its own type of causality, where the sentience of The Zone, overrides the cognitive agency of agent: writer, scientist or stalker, it doesn’t matter. No one’s system of knowledge is sufficient.

As Tarkovsky says somewhere it is a film about LOVE and OBSESSION and probably a little about madness. What I experienced in finishing the film and finding it so bafflingly unsatisfying is a little what the Stalker experiences in leading the others to the room only for them to have such an unexpected (and unexpect-able) reaction (I’ll not completely spoil it). When we presume films will tell the story for us, its a bit of a mind melt when they refuse the idea of story at all, at least in a conventional way. I mean, I know the film has a story. You could write it down, plot it out and so forth, but the way that Tarkovsky handles that narrative makes the experience of its movement intoxicating to the point of nausea. The end is like a kind of vertigo. A stomach churning twist not just in the film, but in watching film itself.

Thats what I found anyway.

Just Something Brilliant : Golden Age Hollywood Outtakes

This is one of the best things I have seen in a long time. Via Margutta 51’s youtube channel has this great video reel of hollywood bloopers neatly categorised into different old school reactions to fluffed lines, mishaps and unexpected events. For me, it’s just great to see the line break between screen acting and documentary. Look at for Stewart and Bogart. Probably the best offenders.

LSFF – Closing Ceremony & Winners

So another London Short FIlm Festival comes to a close (i’d never been to one before so I don’t know why I’m already being nostalgic) and the salty film-makers of 2011 were either rewarded or disappointed for their efforts as we move into another challenging year. Admittedly, i got to the awards ceremony an hour late, its probably not a good idea to go into why, but what I saw of the winners I really enjoyed (and i am still obsessed with festival director Philip Ilson’s red hat, not illustrated)

The short film circuit sure seems healthy if the LSFF is anything to go by. One thing I was a bit surprised at was the excitement surrounding Medeni Griffiths ‘Summit’ that was both highly commended for the top prize (British Council Award for Best New Short) and won the Underwire award for best female character. The film was a gem, thats hard to deny, but didn’t really live up to the standard or boldness of the other films shortlisted (Neil Maskell’s – Shitkicker for example). The best female character award was also a little puzzling as Medeni’s character seemed neither well developed or ‘refus[ing] to be a victim’ as the spokesperson for underwire claimed. I will try an post up a full review of what i thought was a oddly slight film but one that has clearly gathered a lot of attention. Maybe i missed something. Then I’ll get on to the good stuff: Mirage, Hey Bobby, Shitkicker et al.

Until then, check out the Summit sizzle reel: