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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Australian Film Festival - a few thoughts from the AFI AACTA screenings now concluding.

But the big breakthrough came when Barry and I returned from our circumnavigation of the planet and I wrote the most influential page of prose of my life. And I want to remind you about it – because it is my belief that the only way forward for our troubled industry is to retrace those steps and make the same arguments loud and clear
My page began with a piece of nudge nudge wink wink plagiarism – the opening statement of America’s Declaration of Independence. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ Yes, it was a joke. But my page was also a declaration of independence. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident. It is time to see our own landscapes, hear our own voices and dream our own dreams.’
Australian filmgoers had rarely seen their own landscapes on a Hoyts or Greater Union screen. They were much more familiar with the American accents than their own. And when it came to dreams? We knew next to nothing of our own history. Our ignorance of Aboriginal Australia was utter – whereas we knew a great deal about the so-called Red Indians. And when it came to dreaming dreams? Even our heroes were fully imported from the US.  Phillip Adams, Hector Crawford memorial Lecture, 2014 SPAA Conference
I hate to say it but Phillip’s message has been forgotten by far too many people who have anything to do with the film industry as it is today. That doesn’t just include film-makers – writers, directors, producers – it includes Government politicians, government bureaucrats, funding bodies and the endless stream of executive producers, sales agents, distributors and buyers who hang off the industry and try and clip the ticket on the way through.
I got het up when I noticed thanks being given to the Chief Minister of the ACT, Andrew Barr, in an otherwise utterly undistinguished low-budget movie called Blue World Order, screened as part of the Australian Film Festival being presented by the Australian Film Institute  for its AACTA Awards. The young man who introduced the screening whose name I didn’t catch, because his intro started before the advertised screening time, seemed personable enough. He was addressing a crowd of less than twenty and expressed his enthusiasm for making movies very succinctly. Be that as it may, his film like others to be named had all its characters speaking in American accents in a movie set in and around Canberra and its Black Mountain telecommunications tower. These included the American Billy Zane, a regular visitor to these parts who featured in Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm and in The Phantom, plus Jack Thompson and Bruce Spence.
Thirty-six features are up for your consideration in this year’s AACTA prizes and, though there is a general belief that Lion (Garth Davis) will win more than a handful of prizes, the nominations must be shared around. What you would hope for is that the pieces of fake Americana made here in some hopefully misguided view that this is the way to crack some sort of international market are ignored in their entirety.
Chief offender, yet again, is the eternally ubiquitous Antony I Ginnane who has managed, yet again, to convince money people in some Government body somewhere to back his endeavours. This is despite the fact that nowadays he seems to be keen to pull all his old stuff off the shelf. It’s either being done for the first time long after the script was initially written or simply done again. For goodness sake, but it seems to work like clockwork. There it was Bad Blood, “Adapted from a script by Patrick Edgeworth” and I’m sure it was written long ago. The story involves identical twins and so you get two parts from one actor and presumably for the price of one.
The one in this case is played by Xavier Samuel fresh from appearing a mere couple of days before in Cris Jones The Death and Life of Otto Bloom. In that one, which opened the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2016 to what must surely have been general incredulity, the handsome Samuel plays a man with a memory problem. He only ‘remembers’ things which are about to happen not what has gone before. Goodness. There’s an idea.
The good twin, Xavier Samuel, Bad Blood
Samuel’s arduous role playing twins for Ginnane and director David Pulbrook in Bad Blood requires him to adopt at least one American accent. I’m not sure whether he was also trying for a different American voice for the second, evil, twin. The good twin though is a successful young American novelist living in Australia. He seems to have writer’s bloc though that’s eventually understandable when we finally learn that his life involves being stalked, set-up, kidnapped and held in chains by his jealous twin. I am not worried about a spoiler alert because nobody is ever going to go and see this film, ever, anywhere. But it kept the Government supported studios and the SA film community at work and that’s important to be sure.
American accents also abounded in one other piece of work on show. Shane Abbess’s The Osiris ChildScience Fiction Volume One had an American actor in the lead. He is Kellan Lutz and IMDb tells us he got his first TV break with a small role in The Bold and The Beautiful,  and then did The Comeback, Generation Kill (an excellent David Simon mini-series about the Iraq war), Accepted and Prom Night…. His major break came in 2008 when he won the role of vampire Emmett Cullen in the smash hit Twilight (2008), and its subsequent sequels. OK now you know.

It no doubt landed Lutz front and centre in The Osiris ChildScience Fiction Volume One. But sad to say, Lutz makes Jason Statham look like Marlon Brando. The rest of the cast have to affect American accents. They have to deal with being in a movie that has bits and pieces of Star Wars, Alien, Mad Max, Jurassic Park and who knows how many others as its component parts.
And what to make of Greg McLean’s Jungle, another based on a true story movie, this time about an Israeli who rebels against his father and runs off to South America where he gets lost in the Bolivian bush and is finally found more dead than alive after being harassed by nature for much of the film's very long 110 minutes. The lead part of Yossi is played by Daniel Radcliffe who has grown up since Harry Potter, if not upwards, and acquits himself quite well doing an Israeli accent and gradually reducing himself to skin and bone after we’ve seen him in the full bloom when he and his mates take a skinny dip in a river before the real adventure starts.
There is a gruelling realism about life in the jungle especially, though none of the human obsessiveness of a Werner Herzog movie is on show. McLean resists the urge to sensationalise in fact. There's only one shock moment when a snake lunges out of a tree and it's used to demonstrate Yossi's doggedness. But in the end its just four dumb bastards who get lost in the bush and two… hmm.
Daniel Radcliffe, Jungle
This movie is not cynical in the way that Blue World Order is. It tells a gruesome story very straight-forwardly. I don’t imagine there was the same incredulity when this one opened this year’s MIFF though I’m not sure audiences would have, and will, find it a nice night’s entertainment. 

But, to return to Phillip’s thoughts. Why are we spending government money to make cod sub-copies of American movies where our actors are required to adopt yankee accents. Why do we spend taxpayers’ money on the tale of an Israeli lost in the South American jungle? Beats me, especially in a week where ‘the industry’ is holding public meetings in support of a Make It Australian:Our Stories on Screen campaign.

".....It is time to see our own landscapes, hear our own voices and dream our own dreams...."

Sydney Underground Film Festival - Tina Kaufman unearths DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (Bill Morrison, USA, 2017)

I saw this fabulous film at the Sydney Underground Film festival last weekend, a film by Bill Morrison (who I'm feeling guilty about not knowing, but I'm now going to chase up his work!).  Dawson City - Frozen Time, is about a hoard of silent film prints found in the late 70s during excavations in Dawson City, an old gold rush town in the Klondyke in Canada.

The filmmaker tells the fascinating story of Dawson City itself, using lots of archival material - old photographs, newspaper excerpts -from its heyday as gold was discovered and fortunes made, to its decline.  He tells how the films came to be dumped there, how they were found, and how they were rescued and restored. The film is filled with fascinating bits of information, such as how nitrate film was invented, and how it contributed to the many fires that burnt down buildings in Dawson City and of course elsewhere.

But it's the way in which he uses clips from the films that were discovered to illustrate the story in the most wonderful, hypnotic way that is so entrancing. Delirious silent film montages - beautiful clips in astonishingly good condition, apart from the traces of water damage that fray the sides of each clip to a greater or lesser extent - weave together a mad background to what is already a gripping story.

The treasure trove pool in Dawson City
Several hundred reels of volatile nitrate film from the 1910s and ’20s were discovered in the hoard, many presumed to be permanently lost. There were melodramas (The Mysterious Mrs M, The Halfbreed, Polly the Pirate, The Unpardonable Sin, and many others), there were newsreels and even films about frogs and flowers, and Morrison tells the story about the heady days when the town had three cinemas as well as much other entertainment, and how the town's decline meant that the film prints had actually been forgotten, buried underground at a time when their artistic or historical value was not even considered, and he weaves the films themselves beautifully into the story.

Dawson City - Frozen Time is an intricately structured, wonderfully absorbing film that tells a rich and involving history - I just hope it will turn up again soon.  I'm already dying to see it once more.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare is a total enthusiast for Kelly Reichardt's CERTAIN WOMEN

Michelle Williams, Certain Women
The screens show Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and staggering newcomer Lily Gladstone with Laura Dern topping and tailing in Kelly Reichardt's sublime Certain Women from 2016 now released on a flawlessly beautiful Blu-ray by Criterion.  The film was, like all of Reichardt's movies shot on 16mm film - Kodak Vison stock 3 with an Arriflex 416Ss camera for this one. The format and stock gives movies back an entire universe of visible ethereal fine grain, itself an intensely, orgasmically beautiful component of film that's so long been invisible or hidden, and this encode from the 2K DI is a work of great beauty. Her DP on this is Christopher Blauvelt who also shot her previous two pictures.

Kristen Stewart, Certain Women
I've been a big fan of Reichardt since Old Joy, which was released in 2006, and Wendy and Lucy in 2008. SInce then I've seen everything else including the two features before Certain Women, Meek's Cutoff (2010) and Night Moves (2013.) Her entire work is now easy to find and discover on Blu-ray.

The only living American director who comes even close to her for formal and cinematic control today is PT Anderson, but Kelly's world and style is closer to an artist like Raymond Carver and his microscopic emotional lives, rather than Anderson's big subjects. And her geography is not California, or the vast sweep of 20th Century America but the seemingly endless immensity of Montana.

Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
Her characters are often hurt, often unlucky but testy real women whom Reichardt catches in the middle of apparently dead lives that seem to be going nowhere. With Certain Women she's adapted three stories from two volumes of stories, Half in Love and Both Ways is the Only Way I Want by the writer Maile Meloy, I've not read Meloy's stories, but Kelly's adaptations and movies are the closest thing to Raymond Carver the American Cinema (or any other cinema for that matter) could ever hope to achieve.

Laura Dern, Certain Women
I thought Old Joy was and is a masterpiece, and the sheer unspoken-ness of the idea - a friendship that has just been allowed to age and go stale - is such a rarity in the world of movies, and one of so many denied realities amongst men in particular. It also delivers a repeated referral to her material, that is people who might take a chance to connect or change things, but don't, or who ignore a possibility, made all the more painful by the fact they are aware of the choice. She captures a vision of real life which is so hidden yet so universal, which goes beyond dialogue, screenplay and narrative, and even perhaps more intimate cinematic tools of gesture and mood like gesture and shadow. Her formal control is completely astonishing. No more gracefully and empathetically truthful a film maker could one hope to see in the 21st century.

I didn't think any new artist could top the work she did with Old Joy, but Wendy and Lucy (which stars the director's own dog, Lucy.) comes very close.  And to an extent Meek's Cutoff with regular MIchelle Williams and Night Moves although they both seem slightly down for sheer level of inspiration of those earlier pictures are still remarkable works. 

Certain Women however seems to take off all of a sudden, even before you notice it has, with this kind of palpable thrilling but unnerving inevitability and all 107 minutes of its running time becomes a rapid testament to emotion and lost opportunities, always within a "real life" scale of event and rhythm, but never with the grandiose arthouse pretentiousness of pseudo-tragedy so hideously self-indulged by total phonies like that wanker Aronofsky and other current darlings of the festival circuits.

The movie ends with a final credit, like her earlier Wendy and Lucy, with a dedication to Reichardt's dog Lucy, who had recently died (in real life.) As someone with very great wisdom said in an appreciation of the film elsewhere, in the end there's a fourth "Certain woman", who had a dog and made it a star, and then the dog died and she decided to dedicate this to her.
If you haven't discovered Kelly Reichardt, in my opinion one of the very greatest filmmakers working today, you are doing yourself a very grave disservice.
Kelly Reichardt