Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Shadows 2009-2011: R.I.P.?

Actually the last day of MIFF 2009, but I thought the pout matched my mood.
 From autumn 2009 to summer 2011 I projected movies on to a wall and then a screen at a gallery in Collingwood. I had a conviction about the need for an alternative cinema experience somewhere between a dvd night and the long gone arthouses of this town. It was meant to be both relaxed and challenging. Going by the people I met while doing this, talking and drinking with them, I got the message that I was doing a pretty good job.

I screened my last at ABC Gallery in December 2011 with the understanding that if continued in the same venue in 2012 it would have to be on a night other than the usual Friday as mine host Milos needed the night to spend more time with his son. That outranked my film night so I began thinking of putting feelers out for a similar venue. If I'd been planning to try to talk Milos around to resuming on Fridays with a different frequency those plans were dashed with his plummeting fortunes in January 2012 when he suffered a stroke and was given two weeks notice to quit the gallery. (If you think I'm being frivolous about this issue, read the previous two posts.)

I made a tentative query to the folk at Long Play in North Fitzroy who were generous with their information and open to discussion. Their discouragement of Friday as a regular night was given with pragmatic reasons but were happy to discuss other nights of the week. They are kept in mind. There are other avenues and existing options that I will be investigating over the next few months. But things have changed for me, as well.

First, I have been working on my graphic novel The Monsoons for years now and I am using this hiatus from Shadows as an opportunity to finish it. My blog Monsoon Days, detailing the process and background, is also taking up both time and enthusiasm.

Second, I'll have to confess to some exhaustion where Shadows is concerned. This has nothing to do with my love of sharing these films. And I haven't run out of them. It does have to do with the fact that even in 2011, when my lowest numbers were higher than the average attendances of the previous years, I perceived a drop in the audience which was only indirectly related to its size. The drop I've been noticing is in the acceptance of the very material the night was established to offer.

I had one curatorial goal in mind with Shadows and that was the message that cinema is a blank canvas. It's just a medium. A painting doesn't have to resemble its subject literally. A poem doesn't have to rhyme. Music does not need melody. Cinema does not need narrative, even if it's fiction. So, if a movie plays fair by declaring itself in the first ten or so minutes to be outside of convention, don't judge it through convention. I'm sorry if that offends anyone but it's just common sense.

No one needs a degree to understand that something's out of the ordinary. And if you do understand that, isn't it better to ask why it took that different path rather than complain about it as though all films are an extension of the general service industry and should be made to a tiny set of standards? I began to receive so much intolerance of the diversity I was trying to celebrate that I had to concede that I'd failed. At best, I was providing entertainment in a homey environment. Nothing wrong with that, it's fun, it's just that my purpose had been knocked out of the ring. So while I still relish the idea of putting on adventures in movies, for the moment, in this breath, I also dread it.

I know, I know. It wasn't you. And it wasn't every night. I was frequently gratified to find some difficult pieces met with open arms. I also learned to include titles that would please rather than stimulate and there was more than a little resignation involved in this. See, I didn't want to establish some rarefied circle of connoisseurs, I wanted to take the kind of thing typically considered exclusive, and reach out with it, demonstrate that, for all its obscurity or idiosyncrasy, this or that film had real things to offer, "quality" and high culture be buggered.

This means that, however temporarily, I am back to doing the thing I wanted to extend rather than rely on, dvd nights in with friends. I love doing that but loved more the opportunity of using the current accessible technology to go beyond my circle of friends to any who could make it to the dark of the screenings to taste something new.

So, I might be back but if I am it won't be for months yet and I have no idea where. Meantime you could do worse than check out Screen Sect at Bar Open, Fitzroy, Cine Cult at 303 High St, Northcote and the ones who almost stole my title, Shadow Electric at the Abbotsford Convent. I know I will be.

That vented, I thank you, I thank you all: ye comers and bummers, cinematic gourmands and holiday makers in unfamiliar climes, ye textbook bashing guardians of form and cine-Pollyannas, ye scriveners and disciples of the sprocket and the perforation, ye slaves unto the image, ye spielers of the spool, ye custodians of cool, ye talkers, ye baulkers, ye seven-rule chalkers, ye teachers, preachers, screechers and beseechers of the flickered visage, ye tickled and ye soured, ye bored and snoring sailors of the rapid eye movement, ye bold invigorated, ye toe-testing newbies, ye architects of new sensation whose thrill-quest beats the scoobies, ye dogmagogues and spirit-chasers, ye dipsos of the framerate, ye critics and ye cynics and ye early-cab-sav mimics, ye mudrakers and champions, ye hedonites and scions, and all ye blazing grenadiers of the shadows who came to see and hear and yell and drink and laugh and silently consume the light before you and all the sounds around you in the spirit of the adventure of the Notion: thanks for coming.


This one IS from a Shadows night. Meg, Dean and Kate.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Milos on the mend: slow but sure

Chris, Sonia and I went to visit Milos on Saturday afternoon. He's currently in the St George branch of St Vincents out in Kew. Having heard little of his developing condition I had only the vaguest notion of what to expect but when we got to his room we found him awake and pleased to have company, sitting in a motorised wheelchair. It had been reclined for his comfort. He looked like a suburban dad in it.

He launched straight into the story of how he came to be there, the morning when he woke dizzy and wobbly which degenerated into the stroke that got him. Very luckily, his co-tenant Alexander realised something was wrong and he was hospitalised within an hour of the attack. With strokes the sooner they are treated the better chances of recovery.

He came to in hospital, disorientated and unfocused, confusingly not in control of his movements or will. The days that followed brought details back to him in the form of memories returning as well as visitors. He says he remembers the visit that Miriam and I made but my own memory includes experience of his tact.

If I had worried that we would be staring around the room in silence for an hour I needn't have. Milos told us of the attack, the days in hospital and being brought here to Kew where he will be for perhaps another two months in recovery. What this means is that you have that time to pay him your own visit, if you can. He will greatly appreciate it.

He jokingly asked me when my next screening was on and while I left that at a smile, one thought led to another  and Sonia suggested getting a portable dvd player. We went thirds in one just after the visit. I'd told him I had relabelled some of the old Shadows discs to make them more recognisable and put them in a satchel. I'll add a few more to the collection and we'll deliver the player and discs within the next week. (Could you part temporarily with a dvd or two while he's there?)

One thing that hasn't been affected by the stroke is the Milosian sense of daily comedy. He told us he'd been banned from operating the wheel chair as he kept hitting other patients while he was distracted by the pictures on the wall and the better looking nurses. So he's back to L plates.

Just after he had been relocated from St Vincents in Fitzroy to the Kew facility he waited in his room, examining the walls. A doctor came in to check his chart. She was Indian, and beautiful. An hour later a cleaner came in to set up the adjoining bathroom. She was Indian. Shortly after that a pair of nurses came to help him into bed. Both Indian and pleasing to the eye. Later in the afternoon a decidedly Anglo doctor came in and asked a question to test his sense of orientation: "Do you know where you are?" asked the doctor.

"India," said Milos flatly.

It was probably the first occasion when his temporary incapacity to smile fully served his humour faithfully.

A visit or series of them would help to exercise those facial muscles, methinks.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Goodbye, ABC: Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Milos

Those of you who came to have such fun at the last Shadows Screening of 2011 and were there for my introduction will recall that I suggested that it would be the last screening for the year but perhaps also forever. Well, I'm glad you remember that as it will serve to cushion the blow I'm about to deliver. Actually, two blows and, considering the focus of this blog it's hard to know which to start with.

Actually, it isn't. The most important news is that Milos Manoljovic suffered a stroke last week. He's ok. He's as ok as people who have strokes can be. He can speak and move but will require continued treatment to get him back on his feet and walking amongst us. This might take months. He has been given two week's notice by the owner of the ABC Gallery who, again, has failed to put an application into this year's Nobel Peace Prize. No more Milos at the ABC.

As there is nothing I can do about that I'm going to spend a few paragraphs  thinking about this.

I loved films at ABC. From the moment I walked into the Gallery in the winter of 2007 I was hooked. A friend of mine Dean, was showing one Japanese horror film I loved and another that I hadn't seen. I'd been to small time enthusiast's film nights over many years and knew what to expect: a ratting super-8 projector near the door of a small white room peopled by a lot of bereted students on cushions on the floor, their legs going numb from the cramped elegance enforced upon them, a pair of casks of red and white goon warming  in the corner, some naff  but fun old public service announcement shorts form the cold war about self-preservation in the event of a commie H-bomb going off in your neighbourhood, and maybe a Russ Meyer flick or two. Ok, I'll go along to one and say I've been. Well...

There was a bar, a real bar, and it had a real licence. And there was a digital projector which was busy casting a BIG picture on to the white wall at the other end of the large space. The walls between were crowded with canvases which had an intriguing ... lurk to them. The sound was crystal clear. All I had to do was choose a chair at one of the unmatched cafe style tables and watch the film.

The wall where the movie was moving was whitewashed brick. It had a texture. Here and there a nail or rivet or something stuck out form the surface creating its own miniature De Chirico shadow on the image. I couldn't have cared less. I was being treated to a Japanese horror film which I had no idea existed. Its title was Matango and I couldn't place its vintage. It was so thickly atmospheric and intriguing that I forgot all about the wall's bumps and spikes, sipped wine and relaxed into complete absorption.

Dean carries his own personal sharpness effortlessly, he has some good ideas. One of them was that a good cinema only needs a projected image and sound and a place to comfortably watch and listen. That achieved it could happen in an igloo. We had just lost our last major art house in Melbourne. Well, here it was, as fresh as a whim, right in front of me. Dean had thought it up and done it. What else could I want? More, that's all. More.

I got it. We all did. Time Capsules gave us unjustly forgotten whackfests like Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life, more Japanese genre that I hadn't even scratched the surface of in my own wanderings, whole nights of blasting obscure and trippy animations from the world of history and the history of the world, Busby Berkley's cosmic Broadway rubbing shoulders with flavoursome delicacies and rare finds. Time Capsules was a tribute to free thought in the projected image and hooked my Thursday nights. After the film there were people to meet and argue with (in a good serious fun way) and there was whiskey, beer and wine. Somewhere between an arthouse cinema, cool bar and a dvd night with friends it often felt like a shared discovery and a celebration of it to follow.

This was the answer. It called out from the void left by the closure of the arthouses mid 2000s. People not only doing it for themselves but defying the unspoken directive to huddle indoors for dvd nights. It brought the crowd back, the strangers in the dark who are the best people to share an unseen film with. A bar and an attitude of the purest fuck-you to the assembly line of the mainstream. It was gold class arthouse.

I ran a few screenings with three others in 2008 when Dean scheduled some travel. I chose four titles, wrote them up on his blog, read about them and presented them. Dean had curated his screenings, taking care to read an introduction to each, priming his audience for the night's discovery. So did I. And if going to the screenings had been zappy putting them on was pure thrill. When the opportunity came for me to do my own I seized it.

This is where the mighty Milos really comes in. It was his place all along and he ran the bar with a saturnine humour, keeping the punters going with his tongue-in-cheek observations, opining from deep thought on the films just seen, lodging a log splitter into a tree stump, lifting it over his head and bringing it crashing down on to the concrete floor in a single motion and feeding the wood heater with the shattered remains. We needed heat. That's where we got it from.

It was Milos who encouraged the nights. He kept them going. With my varying fortunes in the first year of Shadows I decided to begin the new year with an unintentionally disastrous dual program which served by a schedule that no one could decipher. After the inevitable first few fizzers it was Milos who said: just go weekly again, we'll work it out. I did and slowly rebuilt. And patiently, Friday after Friday, he prepared the room, swung the tables and chairs into place, chopped the wood and stoked the fires, made sure there was ice and enough beer and wine. And even at my abject screenings, the ones that drew in a mighty four or five, he silenced my protests that I would really get people coming in for the next one, by saying: I like the night, anyway, people will come if they want to. He'd then pour me a wine and refuse my money.

The first year was not all gas and gaiters (what is, though, seriously? Sounds horrible, doesn't it, GAS and GAITERS) and my struggling effort was frequently interrupted by either a double booking or an invasive one. My earnest complaints about this had to be swept under the rug when I realised that I was still very lucky to be continuing with the thing when it was bringing in so few people and not fulfilling its promise or my amibitions for it. It would have been both justifiable and merciful for him to terminate Shadows and just host parties instead which would at least have paid his rent. But, no, after the interruption I just came back and he let me.

As things slowly improved at the screenings, attendances first stabilising and then, last year, swelling, I understood that I was only there because Milos enjoyed the idea of it. Not just because he got a crowd of people to meet on a Friday night or saw the occasional film that surprised or delighted him from the menu of great dirges I prefer to show the world. He let me because he liked what I was trying to do. It was important to him.

When I heard the news of his attack last week I went to visit him with friend and Shadows regular, Miriam, who'd told me the news. Hospitals make me feel frail but this was necessary. We got in early evening and found the ward. He was asleep, fathoms down into a profound slumber. We went for a stroll to chat and bide some time before trying again. This time he stirred. Miriam spoke to him but he was so woozed out by his condition and whatever they had given him to allow his landing some ease. He looked at Miriam and then at me, he didn't seem to hear us speak his name, he saw two strangers at his bedside. There was nothing we could do so we left quietly.

The heatwave had broken and the evening was bright and cool. I shuffled back home and then on to the thing I was going to, seeing nothing but those strange, uncomprehending blue eyes. It was haunting me. And then I remembered he didn't have his glasses on. He's virtually blind without them. We might as well have been Bert and Pattie Newton for all he knew.

Reports kept coming in. He was affected by the event but recovering. Miriam called after a later visit with a happier impression and suggested I hot foot it to St Vinnies before Milos got shipped out to Kew for months of physio. No definite date on it but I figured I could leave it till the next day. So I fronted up and found out from the pleasantest receptionist I've encountered in a long while that I'd missed him by about four hours. She offered to put me through to the Kew facility but I declined with thanks and left working out how I was going to get there in the coming weeks. It'll happen. It'll have to. It's too important not to.

So, and by now this other bit really does feel like the soft news story it is, no more Shadows at ABC. I'll look and ask around but I've had a pretty good run, had some fun and maybe even reached out and touched a few. For that, I have to thank Milos Manojlovic.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: Melancholia

Fade in. The gold and ice beauty of Kirsten Dunst. Her gaze is resigned. Objects fall through the unfocussed light behind her. They are birds plummeting to earth. Charlotte Gainsbourg carries a child and runs across a golf course, her feet sinking into the damp turf and leaving dark holes behind her. A black horse struggles to stand but collapses. A huge blue planet moves into earth like two movie stars' heads coming together for a screen kiss. The world is ending. This is how Melancholia begins.

The opening sequence seemed absurdly long until it dawned that I was watching an overture. I was listening to one, as well. The gigantic plaintive musical theme that I couldn't quite place was revealed with a little googling to be the overture from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Then, after we see the fate of everyone we are about to see in the film we get a chapter title with the name Justine.

And then we have comedy. An extreme high shot of a narrow winding country lane. Into this small scaled nature moves a huge white stretch limo that is not going to make it from the bottom of the frame to the top without a lot of trouble. Inside the car are newlyweds Justine and Mike (Kirsten Dunst and Aleksander Skarsgard, the Viggo Mortensen you have when you can't have Viggo, also known as Eric the Viking Vampire from True Blood). Both of them have fun trying to get the monster car through the tiny lane. When they finally get to the reception at the mansion owned by Justine's bro-in-law they are met by a frowning sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who reminds them that they are two hours late and the reception is now all but ruined.

The reception has cost Claire's husband John (Keifer Sutherland) so much money he never names the sum but continually introduces the topic into conversation. Justine's father (John Hurt) is a happy drunk whose sad resignation to his life's failure gives him a shambling dignity. His ex and Justine's mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) is an arid and bitter woman who is bursting to let everyone know what she thinks of marriage. Justine's boss (Stellan Skarsgard, Aleksander's father: not relevant but we're going through family relations so what the hell?) is still at work in his wedding tuxedo sending his bug eyed nephew after Justine to get a tag line for an ad.

Etc etc ... A complex sprawling told in more or less real time with use of shaky cam digital video. Sounds like blergh? Maybe but it proves compelling. The mass of inter-relations and microplotting that give this chapter its Pieter Breughel the Elder earthy grandeur is all backdrop, though. This isn't Festen nor is it attempting to be. At the centre of this happily chaotic celebration there lurks a dark spirit. Justine proceeds to alienate everyone present (everyone!). It takes her a while but she goes about it patiently and certainly. By the end she is alone.

Chapter 2 is Claire. Charlotte Gainsbourg talks to her husband Kiefer Sutherland about her fear that the big blue planet Melancholia is about to fly by the earth will really collide with it, rendering everything they are and know to space dust. He tries to reassure her that that won't happen and as an amateur astonomer is keenly looking forward to the event. In these doubting days the family takes delivery of Claire's half sister Justine who is so deeply into her affliction that she has to be coaxed to lift her foot to step into the bathtub. As Claire forages in every human corner for hope, Justine, in chilling resignation, tells her that there is no justifiable hope and that they must give up to the inevitable end of days.

There are directors who never seem to go out of fashion and whose whole body of work is labelled good in polite society. The Coens are in this group. There are others whose work features an exception either way. People who loathe David Lynch will usually give him Blue Velvet or Muholland Drive. And there are director's whose place at the top of conversants' admiration has long been cold and vacant, regardless of their output since. Lars von Trier lives here.

He has been generally out of favour since Breaking the Waves back in the mid 90s. And then there was Dogme 95 which kept him there. And then there was a series of foot in mouth gaffes at press conferences that had him virtually put a "kick me" sign on his own back. The most recent one of these was his rambling admiration for Hitler's architect Albert Speer which turned both weird and sour as Kirsten Dunst beside him quite visibly wished she was somewhere else (Youtube it!).

For me, I take von Triers' films one at a time. I don't hate any outright but some I don't care much about. What I do like is his steady hand at melodrama (see also Almodovar for this as a redeeming feature) his ease with experimentation and the warm and deep results of his direction of actors. I took some pains above to list some of the cast because it's a splendid one and unusual for such roll calls, not one is wasted nor allowed to phone it in.

I've enjoyed Kirsten Dunst as a screen presence since the Interview with the Vampire way back when and have found that she drives even indifferent vehicles well (Mona Lisa Smile). Along with the Gyllenhall siblings she is among the most compelling of her screen generation, lifting whole films with little effort. Even though she is in such fine company here and the playing is more ensemble than individual, her performance centres the whole two hours twenty minutes.

That is important to this film because, although it has been dismissively called Festen meets Armageddon, Melancholia is neither social realism nor sci fi. All told this film is not about a wedding gone wrong nor an interplanetary disaster it is about depression. The grinding black defeat of depression is present in every frame and its host is Kirsten Dunst's performance. Whether facing off the lens in the first shot with an unblinking gaze of certainty, swaying drunkenly by herself in the golden-hued crowd at the reception, chugging a great quantity of cognac straight from a bottle of Hennessy XO, suddenly crying into her favourite food at the dinner table or quietly preparing her sister and nephew for the end of the world, Dunst holds us with her glacial precision. There is no warmth in this embrace but we don't want to disengage, so powerful, so pitiable, so pure. This is a fable of depression and has at its heart the kind of simple message that all fables must carry. In this case a single word will do: Cope!