Friday, August 30, 2013

Review: DOWNLOADED: Paradigms Lost

A common misaprehension of Napster at the time was that it was a big store of free music. The fact that it was actually a facillitator of access was less sexy as a public demon and the record industry's response pushed the misconstrusion because it was easier to do. The protest from the hapless giantsupermegacorps dug in through the courts with the outrage that the artists themselves were being robbed blind. Only in comedy was it touted that the companies were getting shafted at their own game of artist exploitation.

I remember the brief flash that was Napster. At first, it really did look too good to be true; people sharing their music collections. Anything new you'd heard about to old chestnut albums you'd never got around to or just wanted again. Dowload times could be slow. Boomers with public profiles joked crankily about it being like getting it in real time or longer so it was worse than cassettes in the old days. Well, cassettes was what it was like and not just because of the load time or reduced audio quality. It was like cassettes because that's the way albums got around at school. Someone would get the big buzzy LP and you'd give them a tape. If you dug it enough you'd shell out for the record because that was the real thing. If you drove a car you'd have tapes of everything anyway and when those mangled up you'd just make more (assuming you hadn't got sick of them in which case you wouldn't bother).

That's how I and a lot of others saw Napster. The only reason I hung on to some mp3-ed albums or burnt them onto cds was because of zero local availability. The industry didn't see it that way. When it heard about Napster it tried to shut it down. Eventually, the corps had the rug pulled out from under them anyway when things like itunes, that got the point of Napster, changed the game forever. This documentary is about that as much as the vision and ingenuity of the creators of Napster as a program and concept. The companies were shown the future and they dug their heels in. It took the bits and bytes team to use it properly.

We all have some version of this story as we were present during the time when the music industry went from empire to a post colonial shell and the real money went back into live performance. Radiohead gave their new album away online and kept filling stadiums. DIY retail sites gave anyone the equivalent of a record deal (without the promo machine but the times had allowed for that in a way they never had for the indies of the 70s and 80s).

So, while we have an idea of what happened we don't know much about the people who brought it to us. This film addresses that and the almost unsettling self-effacedness of the principal players is one of the reasons why I began with all of that rather than anything about the movie. Shawn Fanning and Shaun Parker along with a crew of hoody wizards revolutionised music culture from a larder sized office because they knew it would work the way it did. Even though they operated in the grey they also knew it was only time between the revolution and its suppression.

There is a real poignancy in the straightness of this documentary. A series of talking heads tells the tale between blocks and bites of news footage. No attempt is made to cute up the concepts with animation or amp the ironies through editing. Its plainness serves some of the trickier concepts involved that reveal the mistakes the suits made when they found out. They all talk about the scale of the copying and how it outstripped anything passed on by direct means to that date. They all, wittingly or not, admit to failing to see the massive shift in the paradigms of marketing and distribution. The only way they could think of to monetise it was direct pay to play rather than using the light speed peer spread that was already happening. The passages about iTunes etc have a quietly triumphant feel to them because of this and the absorption of Fanning and Napster into the machine a moment of sadness but only in passing.

See? Again, I'm talking much more about the issues than the movie .... maybe it's just a good documentary.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA: Career Camouflage

Scott, golden and alluring, hangs out in a gay pickup joint. His 70s-moustachioed beau takes him to Vegas for the weekend and there he is awed by the specactle and skill of a Liberace show. Gets better. Backstage is the man himself whose glittering gaze is fixed upon him, charming everyone in the incandescent glare of the dressing room with wit and champagne. To one side, tucking into a steak and a grumble in his eye, Liberace's protege quietly seethes, tired of this blinding bubble and not long for its protection.

Scott moves in with the big L, who insists on being addressed as Lee, and sinks into its jacuzzi-warm glow with an opioid smile. When bitchface houseboy gives him the word about favouritism he mentions it to Lee who buys the boy off. Scott has been spied as a gem in the slime of the land and retrieved from it by this latter day Byzantine eminence. The taste is not just good it's addictive. We know without effort that Scott himself will be wearing the same frown as the protege before the third act opens.

That's basically it for plot but it carries much about fame, love, luxury, the duplicity of public life just as effortlessly. Performances don't come much better than these from a director who showed from his debut how careful he is with actors. Matt Damon builds from naive to explosive, by turns empathetically true and wildly unhinged. Rob Lowe seems to have been squeezed from outtakes of Wild at Heart, nearly Dadaist in his self-administered grotesquery. But it is Michael Douglas in a career best turn as Liberace, a kind of crumbling pastry in a toupe, who shows, beneath the Arabian Nights glitz, the vulnerability of his subject but also how convincing his charm must have been.

This is a Stephen Soderberg film, the first of his post-cinema efforts (though it's currently in cinema release outside the HBO diaspora (ie the USA). Having sworn off the big screen and pledged allegiance to the slightly smaller ones in the loungerooms of his new jurisdiction, he has come forth with this most cinematic of pieces. Well, why not? If we echo the sentiments of critics worlwide about US cable television being more gravely cinematic than the ever lighter fare at the multiplex then he has chosen depth over surface.

Maybe it's more guaranteed distribution (through legit channels and torrents) for the less mainstream fare he has been getting better at since Sex, Lies and Videotape way back in the 80s. Soderberg has always been interesting to me for the ease with which he leaps from an Oceans blockbuster to the Che films without breaking his stride and lensing the lot himself. If an auteur he's one less by style than pluck. And now he moves into cable tv where he might, having influenced some of its triumphs (think of Hung or Weeds or really quite a lot of Breaking Bad and Mad Men), go productive but unnoticed.

Perhaps his choice of subject makes it more of a matter of hiding in plain sight, the real movie director among the cable barkers. Well, Scorsese helmed the Boardwalk pilot. Peter Medak of the great Changeling and Ruling  Class has been tv-ing for decades now in Homicide, The Wire, Carnivale, Breaking Bad and Hannibal. They are not alone but he almost is in that he has publicly stated the permanence of his crossover.

What I know is that unlike a lot of what I have seen and celebrated in everything from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad Soderberg here is showing a lot of restraint. If I say the gayness of this story is light I don't mean it's trivialised but that it is rendered natural, the relationship between Scott and his lover/benefactor is more important than its sexuality. This might be considered standard fare for cable tv but the care in it is rendered without show. Where many of these setpieces and fraught emotive scenes might be given a harder or over-protesting cinematic muscle, Soderberg chooses what would work as well on the big screen. Scott's drugged up paranoia scene with its handheld wayward focus making us feel the same as him is an example. On The Sopranos that scene would have ended in violence. Here it's an intensifier for the arc. He's less interested in impressing than say an Oliver Stone might be if he made the same career choice.

It's been a long time since Laura Palmer's fingernail was wincingly penetrated by tweezers in Twin Peaks (on that read this, it's good). That and the other Lynchian moments lifted the tv of its time into home cinema that drove quite directly to the great cable-led recovery of now. It was ostentatious and daring. Now that everything is it might well be time for something more artisan-like and less brash to get to us in our loungerooms. This would be a good start.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

MY MIFF 2013

Foremost, due to the way the festival was erased for me last year it was my great and conscious pleasure to
walk to every screening (and back from most of them). Managing the stairs and seats of the venues I knew I was right not to even attempt it with the cast on my leg last year. I shuddered at the memory of it a few times while nearly tumbling down the stairs of the Forum exit.

The festival club was again a hit with its odd blend of classical splendour and Dr Seuss. I love its cathedral quiet and cloistered protection from the second remarkably frigid winter in a row. A dark and cinematic setting for some searching and bickering o'er a coffee or cider about what we'd just seen.


Catching up on almost all of last year's choices showed how good I'm getting at picking for my own peculiar pleasures. This year was pretty much the same. I missed one through illness but made it to everything else including the sessions I added to the minipass thirteen.

Best of the fest has to be Blancanieves for outright enjoyability. It didn't so much outdo The Artist as a contemporary silent film as it progressed from it. By dispensing with the gimmick of the silent form itself it blasted its way through the light and galloped to its shivery poignant ending with the joy of its own existence. I would've shown it at Shadows. One thing it did so that I didn't expect was to make surprising use of the 4X3 near square we all dismiss as limiting. The aerial shots of Seville's bull ring were breathtaking, filling the narrow frame the way they physically couldn't in scope. But the next big silent film needs to move beyond the period settings and embrace the changes while still using the limitation. That would be a new branch of cinema and I would be in the queue for it.

Others in the toppermost are: Upstream Color for its stubborn strong-arm pioneering beyond the bounds of the sci-fi genre; A Hijacking for its toughness and insistence on the value of committed performance; The Sunnyboy for bringing a lost boy back to us; Act of Killing for making its bizarre premise work and taking us into filthy corners we need to see and doing that through the momentum of the perpetrator's testimony and imagination; and Jin for the courage of its convictions and the boldness of its final tableau.

Of a lesser wow but with their own real power were: Blackbird for its restrained topicality and strong central performances; The East which I've put here for being noticeably lighter than the two previous Marling outings (I miss their audacity and sombreness, here it's mostly the latter) but would like to see the team's continued infiltration into the mainstream; Manuscripts Don't Burn for the fact of its existence against genuine prohibition and still managing to be good cinema; The Daughter for its toughness and ease with allegory; A Touch of Sin for the same reasons as the previous and for its gratuitous beauty (yup, I just typed that); and Good Vibrations for reminding me how much fun my own experience of punk was.

But Gebo and the Shadow, while appreciable as an exercise in adapting from the stage, was not for me. Aim High in Creation subverted itself by trying too much and producing too little, obscuring its own intentions: I wanted that one to blow me away. Expectations too high? Probably.

Outside of these as it was a revival screening I'm going to hold A Quiet Place in the Country aloft for its brashness, anger and the seriousness of its purpose. This is how feature films could be both cultural commentary and decent genre films.

I used to think myself successful at MIFF if I got four great ones out of the thirteen. I tend to choose by personnel and scenario once I've satisfied my requirement of a few screenings at my beloved Forum. The rest I'll let a few keywords guide me or perhaps a region from which I've seen too little. With that kind of decision making I'm easy on the judgement if I draw more than half poor to middling. The last few, though, have shown me choosing better. This is partly due to the vitality that the Michelle Carey led efforts of the last three years have resulted in a spicier banquet table but also partly due to my being able to spot things I like and others I might be challenged by. So, in two ways it's getting better.

If I lament the lack of anticipated movies in the line up I think it says more about what's out there than the organisers' choices.

My first experience of the Android app was mighty. Great instant info on session availability The two festivals I'd gone to previously were in the transition between the plastic card system and the apps so they were all about printing out paper tickets which annoyed me. The best way to do that was to print out as may sessions on as few sheets of paper as possible and keep them nice until they were scanned. It was horrible.

The cards were faultless but the last two festivals that used them didn't get them to their owners in good stress-relieving time and there were vaguely identified administrative problems that caused not only this but some misaddressing. I had to go and queue for my replacement for my last one, the very thing they were intended to eradicate. But the app puts the delivery into the hands of the punter and it's available on the day the program is released. A few tech hiccups I can deal with happily. A few app updates and everything worked perfectly well before the festival kicked off.

Turning up with my phone, as I would anyway, with all my tickets and session info and any last minute texting for organisation etc could not be easier. It even looked good and was a breeze to navigate and vote with.

One thing that annoyed me about it, now I think of it was the weird thing that happened every time I tried to rate a movie. It told me I had to log in for that when in every single case I was logged in already. It took logging out and then back in to work. A small gripe but a real one.


Ever since I found at the end of an interminable wait in the freezing rain on Russell St that I would have got my favourite seat if I'd just sat in the warm foyer in filed in after everyone else, I've stopped queueing. This has led to a much easier mooded festival. As I said elsewhere, it also drove the last nail in the coffin for the appeal of festival membership for me. I only had to queue once as the person I was seeing the film with had a problem sitting too close. I was happy to oblige, especially as I didn't quite see how close I was to the head of the queue (and then watched in quietly seething vindication as the front three rows filled last).

"Only the best films make the cut"? Has it been used for three years now? It hangs off the artwork like a sheep's dag and makes me wonder what a giant plaster figure of a scarfed and beret-ed winterbod would look like in Fed Square just outside of ACMI: the Big Cinephile welcomes you to all the magic of the movies at MIFF 13!

When I played my band's album to my Dad decades ago he approved and said it sounded very professional. I winced because it was the kind of thing you'd say about a covers band. We were meant to be original and fresh. Dad was only trying to be nice and, being of soundly technical mind, chose an industrial reference for his compliment. If anyone my age and of my poste punque stylings (however desperate) had said that to me they might as well have called it mainstream. That's what this tagline reminds me of. You may as well call it a festival of world-class films

I spent the first week under the cloud of the last wave of this year's epic cold. The fever and fatigue got so powerful that it obliterated the day I would have enjoyed watching Rhino Season. I might have been able to swap the session for the following Sunday but I kept thinking I might feel better as the start time approached. Not so. Also I was visited by something I've been plagued by since childhood, ear ache and ear blockage the latter of which defeated the nurse's best assaults upon it with a warm water syringe. A week of regular attacks on it with a kind of earwax napalm and her second attempt broke through and my personal stereo got its left speaker back. And my balance, that came back too.


I can't remember which year it was but there was once a MIFF trailer that worked as both a joke and celebration. Two people seen through a shop window get hot 'n' heavy on the shop counter. The guy tries to close the metal security screens but can only get them so far and we end up with what looks like a scope ratio image of a love scene. Funny, but when the joke wore out it was still sharp and clever, inviting, enticing.

Subsequent trailers have mostly been embarrassing jokes with what a brother of mine used to award a high ph level (ph=pensioner humour), glimpses of high naughtiness that would have proudly made it into sketch shows of those tired comedians from the 70s like Dick Emery and Benny Hill.

When I first saw this year's I thought, wow, they've done it. A clip from a Chinese movie. A woman stabs a man and the motion slows to a crawl as we see him reel back and eventually collapse. How beautiful an image, its campiness saving its violence from confrontation, the fluidity of the motion mesmerising. And then the bogan voice comes in with the cringingly try hard yobbo-party-Monty-Python crap about it being unrealistic. It's down there with the "oh-really" lameness of the Elegant Gentleman's Guide to Knife Fighting. There's an old tv commercial whose punchline is how a lovely photo of a pair of old dears at the beach is annihilated by the sudden appearance of a fat guy in a g-string going past. This trailer reminds me of that (and I don't mean its punchline).

A joke trailer might be good for about three viewings if it's a good joke. If it's a painfully bad one like this it doesn't even get through the first viewing and if you have to see it at every screening you have to find ways of zoning out. It only goes for about two minutes but, Christ, they're long ones. Everyone I spoke to about it was puzzled by the direction of its marketing. Is the boganism of it dissing MIFF audiences who supposedly would have only a welcoming response to the scene's traditions and its own humour and- That's the other thing! It's like: when someone jokes and a resentful other wants to top it despite a sudden lack of material the resenter will mock the joker, hoping that everyone else will go with the negativity. The ploy works only if the riposte has enough contempt in it to engender timidity or the one doing it stands higher in the pecking order. But when some shithead thinks he's being witty by diverting from the value of this clip he's invoking all the smudgy philistinism of anyone who would ridicule this kind of festival it's too much. Even a stranger who sat next to me at one movie expressed her distaste for it and composed an impromptu hymn of hatred while it was on before the lights lowered and we could once again forget it ... until next time.

Oh, so it's a self-reflexive joke. No, it bloody isn't. Not once did even a third of the audience greet this crap with laughter. At every session the only laughter I heard that could conceivably have been in response to this embarrassment was a few lonely titters falling dead from somewhere in the back seats where sit the blind and the timid of heart.

Oh, come on, it's just a joke, isn't it? If it's a joke why isn't it funny? Why do I only know it's meant to be funny?

How about in the future we just celebrate what the festival is about. If the Carey Administration can do such a good job at freshening what was becoming a welcome but weary event, can't they ditch the jokes of a bad date and seduce us a little with style and charm?

Why is it that cretins think they are the smartest people in the room? The Melbourne Horror Society reported on Facebook that there had been a lot of laughter at the screening of Deep Red, the Dario Argento classic thriller. I wasn't there for that but I'm glad I wasn't. I've been at those occasions before where sections of the audience want to show how far above the movie they are. It happened to a small degree at the screening of A Quiet Place in the Country. And then there's that over-protested incredulity, the laugh that sounds like "or whore whore whore whore whore!" and seems to contain everything but actual mirth. Hey, none of the acting on screen that you are trying to ridicule is as wooden as yours! Folks, relax and engage, just relax and engage. There will be laughs along the way both intentional and unintentional but these things you're guffawing at are NEVER that funny. EVER!

Other than that the audiences at my screenings were by and large there for the movie. They got into what they saw. Pleasantly, there feels like a lowering of tolerance of loungeroomism (talking, phoning, tweeting etc). One strong sharp voice at Upstream Color stopped some git from phoning and at the same screening a woman made her way from the back to the front to demand that some goof there shut his screen off. As for commentators who think their clunkingly obvious observations on what is going on onscreen: where the fuck do you think you are? SHUT UP! People have paid for the film's soundmix, not your smugness.

To the bizarre people who place their coccyxes on the very edge of their seats so that their legs jam against the seats in front of them are headed for well-deserved back pain. They will, if goofy-minded enough, elect chiropractic over physiotherapy which means that instead of a month of treatment it will be years of near-effective improvements during which time they will be so heavily indoctrinated with anti-vaxxer and anti-flouride bullshit that they will emerge toothless vectors of whooping cough and measles. Or ... they could try lodging their buttocks in the corner created by the seat cushion and the back (or sitting up straight which is how the seats are designed). It's more comfortable. You can sit more calmly for longer without fidgeting.


This is the crowning event of my favourite season in this city. I love the contrast of darkened cinema and bright cold sunshine outside on a morning session or the great steely grey of a big Melbourne rain greeting my rugged up self after a movie with a tropical setting. Chowing down to chips and beer for a mid afternoon postmortem in the big dark cave of the lower floor of the Forum. I love strolling along Flinders St still in the haze of the film I've been living in for the past ninety minutes, picking something that goes well with coffee from a shop and walking, yes, brilliant one foot in front of the other motion that failed me last year. This is a holiday to other corners of the cosmos of imagination, their colours and conceits, all packaged in the constantly relieving chill of winter. My summers are languid and more social. I take longer off for them. But this capsule of transcendence is the one I think of with a thrill.

Upstream Color

Saturday, August 10, 2013

MIFF Session 16: GOOD VIBRATIONS: Place of Pride

When music guru John Peel does the unprecedented and plays The Undertones' Teenage Kicks twice in a row on his canonical radio show the protagonist of this film, Terri Hooley dances ecstatically in his dowdy Belfast home with his wife. A banging at the front door reveals the band and a small crowd of people associated with his record shop. He runs out into the street as they dance to the song and in a blinding spotlight raises his arms in imitation of Christ, giving himself up to bliss. But the light is that of a British Army chopper observing the revelry in case it's more sectarian violence.

This tale of a punk scene's birth and nurture along with the starry eyed and accidental promoter Terri is a thoroughly enjoyable ride through disappointment and triumph. In this case there is a pleasingly Irish oh-so-what to a lot of it which sets it apart from a great many other fictionalised music histories.

This genre suffers from a common malady in the dramatisation of key moments or achievements by the heroes of its tales. When John Lennon says "I'm talking about a hard day's night" in a Hamburg bar years before he should it's one of the few cringes that mar the otherwise wonderful Backbeat. The scene of Ray Manzarek coming up with the hooky intro to Light My Fire in The Doors is the same kind of thing. One of the worst is from a tv movie about he Beach Boys. They're taking a break from recording and ogle as a babe in a Thunderbird drives by. "She's having fun," says one. "Yeah," says another, "until her daddy takes her t-bird away." Someone else snaps his fingers. Ladies and gentlemen we have a classic!

This doesn't really happen in Good Vibrations but the moment Terri hears the freshly recorded Teenage Kicks in the studio cans and approaches the control room glass with a beatific stare it is at least funny but it does dilute the kingmaker John Peel's famous later response for the sake of a cinematic moment. When Fergal Sharkey names himself in full it feels like it's for our benefit rather than Terri's. Surely he would have just used his first name at that point.

But these are quibbles. What I really like about this film apart from his sheer amiability is its sense of place. There are reminders of the war zone nature of Northern Island during the troubles so frequent (most of them footage from the time, often jarringly on blown-up analogue video) that they acquire a kind of rhythm. It's no spoiler to repeat Hooley's own words about punk in Belfast: "New York had the haircuts. London had the treasures. We had the reason."

That strikes home for me. When the Saints' video was partially shown on Countdown in 1976 I was caught by it. When the full clip was played on Flashez I wanted it to go on for hours and, for a few minutes, time really did seem to stop. There was no comparing it with anything I knew. No one was calling it punk. I forced it up against the Rolling Stones of Get Off Of My Cloud or Have You Seen You Mother Baby (rather than Brown Sugar). And they were from Brisbane, not the more sophisticated centres of Sydney or Melbourne but dowdy old Brisbane. When the term punk rose in the parlance and I heard The Damned, The Ramones and, most cataclysmically, The Sex Pistols towards the end of that year the game had changed and I had chosen my team. Increasingly, the sense that Brisbane's punk scene arose from a need in opposition to the repressive Bjelke Petersen regime. They had the reason there, too (of course, less dramatically, but still, that was the feeling).

If there comes a time to tell the tale of the Brisbane scene the way London's was abstractly attempted in Jubilee, Melbourne's in Dogs in Space or Belfast's in this I know it won't avoid the pitfalls of the subgenre of music related films but if it smoothed them out as effectively and enjoyably as Good Vibrations does we'll be in fine hands.

MIFF Session 15: THE SUNNYBOY: Concentration

Early in first year Uni 4ZZZ plastered the Sunnyboys' EP so much that it didn't just create fans but emptied the few local shops that carried it of the record. When they came to play the refectory it was the first of many gigs I saw them play in Brisbane. They had a small musical vocabulary at first but presented it so solidly and tightly that they were irresistible. With the kind of poste punque reverie I was in I shouldn't really have liked them and their revivalist guitar band style and 60s look (not that far away from the band I formed myself, I should point out here) but they were so infectious and there was an intriguing unease in what I caught of their lyrics that belied the bright beaty rock of the delivery. This carried through to the first album. Something was going on there that gave us more than catchy pop.

After Uni my gig going career trailed off. As a creaky twenty-one year old I pretty much stopped going to gigs and put my head down to write the great unfinishable Australian novel. I no longer had a working band. Going to other people's gigs felt like a self-punishment (yep, that's the humbling modesty of youth). So I lost touch with Sunnyboys apart from being hooked by their video for Love in a Box, a terrific plaintive song with a beautiful chiming Stratocaster riff, none of the old limited musical vocabulary, and sombre floating vocals. An interview with the band I came across in RAM revealed it was about dependence on various things like drugs or anything that could be packaged as a cure all. Noting this lovely bit of work I set them down again and moved to Melbourne. Many years later a girlfriend put a compilation album of theirs on and I heard Love in a Box again but much bigger and fuller through a decent system. It padded my hangover life codeine and I wondered what had become of them.

Well, here it is. Jeremy Oxley, songwriter, lead guitarist and instantly recognisable vocalist had ridden the fame wave in the early '80s until the business with its solid claws found his secret weakness and throttled it until he collapsed in a heap of schizophrenia, became erratic, imploded as a working musician and descended into a fog of uncontrol. Well, that's the story I heard.

It's pretty much the one that happened as well but there's a lot more to tell. In the Q&A after the screening, director Kaye Harrison revealed that her first point of entry into the project was the issue of mental illness, finding her human subject later. What we see in the film, to use the language of the Occupy movements, is a one-percenter schizophrenic. I don't mean he's rich but that, after his travails, he is cared for by family and in a relationship that while it can be visibly tested seems stable and healthy. He is not among the great grey statistics of socially paralysed shut-ins, tram stop ranters or heavily medicated still-lifes of the stereotype.

Nevertheless,  frequently bizarre, diabetically obese, he is immersed in his condition and needs the care he receives. What's left is the rest, the lost years and changing relations with family and others, particularly his brother Peter Oxley who in the family history traditionally followed his younger brother's example from boyhood onwards. Their history is an uneasy one a kind symbiosis of competition and support interrupted frequently by abandonment. A truly cinematic moment occurs when Peter, angered by getting a journalist out to speak to a resistant Jeremy kicks a deflated soccer ball around the backyard and curses himself for his lack of foresight, only his foot and the ball are in shot.

After a spry but solid introduction detailing the brothers' upbringing on the northern NSW coast and formation of the bands that would lead to Sunnyboys we land on the problem of Jeremy's schizophrenia, the thing that won't go away. Perhaps it's because he got there from fame, and I was already interested in his story that I didn't feel the screentime dragging. The repetitive exchanges between Jeremy and his wife to be almost always end in stalemate or exasperation. He plays to the camera with a glint in his eye. Yes, he's crazy as a loon but there is yet enough of what he always was to shine through and keep us hoping for deliverance, the way we might well have hoped for Syd Barrett or Rocky Erikson. When he sings his old songs it's in the voice of someone uncomfortable with the memory of them, mocking them on a kind of first strike principle.

When, after a lot of time and trouble he joins his old band on stage for a test gig under a false name the introduction to Happy Man stutters to life and the big D minor chord sounds to herald the first line, he delivers it perfectly, concentrated, meaning every syllable. He loosens up visibly and the song roars on. I welled up.

The journey here might seem a little gentle but as it progresses there is an inescapable sense that some agonising care has been taken over years to make it look that way. If this is counterproductive to offering a holistic portrayal of Oxley's condition it might also serve to calm fears of the nature of the disorder (that it is not always unmanagable) and to assuage the vats of scuttlebutt which had him tearing up the rubber room. He's doing ok.

But one moment haunts me still. He is speaking about a phase of his condition which left him confused and angry and he describes it with a phrase which was the title of another band's album and line of one of its songs, a band rising at the same time as Sunnyboys to a more sustained success: "it felt," he says, staring off," like a blurred ... crusade. It was a blurred crusade."

Friday, August 9, 2013

MIFF Session 14: A HIJACKING: Transparency

Art Spieglman's drawing is astounding in its detail and expression, managing to be highly emotional and realistic even when it's of something fanciful. When he came to tell the story of his recent ancestry's suffering during the Holocaust he pared his style back to bare essentials as though he inked it with a blunt stick. He was already using allegory casting the Jewish characters as mice, the Poles as pigs and the Germans as cats. He knew that any further visible artistry would only cloud what was a story best served by putting as little as possible between the reader and the page.

Along those lines Tobias Lindholm keeps the two settings of his story of contemporary piracy strictly verite. The cast is sizeable but placed perspectively around one hostage, the pirates' representative and the CEO of the shipping company on the other end of the phone in Denmark. It's shot on digital and never feels less than documentary real.

The Rozen, a ship bound for Mumbai, is hijacked in the Indian Ocean by African pirates. They demand fifteen million dollars in ransom from the parent company in Copenhagen. The latter bring in a British advisor to oversee negotiations. He recommends they outsource a negotiator but the CEO whom we've already seen is a steely-eyed winner of deals insists on doing this himself. Back on the Rozen the cook provides the voice of the crew (the captain is ill) and the plainly dressed Omar goes between the pirates and the company. Everyone is set in for what might be months of negotiation.

Dig? This is not a Hollywood SWAT team actioner but a slow burning one hour forty five of tension. It is not about the crime but the negotiation. What will fly what won't? What will they do and what won't they? Time, as the advisor chillingly opines, is a Western thing; all the pirates know is that it is valued by their targets. The rest is the great sweating hell of unknowing.

So, it's barebones and uncluttered, haven't we seen it before? I don't know if we have done half as well as this, without pyrotechnics or loud action sequences, left almost entirely to the power of language and risk through information gaps. At one point when Peter the CEO has possibly forced a disastrous event we stay with him as he stares into something that no longer looks like the office to him but some fiery punitive hell. We do this because everything that a higher calorie film would put there like a bursting orchestral score and quick snip monatge are dispensed with. There's nothing between us and Peter. We project a great deal on to him because we must. The camera will not look away and we have to do something ourselves. Even if this approach to drama is not new here it is devastatingly effective. This might have just been some very fine tv but it is nothing less than cinema.

The final moments are quiet but weigh us down like anchors. I have seldom known such a voiceless crowd as the one I was in as we filed out of the screening, down the Forum stairs and out to the frozen wet grey of the evening, still waiting for the credits to roll.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

MIFF Session 13: Aim High in Creation: Shoot low in practice

A woman wants to campaign against the fracking proposed in her district but can find no co operation from the companies associated with it nor any backing from potential investors. Her solution: make an agitprop film guided by the book about it by Kim Jong Il. What are we in for here?

Director Anna Broinowsky travels to North Korea and speaks to directors and actors there to see what they can make of her project, comparing their advice to the Kim Jong Il's six rules and running a kind of training schedule for her own cast back in Australia. At the end of this we will see the resulting film.

There is no question of the gravity she assigns to the task of opposing the coal seam gas farms. Her motivation to make a propaganda film, on the other hand falls beneath the implementation of the rules and the interview material with the North Korean filmmakers she speaks to. We see a lot of reality tv style bootcamp workouts, mostly humourous and frequent quality-circle style cast and director meetings where a good deal of reasonable dissension is imcompletely dealt with.

Scenes with North Korean directors reveal them to be practical veterans who care little for the six rules unless they fall into their own practces. These are directors and actors who are in constant work and never short of projects. Their Australian counterparts face lives of struggle but this means that by numbers alone they are less well acquainted with their trade. Many scenes are telling but one in particular involving a silver haired director massaging a actor's performance so that it goes from flat to genuinely affecting. Poke all the fun we want at the jingoistic North Korean thinly veiled propaganda, it is made by people who approach it like artisans and yet find human stories amid the requisite patriotic musical numbers and anti-Western speeches. Their resumes would render our practitioners here a deep shade of avocado.

But it must be said that after initial goofy ridicule of these films shown in select excerpts, the filmmakers and their statements are treated with respect. This was a great relief to me as I didn't want to sit through a lot of cheap gags about those crazy Koreans.

It's where the two declared purposes of the film meet that the problems begin. While we are getting to know the North Korean "industrialists" we are also getting acquainted with the cast of the local film and watching their initial wariness become enthusiasm.

All well. And then we see the film, The Gardener. Everything from Kim's book and a lot of the advice gleaned from the Korean filmmakers is applied. The cast turn out well, having spent some good observable time with the material. And then it ends. And I sit there and wonder if there was any possible outlet imagined beyond its inclusion in the film that was meant to be about its production. The short film works at an afterschool tv level, which is not unexpected and perfectly functional but the jarringly Kim-inspired aspects only reveal a kind of self ridicule which colours everything after that. And that renders the opposition to coal seam gas operations where it began, a view on Google Earth, distant, inviolate, unchallenged, unbothered.

Am I supposed to feel stirred to action? I remember a series of decent interviews and amusing stunts but the campaign lies broken, a handful of gags that obscure something I've only just remembered: to motivate the actor playing the title role in the agitprop the director takes her to meet a family whose lives have been adversely affected by the fracking operations. It's real and emotive. It's at least ten times more consciousness raising about he issue then the rest of the film put together. So, why this?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

MIFF Session 12: Gebo and the Shadow: fait accompli ... pas encore

The director of this film, Manoel de Olivera, is 104 years old and this is not his last. So how do you continue in cinema when you are almost as old as it and have seen every trope and sleight of lens it has to offer? You go back to basics.

Gebo and the Shadow is a melodrama from the early twentieth century written by the kind of adventurer that its prodigal son character Joao wants to be were it not for his chaotic ethical fog. De Olivera shoots what is very slightly removed from the piece's stage origins, almost exclusively in a single set and within that, often in a static setup across a table where characters converse or monologise as they would if the audience were there before them.

As a melodrama with its origins it strives in its plot only to elicit pity from its beholders. What we have here, though, is a wealth of performance which is why we soon cease to care about the stagey set. Claudia Cardinale is bitterness and tears, a mother soured by her absent and ungrateful son, herself ungrateful to the wife he left behind to care for her. Jean Moreau appears in a brief but wonderful scene where the old folks take coffee and are lambasted by the prodigal. The bi-lingual Michael Lonsdale, though, provides the full pull of gravity with his lifelong suffering patriarch who has put up with his wife's constant severity for decades and his son's hungry amorality. The duty he speaks of is of the type that utters the final self-damning line. We knew it was coming but are glad of its delivery.

It's poignant that de Olivera choose this piece from fellow Porto native Raul Brandao with its resignation to life in the face of a squandering grasp of it. De Olivera, whose first film was a silent one, has chosen a quiet statement of fealty to his own duty.

All this might seem damning with faint praise but is it when all I'm really saying is that this film does exactly what it was designed to do?

And the bastard is still making movies!

I prefer this greatly to the tweeness of his more celebrated Strange Case of Angelica. There, there's your praise. I'll take the achievement over it any day.

MIFF Session 11: UPSTREAM COLOR: ? ... !

One sleep later and I think I've got it. It's all about maggots. Magic maggots. Alien maggots. As I'm trying these things on I find they're all a bad fit so just plain maggots it is. But the maggots might just be standing in for something else. Ok, water already too muddy, what about the maggots?

A man in his thirties examines the plants outside his house and scrapes some strange blue mould off their leaves. It's a fine powder on his palm. He checks the soil and finds the maggots. Playing a hunch he collects a few and separates them into two jars, one marked with a smiley and the other with a dead ... smiley. Meanwhile two boy from his neighbourhood are on to the same thing finding the right maggots and putting them into a tea-like solution. The gardener goes one further by placing maggots into emptied medicinal capsules which he tries to sell like drugs at parties and venues. Failing that he abducts a woman and installs a maggot by force. Done.

Well, not yet.

At this point I should say that I have read more of the imdb entry than usual. I tend to have that open on ly to check names of cast and crew etc  but this time couldn't resist browsing through the user reviews. These are useful to comparing notes with other punters and looking for things you've missed. After a few of them showed no better understanding of what I'd seen I just went back to the cast list and immediately found a couple of insights thrown out there. The character I just called the gardener is listed as The Thief and the older guy who runs the pig farm cum audio recording service is called The Sampler. Neither is referred to in the course of the film but that slight bitg of information puts a lot into perspective.

The maggots have peculiar qualities when ingested. The Thief has a kind of hypnotic power over his captive, telling her a lot of weird things about himself to create false memories (eg that his head is made out of the same material as the sun) and to manipulate her eventually into signing her savings and assets over to him. He has harnessed the power of the maggots for personal gain.

The two boys who seem to have become extra-sensory masters from the same stuff are not heard of again but they are probably headed for a few ethical forks in their road to come.

The Sampler walks the countryside recording natural sounds and playing them back on a small midi keyboard. When the abductee finds herself in her car now more cognisant she wanders the nearby fields where The Sampler is stirring the earthworms with subsonic sound pulses, herself drawn by them. She has been in a state that looks like schizophrenia by The Thief including cutting herself to get at the worms under her skin (which at that stage might well just be hallucinations). The Sampler cares for her and rids her of the worms by a kind of transfusion with one of his pigs an-

You see the problem? Things happen here rather than build and while that might well be to a cohesive whole there is no map more discernible than our guessing at the patterns we see for the rest of the well-behaved 96 minutes of screen time. If we want to come at this one patterns are what we must get used to as even a lot of the dialogue is given to patterns rather than exposition. More than once I was reminded of my reception of Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. Frequently, I was watching and thinking: really, that's happening? Barney's films were adjunct to sculpture, though, and not presented as narrative cinema as this kind of is.

The second phase (I won't call it an act as it's not about that) is about the relationship that develops between the abductee, Kris, and a man she meets on the train, Jeff. They seem drawn together but not (at first at least) sexually. When they do get naked we see that Jeff has a puncture mark on his ankle suggestive of the transfusion process that happened to Kris. Like her, he has lost his career and is drifting through a lesser job. The pair develop a kind of folie a deux confusing each other's memories for their own, arguing about the type of sound each appears to be imagining, holing themselves up in their bathtub surrounded by tins of food and an axe like survivalists or schizophrenics obsessed by visions of an apocalypse.

We spend a lot of time with them but are kept from empathy by a sense-defying sound image edit that alters locations for what they are doing, seemingly simultaneously (sex is in bed but also at the pig farm), conversations happen in voiceover while the speech in the scene is not played. There is a kind of culmination involving Kris diving in a local public swimming pool for rocks and placing them on the edge with fragmented statements that are eventually revealed to be quotes. Henry David Thoreau's Walden, a classic of American thinking, has already been shown and takes on further weight throughout.

Meanwhile, The Sampler goes about his dual business of pig farming and adventures in audio. While I've missed the development of the audio side his porcine charges and his husbandry of them begins finally to assume some significance as we compare what is happening on the farm with what is happening between Kris and Jeff. But it's all about the maggots.

Ok, no more of that. Upstream Color unrolls as a sci-fi reading of the cycle of nature and an intervention of it through the chemical qualities of the worms and its effects. Best leave it there. With a little time and thought it becomes increasingly easy to assign detailed meaning to the parts and passages of this piece but there is a cutoff where this stops being useful. I kept on coming up with jokes for the subtitle of this review like "Zac and Miri Make a Trip Movie" or "Malick Does Ixland" but the closer I came to relaxing and absorbing its stubborn strangeness those faded.

Shane Carruth has been an indy hero since his mid-noughties lo-fi time travel zinger Primer. Many fans of that are going to feel diddled by this but I am not among them. I can no better explain this film than I can the closing phase of 2001: a Space Odyssey, however many times I've seen it. That doesn't trouble me about the Kubrick film and won't about this. It's taken him a lot longer to do it but instead of being daunted by the difficult second album he's made his second film difficult. Whether it lasts or fades or, if he decides fuck this, what's Adam Sandler's number and this gets lost among more mainstream fare, he has at least done what few ever get to do and made his own film.

Oh, the title has a literal meaning in the movie. Then again you can say the same of Eraserhead. Then again again that's my favourite film ;)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

MIFF Session 10: ACT OF KILLING: The Tedium of Evil

Retired death squad men go beyond merely talking about their crimes by re-enacting them in the cinematic style of their choice (including musicals). That's the premise of this film and the feature everyone else begins with so I'll not reinvent that wheel. But there is something a lot of the reviews leave out and I'm wondering if it has to do with the cut they saw. My screening was preceded by the reading of a statement by director Joshua Oppenheimer that explained that the cut we were to see was his preferred one which, at two hours and forty minutes, exceeded the general release one by forty-five minutes. That's a hell of a lot of dvd-extra material to stuff back into a movie for screening in a cinema. I'll end this review with why I think that's significant.

This title was buzzing like a turbine by the time of my screening and the session was sold out. The impression of the film was that the shock of the casualness of the perpetrators' recollections coupled with the bizarreness of the recreations of the crimes made for a wild, punchy ride through the banality of evil. I was ready for that. And it's there.

Very early on we are taken to a rooftop area that we are told served as a killing floor for the victims (nominally communists but really anyone out of favour with the prevailing Suharto regime, including ethnic Chinese). Our guide Anwar Congo was a major figure in the killings (millions over a two year period) and established the Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary force that continues to this day and never less than unsettling.
Anwar explains how the method changed from fatal battery to strangulation by wire as the latter was cleaner, faster, less exhausting and didn't need reloading. He speaks informatively, his explanation is helpful rather than boastful but there is a glint in his eye. This scene in bright sunlight will have its mirror in the closing moments of the film and between the two there is a continent of information.

The re-enactments happen along the way and are interspersed with interviews with Anwar Congo and his fellow state gangsters (that's self admitted, btw), scenes of them in their current welltodo family lives, campaigning politically, extorting money from local traders and planning how they'l make their movies of their infamous actions. From the baffling dancing chorus lines emerging from a huge walk-through fish to surreal westerns and more predictable war movie or gangster noir the old gang gets together to jam again, rolling about the countryside like big babies getting another chance at sacking a village in a war game real enough to traumatise some of the civilian extras they've roped in. Finally when Anwar watches himself as the victim of one of his garottings he is brought to a freeze. It is the exact moment we have the mental pause to ask what kind of memories to these fantasy versions of their own crimes engender in these men. We see Anwar's response as a slow shock decades in the delivery. His physical reaction is unexpected and closes the film (and is best experienced without knowing detail). 

But this is very potted. I can only guess that the standard 125 minute cut of this film highlights the remorse-free admissions of the chief interviewees and consolidates them with the re-enactments. This cut has other business and alters the phrases banality of evil to the one I used in the title of this post. We get so much information about these misdeeds that our efforts to hold on to them as emotional tokens result in numbness. There is so much of the activities of the Pancasila Youth in its current form that we are exhausted and resistant  that we wonder which of the near three hours of running time we are in. 

But toward the close of proceedings something dawned on me. Perhaps it was too obvious to note at the time but by its persistence offered some relief by providing the film's overarching raison d'etre. We continually see images of two Jakartas; one as new and polished as anything from Tokyo, Melbourne, New York or any modern city where we might be viewing the film and the other as desolate and impoverished as any third world tyranny we might be only conversationally aware of. If the violence of these men played a part in the prosperity it also contributed to the durability of the dispossessed. The forces that elevated these cinema gangsters (a few of them, including Anwar, worked the cinemas scalping tickets) to privileged mass murderers are still in place granting them impunity. The Pancasila Youth rally on. The indonesian term for gangster, preman, is continually linked linguistically to the term free man, meaning (at least when the gansters use it) man beyond law or ethics, not liberated but given carte blanche.

The shorter cut would probably be the one to drive the point home with more elegance and impact but I would, after resisting this longer one for a lot of its running time, recommend the director's cut. It's a difficult and demanding piece of work but it is one thing it is not is a sensationalist quickie. If anything, it reminds me of the work of its two high profile champions, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who at their best transcend the informational brief of the documentary form and find whatever lies beyond its borders. Here it is not the banality of evil but the tedium of it, the thing that can appear so annoyingly dull we pack it away and wait impatiently for something exciting to happen. But it doesn't and the realisation that it won't burns a hole in the pocket where we put it and drives us to a scream. Or a dry retch. Having begun in the big daylight of Java we end in what for at least one person on screen will probably only ever be endless night.

Finally, the director's statement implored his audience to stay for the credits for the real meaning of the film. It is not a spoiler to inform you here that it involves the extensive use of the word anonymous.

MIFF Session 9: A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY: Giallo i Rosso

Celebrated artist Leonardo Ferri has painter's block and needs to quite the over technologised city for the peace of nature. Brushing aside the rudely commercial house suggested by his agent and ambitious journalist girlfriend, he goes back to the large decaying mansion down the road that he has seen in dreams and visions. Here there is quiet, he no longer has to cope with images of his own past work and the company of sycophants and might at least rest if not find new inspiration. There's also something else.

One of the walls outside is heavily pocked by holes from high powered bullets. These are from the strafing of an RAF plane during the war which damaged the wall but also killed the aristocratic daughter of the house Wanda. Leonardo pieces this together from the local gossips, the house's caretaker and anyone else with an opinion. One night he is woken by the sound of objects in his studio being violently hurled around the room. When girlfriend Flavia visits she literally feels the house does not like her when the section of floor she is standing on seems to pull her through the plaster. Leonardo gets on the case to contact Wanda's ghost and deliver her to peace.

That's the plot and it is given respectful substance. The haunting scenes are subtle and unsettling; this is no cheapo horror flick. The real haunting, though, is of Leonardo by himself. The further he gets into his investigations, which give him a muse when he locates a stash of photographs of Wanda and dives into some pretty impressive art, the closer he gets to his real problem: himself. 

As his visions, initially a series of pleasantly absurdist tableaux and dreamlike sketches turn harder he loses his ability to distinguish himself from what he is hearing or seeing. He listens to a villagers tell of a meeting with Wanda during the war. We see the teller of the tale appear on the dirt road, not as the younger man he was in the story but as Leonardo sees him now and then for a flash he substitutes himself for the man remembering. This continues in further flashbacks and Leonardo's own imaginings of the events of the tragedy of Wanda's death until at one point he is even poised sexually over himself where Wanda had been.

The extreme self-identification is narcissistic but also accusatory; Leonardo who stuffed his head with pornography in the city when creatively impotent creates his own in his now vibrantly refreshed imagination. What begins as a ghost story has become the progress of a nervous collapse or psychogenic fugue of the kind David Lynch would specialise in decades later with Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE.

Elio Petri's 1968 psycho thriller might begin as a kind of hamfisted critique on the artist as producer of consumables but it quite quickly shows its hand as an assured examination of where an artist like Leonardo might be taken by celebrity and marketability. The visions of narcissistic exhaustion are troubling and resonant.

Franco Nero in the lead with his neat facial hair and bright baby blues reminded me anachronistically of Kurt Cobain (or perhaps his portrayal in Gus Van Sant's Last Days). His performance is constantly soild and quite brave considering the long string of humiliations it involves. Vanessa Regrave, still fresh from Blow Up maintains an unsettling turn as a lover who might well be as parasitic as the art world aparatchicks that surround Leonardo in the city. Ennio Morricone's noise-workshop score prefigures his avant-garde work on Dario Argento's "animal trilogy".

But what really impresses here is the steady hand that prevents this from spinning off into the kind of meandering psychedelia of something like Wonderwall and keeps the course through Leonardo's dissociative nightmare to his emergence as the kind of popular artist the new consumerism would be most pleased with in the quietly extraordinary final scene. 

This appeared in the festival's program of Italian thriller films called gialli. It doesn't really qualify but boy am I glad they let it through. I'm not an advocate for celluloid purism and generally prefer a clean digital projection but it was enjoyable to see scratches and repair edits in this one. If this appears on blu-ray I'll snap it up. 

Screening notes: behind us to the right was a claque of that weird animal who buys the no longer cheap festival tickets to screenings apparently to incite an audience-wide mockery of them. I've suffered through this arch bullshit too often to consider it other than pretentious and cacklingly meaningless. Really, folks, that line of dubbed dialogue from that different era just aint that funny. I've heard the screening of Deep Red in this year's MIFF had the same kind of reaction. It's even there in the characteristically try hard joke in the festival trailer. Seriously, if you want to show how much you enjoy the feast of cinema in a cinema festival, enjoy it, don't broadcast how knowing and aloof you are because it always makes you look stridently clueless: dickheads!

Friday, August 2, 2013

MIFF Session 8: BLANCANIEVES: Shh! It's Loud!

Pablo Berger said his silent movie of the Snow White tale was pipped at the post by The Artist. He shouldn't have felt that way. While I still rate The Artist among my tops for its year Blancanieves takes things one step further by dispensing with the gimmickry of a contemporary silent film early and then just gets on with offering something ceaselessly enjoyable that really just happens to be black and white, academy ratio, and with only the music score for its sound. If it has a fault at all for me it's that it retains the vintage aspect ratio (especially since the multi-screen experimentalist Abel Gance is one of Berger's great heroes).

Bullring star Antonio is gored by his last opponent in the ring while his pregnant wife watches. A montage of the two in different hospitals tightens until the life/death tension ends with the mother dying, the daughter alive and the father alive but paralysed. Young Carmencita (precocious Sofia Oria) grows up with her grandmother as her father cannot bear to look on her for recalling his grief. When granny dies she and her pet rooster (yes!) are limo-ed off to the country mansion of the rich but quadraplegic Antonio. Oh, during the montage we kept seeing the beautiful but sinister face of the nurse Encarna emoting with increasing venality on hearing that the patient is rich and his wife has just died.

Encarna, now the second Mrs Antonio, seems to greet the young Carmencita happily until showing the girl her new digs, a coal cellar (she's already banished the rooster, Pepe to the coop). Carmencita goes to work and with some fine cinematic styling she chases after Pepe and finds her father. As the reunion is unstoppable the wicked Encarna (busy with a series of B&D trysts) can do nothing but watch as Antonio schools Carmencita in the art of the matador. Time passes, including a brilliant sequence of the Carmencita practicing the moves with the cape while hanging our the sheets and, in a flourish, reveals herself to the be beautiful young woman version of Carmencita. Too much. Encarna has her rubbed out by the chauffeur. Or does he? She is revived on the riverbank by a handsome young man ... who is one of a travelling troupe of bullfighting dwarves (yes, bloody really!). They call her Blancanieves, Snow White.

And it goes where you expect but the point of telling such a familiar tale is the difference you can make in the telling. There is a near gothic whimsy to this film, a great sense of motion both visual and narrative. Magnetic actors like the two young Carmencitas and some pretty breathtaking wrangling with the bloody rooster as well as a constantly striking art direction and a score that is neither anodyne nor intrusive, we have a silent film that doesn't have to plead its pedigree to work. Oh, you can see Todd Browning and Abel Gance in there, for sure, and certainly their admirers like Jodorowski and David Lynch. The thing is that you don't have to. A child would understand and enjoy this film (if not find its darker elements a tad too .... dark).

Also, apart from the frequently stunning cinematography, the wide shots of the bull ring in Seville are breathtaking. And there's even a Zeppelin! Day. Made.

Berger has retold Snow White in a way that warrants a retelling. There is nothing of the most famous Disney version. He has made a silent film that works not despite its potentially alienating format but because of them. I'm beginning to wonder after this, The Artist and half of Guy Maddin's career, if nascent filmmakers should prove themselves with a silent piece before going any further. I know this has resolved me to seek out more silent movies.

MIFF Session 7: MANUSCRIPTS DON'T BURN: Self Creating Artefacts

The title of this film is a quote from one of my favourite novels, The Master and Margarita. The Satanic Professor Woland returns to the Master the manuscript the latter thought he'd destroyed years ago and delivers that line. Bulgakov's novel languished in seculsion for decades before it was first published and even a superficial reading will answer why that was. It was written during the time of Stalin when nothing that didn't fulsomely praise the Great Leader and Teacher was destroyed and disposed of along with its author.

The hitman duo bent on locating and eradicating an unnamed victim at the opening of this film would be at home in Stalin's NKVD. They are tradies who kill and torture and whatever else the job calls for. They save their emotions for their families. The scary thing about them is that it is just business, it's nothing personal.

No, it's impersonal and ineluctable. The two state-hitmen are assigned to make their work look like a suicide. What could be so terrible that a government wants to act like the mafia? Dissidence, usual stuff but in the case the dissidence involves the accurate retelling of a government atrocity against writers, political or not, and the need to suppress all knowledge of it. Three men are at the heart of this. They are part of what has been termed the Cultural NATO, coursing in with intelligence and keen observation to expose the horrors of the regime. They are tolerated as long as they keep to themselves, don't attempt to publish or evade their constant surveillance.

One manuscript in particular is held in copy by the trio with the most power to make the administration wince. Things are getting restless among them and the goons move in.

What would be a nail biting actioner if made in the US, Manuscripts Don't Burn is on a slow fuse. It wants you to look at the procedure of repression and the aching hopelessness of resistance. The look and pace are sombre and the performances muted. The quiet self-assurance of the secret service officer in charge of the case is never less than chilling and the moments of his success in reducing his charge's resolve to acquiescence carry a clear and durable horror.

This film was written and directed by a man forbidden to ply his trade in his native Iran and forbidden to fly the country and work anywhere else. The credits beyond his are anonymous. This film embodies its own issue. The film's beginning is revealed to have been part of a loop which we see close at the end. One figure who seemed to be forgotten about from the opening appears again (though really for the first time) but now he brings a swag of unspoken questions and even hope (you'll have to see it to understand why). The single shot scene of the first of the trio to give in for reward ends with the non-digetic sound of birds in flight. We cannot bring ourselves to judge him. Our relief forbids it.

MIFF Session 6: A TOUCH OF SIN: Assault with a Deadly Economic System

Four stories of the effects of the capitalism that has been swelling in China for the past few decades. We go from exploitation and rorting in a far flung rural district, survival in a provincial city, bloody dummy-spitting in a massage parlour to a metropolis alive with colour, entertainment, business deals and the expensive end of the sex trade, we watch individuals meet the changed game, mostly with pressured violence.

The tradition that writer/director Zhangke Jia is tapping here is wuxia, tales of ordinary folk moved by circumstance to be warriors against injustice. The stories themselves that make up the omnibus were quite literally taken from the headlines as Zhangke began collecting from the newpapers and settled on these, with liberal borrowings from others to form a picture of his country worlds away from the Bressonian observed fables he is known for. The theme here is anger, his characters and his own.

The laid-off miner in the first story repeatedly fails to protest at the corrupt coffer-filling of the village officials who profited illegally from the sale of the mine. He goes forth with a shotgun concealed in a wall hanging or, just as accurately, a weapon wrapped in a tiger. The migrant worker of the second moves through streets and cafes loud with sudden flare-ups. His actions show us what he is really about and his departure from the film amid the gunfire and crashes from the bus movie screen into darkness tell us that he has found his point of control. The third story sees a receptionist for a sauna etc establishment being taken for one of its sex workers breaking out from their hassling (one repeatedly slaps her with a wad of bank notes, drawing blood and then almighty wrath (seldom has a loaded gun moment surprised me so much). Finally an errant factory worker flees his responsibility and runs to the big city, taking a security job in a high class brothel. He meets with the revenge of others rather than enacts his own but this, too, has a strong poignancy.

The canvas here is rich but not cluttered. The first story moves like a wuxia tale but because of the modern dress more resembles a Sergio Leone revenge western. Localised outdoor performances of Chinese opera appear as a link with tradition but also a reminder of the moral code they offered. The stories are not separated by partitioning title cards or even text on the screen but rather pass batons to each other as they progress.

The result is so rich that I baulk as describing it here for fear of leaving too much out. While some passages feel like they haven't travelled well from their setting the whole is so unfailingly compelling that the two hours plus running time flew by. It's also hard to find out much about this film as its freshness from its Cannes debut has left only the sparsest of commentary or information so far. I've been mostly going on what came from the Q&A after the screening (which featured the most clodhoppingly overbaked self-important statement in the guise of a question that I've heard at any of these: thankfully, tha language barriers proved insurmountable, and that's just when it was in English).

Two hours of sustained revenge opera in sumptuous colour and mounting anger. If that doesn't work as cinema I don't know what does.