Sleep Furiously (Gideon Koppel, 2008)

Gideon Koppel’s first feature is set in the remote Welsh farming community where he spent most of his childhood and teenage years. His parents were German Jews who escaped the Nazi’s and fled to a new life in the United Kingdom; settling in Liverpool, they eventually bought a smallholding in the district of Trefeurig in Wales, a community which once traded on its lead and silver mines.

Koppel’s film patiently and eloquently observes the locals as they go about their daily business, over the course of twelve months. There is no voice-over narration, just beautifully composed images that quietly document these villagers’ quite busy lives. Koppel uses the loose framing device of a mobile Library van, which travels the county, to act as a metaphorical container for the stories of the villagers; but it also provides a welcome and much-needed social hub, around which the local community congregates. The scenes featuring the van are among the most enjoyable in the film, as they unhurriedly document the easy, natural relationship the locals have with the knowledgable Librarian, as well as with each other and the books themselves. For a remote community, these locals enjoy a full and well-rounded cultural life; taking in choral recitals and choir practice as well as getting through an impressive monthly supply of books.

Koppel has said that he didn’t set out to make a documentary, and certainly one could argue that as soon as a scene is framed in a certain way, or certain decisions are made to present an image in a particular way, one is creating fiction. Sleep Furiously doesn’t act as documentary; it doesn’t isolate or focus on any one character, or set of characters, as conventional documentary features are wont to do. Instead it matter of factly presents people (without identifying them) going about their daily activities – tilling the land, shearing sheep, mending fence-posts. In doing that, it says more about this particular farming community, and disappearing ways of living, than any number of well-meaning polemical documentaries.  No-one speaks directly to camera, or even seems to be aware that it is there, and there is real craft and great art in what this first-time director has created.

Men at work - a scene from Sleep Furiously

It shares a sensibility with Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers, and with the acclaimed Italian feature from last year,Le Quattro Volte, which caused critics everywhere to fall over themselves and each other, dragging out every superlative in the book. Yet, that latter film, while enjoyable, didn’t move me in any real way; instead of being artful, it was too full of artifice and premised on a pretentious philosophical idea which for me, didn’t really work. In contrast, Sleep Furiously feels like truer art, and is truly artful.

It was described by the critic and film-maker Mark Cousins as “pure cinema”, and it most certainly is that. Its images are beautifully and carefully composed; the community are presented sympathetically, the music (mostly by Aphex Twin) is well chosen and the sound design is impeccable. The effect of time passing is shown simply in the changing of the seasons; space is created for the audience to think for themselves and fill in any blanks; there is no telling, only showing.

Like its title (taken from a quote by Noam Chomsky) Sleep Furiously is poetic and elliptical. It is a wonderfully moving, life-affirming film of great humility and deserves to be seen.

Sleep Furiously is now available on DVD.

Watch the trailer:

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The Best Fictional Bands in Films?

A major hit of nostalgia was shot into my brain recently when I read that Breaking Glass (Brian Gibson, 1980) is to get a DVD release this month, 31 years after it was first released in September 1980.  31 years? Crikey, I saw this in the cinema when it first came out!! Yikes. All the songs played in the film by the fictional rock star, Kate and her band Breaking Glass, were mainly written by the film’s star, Hazel O’ Connor. I was getting seriously interested in music at this point (well, mostly Bowie and The Police) so I lapped up anything and everything going. I even bought a few Hazel O’ Connor singles on the back of the film’s release! Oh well, I was young and easily impressed. It would be fun to see the film again now though.

Anyway, it got me thinking – and this is the perfect idea for a Friday post –

Who are the best fictional bands/artists you’ve seen in films?

I have listed the my choice of films below, with links, in no particular order. I’ll kick off with Hazel, for old time’s sake.

Who have I missed and who would you include?

1. Breaking Glass – Hazel O’ Connor plays Kate, who with her band, Breaking Glass, achieves the fame she’s always craved, but at what cost? Was Lady GaGa even born when this came out? Here’s Eighth Day –  

2. Grace Of My Heart – Alison Anders’ wonderful film from 1996, loosely based on the life and work of Carole King. The soundtrack features some heavy-hitting songwriters, such as Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, who provided this superbly crafted period song for Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas) to perform –

3. That Thing You Do! – Also from 1996, Tom Hanks’ directorial debut charting the rise and fall of Beatles-style Beat Combo, The Wonders. This is their big hit! Great film too.

4.  That’ll Be The Day / Stardust – Well ok, I’ve snuck in two films here; but they go hand in hand, as they chronicle the life and times of fictional superstar Jim McClaine (David Essex) and his band, The Stray Cats. With great star turns from Ringo Starr (That’ll Be The Day) and Adam Faith (Stardust). Allied to Essex’s own real Star charisma, these are two of the best films there are about the Business of the thing we call Show. Watch out for turns from Keith Moon and Dave Edmunds as band members –

5. The School of Rock – Ok dudes, I’m going to finish on a real face melter. I absolutely love The School of Rock (2003). Directed by Richard Linklater, it stars Jack Black as failed musician Dewey Finn, who seizes one last chance at the big time by impersonating his teacher friend Ned Schneebly, and turning his class into a kick-ass, hard rockin outfit so that he can take part in a school’s Battle of the Bands competition, to get revenge on the band who dumped him. It’s top class from start to finish. Here’s the band in action, and remember, you’re not hardcore until you live hardcore! – Happy Weekend! 

Thanks to suggestions from commenters, I’m adding a few more bands to the list.

7. The Committments – Alan Parker’s film of Roddy Doyle’s hilarious novel about the titular Dublin Soul band was a huge success. Here’s a tune from it –

8. This is Spinal Tap – A classic –

9. O Brother, Where Art Thou? – How I could have forgotten The Soggy Bottom Boys from The Coen Brothers’ wonderful movie, I’ll never know.

10. Star Wars – The Cantina Band from George Lucas’ Star Wars seem to have a huge online following! Thanks to Ronan for pointing this one out to me – I can’t find a clip from the movie, but this is the tune they play in the Cantina scene.  

A Year of Refusal – L’annee Derniere a Marienbad / Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

Regarding my comment at the end of this review –  I’m glad to see that, next month, the Irish Film Institute are showing the newly digitised,  Last Year in Marienbad – running from August 12 – 18.  Good news.

A Year of Refusal – L’annee Derniere a Marienbad / Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961).

Radio On (Christopher Petit, 1979)

In the mid to late 70s when he was working on the script of what would become his first film, Chris Petit was Film Editor of Time Out magazine. Petit was very influenced by the New German Cinema that was taking hold in Europe, spearheaded by directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders.  During an interview with Wenders for the magazine, Petit decided to pitch the script idea to him, in the hope that through Wenders’ involvement, he could potentially secure funding for the project. Much to Petit’s amazement, Wenders liked the pitch and asked for a copy of the script, and so Radio On crackled into life.

Radio On is the story of Robert B, a DJ who works nights for the internal radio station of a large factory in London (actually based on United Biscuits Network), spinning discs to keep the workers company during their overnight shifts. Robert’s estranged brother, who lives in Bristol, has died in mysterious circumstances, and so Robert decides to drive from London to Bristol to investigate his brother’s death.  What follows is a road trip through what Petit called the “Ballardian Landscape” of late 1970s England; a disappearing cityscape of Modernist high-rises, motorways, flyovers, pylons and spaghetti junctions. Petit’s monochromatic images; soundtracked by German Electro pioneers Kraftwerk and David Bowie amongst others, lovingly document the urban “non-places” of  industrial estates, petrol stations, lay-bys and motorway services that Robert robotically glides through.

Petit mostly dispenses with character psychology and plot, filling the narrative spaces with a contemporary soundtrack in place of exposition. And it’s that fantastic soundtrack, coupled with the visuals, that gives the film the feel, at times, of an extended pop promo. Petit secured permission directly from Kraftwerk and Bowie to use specific songs and also did a deal with Stiff Records to use some of their stable; utilising songs by Ian Dury, Lene Lovitch, Wreckless Eric and others to great effect.

Radio On was an Anglo/German co-production, with the British Film Institute and Wenders’ production company, Road Movies, as production partners.  Wenders’ cinematic influence is apparent too; earlier films of his like Alice in the Cities or The American Friend feature displaced characters finding refuge and solace on the road. This alliance lead to Petit utilising some of Wim Wenders’ crew members, including his regular cinematographer Martin Shafer; a crew who were adept at shooting quickly and on a tight budget. Wenders’ then wife, Lisa Kreuzer also stars, playing Ingrid, a German woman who is looking for her estranged husband and child in Bristol. It is this shift in the second half of the film that I find less satisfying; the inclusion of Ingrid’s scenario feels almost shoe-horned in, as if Petit felt he had to include some semblance of a story.

Speaking in 2008 in an interview for the BFI’s DVD release, Petit said that, unlike the way all cinema works firstly as a combination of images with sound; he intended Radio On to be the opposite – sound with images attached – and to my mind the film works best, when viewed and thought of in this way.  Petit allows the soundtrack to make time for transitory moments, such as the scene where Robert stops for a drink, and puts Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World on the pub jukebox.

Even though news of Northern Ireland trickles out over various radio sets in the course of Robert’s journey, there doesn’t appear to be any overtly political message to the film; Robert even says at one point, “I never understood what the problems were”.  Petit seems more interested in the almost existential disconnection of his characters; cut off from their environment, each other, themselves.

There are, however, some moments of connection in the film – Robert’s aforementioned interaction with Ingrid, and a nicely played interlude with an Eddie Cochrane-fixated petrol pump attendant (played by a soon to be famous Sting). Despite Robert’s soul(less?) searching, the film’s ending leaves him no more enlightened than when he began. He eventually drives himself into the dead-end of a deserted quarry, and to the strains of Kraftwerk’s Ohm Sweet Ohm, leaves his car and walks back to a nearby train station. Trading the solitary, isolated autonomy of his vehicle for the shared commonality of the train; perhaps he is finally ready to move on, to another brave new world.

Watch the trailer here:

Chris Petit continues to be intrigued by the possibilities of the open road in a new installation, made in collaboration with Ian Sinclair. See here for more:

A Year of Refusal – L’annee Derniere a Marienbad / Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of Alain Resnais’ acclaimed 1961 collaboration with Nouveau Roman figurehead Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year in Marienbad.  Resnais was part of an unofficial off-shoot of the Nouvelle Vague, along with like-minded film-makers Agnes Varda (for whom he worked as an editor) and Chris Marker; his style sometimes referred to as “Left-bank New Wave”. He differed from New Wave contemporaries like Godard and Truffaut, in that his influences were perhaps more literary than cinematic. Marienbad was Resnais’ second feature; his first, Hiroshima Mon Amour started life as a short but Resnais, learning the process of filmmaking by doing, ended up extending it to feature length. Better known as a maker of short films and documentaries up to this point, Marienbad was a striking early departure.

As with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais again turned to themes of memory and time with Marienbad; however this time, aided by Robbe-Grillet’s script, he would create a whole new cinematic language and challenge the conventions of classical narration. The story takes place within a beautiful and elegant Chateau, where guests wander the gorgeous grounds, dressed in formal evening attire at all times. A Man (not named in the film) is entreating a Woman (also not named) to remember a previous liaison they had, possibly in this very Chateau, possibly somewhere else. He wanted her to leave her husband/lover, and come away with him, but she would not go. He tells her that she promised to meet him again, one year later, which is why he’s here, but the Woman has no recollection of any of this. Is what he says true? Did it happen, or was it imagined? Did something unspeakable occur which prevents her from remembering?  This is the central conundrum at the heart of the film, which is only the starting point for a puzzling, labyrinthine story which keeps unfolding, back-tracking, turning in on itself and leading us into many dead-ends before starting all over again.

The style of the film is formal, theatrical. Resnais has his actors behave in a completely stylised, unnatural way; standing off staring into space, moving robotically, saying their lines blankly, without emotion or effect. The only character with any real agency is the Man (Giorgio Albertazzi) who is trying to convince the Woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they did indeed meet. Of all the characters, he seems more than one-dimensional; he appears to be aware, conscious of his surroundings. The others behave as if in a dream; they lack psychology, motivation, identity.

Of course, for Resnais, this is the whole point. Marienbad as a film, is a refusal of classical storytelling, a refusal of plot, naturalism, narration, point-of-view; all the things, in short, his New Wave contemporaries were also busy dismantling, but in far more conventional ways perhaps. Just as the “New Novelists” were as concerned with how words looked on the page, as they were with playing with conventional notions of storytelling; so Resnais put forward images and scenarios which constantly reflected, refracted and referenced other scenes in Marienbad, turning the film into its own surreal hall of mirrors. Everything in this film feels like it is forever slipping away; as if the place, people and situations occur in some other realm, some nether-land; like ghosts forever doomed to walk the gilded corridors and stately rooms of this elegant hotel.

Needless to say, almost since its initial release, Last Year in Marienbad has given rise to varied and plentiful speculation as to its “meaning”. Almost all areas of film theory have been applied to the film, each giving its own particular reading to this Modernist masterpiece. It also struck me, especially in light of the widely varying reactions to Terrence Malick’s recently released The Tree of Life, that we don’t often see this kind of “cinema of ideas” on our movie screens anymore.  Certainly Art Cinema is alive and well, but often it can feel overly serious, too self-aware or just plain weird for the sake of it. Mind you, those very same criticisms were levelled at Marienbad back in 1961.

However many times I watch the film, it always feels fresh and utterly contemporary. I’m always struck by the wonderful cinematography (courtesy of Sacha Vierny) and Resnais’ beautifully fluid camera work. It really is a unique and original film. If you haven’t yet seen it, you’re in for a treat.

While the film has been reissued in a new digital print for its 50th anniversary, regrettably it doesn’t appear to be showing in Ireland as of yet. You can see a trailer here.

A Kind of Rewind – Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)

In a recent article for the Guardian newspaper on rereading LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, the novelist Ali Smith wrote that the novel was a model for the importance of rereading as “we wouldn’t, after all, expect to know a piece of music properly on just one listen”.  I not only agree, I would also add that the same can be said for films. How many films have you seen just the once, and when mention or discussion of them resurfaces, you perhaps struggle to recall it or your views on it? You may remember certain bits, but the finer, deeper details escape you? Happens to me all the time.  I have been thinking lately of a few films that, for different reasons, have popped back into my head and that I’d like to watch again.  Having recently read Alan Warner’s last novel, The Stars in The Bright Sky, the first film that occurred to me was Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Warner’s 1995 debut novel, Morvern Callar.

There is another reason for revisiting Morvern, and that’s the upcoming release of Ramsay’s screen adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin. Its Ramsay’s first film since Morvern Callar eight years ago – and only her third feature since graduating from film school in 1995 – an absolute age in cinematic terms.  Since her debut feature film Ratcatcher (1999), Ramsay has gained a reputation as a film-maker of great talent, with an artistic and Auteurist sensibility. Her version of Shriver’s unsettling novel has already made a great impression at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Morvern Callar opens when the character of the title (played by Samantha Morton) finds her boyfriend dead on the living room floor on Christmas morning, after taking his own life. He has left her some money and a finished novel on the computer hard drive.  For reasons we are not privy to, Morvern changes the name on the novel from his to hers and promptly sends it off to the first publisher on a list left by her boyfriend. She then proceeds to get ready to go out for a night on the town.

Morvern spends her days working in a local supermarket in the unnamed Port town where she lives. With some of the money left by the boyfriend(to cover funeral expenses) she takes herself and her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) off for a package holiday to Spain. What I remembered most after first seeing the film was that basic, slim storyline – bereaved girl goes a bit mad, heads off to Spain with her mate, does shedloads of drugs and booze and generally has a wild time. But on rewatching it, I see that it is a cinematic essay on grief and grieving.  Ramsay puts us inside Morvern’s experience, we see her world as she sees it – the sense of dislocation, the way everyday objects suddenly look unfamiliar or odd, they way your focus shifts, seeing everything suddenly more clearly but differently.

Ramsay brings an art-cinema aesthetic to Warner’s story. There are countless scenes where she allows cinematic time to slow all the way down. Morvern taking a bath, watching the body of her dead boyfriend on the floor while the Christmas tree lights go on and off, baking with Lanna ( in a gorgeously shot slow-motion sequence) – none of these add to the story but rather serve to put us in Morvern’s head. There is a wonderful marraige of image and music in a number of scenes, such as the house party and a trippy clubbing scene.  There is also the uncomfortable sense that her boyfriend’s death could be a liberation for Morvern, an opportunity for her to get away finally, to escape, and this is what she eventually does.

The film is beautifully shot by Alwin Kuchler; moving from the dark, rainy, night-time streets and interiors of the Port, to the sun and blistering heat of Spain. There is a whole sequence too where the film stock suddenly changes to a washed out, sepia-tone as the girls drive up into the Spanish hills; I wonder if this was intentional, but either way it looks fantasic.  The soundtrack and the sound design are also worth a mention – one of the things that struck me in the earlier parts of the film, was that the only music we hear is what Morvern plays on her cassette Walkman. I hadn’t noticed that first time around, and it’s highly effective. The film is crammed with bold moves like this.

So, like rereading, there is a lot to be said for rewatching. There are countless films I love to watch over and over; films grow and develop, as we do as viewers, and you read more, see more each time. What are the films you’d like to see 2nd time round, if any, and why?

Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, 2010)

I recently caught up with Joanna Hogg’s second feature on DVD. I had originally intended to see it during the Dublin Film Festival earlier in the year, but clashing film schedules wouldn’t allow it. It’s probably just as well, as shouting at your telly in the comfort of your own home is much more preferable to venting your frustration in a packed cinema.

Hogg’s film centres around an upper middle-class English family holidaying in a rented house on the Scilly Isles. Mother Patricia (Kate Fahey), daughter Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and son Edward (Tom Hiddleston, making his second appearance for Hogg after 2007’s debut film Unrelated) convene for a few weeks’ relaxation, by way of a send-off for Edward, who is due to leave for Africa to take up a post as a volunteer aid worker.

Edward is conflicted about his decision and seems to be having a bit of an early mid-life crisis about where his life is going in general. He doesn’t get much in the way of support from his mother or sister, both of whom seem incapable of reaching out, or making any kind of real emotional connection with the others. He finds some mild distraction with Rose (real-life cook Amy Lloyd), the cook the family have hired for the holiday (I know), who he can at least talk to and connect with.  Cynthia is harbouring her own inner anger and frustration, which manifests itself in her bossing the other’s about, and being generally bitchy to Edward. In one terse exchange over dinner (most of the arguments seem to involve food) Edward mentions his regret at not inviting his girlfriend along on the holiday, as he will only have one night with her before he goes; to which Cynthia replies that this is a family holiday and that he’s only known his girlfriend eighteen months anyway, so she can hardly be counted as family.

The Mother, Patricia, withdraws into silence at any confrontation; preferring to lose herself in the painting lessons that the family has arranged (I know!) for the duration of their stay with local painter Christopher (real-life painter Christopher Baker). William, the husband/father of the bunch is notable by his absence; he rings a number of times obviously explaining the reasons for his delay, but he never actually arrives. This only adds to the growing tension between mother and siblings, who become more isolated from each other as the holiday progresses; each remaining their own little island. I can’t say I blame him for staying away.

My main problem with this film is that I simply don’t care about this bunch of simpering, whimpering toffs.  Who cares about a mollycoddled bunch of Hooray Henry’s who can’t connect emotionally anyway? I only continued watching in the hope that the house would somehow catch fire and they’d all perish in the blaze; or that the helicopter, which ferries them to and from the mainland, would be blown off-course by strong headwinds, dumping the rotters in the sea. But no. While I’ll never be heard to say that I love the films of Joanna Hogg; I can’t deny that she has a firm grip on her craft and shows a skill in observing and dissecting the complex familial relationships of these, albeit well-off, characters. This is her milieu after all.

She also takes chances with her camera, sometimes going for unusual framing, using long-shots and painstakingly composing every scene like a painting. In fact, painting seems to have been a huge influence on her visual style here, as the act and art of painting features heavily, through the conversations and observations the group share with Christopher Baker.

So not one to rent for a fun night in, but certainly an assured, accomplished second feature from a director not afraid to stay true to her course. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes from here.

Archipelago is out now on DVD.