A Kind of Dreaming – Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

The German Expressionist film movement of the late 1900’s radically altered the landscape of European silent cinema, and paved the way for inventive directors such as FW Murnau,  GW Pabst and Fritz Lang.  Expressionism’s formal stylings – painted sets, flat lighting, angular cinematography – rejected any attempt at naturalism, and instead made a virtue of stylization.

These breakthroughs naturally coloured the cinema of other countries, as other film-makers began to experiment with form. Danish Director Carl T Dreyer’s 1927 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is notable for its use of a non-professional actor in the lead role, its reliance on close-ups, very little use of intertitles for dialogue and a near empty frame. The German set designer Herman Warm, who had worked on the Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) also designed Joan of Arc’s bare minimalist set, the style of which owed more to theatre production than to cinema.

In 1932, Dreyer followed the ascetic minimalism of Joan of Arc with an altogether different film; Vampyr is his adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla (from the collection In a Glass Darkly) and is an early entry in the vampire film genre. Here, Dreyer indulges his passion for experimentation, producing an atmospheric fable which leaned heavily on Expressionist motifs, and Surrealist imagery.

Vampyr’s plot, such as it is, follows the protagonist Allan Grey as he arrives at a remote French village. Grey stays the night at a local inn, but his attempts at sleep are hampered by an encroaching  sense of unease, as well as by a nocturnal visitor who inexplicably states “She must not die” before vanishing. The visitor leaves a parcel bearing a note that it is only to be opened in the event of his death. This sets Grey on a mission to discover who the mysterious visitor is. Later, we discover that the parcel contains a book on vampires, including mention of one who has wreaked havoc on the very village Grey has found himself in.

Dreyer’s vampire story differs from, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  In Stoker’s story the central character was the embodiment of evil who was pitted against a morally “good” adversary with whom he battles.  Vampyr largely eschews the idea of a bad or evil central figure and instead deals with the notion of evil as an unseen destructive force which reaches into the lives of ordinary, law-abiding people.  In Dreyer’s film a young village girl has been “possessed” by the vampire figure, and it is her struggle to live and to refute evil which Dreyer foregrounds.

Vampyr uses techniques borrowed from German Expressionism and the French Surrealist Movement to tell its tale. Dreyer had spent time in Paris with the Surrealists, and at times Vampyr’s narrative reflects the non-linear, dream-like patterns favoured by them. Indeed a key central segment of the film has Allan Grey “step out” of his body, and see himself placed inside a coffin being carried to a graveyard. The image of Grey’s face under the glass of the coffin lid, with the sky and trees reflected in it, is one of the most visually powerful in the film.

As with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Vampyr’s set designs feature cramped, uneven interiors, shadows, narrow hallways and darkened rooms. The character’s inner turmoil and emotions are expressed in the films visual style; we see as Grey sees. Often we don’t know if what he is seeing is real or imagined; here Dreyer’s subjective style gives the film a psychological realism which was unusual for its time.

Vampyr was not a commercially successful film. Bad press and indifferent audience reaction sent Dreyer into a physical and mental tailspin, and it was some time before he returned to film-making. Much as the influence of Caligari and the Surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou (1928) can be seen in Vampyr, the film’s own influence can be seen in the work of later generations of experimental film-makers such as David Lynch.

The screening I attended featured a live musical score from Steven Severin, ex-bassist with 70s goth-progenitors Siouxse and the Banshees. Severin’s evocative electronic score greatly complimented the eerie visuals of Dreyer’s film, breathing new life into a still slightly perplexing film; now rightly regarded as a classic of its kind.

More information on Carl Dreyer and Vampyr can be found here and here.

Watch a film clip here

Focuspullr is One Year Old!!

Focuspullr has been very remiss of late in getting to see films, let alone finding the time to review them. However, as tomorrow, May 3rd marks the first anniversary of this blog, I thought it appropriate to get busy and post a review!

I first saw Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress during the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival back in February, and posted a review at that time. However, I’ve since seen the film a second time and enjoyed it even more.  So, to celebrate the past 12 months, and as I look forward to the next 12, here’s my updated review for your reading pleasure.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to stop by and read my blog in the past year. It really means a lot. I look forward to your company again in the months ahead.

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)

This is Whit Stillman’s first feature since Last Days of Disco in 1998, and while his work rate wouldn’t worry Woody Allen, it’s an absence of almost Malickian proportions for this most urbane of directors. What has kept him away for so long is uncertain, but with the release of Damsels in Distress, it’s as if he’s never really been away.

The story takes place at the leafy Seven Oaks College where a trio of high-minded female students, led by the very lovely Greta Gerwig (as group leader Violet) attempt to take on the rampant “male barbarism” which they feel has overtaken the college. The girls’ mission, amongst other things, is to tackle the high incidences of college suicides; encouraging the students to improve themselves, they advocate the eating of doughnuts and self-expression through tap dancing. As you may already have gathered, for a campus-set teen romp, Animal House this ain’t.

After the early, loose trilogy of films with which he made his name – Metropolitan, Barcelona and Last Days of Disco – Damsels in Distress feels slightly like Whitman in off-duty mode. This is certainly no bad thing as the film contains his usual trademark qualities – well dressed, well heeled, articulate, intelligent characters; smart, funny dialogue; cheesy music and droll humour.  Like David Lynch, another creator of familiar-but-weird American settings, Stillman creates his own world, which you either enter into at face value, or want to run screaming from.

Though, to be fair, this is not a film which you can really dislike or even hate.  There are some funny visual gags, and the girls themselves are earnest and likeably sweet, if a little dim.  They all sport fragrant names, Violet, Heather, Lily and Rose – who seems to believe she’s from London, despite only spending a few short weeks there.  Like a benevolent old uncle, Whitman indulges the girls and their heart-felt, though half-baked theories. One of their self-improving ideas, for example, is taking on less good-looking, less intelligent boyfriends, in order to improve them. While Whitman gently pokes fun at the girls, he is never mean or cruel to them. In fact, there is a sort of old-fashioned innocence to the whole affair which is oddly appealing.

Violet even aspires to inventing a new dance craze, the Sambola, which she genuinely believes will make the world a better place. And if all this faux-naivety isn’t quite enough for you, the film ends, as surely every film should, with the principle characters leading their partners in a chereograped dance sequence set to a cheesy, 1950s faux-rock and roll soundtrack. Marvellous.

Watch the trailer –

Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, 2010)

It’s probably a gross understatement to say that Lena Dunham is currently the most well-known twenty-something female on the planet right now. The ubiquitous film studies graduate turned film-maker has just released her latest feature film, Tiny Furniture, which stars not only herself in the main role, but also her real-life Mother and sister playing on-screen versions of themselves.

Dunham plays Aura, a twenty-something film studies graduate recently returned from college, to the gorgeously spacious mid-town Manhattan loft shared by her Mother and sister. Aura’s Mother is a successful photographic artist whose photo’s of miniature furniture give the film its title. Her younger sister has just won a major poetry prize, as in fact did Dunham’s sister in real-life. Aura is stuck at an awkward juncture; her care-free college days are behind her, but she is not yet ready for the impending world of work (whatever that may be) and is reluctant to let go of the safety net afforded her by the security of the family apartment.

As has been noted elsewhere, Dunham is among a new internet-savvy generation of hip, young film-makers who have developed their craft by using Youtube as an early testing ground. They could almost have taken Youtube’s “Broadcast Yourself” mantra as their manifesto; and in fact in the film, Dunham has a character who is famous (“in an internet kind of way”) for humourous observations delivered from atop a rocking horse.  This kind of self-referential, semi-autobiographical, independent cinema – out of which “scenes” such as Mumblecore emerged – often chart the lives of creative twenty-something characters who bear more than a passing resemblance to their film’s makers.

Dunham too has taken this approach but has broadened her scope to include, whether knowingly or otherwise, the politics of gender and familial relationships. Her dialogue is sharp, knowing and funny. She has a playfully cynical eye which doesn’t let anyone of the hook; not only are her male characters truly awful specimens, she also shows little camaraderie towards certain female characters, for reasons which always feel true.  Added to that, her willingness to display her own body on-screen has gotten her probably more column inches than the film’s techniques or subject matter.

There is no doubting that Dunham is certainly no slacker scenester, but rather a talent to watch. She already has one feature behind her; next to come is her HBO TV series Girls, about the experiences of a group of twenty-something female friends which she wrote, directs, produces and stars in. Sex and the City for a whole new slacker generation? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Tiny Furniture is out now.

Watch the trailer –

Long Night’s Journey Into Day – JDIFF # 2

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Question – When is a crime drama not a crime drama? Answer – When its made by Turkish filmmaker and photographer, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. For his sixth full length feature, Ceylan takes on the police procedural, but his version is sure to be unlike any you will have seen before.

In the dead of night somewhere in the Anatolian steppes, a convoy of cars goes in search of a dead body, buried somewhere in the Turkish countryside. The cars contain the two murder suspects, the police chief, his officers, the town prosecutor, the  town doctor, soldiers and two local men whose job it will be to dig up the body, if and when it is found.  As the suspects were drunk when they committed the murder, their memory of where they buried the body is pretty sketchy. All they know for certain is that they left it near a tree and a fountain. What we see as they drive through the night, stopping here and there, is that the Turkish countryside is full of trees and fountains.

This is the basic backdrop which Ceylan sets up for his talkative protagonists, all of whom are male. And as they drive, they talk. Subjects range from good quality buffalo cheese, the symptoms of prostate problems, small-town politics, life, death and supernatural occurrences. It could also be a study of male middle-aged ennui; the police chief in particular seems to have had enough of work, as well as home life. Dread thoughts seem to dog them all, for different reasons.

Ceylan’s filmic sensibility is akin to that of the “old masters” of European art cinema, such as Andrei Tarkovsky. The pace is slow, the characters are given time to talk, smoke, then talk some more. In one lovely sequence, while the doctor and the prosecutor talk in the background, the camera tracks an apple as it is dislodged from a tree, rolls down the side of a hill, lands in a stream, gets carried along for a time by the water and then finally stops. Whatever about the slight details of the film’s plot, the images are never short of ravishing.  Ceylan also takes time to say something about the politics of town versus village life in rural Turkey. As the party stops off to eat in a nearby village, the local government official uses the opportunity to push for better facilities, such as a morgue, while entertaining the party with his best food. It’s also clear that the town officials, while polite, see him as slightly pitiful and inferior to themselves.

Obviously this film won’t be to everyone’s taste. There is a quality to the storytelling which renders it more like a fable, made clear especially in the ongoing conversation between the doctor and the prosecutor. Though the dead body is located and brought back to town for an autopsy, there is no real resolution to the story in the conventional sense. This is a closely observed character study, and it is the relationships of the men, their lives and duties that Ceylan focuses on. He tests his audience’s patience too, not just with the unconventional narrative, but with a running time which nears the 3 hour mark. I would be hard pressed to recommend this to anyone, other than fans of this very particular kind of cinema.

Michael (Marcus Schleinzer, 2011)

Schleinzer was Michael Haneke’s casting director for many years, and his problematic debut film quite patently owes a huge debt to his mentor’s chilly style. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a paedophile who keeps Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) a ten-year old boy, captive in his basement. Schleinzer presents Michael as introverted and quiet; fastidious in keeping his home clean and a polite, if non-communicative employee of an insurance firm. Many scenes show Michael blankly going about his daily chores; shopping, cooking, washing-up, and visiting Wolfgang’s room at night, where we assume he abuses him. Only one scene intimates that this is the case, but as with the film in general, everything is hinted at, rather than made explicit. One might say Schleinzer is brave in tackling such a difficult subject, and he may well be, but part of the problem with his film is that he doesn’t seem to want to confront the reasons for the behaviour he is depicting on-screen.

Michael’s visual template is similar to that of earlier Haneke films like Benny’s Video or Code Unknown. The settings are pedestrian, even drab – much like the main character himself – who is portrayed as being quite pathetic overall.  Though the film stops short of making us sympathetic towards Michael, as it regularly reminds us of the horror of the situation which he has brought about. As a filmmaker, Haneke, in contrast, does at least attempt to provide some kind of context for his subjects, and if he doesn’t exactly provide answers, his films prod you into asking questions around his characters’ motivations.  Schleinzer’s film is less successful in this regard. It only left me asking, is it enough to simply present images and situations and to then expect the audience to guess what the filmmaker’s motivation might be? Isn’t there some responsibility or even duty on the director’s part to make some kind of commentary, especially with subject matter as sensitive as this? Otherwise, the only question one can ask is: what is the point of this film?

 

Both films were showing as part of the 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival #1

The 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (or JDIFF, if you’re into the whole brevity thing) kicked off on February 16th and runs until the 26th, with a head-spinning number of films, gala’s and special presentations lined up. My choices have been made based on availability, whim, state of mind, budget and/or time constraints. I’ve had to drop two films already but hey, there’s plenty more to come, right?

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)

This is Whit Stillman’s first feature since Last Days of Disco in 1998, an absence of almost Malickian proportions for this previously regular, urbane director. What has kept him away for so long, I’m not quite sure, but with the release of Damsels in Distress, it’s as if he’s never been away really. The story takes place at the leafy Seven Oaks College where a trio of high-minded female students, led by the very lovely Greta Gerwig, attempt to take on the rampant “male barbarism” which they feel has overtaken the college. The girls’ mission, amongst other things, is to tackle the high incidences of college suicides, by way of encouraging students to improve themselves, eat doughnuts and take up tap dancing. As you may have already gathered, for a campus-set romp, Animal House this ain’t.

I couldn’t quite decide whether I thought this film was awful or good, or awfully good. It contains Stillman’s usual trademark qualities – well dressed, well heeled, articulate, intelligent characters with sharply observed, smart, funny, stilted dialogue. Like David Lynch, another creator of familiar-but-weird American settings, Stillman creates his own world which you either enter into at face value, or run screaming from. Though, to be fair, it’s not a film which you can really dislike or even hate. The characters are earnest, if a little dim, but likeably sweet; and there is a sort of old-fashioned innocence to the whole affair which is oddly appealing. Gerwig’s character, Violet, even aspires to inventing a new dance craze, which she genuinely believes will make the world a better place. Bless. The film ends, as surely every film should, with the principle characters leading their partners in a chereograped dance sequence set to a cheesy, 1950s faux-rock and roll soundtrack.

Watch the trailer –

Hill Street (JJ Rolfe, 2012)

Getting its world premiere at JDIFF was this “labour of love” documentary about Dublin’s skateboarding scene from the 1980s to today. Now, I know nothing about skateboarding. I know what a skateboard is, but that’s where my knowledge begins and ends. Happily, complete ignorance of the sport of skateboarding will not dampen your enjoyment of this fascinating, well made documentary feature.

Director JJ Rolfe (whose day job is in cinematography) has spent the last number of years putting this film together, often in his own time and on his own money. He charts the origins of the scene back in the 80s, starting with Clive Rowen’s Hill Street skate shop (an almost mythical touchstone for skaters), right up to the present day. The avuncular Rowen features heavily throughout, as do many of the other movers and shakers who went on to make their names on the scene, or who just found a lifelong passion to indulge in.

With a soundtrack by Gareth Averill (Great Lakes Mystery), this is a very enjoyable, informative film which the makers hope to extend and expand on, and take onto the Festival circuit.  It deserves your support and who knows, may well go on to become a touchstone for new generations of skaters.

More information here

Pause / Rewind

Things have been pretty hectic at Focuspullr HQ in recent weeks, so I haven’t been able to get around to posting much lately. However, I have managed to catch a few films, so I thought I’d play a bit of catch-up and round them up here.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

I know we’ve only just dipped our toes into 2012, and we’ve lots of goodies to come, but I’m going to go ahead and say that this is one of the strongest films I’ve seen thus far. Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a troubled young woman who flees a remote Catskills commune, where she has spent two years disconnected from family and the outside world. Martha seeks solace with her sister Lucy (Sarah Poulson) and husband Ted in their gorgeous lake-side retreat, while she tries to process her time with the commune. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the life Martha (or Marcy May, as group leader Patrick “renames” her) had with the group; where personal identity and history is stripped away, individuality is subsumed into a group mentality and where civil and personal boundaries become dangerously blurred. A deeply immersive film with the feel of an extended dream, MMMM looks beautiful and features a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack. A must see.

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)

Charlize Theron stars in this darkly comic drama as Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult fiction, who returns to her home town following an invite from ex-boyfriend Buddy Slade, on the occasion of the birth of his first child. Despite the fact that her life has devolved into an unhappy round of heavy drinking and one night stands, punctuated by filing copy for the teen fiction series she writes to order, Mavis sets out to show Buddy just what he’s been missing all these years. Theron is fantastic as the bitter, twisted, deluded but fundamentally decent Mavis, as she careen’s through her home town like the out of control wreck that she is. She also finds an unlikely ally in high-school loser Matt, wonderfully played by Patton Oswalt. As you’d expect from the team who brought you Juno (Jason Reitman & Diablo Cody) Young Adult is smart, ultra-sharp and caustically funny, and any film that features Teenage Fanclub on the soundtrack is ok in my book.

Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)

Polanski follows his 2010 outing The Ghost (adapted from a Robert Harris novel) with another adaptation; this time from an acclaimed play, “Le Dieu du Carnage” by Yazmina Reza.  Here we have two pairs of parents who meet following an altercation involving their sons. One couple, the Longstreets (John C Reilly and Jodie Foster) invite the other, the Cowans (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) over to their Brooklyn apartment, to discuss the situation and to decide what punishment, if any, should be meted out to the offending Cowan boy. What follows, as social niceties slowly give way to sly digs, sarcastic slurs and personal insults, is nothing short of war.

Both couples quickly drop the veil of respectability to each fight their corner, hurling abuse at each other and finally, themselves. Polanski is no stranger to putting squabbling characters in a cramped setting and letting them slug it out (see also Cul-de-Sac and Knife in the Water) and with Carnage, as it’s adapted from a stage play, all the action takes place in the Longstreet’s Brooklyn apartment over the course of an afternoon.  The A List cast is terrific; Polanski’s direction is tight and unfussy and the whole thing zips by in a brief, but wonderfully entertaining 80 minutes.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

Alexander Payne hasn’t exactly been twiddling his thumbs since his 2004 feature Sideways – he has made a video short and contributed a segment to Paris, je t’aime since –  but The Descendants marks his welcome return to feature film directing. Set in Hawaii, the film stars George Clooney as Matt King, a lawyer and wealthy trustee of his family’s considerable real estate interests. King’s wife has had a boating accident and lies in a coma while Matt tries to cope with home life and his two daughters; ten-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and teenage tearaway Alex (Shailene Woodley).

Things get complicated when Matt learns of his wife’s infidelity with a local Real Estate agent, just as the extended King family are on the verge of signing a monumental deal for the family land, which will set them all up financially. The Descendants is a fairly flimsy affair which coasts along at an agreeable pace. Clooney digs a little deeper emotionally than is usually required of him, and turns in an affecting portrait of a man who realises just how little he knows of his wife and daughters’ inner lives. Clooney is ably supported by the girls – foul-mouthed Scottie gets some choice lines –  but overall this is a slight confection which fails to get you to care too much about the central characters’ dilemma.

That’s all for now folks! Focuspullr will be busy over the coming week or so with the 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. I’ll be endevouring to post updates on the films I’ll be seeing, once my eyes readjust to daylight. Here are some of the films I’m most looking forward to –  Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia; not to mention a return to Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre and a restored classic in the form of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Phew!

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) – Preview and Q&A

Last night the Irish Film Institute hosted a special preview screening of Shame, Steve McQueen’s latest film, which stars Michael Fassbender (as did McQueen’s debut film Hunger). The screening also featured a Q&A with the Director and the film’s co-writer Abi Morgan, via satellite link-up with the Curzon cinema in London, as well as some sixty-odd other cinema’s around the UK and Ireland.

In the film Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a slick, suave professional living and working in New York City. He lives in a modest, minimal apartment in Manhattan and works at a non-specified office job in the city; but he also harbors a full-on addiction to sex, which takes up a large chunk of his time each day. Not only is Brandon downloading porn onto his hard-drive at work, but he pays regular visits to the office bathroom during the working day, and flips open his laptop to view more porn as soon as he gets home. He also pays for prostitutes when not engaging in casual sex with random bar-room pick-ups.

Brandon’s “routine” is interrupted with the arrival of his needy, self-obsessed singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who lands in Manhattan to do some gigs and needs a place to stay. Though he is helpful at first (though not exactly courteous), needless to say he soon tires of Sissy’s attention-seeking behaviour and things start to spiral out of control for both siblings.

McQueen said in the Q&A afterwards that the central idea for the film was arrived at quite arbitrarily, as was the decision to shoot it in New York – apparently he couldn’t find any sex addicts in the UK who were willing to discuss their addiction. While the idea of “sex addiction” might seem like something dreamed up for a salacious TV programme; the film (though never naming the issue) treats the subject seriously and focuses on Brandon’s issues with intimacy, his inability to conduct relationships and his sense of isolation as a result.

Other questions are raised also about the ubiquity of porn, through ease of access via the internet and social media sites, and how easily we accept that these are just facets of how we all live now.  However the film makes it clear that Brandon has a real problem, though it doesn’t make any judgements on his condition. Both Brandon and Sissy are unquestionably damaged people, but McQueen gives us no backstories to show how they’ve arrived where they are. He simply shows them to us in the here and now and lets us make of them what we will.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan are excellent as brother and sister, while McQueen’s direction is confident and inventive.  He has a gift for framing images in a way that makes them appear fresh, or even disconcerting – the opening overhead scene of Fassbender in bed silently staring up at the camera is a case in point.

 One thing which didn’t occur to me as I was watching the film, but has been picked up elsewhere, is the idea of Sissy as a sex addict. Certainly her behaviour is also compulsive, erratic and perhaps dangerous; but I’m not sure I agree with the suggestion, though it is interesting to think about in retrospect. Shame is a film which lingers in the mind, due in no small part to its icy cool tone and moody ambivalence.  A must-see.

Shame opens at the Irish Film Institute on Friday, January 13th.

Watch the trailer: