Thursday, April 27, 2023

Concert: Lust for Life

This was a kind of weird supergroup affair at which an odd collection of musicians got together in Whelan's to play the songs from Iggy Pop's 1977 album Lust for Life and some other tunes of the era. It was originally meant to feature Tony Fox Sales, who had played bass and some guitar on the album, but he had to drop out. This meant that none of the musicians present had any direct connection to the album, though some of them did play with Iggy Pop on other occasions. But who were they? Well let me list them:
  • Kevin Armstrong, guitar: he played with Iggy Pop and David Bowie in the 1980s and onwards, but is most famous to me for co-writing Morrissey's "Piccadilly Palare"
  • Clem Burke, drums: formerly of Blondie and The Ramones, he is regarded as one of the great drummers of the new wave era
  • Luis Correia, guitar: a previously unknown quantity for me, he is based in London and has played with various people
  • Glen Matlock, bass: holy fuck, it's Glen fucking Matlock, bassplayer with the Sex Pistols, the man who wrote "Pretty Vacant"; he has also played with and written at least one song for Iggy Pop
  • Katie Puckrik, lead vocals: a bit of a leftfield choice, as Ms Puckrik is best known to people of my generation not for her singing but for presenting The Word in the 1990s. Back then she was also something of a doppelgänger of my sister, while more recently she has flown the flag for yacht rock to a worrying extent
  • Florence Sabeva, keyboards: another figure of mystery, she is another London based musician who has played with various people as well as recording her own music and composing soundtracks.

So what was it like? Well, what do you think it was like? It was a load of solid musicians fronted by a surprisingly impressive American lady banging through some top tunes. For all that Iggy Pop's Lust for Life was billed as the gig's focus, to me it felt like it really went into overdrive in the second part of the set, when they were playing various other punk tunes as well as some older Stooges classics. That put me in mind of a fundamental problem with the whole Don't Look Back thing of bands playing their classic albums, separate to the whole debate around whether there is a kind of artistic bankruptcy to playing songs in album order: basically, on albums, the big songs tend to be towards the beginning, so that the record makes an initial impact on listeners, but at a gig you want to put them further back so that the set builds up to them (careful readers may notice that I am contradicting what I said about the performance of Faust IV I attended at Le Guess Who in 2021). Opening with the song "Lust for Life" when the audience are yet to warm up is a waste of a tune and not something you would do if you were not playing the songs in album order. I also had the embarrassing problem of realising that I do not actually know Lust for Life that well (it is years since I listened to it) and was continuously afraid that I would be burned at the stake as an unbeliever.

One of my great grumbles these days is that crowds aren't as up for it as they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s when people moshed to everything (not always in a good way), so I was a bit disappointed by the Lust for Life attendees. OK so yes they did show their appreciation between songs, but there was a definite "standing there with their arms folded having a great time" energy when the band were blasting through the punk classics. I accept that many of the audience were a bit on the old side, but that makes it even worse: they should be able to remember the way things were in the old days, and if they are out for their one gig of the year they should be going hog wild. I could not face being stuck at the back behind these people indefinitely, and when the opening chords of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" rang out I took my chance to charge to the front; I was irked that more people did not follow me.

Some actual moshing kicked off by the gig's end, with a storming version of "Pretty Vacant" making for a great highlight to the evening, for all that the band were somewhat inexplicably joined for this by B. P. Fallon (who did not seem to do anything bar stand there while Matlock looked after the vocals). Crowd reaction suggested we seem to have reached a point in human history where Fallon is now regarded as cool. I suppose if you wait long enough anything is possible.

And then the gig ended and I went home. It was a hot sweaty concert and it took me weeks to shake off the cold I picked up.

More amazing gig photos

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Two films I saw recently that are very different from each other

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Krzysztof Kieślowski's film may well be a triumph of cinematography, sound design and art direction over plot: it looks and sounds amazing but arguably not that much happens in it. Music features a lot as there is a composer in it; one striking scene shows the compositional process taking place, the music we are hearing changing as decisions are made on how to arrange the piece.

As you know, the film is in some way meant to draw on the idea of Liberty that underpins the blue in the French flag. What exactly the main character Julie (memorably played by Juliette Binoche) is breaking free from is ambiguous. At the start of the film her husband and daughter die in a car crash (sorry for spoiling a film released thirty years ago) so is she being freed from the constraints of family life? Or is the film about her being freed from the shackles of grief? Either way I found her husband a mysterious offscreen presence whose point in life is hard to determine. He is a famous and highly successful composer but anyone with half a brain twigs almost immediately that it is actually Julie who was writing his music (this is so obvious to anyone with half a brain that it can't be considered a spoiler). Quite why she was letting him take the credit is never addressed. And he also turns out to be getting it on with a lawyer on the side. I really struggled to see why Julie had stuck with this guy (admittedly she only found about the extracurricular shagging after his death). I was also struck by how when Julie asks another guy whether he loves her and/or fancies a shag, she addresses him as "vous".

Rye Lane (2023) When I walked into the cinema auditorium for an afternoon screening of Raine Allen-Miller's film there was only one other person there, a woman, which felt like the meet cute opening to a rom com. Then other people came in and ruined everything. Rye Lane meanwhile is that rare thing: a rom com that is both funny and kind of cute, like a Richard Curtis film that isn't shit and doesn't exist in a parallel universe in which non-white people have been purged from London. There is a lot of music, including a great moment that had me thinking about possibly exploring the work of whatever Terence Trent D'Arby is calling himself these days. I also liked the arse-themed art show that brings up the rear of the film.

If you are being in any way reflective when making a film in a genre you have to think about how you will engage with the conventions of the genre, particularly ones that people have started to consider problematic. Do you just follow the conventions, in an "I don't make the rules" way? Do you ignore them, albeit running the risk thereby of effectively making a film that falls outside the genre you were aiming for? Or do you attempt to subvert the genre? In Rye Lane this is most noticeable in the way the film engages with the manic pixie dream girl stock character (the free spirited perky woman who for no obvious reason decides to spice up the life of a deadbeat male protagonist). Rye Lane sees Yas (Vivian Oparah) barge into the life of Dom (David Jonsson) after she encounters him crying in a bathroom over a recent bad break-up. The film seems to follow the MPDG line, with Yas bringing Dom out of himself as they race around having a fun and exciting time. But I think there is enough of a switcheroo in the storyline that stops Yas being just a prop to Dom's story. I do wonder though whether we are seeing a new genre convention emerge, the subverted manic pixie dream girl.


Juliette Binoche in Three Colours: Blue (A World of Film: "Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993) – Krzysztof Kieslowski (Niall McArdle)")

David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in Rye Lane (Radio Times: "Rye Lane soundtrack: all the songs in the new romcom")

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Concert: Byron Wallen's Boards of Canada

I know Boards of Canada are very famous but their music largely passed me by and I am almost completely unaware of what it sounds like. This concert was meant to be jazz trumpeter's tribute to their famous album Music Has A Right To Have Children, but not the kind of tribute where he slavishly reproduces the tunes. He also had some gamelan players in his line-up, which was what pushed me over the line up into picking up a ticket for this National Concert Hall event.

But first the support act. These were local outfit the Glasshouse Ensemble and they were performing the music of the Aphex Twin. Their core seemed to be a small string section, but they also had a drummer and someone doing stuff with electronics. They were reproducing tunes by the Aphex Twin, which for me made the presence of the synther problematic: creating a simulacrum of electronic music on acoustic analogue instruments (plus drums) is impressive, but if you are also using electronics I am not going to be quite so impressed. Still, it never felt like the synth was doing the main work here, with the concert coming across pretty much like it was an arrangement of the Twin's work for strings. Most of the tunes seemed to be from the Selected Ambient Works albums but I think they also threw in one or two from Drukqs. The drummer put in great service reproducing the beats from the records, to the extent that I had to keep reminding myself that they had not just sampled the Twin's programmed drumming. And they finished with "Windowlicker", impressively realised on the strings.

As noted above, Byron Wallen's Gayen Gamelan Ensemble included some gamelan musicians, playing on the National Concert Hall's own set. His gamelan group was relatively small, however, and they did not play prominently on all of the tracks (and they skipped a few entirely). It was also quite striking that Wallen himself abandoned his trumpet and took to playing one of the gamelan instruments on the pieces that were the most gamelan-heavy. The gamelan stuff was the highlight of this for me, both the Javan piece and the couple of new compositions. What I liked about the new compositions was the way they served up what I most like about gamelan (lots of people playing at once in unison), when it often happens that when I see people playing new western pieces on gamelan they go all experimental and just have one or two guys dicking around instead of playing to the instruments' strengths.

Wallen himself comes across as an amiable gent, which is half the battle, and I also enjoyed his jazz parpings. I must get a copy of Music Has A Right To Have Children now, and indeed explore Byron Wallen's own work.


Music Has the Right to Have Children (Wikipedia)

Byron Wallen's Gayan Gamelan Ensemble (Trinity Centre, Bristol: "Byron Wallen's Gayan Gamelan Ensemble")

Monday, April 24, 2023

Excerpts from the Odyssey (a new version by Gavin Kostick)

This performance took place as one of the Sunday at noon concerts in the Hugh Lane Gallery, but arguably it was more in the character of a theatrical event than a concert. It did feature music, composed and performed by pianist Andrew Synnott, but the event was more focused on Gavin Kostick's delivery of his adapted episodes from Homer's Odyssey, with the piano (mostly) coming in during breaks in Kostick's delivery, at which point it provided an accompaniment to the dancing of Megan Kennedy.

We were treated to three episodes from the Odyssey. First we have Odysseus and the last of his ships arriving on an island. He sends some of his crew to explore the interior, but only one of the party returns, to report that a sorceress has transformed the others into pigs. This of course is the beginning of the memorable encounter with Circe. Then we had a later episode in which Odysseus and his ship first sails past first the Sirens and then attempts to navigate the straits of the twin monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Finally we have a disguised Odysseus back in Ithaka, preparing to deal with the dissolute suitors who are trying to get his wife to marry one of them, eating her out of house and home while she demurs.

To my embarrassment, I have never actually read the Odyssey, either in translation or in the original archaic Greek. My Odyssey is still Barbara Leonie Picard's The Odyssey of Homer, which I read in primary school (despite my teacher warning that I would find the names too hard, which I took as a challenge). What struck me from Kostick's version was that it is not the events but the telling that is important: it's not that Scylla eats six of Odysseus's sailors as his ship goes past, but that as they are pulled away to their doom their eyes and arms desperately reach out to Odysseus in the pathetic hope that he will save them, reported by Odysseus to be "the most pitiable sight I ever saw out there on the waves of the sea" (I'm hoping that a full read of the Odyssey would explain why Odysseus had to sail past Scylla and her neighbour Charybdis, and not avoid them by retracing his steps and then returning home by his original route).

I mentioned that the music mostly accompanied Megan Kennedy's dancing. That felt like its own thing, separate to the storytelling, but still impressive in its own right. But I did like the moment when the piano joined in with the narration, with notes coming in just as Odysseus is approaching the Sirens, Synnott's playing suggesting their song heard by the bound Odysseus while his sailors row on with blocked ears.

I'm curious as to where this will go. Some years ago Kostick memorised all of Conrad's Heart of Darkness and then delivered it as a monologue in a theatrical event (the book is supposedly a story recounted after dinner so it kind of makes sense). But the Odyssey must be longer than that, particularly if you add in episodes of music and dance, surely much too long for a single performance? Or perhaps that is just me being a lightweight and we will soon discover that there is an audience out there for a 12 hour poetry-theatre-music-dance event adapted from Homer's classic.


Joan Kiddell-Monroe cover for Barbara Leonie Picard's The Odyssey of Homer (Goodreads)

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Dublin area films: North Circular and Ghosts of Baggotonia

You wait years for a black and white film focusing on an area in Dublin and then two come along at once. They are actually very different films, but I am still going to lump them together here.

Directed by Luke McManus, North Circular is a documentary about the North Circular Road, a winding route that runs from Phoenix Park almost all the way to the Five Lamps junction on Amiens Street. The film expands its remit to look at Phoenix Park itself at one end and Sheriff Street on the other, with the latter basically a continuation of the road towards Dublin's docks. Interesting locations near but not on the road feature, with one notable scene taking place in the UN veterans' place at the end of my road; sadly neither Billy Edwards nor the Patriotic Chonker put in an unscheduled appearance. There are also some nice musical sequences in the Cobblestone pub. The tone is pretty heart of the rowl and there is an amusing bit near the beginning where former residents of the now demolished Devaney Gardens flats reminisce about the great community spirit of the place ("At Halloween the chisellers used to burn out cars on the green, it was great crack almighty" etc.). At the other end there are some great sequences with Gemma Dunleavy, local pop star in the making; I was particularly struck with the live sequence that showed her being accompanied by actual harps while doing her R&B/garage/grime influenced stuff.

If I had a criticism of North Circular, it is the extent of its heart of the rowl focus. The film acknowledges that many people live along or near the North Circular who have moved there from elsewhere: other parts of Dublin, other parts of Ireland, even other countries. Some of these people are shown on screen but we almost never hear their voices, which seemed to mark the long meandering street out as a domain where only the true inner city Dub can really feel at home: a local street for local people. But that does not stop the film being a fascinating journey through Dublin's north inner city.

Alan Gilsenan's Ghosts of Baggotonia is a good bit more impressionistic. It begins for some reason with footage of allied bomber planes from the Second World War but then moves on to its true focus, the area around Baggot Street. In the post-war period became a bohemian milieu in which various struggling writers eked out a living from flats and bedsits; some of them are still well known writers, in Ireland at least (I'm thinking in particular of Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh), others less so. The film also uses a collection of street photographs by Neville Johnson to evoke the era (though his photography ranges far beyond the Baggotonia enclave). And it is worth noting that some of the writers covered (e.g. Flann O'Brien) did not actually live near Baggot Street: Baggotonia was a state of mind rather than a place. The film presents an allusive portrait of the time, using archival footage, drone photography and voiceover to hint at an era that seems almost unimaginably ancient for all that it hovers at the edge of living memory. I recommend the film to anyone interested in that cohort of writers or in bohemian life generally.


North Circular still (The Journal: "Lockdown took me on a journey to film life along Dublin's North Circular Road")

Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin arrive at Davy Byrne's on Duke Street after a Bloomsday trip to Sandymount (Irish Times: "Ghosts of Baggotonia: D4 as you have never seen it before")

Ingenious Inventions: short films by Andrew Legge, director of LOLA

Andrew Legge's alternate history science fiction film LOLA can still be seen in the IFI and Light House. The IFI is also showing three of Legge's short films as part of their Archive at Lunchtime strand: The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish (2005), The Girl with the Mechanical Maiden (2013), and The Chronoscope (2009). They are free to see (just pick up a ticket from the box office) and are being screened in two programmes on Monday, Wednesday, and (possibly) Friday this week. They're worth seeing on the big screen and would appeal to anyone who liked LOLA as the aesthetic is quite similar (altered archive footage and newly shot material features). For someone curious about LOLA they would also serve as useful tasters.

Two of the three films are actually available to view on YouTube (though I still recommend seeing them in the cinema if at all possible). The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish is a steampunk adventure set in 1895, in which the eponymous inventor seeks to win the heart of a beautiful heiress with his fantastic inventions while battling against a caddish rival. There is a cat.

The Chronoscope meanwhile is effectively proto-LOLA, only with a device that allows people to view the past rather than the future. Like LOLA, it features a lady inventor in the 1930s and is also presented as a documentary.


Serena Brabazon as Charlotte Keppel, inventor of the chronoscope (IFI)

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The last scene: New York in the early 2000s

Meet Me In The Bathroom is documentary based on the book by Lizzy Goldman, which in turn took its title from a song by The Strokes. It is documentary about the New York scene of the early 21st century, focussed on the Strokes themselves and on other bands of that era: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, The Moldy Peaches, etc. When I first saw posters for the film my initial thought was that those bands were not actually good enough to justify a documentary about their scene. Then I though back to how exciting it was when the existence of the New York scene was announced to the world, because scenes are exciting in a way that individual bands are not. Also, having been told all my life that New York is an amazingly cool place, the prospect of there being actually cool music emerging from it was something that was easy to lap up. With the passage of time, my sense was that most of these bands had rather underdelivered, which raised the prospect that a film about them would be a bit of a trudge, leading to more discerning viewers being irritated by an endless parade of mediocre music juxtaposed against a commentary about how great the whole thing was. Nevertheless, I decided to take one for the team and booked myself in to see the film.

And it's actually very enjoyable. It does not necessarily shake me out of my belief that most of these acts were quite good rather than truly great, but it does communicate a sense of how exciting it must have been when the bands all burst onto the scene together. Formally it combines a lot of archival footage of the artists with recordings (possibly for interviews made for the book) of people talking about the scene. It is a very time-bound artefact, looking at a scene that emerged in the period when mobile video technology had become sufficiently cheap that it was possible for there to be loads of footage of the bands playing live and goofing around offstage, but from before the rise of people not paying for music precluded the emergence of such a scene.

The Strokes are the film's main focus, which is fair enough: they were the first of the bands to break big, and they also broke very big indeed, going almost overnight from playing toilet venues in New York to being superstars in the UK. It's easy to see why they were so successful, with catchy tunes and good lucks being a perennially winning combo. I'm still undecided as to how actually good they were, but they are definitely at least quite good, and the film has certainly made me interested in listening to their first album again.

One thing the film definitely did was confirm me in my view that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the most essential band to emerge from that scene. A lot of that is down to Karen O, but not everything. She is a very charismatic frontwoman, but there is an energy to how Nick Zinner's guitars and Brian Chase's drums play off her yelps that adds to more the sum of its parts. It's also striking that in a scene defined by its good lookers (e.g. The Strokes and Interpol), Karen O is surprisingly plain-looking (controversial), probably not even being the best looker in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (doubly controversial); yet for all, that throw her onstage and she transforms into a super-charismatic rock goddess. The film was also interesting on the pressure heaped on Karen O as the most visible woman in a pretty blokey scene.

My view on the other key band of that scene was also reinforced. The Moldy Peaches may have been a bunch of underachieving wasters who never followed up on their early success (quirky artistic success, not commercial success) but I still feel they had something, and hearing their tunes in the cinema alongside the others did not make me feel that I was wrong. Their underachievement is in some ways kind of surprising. There is a bit in the film where Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches is talking about supporting The Strokes on their first tour of the UK, where the latter were living the rock star dream as they discovered that on our side of the Atlantic they had become superstars. Dawson mentions being a bit older than The Strokes and saying to them, "Dudes, do you maybe not want to get completely wasted all the time so that you will be able to remember all this?" (to which The Strokes collectively responded, "SHUT UP KIMYA AND GIMME THE DRØGS! WHERE ARE THE SEXY GIRLS?").

Beyond that we're into first wave also-ran territory: Interpol (good looking, not obviously essential in the music department), Liars (tuneless), TV On The Radio (not sure I've ever heard anything by them), etc. Then the second wave, which is essentially James Murphy & Tim Goldsworthy's DFA Records and the acts associated with it. For the purposes of the film that was basically The Rapture (who were on DFA for a bit but then left because some kind of mysterious prickology was delaying the release of their album) and Murphy's own LCD Soundsystem, a band summoned into existence by the success of the "Losing My Edge" single. Obviously, you know the tune; in fact it is about you (and not because you are one of the kids who is coming up from behind). The situating of the tune in the film was interesting, as it came up in the context of how the rise of Napster and file-sharing was suddenly making everything available to everyone, killing off the cachet that came from having hunted down obscure old records. The film also mentioned how file sharing strangled bands' incomes, playing a large part in the decline of band-based music, which may well mean that the early 2000s New York scene is the last of its kind.


The Strokes (Pitchfork: "Vintage Photos of the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, James Murphy, and More From Meet Me in the Bathroom")

Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Wikipedia)

Monday, April 10, 2023

"LOLA" (2022)

Directed by Andrew Legge, this is an Irish-made found footage film combining material shot on 16mm film with digitally manipulated archive footage. It follows Mars and Thom, two sisters who in the late 1930s develop a machine that can receive radio and TV signals from the future (the first signal they receive is David Bowie performing "Space Oddity"). When the Second World War starts they use the machine (christened LOLA) to help the British war effort. At first LOLA provides the British with such an edge that they look increasingly invincible, but then things start to go wrong.

I think it is staple of time manipulation stories that foreknowledge becomes a curse. Either people discover that the future has a terrible fate in store for them and in attempting to escape it they cause their doom to happen, or their acting on information from the future causes that future to change. LOLA goes down the second of these roads, and the moment when the sisters realise that things are going wrong is a very striking one. The film is drenched in music, with it initially being the crazy sounds of future pop that attracts the sisters to exploring the future. There is an amazing sequence in which they introduce the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" to the 1940s, with the song becoming a massive hit and a kind of anthem for the British war effort. But then, after another use of LOLA-derived information to thwart a German attack, Mars tunes LOLA into the mid-1970s, expecting to hear and see David Bowie. Instead she gets some other guy singing a song about how he loves the sound of marching feet, with a TV announcer mentioning his other big hit, "To the Gallows", about how he loves seeing traitors being brought to the gallows. Part of the weird unease these songs engender derives from how Bowie-esque they sound. Viewers will of course be aware of Bowie's own mid-1970s flirtation with far right thinking, something that adds a certain frisson to the catchy tunes. Credit must go to the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon for creating the Nazi pop tunes, and it is shame that their problematic but appropriate (in context) lyrics means they are unlikely to be released as singles.

While this is a film that touches on big themes, it was made during the pandemic with a pretty small cast, so it feels almost like a chamber piece. Stefanie Martini and Emma Appleton are great as the sisters, evoking well the hermetic world of young women who have grown up alone together after the death of their parents. Extra praise is due to Martini for doubling up as a camera operator, for she shot much of the film's 16mm material, for reasons relating to the story (the footage is meant to have been shot by her character) and to the pandemic and perhaps budget (one less person on set). Rory Fleck Byrne is solid as their liaison with military intelligence, the only other character in the film with significant screen time. But what stops the film being a couple of people sitting in a room is the use of doctored archival footage, which goes into overdrive when we have the Nazis invading England and Hitler leading a victory parade through London. Credit is also due to whoever designed the LOLA machine itself, as it is an amazing piece of retro-futurist technology. Nevertheless the film retains its human scale and feels like something of a cross between low-budget time travel film Primer and the disturbing but relatively obscure Nazi Britain picture It Happened Here. It does not get lost in its alternative history narrative, instead focussing on the sisters' attempt to undo the horror unleashed by their faustian pact with LOLA.


Emma Appleton & Stefanie Martini with LOLA (Irish Times: "Lola: Impressive debut film from Irish director destined for cult status")

Lost in time (RTÉ: "LOLA is a uniquely strange alternative history tale")

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Dublin International Film Festival: films about cops and prison officers battering people, problematic church-state relations, and druggy film directors

The Dublin International Film Festival recently finished. I always think it would be a great idea to take the week and a half it runs for off work and to spend the time going to film after film, but I never actually do this, instead just squeezing in a film here and there, usually only managing to look properly at the programme to pick films after the festival has started. Still, this year I managed to make four films, which by my standards is pretty good going. I did my usual thing of avoiding films that are about to receive a general release and aiming towards ones that are unlikely to ever darken the multiplexes, though I think at least one of the ones I saw could well become a surefire hit on the foreign language circuit.

The first film I saw was Cairo Conspiracy (also known as Boy From Heaven), a recent film directed by Tarek Saleh, a Swedish filmmaker of Egyptian extraction. It is set in Egypt but was not filmed there; Saleh was expelled from Egypt when trying to shoot his previous film there, and the subject of Cairo Conspiracy is so sensitive that anyone trying to make it in the country would probably find themselves chucked in jail. So what's it about? Some explanatory text at the start quickly explains to whitey that in Cairo there is the Al-Azhar Mosque, which is the pre-eminent centre of Sunni Muslim scholarship and jurisprudence; the Al-Azhar's Grand Imam is the closest thing the Sunni world has to a Pope (but still not that close). Adam (played by Tawfeek Barhom), the son of a fisherman, wins a scholarship to study at the Al-Azhar, clearly a great opportunity for him. But then after he has commenced his studies, the Grand Imam dies. Egypt's security apparatus start manoeuvring to ensure that a pro-regime figure becomes the new Grand Imam. Adam finds himself recruited as a pawn by the secret police, initially to infiltrate an extremist clique of students and then to help elect the regime's candidate. His handler, played by Fares Fares, emerges as the film's other main character.

It is an intriguing film of plot twists and morally compromised people. I read in an interview that Saleh was very influenced by John le Carré and thought, "of course". What I found particularly fascinating was the way religion is portrayed positively in the film, something one sees quite rarely these days. Islam is presented as a source of wisdom and comfort, with Islamic study a self-evidently worthwhile activity (it is telling that when Adam wins his scholarship to study Muslim theology, his father's does not say, "Would you not consider studying a proper subject?"). None of the three leading candidates for the Grand Imam's position are presented as villains, not even the pro-regime candidate who would be the most obvious one to portray as the embodiment of cynical corruption. The most flawed of the three turns out to have a skeleton in his cupboard that does mark him out as someone guilty of not-great behaviour, but even here it felt a bit "hey, nobody's perfect" rather than an exposure of rank hypocrisy (other viewers might take a harder line).

The film is pretty blokey, which goes with the homosocial nature of the world in which it is set. Women only really figure as plot devices or the most thinly sketched of background figures. I think maybe a more fully Western filmmaker might have interrogated this a bit more, bringing up the question of why there only seem to be male imams. To me though, the taking of the way things are for granted seemed to situate the film more fully in its world.

The best line in the film is probably that uttered by one of the secret policemen at a meeting: "They made a big mistake when they started electing the Grand Imam for life. No one should ever hold a position for life. Apart from the President."

Apart from that all the films I saw in the festival were in Spanish (or maybe Catalan). First up was Patricio Guzmán's My Imaginary Country (originally Mi País Imaginario). The programme said that this was a documentary about protests that convulsed Chile during the repressive rule of Pinochet, whose reign ended in 1990. The film was actually about the protests that erupted in Chile in 2019, initially as a campaign by students against fare increases in the Santiago metro but eventually assuming a broader character, leading to mass protests, various campaigns of civil disobedience, and prolonged street battles between heavily armed riot police and stone throwing protesters. The film mixes footage of the protests and riots (some of it pretty full-on) with interviews with protesters (there were no interviews with cops, who remained a shadowy Other clad in body armour, hiding behind shields and occasionally emerging to fire tear gas canisters or to batter someone unlucky enough to fall into their clutches).

The film was mesmerising and engaging, but I did feel it could have engaged a bit more critically with the protest movement. I was struck by the repetition of protesters that they didn't want anything to do with politicians, which to me felt like a weakness and an indication that they were locked into a protest rather than transformative mindset (I'm using "politicians" broadly here to encompass anyone who seeks to actually accomplish things rather than just protest against things other people are doing, so it would run the gamut from people currently in the electoral system, people who might enter that milieu, and also revolutionary groups outside the system but with concrete plans to restructure society). It was interesting also that the film made such a big deal about the convening of a constituent assembly to write a new basic law for Chile (to replace the one bequeathed by the Pinochet regime). The film must have been made before Chile's landslide rejection of the proposed new constitution (a bloated monstrosity of some 388 articles (Ireland's constitution has just 50)), an event that makes for an anticlimactic coda to the film's message.

I was also struck by what an ugly looking city Santiago seemed to be, a collection of nondescript high-rise buildings that seem to have missed all of the interesting and controversial trends of 20th century architecture. But maybe that is unfair as the film may have avoided the good bits. And I was also left wondering about how it is that in some countries you have heavily armed cops using tear gas and water cannon against protesters when this never happens here (at least not on this side of the Border).

My Imaginary Country featured a lot of drone footage, something that is fast becoming a documentary cliche. Guzmán does at least have the excuse that drone footage makes it less likely that cameramen will be battered by the cops or lose an eye after being shot in the face with a tear gas canister, as happened to some of the people the film interviews.

Iván Zulueta's Arrebato (The Rapture) is a 1979 Spanish film that was shown in late night screening. I was wondering before going into this whether I would have enough wakefulness to be able to fully appreciate it. Truth be told I did not, struggling at times to stay awake and feeling like I missed some key plot details. But I still liked it a lot, finding it intriguingly enigmatic. It is one of those films about people who make films, with one of the main characters being a director of horror films and another a weirdo kid who shoots films on Super 8 format. The two met twice in the past (scenes presented in flashback) and then the horror director receives a package with footage shot by the kid and a key to an apartment, with a note saying that the kid suspects he will not be able to send the last part of his film. And it turns out to be a film about… a haunted camera or celluloid vampires or something like that, but it's more about the atmosphere than the plot.

While billed as an art house horror film, Arrebato felt more like a series of character studies. The film maker and his sometime girlfriend's slide from casual narcotic use to full addiction nicely mirrors the actual horror stuff (which is pretty low key and oblique, at no point features any of that "they jump at you face" shite). The sound design and ominous electronic soundtrack also work very well together. It might be one to watch again when I am not falling asleep, although my narcotic state worked well with a film where the bad thing happens when the kids sets his camera to record him while he sleeps.

The last film I saw was Modelo 77 (listed in the programme under the English title Prison 77). Directed by Alberto Rodríguez, this is set in Spain at around the same time period in which Arrebato was made. However, it might is effectively set in a different world, as this is a prison film whose action almost entirely takes place within the walls of the Carcel Modelo in Barcelona (where it was filmed, the prison having closed in 2017). The film is inspired by real events that occurred during the Transition period following the death of Franco in 1975, specifically an outbreak of radicalism and escape attempts from Spanish jails. However, the characters in the film are fictional and do not correspond to real people. The main protagonist is Manuel (Miguel Herrán), a young accountant, who has been arrested for embezzling money from his employer and is being held in jail pending his trial, which could be years away and is likely to see him given a long sentence.

The film does not really delve into whether Manuel is innocent or not (at one point he makes a somewhat feeble claim about the money being an advance on his wages, but it does seem to be the case that his employer is greatly exaggerating how much he took, for insurance fraud reasons, which in turn means that Manuel will receive a longer sentence when his case eventually goes to court). But whether innocent or guilty, Manuel finds himself facing an inhumane regime of casual brutality, in which thuggish guards dish out violence to anyone they take a dislike to. Manuel falls in with some of the more radical prisoners, and together they start agitating for improved conditions and even a general amnesty. In the context of the times, amnesty does not seem like a completely insane thing to aim for. Early on we see the political prisoners amnestied ("They stay in their separate groups, arguing with each other", another prisoner notes of them before that), which makes the general prisoners think that they must be next. The non-political prisoners were after all convicted by Franco's mickey mouse courts or, like Manuel, have not actually been convicted of anything; some of the others are inside for sexual crimes of a victimless nature.

The claustrophobic setting of the jail mean that a film like this stands or falls on its performances, and Modelo 77 does well with Herrán as Manuel, Jesús Carroza as El Negro (an old lag who takes him under his wing), and Javier Gutiérrez as Pino (Manuel's science fiction reading lifer cellmate), who all put in strong performances, as does Xavi Sáez as an imprisoned doctor who provides the initial impetus for the prisoners' organising. But the film also benefits from a plot that twists and turns as the prisoners and the authorities struggle against each other, and from some stunning action sequences and scenes of visceral violence. It also looks amazing, with Alex Calalán's cinematography giving the film an appealingly bleached out appearance.

If you only go to films that pass the Bechdel test then a film set in a men's prison is probably not for you. Modelo 77 has precisely one female character, a woman called Lucía, played by Catalina Sopelana. At the start of the film she is visiting Manuel as the sister of his girlfriend, or rather ex-girlfriend, as Lucía's sister decides she can't handle the idea of being a prisoner's girl. Lucía keeps visiting Manuel out of compassion and provides the film's main link between the world of the prison and the outside world (for all that we only ever see her behind a glass screen in the visiting room). The film is not about her, so I don't think it needs to delve too deeply into the why of her continuing to visit Manuel or her life outside the jail. Nevertheless I still felt that the character managed to rise above being Token Female Character, but your mileage may vary.

Anyway, I can't really praise Modelo 77 enough. It is a long film, but it uses its length well. If it ever shows up in your local cinema I encourage you to see it on the big screen, but it would probably still hold its own on the small screen in your home.


Istanbul's Süleymaniye Mosques stands in for Al-Azhar (Le Monde: "Boy from Heaven: Dissecting contemporary Egypt in the guise of a spy thriller")

Feminist protesters: the rapist is YOU (Filmkrant: "Mi país imaginario: Blauwdruk voor de revolutie")

Will More in Arrebato (FilmAffinity: "Rapture 1979")

Miguel Herrán, Javier Gutiérrez, & Xavi Sáez meet the big bad prisoner (filmAnd: "Modelo 77 de Alberto Rodríguez llega a los cines el 23 de septiembre")

Monday, February 27, 2023

The Bigger Picture: "Lone Star" (1996) and "Return to Oz" (1985)

The Bigger Picture is a programming strand they have in the Irish Film Institute, in which they invite someone (usually someone involved in the film industry, broadly defined) to select a film to show and then to introduce a screening of it. Local filmmaker Luke McManus had his turn on the Bigger Picture wheel back in September. He picked Lone Star, John Sayles's 1996 film, in which Chris Cooper plays Sam Deeds, the sheriff of a border county in 1990s Texas. I had not seen it since its original release. but I eagerly took the opportunity to see it again in the cinema, as I remembered it very fondly and regard it as one of the very best films I have ever seen. And it is as good as I remembered.

The basic plot is a murder mystery (Sam's search for the killer of Charlie Wade, the psychopathic old sheriff who disappeared in the late 1950s but whose skeletal remains show up at the start of the film) but it manages to bring in all kinds of other themes, including forbidden love, race and immigration, how historical events are recorded, difficult family dynamics, and even the nature of evil. There's also a gothic tinge to this tale of dark secrets emerging from the past, for all that this is a film set in sunny Texas rather than darkest Transylvania.

Having subsequently seen a few of Sayles's films, including 2008's Honeydripper, I think that his thing is eliciting strong performances from ensemble casts, with this film being no exception to that. There are so many good performances in Lone Star that it feels like I am letting the side down by singling individuals out, but Chris Cooper's understated sheriff, Elizabeth Peña as Pilar, his old flame who was kept away from him by cruel circumstances and disapproving adults, and Kris Kristofferson (in terrifying form in flashback scenes as Wade) are particularly striking.

The other Big Picture film I saw recently was Disney's 1985 film Return to Oz. Directed by Walter Murch, this is based on two of L. Frank Baum's novels. It was introduced by director Aislinn Clarke, who talked about how back in days of yore Walt Disney had always wanted to make a film of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but MGM got the rights ahead of him. Eventually Disney acquired rights to some of the other Oz books but it was only after Walt died that his company made this film. And it tanked at the box office, which might explain why Murch never directed anything else (though he remained in demand as an editor and sound designer, winning awards for his work in these areas).

Clarke talked a bit about how the film is quite dark and a bit too edgy for a kiddy film audience (though let's face it, the more famous 1939 film has scenes that are absolutely terrifying to small people). And the beginning scenes are no fun, with a young Dorothy (played by Fairuza Balk, unlike Judy Garland an actual child when she played the role) being sent to some sinister quack psychiatrist by her guardians after she won't stop going on about her previous visit to the imaginary realm of Oz. Then of course she does find herself back in Oz, but everything has somehow gone to shit, with the Emerald City in ruins, its inhabitants mostly turned to stone, her old friends either missing or also turned to stone, and the streets patrolled by the sinister Wheelers. Fortunately she makes a series of new friends (a talking chicken, a wind-up mechanical man, Jack Pumpkinhead and eventually a flying sofa with a moose's head). It all comes good at the end but not without some moments of strange danger.

And it is pretty good, maybe even very good. I think Return to Oz suffers from not being as iconic as the 1939 film, but that's like saying it impresses less because it was less successful. It feels a bit like it is cut from the same cloth as Dark Crystal - a fantasy film for kids who can take something a bit on the scary side, with enough going on that it might actually have a stronger appeal to adults of a more discerning nature.

I am now thinking of what film I will pick when my turn arrives to choose one for the Bigger Picture.


Matthew McConaughey & Kris Kristofferson in Lone Star (IFC Center: "Lone Star")

Kris Kristofferson in Lone Star (Austin Chronicle: "Lone Star")

Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Peña in Lone Star (Warner Bros: "Lone Star")

Dorothy in the asylum (Ranker: "The Eeriest Thing About Return to Oz")

Beware the Wheelers (Ranker: "The Eeriest Thing About Return to Oz")

Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, and friends, in Return to Oz (D23: "Return to Oz (film)")