Most of us primarily associate autumn with changes in the natural landscape: leaves falling thick and fast, rapidly shortening days, the last vestigial traces of summer heat. Yet it is also a great time for lovers of all things cultural. Many theatres, opera houses, and concert halls begin new seasons in autumn, stretching through to the following spring. Moreover, one of the most exciting cultural events happens in my home city: the BFI London Film Festival.
I love festival season. Hundreds of films from around the globe are shown across London. The films themselves run on time and without adverts. Directors, cinematographers, and actors give post-film Q+As, and even sometimes mingle in the bar afterwards. There’s a palpable enthusiasm in the air.
It’s my fourth time going to the festival this year, and it was undoubtedly my best yet. I started slowly, catching what I could after work; then, over the last weekend, I dashed around trying to see as much as I could. On Saturday I almost missed a film after jostling for space on the tube amidst crowds of Brexit demonstrators. Overall I managed to see fourteen films – eight of them over that last weekend. Here are my thoughts on what I saw.
One of my favourite films of the festival was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest from the Coen brothers. Originally envisioned as a television series, it’s an anthology film, formed of six different stories all set in the Old West. The stories vary wildly in tone and subject, and no character appears in more than one, but it’s a testament to the Coens’ endless creativity that it all coheres very effectively. So we have a brooding, sombre tale of a disabled theatre performer and his unscrupulous promoter; a determined Tom Waits searching for gold in a bucolic mountain valley; and a spooky carriage ride where all is not as it seems. But my favourite story was “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” itself – a barmy, guffaw-inducing, what-the-hell-just-happened triumph, with a white-suited Tim Blake Nelson singing on a horse and speaking directly to camera in a loquacious cowboy drawl. It’s the Coens at their most cartoonish, and I laughed uproariously. The film will be on Netflix in November, and is worth seeing just for that segment alone.
Another highlight was Stan and Ollie. It’s based around a tour of Britain in the 1950s by Stan Laurel (played by Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (played by John C. Reilly), and the personal and professional conflicts that arise as a result. I have loved Laurel and Hardy since I was a child, and this was a real treat. Steve Coogan is great, but John C. Reilly is astonishing, making it look as if Oliver Hardy has walked off one of his movies into his own biopic. The two constantly riff off each other in a compelling and believable way, and the film is an enjoyable testament to one of cinema’s most legendary partnerships.
John C. Reilly also appeared in The Sisters Brothers, a late addition to the festival programme. The film is a laid-back western which balances strong violence and coal-black humour with musing explorations of masculinity, fraternity, and parenthood. It’s brilliantly observed, and shot with piercing detail by Jacques Audiard – such as the moment when John C. Reilly shoots a load of goons sent to kill him without bothering to put his shoes on first.
I also managed to get tickets to the first UK screening of Terry Gilliam’s new film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam has been trying to get various versions of the film off the ground for about 29 years, and to finally see it in a cinema is an extraordinary achievement on the part of the director. It made me think of Goethe, whose poem Faust was only released towards the end of his life, the product of XX years of work. It can certainly be said that both Gilliam and Goethe are astonishing in their pursuit of creative expression. But the film is not a Faust-like masterpiece – parts of it work better than others, and tonally it lurches around quite a bit. Nevertheless, it is very enjoyable, with some great laughs, and a solid injection of Gilliam’s usual woozy surrealism.
One of the best parts of the London Film Festival is the ability to see films from many different parts of the world – and to be thrust headlong into an entirely different sphere of experience. One of the best foreign films I saw was Birds of Passage, by the Colombian director Ciro Guerra. It’s not quite as good as Embrace of the Serpent, Guerra’s previous film, but it demonstrates again his remarkable skill as a storyteller and a visual stylist. The film is a brilliantly explosive story set among the desert-inhabiting Wayuu clan of northern Colombia. The film explores how the clan are affected by the rise of drugs smuggling from the 1960s onwards, and the consequences that this has for the families and society of the clan. The film works effectively as a gangster thriller, but also incorporates a number of different strands – such as family drama and surrealism – making the film seem both fully familiar and completely distant.
The Austrian film Angelo was another highlight, focusing on the life of a young black slave in eighteenth-century Viennese court society. It’s a terrific and startling exploration of the European desire to possess black bodies, and ends in a truly shocking way. Five actors play the main character, and all are convincing enough to make the transition seem seamless. They all portray the character with an emotional detachment characteristic of the actors in the films of Robert Bresson: there are no great histrionics, but we are able to read into their blank faces a full range of anguish.
Very different in tone was The Prey, an impressively mounted Cambodian action film. It focuses on a corrupt prison governor who allows three rich people to hunt a group of prisoners in the middle of a forest. Of course, not all goes to plan. It’s an intriguing premise and the action sequences are pleasantly thrilling, especially given the country’s limited film production resources. A higher budget was visible in the Korean film The Spy Gone North, a slickly-done political thriller about espionage on the Korean peninsula. I knew virtually nothing about the story beforehand but found its exploration of North-South tensions very exciting. A gentler pace was seen in the Egyptian crowd-pleaser Yomeddine¸ which revolves around a leper who journeys across Egypt on a horse and cart in order to try and locate surviving members of his estranged family. It’s fairly conventional stuff, but humorous throughout, and intriguing in that the main actor actually has leprosy.
Show don’t tell
I saw a number of films this year that in visual terms were utterly spectacular. Chief among them was Shadow, the new film from the Chinese director Zhang Yimou, most known for the films Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and for choreographing the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. Shadow is dazzlingly designed – the sets, locations, and costumes are cast in monochrome, with the only colour stemming from the warm hues of skin and the dark red splattering of blood. It’s more like a chamber piece than some of his former films, with court intrigue the main driver of the plot. That said, there’s a jaw-dropping scene in which knife-adorned umbrellas are used as weapons – I genuinely gasped out loud.
Another well-designed film was John Carpenter’s The Fog, restored and re-released as part of the festival. I really enjoyed this, and not just because I happened to be sitting in the same cinema as Edgar Wright. While I wasn’t massively frightened during the film, I was certainly creeped out. Carpenter is a master of creating horror images which endure in the mind long after the film has finished, and he certainly succeeds here – I have thought often of the clouds of fog enveloping the horizon, and the sudden appearance of ghostly figures, before I have gone to bed in subsequent days.
A different sort of weather phenomenon was on display in Arctic, in which a mysterious man stranded in the Arctic, played by Mads Mikkelsen, battles thick snow and icy winds in his attempt to find safety. It’s a visceral, physical, and unexpectedly assured debut from director Joe Penna, whose filmmaking background is on Youtube. There are great performances from Mikkelsen, and also from an enormous polar bear who almost mauls him to death.
A somewhat calmer experience was The Old Man and the Gun, which focuses on the real-life felon Forrest Tucker, a gentlemanly American who continued to rob banks well into his seventies. The film has a lovely aesthetic, shot on 16mm for a real vintage look, and has a great performance from Robert Redford in what is very likely his last film. But despite its sheen, the film lacks dramatic tension, and I wasn’t fully engaged by it.
One festival experience in particular was utterly extraordinary, and unlike any other. This was The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show. Over the past few years the BFI has been restoring a number of “large-format” films produced between 1896 and 1901 by William Dickson, a pioneer of early cinema. While these films will be made available online next year, as part of the festival they were shown at the BFI IMAX with a live orchestra and introductions by Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s silent film curator.
The films – some mere fragments of a few seconds’ length, some as long as a minute and a half – provided an intriguing insight into the Victorian period. But the projection of the films on the biggest screen in Britain allowed the audience not just to see this period, but to be immersed in it. Huge ships careered towards the audience; Boer war soldiers stood tall; members of the royal family passed by large crowds; and “phantom rides” on trains and buses saw the landscape rush dizzyingly past. It was genuinely astonishing. Of all the films I saw at the London Film Festival this year – and there were many – it was The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show which was the greatest testament to the visceral power of cinema – not only in preserving a moment in time, but in thrusting an audience into an entirely different world.