Thoughts on my cinematic journey

Not so long ago I came to the intriguing realisation that, this year at the cinema, I have seen more classic films than new ones. To be exact, 13 classics and 10 contemporary films. Such a feat is easily accomplished in London, where the herculean BFI and the Prince Charles Cinema show thousands of classics year upon year, often in original, well-scratched 35mm prints. Yet it still seems a remarkably unusual thing to have discovered; one which suggests certain truths about my personal relationship with cinema and of the films I cherish in particular.

The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema
The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema

What is a “classic”? The US Library of Congress, which selects up to twenty-five American films each year for preservation, claims that ‘culturally, aesthetically or historically significant” values are most important. American Graffiti (1973), Ben-Hur (1959), Groundhog Day (1993) and hundreds of others are thus granted an auspicious status that in many circles commands the use of the word “classic”. Or is a classic a far more subjective thing? To most who have seen it, the Russian film Andrei Rublev (1966) is an inevitable classic because of its masterful cinematography and compelling performances; a film that evokes Medieval spiritual life with astonishing panache. To a few dissenters, however, it is an episodic and loose monster in which not a lot happens at all, and so the honour of being a “classic” is disputed.

Andrei Rublev - classic or tragic?
Andrei Rublev – classic or tragic?

Shallow postmodern arguments aside, what does strike me is the fact that most of the films I’ve been seeing in cinemas this year are significantly old. The last screening I attended was The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. The film I’m most looking forward to this September is not something new; it’s Fritz Lang’s M, first shown in 1931 and about to be re-released. As my interest in cinema deepens, the further back my enquiries take me – back even to the early stages of the medium itself, with my recent discovery of George Méliès’ La Voyage Dans La Lune, a beautifully detailed science-fiction short released in 1902.

Many of my friends and peers who love cinema share this interest in “old” films, yet not many venture to the BFI or Prince Charles, preferring the ease of a DVD. This was evidenced frequently in my mid-teens, when I once found myself sitting in a screening of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) as the youngest audience member by some thirty years. Perhaps that was just a bad day for youthful representation. But sometimes I do wonder if my friends could gain something from taking their interest in “old” films right into the heart of the very places they were first shown: in a hushed screening room, pitch dark, the screen the only light source – a place where cinematic sorcery is experienced at its most thrilling and palpable. If you try hard enough, you can really imagine what those first audience members must have thought and felt. Seeing old films in the cinema emphatically makes a difference, and broadens your view of the medium’s possibilities.

La Voyage Dans La Lune - recognise this?
La Voyage Dans La Lune – recognise this?

There’s also the question of the character of contemporary cinema. It’s singularly useless to argue that filmmakers like Michael Bay and the endless train of sequels and remakes have rendered cinema dead, although it’s easy to think so. In fact, nationwide festivals, especially the London Film Festival, continue to grow year upon year in exhibiting serious-minded, artistically precise films. The Curzon and Picturehouse chains are great places to find the latest arthouse dramas and comedies from all over the world; both are opening new cinemas across the UK. Yet my status as a soon-to-be History student has influenced my thinking; I’m convinced that in order to better understand contemporary cinema, I have to journey back into the past to see exactly where it has been. The roots of most modern science-fiction films with pretensions to artistic merit can be traced back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Black Swan (2010) seems all the less significant when compared to The Red Shoes, which accomplished much of what Aronofsky’s film did, only sixty-two years prior. Every film has a precursor, and I’m fascinated by trying to find such films and assessing their formidable influence over time.

Looking at it this way, the surprise at having seen more classics than contemporary films really shouldn’t really exist. What’s more, it could be said that the “old” films I’m growingly obsessed with, with all their vibrant and diverse cinematic qualities, are in fact profoundly new.

The Wild Bunch - a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
The Wild Bunch – a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
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Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future

I first heard about Secret Cinema a long time ago. Stories of a mysterious organisation that exhibited films amidst participating actors, themed set design and live music – naturally, in a secret location – reverberated around the internet and in word of mouth. There had been a Secret Cinema production of Blade Runner, which featured acrobatic displays on vertical walls, mirroring the vertiginous struggle of Harrison Ford at the end of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. With a similar level of creative energy had come Bugsy Malone, set in a Prohibition-era nightclub concealed behind an outwardly harmless bookcase. The Red ShoesLawrence of ArabiaPrometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel had been given this dramatic treatment, amongst many others. The mere idea of ‘experiencing’ the world of some of the greatest films ever made – and Prometheus – seemed  for a long time infinitely appealing to me.

I left it for a long time, but finally felt that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future was the perfect way to experience Secret Cinema for the first time. I believe Back to the Future to be one of the greatest American films ever made, a tightly-scripted and magnificently entertaining piece with riffs on both the fifties and the eighties. The notion of wandering round a recreated Hill Valley, encountering small-town stereotypes and the characters from the film itself, did not seem kitsch by any stretch of the imagination; it was surely a necessity.

"Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you're gonna see some serious s-!"
“Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you’re gonna see some serious s-!”

 

When it finally came round to attending, there were a couple of worrying false starts; the first four events were cancelled due to “a number of issues that we have not experienced previously”. The backlash on social media was severe and, at times, somewhat overbearing; fans had come from as far as Cambodia, and a potential loss of trust in Secret Cinema wavered in the air.

It is thus all the more relieving and thrilling to announce that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future is a stunning success. Theatre, cinema and music combine in a glorious celebration of the 1985 film, 1950s culture, and the sheer exultant joy of being alive.

Spot the actor... or is there one?
Spot the actor… or is there one?

At around 5.10pm on Friday, August 1, I exited the train at Hackney Wick station and waited for the rest of my family to arrive. We had been vigorously encouraged through email to dress in fifties clothing. This was easy enough for me – rolled-up jeans, converses and braces for the style, and the brownest shirt I could find for the rustic farmland feel of small-town America. Across the station platform spewed forth a wave of like-minded people; I glimpsed everything from Marlon Brando leather jackets to a profusion of great, voluminous, flowery dresses.

We soon began the long walk to the Back to the Future site. Though it would be unfair to ruin its exact location, I will say that it was somewhere within the 2012 Olympic village, and that several prominent landmarks – including the Orbit – were clearly visible. If you kept your head down, though, it was hard to believe that you were even in the twentieth century.

Secret Cinema have built in the heart of East London a bustling Hill Valley that is meticulous in its detail and filled to boiling point with gaiety. Buildings from 1950s America are painstakingly re-constructed. The one-room suburban houses are littered with comics, radios, pin-up posters and books from the period; the Hill Valley High school features iconic metal lockers and noticeboards; the movie theater is showing Cattle Queen of Montana, a 1954 American western featuring Ronald Reagan in one of his later roles. The site even features an old-style ferris wheel and a profusion of vintage cars, as well as a yellow school bus.

Just another day in Hill Valley...
Just another day in Hill Valley…

Yet it is really the eighty-five actors within Hill Valley who best bring the world of Back to the Future to life. I was approached by an impressive variety of people from car mechanics to television salesmen; all (well, most) spouting a chirpy Californian drawl, conversing to convince. But they do more than speak to you. They purposefully draw you into their fictional existence, whether that be by carrying tires, pushing a broken-down car or playing pool. It is evident Secret Cinema offers everything for those who prefer not to be mere sedentary spectators.

A full list of everything I did in the three-hours or so I spent wandering around the town would be exhaustive, but I’ve condensed my favourite parts, very unprofessionally, into bullet points:

  • Sat in on a talk outside a suburban house where two people dressed like Mormons taught us methods to protect ourselves against the “plague” of homosexuality affecting the town. Never was homophobia so hilariously conceived.
  • Joined in as a group to sing a song about a hair salon, led by an ominously bearded guitarist and his female companion, who I promptly fell hopelessly in love with (the companion, not the guitarist).
  • Took part in a “scientific” experiment led by Doc Brown himself – or at least a very convincing likeness – by rubbing shoulders in a circle to produce static electricity. Doc Brown then announced after the experiment: ‘I now have your combined discharge. No, it’s not funny.’
  • Before the event every attendee was given an alternative identity and workplace, and was encouraged to bring certain items for that workplace. I assumed the guise of Emanuel Mathews, Proof Reader for the Hill Valley Telegraph. I carried with me three copies of an article I had written for the obviously fictional newspaper, with the headline: “UNCOVERED – – THE REASON BEHIND THE DELAYS TO THE HILL VALLEY FAIR.” I handed in the article to Rita, the editor of the newspaper – who stood in front of old-fashioned printing presses – and was later pronounced “Mr. Telegraph” for the quality of my work. Rita spoke at great length on the importance of producing news by the people for the people, and also tried to convince me that Mayor “Red” Thomas was secretly a communist.
  • I also spotted Fabien Riggall, the Founder and Creative Director of Secret Cinema, and gave him one of my articles. He stayed completely in character despite this illusion to the insidious delays that had taken place the week before, and accepted my handshake graciously.
hill valley 5
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ – Samuel Johnson

Such listing is perhaps crude but it hopefully gives you a sense of my relentless enjoyment of what Hill Valley had to offer, and also a sense of the immersive kind of experience Secret Cinema strives for. If you really make an effort, you get so much out of it. You even get to a point when, wandering round, you cannot always make the distinction between actor and spectator; the lines between fiction and reality can blur irrevocably. I even found myself trying to ape an American accent, though my success on that matter is probably best left to the imagination.

For an event with so much hype, there are bound to be disappointments. It must be said that the exhibition of the film was something of a mixed affair. After two false starts owing to technical problems, Back to the Future finally began, observed by a vast lawn of ticket-holders. During some of the more exciting parts of the film we were greeted with live-action replications of what was happening on-screen. The fog-shrouded, mass-hysteria-inducing entrance of the Delorean was an evident highlight; another was the sight of an actor dressed at Marty Mcfly skateboarding whilst holding onto a car, whizzing round the town square. This sometimes took attention away from the film itself, particularly towards the end. But it was really a few isolated members of the audience who proved most disruptive; I happened to be sitting next to a drunk person who insisted on standing during parts of the film and yelling something akin to Yuuueueuueeeaaaaaaaahhh!’ Such unwarranted exhibitionism somewhat undermined the family atmosphere Secret Cinema were clearly aiming for, what with the minimum attendance age being only 5. It could perhaps be concluded, with a great deal of irony, that most of the problems that occurred on the evening were caused by the audience, not by the organisers themselves.

You can't quite see the drunk guy from here...
You can’t quite see the drunk guy from here…

Overall, however, it was a totally enchanting experience, a celebration of the best elements of 1950s culture and of Back to the Future. It is only when you experience it for yourself that you realise how much ambition Secret Cinema has, and how its events can very occasionally go wrong as it did the week before. I will undoubtedly be back for more, whatever the film. The possible challenge for Secret Cinema – as put by the BBC’s Newsnight – must surely be to preserve some of the mystery that it first started with, to continue to cherish the unexpected in the face of widespread media coverage and the incessant mobile phone culture that was so blissfully suspended for the one evening that I was there. If it can do that, its artistic future remains secure.

9/10

Footnote – here’s the article I wrote for the Hill Valley Telegraph:

HVT 1HVT 2

Review – Boyhood

2014, 166 mins, 15, Dir. Richard Linklater, starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

Boyhood
Boyhood

Many of the very first short films made at the end of the nineteenth century consisted of basic and eminently familiar scenes; nothing more than a group of workers exiting a factory, or a mother entertaining her baby. Such unembellished productions were produced with the simple intention of depicting life, nothing more or less. Fictional films are frequently diverted from this original mission of cinema, either through quirks of genre or the mere presence of a plot contrivance. It is thus all the more beguiling to sit and watch Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for it is a film that is distinguished not by any conspicuous visual spectacle but by the sheer, recognisable, unvarnished humanity of its subject matter.

Over 166 minutes we follow the physical and mental development of a character called Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a process that sees him grow from the age of five to eighteen. Mason navigates an often bewildering train of experiences at home, school, and out and around Texas. The ever-familiar rites of passage are observed: the awkward transition into puberty, experimentation with alcohol and smoking, tentative first relationships and acrimonious break-ups. Amidst an ever-changing family setting he finds continuity in his mother (Patricia Arquette), his estranged father (Ethan Hawke) who visits every other weekend, and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Much is difficult to watch, particularly the scenes of domestic violence that run on a thick layer of tension. Other parts of the film are elegantly charming, as in Mason’s propounding of his philosophy on the obsessive excesses of Facebook and internet culture.

A youthful Ellar Coltrane, early in the filmmaking process
A youthful Ellar Coltrane, early in the filmmaking process

What emerges from this perfectly ordinary life is an extraordinary cinematic power that binds you ceaselessly to the characters. Richard Linklater shot the film over twelve years, using exactly the same actors. It is a colossal, ambitious approach, and all the more satisfying that it succeeds. Ellar Coltrane’s performance is astonishingly assured and natural, making the entire film feel like an experiment in personal improvisation. He is Mason. There are no great speeches or sentimental posturing, even towards the end of our time with him. Yet he is also surrounded by a wealth of equally impressive performers; Ethan Hawke’s gradual transformation from youthful, estranged young father to a maturer man with a new family of his own is one of the greatest pleasures of the film. It is a fitting testament to Linklater’s ability to choose and direct his cast members that there is scarcely one moment that puts us at a remove from his characters; their world, with all its flaws and attractions, effectively becomes our own.

Boyhood acts not only as a chronicle of one life, but also as an assessment of its time. In one memorable scene, Mason’s father attempts to educate him and his sister on the political injustices of the Iraq war; they later request permission to place ‘Obama/Biden’ signs on Texan front lawns prior to the 2008 presidential election. The (predominantly electronic) fixations of our age emerge in school, college and the home. Linklater even rejects an orchestral score in favour of using various popular songs from the nineties and noughties. Although I found the inclusion of Coldplay a little irritating in the first few scenes, the soundtrack generally acts as an effective cultural indicator and is more of a benefit than a loss. Such techniques lend the production a time-capsule quality; indeed, it could almost be a documentary disguised as a fiction film.

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke as Mason Jr and Sr in Boyhood
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke as Mason Jr and Sr

The question of whether or not the film has some kind of consistent message is a pertinent one. A lot could be said about the presentation of alcohol as a destructive force in relationships; or perhaps comment could be made on the presentation of Mason as something of a counter-cultural figure in his late teens. But the closing moments of Linklater’s odyssey suggests that perhaps there is no ‘point’; it could be seen as nothing more than a truthful evocation of what it means to grow up in the modern world. Parents will love Boyhood for its exhibition of the transience of youth and the pains of looking after a child. Meanwhile, as a young person on the brink of attending university, I found the character of Mason irrepressibly easy to relate to, despite differences of culture and country. It is arguably there that Richard Linklater most succeeds. His style is bold, his actors are virtually indistinguishable from their characters; but it is the quiet domestic moments, the reassuring familiarity of home and school life, the entire mess of growing up, that most endears us. In short, the film is life.

9/10

 

Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel

2014, 99 mins, 15, Dir. Wes Anderson, starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and most other actors and actresses of renown.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s filmmaking style is something you have to be prepared for. ‘Quirky’ isn’t quite the word, for it is not only a colossal understatement, but also something of an insult. Anderson’s persistently symmetrical cinematography, the weirdness of his characters and the apparent absurdity of his humour quite simply escapes literary description (though I will press on regardless). That style has provided some of the most entertaining films of recent years. Moonrise Kingdom, a warm and nostalgic tale of young lovers in a New England town, has proven unforgettable since I saw it in 2012.

The story of this film involves the battle for a family fortune and the theft of an expensive Renaissance painting; this is however merely a framework for a number of hilarious smaller sequences featuring the mellifluous hotel concierge M. Gustave, as well as his lobby boy Zero. This is by far Anderson’s zaniest and most fantastic work yet. It has cats being thrown out of windows, amputated fingers, a dizzying action sequence in a ski run, three different aspect ratios, an astonishing array of cameos from famous actors and actresses, and a vertiginous alpine setting that (despite the title) isn’t even in Budapest. It all makes for a distinctly heady and farcical 99 minutes, one which makes you want to rewatch the entire thing to seek out the bits you’ve missed.

An elevator scene in the film - note newcomer Tony Revolori standing at the back, with Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes seated
An elevator scene – note newcomer Tony Revolori standing at the back, with Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes seated

The cast is truly remarkable, with regular Anderson favourites Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray appearing in brief cameos amidst an ocean of familiar faces. Tilda Swinton turns in an unrecognisable performance as an octogenarian patron of M. Gustave’s hotel. Willem Dafoe turns up to scowl and mercilessly kill people. Harvey Keitel turns into a tattooed prisoner. Edward Norton turns out a magnificently hirsute upper lip; indeed, the facial hair alone in this film merits academy recognition. Nevertheless the film is really Ralph Fiennes’. Dapper, eloquent and philandering, he provides an uncompromisingly hilarious British centre to the narrative, purring ‘Darling’ at officious soldiers and insecure older women alike.

The marvellous M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, a part specifically written for him by Wes Anderson
The marvellous M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, a part specifically written for him by Wes Anderson

The cinematography is typical Wes Anderson, with an underlying orderliness to everything he shoots and frequent whip-pans from one character to the next. It perfectly fits the outlandish, even Bondian events of the plot. The music isn’t quite as prominent or notable as in some of his previous works – perhaps one of the few disappointments of the film – but nevertheless the ultimate impression is that this is another triumph. That brings us to the question of how it rates in comparison to the director’s past oeuvre. I still think that Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s best, despite the widened ambition and pace of The Grand Budapest Hotel; there is something more personal, more affecting about the former film, particularly as it has autobiographical elements. Nevertheless The Grand Budapest Hotel is a more-than-worthy addition to Anderson’s idiosyncratic world, a satisfyingly deranged cinematic experience that will prove as equally unforgettable as its predecessors.

8/10

Facial hair and symmetry: Edward Norton and others in The Grand Budapest Hotel
Facial hair and symmetry: Edward Norton and others in The Grand Budapest Hotel