[Filmstar] sleep furiously

Sleep Furiously cover

That arrestingly contradictory title? It’s taken from a linguist’s game, devised by Noam Chomsky as an example of a grammatically correct but meaningless phrase: “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”.

This quiet, rhythmic, carefully-observed documentary of rural life in Wales seems absurdly far from such academic exercises – the hill-farming community of Trefurig it observes is embedded in everyday realism. Villagers debate the closure of the under-subscribed local school. Cakes are baked. Sheepdogs compete in trials. Calves are delivered in a slither of blood and mucous.

But this is an imperilled community, desperately close to becoming as non-existent as Chomsky’s colourless green ideas. The residents are mostly elderly, and the services which bind the community are astonishingly fragile: even the sign posts are falling apart. That accounts for the sleepiness.

The fury comes out in moments of small desperation, such as the frantic snuffling of newborn piglets, or the dust and ghosts of an abandoned farm. Time-lapse photography and the lack of a storytelling narration are reminiscent of the Koyaanisquatsi films, and the Aphex Twin soundtrack has a similar elusive expressiveness to Philip Glass’ work – but this is a film that gets close enough to its subjects to show their faces. Remarkable, beautiful film-making.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

[Guest post] One man against the movies

Chris – of Vs Cinema fame – set himself the target of watching one film for every day of this year and writing about it. This is what it’s done to him…

I’m trying to watch and review one film for every day of the year. I go through a weary routine, once a day, of deciding what to watch. It’s usually late, and I scrape through the ever-growing stack of DVDs to find the one nearest 90 minutes in length (less if I’m lucky) that I haven’t watched. As a result there’s a group of historical epics that are taunting me from the corner, but that’s a lot of Sunday afternoon material to wade through.
I’m not complaining: this has been a revelation for me. At the start of the year I faced another 365-day stretch of my twenties wandering through a life brimming with potential I had no intention of ever tapping. A sudden decision on 1 January to watch a string of films I’d had knocking around became a nascent idea. The idea, with some help from a few friends, became a set of rules, and then a website (with an AWESOME banner from artist Ed Clews). All of which follows gently in the tradition of Dave Gorman and Danny Wallace, but with less booze.
I’m forcing myself to write constantly as a result. I’ve always fancied earning some money through writing – it seems like a wheeze, right? The Vs Cinema idea has given me something I haven’t had before: structure. It’s given me a focus on writing and I couldn’t be more pleased about that. It’s also forced me to admit one thing I may have taken for granted at the outset – I’m not actually that good at writing. I’m working on, it but I’m certainly not happy with what I produce yet. There are moments, but they aren’t common enough to be called form.
There been some other huge benefits from this. Initially I asked around for some help on gathering some of the classics but it wasn’t long until the requests started. People in my office brought me DVDs unsolicited and asked for a review; some arrived by post wanting my input and my opinion on the blog. It’s a fantastic feeling, such a boost to an ailing ego, to have even the tiniest interest from anyone else – even if you do end up giving their film a kicking.
Then there’s the downside. Watching the endless stream of disappointing, turgid dross that some people actually like. At times I feel like cinema’s own self-appointed Simon Cowell watching one entry after another, with deeply average results. Except I don’t get millions of pounds for it: I don’t get a penny. So far, my one attempt at pitching an article to a publication resulted in one of the most disappointing brush-off emails I’ve ever read. But I’ll have another crack at it.
This year hasn’t turned out to be the quiet 365 I expected. Firstly, I’m due an addition to the family in a month or so. I hope he likes historical epics. Second, I start training to be an English teacher around the same time. Some pretty big changes that suggest I’m not going to hit the target. Nowhere near at a guess. But I’m not too bothered – I’m enjoying it too much.
I’m pretty certain that I’ll be Vs Cinema for a while now, perhaps not as prolific, perhaps with a touch more quality control and probably with a quick change to that banner too. But still battling on through the stacks.

© Chris Warrington, 2009

Filmstar issue 3

A couple of months ago, I was talking to a friend about whether there was space for another film mag on the market. Something with a left-field approach that would differentiate it from the the blockbuster coverage offered by Empire and Total Film. Something with a passionate, knowledgeable approach – but falling to the populist side of Sight And Sound or Little White Lies. I would (and do) buy all of those titles, but it still felt like there was a gap in there for some smart publisher to get established.

Filmstar cover

And now, that gap has been filled by Filmstar – and I’m writing for them. So are lots of other people: Filmstar is heavingly stuffed with words about films. Everything gets a review. There are seven or eight in-depth features, the recurring features are similarly detailed, and it all comes over in the style of a conversation with a friend who knows (and loves) everything about movies.

But just because it’s text-heavy doesn’t mean the look has been neglected. Art editor Karl Jaques has given it a super-sharp design that balances all the content brilliantly, with smart little touches that hold everything together. In the main features, for example, each one gets a slightly different font for the page furniture. Lars von Trier is a cheery-sinister grunge typeface; Inglourious Basterds is an uncompromising sans-serif on searing red; and (my favourite) a feature on serious-comedy movies gets a big-top treatment. You also can see in the thumbnails the way that colour is used to set the tone of every feature (obviously, the Antichrist spreads are as black as the pit of von Trier’s soul).

Lars von Trier FS3 Basterds FS3 Kinds Of Comedy FS3

In Filmstar 3, I review Norwegian zomcom Dead Snow (and interview the director), art-house recreation of 70s skinflicks Viva, Michael Moore polemic Slacker Uprising, noodle romance The Ramen Girl, bleak and witty Turkish morality tale Three Monkeys, and (yes!) Robert Pattinson gay-off Little Ashes.

How to make a magazine: The September Issue

Everyone knows that Anna Wintour is imperious, dictatorial and impeccable. The trailer for this behind-the-scenes-at-Vogue documentary promises to reinforce that image. Good news for us, because the scene of her telling Oscar de la Renta what’s in and out of his catwalk show looks mighty entertaining; good news for Wintour too, because I imagine that her ferocious reputation is the most valuable thing she’s got.

But what looks most interesting – for people infatuated with journalism and publishing, anyway – is the way this film follows in detail the process of putting together an issue of a magazine. September is the big month in Vogue’s year, and Anna critiques everything in hand-stitched detail: the fonts, the message, and above all the looks.

Picturehouse: American Gigolo

(Paul Schrader, 1980)

American GigoloIn a detective story about a prostitute, you’d think that the sex and the judicial bits would be the most persuasive. But there are two section of American Gigolo which feel conspiculously out of place: the love-making montage (a static, unconvincing take on the one in Don’t Look Now, with a similar narrative role of cementing the central relationship) and the judicial-procedural bits at the end, with Gere mostly stuck silently behind glass).

These parts are unwanted digressions in an otherwise impeccable progress from the sleekly beguiling opening (Gere pretty and cocksure in his Armani wardrobe, with the filming and editing around him as impeccably stylish as the tailoring of his suits) to the noir-ish disintegration that overtakes the film as the plot takes hold. The soundtrack does a lot of work here, with Moroder pulling Blondie’s raging statement of desire, Call Me, into increasingly sad and unravelling forms. But the star is everything. Gere isn’t in that many films I enjoy, so I probably underrate his acting – here, he’s fantastic, with a restrained charisma that goes a long way to explaining both why all the society ladies want to fuck him, and why everyone else wants to fuck him over.

It also means he can carry the films morality lightly, unshowily. Like the similarly Schrader-written Taxi Driver (which gets an explicit shout out in a shot of Gere, seated with his hands on his knees, resigned in the moments after violence) there’s a thread of justice running through the whole ambivalent story, with Gere as a grubby innocent seeking absolution. Maybe it’s me being seduced by the movement of dissolution, maybe it’s just that Gere gets increasingly lovely the further he’s broken down, but I could have happily left the film before the final lift towards redemption.

Picturehouse: Twilight

It’s quite hard to explain why I decided to watch Twilight without blaming it all on Rachel Penny or making myself sound like the kind of perv who watches High School Musical for libidinous kicks (actually, I just think Zac Efron is really talented and stuff). So let’s just accept that I had some really good reasons for watching a movie intended for people half my age.

Stephanie Meyer’s teenvamp romance is a cavalcade of glorious goth cliché, wish fulfilment and the ridiculous – if you’ve never had the creative nous to imagine a family of vampires playing baseball in matching kit in a thunderstorm (yes, yes they were), Twilight will be a revelation to you. The symbolism is engagingly unsubtle. When Edward (consumptively beautiful and undead) first meets Bella (unthreateningly pretty new-girl-in-town) sharing desks in a biology class, the camera pans around so that the wings of the stuffed owl appear to grow from Edward’s shoulders. Because he is A HUNTER and also LIKE AN ANGEL because he is SO BEAUTIFUL.

And what are Edward and Bella looking at under their shared microscope? A worm. A phallic little worm. Which is another clunking metaphor if you want to see it that way, because Twilight cuts the teen libido into grisly segments and sticks it on a slide for examination.

twilight biology

Twilight doesn’t add anything especially new to the lexicon of teen fantasy. (Except for the sparkling. That’s pretty new.) Dangerous, beautiful boys who appear repulsed by the heroine but are actually only keeping their distance because they are so overwhelmed by love for her – they’re everywhere in popular culture. (Subtext: however much he seems to be disgusted with you, keep cracking on because it’s all eternal love under the hostile exterior.)

When I was the right age to like Twilight, I was deeply obsessed with Gentlemen by the Afghan Whigs, Murder Ballads by Nick Cave (I still put out a mean Kylie on SingStar) and the works of Serge Gainsbourg. Jane Birkin described being in a relationship with Gainsbourg as being “like having a wonderful parrot who bites everyone else but you,” which is exactly the appeal: the imagined relationships you get in these songs have all the risk and glamour of hanging out with a man who loves and fucks and leaves for dead, but the fact that he seems to be confiding in you acts as a guarantee of safety.

And that’s what happens in Twilight. Edward Cullen is part of a vampire family that’s turned away from hunting humans and lives on animal blood (they call themselves “vegetarians”) but he wants to taste Bella more than anything. He tells her he wants to taste her. He demonstrates his hunting prowess in a weird scene of zipping up trees. He reminds her that he’s killed people. He appears uninvited in her bedroom to watch her sleeping. None of these seem like the qualities a teenager should go looking for in a bang-up boyfriend. But Bella trusts him, so that’s ok.

However, Twilight doesn’t take place in a mytho-poetic interior landscape like Dulli, Cavey and Serge: it’s set in a modern-day American highschool, and the characters have friends and families. And the friends and family also take the line that Bella trusts him, so that’s ok. Which leads to some moments of disarming parental casualness about Bella’s personal safety: after the climactic fight in which Edward saves Bella from a ‘hunter’ vampire insatiably drawn by her smell (it’s like a pantyliner ad, or the anti-Wetlands), she’s left with a bloodied thigh, a broken leg and an obvious bitmark in her arm. Edward explains that she “fell down the stairs”, after they were last seen having a massive row, and with that, Bella’s mum is totally cool with Edward just hanging out in Bella’s hotel room waiting for her to wake up. Buffy’s mum kicked Angel out the house, you know. That‘s highschool vampire narrative integrity for you.

Incidentally, it’s only Bella’s leg that gets broken. Definitely not her hyman – Twilight is furiously abstinent, meaning that just a peck on the lips between the two leads turns into a feverishly longed-for climax. Absolutely no sex here. Just the exchanging of bodily fluids. Lots of exchanging of bodily fluids between a troupe of vampires who all live as one family, and a father-figure who ‘initiates’ Edward in a sepia-coloured bliss of homoeroticism. Can I stop now? I feel a bit flustered.

And while I’m used to something like Buffy taking the sexual metaphor of the Dracula story and driving it hard through a realistically-assembled group of teens, what makes Twilight special is that it has no idea how unsuitable this all in. In the great tradition of saddlebacking, as long as it’s not penetrative vaginal sex, it’s probably ok – even if it does involve home invasion and a bit of a battering.

Picturehouse: In The Loop

In The Loop Tucker posterI once got to drink wine with a junior civil servant and ask a million questions about government. The thing about ministers, I was told, is that they don’t succeed on their intellect or their analytical ability (anyway, there’s more information sloshing around than any individual could handle – that’s what the researchers are there for). The skill that makes a ministerial career is memory: having the right figures ready to pull out at the dispatch box, and the right lines in place when an awkward question comes up.

The plot of In The Loop (the feature film adaptation of sweary satirical sitcom The Thick Of It) launches from a minister who doesn’t know what to say. Hapless Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) of the Department For International Development is a simple man caught between vanity and careerism, making the occasional desperate clutch at doing the right thing. After he tells an interviewer that “war is unforseeable”, he’s obviously on the long slide out of the cabinet. Oblivious to the cool competence of Gina McKee’s Judy Malloy (his department’s head of communications), witlessly reliant on Chris Addison’s Toby Wright (new to the department and ineptly ambitious), and on the wrong side of Malcolm Tucker’s fury (Peter Capaldi, of course, whippet-slim and whipsmart with the magnificently obscene dialogue), the only issue is whether the hawks or the doves can get the most use out of him on the way down.

If you’ve had one eye open anytime in the last six years, you’ll know exactly how the story is going to play out – and if you’ve paid any attention to British sitcoms at any stage in their history, you’ll know that they’ve got dubious form when it comes to big-screen spin-offs. So, what makes In The Loop work? For one thing, it’s not the narrative that grips but the detail – the agonising complexities of compromise, self-interest and error that cause things to happen, rather than the things that happen themselves. This feels like the way politics probably really does happen, and the terrifying thing is that politics is screwed not because of some elite conspiracy, but because the people doing it are as prone to stupidity and self-preservation as everyone else.

It doesn’t suffer the normal pains of transition from TV to movie because it cleverly holds onto its style while expanding its scope. Shot in the  handheld DV style of the series, but making expansive use of outside scenes and locations in DC and New York, In The Loop translates its TV ancestor into cinematic terms brilliantly by not clinging too tightly to the original material. Cast of the TV show appear in different-but-similar roles – a ploy that could have been confusing but actually works fine, because the characters are mostly functions of the jobs they do. It doesn’t really matter that Chris Addison’s performance as Olly Reeder is nearly identical to his performance as Toby Wright – the two characters have nearly identical roles, so it makes sense that they’d look the same, talk the same, and have doppelganger girlfriends.

Of the Americans, James Gandolfini as a Pentagon general doing everything he can to avert war is easily the standout, and a satisfyingly fierce opponent to Tucker. In fact, Tucker finds Washington a whole lot tougher to roll over that Whitehall. Seen from high over DC running frantically to get to a meeting, looks unexpectedly small and vulnerable.

And while the film is viciously funny, it’s also got a note of the tragic: the President and the Prime Minister, the most powerful characters in the film, are godlike in their absence, directing events towards a predetermined conclusion which makes all the organs of diplomacy redundant. “We have all the facts we need”, says a war-hungry American minister as he flicks away an analysis of the potential invasion’s costs: “In the kingdom of truth, the man with one fact is king.” It’s that funny, and (for people who are quite keen on truth) that tragic, all the way through.

Mr Blog

We’re a two-blog household now: Nathan has just filed his first post for Un Chien du Cinema, an effort to apply some public shame as an encouragement to his PhD writing. Visit him, support him, ask him tricky questions about Freudian thory and abuse him for excluding Robocop from his thesis.

Paperhouse at the picturehouse: Scanners


Fiction about technology mostly means wide-eyed reflections on things that happened five minutes ago and the way that whatever it is will absolutely change everything utterly forever. The stylish kitsch of the Matrix movies and the noxious ‘look at my sexy new laptop’ toss of the absurd Jeanette Winterson are equally pointless if you’re interested in anything apart from the capacity of the simple to be perpetually surprised (alright, and some amazing running and fighting, which Winterson obviously can’t offer because she is far too busy writing important and novel-ish things).

David Cronenberg (whose Scanners I watched again this weekend, and whose films have owned me ever since a late-night showing of Videodrome made a trembling wreck of me) never embarrasses himself like this because he always treats technology as something that’s entirely human and as morally neutral as muscle. The recordings and broadcasts of Videodrome are terrifying, but the technology itself isn’t malevolent – it’s the information it conveys, and the willingness of the consumer to absorb it, that produces the horror. Medicine and machinery are fleshy things in the Cronenberg world, always a part of what we are rather than a chilly external force. In Scanners, when a psychic hacks into a computer network using the phone wire and his brain, it doesn’t feel like a hokey pre-internet moment: it’s just the summation of the idea that telecommunications are a society’s nervous system.

A lot of Cronenberg’s success is down to his crisp materialism. When the doctor character guides a newly-discovered scanner through his first deliberate psychic attack, he explains that this is not mind reading, “it’s nervous system to nervous system.” If you don’t romanticise humans, you can’t exaggerate the momentousness of a change in them. The conflict in the story is between two groups who are morally identical: a private security firm which wants to exploit the scanners as weapons, and a biochemistry lab which fronts for a terrorist scanner underground. These aren’t goodies or baddies, they’re just offering different kinds of exploitation and exactly enough tension to play through the ideas and facilitate a massive, brainblasting showdown.


Turning a picture-book into a live-action feature seems like a hellishly hard thing to do: as well as translating two-dimensional illustrations into a three-dimensional world, the film has to somehow stretch out a 30-line narrative to fill 90 minutes. The trailer for the adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are (a Paperhouse bedtime regular) says that Spike Jonze found a way to do it really, really well.  Am I having my heart tweaked by the Arcade Fire song over the top? Is the scratchy-charming hand-lettering beguiling my font-addled eyes? Will it work out for the full running time? Yes, yes, and I am really looking forward to finding out. I haven’t been this excited by a trailer since High School Musical 3, and that turned out amazing.