Friday, 12 September 2008

London Film Festival (galas)

The launch of the London Film Festival. Obviously it's going to take a while to plough through the programme to decide what's worth seeing, but a few things caught my eye.

Of course there are the galas, though they're films that will be opening anyway. Frost/Nixon looks interesting but Oliver Stone's George Bush biopic W had several people wondering whether it was going to be a knockabout comedy. There was certainly enough laughter at the launch.

There was an audible intake of breath at the words Quantum of Solace (chops to Eon for refusing to back down in the face of a hail of criticism at the name (though much more ridiculous and it would have turned into a Star Wars title). Most amusing, however, is this note: "As this will be the first public screening of Quantum of Solace anywhere in the world, patrons are advised that special security measures will be in place." Noticeably, such measures won't be in place for Waltz With Bashir, not, as I thought, a portrait of the Di-bothering journalist, but an incendiary-sounding animated autobiographical doc about the Middle East conflict.

Whether or not it's the skill of the trailer-maker, Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona didn't seem as bad as rumours have had it. Of course, its acreage of pulchritudineity may prove to be an embarrassment.

The worthiness quotient will be kept high by (artist) Steve McQueen's almost dialogue-free Hunger and Soderbergh's 252-minute Che.

Entre les murs (The Class) looked really promising and Easy Virtue looked like it could be avoid the ever-present danger of squirm-inducing "we're-British-but-we-can-laugh-at-ourselves" 'comedy'.  

I'll drive through a few more pages later.

Len Lye

I bumped into Mr Squares of Wheat the other night at the NFT .... errrr .... BFI South Bank, and he quite rightly berated me for not blogging often enough. So here's another blurt of multiple posts.

Anyway, we were both looking forward to the Len Lye event.

It's fantastic to think that seventy years ago there was an organisation that supported artists who wanted to make avant-garde films, often giving them pretty much carte blanche to do what they wanted, with the proviso that the last few seconds should include a 'message'. This astonishingly enlightened organisation was none other than the GPO (aka The Royal Mail, aka Consignia, aka The Royal Mail).

One of my more pleasant jobs was at the BUFVC, helping put the GPO collection online for educational use. The encodings are lovely and the metadata great, but, sadly, you'll need an Athens account to see them. Alternatively they are available on DVD from Panamint Cinema and the BFI are about to launch a series of restorations.

What would British film be without the GPO Film Unit? Not to list everyone is invidious, but it's hard to ignore the poetry of Humphrey Jennings and Alberto Cavalcanti, the very English surrealism of Richard Massingham and the explosive energy of Lye and Norman McLaren. Apologies for reducing these geniuses to single, only partially representative adjectives, and for omitting any of your favourites. Sit tight: I'll be returning to them.

But, back to NFT2. New Zealander Lye gave his work to the Len Lye Foundation and much of it is held at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. It ranged over painting, kinetic sculpture, poetry, and of course film, and Tyler Cann, curator of the collection ran through Lye's life and work, neatly showing its common well-springs in modernism, aboriginal art and Freud.

Then there was a screening of Lye's first film Tusalava (1929). Amusingly, the BBFC were agitated by the suspicion that it might be about sex. And if you insist on films being 'about' something, it's hard to deny, but you'd have to worry about anyone who found it arousing! The title is Samoan for 'just the same' or 'everything comes full circle' and if it's more than a film about movement per se, it's a modernist take on Maori art and photomicrography, a meditation on creation, struggle and destruction, all carried out at cellular level. Maybe it's just me, but there was also a weird Frankensteinian aspect to it!

At its Film Society premiere it was accompanied live by Jack Ellit's two-piano score, though this is now lost. Ellit scored and 'synchronised' seven of Lye's eight films up to Trade Tattoo in 1937, which may - or may not - give us a clue as to what Tusalava sounded like: his contributions included using Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra, and chunks of Holst's The Planets. For the NFT screening Alcyona semi-improvised appropriately organic and swirling music on one piano. Given the film's slow and smooth development, it was an achievement to insert some points of noticeable change, that were not merely tacked on.

Various people have put it on Youtube with their own soundtracks. Two of them are a bit Eraserhead-ish and there's a jazz score that doesn't really have much to do with the film but as far as I can tell (sadly, despite being in two parts, it doesn't play very well) it gets a bit better as it progresses. There's also a self-declared "avant-garde sound design" that's not bad, though it sometimes follows the action a bit too closely for my taste.

They all have different running times (I haven't done an exhaustive comparison of the whys and wherefores) and, weirdly, the first three have somehow found a copy of the film that is left-right inverted. A couple of them have the Film Society leader.

For my money, the best score is this.

Some of Lye's best-known films are Trade Tattoo, Rainbow Dance and A Colour Box. For these astonishing films Lye used heavily treated found footage, drew and painted directly onto the film, stenciled texts onto it and scratched the surface to create an electrifying result. Seeing these films, you can't help but whoop with joy.

The Royal Mail should simply show the genius Trade Tattoo every November. It would cheer up the entire country and they could use the saved advertising budget to keep a few post offices open.

Of course, Lye's films should be seen in their full glory (the web can't do them justice) and I'm looking forward to the BFI DVDs but in the meantime, enjoy Trade Tattoo. Frequently.