The Fits

Royalty Hightower leads in this superb meditation on mass hysteria.

Set in a Cincinnati community centre, boxer Toni leavers her brothers ringside to join the Lionesses drill team. Within days the girls begin to fall victim to violent seizure-like episodes, causing panic among their team-mates.

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The fits are about fitting in. Speculatively diagnosed as a ‘boyfriend disease’ they are a rite of passage that the girls must pass through to become women. Because Toni moves between the boxing gym and the dance hall so frequently, she must remain a pre-pubescent androgyne. The seizures appear to her to catalyse puberty faster than her newly pierced ears or varnished fingernails do; however, it becomes apparent that they are semi-contagious manifestations of psychological distress.

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Q-Kidz drill team

This debut comes from Anna Rose Holmer, a first-time director who previously worked as a cinematographer and produced. She shares her experiences of seeking acceptance as a tomboy in an interview with Vogue. She co-wrote The Fits with producer Lisa Kjerulff and editor Saela Davis, the multi-talented multitasking trio masterfully shapes the production around the story. It is shorter than a full-length feature, with a perfect final fifteen minutes that drifts off into full physical cinema. Selecting her young cast from Cincinnati’s real-life drill squad Q-Kidz – of which Royalty is one – Holmer recruited the dancer cast to collaborate with the crew to choreograph its dance routines.

The Fits is an exemplary piece of filmmaking; a triumphant team-effort.

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Moonlight

It is hard to picture the humble origins of the widely-released and Oscar-nominated Moonlight. Without a doubt, the film owes its rocketing success to the strength of its source material – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical stage play had sat at the bottom of a drawer for ten years before Barry Jenkins and film school best mate cinematographer James Laxton picked it up. Carving out a space for POC and LGBT narratives, Moonlight has already eclipsed its competition. Above everything, this is an inspirational film that, in both its production and its story-matter, demonstrates how tight male friendships can overcome financial setback.

That all said, I don’t like it’s very likely Moonlight will take Best Picture. It entirely deserves the award but Academy votes tend to be judge films retrospectively. Barry Jenkins is so new to the scene and Damien Chazelle was criminally overlooked for Whiplash that the outcome is very predictable – but I still think David Lynch would’ve made a better director of La La Land.

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Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade’s third feature explores inter-generational difference through hilarious avant garde German comedy.

In an effort to rekindle the relationship with his daughter Innes (Sandra Hüller), joker father Winifred Conradi (Peter Simonischek) dons a set of false teeth to become Toni Erdmann. He follows her to Bucharest, where Innes has relocated on work matters. Incongruous amongst her professional world, Winifred strategically assumes a new identity to reacquaint himself with his daughter. The imposter catalyses a small crisis in her life which then concludes in a perfect final scene, where father and daughter are finally reconciled.

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The film is delightfully theatrical. Both leads were stage actors (Winifred’s orthodontically-challenged alter-ego is all the more interesting since before he became an actor Simonischek was a dentist), and Ade makes use of absurd props, masks and self-conscious role-playing, while also stressing the importance of spontaneity. If I had one criticism, it would be that it is initially difficult to adjust from the simple pleasures of Toni/Winifred’s practical jokes to her reserved professionalism. His clownish humour jars against her distance and poise and his large cumbersome frame doesn’t quite fit next to her tailor-made couture. Emotion is channelled through our ambivalence towards both characters. While she is serious and career-obsessed, he is idolatrous and attention-seeking.

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That all said, father and daughter eventually reach a common ground. There is one scene where Innes obtains a small foot injury from an unfortunate sofa-bed accident after housing her father for the night, and her consequent limp translates into a funny walk. Life father, like daughter. Mortification and embarrassment is both estranging and uniting. To purposefully humiliate oneself is to betray human weakness and compassionate strength. Comedy is, in this instance, disarmingly poignant.

Ade distinguishes herself as the auteur of human relationships commanding emotional transparency from Hüller and Simonischek; their feelings of alienation and estrangement are incredibly raw and there are a few scenes that even brought tears to the crowd at Cannes. Her past work has receives accolades for its depiction of relationships. Her first feature The Forest for the Trees won the Special Jury prize at Sundance and her second, Everyone Else the Grand Jury Prize in Berlin. This critically acclaimed film in competition for Best Foreign Language at the Academy Awards, its silverware imminent.

 

Christine

Rebecca Hall leads in the true-life account of Christine Chubbuck, the news reporter who committed suicide live on air. 

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With their UK releases nearly almost coinciding, Christine and Jackie both readdress our perception of women whose lives have been singularly defined by bullets to the head. Craig Shilowich’s screenplay is exemplary in its respect for nuance and level of detailed research, that which is often excluded from the more simplified accounts of Christine Chubbuck’s death.

Sensitive and humane, Rebecca Hall’s performance eulogises hard work and ambition. Her suicide is represented as the consequence of a set of circumstances rather than just a means to an end. The establishing shot frames Christine through the television screen. She is interviewing Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal. The camera angle widens and we understand that her questions are addressed to an empty chair. Shilowich insists Christine ask ‘Are they really after you or is it all just paranoia?’ over and over again, each time questioning how it comes across on camera. This film is relentless.

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For its frightening intensity, Christine is also quite funny. Antonio Campos relieves the tension with his very kitsch 1970s backdrop (think side burns and paisley prints), and even though the station struggles for ratings, the banter between its anchors never ceases. Christine’s morbid subject-matter does not define its tone, and I think this is testament to its very artful story-telling.

Shilowich’s conclusion, as Rachel Brook has observed, is too much of a heavy-handed reference back to itself. It may have, instead, suited fellow Sundance movie also about Christine, Kate Plays Christine). In Campos’ narrative feature, however, we are left with a final turn that sadly belies the film’s knack for subtlety.

 

Paterson

Jim Jarmusch’s latest release is a heartening ode to ordinary, everyday life.

Paterson expresses a fondness for the creative method in both its form and its content. You get the sense that making this film, what is essentially the contextualisation of William Carlos Williams’ multivolume modernist epic Paterson, has been particularly enjoyable. We are driven through the city of Paterson by bus driver-cum-poet Paterson (Adam Driver) meeting poets in pretty much every encounter.

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Adam Driver’s spectacular lead performance

The film is structured around a daily routine so rich that fumbling over matchsticks sparks the inspiration for a love poem. We are gifted with the sublime work of Ron Padgett, a successor of the New York School (Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler), who writes all but one of the film’s lyrics – ‘Water Falls’ is indebted to Jarmusch himself. Even the dialogue that is not intended as poetry is swept up by the film’s charm: Paterson’s passengers share chit-chat that is profoundly insightful, while others speak with remarkable honesty – a notable exchange is one between two working men who have both missed out on opportunities with women because of the exhausting nature of their labour.

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The Great Falls in Paterson

We return to the Passaic Falls a few times during the film. They are not just a source of poetic inspiration (‘Water Falls’), but the site of the nineteenth-century town planner Alexander Hamilton’s utopian vision for a town with a limitless supply of energy. There is plenty more about the city where we lay our scene that lends itself to romantic idealisation. Shift work is rewarding and Paterson’s wife Laura (the delightful Golshifteh Farahani) contentedly builds them a home whilst pursuing her many talents and aspirations. It is no coincidence that Paterson’s wife shares her name with Petrarch’s muse. Their relationship is one of mutual satisfaction, upholstered by a fair few jazzy monochrome prints.

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Driver and Farahani

I might, if I may, give away part of the plot so if you’d rather it not be spoilt: look away now. I am very certain that the film’s production company Inkject Inc had some part to play in the unfortunate turn the plot takes. When disgruntled British bulldog Nellie tore Paterson’s notebook to shreds, I thought perhaps they were trying to make a claim for the importance of saving copies of your work.

This is a film about a poet inspired by a city that inspired another poet. Poetry begets poetry; we leave with our souls enriched.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016)

 

In her Man Booker shortlisted Hot Milk, Deborah Levy invites us to travel to Almería (Andalusia, Spain) with Yorkshire exiles Sofia Papastergiadis and her mother Rose. The book is far from a beach-read, I found the building of tension and sweaty frustration made it read as more of an existential thriller.

Their displacement was occasioned by Rose’s strange illness, a psycScreen Shot 2016-11-12 at 10.00.12.pnghosomatic paralysis in her legs for which UK doctors prescribed anti-depressants. Sofia and her mother are in search of a healer who can galvanise Rose back into action. Having remortgaged Rose’s house and put a doctoral thesis on hold, the trip seems the climax of a desperate search for answers after a long illness. At different stages in their un/coming-of age crises, the women find out that in this clinical seaside resort, the midday sun is no panacea but exacerbates personal trauma.

Doctor Gomèz, emperor of the marble dome of medicine, seems to prescribe in according to his personal grievances – he hasn’t finished mourning the death of his wife. Rose’s own estranged husband has left wife and daughter to start again in Athens. His much younger replacement family is part of the reason for a renegotiation of roles back in Yorkshire. Attending on her selectively incapacitated mother, Sofia’s redomestication renders her both mother and child.

Within the first turn of a page, Sofia is stung by one of the jellyfish ubiquitous to this coastline. The pain Levy inflicts on her characters makes me think she doesn’t really like people that much. (This isn’t a very informed judgement because I haven’t read her other work.) At the bottom of the food chain, Sofia and her mother are preyed upon as drifters, who struggle to leave the medicated, caffeinated reliefs of home behind.

Levy redeems herself with Ingrid: the object of Sofia’s unrequited love. Ingrid is a German warrior seamstress whose needlework wraps the fabric of the novel together. She is the source of clarity the book needs, I wish I had had the chance to spend more time in her company.

 

 

 

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog asks a selection of scientific minds whether the internet can dream of itself.

It is significant that, unlike the Netflix release of Into the Inferno later this month, Herzog has chosen to exhibit Lo and Behold in movie theatres. Structuring Lo and Behold in chronological chapters, Herzog starts us off with the discovery of the internet. He talks to Leonard Kleinrock, a scientist who managed the first server to server contact between UCLA and Stanford in 1969. They wanted to type ‘log in’ but only managed ‘lo’ before the ‘g’ crashed the system. Herzog constructs this genesis as something of a biblical event: lo and behold there was internet.

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The internet’s simplicity was laughable; its nascence is illustrated through archive footage of newspaper editors programming chronicle reports in the early naughties. There is a particularly endearing moment when a computer scientist produces the directory of everyone who was then on the internet (comprised mostly of his computer science mates), before giving us the statistic of how many times the list of internet users today would stretch to Mars and back.

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Herzog is far more interested in the human than the machine. He casts a unique assemblage of eccentric characters; we meet the ‘internet pioneers’ who muse on the interconnectedness of everything, and help us imagine the machinery of the online with moments of the ripples on the surface of a body of water. Spontaneous interjections come from behind the camera, a favourite is during a scene with a scientist developing a team of robot footballers set to defeat the human Fifa world champions in 2050: ‘Do you love them?’ Werner asks, to which the scientist coyly admits he does.

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The film draws our attention to the ever more fraught race between man and machine for intelligence; however, in the safe grasp of this septuagenarian’s filmmaking, I am still to be convinced there is much of a threat.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Behn Zeitlin leaves us spellbound by the magic of the Bathtub.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a magical-realist fable of the Bathtub; a fictional bayou locale where six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in desperate poverty and abandonment. Located on the wrong side of the levees, the community are under threat by rising sea-levels, biblical deluges and ancient aurochs. The film has an apocalyptic sense of dread, we are told that ‘any day now the fabric of the universe is coming unravelled’. In spite of her chances, Hushpuppy remains loyal to what she believes is ‘the prettiest place on earth’ (as realised by Ben Richardson’s cinematography). Buoyed by her childish optimism and extraordinary courage, our almost-orphaned tiny hero learns to survive unstoppable catastrophes. This loose adaptation of Lucy Alibar’s one-act play is a spirited and poignant celebration of life; the picture absolutely deserves the awards it won at Cannes and the Sundance Film Festival.

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The nine-year-old Oscar-nominee Quvenzhané Wallis

The production company, Court 13 Film, is a collective of filmmakers, artists and animators who share the attitude that it is possible to make art anywhere if you are resourceful enough. Taking their company name from the abandoned squash courts they shot their first shorts on, they are a great example of the grass-roots filmmaking that our festival is set up to encourage.

Their interest is in those who live on the fringes of society is sincere: the production and creative team relocated to southern Louisiana and inhabited the local surroundings that their cast came from. On a micro-budget, the crew set up base in a defunct petrol station. Here is Zeitlin giving a tour of their base for The Creators Project. Filming was a survival test in itself; the BP oil rig explosion happened on the first day and, throughout, the crew had to contend with the clean-up operation when shooting in nearby waters. Zeitlin tells The Creators Project that the landscape was so wild that they were constantly battling with the grasses and foliage to make space for the film’s giant set pieces, one example of which is Zeitlin’s broken-down Chevrolet – repurposed for Hushpuppy’s boat, as seen above.

The cast is comprised of local residents who were complete newcomers to the film scene. The story goes that Dwight Henry, a local baker, only agreed to take the part of Wink if they rehearsed during the midnight baker’s hours. What I love most about this company is their ethos of being receptive to the environment and its local population rather than being imposing or bullish. Their respect for the environment and admiration of its people is palpable.

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Cinematography by Ben Richardson

It is this process of grappling with the surroundings that makes the tale so honest and authentic. Politically charged, it documents the post-Katrina devastation whilst also offering an insight into the mind of a six-year-old. It is the most moving film I’ve seen in quite a while.

Meek’s Cutoff

Reichardt’s reevaluation of a familiar genre is profoundly arresting.

It is 1845, the early days of the Oregon Trail, and three emigrant families must pass the Cascade Mountains in search of fertile land in the west. Despite following the leadership of frontier guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) across the Great Plains, the pioneers eventually lose their way, their water and their patience.

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Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) is a film about the subservience of humanity to the environment. She illustrates the desperation of the desert through her minimal soundscapes. The harrowing silence of travelling across arid desert is apparent from the absence of sound and dialogue during the feature’s prolonged opening; it is an unrelenting slow-burner that eventually reaches a chaotic, almost hysterical, emotional climax. The screenplay could almost have been written by Samuel Beckett.

What is more troubling is the silence that comes from the Native American they capture.  When consulted on the search for clean water, he is nonplussed in a way that seems to suggest that, as a member of the indigenous population and the racial other, he has conspired with the unforthcoming landscape against the travellers.

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In an interview, Reichardt describes the conditions filming in heat that exceeded 100 degrees. Vehicles broke down during the two-hour drive along dust tracks to the filming location. It should not be forgotten that this is a micro-budget film; indeed, the amount of money spent on feeding the horses and oxen came to the same amount spent on her second feature.

The thriller is a must-see, but be prepared for a slow start!

 

Female Film Directors

As it stands, the film industry is overwhelmingly male. Having recently become aware of my lack of knowledge of female directors, I thought I’d provide an alternative watch list of films that deserve a wider audience. This is not just a list of canonical film director’s sisterly equivalents – I do not want to equate or compare – but, rather, an exploration of how male and female visionaries explore similar themes differently. These are some of the most pioneering women of the past few years who have responded to the demands of this new female film audience and produced film which starts to question its patriarchal ancestry.

Wadjda (2012) is Haifaa al-Mansour’s debut film and the first feature film to be entirely shot in Saudi Arabia – the land without cinema. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is an eleven year old girl whose dream is to be able to race Abdullah (friend and love interest) on a bike of her own. Despite facing opposition on this matter from her mother she eventually finds the money needed to buy a bike for herself, battling the prejudices of the country she was born into.

Throughout the film, al-Mansour warns us never to take freedom for granted. Saudi Arabia’s hostility towards young women pervades every shot, both in front of and behind the camera. On set, al-Mansour had to shoot some of the scenes from the inside of a van using a walkie-talkie to give directions in order not to get caught by the authorities.

However; Wadjda became the country’s entry into the Academy Awards which, occurring within the same year that Saudi Arabia entered their first female athlete into the London Olympic Games, this film marks a turning point in a country’s social priorities. The film is touching and uplifting, but most of all: it is hopeful.

I like to think of Wadjda as a reimiaging of Boyhood (2014). Linklater’s come-of-age drama collected several awards at the Oscars, partly due to the scale of its production: Richard Linklater spent twelve years filming Mason (Ellar Coltrane) growing up. Its emotional capital is largely generated from Linklater’s loyalty to a depiction of adolescence we are already familiar with. There is nothing necessarily wrong with nostalgia for these standard rites of passage, but this is whitebread America which tends to bore quickly.

 

Signe Baumane’s Rocks in My Pockets (2014) proclaims itself to be ‘a funny film about depression’. Hand-drawn animation is combined with papier-mache stop motion tell the tale of grandmother Anna’s children and their troubled upbringing in the context of twentieth-century Latvia.

The plot is divided into the five daughters’ stories of their crazy quest for sanity which emerge from what seems to be their struggles to avoid pre-destined domesticity; to quote from the film ‘life seems random without any purpose, you procreate and then you die.’ Upsetting, sardonic and cynical, the film sees doctors self-medicate before they prescribe their patients with anti-depressants – patients who have most likely sought refuge in the Soviet mental hospital from certain death in the Afghanistan war.

Although it is a sensitive treatment of mental suffering, the film isn’t always an easy watch. It does reassure us though that if you ignore the voices that only you can hear for the ones of the people who love you, staying sane isn’t so hard. It is difficult to find a perfect comparison to such a unique and unforgettable film, but the one that came to mind is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Besides Baumane’s feature, Burton’s take on the mad underworld of normality appears rather gimmicky – the comedy is rather less effective.

Released in 2014, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook sees Amelia (Essie Davis) struggle to raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) after his father’s sudden death. They are haunted by the Babadook monster which finds its way into their home through the passages of a children’s book. The premise of the film may abide by certain conventions – the haunted house, the unwanted, unruly son and the ghostly father – but it unsettles in unexpected ways.

Amelia relationship to Samuel is troubling; her alienation from him questions whether maternal love is as instinctual as we might assume. Her duty to mother her son is crossed by a need to grieve her husband’s death in a road traffic accident on the way to give birth; reading Amelia’s psychological state troubles in the most intimate ways. Her characterization grapples with questions of a woman’s identity as a mother, and a widow’s identity as a nurturer. The Babadook represents how years of malign grief will eventually surmount to psychological collapse, despite the attempts one makes to ignore it.

I chose it as a point of reference to Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The sinister Overlook Hotel also provides the confined, claustrophobic space that suffocates symptoms of psychological disorder; the multitude of corridors and tight passageways that present possible escape routes are in fact labyrinthine and don’t let you get any further away from the horrors you’re really running from. In this film we have another young family torn apart by its pre-existing demons, most of all by Jack (Jack Nicholson) – the father’s – alcoholism whilst the son seems to possess a supernatural power with which he can access horrific premonitions of the future. Like Amelia, Jack regresses back into something more primal; a blood-thirsty, axe-wielding psychopath. What I think The Babadook does more effectively is in its portrayal of motherhood unlike the relationship between Wendy and Danny in The Shining that is left largely unexplored.

Out just last year, Mistress America was co-written by and stars Greta Gerwig. This film is about Tracy (Lola Kirke) a lonely college freshman who encounters her thirty-something soon-to-be stepsister (Gerwig) during their mutual crises of self. Tracy struggles with rejection from a cliquey college literary society, as she does from various romantic partners. Brooke (Gerwig) is equally vulnerable. Despite having secured her position as New York socialite – she teaches a spin class, is an interior designer and is looking for an investment to open a restaurant – she seeks validation from the younger generation, Tracy’s generation, who she becomes a host for.

Being directed by Gerwig’s off-screen partner Noah Baumbach this film shouldn’t technically make the list but I thought it illustrates how women feel an unnecessary pressure to conform to roles in different stages of their lives really well. If you have seen Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine Cate Blanchett’s character can be thought of as a foil for Gerwig’s; a Blanche du Bois socialite fallen on hard times. If you like the way Allen employs farce in his films, you’ll like Mistress America as well.

And so it seems: the time for female film directors is nigh. Watch these films and if that isn’t enough, go through this list published by Little White Lies of 100 great movies by female directors. That should keep you going.