Recently I was asked by filmmaker Dana Berman Duff to write a programme note for her upcoming screening at Echo Park Film Centre in LA. I love Dana’s films so it was easy to say yes, and a pleasure to write the below piece. I last saw Dana (and her films) when working for Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival in March 2017, when we invited them to be part of the programme. The EPFC screening is on Sat 30 September at 8pm.
I saw Catalogue first at Edinburgh International Film Festival’s experimental Black Box strand in 2014. I hadn’t seen anything that quite grabbed me the way Duff’s silent, black and white 16mm work did – I thought I knew what I was seeing, that I understood the cinematic language at play – then suddenly, a reveal that turned all those perceptual assumptions on their head.
That first Catalogue was an experiment in the time it takes to look at desirable objects – or rather – the images of objects found in mainstream furniture catalogue Restoration Hardware. Duff’s wit is in presenting such images with all the suspense of a Hitchcockian film set, as she holds a shot of an empty interior, waiting for something to happen within it. The reveal is that of the image making itself, that we are not within the space of a horror film, but contemplating the fake versions of designer furniture, indicated subtly by a page’s fold.
Duff described to me following that Edinburgh screening, that she had discovered the narrative of Catalogue only in the experience of viewing the film with an audience, a narrative that wasn’t intended in the making of the film. The apparently simple pleasure of looking at beautiful images, the duration of a lingering look at one thing, then another thing, had revealed a familiar dramatic/comedic plot structure. We had all sunk into the rhythm of gazing at some flickering beauty, and then had its artifice become the punch line.
For Duff this made clear the separation between the film as a thought experiment and as a work of magical cinema. That Restoration Hardware sells furniture en mass copied from unique designer pieces, which are then made into an image within a magazine, then filmed by Duff, is the film’s critique of the copy. That we can still forget – or be unaware – of this idea and enjoy the film’s visual pleasure gives Catalogue its emotional heart and the affirmation of having that critique played out by an audience.
Duff’s continued fascination with Restoration Hardware has evolved to incorporate sound into the world of the lingering look. In Catalogue Vol. 2 the ambient sound of Duff’s studio as she shoots the pages of that tome, are heard throughout, while rugs and carpets provide the visual texture of the film. As with any sequel, Catalogue Vol. 2 can abandon the ‘set-up’ – in this case the revelation of the image’s source – and instead, the effect is mesmeric as the relation between images – of one floor covering dissolving into another – is like a surrealist dream punctuated by ‘real’ sound.
Duff’s further experiments have explored the tension between interior and exterior worlds. In Catalogue Vol. 3 a chair from within the furniture catalogue literally plummets into the sea, in Volume 4. and Volume 5. extreme close up is used to reveal the texture of the printed page, shifting the series deeper into its haptic qualities, as the layers of film grain express a corporeal beauty.
When viewing Catalogue Volume 6. (Haunted House) there’s a sense of that initial audience reaction most obviously seeping into the making of Catalogue as a series. The interiors are dark spaces – under a table or an armchair – and thresholds such as a window, or wardrobe door, or an ominous painting on a wall – full of possibility, full of anticipation. Duff brings in cinematic sound, sampled from movies – of eerie laughter, anxious proclamations and a tense string score. The 16mm flicker and the minute camera movements make the images appear to move, but rather than enforce the narrative that we might now expect from Duff’s work, attempts to form an arc are cut through with each jolting edit, and then, almost cathartically exclaimed “Now I know where I’m going, I’m disappearing inch by inch into this house!”
There’s been more than enough pieces written on the best films of 2015, including two lists (which include Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, pictured above) to which I already contributed – Sight & Sound and CineVue – so here at Cinematic Investigations, we’ll refrain from adding further to what was considered ‘best’* last year. Instead, this annual review will focus on the complete year’s viewing, including television, films re-watched and those seen at festivals and at home. In a year in which I attended 10 film festivals, viewed 262 films, of which 68 were short and 125 were new** features, this is a way of considering what was personally most memorable, and not necessarily the films themselves, but the whole experience of viewing, discussing, sharing and thinking about film.
Filmmaker interviews at IFFR 2015
As I reported back in January, I was selected to be part of International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Trainee Programme for Young Film Critics. A great honour that allowed me to meet some brilliant people, and conduct interviews with Remy Van Heugten via Skype about his film Gluckauf, in person with Ingo Haeb about The Chambermaid Lynn, on the phone to Martin Radich to discuss Norfolk and via email with Nicolas Steiner for his remarkable documentary, Above and Below.
Tired Moonlight at IFFR and EFG
Britni West’s enthralling, ambiguous Tired Moonlight was the last of 31 films I saw at IFFR. By that point I was exhausted and longing for my own bed, and West’s Super 16mm shot ode to her hometown of Kalispell, Montana gradually lifted me from apathy to pure joy. When I screened it for the Edinburgh Film Guild audience in December, it temporarily made us forget there was a freezing downpour going on outside.
Family cinema trip: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
My favourite ‘Come and See’ screening at Filmhouse in 2015.
4. Brutal cinema part 1: The Tribe
Being a fairly miserable Ukrainian drama in which the only dialogue is un-subtitled Russian sign-language, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe was a hard sell to the friends I asked to accompany me, but I suggested it could be unlike anything we’ve seen before. It certainly proved more divisive than anything else, sparking a heated debate about whether such depictions of violence are deliberately and unnecessarily provocative.
Orange is the New Black series 3
Particularly episode four, Finger in the Dyke written by Lauren Morelli and directed by Constantine Makris, in which Big Boo’s (Lea DeLaria) backstory is revealed; where an initially playful persuasion by her father to get her to wear a dress as a child, develops into complete parental rejection of her lesbian identity. This series frequently deals with characters struggling with who they are, and this episode showcased DeLaria’s ability as a performer to convey someone who courageously asserts herself, in the face of those who would prefer she pretend to be someone else.
Asif Kapadia’s expertly made documentary about Amy Winehouse just about broke me.
Brutal cinema part 2: I stay with you (me quedo contigo) at IFFR and EIFF.
At IFFR, I saw Mexican artist Artemio Narro’s I stay with you, a deliberately deceptive, willingly provocative experiment in putting female violence on screen and right in the viewer’s face. In an upcoming issue of the Slovenian journal KINO!, I discuss the film and violent women generally with fellow writer Tina Poglajen, but on first viewing I really didn’t know what to make of it. When EIFF Artistic Director, Mark Adams, selected it to screen at EIFF, I looked forward to meeting with Narro again and talking more about the film, having allowed its brilliance and flaws to fully sink in. Narro proved to be one of the best guests at the festival – he’s certainly aware of the challenging nature of the film, and was prepared to lose a good proportion of the audience during the screening.
At his Q&A, I asked him about the film’s wider reception, about his intentions for the film, and the audience too, quizzed him on the random appearance of a horse (actually a unicorn, Narro loves them, even has a unicorn tattoo, which went down well in the country for whom they are the national animal), and the film’s unsettling tonal shifts. It was a film that inspired what any artist can hope for – passionate, thoughtful (and in this case, angry) engagement from the audience.
EIFF’s Doc of the Day: Stand By for Tape Back-Up and other special events, including Haskell Wexler himself.
As programme coordinator at Edinburgh International Film Festival last year, I had the pleasure of planning and delivering a lot of truly special events; a gig reuniting legends of the Scottish post-punk/indie music scene following Grant McPhee’s Big Gold Dream; a Skype Q&A with the Angulo brothers, subject of Crystal Moselle’s incredible The Wolfpack, and In Person events with Neil Innes and Barry Purves. One of my films of the year however turned out to be Ross Sutherland’s Stand by for Tape Back-Up, an autobiographical, semi-experimental documentary that plays with time and memory and incorporates The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into musings on the afterlife. It’s a film that’s now deeply embedded in my mind as one of the most intriguing and moving I’ve seen.
Also at EIFF, I met again with award-winning cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (High Fidelity, Atonement, The Avengers, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Godzilla) who had brought legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler to the festival to discuss his work and the issues most important to him. Wexler wanted to spend most of his onstage time praising Seamus, but the latter carefully persuaded him to share some of his experiences from his life’s work, which includes One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Medium Cool. Sadly Wexler passed away in December aged 93, I’m privileged to have met him.
10. Cats Are Cinema: Noel Marshall’s Roar
In which Noel Marshall and wife Tippi Hedren spent eleven years bringing to the screen a film they were sure would raise awareness of the poaching of African big cats and the unfair treatment of big cats in captivity. The result was a shoot with over one hundred cats – lions, tigers, jaguars etc. – seventy injuries to the crew and several near death experiences. The film itself is a completely bonkers and terrifying tribute to the cats, and Marshall and Hedren’s foolhardy commitment to their cause. A late night at EIFF, in which I laughed long and hard.
11. There’s how many teaspoons of sugar in one tablespoon of ketchup?! The influence of That Sugar Film.
There’s four. Four teaspoons of sugar in one tablespoon of tomato ketchup. Thank you Damon Gameau for making That Sugar Film and forever changing my feelings about the sweet stuff. When I met Gameau at EIFF I learned I was the eighty-fifth person to host a Q&A with him – he said I did a good job. What a pro.
12. Family Cinema Trip: Magic Mike XXL
My sister was ssshhh’ed for whooping during the opening credits – those Edinburgh Cineworld audiences take their fun seriously! And it was, seriously fun.
13. Singing and crying: Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Filmhouse
Only the second time I’d seen John Cameron Mitchell’s cult musical (the first being a Blockbuster video rental sometime around 2002) but this time it was a sing-a-long screening and I soaked up the film’s emotion and wit, impressed by my friends lyrical knowledge and shared sensitivity to Hedwig’s identity crisis.
Finally finishing The West Wing brought with it the satisfaction of seeing it through and the sadness that there were no new episodes to see. When we first started it, we found W.G. Snuffy Walden’s score unbearably patriotic (what did we expect?!) but by the end it felt triumphantly appropriate. Other highlights of viewing: assessing Josh’s hair, loving and then missing Sam Seaborn, doing impressions of Bruno’s ‘kelp’ speech, noticing which episodes had a Parks and Recreation version, saying ‘Blues explosion’ during the credits when John Spencer appears.
A superhero show in which the villain is literally the patriarchy? Yes please. A thousand times yes.
17. All in one night: Master of None
So many brilliant episodes in this series, I loved how each was themed, I loved the compassion and honesty of it, I loved its representation of friendship and millennial anxiety. I loved that it was flawed.
18. Aniston forever and ever and ever
In case you didn’t know, 2015 brought you the blog series you’ve always wanted: a critique of the megastar that is Jennifer Aniston. Watching her films has so far been a mix of irksome, joyful and hilarious, more coming soon.
I summarised what makes Todd Haynes’ latest so special, and my film of the year, for CineVue, so I’ll simply quote myself here: ‘That it’s so highly lauded is assuredly deserved, as Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have created a richly realised depiction of romantic love that envelops the viewer completely in its characters’ world. Both Rooney Mara as shop clerk and aspiring photographer Therese, and Cate Blanchett as the titular married woman, falling in love in 1950s New York, give exceptional performances, and have a chemistry palpable in every glance. The result is a film the very texture of which, highlights Carol and Therese’s relationship as one defined by both their unnameable intimacy and the distance between them, agonisingly reconciled in the film’s last, brilliantly tense final scene.’
20. Finally saw Frozen and understood its genius (see video below)
21. Best Christmas film: Sean Baker’s Tangerine.
*For the record my official Top Ten, offered to CineVue is:
2. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
4. Stand by for Tape Back-Up
6. It Follows
7. Arabian Nights
8. The Forbidden Room
10. Force Majeure
** Any film that had its first screening in 2015, internationally.
Having already taken part in a poll for the top films of 2014 elsewhere (See CineVue Top 20 Part One and Part Two), which included any film having a received a world or UK Premiere, an annual review on Cinematic Investigations will take a different approach to reflecting on this year’s highlights. Based purely on this writer’s cinema-going habits, I will pick out the top ten experiences in a cinema, regardless of premiere or release date. These are ordered chronologically, 10 being in the early part of the year and so on.
10. Her | Spike Jonze
Two days after dreaded Valentine’s day, I saw Her, a gorgeous, intelligent, moving portrait of contemporary communication and relationships. Jonze presented a world where a kind of uniform aesthetic sensibility existed without comment – everyone and every environment seems lush, and clean and clear, and yet the streamlining of individual lives through personalised operating systems with artificial intelligence simply reveals what we know about ourselves already – we humans with our fragile bodies are flawed, imperfect and irrational.
At AV Festival for the month of March, the theme of Extraction allowed for an exploration of the raw materials that comprise our experience of the world, with a film programme that included such lesser-seen much praised works as Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (2002) and Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale (1971). Over the 7-9 March, artists and filmmakers gathered to share their films addressing the outcomes of decolonialisation. Highlights were a screening of Statues Also Die (1953) by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais from 35mm followed by Turner Prize winning It For Others by Duncan Campbell, who was present to talk about the influence of Marker and Resnais, and his representation of the commodification of objects through contemporary dance.
8. Stray Dogs | Tsai Ming Liang
‘In anger my hair stands on end and when the rain stops, I launch a shrill cry at the heavens.’
I saw what would become my no. 1 film of the year at Edinburgh International Film Festival, which actually turned out to be host to other of the year’s highlights. Stray Dogs is incomparable however – a heart breaking tale of a man earning a living as a human signpost advertising luxury accommodation, whilst living with his children at a dilapidated semi-sheltered building. Technically exemplary and acutely observed, Tsai’s film left me speechless, but not for the last time this year…
Journey to the West | Tsai Ming Liang
… as Journey to the West also screened at EIFF. Comprised of fourteen shorts held still as Lee Kang-sheng moves with a barely perceptible slowness throughout Marseille, dressed in red monk robes, becoming the focus of attention – or more frequently not – to passers-by. Performer and director having collaborated on the same gestural performance capture five times previously, Journey to the West includes a contribution from French actor Denis Lavant, who enacts his own slow walk too.
Interrupted Revolution: Iranian Cinema, 1962 to 1978, EIFF
At EIFF I also had the pleasure of seeing four films in their Iranian retrospective, including in the programme, ‘Truths Beyond Truth: Three Masterpieces’; Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962), Kamran Shirdel’s The Night it Rained (1967) and Amir Naderi’s Waiting (1974) and Ebrahim Golestan’s The Brick and the Mirror (1965). Ninety-two year old (!) Golestan was present at the screening to discuss the film’s production, and their energetic approach to filming in the streets of Tehran. An afternoon of rarely screened Iranian classic cinema was an opportunity too special to miss.
Guardians of the Galaxy | James Gunn
It being one of the most hyped and anticipated films of 2014, and being a fan of some superhero films (X-Men, Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and the talents of Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement around Guardians. Of course it was silly, and of course it was predictable and derivative, but it was damn fun too.
Locke | Steven Knight
Since seeing Knight’s tremendous sound film, the phrases ‘I am driving’ and ‘I have made a decision’ have stayed with me, as expressed by Tom Hardy’s Richard Burton-esque Welsh intonation. A gripping, sad and witty thriller, and one of this year’s best.
Alluvion | Sasha Litvintseva
At Aesthetica Short Film Festival, I traversed the cobbled streets of York, between historic and contemporary venues, taking in what would become eighty-three short films, in genres as varied as experimental and fashion. A real highlight was Sasha Litvintseva’s Alluvion, a piece of ethnographic/poetic geographical interpretation that expresses the tension of the family holiday and touristic/working environments. Litvintseva’s aural landscape is as complex yet deceptively simple as her visual compositions.
Screening at Filmhouse from a 35mm print sourced by those intrepid Scalarama folks, the chance to finally see reportedly one of cinema’s great masterpieces was truly unmissable. At seven hours and twelves minutes, Sátántangó is one of the longer examples of what might be deemed ‘endurance cinema’ and in its depiction of a run-down village, the inhabitants of which are attempting to survive during unrelenting autumn rain, it’s not a cheerful film either. However, the sheer tenacity and confidence of the framing, the length of the shots and bravery of the performances, make it one of the most memorable cinema experiences I’ve ever had.
Citizenfour | Laura Poitras
The third in a trilogy of films about post 9/11 America, the first two of which My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010) were about the Iraq War and Guantanamo respectively, Citizenfour is remarkable in many ways. Following an invitation from an anonymous source through a secure connection, to meet in order to share information, Poitras travelled to Hong Kong with Glen Greenwald in 2013 where they found themselves in a hotel room listening to revelations about the NSA’s surveillance programme from Edward Snowden himself. What’s remarkable about the film beyond what turned out to be a high stakes intelligence leak, are the moments Poitras captures that show just how ordinary Snowden is. Despite a justified reluctance to reveal too much about himself lest his story become one of personality obscuring the facts, what can’t be obscured are the urgent, unplanned moments in that hotel room, as covert travel plans are made. Snowden seen attending to a stray hair nervously before leaving the building, or thinking and rethinking his message to the media via the hotel conceirge show him as an ordinary person, who, despite having taken great risks to share what he knows, doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing at all times. Rather, he has his priorities straight – a steadfast commitment to challenging the accepted dismantling of privacy regulations in the name of national security appears deeply, chillingly logical.
Beyond these most memorable cinematic experiences, my personal favourites from 2014 also include:
Exhibition | Joanna Hogg The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson A Touch of Sin Jia Zhangke Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev Concerning Violence | Gören Olsson Winter Sleep Nuri Bilge Ceylan Boyhood | Richard Linklater Blue Ruin | Jeremy Saulnier Under the Skin | Jonathan Glazer We Are the Best! Lukas Moodysson