Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Delightful Double Take

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) - Hong
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Right Now, Wrong Then, a double take on a chance encounter is another delightful comedy of errors from Hong Sang-soo. Jeong Jae-yeong plays an arthouse movie director named Ham Chun-soo who finds himself in Suwon, a suburb of Seoul in winter, a day prior to his film screening and following discussions at the city's cultural center. The early voiceover suggests that he is contemplating banging his enthusiastic young guide from the center. Killing time at the near deserted ancient palace/tourist trap, he meets beautiful Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee) and strikes up a conversation. Defensive at first, Hee-jeong soon finds Chun-soo more interesting once learning that he is a movie director she's heard of, even though she doesn't like watching movies or seen any of his films. He asks her to go out for coffee, even though she doesn't drink coffee or smoke (she is a sensitive type). They awkwardly flirt. It's all pleasantries and flattery. She used to be a model but now she is a painter. He wants to see her paintings, so they move to her atelier. Obviously he wants to bang her so everything that comes out of his mouth is some form of flattery. She goes along with it. Then they go to sushi for dinner and soju. They get shitfaced, still flattering each other but neither making the ultimate move. Hee-jeong suggests they go together to a party of her friends that she can't excuse herself out of. He obliges. Things get uncomfortable as Hee-jeong's friends who are fans of his and start mentioning the rumors of his womanizing ways and his marriage. A disaster!

We try again. Chun-soo this time, is more forward and honest, even though what comes out of his mouth hurts Hee-jeong. As they go through the same routine as the first, this honesty gets them closer, but also it means Chun-soo get more wasted on soju and make bigger ass out of himself in front of Hee-jeong and her unsuspecting friends.

What I appreciate about Hong is not only his steadfast consistency in traipsing the stickiness of the human relationship but also his complete disregard for what he deemed unnecessary bullshit - namely excessive title sequence, dramatic music or coverage (hence the excessive used of funny, automated zooms). Coquettish Kim Min-hee is amazingly cute in this. Right Now, Wrong Then also doesn't really care much about the conventions of a do over/what if romantic comedy. The first take isn't an earth shattering catastrophe or anything and completely plausible as much as second scenario which is obviously more desirable. He plays with the notion of the games we play and certain inhibitions in our society on different occasions. It's also a delight to see reversing those roles fueled by alcohol. His jab at film critics and how to behave in front of them were also telling. All in all, the film is yet another great comedy from prolific Hong who continues building a great, unique body of work.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Riding with the Ghost

Journey to the Shore (2015) - Kurosawa
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There is no shortage of similarities in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's new film Journey to the Shore with Kore-eda's 1995 quiet masterpiece, Maborosi. Both films deal with the loss, grief, impermanence of life and letting go. Both films star Tadanobu Asano as the husband who passed on. It is good to note that the books the two films are based on came out around the same time in the 1990s too. It might be my age but I've been thinking about the subject myself a lot lately. Once the thought of death hits you, from then on, you just live under the shadow of its inevitability. Sometimes it keeps me up at night. I don't know how people who are innately more precocious and neurotic than me deal with the fact. Anyway, back to the film:

Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu), a piano teacher and a wife whose husband has been presumed dead in the sea, leads a quiet existence in Tokyo. One day, her dead husband, Yusuke (Asano) appears in her living room, wearing shoes (Japanese take off their shoes indoors usually). He says it was a long journey to come back. His corpse was eaten by the crabs, so that's why there was no trace of him left, he says it matter of factly. She is delighted but also afraid that she will lose him again. Always on her toes, hoping that his semi-permanent reappearance is not just recurring dreams. He suggests they leave town, so he can show her many beautiful places he'd passed through during his home journey.

So begins Mizuki's journey to letting go: Yusuke left great impressions on many people he encountered the last three years in the Japanese countryside. Some of them are already dead like Yusuke - he says, again, very matter of factly, "He's like me," meaning the dead, or "She's like you, the living," and so on. So what does Mizuki learn? That human life is complicated? that nobody know anybody, not that well? That you still make differences in other people's lives even though you are dead? That you can have sex with a ghost? With somewhat conventional TV orchestral music, Kurosawa seems to be well aware of the film's Lifetime channel-like melodramatic nature. But as he demonstrated in Tokyo Sonata, he has a great eye for indoor spaces and framing, shadows and light and playing with supernatural/surreal elements that he has cultivated over many years in genre filmmaking. In this subtle, muted gentle chamber piece, he shows that yearning, grieving and fear of letting go are only a few degrees off from horror of loneliness in his genre films. Journey is not as lyrical nor as poetic as Maborosi, nor has a succinct narrative. But the film features many beautiful moments and fine tuned performances by two leads to make it quite memorable.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Behind the Great Museum

Das Große Museum (2014) - Holzhausen
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Das Große Museum shows the painstaking preparation of Vienna's the Kunsthistorisches Museum's special exhibition of Hapsburg's treasures, named Kunstkammer in 2013. They did a total renovations inside this huge, multi-building museum complex from wall papers, floor, electric wiring to new modern chandeliers. We see there are hundreds of people involved in running one of the greatest museums in the world - archivists, restorers, accountants, construction workers, marketing people and so on. We are invited to their budget meetings- where one learns that Bruegel room has its own budget supported by Getty. We get the tour of thousands and thousands of ancient artifacts and paintings carefully handled by handlers and sweaty restorers- carefully removing dust and various insects eating away at old paintings, doing touch ups on a ceiling frescoes, counting all the pearls on an imperial crown and such. It's a fascinating watch. I remember spending a whole afternoon just in the Bruegel room alone. The place was massive and I didn't have enough time to see it all. :cry:

Spritual Music

The World According to John Coltrane (1990) - Palmer, Byron
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Focusing on his middle period with his original quartet (Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass), the World According to JC is still a satisfying doc for music alone. There are some uninterrupted long takes of My Favorite Things and some others. But it also shows his interests in music from different culture that shaped his later, post-Miles Quintet innovative period - India, Africa and shows interests in spiritual side of music. There's no info on his personal life except for his religious North Carolinian upbringing to Navy band player. The hodgepodge interviews are informative but pretty bare boned. But I'm not complaining. The music is glorious. As I am waiting for Sam Pollard's A Love Supreme: A Portrait of John Coltrane in 4 Parts to finish up, this will do for now.

Here is The World According to JC in its entirety on youtube:

They Look Like People - Well Done Buddy-Cohorrormedy

They Look Like People (2015) - Blackshear
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Don't let the Williamsburg hipster setting scare you. Perry Blackshear's economically executed buddy-cohorrormedy is an exemplary minimalist filmmaking at its best. The director knows exactly what he's got - no money, a great character driven, self contained script, fantastic actors. The film doesn't try to be anything other than a little paranoia thriller and it works superbly.

The film sets up its eerie mood in the beginning with Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews), looking at his fiancee in bed at night. We can't see her face because the shadows and how her face is positioned. This prolonged shot is extremely unsettling. Wyatt gets phone calls telling him that the world is going to be taken over by monsters, that he needs to prepare, that he can't trust his friends or family because they may be infected. He sets out to the city to meet his childhood best friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel), an office worker in an advertising agency whose overtly outward personality and fit physique hides his former nerdy loser self. Christian insists Wyatt staying on until whenever. Wyatt, still schizo, still getting phone calls in the middle of the night, starts to prepare for the worst in Christian's basement with knives, axes, duct tapes, ropes, sulfuric acid...

Everything seems normal for a while - Christian has sort of a date with Mara (Magaret Ying Drake), a cute co-worker at the office whose attraction he's buffing off at the moment because of his too self-confident personality he put on for himself. This date turns out to be spending all night in an emergency room because a friend of Mara (who was supposed to be Wyatt's date) slipped on ice and has a mild concussion.

So how does these two storylines - a schizo trying to prepare the end of the world and a former loser trying to overcompensate go together? Marvelously. With natural dialog and performances, They Look Like People slowly builds up its tension into a thrilling conclusion. And it even somehow ends up very touching. They Look Like People is now available on Netflix. Please check it out.

Monday, May 23, 2016

All That Desert Allows

Queen of the Desert (2015) - Herzog
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Seeking freedom and solitude is the driving force that attracted Gertrude Bell, a learned English woman from a well to do family who became largely responsible for divving up the Middle East. Bell could easily be made as the first proto-feminist of her kind way before Dora the Explorer. Oddly enough, despite it being a Werner Herzog film, Queen of the Desert is a weepy melodrama most of the time, dangerously treading Douglas Sirk territory. Surely, there are some stunning vistas of the desert and camels and ancient citadels made of mud and underground rivers and salt crusted earth and all that too in true Herzogian fashion. Not enough though. It plays out more like Love Affairs of Gertrude Bell, starring Nicole Kidman.

Bell (played by Kidman, radiantly photographed), an amateur archeologist whose short affair with Cadogan (James Franco), a gentle, lower ranking diplomat at the British embassy in Bagdad and his love fueled suicide leaves her men/love weary and makes her devote herself deeper into the desert, despite objections from British army men. She builds up a reputation as a foreigner who understands the intricate political/cultural landscapes in the desert, fully taking advantages of being a white woman in a male dominant world. She stacks up admirers, including many tribal leaders, T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), then a young archeologist, and Major Doughty-Wiley (Damian Lewis), a married army man stationed in Damascus. A romance blooms between Bell and the Major and she starts writing correspondences with him, fully knowing he won't leave his unhappy marriage, and so on.

Queen of the Desert is a perfectly respectable, largely entertaining film. James Franco's I'm a puppy about to die performance nor a Bambi outside the window didn't bother me too much. I'm just disappointed that it is a very un-Herzogian film. We are obviously not expecting some dry treatise on a historical figure nor a high melodrama from him. Kidman's very coquettish and alluring despite her age, but doesn't really have the balls to play a determined, strong willed woman (Charlize Theron might have been a better choice). And it's missing that audacity, that search for ecstatic truth the director is usually known for.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Kaili Blues, The Most Impressive Debut in Years

Kaili Blues (2015) - Bi
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A country doctor's search for his nephew becomes an unforgettable existential road trip in Kaili Blues, directed by a 26-year old Chinese filmmaker, Bi Gan. It's an ambitious, mesmerizing film that you'd never think it is the work of a first time director. I don’t think I’ll be seeing another film as audacious and beautiful as this one anytime soon.

Chen (Chen Yongzhong) lives and works as an assistant doctor in Kaili, a sub-tropical region of southeast China. Through Chen’s sporadic conversation with the elderly woman doctor and with his irresponsible half-brother, Crazy Face, we gather Chen's past: he was in jail for taking the rap for his boss. His sickly wife died while he was incarcerated. Crazy Face resents the fact that their mother left Chen her house to continue housing the doctor's clinic to this day.

Crazy Face's young son, Weiwei, neglected and locked up most of the time at home while he's out gambling, is in danger of being sold off, according to townsfolk. It's usually under Chen's care Weiwei eats properly and goes to school. One day, Chen finds Weiwei missing and discovers that Crazy Face has dumped him at his old boss's house who lives in nearby Zhenyuan, because he is fleeing Kaili in order to evade debtors and won't take the boy with him. The old doctor happens to have an old fling living in Zhenyuan, of whom she hasn’t seen since the days of the Cultural Revolution, and wants Chen to find him and deliver a shirt and a mix-tape she made for him, too. So begins Chen's dreamlike journey, where past, present and future are all mixed in with lush greenery and sinewy river system in picturesque Southern China.

The 40 minute no-cut, wide angle traveling shot on a moped in the middle of the film is a legend in the making – it is a pure bravura filmmaking at its most playful and a feast for your senses. Wang Tianxing's fluid camera work is just as much a star in Kaili Blues. Even though all the scenes are exquisitely framed and every slow pan shot beautifully and meticulously composed, the technical aspect doesn't overshadow the overall lucid, mysterious, fantastic tone of the film. The camera freely moves from one conversation to another, often mingling with Chen's beautiful poetry (the director's own, I'm told) voiceover.

I think of Kaili Blues as school of fish. All the small characters and stories and their connections are illusive, fluid and gone in a flash, but when caught, every one of those fishes are unique, shiny, slippery individual jewels. The only way to catch them is with a net and your hands in the water. This very loose and thin net, full of holes and tears, that Bi uses is made of seemingly unrelated recurring motifs -- Weiwei's hand drawn clocks, an old photograph of the old doctor's lover, motor bikes, a disco ball, a childish pop song -- and Bi deliberately doesn't catch them all. What's left is a palpable, lasting sensation of fish swimming and touching your hands as they get away from your grasp.

I don’t want to pull ageism here but Kaili Blues doesn’t feel like a debut film of a 20 something director. If I had to compare it to the works of another filmmaker, I guess the film most resembles the films of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao Hsien, particularly Goodbye South, Goodbye but with added lyricism and dreamlike quality. Infinitely wise and breathtakingly beautiful, Kaili Blues is definitely one of the very best films I've seen so far this year.

Kaili Blues has an exclusive one week engagement at New York's Metrograph, starting on May 20.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Anarchy in the UK

High-Rise (2015) - Wheatley
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JG Ballard's High-Rise was published in 1970s. This was the time of London Garbage Strike, the rise of punk movement, the rise of Thatcher and conservatism and the Winter of Discontent. In this parable, he saw our materialistic society contained in a 40 story concrete high-rise building. This complete biosphere is equipped with a supermarket, swimming pools, gym, a rooftop garden and a ground parking space that stretches as far as eye can see in this imagined, still barren and developing London suburb. He painted an ugly, disturbing picture of how quickly this microcosm of our society devolved into anarchy with greed and desire for power. Just like his other novels that took place in a materialistic, soulless machine age, High-Rise was a far-fetched, all out satire. With that, Ben Wheatley, a talented British director of such films as Kill List and Sightseers, takes on this darkly satirical material and wastes no time in plunging it into total chaos. The material is highly relevant to the late stages of capitalistic society we are living in.

This highly stylized film sees a physiologist/prof Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) in the center, who just moved in to a much prized high-rise, on the respectable 25th floor. He is an embodiment of upper-middle class, whose meek demeanor and antipathy suits the supposedly anonymous apartment living perfectly. Impeccably dressed and stoic, Laing tries to keep to himself. Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a foxy single-mom neighbor from a floor above, takes a liking to him and introduces to the upper-upper class of the food chain of the high-rise which revolves around Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect of the high-rise and its sister buildings sprouting up nearby, who with his snobby young wife occupies the penthouse with a private lift. His entourage includes a well-known TV announcer, Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), a gynecologist Pangborne (James Purefoy, in his best British twit) and his bodyguard (Dan Renton Skinner). Laing quickly realizes himself that he is not the top one percent and is put in his place. Then there is hard partying TV cameraman Wilder (Luke Evans in his best performance) who lives on the first floor with his very pregnant wife (Elizatbeth Moss) and two young kids. He represents the working class, whose determination to taste the high-life and Royal's gang trying to suppress him are the two main drives for the narrative.

Things devolves quickly into anarchy (the film starts with Laing in disheveled clothes and prickly beard looking like a Robinson Crusoe in an urban decay eating dog food out of a can surrounded by mountains of black garbage bags and debris and the next scene is 3 months earlier). Wilder, incensed by his kids and other children from the lower floors (only lower floor residents seem to have kids) rejected by entering the pool, located on 30th floor for making too much noise, he commandiers all the kids to go up through the stairs (elevators are constantly out of service) and break into a private pool party held by upper floor residents. The tension between upper and lower residents grows with rumors of checkout girl (from the lower floor) at the supermarket being fondled by upper floor residents in the elevator. Things gets violent with retaliations on their pets, and violent raid gangs are formed on both sides and women get assaulted. Strangely, even though garbage shoots get jammed, water stops running, electricity fails, all expensive cars down below get smashed by falling liquor bottles, people are reluctant to leave the building. A police patrol car stops by because of the state of the parking lot and the destroyed lobby seen through the garbage blocked, spray paint covered glass doors. Royal happens to be at the lobby, looking for his wife. He tells officers that everything is fine. Laing stops going to work all together. Everybody is into playing the parts of this addictive game, called social hierarchy in the capitalistic society.

High-Rise's pacing is so breathless that if you haven't read the book, you might find yourself being lost quickly. Why do they devolve so quickly into chaos? What's the reason for all the resentment? Wheatley and collaborator Amy Jump explain too much and too little. There are a lot of character omissions and some of the choices are too explanatory, leaving little rooms for mystery as in the book. Wilder's ascension to the top floor, that symbolic physical trip is the driving force of the book, not meeting Royal the architect as in the movie. I'd like to have seen that actual journey.

There are a lot to like in High-Rise. The look of the film: all textured concrete but chintzy furnishing of the 70s gives the world much sleazier feel than the usual retro-futuristic, cold, antiseptic world that we see too often in films. Even though it doesn't go far into cannibalism as in the book, it's a fun, entertaining film.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


Sunset Song (2015) - Davies
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A sweeping tale of changing times in Scotland in the early 20th century, Terence Davies's new film Sunset Song centers around a farm girl Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) in the fictional rural town of Kinraddie near Aberdeen.

Chris is a thoroughly modern woman in-the-making, but held back by a still very much conservative, religious, patriarchal society and her love of the land. She is an educated girl who wants to become a teacher, an honest and noble profession, but her circumstances hold her back from achieving that goal.

Her mother, even though worn out by childbearing -- six kids and counting -- and by her overbearing husband (Peter Mullan at his most brutish), still insists that there's more to life than books and studies. But after finding out that she is pregnant again in her middle age, she has a mental breakdown and takes her own life along with the newborn twins.

After much abuse from pa, Chris's mild mannered, loving older brother, Will, also bails on her gets married and moves to Argentina. Pa reluctantly sends away Chris's two younger siblings to live with the relatives, leaving only Chris to take care of the house and the farm. It becomes unbearable when pa has a stroke and becomes bedridden, leaving Chris to endure all the hardship alone.

Things takes on a brighter side after pa's death. With a little money she inherited and the farm, she marries a charming neighbor farmer named Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) and bears a son. Everything seems hopeful and bright, but World War I comes rolling in and Ewan gets conscripted.

Never into the idea of leaving home and fighting the war, the couple is very opposed to the idea at first, but everyone around them in their nationalistic fervor -- the church and macho men -- keeps egging Ewan to go. After seeing the horrors of war, Ewan is a changed man and becomes abusive toward Chris. Their relationship gets strained beyond repairable and he takes off for another tour without saying goodbye.

It is easy to see why many regard Davies as the greatest living British filmmaker. Impeccably crafted, shot in glorious 70mm, Sunset Song is a stunning achievement. We've seen sweeping crane shots through swaying wheat fields before on screen in Terrence Malick films and his countless imitators, but not like this.

There is certain authenticity in images of Davies films that communicates beyond mere lyricism and beauty. It's in the pacing; Davies is not interested in prolonged nature porn. The compositions are perfect and they lasts no more than 30 seconds before they fade into the next shot.

Nature is worshipped but in a different way than American Westerns. Constantly raining and wind-swept, the Scottish countryside doesn't have that mythic, ethereal quality, but it's more lived-in, its edges dulled by years of cultivation and contant presence of livestock. Still, on the big screen, Sunset Song is a truly cinematic experience, even more visually ravishing than his autobiographical, Liverpool set masterpiece Long Day Closes.

It's in the casting, too; Deyn, a British model whose tall stature and fine, graceful features, truly belong to the era. Always in the center of the screen, erect and defiant, yet vulnerable, seeing our heroine in the autumn field evokes a lot of different emotions. Equally painterly are the interior scenes; shot on 4K digital, Davies and his director of photography Michael McDonough favor naturally dark rooms with warmth coming from fireplace and sunlight coming through the window.

Just like many of his other films, Sunset Song is a tragedy of a woman caught in the changing times. Adapted from the revered Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song is a lamentation on time passing, the loss of a way of life, and a love song to its inhabitants' attachment to the land. Davies captures the essense of the book beautifully. I just wish I had a good ear for languages to enjoy the film more. See the film on the big screen! It's glorious!

Sunset Song plays as part of the Terence Davies Retrospective at Museum of Moving Image May 7-22 and opens theatrically at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema on May 13.

Interview: Terence Davies on poetry, art, actresses and more

Terence Davies, regarded as one of the greatest living British directors, doesn't make films too often. So when he does, it's a monumental event every time. With his long delayed passion project Sunset Song finally coming out in theaters this weekend and A Quiet Passion, his new film about American poet Emily Dickinson already in the can, the 70 year-old British director suddenly finds himself more prolific than ever (he's done only 9 features in 4 decades of filmmaking).

He is in town for his complete retrospective at Museum of Moving Image, 5/7 - 5/22, and I got a chance to sit down with him for an interview.

It was quite intimidating meeting the master filmmaker in person, but his unguarded, warm disposition put me at ease. It wasn't long before Davies, in his Liverpudlian accent, enthusiastically, breathlessly, explained his craft to me. It was a truly spellbinding experience.

*Fair bit of warning here: this interview contains loads of spoilers for Sunset Song.

You have Sunset Song and A Quiet Passion coming out back to back! To whom do we owe thanks?

Yes, not by design but a sheer accident. (laughs) It comes down to money as it always does. We didn’t have enough money to shoot Sunset Song. It was a very difficult shoot because of not having enough money and the post production dragged on for a long time, again because of the money. In the mean time I’d already written the Emily Dickson Film, A Quiet Passion. And we ended up having shot that. And by the time we were finishing shooting, that, by sheer accident, happened. It never happened like that to me before.

It’s great. We didn’t have to wait 8 years for another Terence Davies film to come out! Haven’t seen Quiet Passion yet but am very excited.

I just love Emily Dickenson’s poetry. I think she is the greatest 19th century American poet. Although the very first thing I’ve ever read, I was 9 or 10, was The Song of Hiawatha, It has a great stretches in that octosyllabic rhyme. You can’t ever forget it. But thank god now who reads The Courtship of Miles Standish anymore? I’ve never responded Longfellow’s poetry but I think Dickinson was a true genius and was well before her time. And the great poems are truly, truly great. It’s so succinct, i mean it’s distilled down to the bare essence. That’s why it’s so powerful.

The dying needs but little, dear-
A glass of water’s all,
A flower’s unobtrusive face
To punctuate the wall,
A fan perhaps, a friend’s regret,
No color in the rainbow
Perceive when you are gone.

(grabs his chest) Just heartbreaking.

Bravo! I really wish I have a better ear for language. Sunset Song takes place in Scotland and the film’s based on a revered Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Did you have to do a lot of preparation to get the language right? How was the adaptation process?

Not so much…whenever you do an adaptation of a novel or a play, you try to get an essence of it. While remain true to the source, something has to change. There are things you can do in a film that you can’t do in a novel and vice versa. but if you listen to the material, the content dictates form, never the other way around. I mean, it will tell you. The worst thing is when you get back into the editing room and there are two particular scenes you love and and they got to go. That’s really heart breaking, but the material’s telling you that it’s too much and you have to listen to that.

And sometimes you get the essence of what something is without literally doing what was in the book. I mean at the end of Sunset Song, the whole of Kinraddie come to these standing stones and the preacher preaches about forgiveness. The wind was so strong, the standing stones we had were going like this (swaying his hands). It was awful.

So what is it in the ending that is about forgiveness? Well, let’s make it domestic. We’ve already seen Kinraddie people: there was a thrashing dinner and there was her wedding, we didn’t see them any other time. so let’s make it domestic. And there it’s a poetic license: when the sun comes up, it comes up at the same time, it doesn’t come up separately. And to do that we make up something strange - light enters the room and it’s strange and that’s when we hear him come back. He says, I’ve come home and that captures the essence.

And she goes up to the stones and the sky and the piper and her voice over and that’s how it ends in the book. But it’s the getting there by a different route and you are restricted by what you shot. It looked awful. It was just grey and flat. So you have to something. What does the subtextual meaning of those closing pages? And you think, well I think this will do it. Just as you putting things that are not there - like the scene where she holds his clothes. that’s not in the book.

That was a beautiful scene.

The whole Kinraddie going to church. That's also not in the book. It just says the town goes to church and you hear the sermon which is awful - it's about two and a half pages long and its full of xenophobia and hatred. What would be wonderful I thought, was the whole of Kinraddie arrive, in this gorgeous light. Someone said, well they would not walk through the crops and I said I don’t care. They are going to walk through the crops. So they arrive in this golden light of god. And then, after that, going to the church wanting the grace of god, and the preacher tells to go and kill one another.


That’s what’s horrific. And I’ve known about that song, All in the April Evening, since I was about 17. That’s when I started to listen to classical music. There was a thing on the radio called your hundred best tunes, the best known classical music, you know, Peer Gynt and Lachmann and all that. And then I heard this and that was an amateur choir from Glasgow, which was founded by a Glasgow Region Undertaker and the singing was just amazing. I’ve never forgot it and when I started the adaptation, I was going to put it somewhere. Because it was really important for me.

Shooting outdoors and a lot of farm animals. Was it hard for you?

It was very very difficult. It comes back to us not having enough money. We all took the risk. There were times when I said, “Can we afford this" and and the answer was "No we can’t, we have to cut it from the script”. I’ve never done that in 14 years and I’d never ever want to do it again. Because it can really seriously damage the film- you are cutting things that perhaps are needed but once in the cutting room, you can’t go back to New Zealand for it. No, we can’t even go back to Scotland to redo things. So that was the great strain.

You went to New Zealand to shoot it?

Yes, for the summer sequences. Because you can’t rely on Scotland’s weather. It rains all the time so we had to go to New Zealand to shoot that. The seasons are characters and if it’s just too grey and flat, there is nothing interesting about that.

But it was a very hard shoot. But everyone pulled together. I couldn’t have done it without not just the crew and not just the actors but financiers and the bond company- they were so supportive, I can’t tell you. It was quite wonderful. But it did take a lot out of me. I thought, "I am not gonna work like this ever again!"

All the exterior scenes are shot on film but all the interiors are shot on digital. Do you have any opinions on all these changing technology and how you make and see the film?

There used to be film then. Film still had an edge. It’s one of the things you have to take care of- you choose the right stock and you do the test and you say yes, it should look like that. But all the interiors are inspired by a Danish painter called Hammershøi who was active in the late 19 and early 20th century. His paintings were like Vermeer but with a smudged northern lights. They are of empty rooms with the doors open and if there was as subject in them, they were usually women back to the view and are exquisite. Obviously not the same class as Vermeer, my favorite painter but they have that Vermeerlike quality - the stillness, the ghosts of those people who used to be in those rooms. Exterior was just the way it was. Sometimes we got lucky and got that gloaming light. But it was pure luck.

But when we came to do Emily Dickinson, the digital replaced the film. It’s just as good. In fact, it’s getting better.

So you are fine with that.

It’s just good. And what they can do now is breathtaking. It’s just marvelous. I think it’s as important as coming of sound really. On a practical level, when you mark the dissolve on a film, it will take you most of the day. It takes two days for it to come back from the laboratories and with this (digital), you can do it in an instant.


The drawback of that is it can rob you of thinking time. And you got to say no, I want to think about this for two days. You got to wait.

Right right.

Just like anything in your films, the casting is always Impeccable. You’ve worked with some great actresses in the past, Gina Rowlands, Gillian Anderson and Rachel Weisz. Agyness Deyn did an amazing job as Chris Guthrie, the protagonist of the film, but she is kind of unknown, isn’t she? Do you have a preference in with whom you want to work with? How did you get to cast her?

No. I always cast people who I think are right for the part. I don’t care if they are big names or not. I’m not interested in that. And I don’t know anything about popular culture or anything about models. It was our casting agents who found her and she was the first person (at the audition) Monday morning. And she gave the most wonderful audition and I said to my producer that we found her.

You can tell, I get the feeling that she is right for the part. It’s got to be felt. I always know. It’s like when you are shooting and you feel that you gonna get (what you want) this time. The thing is I don’t want them to act. If it doesn’t work, we can try it again, because it’s digital and it’s cheap. But really it’s usually first couple of takes that’s what ends up on the screen. In A Quiet Passion, most of them I got in less than 4 takes. For the rape scene and marriage scene (in Sunset Song) we did it once. I didn’t even plan on doing another take. I told her I can’t possibly put you through that again.

Other times, like the execution scene, these are all young lads from Luxembourg, because all the interiors and war scenes are shot in there. Someone said, “They can’t act.” and I said, “Look, just put them in costumes, frame it and we’ll just watch them.” and of course people don’t stand still. They shift the gun around. That’s what you do when you don’t do anything but stand still. And that’s what makes the scene. In fact we shot that scene in 48 frames per second. It’s slightly slower and what you get is like a ballet performance. It has to be - both balletic and horrible.

The tension and sadness in that scene is unbelievable but I didn’t even notice that it was slowed down.

The train goes by in the background somewhat slowly.

Oh yeah!

You’ve done series of films that feature tragic female protagonists. Has it been a conscious decision on your part?

No, I’m just attracted to the story. But you mustn’t forget that when I was growing up in the 50s the big commercial hits were all about women. Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, they were all huge successes. So I grew up with the idea of women being the main protagonists. Then a TV came along and that’s where I relearned all Joan Crowford films for instance. And The Letter from Unknown Woman, The Heirless, those are huge riches when they were finally shown on television. And they were all about women. By sheer accident!

It was funny that I found a youtube clip of you introducing 2001: Space Odyssey in some TV program, explaining things very technically.

(Davies laughs)

Because however visually accomplished your films are, I don’t ever think of you as a technical director.

It’s because I work with people who are artists on their own right, they can help me the correct lenses in front of the camera. Because I can ever remember what I’m looking at when I look down on the lens. I write as I see it. And for pure practical reasons, because we haven’t got much money, you can say, this and this days we’ll be tracking, on this day we’ll need a crane and that day we will need 25 extras. Because you’ve got to husband your resources. Since we don’t have vast resources, so you’ve got to know what you are doing technically.

I guess A Quiet Passion is your second American film, set in Massachussettes.

We shot very little in America. Because of the lack of money, we shot most of it in Belgium. (laughs) And a lot of Belgian actors do very good american accent it turns out. So they rebuilt the exact replica of the Dickinson house with two separate floors. It's quite extraordinary. But we shot in America for 3 days or something. We just couldn’t afford it. The whole production was just pure joy. There wasn’t a single problem from beginning to end. Absolutely wonderful. Especially after sunset song which was a murder. Everything went right for A Quiet Passion. It was an absolute bliss. I should never complain again. (laughs)

I am very much looking forward to it. I hope it comes out soon.

Oh me too.

How was Cinthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson?

she was extraordinary. It is the most extraordinary performance. She is Emily Dickinson! She really is! There is this one shot where she turns around and it’s emily Dickinson. And Jennifer Earle, who plays her sister who is just radiant. When they have a rouse, you gotta watch out. They are family and they support each other to the hilt but when they fall out, they really fall out. And they really go for each other. They were quite wonderful. But that performance is the most extraordinary I’ve ever seen.

We did a lot of guide tracks of her reciting poems. After movie was shot and we were in the editing room, she asked me if she needs to recite the poems again. I said that’s not necessary. The way she reads them… The first time I discovered Emily Dickinson was Claire Bloom reading Because I could not stop for death. She read it with this air of amusement, as if this was happening to someone else. It was devastating. It was just…WHAT MADE YOU THINK OF DOING IT LIKE THAT?

So what’s next for you since you became so prolific all of sudden?

Well one is already written. It’s called Mother of Sorrows. It’s based on an American novel by Richard McCann. That’s probably gonna happen next year. And at the moment I am writing a film about Siegfried Sassoon. I was asked to do it.

You have a lot on your plate. And hopefully money will come along?

Now, I’m all for that!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Memories you'd want to take to your grave with

Long Day Closes (1992) - Davies
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Davies's deeply personal, fragmentary recalling of his childhood growing up in post-war Britain has all his long-standing preoccupations - loving mother, going to the picture show, religion, the view of the world through the window and burgeoning homosexuality. Laced with show tunes and movie dialog from the 50s against grimy, rainy Liverpool backdrop, Long Day Closes shows Bud Davies, an introverted young boy from a working class family, living with his older siblings (and their mates) and widowed mother, turning to his imagination to escape from bullying, guilt and spartan school surroundings.

But unlike his Distant Voices, Still Lives, there is no villain (brutish father played by Pete Postlethwaite) in this. With no visible narrative, Davies's laments are distinctly impressionistic and extremely warm. Skipping all the philosophizing narration of the usual autobiographical films, Davies instead shows these beautiful, sorrowful, happy moments with amazingly accomplished visual style. I mean I'm not a big fan of dolly moves in films but hot damn! He knows how to use them and does so gracefully. Long Day Closes is one of the best films depicting childhood I've seen. These are the memories you want to take to your grave. It's a beautiful, cinematic experience that is full of warmth and hope.