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Monday, 21 May 2018

Sydney Film Festival - A link to David Bordwell's note on Abbas Kiarostami's final film 24 FRAMES

Abbas Kiarostami
In a note at the bottom of his review of Abbas Kiarostami’s24 Frames, David Bordwell makes a point by saying “24 Frames is being circulated to theatres and museums; please try to see it on the big screen, where all the little details can pop out at you.” 

You may never have another opportunity to do just that, in Sydney at least, beyond the two screenings at the Sydney Film Festival (details here)

It’s been programmed into one of the smallest festival venues, the Dendy Opera Quays Cinema 3 and the SFF website has a sign saying “Selling Fast”.

David’s illuminating thoughts on the film are a perfect introduction into the last film the great man completed before his death. You can read them if you head for this item on the Observations on Film Art blog.

Key image from 24 Frames  The elder Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow

Sydney Film Festival - Alena Lodkina's STRANGE COLORS gets some support from an international observer as does Chloe Zhao's THE RIDER

Editor’s Note: The earlier post about the Sydney Film Festival screening of Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours has caused some international chatter. Here’s some thoughts from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous.  For details of screenings and tickets  click here

Alena Lodkina, Venice, 2017
How does a young woman director capture loneliness and longing in an atmosphere of dust and oblivion, a landscape inhabited only by men? How does she manage to “record” these gruff old guys who act themselves, but under her direction? 

There is a lot of tenderness in this film in a very masculine setting and another recent film by a young lady comes to mind, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider*. It is as if somehow these young women cast a gaze on these “real men” with the piercing but protective eyes of a mother, a grandmother, and these men bare their most vulnerable parts to the gaze. Strange colors indeed, strange and precious.

* ALSO screens at the SFF. Details click here

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Sydney Film Festival - David King enthuses over Soda Jerk's TERROR NULLIUS (Re-posted from Facebook)

Editor's Note: This is the third post devoted to some of the films screening at the forthcoming Sydney Film Festival. The previous posts were devoted to Alena Lodkina's Strange Colors and Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes Click on the film titles to read more. This item is for the record. The film's three sessions are already sold out. 

Finally got up to Melbourne to see Terror Nullius, the work of film art by Soda Jerk currently (as of May 2018) screening in ACMI Gallery 2. 

Soda Jerk
This work was called 'un-Australian" by the Ian Potter Cultural Trust which originally commissioned and funded it. Even when I hadn't seen the film, I had trouble believing anyone actually working at the Ian Potter Cultural Trust would use such a term as 'un-Australian'. The term smacks of certain conservative Anglo-Saxon politicians. 

Having now seen the film, I'm utterly convinced the term was foisted on the Ian Potter Cultural Trust by some powerful but unseen and unnamed third party behind the scenes.

No one working in the arts today would even think of using such a term. The only people who could possibly think Terror Nullius was 'un-Australian' are the sort of people who despise Aborigines, gays and transgender people, refugees, republicans, environmentalists, and anyone with even vaguely leftist views.

The audience I saw the film with was predominantly young (early 20's to mid-30's) with a sprinkling of older people (40's to 70's). There were lots of giggles, outright laughs, and nodding heads from start to finish and no one walked out - which suggests that Soda Jerk spoke for a lot of people when they made this film. Certainly not for the conservative hard right politicians, but for nearly everyone else.

Terror Nullius
Let's face it: most fair-minded people in Australia have long since accepted Aboriginal rights, gay and transgender people, believe Australia should stand on its own two feet without the monarchy (or if we're so attached to the idea of a monarchy, have our own king or queen), and feel ashamed of the way our politicians are treating refugees. They would also like to see environment protected for future generations rather than exploited for short-term gain. So just who is 'un-Australian' here? Certainly not the filmmakers who seemed to strike a chord with the audience, if the laughter, nodding and grins were any indication.

Is the film art? Absolutely. You could hear the gasps of astonishment when the audience realized what was being done with the juxtapositions of different Australian films. It was brilliantly done.

Is it funny? Yes, in a satirical way which reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, although it's a very different kind of film. It kicks the shit out of self-important politicians just as Kubrick's film kicked the shit out of posturing military men and their advisors.

Is it 'un-Australian'? It's about the most unapologetically Australian film I've seen for a long time. Most films funded by Government bodies are too afraid to be Australian - which means to take the piss, to mock authority, to give the finger to those who think they rule. to be larrikin and not give a rats. Terror Nullius is clearly - if audience reactions are anything to go by - a breath of fresh air.

Hats off to Soda Jerk and to ACMI for screening the film.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

American Essentials Film Festival - Barrie Pattison ponders a cull from Sundance and the fate of the Western via THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN (Jared Moshé)

You can spot the moment when the great western’s cycle came to a halt - not with a movie or after the failure of one but curiously in the middle of two films in 1961. First was at the end of the action that opens John Sturges’ Sergeants Three and then when they recalled Anthony Mann’s location unit which had already shot the land rush for his Cimarron.

The Europeans moved into the drive-ins. Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah were still to come, but the steady flow of superior western entertainments halted. People did keep on making a few more. The results were uneven. Uli Edel’s 2002 made-for-TV King of Texas/Boss Lear with Patrick Stewart as a cowboy King Lear was less involving than the Buck Jones 1936 B-movie version, Sunset of Power fielding a pre-Ming the Merciless Charles Middleton in the character. 

After 2003, Kevin Costner’s Open Range and Ron Howard’s The Missing closed out the multiplex branch of the form. The cowboys shifted into ancillary markets and stayed there. Think Tombstone or Lonesome Dove.

But there were an exceptional few mixed in there. Craig Baxley came good with the 1995 The Avenging Angel set among the frontier Mormons with Charlton Heston as Brigham Young. "When you have twenty-seven wives and fifty-six children, one of them is bound to turn out dumb and pig ugly as you" a character is told. The Simon Wincer and Tom Selleck team, which had already done Quigley Down Under, made their own Monte Walsh (2003). It can hold its own with the Lee Marvin version. The ending, when our hero rides back into town and the mother points him out, “Look a real cowboy!”, is resonant. 

Even the Euro western hangs in there with Mateo Gil directing Sam Shepard in the France/Spain/USA/Bolivia 2011 Blackthorn.

As recently as 2015, Craig Zahler established himself fielding Kurt Russell in the Apocalypto-violent The Bone Tomahawk, so hope springs eternal.

Which brings us to Jared Moshé’s The Ballad of Lefty Brown surfacing in Palace Cinemas American Essentials event here. This is a film that I wanted to like right from its opening “Shot on Kodak film” title. It is a western which, one more time, busily incorporates the moments we revere. But it can’t match exhilarating action set pieces or the sweeping panoramas that used to drive the cycle.  As with Blackthorn,the grubby realist look and the anti-romantic plot line are a bit of a downer.

Bill Pullman, The Ballad of Left Brown
Lawman newly become Montana Senator Peter Fonda (almost unrecognisable) is sorting out a shooting in the saloon after finding the victim’s wound is in his back. Wizened, scatter gun wielding sidekick Bill Pullman (likewise) goes in the back door (think the Dmytryk Warlock from 1959), even having a scene of burning the money like his Alvarez Kelly (1966). The shooter gets the drop on Bill but Peter sorts him out and hangs him, kicking a stump from under his feet. Overtones of The Virginian which Pullman filmed handsomely in 2000.

Back at the ranch, Fonda’s frontier wife, the ever admirable Kathy Baker, is appalled at the idea of leaving their home in charge of the sidekick of forty years Pullman. She’s convinced there will be nothing to come back to after their time in State Capital. This is new.

Horse thieves make off with some of the stock and Fonda and Pullman hit their trail only to be picked off from a distance by the fugitive light haired marksman. Injured Pullman makes it back with the body and is reviled by Baker. She welcomes their old friend, now the Governor, and his Marshall who sets out with Pullman to take down the dastards. Along the way they pick up young Diego Josef on foot, his twin side arms prominent under his duster coat in his first appearance.

The kid is taken down in the first exchange of fire when he charges in unhesitating but Pullman manages to bail up the killer who has captured the dude in city clothes, who turns out to be bringing pay off money. Things are not what they seem. The Marshall takes to the bottle and Pullman finds a rope waiting for him back home.

Bill Pullman, The Ballad of Lefty Brown
However, guile wins out and soon Pullman is digging up Fonda’s long gun and kicking out the chair under the feet of the master villain, the only one to have a vision for the territory (like the John Farrow California). The rail roads are the bad hats again (think Jesse Jamesor Butch Cassidy). Bringing help to the wounded boy becomes the priority, like The English Patient (the derivations are getting more diverse now) and Pullman ends like Mifune in Kurosawa’sThe Hidden Fortress (1958)kicking up dust on the distant track that cuts across the mountain diagonally.

Well it’s nice to be back in the saddle again but a bit depressing to feel that the best is behind us.

Also in the American Essentials event was Lynn Shelton’s Outside In which by way of contrast is the kind of film we are told we should like - a socially aware account of an exactly located contemporary society featuring intense, studied performances. 

Co-writer Jay Duplass comes out of the slammer after twenty years. He’s been released as a result of the efforts of his old high school teacher Edie Falco. She’s the only one he can relate to. Will they or won’t they? Further complications with Falco’s teenage daughter Kaitlyn Dever whose scenes are particularly engaging. Her breakup revenge on the stacked chairs is the film’s best touch, though Duplass handling the aggro husband is nice too. Playing it all in small town Granite Falls, Washington gives it a reality that the writing can’t quite match. 

The event’s opening night movie, Sophia Brooks' The Boy Downstairs, fields David Mamet’s daughter Zozia as a Bridal Wear sales girl who moves into a Brooklyn apartment only to find the guy she split from is in the downstairs flat. New squeeze Sarah Ramos appearing in the doorway when Zozia shows up one more time and saying “Really!” is a highlight. There’s a lot of make-up, break up and self-searching before we get to an agreeable ending. 

The piece is determinedly New York set but it’s disturbingly free of locating imagery - no distant Brooklyn Bridge here. Couldn’t they have had a yellow cab drive through the shot just once? The undifferentiated flash backs are on the confusing side too.

I get the impression that these films are an indicator of the eight hundred entries Sundance gets every year. Three is a novelty. I don’t think I could handle a fortnight of them. 

Why do all the bearded young men in them look the same?

Bruce Hodsdon on Authorship in the New Hollywood: The writer-director relationship - Independent production (part 1)

This is the latest part of Bruce Hodsdon’s erudite series devoted to Hollywood film-makers and film-making methods.The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.

“Before 1926 according to official credits on films there were no screenwriters in Hollywood. The expression barely existed. The profession was fragmented into specialities. Assignments and credits were rationed out to deserving writers somewhat arbitrarily. There were sub-species of gag-writers, treatment writers, scenarists, adaptors, titlists.” (McGilligan). Publicity promoted and mythologised producers and directors. Until the mid teens there were no scripts for most films, almost all of one or two reels, just bits of paper and then enormous gaps to mainstream productions and the work of masters, DW Griffith, von Stroheim and DeMille.

Erich Von Stroheim
With the coming of sound came the consolidation of the studio system and with it new rules and speculation regarding screenplays. With sound also came “additional dialogue” and with it “talk experts” from the East. In the forties in their stead came playwrights, journalists and a range of other wordsmiths from dime novelists and advertising copywriters to prominent authors and refugees from radio.

“The shooting script gained supremacy over the original story, widening the gulf between the initial inspiration and the final product. There developed a crucial difference between the writer of the story and the writer of the script – not always one and the same person.”. (McGilligan) The shooting script not only broke down the story and systematised continuity but could also dictate how and what was to be shot. All budgeting and scheduling came down to the shooting script which is where the money men came in and the writers were, typically, left behind.

“In the early sound era, writers were low on the studio totem pole. Novelists were excluded from adapting from their own titles. Scenarists were banished from the sets of films they had written. Impersonal or hackneyed genre assignments were doled out as a form of punishment. Unbeknownst to each other, writers worked on multiple or alternative versions of the same script.”  (McGilligan) The credits system was corrupted. Marathon working hours were a requisite. Writers at some studios had to punch the time clock.

A feature film needs a screenplay which only comes alive when it is translated into a film orchestrated by the director. On the question of authorship there will always be some ambiguity especially if the director is not also the principal author of the screenplay. In classical Hollywood the system based on fairly strict demarcation of functions made it more difficult for this to occur. The question of “who is the author of a fictional feature film in Hollywood?” was further obscured by a rule agreed by producers with the newly empowered Screenwriters Guild (SWG) in 1941.

Some system of classification and evaluation was/is needed to assess the contribution of the screenwriter to balance what anti-auteurists dismiss as the myth of the omnipotent director. It assumed relatively easy acceptance because the extent of a separate screenwriter's contribution is often difficult to ascertain, even more so under the studio system in which fairly strict division of labour was imposed on an essentially collaborative process (1).

The SWG set what is widely regarded as a rule that is ridiculous in its rigidity in disallowing any screenplay credit to a director who has not contributed at least fifty per cent of the dialogue which of itself is only an element, albeit a central  one, of the final screenplay– “ridiculous” opines Richard Corliss, “because it permits auteur critics to infer that their favourite directors contributed, say, 49 per cent.” The singular focus on dialogue in SWG's credit qualification reflected the attempt by writers to improve their lowly position on the studio totem pole.  The agreement provided the base for the subsequent critical positioning of the director as auteur. It gave all directors the right to participate in casting, script development, editing (the right to 'a director's cut').

A film is often described by a critic in terms of theme and narrative as if the director is the equivalent of a novelist. In Europe the converse applies and seems to produce no greater clarity, the director receiving a screenplay credit whether he or she wrote anything or not which is nevertheless a more accurate acknowledgement of the director's role. Leading directors in Europe are usually credited as sole authors of screenplays.  When sharing the credit it is most often with a frequent collaborator.

(Some of) The Hollywood Ten
In the 50s numbers of screenwriting credits dwindled from the peak wartime and early postwar years. The blacklist disprop-ortionately injured screenwriters. Eight of the Hollywood Ten were writers. By 1959 the contract writer had become an endangered species. Many of the studios had ceased to make B pictures.

With the breakdown of the contract system it became more acceptable, even vital, to accept scripts from outside the studio radius of Hollywood. The 60s screenwriters “were the first genuinely bicoastal generation.” This was not so good for the regular employment of writers under contract that had been part and parcel of the system.  Freelancing became much more common.
Robert Towne
In the seventies Robert Towne, a skilled script doctor, delivered screenplays for The Last Detail, Shampoo and Chinatown. He later directed (Personal Best) though not on a career path comparable to Paul Schrader as a writer-director following his early screenplay successes. Paul Schrader collaborated with his brother Leonard on The Yakuza, written on spec then subject to a bidding war.  His screenplay for Taxi Driver, written in ten days was taken up by Martin Scorsese for $325,000 (the same record amount that was paid to William Goldman for Butch Cassidy). Certain writers like novelist Joe Eszterhas, whose adeptly written commercial successes created high demand for his scripts, peaked with the selling of his original, Basic Instinct, for a runaway new record of $3 million.

Paul Schrader
But these were standout individual successes. Industry changes imposed by tech-nological developments resulted in a boom and bust in the production and diversity of feature films in the mid-late eighties and major industry restructuring and realignment through the 80s, 90s and beyond.

The decade most noted for Hollywood filmmaker innovation - the years of the so-called New Hollywood in the mid 70s - was reined in by the box office bonanza of Jaws andStarWarsreasserting the conservatism inherent in the big budget blockbuster mode, the perceived overreach in the failure of a number of new Hollywood films, and the aftermath of the unchecked director's indulgence of Heaven's Gate at the end of the decade.

McGilligan comments that “some of the worst horror stories for screenwriters come in the 70s and 80s.” He suggests that “by contrast the 60s appear almost idyllic.” While minimums and conditions were greatly improved over the past and writers were in a stronger position than ever before, the 'new boy' network was no more sympathetic to writers than the studios they replaced. The proliferation of indie production companies brought with it the proliferation of writer-director credits that came with indie territory, but also more often focussed on making mainstream features.

The term “independent” was always difficult to pin down and has become increasingly so. It could be said that the only truly independent film is personal and self-financed, or one financed with no strings attached other than that circumscribed by the limitations of the budget.  For my purposes here an independent film is one generally produced in relative freedom from the constraints of a 'blockbuster budget' outside the major Hollywood film companies which potentially adds to the range of subject and onscreen expression within the purview of what is loosely referred to as an 'art cinema'. A film is more favourably placed to meet the criterion if there is a synthesis in the person of a writer-director of the key creative functions of story selection, screenplay and direction. Perhaps it is the spirit of the film - how it challenges norms in form and content - rather than the size of the budget that should be the main determinant.

In industry terms a film has been pronounced “independent” when produceddirectly or indirectlyby the classics division of one of the majors operating in relative freedom from commercial dictates by the parent studio. Peter Biskind has suggested that “there's a kind of independent aesthetic that really distinguishes these films from your full blown Spider-Man 2.”

 Independents have also been increasingly sourcing financing from European sources.

David O. Selznick
In classical Hollywood David O Selznick and Sam Goldwyn were the highest profile independent producers in a time when independent production companies were relatively few. They began to proliferate during the war and the succeeding decades. Now numbering in the thousands, the majority of these companies seemed to have been formed over the years to produce only one or two films.

At the other end of the spectrum “mini-major”production companies such as Carolco, Cannon and Dino De Laurentis (DEG) in the eighties and early nineties operated on a scale of budgeting for individual productions comparable to the majors but as separate entities in initiating and financing feature films and therefore nominally qualifying as independent.

Independent producers were, and continue to be, generally dependent on the majors or mini majors for wider release of individual films through the main cinema chains. Many do not find distribution and go straight to cable and video release.

The emergence of home video in the 80s and DVD in the 90s created important new opportunities for the production and distribution of independent film. Into the new millennium ancillary markets soon overtook theatrical release as a major source of revenue, but there have been relatively few gains for independents in mainstream theatrical release.  Theatrical release remains  important in the creating a profile for recognition by a potential online audience increasingly engaged by long form tv drama and ready access to online film libraries. It may, however, become a little easier for independents to raise funding for production based on the greater distribution opportunities in these new markets.

David O. Russell
Exceptions to relative marginalisation of films independent in content and innovative in form are those that succeeded in attracting grosses comparable to mainstream successes, films by Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, David O Russell and David Chazelle, for example. Other individual films like Lost in TranslationBefore Midnight,El Mariarchi, ClerksLovely and AmazingEternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Manchester by the Sea have achieved 'sleeper' success more profitably yielding above average returns on much lower than blockbuster budgets.  

While providing an entry point for many would be filmmakers, to be highlighted in the listing of indie directors in part 2 of this chapter, there are filmmakers whose work cannot be contained by the halfway house of 'art house' labelling,  - Gregg Araki, Abel Ferrara, Kevin Smith, Jim Jarmusch, Larry Clark, Todd Solondz, Alison Anders, Kelly Reichardt, et al. If the overall market share for independent production remains relatively marginalised, that is not a measure of the contributions of many indie filmmakers to the vitality of the culture. The growth in the proportion of writer-director numbers is summarised in the figures below:

      Credited writer-directors account for between 15-20% of the 221 directors selected by Andrew Sarris for The American Cinema 1929-68.
      Of the 34 directors in the proposed classical canon (list 1), 12 (35%) are credited writers on their films.
      Of the 18 directors in the proposed post classical canon (list 4), 15 (83%) are credited writers on their films.
      Of the 54 directors in the post classical“mainstream” sample (list 5), 33 (61%) are credited writer-directors.
•      90% of the 80 directors in the “indie”sample (list 6) are credited writer-directors on all or most of their films

Jim Jarmusch
Major changes in technology have been accompanied by a significant change in film production on the creative side - the increasing merging of the director and writer functions. As the above summary suggests, the upward trend evident in the writer-director credits on feature films has been spread across the spectrum. So far this seems to have been little commented upon or even noticed. It would seem to relate to the restructuring of the industry involving the decentralisation of production management reflected in the proliferation of production companies, a postwar phenomenon that has accelerated since the sixties (2). This has resulted in a greater range of films being produced in an increasingly fragmented market.

As noted above, the sharp rise in the number of independent production companies in the mid-eighties was a direct result of the increase in demand for product in ancillary markets such as cable and home video for a couple of years creating a severe shortfall in the supply of new mainstream product.

Peter Biskind observed, at the time of the release of his book (see below) more than a decade ago, that independent film in the eighties was negatively defined as “everything or anything that a Hollywood film was not. So if a Hollywood film was a narrative film that stressed action and special effects, an independent film was a film that stressed script and character. Hollywood made movies, independents made films. Hollywood movies were directed by directors (more often they are now writer-directors), people who made independent films were filmmakers” (almost invariably writer-directors). Hollywood films were/are high concept, expensive and over produced, independent films were/are in some degree (and can be productively) underproduced, inexpensive, low concept and more difficult to describe.

Todd Solondz
“In the 90s,” Biskind suggested “the distinctions between independent films and Hollywood films begins to blur” so that at the margins it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell. Hence a legacy of the 90s is the concept of the “Indiewood film...films that exist where “independent” has always been a kind of glass-half-empty-glass-half-full world...halfway between the traditional Hollywood movie and the...independent film.”In contrast to the relatively few, mainly genre bound independents in classical Hollywood, the differences between films at each end of the spectrum are now reassuringly much wider - between say a mainstream big budget genre film often saturated with CGI and those low budget films which are innovative formally and/or thematically, filmed and post produced digitally.  If this reflects the democratisation of the means of production as a result of the economies, it is also connected with the proliferation of platforms for distribution.

1.  The IMDb database is the most accessible guide to the extent of a director's contribution to the screenplay. Apart from indicating a shared contribution there are a range of attributions including story, adaptation, writer (an acknowledgment of a contribution to bothstory and screenplay) or various uncredited contributions presumably based on available production information. The only clear confirmation on the authorship of an individual film is a writer-director credit confirming that the director is also the principal author of the screenplay. In addition to database information and in the absence of published researched filmographies, a more complete picture can then only be pieced together from not always reliable anecdotal accounts of the director, writer or other key participants in the film combined with critical familiarity with the director's other work.  

2.  The share of domestic box office receipts is currently split about 80-20 between the six major production-distribution companies and the rest or close to 90-10 with the addition of the mini-major, Lionsgate. The six majors also account for more than three-quarters of wide theatrical releases of films through the theatre chains. The average box office gross per title released by the majors in 2017 was in excess of $100m. per title, the box office receipts for the rest (the more successful depending on the majors for distribution) is  less than one third of that per title. Many go straight to cable. Only a small number of films by a few filmmakers on the indie list - Tarantino, Soderbergh, Gondry, Chazelle, Sofia Coppola, Aronofsky - would have had wide releases in recent years. More than half the filmmakers on the indie list received a significant return against budget for films from limited 'art house' release, if not comparable to a peak example of independent success, Clerks(Kevin Smith), which grossed $3.2m domestically on a production cost of $28,000. Source: The Numbers

Main Sources: Pat McGilligan Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters in Hollywood's Golden Age 1986; Marc Norman What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting 2008; Bordwell, Staiger, Thompson The Classical Hollywood Cinema 1985 Part 5, Janet Staiger; Richard Corliss Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema 1974; Peter Biskind Down and Dirty Pictures,Miramax Sundance & the Rise of Independent Film 2004