Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "The Audition, A Tradegy Of Manners"

So I suddenly find myself preparing for my next short film, “The Audition”, which is about an actor, Tony Wallis, who is being seen for a play, but every time he starts to read the script, the director cuts him off after the first line, and corrects his reading by demonstrating how the line should be said, then repeating back to Tony how he was saying it, thus hi-lighting the difference between the two. The trouble is, Tony can discern no difference between the way the director says it and the way he says it – indeed, there is no difference, both versions are identical. However, instead of pointing out that there is no difference, the actor goes along with it in order to get the director to like him and show that he is a good actor (as he thinks the director might see it), and each time the director interjects and corrects the actor's rendition, the actor berates himself more forcefully*. So, Tony Wallis gets himself into a pickle by engaging in hypocrisy, by lying, which ends up, as it so often does for the hypocrite, in humiliation, which is followed by despair if one is predisposed to truthful reflection, and a vow to never let it happen again. The one not predisposed to truthful reflection, will repress the lie and learn to love the lie, so much so infact, that they begin to think it the truth – yes, that's right, they become a hack.


The Audition is a classically structured tragedy (ie – the protagonist causes his own downfall by the choices he makes, he is the cause of the plague on Thebes as it were), I may even describe it as a “tragedy of manners” if such a thing exists. It's an usual script in the sense that the objectives of each character appear, on the surface, to be complimentary, as oppose to conflicting, the Interviewer wants Tony Wallis to be the perfect actor for the role, and Tony wants to show the Interviewer that he is perfect for the role, and so both spend the film trying to please eachother in this way – however, rather than address eachother directly, they conduct a sort of séance of delicate etiquette, the scene even ends with them thanking eachother, professional niceties, and, perhaps, broader social codes, are maintained at all times. Having said that, the Interviewer possesses a specifically English (as oppose to British) upper-middle-class viciousness, a passive-aggression, which is typically masqued by charm and good manners, it looks like helpfulness but is infact denigration. There are many examples of this in The Audition, as on one occasion where the Interviewer interrupts Tony's reading of the script by offering him a glass of water when Tony's throat does not appear to be dry – a very subtle put down of the actor. However, there is very little Tony can do about this, except to stay professional and fume internally. If he had said something back to the Interviewer, debrief with agent would be interesting:


Agent: “he's a well respected theatre director, why an EARTH did you tell him to go fuck himself?”

Actor: “well, for starters, he offered me a glass of water....”


Seek your own good opinion of yourself. Stick to your own personal truth as you would do in a performance. If pleasing another means lying, then refrain. It's about being self-reliant which means validating yourself as an artist, not looking for others to do it for you. This requires strength and having the courage to draw your own conclusions. It's folly to think that everyone you meet will have honorable intentions, just as it's destructive to think that there are no honorable people out there. Learn to tell the difference and act accordingly. But never the spit the dummy. Hopefully then, every encounter, good or bad, will make you stronger, and you will avoid the vile fate of self-betrayal, as befalls our actor, Tony Wallis.


*as Elia Kazan told us, the emotion increases in proportion to the actor's failure to accomplish his objective.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Aki Kaurismaki Q&A In Filmmaker

In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, published in 2003, critic and film historian David Thomson ends his favorable entry on Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki by noting that the Helsinki-based auteur might gain some edge if “his sardonic eye turned to politics.” It’s hard to imagine what a political film by Kaurismäki might look like, given how masterfully he has balanced deadpan humor and dour heartbreak in his wry tales of social estrangement among the working classes; films like The Match Factory Girl and Ariel feel more like poetic, strangely poignant chamber works. But now, at least in spirit, we have one. Kaurismäki’s latest comic fable, Le Havre, which won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in May and is Finland’s official Oscar entry, channels some of Europe’s not-so-welcoming attitudes toward newly arrived immigrants and transforms the conflict into an amiably humanistic fairy tale resonating with goodwill.
Septuagenarian Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a former artist, lives with his wife Arletty (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen) in the titular French port city where he makes a bare living shining shoes at the train station and frequents a neighborhood bar patronized by shiftless, long-haired men. Nearby, port authorities pry open a storage container on the docks and discover a group of Gabonese immigrants hiding inside, apparently bound for Britain. One of them, a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), escapes mustachioed police inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and crosses paths with Marcel, who hospitably takes him in and then attempts to locate his family in London. When Monet begins to suspect the elder man is illegally housing Idrissa, Marcel enlists the help of neighborhood acquaintances and shopkeepers to shield the boy until he can make arrangements for his safe passage to England. Meanwhile, Arletty is diagnosed with a terminal illness after some routine hospital tests but decides not to tell her husband, hoping for the best. Slight in design but emotionally potent, Le Havre carries all of Kaurismäki’s quirky trademarks: mordant one-liners and mannered acting, absurd exchanges and static shots of comically immobile characters reacting impassively to extraordinary occurrences. But this time, the sadsack aura of the Kaurismäki oeuvre gives way to a cheerier vision of collective dignity and social justice that points toward a possible future, even though it lives, for the moment at least, purely in the director’s imagination.
Filmmaker corresponded with Kaurismäki via e-mail about French cinema, Finnish writers, the plight of refugees, and why John Wayne caught a lucky break from Ford and Hawks. Le Havre opens Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.

Filmmaker: Le Havre grew out of your concern that the problem of refugees attempting to seek safe haven in EU countries has not been soundly addressed. What spurred your decision to shoot the film in France?
Kaurismäki: Logically it should have been a Mediterranean town since most of the refugees from Africa land to Greece, Italy, and Spain. But since logic has nothing to do with cinema I picked Le Havre after driving all the coast from Genoa to the Belgium border. The refugee problem (and the shame of their disgraceful treatment) is all European and it doesn’t really matter in which country the film is shot in.
Filmmaker: Did you make the film partly in hopes that it would have a deeper resonance in Continental Europe, perhaps pricking the conscience of viewers in France, Germany, Austria?
Kaurismäki: I never think of audience when I shoot a film. Not because I wouldn’t be interested but because my experience tells me it is not worthwhile. Anyhow, it is clear that very few refugees are desperate or unlucky enough to end up in Finland.
Filmmaker: One possible idea advanced by Le Havre concerns how the health of a society depends on its attitudes toward immigrants, displaced persons and other so-called undesirables. Was this the starting point when you first outlined the tale?
Kaurismäki: Now when you mention it that seems to be one way to see the film, but this goes to the side of analysis, which is not my hobby. While writing there is no time and afterwards there is no sense, because nothing can be changed anymore.
Filmmaker: What was the process that led you to the characters?
Kaurismäki: My method is very simple: when I get the basic idea of the story, meaning the main character and his “problem,” I just forget the whole thing for about three months and after that print it out over a long weekend. Meanwhile, the subconscious has (hopefully) done the job. I invent the characters while writing. In the case of Le Havre it took me a long time to find the profession of the protagonist but it came easily when I got my shoes polished in Portugal. The man was surprised by his 20 Euros tip.
Filmmaker: Le Havre unfolds like a fairy tale – life as we might wish it to be – putting an imaginative, hopeful spin on Idrissa’s fate as the story resolves. What accounts for the optimism of the film?
Kaurismäki: The whole refugee-business is a miserable thing with too many sad endings in real life. So a fiction film dealing with that needs minimum two happy endings to make some kind of balance.
Filmmaker: You’ve always had an affinity for the working class, as well as outcasts, losers, drifters, and loners. Instead of the sentimentalism we might find in humanistic films of the past or the gritty sincerity of today’s social realists, films like The Match Factory Girl or Drifting Clouds approach things from the standpoint of absurdity. Do your films reflect a distinctly existential worldview that you would claim as your own?
Kaurismäki: Since I´m a 100 percent auteur it is most probable that my films reflect my humor and the way I see society and human relationships.
Filmmaker: Characteristically, your films are dour and light-hearted in equal measure: Is the comic register advantageous for touching an audience emotionally or is it just your natural mode?
Kaurismäki: I said earlier that I don’t think of audience while shooting and it is true, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t make the films for spectators. A director who can’t manipulate a spectator’s feelings and make him/her laugh or be afraid should change his or her profession. The manipulation is what people are paying for when they go to cinema.
Filmmaker: Your first film, Crime and Punishment, was an earnest adaptation of Dostoyevsky. With Calamari Union, you began to favor elements that have defined your work since: deadpan humor, minimal dialogue, mannered acting styles. What brought about the transition? How did you find your voice?
Kaurismäki: I left humor away from Crime and Punishment partly because the book didn’t have any and partly because the adaptation itself was complicated enough. I regretted that later and maybe that is a reason why my Hamlet some years later was all but serious. Before the Dostoyevsky film I wrote two films which [my brother] Mika [Kaurismäki] directed and already in them I created the dialogue style I’m blamed for.
Filmmaker: Did your early work with Mika influence your sensibilities in some way?
Kaurismäki: The early films were my screenplays directed by Mika. This gave an illusion of a common style, which never existed.
Filmmaker: Little Bob’s sequence in Le Havre was one of my favorites, and is part of a lineage of live musical performances in your films (Joe Strummer, the Franks, Leningrad Cowboys). What does your obvious passion for the sounds and styles of early American rock and rockabilly stem from?
Kaurismäki: All the Finnish youngsters born in late ’50s or early ’60s got American and English blues, rhythm and blues and rock’n'roll from their mother´s milk.
Filmmaker: Juha was a silent black-and-white film harkening back to the days of early cinema, and I Hired a Contract Killer nodded to the heyday of noir. Le Havre is chock-a-block with references to Melville and Clouzot, especially via the character played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin. Beyond homage, are these references perhaps a deeper means of connecting cinema past and present, at least when the story demands it?
Kaurismäki: I certainly hope so. My “style” — if it exists — is certainly more near Tati than Melville, but I wanted at least to have one character of both plus some Clouzot, Carné, Renoir etc., with a touch of French postwar neorealism plus this and that but just to have these references and tiny homages there, not really to be noticed. The director, however, whom I think more and more [about] nowadays is Charles Chaplin.
Filmmaker: I know you are a voracious reader and that your cinematic interests encompass everyone from Jean Vigo to Michael Powell, Melville to Ozu. Are there equivalent analogues for you in Finnish art, literature, film?
Kaurismäki: Even though Finland is a small country in many ways the literature has always been on a high level; Aleksis Kivi, Eino Leino, Juhani Aho, Pentti Haanpää, Mika Waltari, Marko Tapio, Hannu Salama, to mention some. There were also excellent painters in the earlier part of the 20th Century.
Filmmaker: What does Timo Salminen, your longtime cinematographer, contribute to your overall artistic vision?
Kaurismäki: I make the storytelling and frame the pictures, but Timo is almost totally free in lighting. But since we have worked together 30 years now there is no reason to even whistle anymore. The cooperation is quite automatic.
Filmmaker: Godard famously said that mobile camera shots implied a moral choice. Would you say the reverse is true?
Kaurismäki: He also said that the chair you are sitting on is political. For me it is just a chair and some stories benefit from a moving camera and some (like Tokyo Story) don’t.
Filmmaker: Could you give me a better sense of why working in 35mm and what you’ve called “deep screen space” is an absolute for you, and why even toying with new digital technologies holds no appeal?
Kaurismäki: I´m old enough to die with my boots on.
Filmmaker: Kati Outinen has a smaller role in Le Havre, but she’s been featured in so much of your work, often brilliantly playing a downtrodden but sympathetic type. Why does she continue to be a source of inspiration?
Kaurismäki: If they are good why change? Same goes with the whole crew. I don’t know if John Wayne was of any inspiration to Ford or Hawks but still they continued using him even though he was ugly as hell.
Filmmaker: When you consider your body of work on its own — not necessarily as it measures against the cinema closest to your heart — what’s your assessment?
Kaurismäki: Never look back.

The Great Acting Blog: "Actors Are Gamblers Who Live Out Many Lives, Intensely"

“The more success an actor has, the more he acquires the look of wax fruit; he is no longer devoured by life”. - Elia Kazan.

Much of the actor's life can be, in turn, wretched, absurd, soul-destroying, exhilarating, humiliating, glorious, and he can find himself spending much of his time scratching around simply trying to maintain his self-respect. Little of his life appears to be within his control, but sometimes it's difficult for him to be grateful for what he has - most actors are preposterously ambitious. One of the most complex periods an actor can experience is just after a major goal has been accomplished, and the old habits seem inappropriate. The period is a dangerous one, it can be confusing because the actor has scored a victory but doesn't know what his next move should be. I often think that actors should apply performance technique to their everyday lives because it makes the work stronger, however, when performing we have a road map, the script, from which we can discern the actions necessary for accomplishing our objectives. In life of course, no such map exists, we can come up with a plan, but that really is only an estimate of what might happen. So, during this new period the actor must first decide what he would like to accomplish next – which is in itself a major task. In making his decision, the actor may ask himself where he wants to end up, and then, how he is going to get there. If he cannot answer these questions for the short term, he is likely to become lost and fall into despair. Whichever path the actor does eventually choose however, he must accept that there is no guarantee of success, that's the nature of the life – he doesn't know what is going to happen, he has to take a chance and step forward regardless. The actors life then, resembles that of the gambler, but the actor gambles not chips at the table, but time in his life. So many actors fall by the wayside because they are no longer willing to play the game, they're no longer willing to commit to the toil and the slog without the guarantee of a reward, and picking up the pieces one more time becomes just too much to bear for them.

The actors who continue and flourish are innate gamblers, and they love trying to workout how to lower the odds and beat the system. Actors are adrenaline junkies, we intentionally make our lives insecure, we intentionally posit preposterous objectives for ourselves, we need that edge, we are energized by pressure, afterall, that's the fun of the fayre – most of us would be absolutely horrified if we actually “made it”, we would become part of Kazan's wax fruit, the very thing we sought to avoid by becoming actors in the first place. However, the really smart actor understands that the process of the life (ie: the struggle, the constant self-examination, the toil, the discipline, the self-denial, the seeing our best laid plans turn to dust but finding the strength to start again,overcoming the overwhelming odds stacked against us) is part of the work itself, for it demands that we constantly improve ourselves, thus ensuring that when the time comes, we are worth the time and attention of the audience.

The gambler may only find an equilibrium while he is gambling, and the actor may only do so while he is performing. One life lived steadily over decades is no good to the actor, he must live out many brief lives intensely.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Aki Kaurismaki Q&A On Le Havre

The Finnish filmmaker tackles Euro social issues and French cinephilia in Le Havre. By David Fear The heavily accented voice on the other end of the phone line couldn’t sound more depressed: “Portugal just lost to Denmark for the Euro 2012 qualifying round. We got beat out.” There’s a pause, then a long, weary sigh. “Per usual.” It may be shocking to hear that Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki is such a rabid soccer fan that he traveled to Portugal to see the game (“Really, though, I’m here so I can talk to you on the telephone at 10pm at night,” he jokes). To hear this director of dour comedies sound as wryly defeated as his characters, however, is not surprising—though Kaurismäki’s latest, Le Havre, couldn’t feel more uplifting. A tale of a shoe-shine man (André Wilms) helping a young African immigrant (Blondin Miguel) evade the authorities, this tribute to the power of working-class communities doubles as a love letter to vintage French cinema. The 54-year-old auteur filled TONY in on the specifics.

You’d been thinking about this project for a while, hadn’t you?

AK - For a few years, actually. I had this idea that I wanted to do something on the immigration question in Europe, to detail some of the indignities that people coming in from other countries have to go through. The question was really where I was going to film. So I started driving up and down the European coast for two years, more or less, until I finally came across Le Havre, this little port town in the northwest part of France. Once I found the right place, I wrote the script in ten days.

The Finnish filmmaker tackles Euro social issues and French cinephilia in Le Havre. By David Fear

The heavily accented voice on the other end of the phone line couldn’t sound more depressed: “Portugal just lost to Denmark for the Euro 2012 qualifying round. We got beat out.” There’s a pause, then a long, weary sigh. “Per usual.” It may be shocking to hear that Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki is such a rabid soccer fan that he traveled to Portugal to see the game (“Really, though, I’m here so I can talk to you on the telephone at 10pm at night,” he jokes). To hear this director of dour comedies sound as wryly defeated as his characters, however, is not surprising—though Kaurismäki’s latest, Le Havre, couldn’t feel more uplifting. A tale of a shoe-shine man (André Wilms) helping a young African immigrant (Blondin Miguel) evade the authorities, this tribute to the power of working-class communities doubles as a love letter to vintage French cinema. The 54-year-old auteur filled TONY in on the specifics.

You’d been thinking about this project for a while, hadn’t you?

AK - For a few years, actually. I had this idea that I wanted to do something on the immigration question in Europe, to detail some of the indignities that people coming in from other countries have to go through. The question was really where I was going to film. So I started driving up and down the European coast for two years, more or less, until I finally came across Le Havre, this little port town in the northwest part of France. Once I found the right place, I wrote the script in ten days.

That’s pretty quick!

AK - Normally it only takes a weekend. I’m getting old. [Chuckles]

Once you’d decided on France as a locale, it was just a small leap to go, Hey, I’ll make a French Resistance film, right?

AK- Actually, I was gravitating more toward the prewar films in the ’20s and ’30s, stuff like poetic realism movies that Marcel Carné and Jacques Becker were making. I like that period a lot; there’s a weird kind of optimism in French movies at that time. France’s postwar movies are so pessimistic and downbeat. Which is not my style at all, as you can plainly tell. [Chuckles]

Do you consider yourself a Francophile?

AK - I mean, France’s 19th-century literature is amazing. So is its architecture—and its paintings and a lot of the cinema, of course. But it’s still a country with dirty, corrupt politics. Though I’m a Chevalier Légion d’honneur recipient, I’m still not convinced that their foreign policies have much honor.

I don’t think France is the only country one could say that about at the moment.

AK - No, you’re right. Horrible foreign policies and an inability to deal with an influx of immigrants in a humane manner are epidemic all over Europe. Everything feels like it’s tilting to the extreme side of right-wing politics right now; I’m a little afraid as to what’s going to happen in that lousy continent. I could have set the film in Spain or Italy, really—and I’d have undoubtedly added a lot of specific cultural references to those countries, too.

You’d have put a lot of Bicycle Thief references in there instead?

AK - I’d have shot it like a De Sica or Rosselini movie, maybe. Actually, the style here is more Hollywood classical, with the notion of the “invisible camera.” You’ve heard of the saying What Would Jesus Do? My motto here was What Would Howard Hawks Do? [Chuckles] In order to entertain myself and any film buffs out there, I threw in a number of different quotations—not just Port of Shadows, obviously, but also Casablanca, Chaplin, a few Jean-Pierre Melville movies. But I don’t expect people to get all of them, or even care that I put them in there. My end goal was to make a movie anybody could watch. If a Chinese lady can watch Le Havre without any subtitles and still follow what’s going on, then I’ve done my job.

Would you say that you’re becoming optimistic as you get older?

AK - Quite the opposite: I feel more pessimistic now than I have in years, which is why I needed to make a lighter movie, even if the subject isn’t exactly the kind of stuff people think of as happy-go-lucky. But the more pessimistic I feel, the more optimistic I need to make my movies. That’s my refuge.

Judging from Le Havre, you’re in a deep depression these days.

AK - I get optimistic about the human race every so often. [Pauses] But you can’t print that! I mean, I have a reputation to uphold. [Chuckles, chuckles, chuckles]

Originally published in Timeout

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "Closure Of Catharsis Q & A"

Closure Of Catharsis is a feature film I made with Rouzbeh Rashidi at the end of last year. It's about a man who wrestles with himself as he attempts to remember a trauma from his past, a trauma which has slipped from memory. The film is structured around a park bench monologue and intercut with mysterious imagery. It's visually poetic and possesses a dark brooding atmosphere. It's a film I'm immensely proud of, and have taken great delight in seeing it gradually accrue an audience over time (in the proper arthouse tradition); Closure Of Catharsis has so far played in Ireland, Croatia and will do so in Chile later this year. In addition, it has garnered very positive reviews, and is well on it's way to a having a sizeable following. The film was originally inspired by Jesse Richards' Remodernist Manifesto, which, broadly speaking, seeks a new spirituality in cinema, "concerned with humanity and an understanding of the simple truths and moments of humanity", and Closure Of Catharsis is full of such moments. Furthermore, and crucially for my own personal cinematic project, Closure Of Catharsis is a film for the cinephile for sure, however, it can also be viewed by those who might normally seek out more mainstream fare - infact, I screened the film for a group of such people and they were engrossed by it - in a cinema culture as soul-destroyingly conservative as Great Britain's, where most films are merely marketing paradigms (many of those going into filmmaking now, would have gone into advertising 20 years ago), this is important. "Audiences" are not the zombific drones we are lead to believe, quite the contrary infact, they long to enter into strange new worlds, and are compelled by the unusual, the individualistic, the provocative. My point is that the production of arthouse cinema among young filmmakers in my own city is non-existent, but it needn't be, and this has always been my conviction. Perhaps then, with films such as Closure Of Catharsis, it's maker, Rouzbeh Rashidi, is showing the way. While so many filmmakers spend their time moaning about "funding" (yawn) or begging us to "like" their Facebook page, Rashidi spends his time actually making films, making cinema, and in the process developing and refining his aesthetic and mode of production, thus arriving at a point where a film of Closure Of Catharsis' calibre can be produced. Rashidi has, in the corners of Dublin and Tehran, quietly rewritten the rules of the filmmaking game.

And so it is then, he and I will travel this week to Bristol, where Closure Of Catharsis will be screened at Cinekinosis, which is curated by acclaimed filmmaker, Juan Gabriel Gutierrez. Subsequent to the screening, there will be a question and answer session in which I am expected to participate in, and, having never done so before, I begin to think about how I can do it well and prepare correctly - this is especially important for somebody as beloved of speaking waffle as I am. I think it is particularly problematic for actors to speak about their work because inevitably it leads to speaking about themselves, which may in turn descend into solipsism. On the other hand, there is the loathsome false modesty, which seems to be the favoured tool for self-promotion among our leading  actors: pretending that they are clumsy and disorganised, cute and innocent (when we all know it takes aggression, ambition and hard work to build a career). Either of these routes is repulsive, and both help to foster the generally terrible image of actors as self-obsessed, trivial and phoney. When I think about those who speak about their work in a way that I find engaging, they tend to be honest and unpretentious, simple, and possessing a genuine desire to communicate something, and in a form which may be meaningful to the listener. In the end then, the same values which I aspire to in my actual work; truth, directness, generosity and strength, should also be present when speaking about my work - it's about taking responsibilty: audiences come to us artists in order to be delighted, and are willing to suspend their own self-consciousness and place their well being in our hands to obtain that delight. The artist, therefore, is in a hugely privileged position,  a position which should be cherished and handled with care, and those who would abuse it should be despised. The audience responds most strongly to the artists who take care of them.                                                         

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Homo Sapiens Project....More Stills

The Homo Sapiens Project is a series of personal, short video works by Rouzbeh Rashidi. I was asked to contribute to the project by speaking about myself for 40 minutes (few actors would pass on that opportunity), and duly obliged during a break in filming HE. The film quickly became about the blurring of the line between the real and the staged, an idea I explored further in my blog "Reality & Illusion".



Still by Rouzbeh Rashidi

Homo Sapiens Project

The Homo Sapiens Project is a series of short video works by Rouzbeh Rashidi, and I was asked to contribute by speaking about my acting career for 40 minutes (few actors need to be asked twice to do this). The project quickly became about the blurring of the lines between the real and the fictional, an idea which I explored further in my blog "Reality & Illusion". 











All stills by Rouzbeh Rashidi

Trailer For Bruno Dumont's Outside Satan

It looks immense and it's playing at The London Film Festival.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Nuts4R2 Reviews Lars Von Trier's Melancholia

Melancholia Baby

Melancholia 2011 Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: Earth shattering spoilers ensue!

Melancholia is, quite simply, one of the most visually beautiful films of 2011.

It’s no surprise to me in the slightest, though I’ve only seen a few of his films, that Von Trier can deliver such beautiful and meticulous work... but to people who associate him with the Dogme ‘95 movement, the sheer artificial beauty of his creations may come as a bit of a surprise. But like I said... not to me.

I first became aware of Von Trier back in 1991 (wow, I’ve been watching this guy on and off for 20 years?) when I went to the old Lumiere cinema in St. Martin’s Lane to see his brilliant movie Europa (aka Zentropa in some countries). It was the first film I remember seeing which relly wallowed in it’s own artificial construction to create elaborate effects on screen. The first movie I could remember, specifically, barring minor moments like a single shot in Rumblefish, where both colour and black & white photography collided on screen in beautifully surreal moments where they would bleed into each other’s separate elements like a mixed media collage. And when I say bleed, it really did in certain scenes... I remember well, one character slashing his wrists into a bowl of water in black and white and the blood flowing into the water as a bright red element.

Backgrounds could be changed too like an old 50's Hollywood rear projection shot... except here the technique was almost flawless and a character could be interacting in a real environment which could suddenly turn into a visual metaphor in the background.

It came as a bit of a shock, I would have to say, when Von Trier founded the Dogme ‘95 group with their pledge to remove pretty much all artificality from film. This never stood well with me and I was quite vocal at the time because it’s pretty obvious to me that you can’t make a movie without at least lighting or tweaking or positioning some element of a shot... the very act of which surely renders void the entire exercise in the first place. It was not that unexpected when even the first film that came out of the gate of this experimental style broke it’s own rules and many followed suit (is my understanding) in this lack of rigidity to contribute to a pretty much impossible, idealistic concept.

I remember seeing Von Trier’s Dogville (and getting bored about a half of the way through the movie), a film clearly named after the manifesto of its creator, and thinking to myself that the act of stripping down a whole community to invisible rooms marked out with white lines and labels was far more artifical in its nature than just filming in such a community could ever be.

I got back into Von Trier when his last movie, Antichrist, came out and thought this movie was pretty okay and it certainly shares the same sheer visual beauty as his new movie Melancholia... so he’s definitely back into a new phase of his work, now free to embrace the artifice of his craft once more.

Melancholia starts off with some surreal and occasionally confusing imagery... some of which I believe is based on a group of paintings that one of the two lead protagonists, Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) puts out on display in one of her “funny spells”. Definitely spotted a nod to that Pre-Raphaelite painting of the girl in the lake which was responsible for the death of the model (no, I’m sorry, I don’t remember the name of this famous painting). The other main protagonist, her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), has some very heavy footsteps in a field in this sequence which remind me of another painting, the title of which also escapes me (Not doing very well on the art front am I? Sorry people). After some 5 or 10 minutes of beautiful imagery, the earth is destroyed as it collides with another planet and, all through the film we are encouraged to assume that this is how the movie will end (although the giveaway clue here is Dunst seen in two different dresses). After the title card immediately following the destruction of the earth, the film is then split into two parts seemingly set before the events just depicted have taken place...each part named after their central characters. The first part deals with Justine who is going to her own wedding reception at claire’s mansion house. Over the course of this fairly gruelling sequence (if, like me, you are not a social animal) we see her wreck both her marriage and her career in an uncomfortable haze of aggressive depression, possibly manifested by the newly discovered planet Melancholia which appears to be on a collision course with earth, in front of a whole host of big name supporting cast (such as Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skaarsgard and even Claire’s husband played by Kiefer Sutherland).

The second part, named after Claire, is set some time after (a few months perhaps) when Justine is so depressed she can’t even get out of bed without major coaxing by her sister (yeah, did this stuff remind me big time of my ex-girlfriend) and tells of Claire’s fear of her belief that the earth will be pulverised by Melancholia, her husband’s certainty that it won’t and, their son who is getting as excited as his dad by this rare astronomical discovery. It also shows Justine in sharp contrast still to her sister, with whom she doesn’t share much in common. However, it also becomes apparent that Justine can see things that are going to happen and she believes Melancholia will be the death of them all (even when it seems to be receding) and is not frightened by it but is happy to embrace the peace that death will bring to her.

It has to be said at this point that nothing really happens in terms of story (except for, you know, the destruction of the entire planet). It is a beautifully framed and never boring study of the thoughts and actions of two diametrically opposed sisters who are anticipating the approaching end of the world. In this way, it perhaps shares a commonality with Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice or Akira Kurosawa’s I Live In Fear (aka Record Of A Living Being) but the film is very much its own thing and is an absolute joy to watch... although be warned it is quite bleak in some ways.

If I had one complaint about the film in general it’s that we didn’t need to see the destruction of the world at the end... we know it’s inevitable, leave it unsaid and end the movie half a day before it occurs maybe? However, having said that, the shot of the death of the world at the end does elaborate the point that the imagery at the start of the film was actually nothing more than a visionary “premonition of events” by Justine and not a fixed point we’ve flashed back too... there are clues in the dialogue which may lead you to this conclusion that the opening is not actually a flashback but something else entirely... but the end shot certainly leaves no doubt in the mind of the viewer about the nature of the movie’s prologue.

As I’ve implied, I would have expected and liked to have seen a more ambiguous ending to this movie in terms of the sometimes surreal opening montage, but maybe I just prefer less clarity and room to speculate with works like this. And, anyway, Kirsten Dunst does have scenes where she takes her clothes off... so that more than outweighs the slight dissatisfaction with the last minute or two of the movie.

Don’t miss Melancholia. A beautiful film made by an artist with a sure, steady and confident hand as befitting the longevity of his career. It probably won’t be playing for long so catch this visual magic while it’s still playing on the big screen!

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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Goodfellas - Morrie's Wigs Scene

The Great Acting Blog: "Delphine Seyrig In Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman"


“there is nothing so interesting on stage as a man trying to get a knot out of his shoelaces.” - Bertolt Brecht


Chantal Akerman's “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is a three and a half hour masterpiece about the meticulous domestic routine of a respectable middle aged woman, who occasionally receives “gentleman callers” in order to earn a little bit of extra cash. The film is constructed around Delphine Seyrig's performance in the title role, who is in every scene of the film, and it's a performance which really embodies many of the qualities I have been trying to articulate in this blog over the last year, which I think are needed to give great performances. It's true some may find her performance a little bit extreme – it possesses an austerity so severe it would make even George Osborne wince - however, it may infact be one of the purest performances I have ever seen on screen just because it is so extreme.


In a film largely made up of quotidian moments: Seyrig making the bed, Seyrig polishing her son's shoes, Seyrig peeling potatoes, to name but a few, Seyrig's performance is disciplined to such a degree that she only includes those actions which are absolutely necessary. There is no narration on her part, no characterization, no explanation, none of contemporary acting's naturalistic waffle, infact, there are little or no facial expressions throughout her performance, she remains very still, she is Stoical, and the net effect is to render everything she does meaningful, and especially her daily routine, to the extent that any disruption to it becomes an immensely powerful moment, as when she is polishing her son's shoe, she loses grip of the brush, causing it suddenly to fly out of her hand and onto the floor – it becomes an almost supernatural moment. Of course, all of this austerity is to serve the director's vision and fulfill the intentions of the script. The film is primarily constructed using frontal, symmetrical compositions, the camera is static, and the scenes are played out in real time, there are no close-ups, reverse shots, or point-of-view shots. This unblinking camerawork is a relentless examination of Delphine Seyrig herself and all that she is, the actress is under the microscopic here, as is her technique – there is no place to hide – however, she gives us a near flawless performance of awesome attention to detail, self-control, and self-denial, and you can't just magic this stuff out of thin air, you can't fake it, this kind intensity and precision can only be delivered after years of arduous application of craft, it requires enormous mental strength and an intense imagination. In this sense, Seyrig's performance is a real tour de force, not to say utterly inspiring.

Jeanne Dielman is a great film for showing how powerful can be the handling of objects as a means of expression for the actor. Seyrig is inscrutable in this role, she is enigmatic, she reveals no emotion, we learn nothing about her this way. However, when we see her pick-up a broom intent on using it but only to replace it a moment later, we witness indecision. Or when Seyrig forgets to replace the lid on the dish where she stashes her money, we witness distraction  – this is how Seyrig's interior life is revealed to us. The film has many such moments, and they are a joy for the actor because they are things he can actually do, and so help to render his performance truthful. They are also a joy for the audience because of the graphic and economic way they express the complex internal movements of the character.

Jeanne Dielmann really is one of the most distilled examples of a film which is simultaneously real and illusory. In her essay on the film, A Matter Of Time, Ivone Margulies writes that it crosses “the line between literal and acted scenes” - it is a product of Seyrig's performance of simple tasks and director Akerman's staging and design, or, put another way: a product of the filmmaker's fantasy and the truthful actions of the actor. It is not the actor's job to create the imaginary world of the film then, but the filmmaker's. It's the actor's job to be truthful within that world. The actor is a sort of Alice in the filmmaker's Wonderland. The actor represents the dreamer in a dream.