Cinema Extreme: Extreme Cinema 5
Cinema Extreme propelled itself into the New Year last Saturday with another diverse smattering of directorial juvenilia. The Curzon Cinema in Soho was again awash with the usual journalistic types (and some fakers like me) and film school chancers, out to glean some insight into just how to make a dent in this industry and more importantly; how to turn that dent into a permanent mark.
This month the event was so well attended that it fully packed out the Curzon’s larger auditorium (last months’ barely packed the smaller of the two) and I was seemingly sandwiched between throngs of young would-be-filmmakers who all appeared to know each other, as if they were on a class day out. Their appetite for a healthy dose of quality short filmmaking was undoubtedly replenished following the dismal cinematic offerings witnessed on TV over the Christmas period.
And positively perky were the three films comprising this month’s bill. Customarily well picked for their origin, quality and contrasting sensibilities, Denmark’s Lars Von Trier, French filmmaker Patrice Leconte and our very own Hollywood stalwart Stephen Frears all had very interesting things to show and say in short.
Images of Relief, Lars Von Trier (1983)
Images of Relief (Befrielsesbilleder) was Lars Von Triers’ Film School graduation short from 1983, and at little under an hour long it could almost qualify as a feature. Images of Relief takes place during the last days of World War 2. A German officer, staring defeat and death in the face within the claustrophobic and stifling atmosphere of an underground bunker regress’s into childhood memories and ponders on his relationship with the wife that he has left at home. These scenes are interspersed with authentic newsreel footage of Danish collaboration on the streets of Copenhagen during the war. Von Trier, Dogme 95 exponent and director of Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, adapts a non-narrative framework awash with startling visuals to effectively replicate a succession of intimate memories. The opening shots of the underground bunker resemble a Sado-masochistic sex dungeon; the lighting is gaudy-red as the soldiers struggle to retain their sanity. This is contrasted with the calming open space of the forest in his memories. Fresh and wintry, here the officer confronts his adulterous wife amongst the trees and birdsong of his youth. Images of Relief is a daring and experimental endeavour. More for the imagery and staging than for the story, Von Triers’ film has a complexity rarely witnessed in the short film. It is very reminiscent of the work of British director Derek Jarman in its style, structure and in the use of colloquial song, but it retains an idiosyncratically unsettling quality that has continued on into Von Triers’ mature work.
Le Batteur De Bolero, Patrice Leconte (1992)
Le Batteur de Bolero is the quintessential short film from French, Oscar nominated director Patrice Leconte. It is brief, light and highly imaginative, taking a single idea and expanding upon it. The film opens as the camera moves across an orchestra, finally coming to rest upon the drummer in the back row as the classical piece “Bolero” cranks up. The camera remains stationery for the rest of the film, concentrating solely on the drummers’ efforts to maintain the tempo of the music, whilst enduring the multiple distractions that he faces in the auditorium. This short is held together by a naturally funny central performance from French comedy actor Jacques Villeret, his expressions and pained commitment to the rhythm are highly amusing, and manage to turn some sight gags into a very impressive short film. The comedy element is derived solely from the drummers reactions displayed in his fully animated face.
The Burning, Stephen Frears (1968)
The guest speakers’ own short film from 1968 preceded his witty questions and answers session. Frears’ first proper foray into directing, The Burning, owes a lot in the uncomplicated manner of its style, and indeed in some respects its subject matter, to the work of his mentors. Frears early association with filmmakers such as Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson have clearly influenced this tale of racial tensions in post-colonial South Africa. A young boy, his grandmother and their black servants take a trip to visit relatives, only to discover when they arrive that the house is deserted and has been burgled by a group of Black South African militants, who subsequently return and burn the family car with the black chauffeur inside whilst the little boy looks on in horror. Frears’ film is a mature work, cataloguing the unacceptable face of apartheid and oppression and its effects on peoples within the same community (for example the black South Africans are divided between “Kaffirs”, the militants and those who serve the ruling white classes). Its socially motivated content, fully realised in the finale, is stirring but never overly melodramatic, and the entire piece is kept emotionally grounded throughout. The performances are expressive; the interplay between the little boy and his elderly grandmother is particularly well rendered. The Burning is an early indication that Frears’ was to become a director who always has something relevant to say.
Stephen Frears Q and A
Stephen Frears is one of the UK’s most enduring directors, who has tasted success on both sides of the Atlantic. He studied law at Cambridge University before working at the Royal Court theatre with members of the “British New Wave” such as Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. His breakthrough movie My Beautiful Launderette centred on the homosexual love-affair between a Skinhead, street punk (a then unknown Daniel Day-Lewis) and a young Pakistani businessman. Billed as an attack on Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, it was soon embraced by members of the right. Frears made successful forays into Hollywood with the Oscar nominated The Grifters and Dangerous Liasons. After some mixed success in the 1990’s, where he turned his hand to the “Studio Picture” with disastrous results, Frears has delivered another bang up to date insight into modern Britain with Dirty Pretty Things, which takes the plight of asylum seekers in London as its subject matter.
He turned up after his impressive short, The Burning rounded things off to deliver an entertaining, cheeky and cantankerous insight into his career and his work:
Interviewer: What I’d first like to do is to ask Stephen a few Questions about his short film.
Stephen Frears: Can I just make a statement. I have only just discovered why you are all here. I thought you were here to see a screening of Dirty Pretty Things, I’m terribly sorry. Its nothing to do with me, I’m gob smacked.
Interviewer: You have heard of these Extreme Shorts mornings haven’t you?
SF: Well I haven’t come across this phrase Extreme Cinema before, its my own fault because I don’t read e mails.
Interviewer: Well we saw this film of yours.
SF: High marks for endurance. I think I’ve got better.
Interviewer: Now when did you last see it?
SF: 1968 (the year it was produced). It was shot in 67 and I finished editing it in 68, and stopped looking at it in 68, and continued not looking at it ever since.
Interviewer:It’s a shame because it really is a wonderful film, what inspired it?
SF: I can show you The Grifters (LAUGHS). It was a short story, and I must have read it and thought it was rather good and that it would make a rather good film, and I though that I should do something and try and have a go at making a film.
Interviewer: So what did you do then, did you actually approach the writer and get him to work on a script?
SF: I was at the time married to a woman that was working at Faber’s the publisher and I can’t remember the sequence of events but I guess we got the author to write a script. Then we raised money and made it.
Interviewer: How did you finance it?
SF: I put some money in myself and various other people gave me bits. You make a first film in order to get a job, to announce that you’re a filmmaker, I guess I got work on the back of it and so therefore it was entirely successful. You set about making it in the way that you make any film, but I realise that the sources of funding are much more scarce nowadays.
Interviewer: What was the context in which you could make a short film in those days, there was the BFI, was there any other funding bodies?
SF: There was no real context, probably less than there is now, it was the usual smash and grab, you raise money you make a film.
Interviewer: How did you hire the actors in “The Burning”?
SF: Well the character of the old lady was an extremely distinguished South African and English actress, she played Juliet opposite Sir John Gielgud, she was a class act.
Interviewer: How did you get her to perform in your film then?
SF: She instinctively knew that I was a refined, mature… (LAUGHS). They were just around in London, the character of the Chauffeur was some kind of refugee in London, you just find them around. It emerged that I could make the film in Tangiers, and there was an ex-patriot community and so I found the child star of the film amongst them. Most interestingly when I went on the recce to Tangiers I flew back with Kenneth Williams!
Interviewer: What sort of exposure did the film get?
SF: it was a triumph, it played at the Curzon in Mayfair with “The Bride Wore Black”, a film that Francois Truffaut made.
Interviewer: How did you assemble the crew for the film?
SF: Well there are always people around who are well disposed to making films. Eventually you discover that there are a whole group of people who are willing to work for very little money and make these kind of films, you really have to tap into the community, and I started to stumble into it. The cameraman was Australian and the sound recordist Christian Wangler I subsequently worked with a lot.
Interviewer: Where did your career lead after you made the film?
SF: On the strength of that I started to get more professional. I managed to get work with Yorkshire Television making children’s films, it was a place where I could practice my work, so I was going up to Leeds all the time to produce half hour episodes. I did those for a year or so, and then I met a chap called Neville Smith and we wrote “Gumshoe” (Frears’ first feature) and managed to make it into a film starring Albert Finney.
Interviewer: So within 4 years you had made your first feature film?
SF: I made a film before I was thirty, which is a major achievement but at the time it seemed like an enormous struggle.
Interviewer: And how did you finance that?
SF: well as soon as Albert Finney was on board, people queued up to finance it, in the end it was financed by Columbia Pictures.
Interviewer: Now you work at The National Film and Television School a lot between making films, and you’re working with quite a lot of young directors making their first films. Do you see any parallels between the world you were in and the world that young filmmakers find themselves in today?
SF: Well right now its terrible, but you could say its better and worse. A lot of first films are getting made but not many second films, which seems to have its own particular cruelty. At a certain point I think people need protection, I was somehow very lucky I worked with Karel Reisz and Albert Finney and Lindsay Anderson and I became a sort of apprentice to them even before I had made this film and so I already had a gang of angels protecting me, and eventually I got to the BBC, which was like a nursery where you were protected. So really until I emerged at the end of the seventies I was in a very protected world, with remarkable, different values. So I was really protected for about 12 or 15 years. Then I discovered the horrors of capitalism.
Interviewer: With the arrival of Channel Four?
SF: No Channel Four was alright because it was made up of BBC people, then I made the fatal mistake of making a film that made money for Channel Four, whereupon everybody got over-excited.
Interviewer: And so Dangerous Liaisons was your first corporate film?
SF: Well My Beautiful Launderette turned out to be capitalist, it was of course about capitalism and it turned out to be a perfect Thatcherite specimen. Once you make money for people the game is up really.
Interviewer: And around about that time did you think that people began to see you differently because the French always viewed you as an Auteur. Do you think there is a distinction between the way Europeans see you work and the way Hollywood perceives your work?
SF: Well the values of the two places are completely different, but all I do is make films, and I try and do the same thing each time but people perceive each film in different ways. Its quite interesting trying to pick your way through, because when I am in Europe I tend to defend Hollywood and when I am in Hollywood I do… whatever!?
Interviewer: I Know you have a lot of scripts sent to you, what compels you to choose a certain script over another?
SF: Whether I like it or not. You simply think that’s great, or people would like to see that, or I would like to go to the cinema to see that, that’s all. Nobody ever believes me.
Interviewer: Can you tell us what you’re planning to do next?
SF: No, because I am trying to set up the next thing I am going to do and I am very superstitious about mucking it up. But I would like to do something for television over here, and then a film with enormous stars!
Interviewer: But you said you would never go back to Hollywood again.
SF: I never said that, there are no rules in this business and there is no need to take a position on anything. I’m sorry am I saying the wrong things?
Interviewer: What advice can you give young filmmakers about how to proceed?
SF: I wouldn’t presume to give anyone advice. It always helps when you have good material, it always fucks people up with embarrassment when material is good, it causes trouble and they find it harder to say no.
Interviewer: What do you get out of working with young filmmakers?
SF: First of all I don’t have to make a film which is a tremendous relief, but also I find young people bright and in their questioning I always think that I learn rather more than they do, simply by being young they brighten the whole place up and I don’t have to listen to boring people like me!
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