Milestones in Film

Features, FILM
To mark ten years online and in print, a selection of “personal milestones” from past and present contributors to The Lumière Reader.

This year, The Lumière Reader turned ten, a milestone we’ve achieved thanks to the enthusiasm and commitment of our many contributors. To reflect on a decade of criticism and feature writing, we proposed a “personal milestone” to our current staff, as well as some of our past contributors, as a way of encapsulating their own watershed moment in the appreciation of art. Some have used this as an opportunity to contemplate the significance of a specific work and its influence on their worldview; others have cited a meaningful encounter or event, either while on assignment for Lumière or from their own experience. The only criteria was that their chosen milestone would fall within The Lumière Reader’s ten year history (2003-2013).

Alexander Bisley, Brannavan Gnanalingam, Jacob Powell, Robert Metcalf, Steve Garden, and Tim Wong offer their Milestones in Film below; see the B-Side of this feature for Milestones in Books, Theatre and Art.

img_milestones-blueisthewarmAlexander Bisley

New York Film Festival, 2013

“I go to Paris, I go to London, I go to Rome, and I always say, ‘There’s no place like New York. It’s the most exciting city in the world now. That’s the way it is. That’s it.’” —Robert De Niro

I have special memories of interviews, from Robert Fisk to Savage via Pico Iyer. A milestone moment for me was a five-week trip to New York this year. My portfolio of Lumière (and freelance) work meant I got to cover the terrific New York Film Festival. Martin Scorsese to Adèle Exarchopoulos via Paul Greengrass and Jim Jarmusch, in the flesh. A dazzling range of New York cultural possibilities was on the whare: highlights included CMJ, The Glass Menagerie on Broadway (starring Margin Call’s Zachary Quinto), the New York Philharmonic playing Ludwig Van’s Ninth, and Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band.

Alexander Bisley has been an editor-at-large for The Lumière Reader since 2005. He has written extensively on film, books, music, theatre, and visual arts. Some recent highlights from Alexander’s freelance mahi can be read here.

img_milestones-melodyBrannavan Gnanalingam

Melody for a Street Organ
Kira Muratova, 2010

To try to narrow down nearly a decade of cinema pleasures to one film strikes me as almost impossible. There have been some bona fide masterpieces during that time—to mind comes The Headless Woman by Lucrecia Martel, Our Beloved Month of August by Miguel Gomes, Norte, the End of History by Lav Diaz, The Turin Horse by Bela Tarr, Mysteries of Lisbon by Raúl Ruiz, Meek’s Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt, Police, Adjective by Corneliu Poromboiu (actually, the Romanian New Wave with Lazarescu, Nicolae Ceacescu etc.), and Colossal Youth by Pedro Costa, amongst others. But cinema doesn’t exist in a vacuum, especially given the increasing pressures of funding and distribution in this internet-driven world—film is more easily accessible than ever before, but it’s also at the expense of the creators themselves. The ten years of Lumière’s life has also been a remarkably confusing time socially and politically. Economic boom years followed by a dreadful (and still lingering, despite what the politicians and media might tell you) collapse suggest that the good times were built on chimerical foundations. Economic disparity has widened, environmental degradation is ramping up, the war on terror and general scapegoating has somehow mutated into something even more ill-defined, and politicians gleefully blame the poor to cover up the economic woes, while simultaneously bailing out those who caused the carnage in the first place. And nothing structurally, despite the GFC, has changed, suggesting that it’s all going to happen again. Arguably there hasn’t been enough anger in terms of artistic statements from, and about, this period—the occasionally stellar documentary excepted. There almost has been a timidity in approaching the difficulties of the decade.

One film that certainly wasn’t timid, and perhaps the film that has come closest to capturing a sense of anger from the last decade—the illusion of the ‘good’ times, and the desperation of the ‘bad’—is Melody for a Street Organ by the Ukrainian director, Kira Muratova. Muratova captured the collapse of the Soviet Union with her scabrous masterpiece The Asthenic Syndrome. But equally angry and perhaps even more incisive is her stunning 2009 film. This time, unlike the corrupt and emetic Communist regime of The Asthenic Syndrome, the social climate is one of rampant and gleeful capitalism in the post-Cold War world. And nothing seems to have improved.

Melody for a Street Organ follows two children, Alyona and Nikita—a half-brother and sister—as they search for one of their fathers. It’s Christmas, and the Ukrainian winter isn’t particularly helpful for two kids without a place to stay. The film opens with fairly unsubtle images of the Massacre of the Innocents, Christmas cards promising salvation, and cheap Christmas items being hawked. It’s a milieu showing the ‘innocent’ being punished, and coddled by ideology and consumerist diversions. And as the film progresses, in an almost anti-Christmas fairy tale style, Alyona and Nikita find themselves being punished more and more by a whole cast of characters—beggars, mall-owners, perfect bourgeois families, dogs, and mothers. Muratova depicts a deeply individualistic and selfish society. People are helped for personal gain (if they’re helped at all), whereas the rest are happy to use the naïve children gleefully without a second thought. It’s a ruthless view of contemporary society; sure Soviet Union-style communism has fallen over, but is this really the victor?

While this film is certainly grim, Muratova manages to avoid any of the pitfalls associated with this kind of social realism. She avoids pathos, sentimentality, or easy-won social commentary. There’s real warmth in how she depicts her slightly un-cuddly children, and their relationship forms the beating heart of the film. She also manages to avoid this being a simple exercise in heavy-handedness, by her exquisite use of slapstick, absurdist traditions, physical theatre, and wordplay. It’s a bleakly funny film. She also displays the availability of artistic resources for contemporary artists, though Muratova’s career has always shown a wonderful ability to mix a vast variety of art-forms and artistic traditions into her work.

The story is also complemented by her wonderful imagery (the music’s not bad either). Throughout Muratova’s oeuvre her imagery has been striking, but it is really something here. Her use of inside-outside space, the constricting nature of the architecture, the striking imagery (the gender-swapping posters , the snow, the fairy godmother), the visual parallels to a myriad of other artistic and filmic traditions—it’s a visually dense and rich film to let wash-over you. But it’s not a film that you can simply passively watch. It’s not a film simply about post-glasnost Ukraine. It’s an aggressive and angry masterpiece—but necessarily so.

Brannavan Gnanalingam is a writer based in Wellington who has written extensively on film, literature, music, and theatre. He has been an editor-at-large for The Lumière Reader since 2006. His debut novel, ‘Getting Under Sail’, was published by Lawrence & Gibson in 2010. His follow-up novel, ‘You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here’, was released in October.

img_milestones-boyJacob Powell

Taika Waititi, 2010

Selecting a personal milestone from my last ten years of viewing has not been the easiest of tasks. Like most I have been privy to a number of transcendent cinematic experiences—whether joyous, emotionally devastating, or captivatingly strange—that, in terms of the pure quality of the work, far outclass my choice of Taika Waititi’s 2010 absurdist dramedy Boy. Not that I consider Boy a poor film by any means; it even made it to No. 8 on my Top 10 Films of 2010 list. What really sets the movie apart for me is the overwhelming sense of familiarity I experienced (and still experience) watching it. Underneath an absurdist veneer (though childhood accounts for some of this aspect too), watching Boy was like seeing a long distant slice of my own life play out on-screen. Writer/director Taika Waititi and I are of an age (both August babies, two years apart), we are both Maori, and hail from New Zealand’s East coast (Te Whanau-a-Apanui & Ngati Porou). In fact I am directly of an age with the Waititi’s titular proxy Boy: an 11 year old growing up in an East coast beach community in 1984. As such, all of our cultural and pop-cultural references are exactly the same; our living context spookily similar. Spending periods living around the extended whanau, wandering the countryside barefoot, parties in the garage seated on old car seats and beer crates, aunty working in the local store (actually mine ran the fish and chip shop), cousins named ‘girl’, ‘missy’, ‘boy’, being left to hang out or sleep in the family car, washing hands on the way out of the urupa (cemetery), playing on near constant repeat my cassettes of Bob Marley compilation album Legend and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller—these are all key descriptors of my childhood.

That April evening I sat in the cinema shell-shocked, not quite knowing how to process what I was seeing. I knew that I very much liked Boy but I really couldn’t give it any kind of objective assessment as I had never (and have not since) felt such a close sense of connectedness with a set of characters or story setting. And I had no idea what other people might make of it. I was glad to hear later many positive comments about the film, which was darker in tenor than I expected whilst expressing a clear sense of whimsy. After several subsequent viewings I retain a deep affection for this film, which stirs me in ways I find difficult to express. All I can say is that Boy is one of the most personally affecting pieces of cinema I have yet encountered if primarily for reasons that (relatively) few other viewers will share.

Jacob Powell is an Auckland-based cinephile and longtime contributor to The Lumière Reader (since 2005).

img_milestones-windthatshakesRobert Metcalf

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Ken Loach, 2006

A good film can make clear with the force of an epiphany a truth only dimly realised. For me, watching Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley at the 2006 New Zealand International Film Festival left an indelible impression. All wars are brutal, but civil wars bring forth a particular kind of horror; there is no unifying principle, and radicalisation becomes a vortex—“things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” We are, of course, frequently reminded of this brutality by history books, documentaries and news reports. But it took a film to convey to me most viscerally, inured as we are to the suffering in news reports, the true horror of a civil war.

The lines are clearly drawn at the beginning of the film, as the British troops round up a group of Irish men, women and children, and murder one of the young men for defiantly speaking Gaelic—easy enough to work out who are the goodies and the baddies in that scene. And so I watched approvingly as the idealistic band of freedom fighters, led by brothers Teddy and Damien O’Donovan, valiantly opposed their occupiers. But as the violence intensified I found myself conflicted—where could I place my allegiance? In a profoundly disquieting scene, Damien shoots Chris Reilly, whom he has known his entire life, on a cold and misty hillside, for passing information to the British. Are these still the good guys?

I remember learning about Irish independence and the civil war at school: the Easter Rising, the fight for independence, the granting of home rule. It all seemed to happen in logical steps in the textbooks, but then they contained nothing as vivid as that awful execution on a hillside. Loach goes on to dramatise masterfully the divisive British decision to grant home rule instead of full independence. It causes the Irish patriots in the film to split, Teddy Donovan becoming a policeman in the new Irish free state, Damien continuing the fight for full independence. And so the brothers become enemies. Inevitably, one must kill the other, but the final scene is truly shocking.

Having been lured into believing in the cause at the beginning of the film, I was left with an uncomfortable sense of complicity. What had it all been for, if the end of the process was two brothers fighting to the death for different versions of the same cause? It seemed unnatural, and in the final scene, Loach captures the essence of civil war’s special horror: it is a creature that consumes itself, like Duncan’s horses. Whenever I read of some new internal conflict, with its string of car bombings and factional violence, I can’t help but think of that final scene, and I know that somewhere, in some unknown village, people who have grown up together, shared a drink or a meal, a laugh, perhaps even brothers, will now be fighting to the death, and all for what? Such is the power of a good film.

Robert Metcalf has been an occasional reviewer for The Lumière Reader since 2006.

img_milestones-dansSteve Garden

Dans le noir du temps
Jean-Luc Godard, circa 2003

How does one select a single film from a decade of viewing that encapsulates one’s relationship with cinema? The other question was whether any film could match the impact and lasting influence of my early encounters with cinema, films such as Mirror, Gertrud, Vampyr, Mouchette, Diary of a Country Priest, Siberiade, Hungarian Rhapsody, The Round-Up, L’Eclisse, and Vivre sa vie? I’ve revisited these films in the last ten years, and all (with maybe one exception) continue to speak with great cinematic authority.

Over the last ten years (and long before), the Auckland International Film Festival has offered countless opportunities for cinema to reaffirm itself, from retrospectives by the likes of Jean Eustache (Mes petites amoureuses), Maurice Pialat (Under Satan’s Sun) and Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer’s Day), through the work of singular masters such as Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), Bela Tarr (Satantango), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Café Lumiere), Bruno Dumont (Humanitie), Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light) and Lav Diaz (Norte, the End of History), to the visceral tremors of Decasia (Bill Morrison) and Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel). Of course, these barely skim the surface of the cinematic wealth the festival has brought to us, programmes from which any number of films could be singled out as the most significant of the decade.

I could perhaps cite the unexpected revelation when watching Thunderball recently (which I hadn’t seen since I was 9 or 10 years old, and was intrigued to see after all these years), that it wasn’t James Bond and his license-to-thrill that compelled me to go to the film almost every day during its school holiday run, but the mesmerising atmospheric combination of sound and image. I was shocked to realise that it may have been Thunderball not Mirror that kindled an early appreciation for the profoundly intimate aesthetic power of cinema.

Perhaps I could focus on the development of the Blu-ray format, currently the ‘connoisseur’s choice’ for home theatres (not to mention smaller commercial theatres, too). Blu-ray has revitalised my viewing habits. When well projected, the luminosity, transparency and depth of both the image and sound of a good transfer brings a film to vivid life. Consequently, my film viewing has increased from a few times a week to almost every night. A recent joy has been Alexandr Sokurov’s Whispering Pages (1993). At just over an hour long, this masterwork (along with Faust, with which it resonates in many respects) rates as one of the most exceptional films I’ve seen in the last decade.

Despite the impossibility of singling out one film to define a decade of film-viewing, there is one however that occupies a special place in my ‘personal canon’ (if I can put it that way), and surprisingly (for me, at least), it isn’t some long, near-silent, contemplative meditation on the miseries of the human condition, but a relatively modest 10-minute short by Jean-Luc Godard. Dans le noir du temps (In the Darkness of Time, 2002) was essentially cut from the same cloth as Godard’s De L’Origine du XXIe Siecle (2001), a 16-minute film gleaned from Godard’s 265-minute magnum opus, Histoire du cinema (1988-1998). Dans le noir du temps was released as part of a omnibus project called Ten Minutes Older, for which fifteen filmmakers where invited to contribute 10-minute pieces on the theme of time: how life, in a mere ten minutes, can change forever.

In my view, this film is essential viewing for anyone with a serous interest in cinema, and particularly the work of Jean-Luc Godard. First and foremost, it acts as an invaluable key to understanding Godard, particularly his output over the last thirty years. His 60s films (most of them) are great, and his (often intriguing) work in the 70s served to establish the methodology that would inform the impressive body of work to follow, which in many respects is unsurpassed in terms of the breadth and depth of its formal, philosophical, political, and personal dimensions. Few, if any, of these films could be considered easy viewing. Some are more ‘accessible’ than others, but all require active participation from the viewer, and definitely more than one viewing. These films don’t tell you what to think (or feel) because they expect you to do so.

Dans le noir du temps is, to an extent, something of a portrait of Godard: his passion, anguish, joy, contempt, and hope, both for the medium he dedicated his life to, and the condition of humankind. Few films affect me as this one has, but having screened it for numerous people over the years, I appreciate that whatever it is that speaks profoundly to me won’t necessarily translate to others—at least, not in the same way. Which is as it should be. It’s not an easy film to recommend, but if one is open to it the film will act as a mirror, telling you something about yourself and the condition of the world, and, if you’re lucky, it might just bring you to your knees.

View Dans le noir du temps here.

Steve Garden is a founding director of New Zealand art-music label, Rattle. As a recording engineer, his primary focus is recording content for the Rattle catalogue. His interest in cinema began in the late 70s, and he continues to be an obsessive collector, viewer, and very occasional commentator (for The Lumière Reader, since 2008).

img_milestones-iwasbornbutTim Wong

I Was Born, But…
Yasujiro Ozu, Wellington Film Society, 2005

Much has changed about the movies in the past ten years: how we watch them and how they are delivered to us; how we make them and how we write about them. But when hasn’t film, as an industry and as a culture, been in a state of flux? The only constant, it seems, is our willingness to still refer to it as ‘film’—an old habit that will surely die hard despite cinema’s rapid digital transformation. Or perhaps because of: there’s never been a better time to be a cinephile, with the digital age having revolutionised our access to a century of cinema shot on celluloid. Technology has also been instrumental in allowing for marginalised and forgotten works to be rediscovered, and, through new modes of conversation and criticism, to be appreciated in a new light. The standard of presentation is now so good—when coupled with proper restoration, a Blu-ray transfer on a hi-definition television is a superb way to revisit a film—that the living room, at least in my house, has become a fully-fledged cinematheque, one I frequent with a diminishing sense of nostalgia for the traditions of film going.

Still, the question I asked myself while contemplating this short essay was if cinema would be same without ‘the cinema’—and whether the cinematic milestones I’ve encountered since founding Lumière were in any way crystallised by the ‘live’ setting of the movie theatre. In the case of my contribution to Sight and Sound’s “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012, the two contemporary films in my ballot, Mulholland Drive (2001) and The Intruder (2004), are inseparable in my memory from the circumstances in which they were viewed: at the New Zealand International Film Festival. Upon developing a passion for movies, the festival quickly became an integral part of my film appreciation while also heightening my awareness of the possibilities of the form. Based on this, my personal milestone in film, I decided, would be defined as much by the context of the experience as the content. To that end, lest we forget there’s something uniquely electrifying about the cinema when the conditions—the atmosphere, the projection, the company, and of course, the movie—are just right.

Those looking forward will cite Gravity as a reminder of why we still go to the movies with an experience impossible to replicate in the home—beyond the technical spectacle, when has the sound of silence, for instance, resonated so profoundly in a peopled setting? But I hasten to add that a shock encounter with the future of cinema is quickly surpassed in an era where ‘new’ becomes ‘old’ in an instant, and that a more important reason to remain loyal to the movie theatre is the opportunity it affords us to reconnect with its roots. Some of the best experiences I’ve had at the movies have come via silent film events, my favourite of which was Wellington Film Society’s 2005 resurrection of Yasujiro Ozu’s, I Was Born, But… (1932), a dark working class comedy reworked as the hilarious satire Good Morning in 1959.

Those who remember the screening as fondly as I do will be able to tell you that it was presented in the tradition of Benshi—a lost performance art from Japan’s pre-sound era. Augmenting the musical accompaniment, a Benshi artist (in this case, Auckland-based academic Tomoko Shimoda) narrates the film for the audience in native Japanese, from reciting intertitles to voicing characters and providing live foley effects. This joyous and poetic display, one never to be repeated, was not only a moment owing to the magic of cinema to savour, but a timely reminder that screen artists have been innovating and experimenting since the dawn of film. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that for over sixty years, Film Societies in this country have assumed the mantle of ‘cinematheque’, well before home video and the Internet, and that New Zealand would be a rather depressing place for cinephiles without them. In the case of I Was Born, But…, although I now own a copy on DVD, have the option of streaming it online, and can highlight, contextualise, and even rescue it from obscurity by writing criticism, none of these alternatives allow me to relive the film as if were 1932. For that rare privilege, we rely on the crucial work of archivists, programmers, and curators.

A final note: as old paradigms make way for new ones, it’s my hope that cinema can remain all of these things and more in the future—a fluid and malleable art form without boundaries defined by age, nationality, technology, or popularity, not to mention where it exists and how it is consumed. I’d like to think that the film criticism we’ve published over the past ten years has reflected that ideal, and that our capacity to do so over the next ten years persists.

N.B. A close second: Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, 2012.

Tim Wong is a cinephile, writer, and designer. He founded The Lumière Reader (née Lumière Magazine) in 2003, which he continues to edit and maintain, though not without the words and wisdom of numerous contributors, and the encouragement and support of many others.