Recently Ken Loach described ‘fake nostalgia’ in television and film as ‘bad history, bad drama. It puts your brain to sleep.’ Aside from the obvious culprits, Downtown Abbey and Poldark to name a few, the closer you look, the easier it is to see this ‘fake nostalgia’ seeping through the cracks, into more and more […]
Kirsten Johnson humorously pulls out tufts of grass from in front of the camera, through a frustrating haze and vegetation that requires “natural editing”.
In this unique memoir, Johnson has produced a startling collage of her work, entwined with beautifully placed personal touches. With an impressive back catalogue including FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004) and DERRIDA (2002) Johnson’s personal memoir is made up of other people’s stories, which offer an incredibly insightful look into the true reality of documentary filmmaking.
CAMERAPERSON could have easily become a jumbled mess of scrap footage but Johnson has gathered material in such a way that it is hard not to become invested in the individual stories, even during a mere 30 seconds of film. Stories are developed throughout: a Muslim family living in Foča, a Nigerian midwife and a wounded boy in Afghanistan all re-appear, giving the film a linearity. The collage also plays host to footage of her father and her two children as well as her mother, who slowly becomes less lucid as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s.
Several short montages throughout the film aid audience reflection and allow thinking time; one that stands out is a series of still shots (Wounded Knee, The World Trade Centre, Tahrir Square) a sequence that narrates the historical horrors of the human world. It addresses the morality of documentary filmmaking, and more so, how what is being documented promulgates humans as voyeurs of horror.
“Americans act like they’re being filmed”
CAMERAPERSON shows the art of the documentary and its uniqueness as a form of storytelling. There’s the push and pull between being an observer and being emotionally involved with individual stories which creates a fascinating and engaging truth behind each film. Johnson breaks away from the role of observer occasionally, reassuring a young girl at a family planning clinic, as a friend would do. The way the subjects interact with Johnson herself, shows the impact felt by individuals both in front of and behind the camera. A fundamental element in order to accurately portray the reality of each story, and why it shouldn’t surprise audiences that Johnson felt this was integral to her cinematic memoir alongside family footage.
As well as beautifully endearing and thought provoking sequences, CAMERAPERSON reveals an underlying theme of Western culture and the media. Instead of being mesmerized by the camera, or just too busy to realise it’s there, the American subjects remain un-fazed, comfortable and often more animated and feigning under the gaze of the lens. “Americans act like they’re being filmed”, Jacques Derrida paraphrases while crossing a busy Manhattan road, calling into question documentary realism and authenticity in the Western world. What real stories can be captured if the subjects themselves have evolved to adopt a demeanour that places them in front of a metaphorical camera all of the time?
What CAMERAPERSON leaves behind is not only a unique insight into documentary filmmaking from an angle minimally explored, but with it, a wider sense of knowing. Every story, including her own, lingers long after the lights go up in this thoughtful, well-constructed cinematic scrapbook.
Originally featured on Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2017/cameraperson
Mike Mills transports audiences back to a 1979 Santa Barbara complete with its waning hippie culture, the final death throes of punk and the rise of female identity in this beautifully acted and poignant film.
Like in Mill’s 2010 film BEGINNERS, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is peppered with carefully imposed vignettes of pop culture photographs. These, combined with excerpts lifted from books and speeches from the likes of Jimmy Carter and Judy Blume, immerse the audience in the lives of the characters. Although 20TH CENTURY WOMEN may seem sparse in its drama, it still packs one heck of a punch with standout performances and a realistic portrayal of family and identity in a time of change.
Annette Bening plays Dorothea, the strong-minded and straight talking mother of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothea enlists the help of her lodger, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning), in raising her son to become a moral, well-rounded individual. She soon realises, though, that maybe entrusting Jamie’s future self to two young women who have yet to find their own paths may not have been the best idea. Of course, the opposite is soon realised as the girls give Jamie the emotional tools he needs to connect with his mother.
There is a disconnect between Jamie and Dorothea, a gap that they both try to bridge throughout. Both characters never really communicate in a genuine way until the end of the film, where they evolve and begin to understand each other and in some ways, accept that they never really will. The characters have a past, portrayed through cleverly positioned and detailed voice-overs; the audience are experiencing their present and again through the art of voice-over, become part of their future. The film may end in 1979 but viewers are given enough information to take them through to the year 2000. The motif of a future rushing towards them is carried through the film in forms of fast-paced vignettes and beautifully trippy, time-lapsed driving sequences.
There is a sense of the characters wanting to escape reality: Julie and Abbie do this through fantasy and role-play, which serves as a way for them to open up and explore who they are, but also to protect themselves. Dorothea escapes confronting her own problems by opening her home to everyone else, including shampoo-making mechanic William (Billy Crudup) as well as immersing herself in constant home improvements. Although the film’s central theme is one of family and relationships, it is also a film about nostalgia, of how memories serve as filters, making the past beautiful. Mills creates an authentic 1979 with the film’s subtle fashion choices and soundtrack, flitting between the likes of Talking Heads and Louis Armstrong without it becoming too overpowering. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is an original and witty coming-of-age film, complete with zingy one-liners courtesy of Bening. It perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the time, a country in the midst of change, soon to make way for Reagan and MTV, and the uncertain limbo of the late 70s and early 80s – reflected in the generation gap between Dorothea and Jamie that neither of them are quite sure how to handle. With Mills already championing a unique style of realistic filmmaking and storytelling, what comes next from him is cause for much anticipation.
Originally featured on Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2017/20th-century-women
CALEB transports audiences into a not-so-distant future with a thoughtful and relevant sci-fi short that deals with the morality of ever-advancing technology and its effect on family and relationships. Filmmakers Amanda Mesaikos and Susanne Aichele explain, “We decided to explore dynamics that lie at the heart of a family and the effects of technology as it hurtles us into the future”.
Caleb (played by both James and William Hall) decides to 3D print himself in order to create a friend to help ward off bullies, which in turn creates a moral dilemma for his parents, both of whom are victims to a world of digital natives: which has ultimately created a disjointed and uncommunicative family unit. Peppered with futuristic touches, CALEB charts the evolution of handheld technology, bioengineering and fashion trends with well-poised performances that give a sense of a realistic future.
Although the family has embraced the modern world, there is still an element of the traditional: Spanish language post-it notes clutter the kitchen, shuffling through papers in bed, a home cooked meal. “We wanted our film to still feel grounded in a world recognisable to us,” say Mesaikos and Aichele. The deliberate 1970’s EPA-inspired colour grade adds a touch of nostalgia: “we wanted to create this sort of hazy dream-like space between past and future. Something between a dream and a nightmare.” Current events have been thoughtfully evolved into an imagined future. Hints towards diminishing green spaces, over-development and similar realistic issues and trends are subtly interwoven within the narrative, which makes CALEB a refreshing and honest contribution to the science fiction genre.
As well as confronting issues surrounding a technology-ruled existence, this film goes even deeper, exploring society’s stereotypical view of motherhood as Caleb’s mother, Sonia (Elizabeth Healy) knows they must choose between both sons. “We do feel it’s important to challenge the way we view motherhood and fatherhood but also how, on an individual level, be it for men or women, parenthood will challenge your views and decisions,” say the filmmakers. Both boys share identical memories and experiences but are individually affected by their surroundings. This raises questions surrounding what makes us human, what makes us unique and whether both children are as human as each other due to their different reactions to the world around them.
Caleb, complete with its indirect Orwellian undertones, raises questions about the possible consequences that come with a society dominated by technology and if that is something humankind is ready for. Mesaikos and Aichele’s film sits on the fence and offers a diplomacy in its approach to technology and society. Although a world rich in advanced technology seems to be a major player in causing the character’s familial dislocation, it also becomes the very thing that brings them closer together.
Originally featured on Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2017/caleb
As the festive season looms, the Scrooges of the world need an outlet, something to transport them from the jingle hell of the holidays. As the festive shocker BLACK CHRISTMAS approaches its 45th birthday, we look back at the often ignored slasher film that not only set the bar for future generations of slasher movies, but that transported Christmas from its sugar-coated wonderland to a world of gore, entrails and the creepiest phone voice in the entire world.
Director Bob Clark, perhaps better known for his 1981 film PORKY’S, created what was at the time a frightening, original and humorous slasher film that still deserves an annual visit after the decorations are up. BLACK CHRISTMAS follows Barb (Margot Kidder), Jess (Olivia Hussey) and their fellow sorority sisters as they’re terrorised during their Christmas party by “the moaner”: a deranged serial killer who hides in the attic and makes salacious phone calls, before stalking and murdering the students. BLACK CHRISTMAS is regarded by most as the original slasher film, whose only contenders are Mario Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD (1971) and fellow 1974 slasher THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, all of which paved the way for films such as SCREAM (1996), HALLOWE’EN (1978) and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) to name but a few.
Watch BLACK CHRISTMAS today and it may look predictable and unoriginal, but it was the first of its kind and gave birth to so many of the clichés and thematic conventions that we see in contemporary horror cinema. When we think of a killer calling from inside the house, the go-to film is WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) but unknown to many, BLACK CHRISTMAS did it first. John Carpenter’s HALLOWE’EN was hugely influenced by Bob Clark’s film, and striking similarities can be seen between the two, such as the prowling POV shot as the killer enters the house and the scene in which Hussey’s character discovers a body in a bedroom before being attacked by the killer. Similar to an iconic scene in HALLOWE’EN where Jamie-Lee Curtis discovers her friends’ bodies in a bedroom before her arm is slashed by a waiting Michael Myers.
The phone calls between the killer and Hussey’s character are integral to the film, leading to its climax. SCREAM is another film associated with a phone-happy killer and whose plot hinges on dialogue between killer and potential victim, the element of the known but not known. The characters can hear the killer’s voice but never see their true face until the end. BLACK CHRISTMAS only ever hints at a solution, and the audience is left questioning the killer’s identity: unlike SCREAM there is no big reveal. BLACK CHRISTMAS also introduced the concept of the “final girl” (Hussey) which has been a staple of the horror genre ever since.
In 2006 audiences were subjected to the dreaded re-make, unwelcomed by many critics. However, despite the lack of substance, cinema-goers were treated again to a comprehensive demonstration of the slasher movie conventions audiences know and love. It could be seen as a celebration (although wrapped badly) of the original 1974 film and its influence on horror cinema.
Not only was BLACK CHRISTMAS the first slasher film but it was also by default the first Christmas slasher film, a motif that has been repeated and has given audiences some sensational (and some not so sensational) holiday horrors such as RARE EXPORTS (2010), GREMLINS (1984), CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984). There has always been this desire in cinema to transform something originally perceived as joyous and warm and turn it on its head into something terrifying and violent. Christmas is a great example, the time of year where people are supposedly content, sitting in front of warm fires, drinking overpriced gingerbread lattés. This proves too much for some, and the need to create chaos ensues. This concept can easily be interpreted as the Western world’s fear of the Other, in a guise of a monster or serial-killer trying to disrupt American culture. BLACK CHRISTMAS was released in 1974, in the midst of the Cold War, where fear of communism was rife throughout the United States. This makes sense in a society with a constantly increasing fear of the unknown which would have played a part in the creation of the entire horror genre in the first place.
As BLACK CHRISTMAS approaches a cool 45 years old, it’s time to revisit the mother of all slasher movies as the lights go up and the plastic tree is laboriously heaved down from the attic. Although, after watching this terrifying treat, viewers may want to think of an alternative place to store their Christmas decorations this year.
Originally featured on Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2016/black-christmas
With the success of Mike Flanagan’s horror Hush released earlier this year it’s both made way for and highlighted previous films that demonstrate the urge to shake up the classic horror/thriller conventions. Hush follows Maddie Young, a deaf and dumb writer, living in an isolated woodland. Maddie needs to fight off a masked (because who would have it any other way?) psychopath who, after killing Maddie’s friend thinks killing a woman who is alone and both deaf and dumb will be as easy as resisting the last slice of pizza in the box, which we all know of course, isn’t easy at all!
What Maddie’s disability brings to the film is an increased sense of tension, we are not on par with the victim, Hush puts us one step ahead of them, we see the killer’s movements and know what’s coming. Fear comes from the shock of knowing what is going to happen. What creates the tension in this instance is that we know Maddie cannot hear him, Maddie perceives the world differently and this creates an engaging story with little more than two main characters, an isolated house and minimal dialogue.
Hush, a film clearly influenced by elements of the 1974 film Wait until Dark where we see criminals play games with Suzy (Audrey Hepburn) who was blinded in an accident, has helped shine a light on similar themes in the genre. Hush followed Flanagan’s 2014 film Oculus in which he again plays with this idea of failed or manipulated senses, this time using a paranormal mirror that alters the character’s perceptions.
2010 Spanish thriller, Los ojos de Julia (Julia’s eyes) is another example of this growing trend. Julia (Belén Rueda) slowly loses her sight before being gradually drugged and attacked while trying to uncover who murdered her twin sister. Like Maddie, she fights her way to the end, making use of the senses that remain. Don’t Breathe, released earlier this year follows a group of teenagers as they break into a blind man’s house, easy, yes? No. We know it won’t be easy, the blind man, after the teens discover he’s already holding somebody captive, proceeds to hunt the group down.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s season 4 episode also titled Hush (1992) sees the town of Sunnydale plunged into silence as they are tormented by the organ harvesting, Gentlemen who along with Death in season 2’s Killed by Death (1998) were enough to keep me up at night as a 15 year-old. The episode was praised for its interpretation of a society’s breakdown once communication is lost but the episode also silenced the heroine we all know and love, changing the way she needed to fight. In the end her voice was the weapon all along.The growing trend to skimp on the gore and hike up the tension-o-meter has resulted in protagonists being given an obvious disadvantage which turns out to be the complete opposite. These characters, minus one (or two) senses must find a new way to survive to the end of the film. The gore-fests we’ve been used to in the past don’t cut it anymore. It’s an obvious and effective way to evolve a genre that’s so steeped in well-known conventions. You can’t call for help because you can’t speak, you don’t know who’s behind you because you can’t see and the screams of your friends being brutally murdered in the garden can’t warn you because you cannot hear. This all makes for one tense 90-minute cinema session. But how long until this concept needs re-vamping too?
Excluding the Blind Man in Don’t Breathe who, in the end turns out to be the villain of the piece, the protagonists in the other films mentioned here all have two things in common, they’re all women and they’re all victims (or made to seem victimised by their disability). All of them fighting for survival in the dark and in the silence. It could be (and I’m sure has been) argued that this trend is just the final girl convention that’s been re-wrapped into something that initially seems fresh at first or, when looked at closely is just a play on the classic damsel in distress tale we’ve seen a thousand times before. But we can look at it from another perspective: as a representation of the isolation felt by so many women in today’s society, often unheard and unseen, even now. The only way to survive is to fight and find their own “voice”. These characters may be damsels in distress but they saved themselves in the end. I like to think Buffy’s deafening scream at the end of Hush and Maddie and Julia’s constant and brutal battle to survive is a sign of perceptions changing, in the end that’s what it’s all about. See?