GET OUT

Though we all watch a lot of movies in here, we don’t often get to see stuff together – such is the nature of #videoshoplife that we usually watch movies at home and reconvene in the video shop to talk ’em over, disagree wildly and lovingly mock each other’s opinions. But, every now and again, we manage a shop outing to the cinema and see something together after scoffing burgers at Five Guys (the video shop cliche is real).

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One movie I really wanted us to see as a sort-of video shop posse this year was Jordan Peele’s GET OUT. Partially, my motivation came after Liz Chege of Come the Revolution recommended it to me (she has great taste in film). It was also partially motivated by the age old decider of genre: most video shop clerks have cross-over taste when it comes to horror.

Of course, when I say we went as a video shop posse, I should clarify that it’s a hap-hazard crew, made up of some people who do or have worked in the video shop plus others who are loosely associated with the shop and minus our dear Co-Director Whiskey who, since having a child some four years ago, has not yet managed to join us for a late night cine-jaunt.

So off we went and together we watched Jordan Peele’s thrilling and wonderfully uncomfortable for white folk social satire, GET OUT. I sat, literally in nail-biting, edge-of-my-seat position for the entire film, enthusiastic and ready to gush after the credits rolled – it had been the perfect choice for a movie night out! But, much to my chagrin, my post-movie excitement was met with varying degrees of ‘meh’ from my video shop pals. It seems that my male movie buddies were a little underwhelmed, some finding the horror a little predictable or not to their liking and others thinking it was good but not great.

Let me just say this: I love those guys but they’re all absolutely wrong. GET OUT is one of this year’s finest movie treats and now that it’s in the shop on DVD to rent we can finally prove my colleagues and pseudo-colleagues wrong! So, if you wanna read an intelligent article on why the film is great, head to Overland.org.au where Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson have already done all the hard work with their article, ‘We’re on your side: white violence and the horror of representation’ . And, if you want to see it on the big screen, then you have another chance this weekend at Cinema Rediscovered thanks to the good folk at Come the Rev who are showing it as a comparison piece with Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

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Otherwise, come and get it at the shop and take it home where you go, undisturbed, to the sunken place on your sofa.

Get Out/Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner trailer courtesy of Cinema Rediscovered.

Truth, authenticity, connections, nostalgia, time…

If you’re looking for a straight forward story with a beginning, middle and an-everything-tied-up ending, you might not find it here. The films of Richard Linklater are interested in meandering and the time that passes onscreen is often just a snapshot taken from a much fuller story.

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Most mainstream cinema offers up a couple of hours of entertainment – stories that span days and sometimes years, but that fit succinctly into cinema schedules. Richard Linklater’s films don’t do that. His films begin, search for a form of truth or authenticity, find connections in companionship and then finish, happy and secure in the knowledge that more time is yet to pass and that nostalgia means the time spent will never go really away.

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Linklater says, “cinema is not an immediate art form.” His mentor is experimental filmmaker James Benning, who is interested in duration and believes in the slowness and stillness of real life. Benning’s film Nightfall (2012) is simply one shot of the woods, with the sun slowly setting, in real time, behind the trees. His film Natural History (2014) looks, very slowly, carefully and a little like the more well-known documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s work, at the corridors and items on display in Vienna’s Museum of Natural History. A journey through duration is what’s shown.

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In the early 1990s Richard Linklater was at the heart of the American Independent film explosion that took place across the world, and was praised critically but also adored by audiences, for his honest, humorous and endearing depictions of the waster generation, Gen X.

Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993) gave an entire generation something to identify with. Suddenly the sprawling nature of mindless conversation and the intertwined concerns facing youth about the state of the world, their personal politics, the finite nature of their existence and the meaning – or lack of meaning -they derived from popular culture, could all be explored and understood without hierarchy. A container with Madonna’s pap smear inside it – including one of her pubic hairs – becomes every bit as important to that youth as a breaking news story about a man who drove along a freeway firing live ammunition.

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Slacker prefigures the American Indie subgenre Mumblecore and the more mainstream film and TV shows it’s since spawned such as Lena Dunham’s Girls, the web series Broad City, and Netflix exclusives Love and Togetherness. Dazed and Confused has only continued to build its cult following since release and liking it is now worn like a badge of honour when it comes to expressing a belief in personal freedom and the right to simply be – instead of doing. But Linklater’s films are not improvised – they are tightly scripted, they are well thought out explorations of meandering precisely because they were created by nostalgia.

Everybody Wants Some!! has been labelled a sequel to Dazed and Confused but Linklater also suggests that it is a sort of spiritual continuation of his 2014 hit film Boyhood. But labelling the connections between his films is unnecessary as they are all, in some way, connections and continuations of each other.

Just because Slacker finishes, it doesn’t mean that the chance encounters between its ensemble cast don’t continue. So, too, do the kids in Dazed and Confused continue to party, argue, learn, dream and be.

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Linklater had the idea for Everybody Wants Some!! around about the same time that he embarked upon creating his twelve-year odyssey Boyhood in the early 2000s. One is not necessarily, then, before the other. Rather, the stories are about characters who are still trying to learn, to ‘get some’ and to grow up. It’s about the journey rather than the destination. Boyhood may be 165 minutes in duration as a film but it is also twelve years from each of the lives of its cast and crew. And so much more than that.

Richard Linklater often works with the same actors and actresses; Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Matthew McConaughey and Jack Black have each appeared in more than one of his films. And, though their reappearance is not purely intertextual, there is a sense of fluidity between characters and performances.

Ethan Hawke, for example, could be the same man in multiple films; an awkward, slightly irresponsible grown up still aching for his youth in Boyhood; and the young, hopeful, charming but assuming young man who talked to the girl sat across from him on a train in Before Sunrise (1995); a man looking back at, discussing and confronting painful memories from high school in a motel room in the film Tape (2001). He brings the history of the Before trilogy to his role in Boyhood and the conversations in that motel room could also belong to that man.

Linklater already has plans to work with Ethan Hawke again – but not until he is 90 and Hawke is 80 years old – on a version of King Lear. No doubt there will be some glimmer of that young man, that middle aged man and the actor himself present in the eighty-year-old, tortured king.

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And Linklater himself is a part of that same journey; he appears in the back of a taxi as a character in Slacker, his daughter plays the role of the sister in Boyhood, his love of baseball crops up in Bad News Bears, Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! and, here specifically, he takes a nostalgic look back at his own college experiences, basing his central character somewhat on himself.

There is part of him in each of his films just as there is growing up to be done in each of his films. Jack Black in School of Rock (2003) is an adult still yearning for youth and the freedom of childhood; still wanting to create and make music as if passion were the only thing that mattered and as if time were of no consequence.

In Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), the dream world, the waking world, what we think of as reality and we understand as imagination are blurred until they are almost indistinguishable. The characters in these films are looking for something – they are trying to find out what is true.

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Bernie (2011) is a strange entry into docu-drama that re-imagines true events where an affable mortician befriends a controlling, wealthy widow, whose hold over him ends with her death. The film is not a documentary, but it uses interviews with the townsfolk and actual people from the small town where the real events took place to re-enact the commentary on a real life murder. It simultaneously shows us how those events may have unfolded, re-enacted by famous performers Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. The result is a constant questioning of what is true and how can we even approach presenting what is true through filmmaking.

Richard Linklater has worked with different modes of storytelling and yet there is a common thread. Though some of these films seem to stand out as more or less narrative than others they are allinterested in untangling the same themes, issues and fixations.

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Even Me and Orson Welles (2008) which stars Zac Efron and Claire Danes in a reimagining of what it was like to work with Orson Welles in his theatre days in the 1930s, is interested in history and the truth of that history – or perhaps the reincarnation of it from a contemporary, nostalgic perception. The same is true of The Newton Boys (1998), a film that takes narrative history – of the Newton gang, the most successful bank robbers in US history – and asks how they did it, who they were, and, most notably, how we remember them. So, too with Fast Food Nation (2006) which hopes to expose the exploitation, social injustices, horrors and evils of the fast food industry.

Time passes but the stories continue, a fundamental function of nostalgia. We make connections with each other as much as we do with the past. In this way, it is pleasing to see that Everybody Wants Some!! doesn’t feel like a filmmaker from the 1990s trying to re-create or resurrect his early filmmaking career. Instead, it feels like a filmmaker still making that same style of cinema, still searching for the answers to those same questions.

Everybody Wants Some!! is a snapshot of one weekend before college begins, but it’s also a very beautiful depiction of the way in which nostalgia allows us to enjoy something that now belongs to time.

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The magic of the movies is in its ability to create, or indeed recreate, something. To tell a story, sure, but also to just be. And, like his characters, constantly looking around, trying to get some from the people, time, and experiences around them, the film is searching for the truth; of an era, for the authenticity of the past but also for the authenticity of the memory of the past: the ability to enjoy and revisit a time and a place that has, out of necessity in its revision, changed, and is now tinged with nostalgia.

When Linklater first sat down to write this film, it was 180 pages long. That’s about 30 pages longer than James Cameron’s Avatar. It covered the whole freshman school year. But he cut it down and created a snapshot. So even though we only see three days before school starts, the story continues off screen – it continues in the mind and memory of its maker.

Everybody Wants Some!! is available to rent from 20th Century Flicks and it’s awesome.

Silent Studies in the Kino – According to Tara

For a long time I thought I didn’t like silent cinema. It’s easy to be prejudiced against an era or a genre of film when your first encounter had you looking through the wrong keyhole.

It was about seven or eight years ago that I went to a silent film screening in Bristol. I can’t remember which film it was but I know it was a slapstick comedy with either Chaplin or Keaton, and it featured blackface. I was horrified and, quite honestly, shocked. I’d never seen a film with blackface exhibited publicly before and there had been no trigger warning before the screening. There was no context given and there I was, amidst a room full of white middle-class folk laughing their asses off.

On a less serious but still ultimately off-putting note, the music was poorly matched to the film. It was jaunty, whimsical and upbeat all the while. I hated everything about the screening and, as a result, was pretty much turned off silent cinema for life.

Or so I thought.

Several years later I met Dr Peter Walsh. He’s a feminist and a film scholar. His expertise is in early and silent cinema. He seemed immediately like a great guy who doesn’t endorse jaunty, inappropriate, crap music – or blackface. So, I thought, maybe there’s more to this silent cinema malarkey than I’ve given it credit for…

And so, with curiosity and hope, I invited Pete to run a silent cinema course at Flicks. I was first to enroll.

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The course exceeded the foolishness of my keyhole metaphor and opened an actual door to previously inaccessible cinema. Throughout the course I was introduced to The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors (1993) which included the totally amazing Alice Guy who experimented with Gaumont’s sync sound system known as the Chronophone until such time as she got married and had to resign. She continued to work elsewhere after Gaumont gave her the boot but her husband kinda got in the way.

While a woman being nudged out of the way by dudes is an all too familiar story in film history it was great to at least hear about some of the women who made a mark before the patriarchy pushed them aside because documentaries (un)like this one far too often have us believing that women were altogether absent. Turns out it’s not just funny white dudes doing blackface after all. In fact, Lois Weber, who also features in the documentary, refused to work on one particular film, taking a stand against blackface – yep, there were heroes fighting for what’s right even in the early era.

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Course, I can’t help but wonder why The Silent Feminists, a forty-five minute documentary about women in a field where women are often absent from the dominant historical narrative, has yet to be released on DVD or BluRay. Please, BFI, help a sister out?

I also discovered that not all silent cinema is scored with unimaginative organ playing (like The Lost World, 1925) or jaunty piano. Having seen clips from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) many times before, I was amazed to discover that I have never seen the full film, restored, coloured, and gloriously scored by Air. I was also amazed at how many inappropriate scores have been recorded and released with Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Personally, I like it properly silent: no score. We also had a series of great, and divisive, discussions after watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with a Giorgio Moroder score.

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Perhaps most surprisingly was that I chose, of my own volition, to watch silent movies at home – not so much for homework or even extra curricular viewing, but just for the fun of it and with a genuine interest. Jean Painlevé’s wonderful sea urchins on our old never-before-rented VHS of Surrealism and Science (1925) and a beautifully scored, visually exciting and honestly suspenseful Swedish horror film, The Phantom Carriage (1921) were two such treats.

Silent Studies in the Kino was our first foray into adult education courses at Flicks and, from the perspective of both student and course administrator, I can honestly say that it was so darn good it not only makes me want to schedule more classes in the Kino but it also changed my previously rigid opinion of an entire era of cinema. Cheers, Pete.

Dr Peter Walsh is Co-director and Co-curator of South West Silents and can found on twitter as @soylent_grey.

 

South West Silents Speak Up! Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

“There will be no further reason for a future production of Ben-Hur for the screen… Ben-Hur is a picture for all times!” Variety, 1925

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It’s hard to think of the name Ben-Hur without thinking of the two accompanying names Charlton! and Heston! Even as Paramount Pictures and MGM are about to hurl another incarnation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) at us (now the fifth adaptation of the book to be made into a feature film) it is still very hard not to think about that tall, blond haired, big jawed, gun loving American superstar.

But that gives you some idea of the importance Ben-Hur has had on the history of cinema and how much the 1950s’ version is burnt into our cultural consciousness. After all, every Bank Holiday we get the opportunity to see it on our television screens (that or The Great Escape (1963), The Sound of Music (1965),  or Zulu (1964) – it was always Zulu in my house to be honest.)

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But forget about those Bank Holiday TV schedules because when it comes to the history of film, Ben-Hur has always been there; Ben-Hur systematically appeared at every changing moment of cinema’s history, all the way back to the birth of cinema (the unofficial 1907 version,   At the height of the silent era there was the faithfully titled Ben-Hur a Tale of Christ (1925), and at the peak of the Hollywood Studio system there was William Wyler’s version (1959) – through the ages the words BEN HUR were always there.

This is why the new adaptation has been a long time coming; you would have thought that a new 21st Century Ben-Hur would have been announced straight after the success of Gladiator (1999). On the band wagon films like Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), King Arthur: Director’s Cut (2004) and even Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) went into rapid production, shortly after the release of Gladiator, and yet, Ben-Hur didn’t.

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Maybe the 2003 animated version of Ben-Hur (Heston’s final acting role; he voiced Judah) which was already in production stalled all possibility of making another live action version for quite some time. Whatever the story Ben-Hur is back on the big screen this August (2016) and from the look of the trailer it most certainly has the hint of a 21st Century adaptation; it’s loud, screaming-in-your-face and seems to have even more animation than the actual animated film from 2003.

And yet, when watching the trailer for Timur Bekmambetov’s all-screaming and all-chariot-racing Ben-Hur, you can almost hear that old saying in your head, “Well, they don’t make ’em like they used to!” But, to be honest, it’s more than likely people would have said the same thing about William Wyler’s 1959 version had they seen Fred Niblo’s earlier silent version from 1925.

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There are slight differences in both versions when it comes to the storytelling; the 1925 version gives far more screen time to the connections between Judah and Jesus than in the later Wyler version, which is understandable as Niblo very much stuck to Wallace’s book, unlike the later adaptations. But, alas, this particular element slows down the 1925 version at certain points, particularly in the scenes just after the sea battle – it has to be said that the sea battle and the infamous chariot race are extraordinary! Truly extraordinary in fact!

This is what I really want to flag when it comes to talking Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Many have asked us over the years what makes the silent film era different from any other in the history of cinema? While obviously the classic quote from Gloria Swanson, “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!” from Sunset Boulevard (1950), springs to mind, but one other major factor makes the silent era different from any other era in cinema: they built everything for real!

Cabiria (1914), Intolerance (1916), Robin Hood (1922) and Napoleon (1927) are titles that secure the legend that when it came to money, they threw it in front of the camera. If anything, Ben Hur is another classic example of this. Nothing is left out.

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When watching the 1925 silent version of the sea battle it seems far more extensive than the later Wyler version, after all, the silent version has real boats to crash and burn! These real size Galleys and Roman Trireme were completely seaworthy and very capable of reacting to a full-on sea battle that would include plenty of local Italian extras armed to the teeth and all in suited up in armour. In the end, the filming that took place included smashing one of the galleys into the Roman Trireme and setting the Trireme alight (which is all in the book). But the action got out of hand on the shoot and the production lost control of the fire and lost the entire Trireme before they could finish shooting. All the extras had to throw themselves into the sea to escape being burned. The 1959 film can’t touch that – understandably, they ended up using model boats!

But what about Ben-Hur’s famous chariot race? Surely the 1959 film wins hands down. Well, possibly. It’s incredibly exciting but have you seen the 1925 version? What can I say? The 1925 production had already built one Circus Maximus in Rome, a set which was later abandoned due to spiraling production costs. The production then expanded on original plans and a bigger version of the Circus Maximus was built set just outside Hollywood. They prepared for one of the biggest shooting days in Hollywood’s history.

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A call out was made for (if studio publicity is correct) 7,000 extras for a single day’s filming. Almost all of Hollywood left the city on Saturday 7th October 1925 to see what all the fuss was about. They arrived at the Circus Maximus set (which had apparently cost the studio $500,000) and were given a full day’s entertainment of chariot racing. The likes of John and Lionel Barrymore, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Gilbert, Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, Sam Goldwyn, and Lillian Gish were all noted being as in the crowds, as well as celebrated directors such as Henry King, Reginald Barker, Clarence Brown and George Fitzmaurice. They, like the rest of the crowds who had arrived to be part of the auction, were stunned by the sheer size of the set. Someone else stunned was  assistant director, William Wyler, who, 34 years later, would end up directing the 1959 version. In 1963 Wyler explain to film historian Kevin Brownlow,

“I was given a toga and a set of signals…. The signals were a sort of semaphore, and I got my section of the crowd to stand up and cheer to sit down again, or whatever was called for. There must have been thirty other assistant doing the same job.”  

At the end of the day, 42 camera operators had filmed roughly 53,000 feet of film. Filming continued on the Maximus set for another month, filming close-ups as well as stunt work. In the end, Editor Lloyd Nosler had to compete with 200,000 feet of film for the chariot sequence alone. But what a job Nosler did when it came to the completed sequence. In the end he did such a good job that it influenced framing and editing of the later adaptations for not only Wyler’s version but also for the animated 2003 version. Let’s see if it influenced this newest adaptation!

At a cost of $3.96 million the 1925 version of Ben-Hur claims to be the most expensive silent film ever made. If it is the most expensive film of the silent era, it most certainly shows it.

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So if you want to see the REAL Ben-Hur! Look no further than Fred Niblo’s 1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ. You won’t be disappointed!

Recommended Reading:

The Parade’s Gone By: Kevin Brownlow

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer: Scott Eyman

Written by James Harrison of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks

Anomalisa: Act 3

It’s all for show. We’re all just puppets in life’s performance of humanity.

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In Act 1 I identified with Lisa and in Act 2 I felt some sort of empathy for Michael in as far as he is the voice for the lonely but not alone Charlie Kaufman. Here, in Act 3,  I think I am finally ready to be the bland puppetry portrayed by Tom Noonan’s soft crooning voice and a bunch of models with removable jaws.

We don’t all look or sound the same but there’s something ‘the same’ about us. We go through the motions of living life but so much of it is performance; the mindless chit-chat of a bored taxi driver, the false smiles of the concierge, the even falser declarations of love from hotel management, the heightened anger of a spurned lover who probably didn’t really love you to begin with and doesn’t really feel that angry in retrospect and, outside of the film world, the endless pretense of happiness and success that we shovel into each other’s eyes via social media. The automaton farce of it all.

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Being moved – profoundly, deeply – doesn’t happen very often. Sure we get annoyed when people don’t listen to us (because we’re narcissistic beings who think what we have to say is important) or when the actions of others are thoughtless (because that means we don’t exist to them), but it’s only occasionally that we really feel wounded – and this is what Kaufman is most interested in.

It’s when others can’t even be bothered to respond or fight with us because they’re blending our narcissistic annoyance with our ontological crisis: they know full well that we exist, and they just don’t care. This is Michael Stone’s problem – sure he’s narcissistic and sure he’s thoughtless but his worst crime against humanity is that he can’t even be bothered to engage with (O)thers.

For Michael Stone, everyone is bland; they exist but their existence is unimportant to him. They are the nameless, faceless (in so far as they all have the same face) voiceless (ditto) Other. They can be ignored, dismissed and annihilated. Their existence means nothing and has no bearing on his existence. They might as well be puppets for all he cares.

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Perhaps the greatest moment, then, in the entire film is where Michael dreams (or hallucinates or imagines, it’s not prescriptively clear) that he too is a puppet; his jaw is removable and he is constructed: robotic, inhuman, unfeeling. It is great because it is true, aesthetically for sure, but also in terms of narrative.

In making a case for Anomalisa as comforting for some I failed to mention in Act 2 just how fleeting and cruel that comfort can be. While it reminds some of us that we are not alone it also points out that the deafening, debilitating emptiness we so viscerally and regularly experience is probably the only true glimpse of reality that we actually have, certainly if Kaufman’s films are anything to go by, then others feel that acutely too.

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Anomalisa is available to rent from your favourite neighbourhood video shop. Post-viewing conversation with tea/whiskey is also available.

Anomalisa: Act 2

A few days after I’d seen Anomalisa a friend of mine asked if it would make an okay date movie. I said no. She went to see it anyway.

The next morning she sent me a text that said, “You were right.”

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Anomalisa may, even on my own advice, be a terrible date movie. Still, and I say this as someone who went to see it with their partner, it might also be a wonderful way in for discussing intimacy taboos.

For many, Anomalisa  is desperately depressing; the idea is that we are all alone and have no hope of finding anyone who who will understand us, or even anyone who is “different”, individual.

Michael Stone, after spending the night with our titular Anoma-Lisa,  finds her every bit as irritating as everyone else he’s ever met. Pause, sigh. He just can’t accept that everyone, no matter how ‘special’ or ‘individual’ they seem at first encounter, is human. We all eventually reveal habits or behaviours that irritate. Humans aren’t perfect.

The first taboo, then, in watching this film with a loved one, is accepting that the person you’re with annoys you. The second is in accepting that you annoy them. Ouch.

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But there’s  also something deeply comforting about the extremity of the alienation Michael feels, and in the unflinchingly  bleak outlook of the film itself. It’s not so much that his attitude is one that provides comfort, nor is it his inability to get to grips  with the fact that, in the end, all humans are disappointing. They’re human, after all. Pause, sigh. Instead, it’s that we see the fragility of someone who feels utterly, utterly alone – and that’s what can be comforting.

For the optimist who feels delight every day, for the person who is overjoyed by what the world offers and who finds happiness rather than alienation in others, sure, Anomalisa is bleak. But, for those of us who suffer anxiety and depression, or sometimes find it difficult to relate to others, who feel that even our loved ones don’t understand us some of the time – maybe much of the time – it can be comforting precisely because it means we aren’t alone. That anyone else can feel so acutely what the high functioning anxiety sufferers and manic depressed among us feel, means that someone else out there understands. Pause, breathe.

And, as horrible as Michael is, at least in part owing to his own cycle of depression – he is the unwitting maker of his own misery – he’s also human. Well, actually he’s a stop motion animation. So I guess writer/director Charlie Kaufman is human. Either way, thanks to Anomalisa, sitting in the  dark next to someone you love, feeling unashamedly in tune with the miserable protagonist onscreen, you might just have opened up a line of conversation, a way to start talking about how difficult it is to admit that sometimes, even though everyone is an individual, you too might feel utterly, utterly alone. The good news is that you’re not.

Anomalisa is now available to rent on DVD from your favourite neighbourhood video shop – i.e. us.

Anomalisa: Act 1

I can’t stop thinking about Anomalisa. It isn’t the best or even the most entertaining film I’ve seen this year, but it’s stuck with me. Every fourth or fifth day since seeing it, when I’ve forgotten to busy my mind, allowing reflection and existential dread to set in, I think about it and another crisis of self and Other presents itself, and strikes a chord.

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Returning to Anomalisa in this piecemeal way – via the abstraction of my fading and, I’m sure, altering memory – I find myself caught in Charlie Kaufman’s web. Am I self or Other? Am I alienated or comforted by his artful depiction of loneliness and yearning? I am lonely? Am I yearning?

I never really reach determined answers to these questions but I do spend a lot of time thinking about the different types of relationships in my life and how I feel about them. And instead of writing a review, or an analysis or any sort of critical piece about Anomalisa and the back catalogue of Charlie Kaufman’s weird and wonderful films, I’m going to write a series of responses to my encounters with this film.

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My first response to Anomalisa, on reflection at least, was fairly superficial. It spoke to me most forcefully as a movie about customer service. Though I really enjoyed the likes of Clerks (1993), Empire Records (1995) and  High Fidelity (2000), the reality of working in a video shop (or a book shop, fashion retailer, museum, etc, etc) is decidedly different – less broody for a start.

Having worked in customer service for twenty years, one of the strangest things to get used to is the crisis of equality that it kicks up.

The true success of any relationship rests upon an equal balance of power between the two parties involved. But this is essentially impossible in both customer service and Kaufman’s mind. While there is at least a theoretically attainable equality in friendships and sexual relationships, customer service is built upon the foundation of one person serving another.

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Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is the miserable author of a famous book about the secrets of great customer service: to treat customers as humans not consumers. He’s so successful that even the hotel he’s staying in (The Fregoli) has improved their service and increased business by some absurd percentile somewhere around ninety. Despite his success, he just can’t seem to actually connect with anyone – to him, they all look and sound the same – that is, until he meets the titular Anomalisa.

This is the part that’s relevant to working in a video store and, customer service more widely. Stone knows how to do business related human things like; optimise customer satisfaction and increase sales through approach and response strategies. But none of this involves connecting with people in any real or meaningful way. Quite simply put: making money hasn’t really got much in common with being human.

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And this is why, despite how great it is to feel like an individual (the video shop is a far cry from corporate sticks) I just end up seeing myself as the slightly less successful, awkward, occasionally irritating, squawky voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh, rambling on about insignificant things with scrambled eggs in my mouth when I should be smiling constantly, well groomed (probably) and more enthusiastically helpful when people ask for rom-coms.

But then again, the soft crooning of Tom Noonan stands in for the bland endlessness of so-called ‘great’ customer service, and that’s just the pitiful result of measured, distanced, interaction. So, while a high standard of service; politeness, efficiency, perhaps even servitude, is generally preferable in the industry, there’s nothing unique or sincerely empathetic about it.

The only conclusion, then, is that it’s better to be Anomalisa… right?

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Check back next week for further reflections on this beautiful, bleak film.

 

 

 

Mommy, where do videos go when they die?

Ever since our appearance on The One Show last year, people with boxes, attics, lofts, basements and garages full of unwanted videos have been calling. Understandably, most people don’t want a bunch of old VHS to continue taking up space and collecting dust in their homes.

The recycling plant for VHS, previously in Bristol, has closed down. Charity shops are packed to the rafters with the darned unsaleable things. So I understand why, after hearing about our store, with its wall of VHS, people would think we might be just the ticket for finally dispensing with one’s home collection of unloved movies.

Unfortunately, we don’t always want them either.

Most of the time it’s because we already have them. Our collection is a little over 19,000 strong (mostly DVD, a couple hundred Blu-ray and a couple thousand VHS). If something is super rare – say you have some video nasties – then yeah, we’d take those. But, tends to be that if you do have such beasts you either a) don’t want to offload ’em or b) do but know that they’re worth summat, so you take to eBay. Much as we’d like to have those puppeies,we’re a video shop and it’s 2016 so, you know, we can’t really afford to pay £200 a pop for summat that may never even see the light of rental day.

What happens, then, to the hundreds and thousands of VHS in your homes?

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Unless you’re super recycle conscious, it’s unlikely you can be bothered to take them apart and separately recycle the individual components. So, I dare say, many of them turn to landfill.

And that’s what’s likely to happen with all those DVDs you’re amassing, too.

Despite the decline of home entertainment sales – and the close to obliteration of the rental industry – DVDs, and indeed Blu-rays, are still being made. But even if they’re picked up for a pound or two in the sale bins, it’s unlikely you’ll keep them forever.

Maybe you will re-watch Die Hard, and All About Eve. But will you really return to The Knowing? That’s a stretch, and I say this as a bona fide Nic Cage devotee.

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This is not my way of making a case for the internet. Rather, it’s my way of pointing out how sad the fate of so many physical copies of movies truly is. It’s also why a rental store is the kind of thing you ought to support.

We’re actually more environmentally friendly and cost effective than physically buying the stuff yourself. And we don’t throw stuff away just because it’s a bit crap – we have plenty of terrible movies and we intend to keep ’em for as long as you want to come rent ’em. What we have become is a sort of library. We keep stuff as best we can (including donations of stuff we don’t have, just that we can’t take duplicates) which means our selection is bigger and better than the majority of what’s available through online streaming platforms. We don’t have everything and we are aware of that, but we have a lot.

However, and this is the point I really want to make, what we don’t do is add to the problem of rampant consumerism and landfill culture. We’re not into making you buy stuff at an accelerated rate so that you can fill your homes with crap and we don’t throw out a tonne of films to landfill – even when our collection of ex-rentals is blocking access to the counter. Kinda like it is right now.

So stumble on in, make your way through the trenches of display cases and find something to watch without contributing to the great plastic waste. We’ll do our best to remain a repository for things you might like to see but not own. Because we’re just about the closest thing that there is to home entertainment heaven.

 

South West Silents Speak Up: Mark Fuller on Piccadilly (1929)

I’m a particular fan of British Silent Film; for many decades ill-served by critics, historians and archives, to the extent that few bothered watching them, even while decrying them in print, relying on hand-me-down opinions propagated by twenties and thirties intellectuals with political axes to grind. Although this attitude lingers on in places, the fight-back began around fifteen years ago when a small group of women historians and archivists who knew better, founded the British Silent Film Festival, and a radical reappraisal begun. Long-time unseen films were finally being discovered by new generations who saw how dazzling, inventive and progressive British film could be before the sound era.

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Even now, however, British Silent Film is fairly ill-served on home entertainment formats; aside from Hitchcock’s rightly lauded silents, few are available with decent prints and thoughtful scores….but an exception is the BFI release of Piccadilly, a late silent made in 1929 by an international team, combining British and American actors, with German direction, design and photography, in a British production.

The resulting Piccadilly (1929) is a stunning film, a prototype film noir, with two femme fatales; Shosho (Anna May Wong), the young, beautiful Chinese girl washing dishes at the nightclub where Mabel (Gilda Gray) is the ageing star turn. The club’s boss, Valentine (Jameson Thomas), also Mabel’s lover, discovers Shosho, sets her dancing in the club, where she is an immediate sensation, and falls for her.

The story is not the most original, but has fine observation and some killer lines. But the film is a must-see for its visuals; German expressionist flavourings run throughout, featuring the designs of Alfred Junge (best known for his work with Powell and Pressburger in the ’40s), creating a look that would dominate Hollywood films in the forties and fifties – in 1929.

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The acting is stunning; Jameson Thomas is a seedier Ronald Colman, trapped between the two women who want him; Gilda Gray goes from awful prima donna to a sympathetic, tragic figure with great conviction, and Anna May Wong is breath-taking, utterly convincing both in the nightclub and in Limehouse, growing from timid girl to full-fledged sexual predator! You simply cannot take your eyes off her: even in the plain clothes she wears at the beginning, she has a cool, almost 1960s quality. The German director, E.A.Dupont, somehow manages to combine all these disparate acting styles, moments of high drama and touches of comed, with deft little bits of business informing us about the people behind their public masks, and about the layered nature of London society. The sequences in the old East End offers a particularly fascinating look at the sexual and racial politics of the time. If you were lucky enough to attend South West Silents’ screening of Dupont’s Varieté (1925) at The Cube late last year you will know already what a fine filmmaker, and handler of actors, he was.

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The restored print is stunning, rarely showing its age, more often showing the beautiful cinematography by Werner Brandes, ex-UFA – the sequence where Shosho debuts in the club being one of the most beautiful I have ever seen on film, although the tinting and toning of the restoration seems a bit bold to my eyes, so you may want to turn the colour settings down on your TV.

The extras on the DVD include text biographies of Wong and Dupont, a howlingly bad sound prologue for the film, but most importantly a briefing by Neil Brand about his thinking for his new score, but which also, incidentally, acts as an illuminating commentary and analysis on the film itself . The film’s background is a jazz club of sorts, and the score is a jazz-based one, but he has (thankfully) resisted the temptation of a Charleston-fest, and gone for a style that actually fits the style of the film, the emotions at work; restrained, cool, languid, but with an underlying tension. It works brilliantly.

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If you are wary of Silents, or think they begin and end with Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927), or perhaps think Film Noir started around WWII, then this is an approachable, beautiful and thrilling entry point to a whole area worthy of discovery. Enjoy…

Recommended Reading:

Destination London: German-Speaking Emigres and British Cinema, 1925-1950 by Tim Bergfelder and Christian Cargnelli

Reframing British Cinema, 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion by Christine Gledhill

Written by Mark Fuller of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks.

 

Joy: the greatest mop movie ever made

I went to see Joy last week, it was my first cinema visit for 2016. I was already primed to like the film, what with my love of J-Law and B-Coop in David O Russell movies, and like it I did. Not just because there’s a beautiful moment at the very end of the film (SPOILER ALERT?) where the characters have an exchange that mirrors the actors’ journies in David O films – B-Coop acknowledges that J-Law has now not only met his status in stardom but in fact surpassed it, becoming the new centre of gravity for David O, but also because it’s a story about a woman who persists in the face of adversity.

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While there’s a pro-capitalism reading in there – human with financial and familial problems decides to fulfill her dream (the American dream) by working really, really, really hard (because apparently you can have anything you want in life if you just work hard …  and become ruthless in your approach) – but the film also features a compelling story about one downtrodden woman and a mop. And it’s the mop I wanna talk about.

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For those of us who clean our own floors, a good mop story can be quite emotional. And so it was, for me, resident shop mopper. You see, the thing about mopping is that it’s one of the most truly depressing human pursuits; a thankless, literally back aching and no matter how many times you do it, you pretty much always need to do it again kinda task.

And so, the film’s narrative has more than just three acts; much like the ups and downs of mopping there’s the joy when you finish and the floor is finally clean, followed by the despair at seeing the floor sullied once more – ad infinitum. In this way, Joy is a film with as many moments of fist bumping elation as face palming dismay. And, because of that, truly resembles the sisyphean nature of human life.

The true joy, then, in Joy, is at being enabled to experience a spectrum of exaggerated but still lifelike mop related emotions, in a darkened room.

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One of the reasons I love cinema so passionately is because it allows us to experience and engage with such intense emotions – the kind that everyday life, for all its mop like frustration, doesn’t really do. If I were to cry each morning as a new spillage, mud trampled trail or cat related mishap hit the floor, I’d be considered more than melodramatic. But in the cinema, I can cry each and every time adversity hits – in whatever guise or shape that might take. And only the film will be described in terms of relative melodrama. What joy.