Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Film: The Cove & Activist Documentaries

Last month the Academy Award for Best Documentary went to The Cove (2009), and deservedly so. It’s a powerful, disturbing and unflinching look at what's been going on in Taiji, Japan where an estimated 23,000 dolphins are butchered every year. It’s also the story of Ric O'Barry who deems himself responsible for the growth of the inhumane dolphin industry.

O’Barry was the dolphin trainer on Flipper (1964-67). From living closely with dolphins he came to acknowledge their intelligence and how unsuitable they were for captivity. He also came to realise that the dolphin’s smile is 'one of God’s great deceptions’. And with that, O'Barry's mission in life took a u-turn, as he says: 'I spent 10 years of my life building up the dolphin-in-captivity industry and spent the last 35 trying to tear it down.'

Archive footage shows O'Barry releasing dolphins and getting arrested for his actions. And we see the ingenious lengths both he and his crew go to to capture what goes on in the concealed cove. Despite being frequently followed and questioned by the secret police, intimidated by security and risking banishment from Japan, O'Barry and his crew boldly continue their mission undeterred.

The Cove reminded me of two other recent documentaries: The Devil Came on Horseback (2006) and Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (2008). At the forefront of each of these documentaries are activists who risk (and lose, in the case of BVJRFACC) their lives bravely capturing images of injustice.

In TDCOH Brian Steidle, former marine turned campaigner, photographs the genocide of non-Arab villagers at the hands of the government backed Janjaweed in Sudan. Witnessing the aftermaths of massacres he photographs innocents who have been butchered in their tents or chained to the ground and torched. His photographs were printed in the New York Times.

In BVJRFACC a group called Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) record the Burmese military junta's violent oppression during the 2007 anti-government protests. The DVB record video footage of Buddhist monks being beaten and found murdered, and a Japanese journalist (Kenji Nagai) fatally wounded at point blank range. The footage is sent to contacts in Norway where it's broadcast across the world.

During the final moments of The Cove cameras finally infiltrate the heavily guarded concealed area and record an act of horrific slaughter that turns the sea red and stomach upside down.

These documentaries hold the camera's unblinking eye at atrocities and ask us to watch, learn and, most importantly, do something. But these reports wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the activists, these exceptional people, our modern day heroes, who brandish one of the most powerful and important weapons on the planet - the camera.

* This is a link to O'Barry's blog, Save Japan Dolphins, which charts the effect The Cove has had, and some posts regarding the recent fatal incident in Orlando's Seaworld where a killer whale drowned a trainer.

* This is a link to Democratic Voice of Burma's website.

* Daniel Steidle's website is down at the moment (I think he's in Haiti at the moment) so here's a link to The Devil Came On Horseback's website.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Film: Films with Twists


This is a disclaimer to prevent being hypercritical.

This post is about films with twists and the importance of not knowing the existence of the twist. If you don’t won’t the twists of a handful of films spoilt, you are advised to ignore the post after paragraph 4.

Thank you.

I just wanted to make that clear, so-

Narrative twists and shock endings, when pulled off with finesse, are precious tools: they can make-or-break a film; they can make you want to re-watch a film; or deliver a satisfying feeling as the carpet is suddenly pulled from beneath you.

But should a film contain a twist or a shock ending, no matter how great it is and no matter how excited one is about sharing it, it must be kept a secret.

Knowledge of the twist must be treated like a good hand in a game of poker: keep it tight to your chest, bluff and keep schtum.

If the viewer knows there's a twist or a shock ending they'll try and figure it out and they might figure it out. Even if they don’t figure it out the film won't really take them by surprise because the ‘surprise twist’ has become an expected occurrence; more of a damp squib, especially if they've concocted half a dozen better endings which, after all, they've had the time to do.
Critics often set a bad example by using the phrase 'its got a killer twist', which is a good selling point and provides the potential viewer with a challenge, though much to the detriment of the twist's impetus.

Shockingly, in Mark Kermode’s Sight and Sound review of Ringu (1998) he revealed the film's denouement - one of cinema’s most frightening scenes - which was surprising considering how highly he thought of the film; so why give away such a pivotal moment in a review, Mr Kermode? (I was glad I read his review once I had seen the film.)

In terms of concealing a film's shock ending, I'd argue that the poster campaign for Neil La Bute’s The Wicker Man (2006) was far more effective than the 1973 original (though the same can’t be said for the film) by omitting the eponymous 'wicker man', therefore leaving what the title refers to to the viewer’s imagination, until the final reel.

The shock of the original The Wicker Man’s final moments remain effective but surely the final reel would have had its shock factor raised a few notches if the poster didn't give away what the eponymous wicker man was.

For me the best way to watch a film is to know as little about it as possible. The less I know about its plot, set-pieces, dialogue, even the milieu the better; I want the first viewing to be as fresh as possible.

This means avoiding previews. I find it best to stick to teaser trailers (if possible). Previews show too much, flaunting the film's best moments - although to be fair, previews are better than they used to be in that they run at such a break neck speed much of the action is subliminal, unlike earlier previews.
A good example of a teaser trailer that offers only the slightest flavour - but enough of a flavour for you to take the bait - is Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010), see it here.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Film: Dream Logic & My Winnipeg

This might sound weird but bare with me - I was wondering whether the second you wake up, when you’re in the realm between dream and reality, do you often find two or more concepts harmoniously coalesce, but a second later the harmony is gone completely and now the two or more concepts could not be more disjointed? Which leaves you left wondering: how could something that was making perfect sense suddenly become a full-on surreal oddity?

Does that make sense to you? I hope so.

Anyway, I’m disclosing this to you because I watched a film recently that, for me, perfectly captured this strange state of (morning) mind; the film is Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007).

Described by the director as an autobiographical ‘docu-fantasia’, the film is about a Winnipegger attempting to escape the region by filming his way out. It's heavily narrated by a man who's possibly the same man frequently seen drifting in and out of sleep on a train riding through the night.

Maddin’s shtick of recreating the look of silent era film is done brilliantly here, seamlessly splicing recreations with real archival footage. At once the film is personal autobiography, then historical documentary, then wayward fantasy, then a heady mix of all three. And it blends all three of these so effortlessly that it begins to capture the state of (morning) mind I attempted to explain above, albeit in reverse.

For example, Maddin melds together sequences about the history of Winnipeg's buildings using real archival footage then surreptitiously slips into bravura fantasia sequences about, among other outlandish occurrences, a gay bison stampede, and bizarrely, they blend harmoniously together. This skipping from factual to fantastic, with no warning, creates a strange delirium: is the narrator awake or dreaming?

For me, the most memorable sequence in the film, and one which perfectly demonstrates this dreamy switch from fact to fantasy, concerns a yesteryear winter when a lake freezes over and people begin skating on the ice (cue archival footage), but this weather tied in with a band of loose horses that got caught up in the lake as it froze, only becoming visible above their necks they looked ‘like 11 Knights on a great white frozen chessboard’ (cue mock footage + see pic below); conveniently, people used them as seats, apparently.

There is so much more to the film and I can’t wait to revisit it. If you haven’t visited it yet, I urge you to do so, just make sure you’re alert when you watch it or else it will catch you out and you'll wonder whether you've dreamt it!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Photograph

I thought it would be appropriate, at some point, to elaborate on the photograph I've used for my blog.

I think now is as good a time as any.

I took the photograph in May 2009 on top of the steep Capstone Hill, Ilfracombe. From its top you can see the beach to the west and the harbour to the east, straight ahead you can see the Welsh coastline spread along the horizon.

The statue is of a young Moscow born girl, Ekaterine Frolov, who was studying English in the town. On a foggy day in 2000 she fell to her death off the top of Capstone Hill. She was only 13 years old.

Ekaterine's family had the statue commissioned.

On the statue it reads: Kate 13/12/86 - 19/07/00, You are always with us.

So why did I use the photograph?

Well, for purely aesthetic reasons to begin with; it's well framed and the subjects (sea, cliffs and statue) are visually pleasing.

It's also a great statue, capturing the dancer unfurling a move - or is she leaning against the brisk sea wind (or about to fall)?

But the statue is not there as an attraction, it's there to commemorate; it holds a tragic story. And because the story is tragic the dourness of the weather, which gave the environment (as well as the statue) a muggy greyness- in contrast to the colourfulness usually appropriated for seaside images - compliments the subject.

So the photograph is not connected to film or writing, but I've used it because it symbolises two important things to me:

... Don't ever be too quick to judge...

... because...

... There is often more to things than first meets the eye...

On Writing: Following the Pro's Rules

How are your writing habits? Could you be more organised? Do they yield constantly good quality work? Or do you often get writer’s block or feel the work is sloppy and needs shaping up?

Maybe you need some helpful tips to get you on your way?

If so, follow this link to the Guardian’s website where a collection of writers, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s forthcoming 10 Rules of Writing, have shared their top 10 rules for writers. I followed it and was prompted to compile my top 10; not my own top 10 though, the top 10 as chosen from the website – they’re professionals after all.

Here’s my Top 10 Rules of Writing
From the Pro's Top 10 Rules for Writers
(which is now printed on A4 paper and attached to the wall in front of me)

1) If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. (Elmore Leonard)

2) Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentence are OK (prose rhythms are too complex to be thought out…). (Diana Athill)

3) Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones… (Roddy Doyle) *

4a) Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my life is that I never kept a journal or a diary… 4b)Beware of clichés… There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation. (Geoff Dyer) **

5) You see more sitting still than chasing after. (Jonathan Franzen)

6) Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life. (Esther Freud) ***

7) Read as much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes. (Al Kennedy) ****

8) When I’m deep inside a story, living it as I write, I honestly don’t know what will happen. I try not to dictate it, not to play God. (Michael Morpurgo) *****

9) Don’t overwrite. Avoid redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. Beginners, especially, seem to think that writing fiction needs a special kind of flowery prose, completely unlike any sort of language one might encounter in day-to-day life. This is a misapprehension about how the effects of fiction are produced, and can be dispelled by obeying Rule 1. To read some work by Colm Tolbin or Cormac McCarthy, for example, is to discover how a deliberately limited vocabulary can produce an astonishing emotional punch. (Sarah Waters) ******

10) Work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet. (Zadie Smith) *******

* This reminded me of the late Alan Coren’s rule: Whatever the first thing is that comes into your head, don’t write that because that’s what everyone will write. When the second idea comes into your head, don’t write that either because that’s what the bright kids will write. Wait for the third idea, because that’s the one that only you will do.

** I similarly regret not keeping a diary throughout my childhood. I tried once when I was about 7 but only managed about 5 months. I regretted this more significantly after taking note of Francois Truffaut’s like minded quote about a film director’s total work is a diary kept throughout their lifetime.

*** This is the rule known as Occam’s Razor which I’ll be writing about in a post shortly.

**** He’s right about ‘good things will make you remember them’, one quote that has stuck with me recently was David Blunket’s summary of the Question Time/Nick Griffin debacle: They made a victim out of the perpetrator. 8 words that perfectly summed up the 10000’s of words used surrounding the event.

***** This style of writing illustrates the organic and majestic nature of the idea: spontaneous, unexpected, unpredictable, magical, natural, primal.

****** Overwriting is an easy trap to fall into. Unnecessary flourishes in language can be destructive.

******* It’s inevitable: how can you fully concentrate on a piece of writing when the world is at your fingertips. Sometimes it takes me two hours of surfing the web before I realise I’m not doing what I intended and have to click-off!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Film: New BBFC Guidlines

While I was rifling through a newspaper I came across the film poster for Father of My Children and was amazed by the content description in the film's certificate box.

With in the film's certificate box is 12A and the following content description: Contains moderate violence and scenes of smoking.

There's nothing unusual about 'moderate violence' or the use of more specific pointers such as 'suicide' and 'one use of strong language', but this was the first time I'd come across a film poster that warns potential views of 'scenes of smoking'.

I wonder how many people will be deterred by this detail. I also wonder how commonplace this is (I'll be observing all film certificates on posters more closely from now on, especially reissues of films from the pre-60's and the forthcoming re-imagining of the A-Team - and for that matter, the Mad Men DVDs too). And I wonder whether the BBFC would be persuaded to highlight 'scenes of alcohol consumption' in future releases.

Follow this link to the BBFC website.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

On Writing: The Writer's Workplace

I used to enjoy turning straight to page 5 of Saturday's Guardian Review supplement to see the photograph of an established writer's boudoir. It was always a fascinating and voyeuristic experience, peering through the keyhole while the writer was not at home. Some were idyllic with perfect views, serene spaces, modernist furniture; others were like busied libraries, active offices with old furniture slung between organised chaos.

Unfortunately, the newspaper stopped doing this at some point last year. However, in honour of its absence I will carry the torch and do my own.

I have had to take two photographs to make up for the lack of an all encapsulating wide-angle lens view.

So, welcome to the space where I do most of my scribblings.

On a solid Ikea desk my partner's old (in laptop years) overheating laptop and school paraphernalia dominate the surface (and the sides) with pens, binders and NUT letters. To the right of the laptop is a new printer - I got rid of the old one because I couldn't work out how to drain the ink absorber - and a cylinder of discs containing music to fit all moods, but silence is best (or at least just the sound of the manic laptop fan). To the left of the desk is a DAB radio which is usually tuned into BBC Radio 2 or 6 (I hope the station stays!), sadly the radio suffered a fall due to the binders tipping over and has never been the same since, hence the replacement CD player to the far left. Top left is a photo collage of nights out circa 02-06, I always spot something new when I stare at it, at my younger self. Sometimes, if I'm suffering from writer's block, I swivel the chair 90 degrees to the right, push back, prop my feet on top of the radiator and look up at the sky, sometimes there is a jet stream chasing itself, gulls flying over, or sometimes the clouds are moving giving the illusion that the entire house is moving. Then the writer's block is cured, as if the view was a form of visual roughage.

To my right is the window in the house that holds the most glorious view; I ignore the houses opposite and the flats further down, partly to avoid meeting eyes with neighbours, and partly because what lies in the distance is far more interesting. The first two fields belong to a local farmer, beyond that are the fields of Cornwall. Kitt hill, the bump on the landscape on the top right, is a great look-out point. To the left of it is a mast which lights up when night falls. Somewhere in between is St Mellion, home to a famous golf club where Ronnie Corbet, Bruce Forsyth and Alice Cooper have teed off, whether they have done together, we can only hope. Also mist frequently rises from the river Tamar, and if the wind is blowing the an easterly direction, it rolls along the hills towards the house. Because this view is westerly there are dazzling sunsets to behold.

So that's it, not a bad space for writing really...