My blog has been neglected for a long time.
So, what happened?
Last year I was occupied with the post-production of my web documentary The Good Life (www.goodlife.film), and I’ve learned that when I am in an edit suite all day long unfortunately the last thing I want to do in the evening is cosy up to a film.
When I did manage to see a movie it was because I made a conscious decision to leave the house for the cinema, and the time it took to make that physical journey to somewhere other than my living room sofa put me in the right frame of mind to engage with a story unfolding on-screen that was not one I was trying to make.
And then there was the political turmoil…
Which meant that You Tube and the US based comedians (Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert) usurped the place of Netflix, Mubi and Love Film in my life. I became addicted to one emotional state: amusement.
I now no longer need to get my political news strictly through comedians (though it helps) and as I am in a lull before another of my projects begins post-production, I was excited when my friend E. emailed. There were a few movies playing in London that she wanted to see and did I want to be her date?
And so I agreed to 3 films in the span of 4 days at the cinema.
We started with a Friday night screening at the British Film Institute of L’albero degli zoccoli, or The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978, directed by Ermanno Olmi). While I was waiting for E. in the lobby of the BFI I debated ordering a coffee. It had been a long week – the first half spent in Rome, the second half on a film shoot in Uxbridge. But I got stuck into the book I’m currently reading (Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking), and before I knew it E. had arrived. We picked up the tickets and grabbed the programme notes to the film and hurried to find our seats.
Once settled I glanced down at the notes, now in my lap, and my eyes zeroed in on one particular line, out of all the others:
“this three-hour epic about the lives of peasants in turn-of-the-century Bergamo…”
I didn’t realise I said this aloud.
E. had seen the film before but it had been many years so she was also surprised by my announcement. But she assured me that of everything she remembered about the film, length was not one of them.
Even so, I regretted not ordering that coffee.
The curtains parted and the film began and I really don’t know why I was surprised that the film was in colour (it was only made in 1978). We were off to a good start. I was also relieved that the editing from the beginning was quite pacey. Okay, I thought – I can do this!
The Tree of Wooden Clogs is fiction but observational in style so at times you could mistake it for being a very well shot documentary. I later read that the stories in the film were based on stories Olmi’s grandmother told him, which certainly lent the film an even greater feeling of authenticity.
The beauty of this film is that not that much happens, and yet it’s still immersive. The word immersive is thrown around a lot these days, mostly in connection to virtual reality and 360 degrees video. Yet here is an entirely immersive film from the late 70s, and the immersive-ness comes from the filmmaker not only bringing you into a place, into a world, but from his mastery in keeping you there. I can’t remember any false moves that kicked you out of the fictive world the filmmaker created. In fact, I don’t recall anyone leaving the cinema early. And that’s saying something for a three-hour film on a Friday night!
Historically, too, the film is fascinating in that it is set only decades after Italian unification, and still it feels like you are watching a village in its own region in its own time, rather than a village that is now part of the same country as “Italian” landmarks that we are so used to seeing or thinking about in connection to Italy.
I found myself entranced with the film’s cinematography – the composition and the framing. Maybe this was my way of coping with its length, or my way of adapting to its pace. Unfortunately because of this mesmeric state I realised I may have missed a few plot points. This was certainly the case when the air conditioning kicked on halfway through the film and I became preoccupied with keeping warm. In my mind I went to the last time I froze watching a three-hour Italian film in the cinema. It was so long and so cold that I caught the flu during the film and once it ended I was so weak that I needed a taxi to transport me from Manhattan back to Queens. Now back in the Studio of the BFI I could see in my peripheral vision E. pulling out from her bag what looked to be a big blanket. She was seasoned at cinema going in the summer. I admired her preparation!
The Tree of Wooden Clogs HAS to be three hours long because it takes one that long to adjust to its rhythm. But when you do, when you finally submit, it is quite peaceful. E. and I compared notes afterwards and E. said she found herself fighting with the film, fighting for the first hour with the demands it was placing on her, but after that, when she eventually submitted, it was okay. More than okay. It was an immersive experience and one that I would repeat if I had another three hours in the near future to spare.
Three days later E. and I met at BAFTA for a cinema “double-header”: Baby Driver and Song to Song. I was expecting to hate Baby Driver and was once again in admiration for E. because I was pretty sure this was not her kind of film either, but she was going to see it anyway, as any good screenwriter might do for research.
What can I say? Baby Driver is an accomplished film. Yet one that is stressful – at least for me – to watch. Firstly, it’s fast. The opening car chase is brilliant – how on earth did they choreograph and shoot that?? Secondly, it’s loud. Baby Driver grabbed me by the throat and didn’t quite let me go. I could feel the vibrations of the soundtrack throughout my entire body, throughout the entire film. I was shallow breathing for nearly two hours.
There were moments in Baby Driver when I squirmed in my seat and covered my face with my hands. It was intense. And I loved the way the soundtrack – which to my delight at some point included Young MC, and not one of his super obvious tracks – was integral to the story. But I really did have trouble with the level of violence and its glorification. As we have all seen variations of the film’s story before, is this film really a vehicle for stylised violence?
Baby Driver had a plot and although it was strong, it was expected. Near the end the villain appears, and re-appears and then … re-appears once more for the final, violent showdown. I really hate villains in films, which is why I have trouble writing traditional, explicit conflict.
To its credit Baby Driver attempts a not-all-ends-well ending, but still, it’s all Hollywood fantasy (a glistening prison scene in Georgia, a state with extreme poverty). At the same time, on some level, this film is satisfying, and I do think I remember the cinema erupting into applause once the final credits rolled.
E. & I had a 15-minute break between films. We retrieved our reserved sandwiches from behind the BAFTA bar and ordered two glasses of white. This “double-header” cinema event needed careful scheduling and E. was looking after our blood sugar levels.
I confessed to E. that I had like Baby Driver more than I had expected. She nodded but was reserved. We both agreed we had no interest writing or directing such a film but we both agreed that it was very good for what-it-was. But we were baffled by the level of violence – is this what people want to pay to see on screen? Still? It’s hard to imagine that after so much – Syria, refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, police brutality, Grenfell Tower – that we as a society have not reached “peak-violence.”
I was troubled.
Is American cinema the most violent? I asked E.
She thought for a moment, then answered.
I’m not familiar with Korean cinema, but . . .
Oh yeah, me neither.
I was happy for once that the US did not have the monopoly on blood & guts & murders (on screen) and I found myself wistful for the Italian film during which nothing much happened.
I couldn’t make it through my glass of wine so I tucked it under my scarf (I was prepared this time for cinema temperatures) and we headed back to our seats for Terrence Malick’s Song To Song. Despite its famous and extremely good-looking case – Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Michael Fassbender – it was absolutely insufferable. I moved around in my seat. I contemplated an exit. Two people actually found it, in blatant defiance of BAFTA’s rules not to leave your seat until all of the credits are finished. (in addition to: don’t even think about touching your phone).
What was the point of that? I asked E.
Neither of us could answer.
We knew going in that it had had poor reviews, but that made me more determined to like it. And then there was the fact that it was directed by Malick.
There were too many voices in the film! I said.
But it was an ensemble! E. replied.
Yeah, but I still didn’t know who I was supposed to care about. I felt for no one!
E. & I shared our coping mechanisms for Song To Song. The highlight for me was seeing Cate Blanchett wear a magnificent black, backless dress while standing outside on some balcony. I wondered what kind of bra she was wearing with that dress, that is how far out of the world of the film I was! E. found inspiration in some of the film’s interiors, specifically something to do with tiles.
But okay, that is not entirely the truth. I did like something more than Cate’s black, backless dress. Malick and his camera caught some lovely, warm moments between the couples in the film. But they were really not enough to stave off my restlessness. I remembered I had the same feeling with Malick’s previous film, To The Wonder.
So, are Terrence & I officially “over”??
I’d like to say now that I wouldn’t give him another few hours of my time, but . . . curiosity may not be able to keep me out of the cinema when he releases his next film.