Bespoke Film Festival, London

I visited London last weekend just to attend a Sunday lunch for alumni of my alma mater living in Europe, and it somehow turned into a cinetastic three-day field trip.

Saturday afternoon I saw Conversations with Other Women, which played at some film festivals in 2005 and had a limited US release last year, but was just released last month in the UK. Functionally a two-person play with Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, it uses a continual split screen to reflect the disconnection between the characters — a boundary occasionally breached by one or the other — and their fractured memories. Frequently one side of the screen will show a flashback, like a marginal gloss on the primary text, and the details of a paratextual sequence are sometimes altered as a character’s memory (or account of their memory) becomes clarified.

Saturday night I went to a preview of the new stage production of Lord of the Rings, which is curious as a novelty — how would LOTR be staged? — so its moments of pure “spectacle” are fun: Galadriel, the Ents (on stilts), Shelob (a giant puppet), Mt Doom. But as a musical unfortunately it’s not very memorable.

The problem with distilling three novels into three hours (cut down from its original length in Canada!) is that most of the dialogue is reduced to simply moving the plot forward. Furthermore, “action scenes” on any stage are necessarily tedious and unexciting. For me, film is a better medium for pure narrative while the stage is best reserved for comedy and musicals (because they should be experienced live) and for characterization-based drama with psychological insight.

Thus the best (or only good?) scene in this production of LOTR is the metafictional conversation, accompanied by a song, wherein Sam and Frodo discuss themselves as characters in a Story, and the subsequent struggle of Smeagol over whether or not to betray his master.

Sunday I mostly sightsaw and intended to go to We Will Rock You in the evening because I assumed West End theatres were dark on Monday like Broadway and LA so I was surprised to discover they’re dark on Sunday but not Monday. So instead I went to Ocean’s 13 at the Empire to see what a movie is like in a Leicester Square cinema.

It was a pretty boring movie and it’s become axiomatic that Clooney and Pitt are playing themselves not their characters (Damon being the exception), but I was still surprised by the degree to which the story was a fictional projection (literally) of the actors’ well publicized charity work.

Rather than stealing for their own benefit, the primary recipients of the gang’s new scheme are ordinary pathetic casino patrons. “It doesn’t matter if we win as long as the house loses.” In his movie alter ego, Clooney has become a Robin Hood whose Merry Men trick greedy Casino barons into giving to the poor, whether naive gamblers or a children’s charity.

On Sunday I discovered the Tate had an exhibit on Dali & Film, so I stayed an extra night to spend some time there. Rather than another night playing the hostel game I upgraded to a B&B on Tavistock Place, which I didn’t realize till the next day was literally around the corner from where the #30 bus exploded on 07/07/05. At any rate my room smelled of mold and had the filthiest carpet I’ve ever seen so stay away from the “Goodwell Hotel” if you’re ever looking for lodging in Camden.

After visiting the burial place of Milton under the floor of St Giles Without Cripplegate on Monday, I spent four hours in the Dali exhibit which comprised only half of the fourth floor of the Tate Modern. It is an impressive exhibit of about 150 items from collections around the world, including eight films on continual loop: besides Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or, the three-minute dream sequence from Hitchcock’s Spellbound, a satirical video collaboration with Philippe Halsman called Chaos and Creation, and a couple of Screen Tests by Warhol, the highlights were Destino, a recently completed seven-minute animation derived from records of the 1946 collaboration between Dali and Disney, and Dali’s only directorial effort Impressions of Upper Mongolia — Homage to Raymond Roussel.

When compared with Dali’s extensive storyboards and studies for the piece, also on display, the 2003 production of Destino appears to be a faithful representation of his intentions. The short film is a kind of Greatest Hits of Dali’s personal tropes, incorporating eyeballs, melting clockfaces, ants crawling out of a gash in the hand, bicyclists with bread hats, baseball, and double images into a seamless sequence. In many ways it is the most literal translation of Dali’s paintings to the screen.

Made for TV in 1975, Impressions of Upper Mongolia not only draws comparisons to F for Fake but is also a precursor of the microphotography used in The Fountain. Narrated by a magician-caped Dali who acts as both illusionist and exposer of truth, it begins with a pretitle sequence in which a moonlit landscape is revealed to be a detail of Hitler’s mustache and nose.

The rest of the film purports to document his search for a hallucinogenic mushroom native to “High Mongolia” and the basis of its society. We are given a tour of the people and places of this psychedelic Shangri La, but what had seemed to be his paintings of them turn out to be microstructures on the brass band around a pen — an effect Dali achieved by urinating on it for several weeks. Unfortunately I found myself opening my eyes periodically during the 70 minute film but I can only imagine that my sleepiness enhanced the dreamlike experience of the movie.

After four hours though I’d had enough of Dali and needed to get upriver to the British Film Institute at the Southbank Centre (formerly the National Film Theatre) to get my ticket for Lekce Faust, part of their Jan Svankmajer retrospective. It was a delightful adaptation worth missing Prison Break for, even though I’ll have to miss a party Friday night in order to catch the repeat.

Svankmajer’s Faust is an everyman, reluctant and motivated initially by innocent curiosity. The first act has no spoken lines except an invocation read by Petr Cepek out of a playbook, but his Walter Matthau ordinariness makes his every action interesting to follow. His creation of a claymation test-tube fetus into a baby golem is an early highlight but his interactions with life size marionette puppets depicting Mephistopheles and Lucifer — and Helen! — soon become the norm as stage scenery regularly descends around him irrespective of his geographical location.

The English dubbing, especially for Faust’s puppet servant/jester, sounded too similar to Team America for me, so I’d be curious to see it again with subtitles. Aside from the overdone voices however, the film is regularly humorous but the tragedy prevents it — even puppet rape — from ever becoming silly.

After three full days in London, however, I was not only done but done for, and just made the last train back Monday night.

2 thoughts on “Bespoke Film Festival, London

  1. Buhler says:

    Made for TV in 1975, Impressions of Upper Mongolia not only draws comparisons to F for Fake but is also a precursor of the microphotography used in The Fountain. Narrated by a magician-caped Dali who acts as both illusionist and exposer of truth, it begins with a pretitle sequence in which a moonlit landscape is revealed to be a detail of Hitler’s mustache and nose.

    The Fountain pushed its way, after three days and two viewings, into my top ten favorite movies of all time list. What is microphotography?

  2. Nobody says:

    The visual effects in space were shots of stuff through microscopes.

    I only saw the Fountain once, and became tired of Jackman’s single facial expression in the current-day segments. OK we get it, you’re pissed that your wife’s gonna die!

    Visually of course, it was amazing, but the voyage to the star felt too passive for me, and is why I prefered the experience of Sunshine despite its shortcomings. I know The Fountain was intentionally portraying a passive, stoic acceptance of death, but it was so zenned out that I just felt quite disengaged from it.

    I liked the closing minutes and the wound in Tom’s side reminded me of the line “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins” but most of it interested me only insofar as I imported my own thoughts into the imagery.

    I also have the graphic novel version which is based on the screenplay in the Brad Pitt incarnation of pre-production but I haven’t read it yet.

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