Twisted Oak and Slender Birch

Walk with me. Here the forest is young, full of quick-growing pine, sharply regimented and as industrial as a wilderness can be. Yes, it’s dark between the trees, and nothing grows beneath them. This forest is quiet, and little ever scurries through the drifting needles on the forest floor. But the way is straight and wide, well-worn, and we’ll make good time.

Further on, over the newly-mended stile, the forest changes. Here we see autumn, crisp underfoot, or more likely sodden and slippery, but bright gold and burnished bronze all the same. Sycamore, seeds spiralling. Beech, leaves round and ruffled. Here and there a Scots pine, ragged and tenacious. Horse chestnut, the spiky shells of its seed turning brown, conkers long gone, long forgotten in coat pockets, waiting to be turned out in the search for that other glove (the glove we find cheerfully placed on a nearby fence post, waving as we pass).

It’s here we find the old twisted oak, magnificent ruin, with branches reaching towards us, pleading, coaxing. The path winds round it, just beyond the grasp of those dark branches, flirting, daring.

A winter storm, two years gone, has torn one branch down, and it rests on the ground, beckoning, bleeding. But it is autumn, and though the leaves are brown, enough remain that we can see how full and bright even that branch was in summer. In summer, oak was the forest’s king, and he only reaches for us now to keep us from seeing autumn’s queens, the bold and brassy interlopers, rhododendrons that were lush enough with flowers in his green shadow, and remain unrepentantly succulent despite the morning frosts.

This is not an old forest, and the path is made for meandering. Birds sing, squirrels chatter, leaves drift lazily from a dozen different trees. You catch one, rich, red maple – another interloper – and smile.

The path winds on, and the forest changes again. Those big, steadfast beeches and the old oak’s striving sons fall away, and in their place grow silver birch trees, tender and slim. A week ago, maybe two, they still held their leaves, but a wild autumn wind has stripped them, and the ground is strewn with little golden hearts.

Its work done, the wind has fled, and the forest here is still and silent. This forest is old, though the trees are young, no taller than three tall men and slender as a girl. The path is narrow, no more than the passing of a deer. Turn to watch as one last leaf falls, turn back, and the path is gone.

The path is gone, but the silver birch grows thin and straight, two paces between each. You did not fear the old twisted oak, what harm can the silver birch do? Turn again, turn, and suddenly you wish for the old twisted oak whose branches point you towards home, not the silent silver birch who points only to heaven.

No taller than three tall men, and yet their roots grow much deeper.

The ground is strewn with little golden hearts, and one rich, red –

The Illusionist

A gently funny, elegiac movie about the end of the music hall era and not so much the loss of innocence as its slow, unwitting replacement with experience. Travelling from Paris to a remote Scottish island and finally Edinburgh, The Illusionist has a superb sense of place – director Sylvain Chomet presents a view of Edinburgh in particular that is more recognisable than most live-action films. It’s rather prettier than the reality, but never picture-postcard predictable.

Based on a script by Jacques Tati, the film manages to capture the elegantly awkward clowning of Tati without falling into pastiche or parody. This heritage is nicely acknowledged by a ‘cameo’ of Tati’s Mon Oncle, the main character stumbling into a screening in, this being Edinburgh, the Cameo.

The Illusionist doesn’t have the anarchic energy of Chomet’s previous feature, Belleville Rendez-Vous, and the nature of the story is such that the film has a downbeat ending that comes across as somewhat unresolved. But Chomet’s knack for comic minutiae of character and his obvious affection for Edinburgh (as confirmed by his introduction of the film), make The Illusionist a charming experience and a perfect opener for the festival.

(This is the first time I’ve managed to get tickets for the opening night film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (not the red carpet screening, obviously, the screening for us little people afterwards). Not that it makes any difference to the film, but it gives me a certain nerdy satisfaction.)

Bloody Mama

Dedicated to the mothers of America, Bloody Mama is a lurid, vividly engrossing and entirely inaccurate portrayal of the exploits of the Barker Gang, one of the many notorious criminal gangs that sprang up in America during the Depression.

Whereas the real Ma Barker was peripheral to the exploits of her sons, the film places her at the very heart of the gang, a devoted mother to her variously psychopathic, drug-addicted and borderline incestuous sons. It’s a strange, extreme film, both funny and shocking, with an amazing central performance from Shelley Winters as Ma Barker. It also features a very young Robert De Niro, twitchy as the drug-addicted Lloyd Barker (Corman has more cinematic connections than Kevin Bacon).

Shelley Winters as Kate 'Ma' Barker

(The film really was dedicated to the mothers of America, both in the publicity and the film itself, with the titles rolling over this 1934 US stamp.)

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Another genre for Corman, this time the gangster movie, and a studio picture made with Twentieth Century Fox. It’s a cracking old-school gangster movie, with Jason Robards as Al Capone going through scenery like popcorn.

Corman, there to introduce the film, told the story of how he’d originally wanted to cast Orson Welles as Capone, and the studio had gently dissuaded him, saying Welles was impossible to work with. Robards was originally cast as Capone’s rival Bugs Moran – that role went instead to Ralph Meeker.

There’s a wonderful selection of thuggish faces in the movie, up to and including Jack Nicholson in a one-line part (chosen by Nicholson, according to Corman, over a larger role because the shooting schedule meant he’d get paid for longer). George Segal, high up the cast list but in a relatively small role, appears to be in an entirely different movie – possibly a prototype of The Sting.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre poster

There’s a splendid voiceover detailling the lives and eventual deaths of the main characters, delivered in stentorian, moralising style with a sly undercurrent.

How To Shoot a Film in 5 Days

How do you shoot a film in five days? According to Shane Meadows (and his producer, Mark something-or-other), you get a few mates together (particularly if you’re mates with Paddy Considine), call in a few favours with the Arctic Monkeys, and trust to luck that you get enough usable footage. According to Roger Corman, it’s all about planning ahead.

Meadows and his producer have made one film like this; Corman, as director and later as producer to others, has made hundreds.

Meadows and Mark Herbert (I googled him) gave an entertaining double interview at the EIFF, a mixture of anecdotes about their past experiences in the film industry, and why this prompted them to change track and return to lo-to-no budget filmmaking. The resultant film was Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee, screening at the festival, although I’ve not caught up with it. Their experiences are salutory, warning against the perils of the filmmaking by committee that accompanies bigger budgets. It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Roger Corman, whose few involvements with big studio productions encouraged him to return to the low budget filmmaking that allowed him the control he wanted.

Meadows and Herbert also highlighted the strange snobbery in the British film industry, which doesn’t like to think of itself as an industry, and is very snooty about the kind of independent financing that keeps American indies afloat. Meadows was roundly condemned for taking Eurostar’s money to make Somers Town – he was only slightly defensive here, and said that he had an airtight contract that let him get away with murder, instead of being at the whim of producers and conventional film financiers. This attitude is tied into the way government funding continues to dominate the film industry, whether the Film Council or Scottish Screen, despite being as insular as the traditional nepotism of film studios.

Particularly interesting was the pair’s admission that they don’t quite know how to go on from here: having produced a film in this way, and brought it to the festival to some acclaim, they don’t want to just sell it on to a traditional distributor, and are trying to think of new ways to get the film to an audience. They threw a few ideas out (like setting up village fetes – real lo-fi word of mouth), and admitted that they’re still working on what to do. It would have been interesting to go into it more (they had an understandable apprehension about the possibilities and problems of the Internet: how do you monetise it?), but it didn’t really go further than that.

The kind of low budget independent filmmaking and distribution that Roger Corman thrived on is no longer possible – there are no grindhouses and drive-ins left, and even allegedly independent cinemas like the Filmhouse and the GFT are tied into distribution deals. I admit, I don’t know how it works, but the Filmhouse has Michael Mann’s Public Enemies on the cover of next month’s programme, and that isn’t independent, struggling-to-find-an-audience cinema by any criteria, and I’d be willing to bet that the GFT is also screening it. I’m also willing to bet that, however loyal their audience, they’re loosing a lot of people like me, who have Cineworld Unlimited cards (or other deals) won’t go to other cinemas unless the films aren’t showing at the multiplex. (I’m digressing – it pisses me off that the GFT isn’t smarter about its programming, even though I know I’m lazy about chasing up films that aren’t on at the Cineworld)

The Roger Corman interview (conducted by geek hero Kim Newman) was a whirlwind tour of Corman’s prolific career, with some nice anecdotes and so forth. It was good to hear his opinion that low budget filmmaking is all about planning, after hearing about Meadows somewhat haphazard approach – I feel that independent filmmakers need to strike a balance.

The Meadows interview raises more questions about the film industry in Britain. One gets the impression that for Meadows, it was a cathartic experience, sweeping out his experiences of working within the bigger budgets, and as much about the process as the end result, but it may be that it lights a fire under people’s asses, which is no bad thing.

Still watching films…

But flagging slightly in the reviewing:

Goodbye, How are You?

Curious, but not entirely sucessfull. A pseudo-documentary, built around a series of satirical aphorisms (“satirical truths” as the director put it) by Serbian writers. The aphorisms form the basis of a false narrative, delivered deadpan over a variety of strange (sometimes amusing, sometimes merely odd, sometimes apropos, sometimes random) film/video clips. The problem is that in this Internet age, we are all over-exposed to the weird of the world, and it ends up merely seeming like a slightly more sarcastic version of Boing Boing, or a Youtube without the “WTF, thats so obviously faek” comments.

Screened with a quietly devestating shorter documentary in stark black & white, Why I don’t speak Serbian (in Serbian), a series of talking heads about why the Albanian population of Kosovo has comprehensively rejected the use of the Serbian language.

Members of the Funeral

Have I mentioned how much I love Korean film? This is no exception, a strange little drama about three members of a family, all connected in different ways to a boy who may or may not have commited suicide. It’s darkly funny, but also engrossing and unexpected.

Members of the Funeral poster

(Here I come across the problem of mixing writing with reviewing – writing says adverbs bad, reviewing needs more than one way to call something a black comedy. Particularly when every single film I’ve seen so far has involved death in some form or other, even if it’s just dead rabbits.)

The Masque of the Red Death

Ever more glorious technicolor from the Corman Poe films, this time courtesy of Nicolas Roeg. The red of the title infuses the entire film.

It’s a darker film, content-wise, than the earlier adaptations, closer in tone to the original story, about the wicked aristocracy living in debauchery, thinking themselves safe behind castle walls as plague sweeps the countryside. Vincent Price (natch), this time as the Satan-worshipping Prince Prospero, is far more menacing, softly persuasive as he attempts to corrupt an innocent country girl, and roundly dismissive of the nobles who seek his protection.

Annoyingly, can’t find any good stills via Google images – will try to track down later…