Sunday, October 21, 2012

London Film Festival

Ship of Theseus
I've hugely enjoyed the London Film Festival over the last few years - so I felt a certain trepidation about the arrival of a new director, Clare Stewart - particularly as her first festival came saddled with the inane strapline "Feel It", and the programme was divided into emotional categories like "Dare", "Thrill" and "Love".  I've always felt a bit uncomfortable about marketing copy which is based around how a work of art will supposedly make me feel, rather than what it actually is - although all the marketing professionals, and our own experience, point to that sort of copy being exactly what brings in audiences.  Now, it seems, an entire festival is being built around sensation.

It's a coincidence, but an instructive one, that this festival has coincided with the publication of David Thomson's new book on the history of cinema, The Big Screen.  A key moment in cinema history, for Thomson, was Jaws - the moment when the capacity of the medium to thrill and seduce was permitted, indeed encouraged, to eclipse its capacity to generate meaning.  "The commotion", says Thomson, "meant nothing.  The sensation eclipsed sensibility."  And this, of course, is disastrous.  If our culture comes to purvey emotion without thought, then it becomes a fascist culture - a space of rabble rousing and misdirected desires.

Which said, the films I saw in this year's festival belied both Thomson's gloom about the decline of the art form, and the event's literally sensationalised packaging.  It was great, with a view to next year's Origins, to see some very perceptive new documentaries around indigenous peoples: I particularly liked Sarah Gavron's Village at the End of the World, which followed the lives of some very winning Inuit personalities against the background of the melting icecap and encroaching globalisation. The Ethnographer, which concentrated on British anthropologist John Palmer's absorption into the society of the Wichi people of Argentina was refreshingly frank about just how much of our way of living, particularly our ethical code, is a cultural construct, to which there are perfectly viable and consistent alternatives.  

Among the features, the one which I found most immediately stimulating in terms of my current creative journey was Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love (categorised with the crassest of literalism under - you've guessed it - "Love").  The film, set in Japan, is essentially a three-hander between Akiko, a young girl who is working as a prostitute to put herself through college, her obsessively jealous boyfriend, and the elderly Professor who hires her for a night.  The early sequences, with Akiko agonising over the fact that she can't meet her grandmother on a short visit to Tokyo, form a very compelling portrait of urban alienation, which I found very useful for some of the ideas forming for Consumed (not in a "oh I'll do that too" way - but in terms of atmosphere).  But the film didn't resolve why the Professor had hired her in the first place.  He was clearly not interested in, or even expecting sex, and there were hints about her resembling his dead wife and daughter...  but nothing solid enough to make sense.

Caesar Must Die is a fascinating film about a production of Julius Caesar in an Italian prison. It's based on true events, and the actors in the film are the prisoners - but it isn't a documentary.  The revelations about parallels between the play and the lives of the criminals did not happen exactly as portrayed, or necessarily to the people shown.  So it's fictionalised - which is just fine, but begs the question why professional actors weren't used - as the quality of the performances is what lets the piece down.  But it's a very humane work about the redemptive power of art.  Gloriously uncynical.

My favourite film, though, was Anand Gandhi's Ship of Theseus.  Three stories, thematically linked through the idea of organ transplant, turn out to be physically linked as well - in a way that reminded me of the transcendent ending of Jesus of Montreal.  The fact that the middle story centred on philosophical debates around the ethics of such transplants, while the first one investigated their psychology and the last their political implications in the unequal world so highlighted in India, made the kaleidoscopic structure very powerful.  I loved the understated acting and the intellectual depth of it.  And the fact that it was totally un-sensational.

Maybe the packaging is something distinct from the substance.  

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