Orson Welles

Orson Welles – director, writer, rebel, maverick, star – was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1915 to a sickly concert pianist and an alcoholic inventor, and introduced himself to America by causing mass panic. As Welles recited his War of the Worlds radio play on October 30, 1938, legend has it that his threatening, sonorous baritone sent Americans running for the hills screaming of Martian invasion. Overnight, he was catapulted to stardom.

Welles was a genius, and no one believed it more than he did. At the age of 10 he ran away from home and was found a week later singing for money on a street corner. In his teens, he marched into a theatre in Ireland and introduced himself as a Broadway star, convincing the stage manager to cast him as the lead in their next play. Welles only ever worked on terms that were defiantly his own, and he left every competitor trailing in his slipstream.

To be described as an auteur – a director with enough stature to command total and absolute control – is the highest accolade one can pay to a filmmaker. Welles filled every frame of his films with his personality. Critic Andrew Sarris called Citizen Kane, which Welles wrote, directed and starred in, ‘the work that influenced the cinema more profoundly than any American film since The Birth of a Nation.’ At the time of shooting, Welles was 24.

Everyone can recall the sight of Charles Foster Kane riding Rosebud through the snow as his mother negotiates his departure, or the three-minute tracking shot at the start of Touch of Evil as Charlton Heston rides into the US from the Mexico border, a bomb in the trunk of his car. Everyone can recall the indefinable look on Welles’ face as he walks between the mirrors in Xanadu, or when he emerges from the shadows of Vienna in The Third Man.

Working at the height of the studio era, where staid panning, rhythmic cutting and boxy, conservative composition were de rigueur, Welles punctuated his films with nonlinear narratives, heavily-wrought chiaroscuro, wholly unpredictable camera angles, off-the-wall sound techniques borrowed from radio, deep focus lensing that leant a previously unrealised depth of field, and long takes that a modern steady-cam would struggle to accomplish.

To the Hollywood suits, this uninhibited auteurism was as alien as the creatures described in War of the Worlds. Hollywood was, and still is, an industry dominated by formula. Directors were treated with the disdain of hired guns, actors were swapped like pawns and films were shot with the regularity of shift-work.

Orson Welles wanted everything, right now, and his career can be viewed as a case of too much, too soon. In 1941, RKO offered a contract to an untried director that has never been repeated; Welles was given complete artistic control for a two-year shoot. The result, Citizen Kane, may be widely considered the best film ever made, but it’s one that haemorrhaged money.

By the time of Welles’ second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, in 1942, his right to the final cut was revoked and RKO President George Schaefer, desperate to recoup the cash he’d burned on Kane, was ratcheting up the pressure. Welles insisted on a set constructed like a real house, in which the walls could roll back, be raised or lowered to allow the camera to appear to pass through them in a continuous take. The film went careering over schedule and budget. Welles’ final version stood at 135 minutes and he refused any changes before heading to Brazil to work on another project.

With the director out of the country, RKO slimmed the film by 50 minutes, reordered the scenes, tacked on a happy ending and destroyed the original negatives to free up vault space. The film tanked at the box office and, when Welles returned to the US, he found himself shunned by the major studios.

By the late ’40s, Welles’ reputation in the States was in freefall. He’d embarked on a disastrously expensive stage version of Around the World in 80 Days in 1946, which had to be bailed out by Columbia President Harry Cohn. In exchange, Welles agreed to write, direct, produce and star in a film for free. The result was 1947’s Lady From Shanghai. When Cohn saw the final cut of this abstract murder mystery, he offered $1000 to anyone who could explain the plot.

In 1948, Welles’ Macbeth was heralded as another failure in the US, but was celebrated in Europe. Sensing which way the wind blew, he departed for his European odyssey, starring in Carol Reed’s British noir The Third Man in 1950, casting himself as Othello in 1952, before filming in Italy, Spain, Germany and France for 1955’s Mr Arkadin.

On his return to America, Welles finally returned to form. He reunited many of Kane’s technical team on 1958’s Touch of Evil, finishing the shoot on schedule and within budget. But Universal still demanded re-edits, and when Welles sent them a 58-page list of rejections, the studio responded by cutting another 30 minutes. Welles insisted on being disassociated from the film. It was only 30 years later, after his death, that the film was released as Welles originally intended.

Welles never did come to terms with the hard truisms of the American film machine. He raged, sometimes successfully, often pointlessly, against the moneymen and their entrenched methods. By the end of his life, he possessed an elephant’s graveyard of epic projects that lay in a state of half completion or had been cut to ribbons. They are now nothing more than footnotes in his epitaph.

Welles suffered from the Rosebud syndrome; a true individualist in an industry defined by collaboration. He finally transformed into his own Charles Foster Kane; he died in Hollywood in 1985, estranged and alone, obese and depressed, trapped in his own Xanadu.



James Cameron

The first time James Cameron got his hands on a rented camera, he immediately took it to pieces, laying out the components bit by bit before reassembling it. He wasted a day of filming, but that didn’t matter; the important thing was to understand how it worked.

Cameron grew up in Ontario, Canada, before studying for a degree in physics. After two years, he dropped out, married a local waitress and drove a truck to earn cash while devouring everything there was to read about film effects in the local library. It fostered an obsession for the way science works in reality and how it works in the imagination.

His family moved to California, and Cameron, along with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, became a pupil of the Roger Corman school of low-budget genre filmmaking. He quickly made a name for himself as a set designer with ability, attitude and a willingness to work (he would often stay through the night), and Corman took him under his wing as a protégé.

Through Corman’s patronage, Cameron made his directorial debut with Piranha Part Two. It was the litmus test – the opportunity to prove that he was a bankable director. The movie grossed solidly, paving the way for the film Cameron really wanted to make – Terminator.

Although it opened to mixed reviews, Cameron’s second film is now preserved in the American Library of Congress. Film critic Lucia Bozzola wrote: ‘Terminator established James Cameron as the master of action, special effects and quasi-mythic narrative intrigue, while turning Arnold Schwarzenegger into the hard-body star of the 1980s.’

“If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success,” Cameron told The New Yorker magazine recently. This unabashed hubris doesn’t enamour him to the Hollywood establishment and has helped to foster an image of the lone gunslinger in the Wild West. When he won the Oscar for Titanic, he spread his arms before the Academy like Jack Dawson at the bow of his ship before declaring, ‘I’m king of the world.’ The applause was loud, but it was hardly adulatory.

And yet wherever Cameron goes, the industry follows because not only do his films deal with the advancement of technology, they are technological advancements in themselves. For Avatar, Cameron designed the cameras that allowed 3D technology to become de rigueur in tent-pole movies. The liquid-silver on Terminator 2 was the seed which grew digitalisation, while Titanic taught Hollywood how to use green screens to achieve a realist effect.

From the nest of the Alien Queen to the scuba-like fauna of Pandora, from Sarah Connor’s dreams of nuclear holocaust to the surging water columns in The Abyss, Cameron has turned the modern blockbuster into a vehicle for special effects. But at their best, Cameron’s films are more than mere spectacle cinema – he has elevated the special effect to the pedestal of art. As film critic Anthony Lane wrote in his original review of Titanic:

‘Cameron has repeatedly shown that in the right hands special effects are as fertile and provocative as any other artistic resource. At best, they answer to our hopes and terrors of transfiguration: the metallic morphing of the T-1000 in Terminator 2 offered the most succulent image of self-replenishing evil since Dracula and, at the other extreme, the way in which sunshine imperceptibly breaks upon the drowned corpse of the Titanic and in which passengers start to stroll again upon its gleaming decks, is as bracing a prospect of rebirth as you could hope to imagine.”

Cameron is more than just a technician. He has proved himself to be an emotional, dramatic storyteller adept at using images rather than dialogue to project and advance his themes. What’s more, from Kate Winslet’s Rose to Linda Hamilton’s Connor, from Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri to Jamie Lee Curtis’ repressed housewife in True Lies, Cameron seems capable of challenging one of cinema’s greatest and most enduring failings; the female protagonist. His women not only compete with men; they generally win.

To work for Cameron is the benchmark of any Hollywood artisan. His sets are notorious. He retains a small and loyal crew who accompany him on every film, and only those in the inner-circle are permitted to call him Jim. But they also refer to ‘Mij’, the dark inverse to Cameron’s character.

Cameron will rage at an actor, will pull rank on the DP and man the camera himself, or climb the rigs to adjust the lighting. His temper is fearsome, his thrill-seeking compulsive, his demands unwavering and non-negotiable. If anything or anyone falls below standard, firings are regular. ‘Get this guy a van’ is the common jargon.

While filming a shoot-out scene in Terminator 2, Cameron was manning the wide-angled camera in a helicopter above a multi-storey building. The building was aflame, office papers were floating from the sky, there were gunshots, explosions, hundreds of extras, multiple camera units, countless crew. Cameron angrily cut the scene halfway through and directed the helicopter to land on the roof of the building. He ran up to a group of minor set workers in charge of throwing sheets of paper into a fan, barking: “No, no, you’re doing it all wrong, throw the paper like this…”

His penchant for micro-management extends to the suits in charge of the coffers. Fox, the studio responsible for bankrolling Titanic (at the time the most expensive movie ever made), had begun to get nervous, and Cameron was summoned to discuss the budget by an exec with a reputation for straight talking. “Tell your friend he’s getting fucked in the ass, and if he would stop squirming it won’t hurt so much,” came the response from the director.

Leonardo DiCaprio said: “Jim knows exactly what he wants. Needless to say, when somebody felt a different way on the set of Titanic, there was a confrontation. Jim had it out with them right there in front of everybody. He lets you know exactly how he feels. But he’s of the lineage of John Ford. He knows what he wants his film to be.”

Who could argue against him? Terminator 2, Aliens, True Lies, Titanic and, of course, Avatar – Cameron is content to make a behemoth every few years, and each is a juggernaut that dominates the horizon. They may occasionally lack subtlety, wit and refinement, but they win out through sheer brute force.

As Lane writes: ‘Cameron is pushing at cinema much as DW Griffith did at the start – raising the stakes of the spectacular, outwitting the intellect and heading straight for the guts.’

Howard Hawks

The golden era of Hollywood is symbolised by a number of household names – Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille. When held against these luminaries, Howard Hawks is often denigrated as a studio stooge; productive, but lacking innovation. Versatile, but bereft of a signature voice.

US critic Leonard Maltin labelled Hawks ‘the greatest American director who is not a household name.’ Where some directors experimented to the point of distraction, their modernism compulsive, even obsessive, Hawks’ style was inhibited, overwhelmingly concerned with economy of expression. He doesn’t move the camera unless he has to, and even then it is rarely more than a simple pan. With the exception of Red River, montages are almost unheard of. He rarely strays from the basic interchange of medium shots and close-ups, always letting the basic elements of performance and dialogue determine the flow of his films. He was Hollywood’s greatest reductionist. As he famously said: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”

And yet so much of Howard Hawks’ career was remarkable. How many filmmakers can claim to have directed films for over 50 years? Hawks made eight silent films before his first talkie. El Dorado, considered one of the most iconic westerns, was released alongside Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night and Bonnie and Clyde in 1968.

And yet Hawks shouldn’t be remembered for his longevity, or his consistency. He’s defined by his range. He didn’t just command a wide variety of genres – he shaped and sculpted them with works that have never been surpassed. ‘Far from being hemmed in by genre conventions, Hawks was able to impress upon these genre films his own personal worldview,’ writes the academic David Boxwell. ‘It is essentially comic rather than tragic, existential rather than religious, and irreverent rather than earnestly sentimental.’

With 1946’s The Big Sleep, afforded a re-mastered cinema release on December 31, Howard Hawks made the definitive noir before the term even existed. With Scarface (1932) and Only Angels Have Wings (1931), he made gangster movies when gangsters still ran the cities, as well as introducing the public to actor Paul Muni – the first Irish-American to become a national figurehead. Rio Bravo and Red River began as westerns and grew to become emblems of American identity, establishing John Wayne as ‘the Duke’. Bringing Up Baby set the benchmark for the romantic comedy, pairing Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn – the most effortlessly anarchic screen duo in the history of Hollywood.

Only Stanley Kubrick – with 2001, Spartacus, Full Metal Jacket and The Shining – can perhaps claim a similar command, and indeed sway, over such distinct genres.

Part of the reason why Hawks failed to gain the recognition he deserved as a director is the power of stars in his film. Kubrick was never an actor’s director – his films were too visionary to kneel to any performer. The only performer Orson Welles allowed to detract from the expanse of his direction was Orson Welles himself.

But Hawks was more of a pragmatist than an egotist. He was naturally conciliatory where Welles and Kubrick were individualists. He worked in the studio era and he learned how to make the studios work for him. The studio system was a constellation of stars, and no one managed a star like Hawks. Grant, Hepburn, Muni and Wayne: each in their own way owes their career to him.

But Hawks closest and most complex screen relationship was with Humphrey Bogart, ranked by the American Film Institute as the greatest male star in the history of Hollywood. Bogart is primarily remembered for his ‘Play it again Sam’ turn in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942). There, he played the straight-up romantic loner, his heart thawing out at regular gradients until that wonderful, warming finale. But Bogart, an unhappily married man to a perennially jealous woman, was a notoriously reserved figure on set. Ingrid Bergman had a reputation for affairs with her leading men, but her relationship with Bogart was professional at best. “I kissed him, but I never knew him,” she later recalled.

If Bogart’s screen time in Casablanca is limited, in The Big Sleep, he dominates every frame.

The Big Sleep was an assault course to direct. For starters, Hawks had to find a way to deal with Raymond Chandler’s subject material, which, quite apart from its provocative sexuality, touched on the taboo subjects of drug abuse, homosexuality and pornography. At the time of release, Time magazine wrote of Hawks’ direction: ‘Even on the chaste screen, Hawks manages to get down a good deal of the glamorous tawdriness of big-city low life, discreetly laced with hints of dope addiction, voyeurism and fornication.’

More than that, Hawks had to find a way to handle Bogart who, this time, was emotionally invested in his co-star Lauren Bacall. They met on the set of an earlier Hawks’ adaptation of the Ernest Hemmingway novel To Have and Have Not (1944). It was Bogart’s first affair with a leading lady. Bacall, young, precocious and knowingly beautiful, tried to manipulate him – and he was happy to let her. But by the time of The Big Sleep two years later, their relationship was under strain. Bogart was still married, and her mischievousness was being replaced with resentment. He was 47; she was 21.

The Big Sleep is famed for its Rubik’s cube ambiguities; it is a film coiled in innuendo and inference in which the murderer is never quite revealed. Bogart, with his creased face, his flinty eyes and his slow drawl, seems to lean against the world at an angle. It was his finest performance, leading Raymond Chandler to comment, “Bogart can be tough without a gun. He has a sense of humour that contains that grating undertone of contempt.” Time wrote: ‘Bogart can get into a minor twitch of the mouth the force of a slug from an automatic.’

But it is the scenes with Bacall that stick. They seem eternally elusive, locked in a silent battle, familiar and yet uncomfortable with each other, crouched in a searing, almost tragic jealousy. Hawks, who was rumoured to have fallen for Bacall himself, knew exactly how to play them off each other. He said of the pair: “Bogie fell in love with the character she played, so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.”

Unwittingly, he also seemed to be talking about himself. Hawks was a myth-maker around whom stars orbited, the ultimate company man who stood aside from the mores the studios so rigidly adhered to. As David Boxwell writes: ‘He created a body of work that has been accused of ahistorical and adolescent escapism, but Hawks’ fans rejoice in his oeuvre’s remarkable avoidance of Hollywood’s religiosity, bathos, flag-waving and sentimentality.’

Carrie Mathison – Homeland

Today is International Woman’s Day, so it’s a fitting time to talk about an actress, a performance and a character that is truly emblematic of our times; Clare Danes’ portrayal of CIA agent Carrie Mathison in Showtime’s Homeland.

Homeland is being recognized as the first post post-9/11 drama (in actual fact, that badge belongs to HBO’s Generation Kill).

It’s about Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American Marine who is struggling to adapt to American family life after eight years as a prisoner of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Carrie Mathison (Danes), an obsessive CIA agent who is virtually alone in suspecting Brody is a sleeper agent “turned” by the terrorists that held him captive.

Most of the media attention on Homeland has focused on the way the show acts as a partial apology for the gung-ho ideology of Bush-era shows like 24 (on which writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were centrally involved) to reflect a more self-conscious, Obama-stimulated period of concern for the reckless and excessive War on Terror. It’s a story of a rebuked America scrambling to avert a crisis of its own making.

In terms of such a political reading, I can only pay tribute to the redoubtable Peter Bradshaw, who writes today in his Guardian column:

“It is a fascinating idea: that America is coming to terms with the waning of a great – or at any rate greatly dramatic – era: the 9/11 era…Sgt Brody symbolises the spores of scepticism and discontent, the mixed and complicated freight of doubt and disillusion, being carried back to the US en masse by the returning troops…They may well have been “turned” in some indistinct way.”

But while Brody may represent all these things, it would be a grave mistake to think Homeland is about him or the dark motivations he may or may not harbor.

The show belongs to Carrie – the fragile, erratic, unstoppably vivacious and beautifully feminine protector of the American people against the bottomless hatred of radical fundamentalism.

Like all good drama, the stark mass of contradictions that is Carrie Mathison are fleetingly evident the very first time we meet her.

Bursting into her sparse flat, we see her wipe herself down – we suspect after some flippant sexual encounter – before pulling some clothes on and swallowing down a hefty looking pill which, we soon learn, is an antipsychotic drug before rushing to Langley.

So, right from the off, we learn Carrie has an almost purely functional relationship to sex and is medicated against bipolar disorder. Even in 2012 in the Land of Hope and Freedom, that’s a pretty out there way to introduce a female character (lest we forget, a female law student arguing for state-funded contraception was this week accused by a very influential radio show host of being a “slut” and a “prostitute.”)

Her boss and mentor, the gentle CIA veteran Saul (Mandy Pantankin) tries to channel Carrie’s talent for intelligence-gathering by constantly extolling the virtues of patience and discipline but, as he is told in the first episode, he has a blind-spot for her obsessional excesses.

Carrie has had to bear some superficial comparisons to 24‘s Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). In fact she’s much more similar to The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). She’s high-functioning but fatally flawed, uniquely sensitive and attuned to her environment but prone to blow out errors of judgment. Without a moments regard for chain of command or due process, there’s no earth she won’t scorch, no bridge she won’t burn, nothing she wouldn’t do if she felt something stood between her and the restless demands of her job.

But that isn’t to say Carrie is remote. If anything, her emotions are too close to the surface: she’s an entangled mesh of livewires, her fiercely independent and professional mask pockmarked with self-doubt, anxiety, regret and longing.

In one early scene, Carrie turns her head from the screen on which she is monitoring Brody – still traumatized by his exile – as he tries, and fails, to make love to his wife. But Carrie can’t help but look again, and the honesty of her eyes is heartbreaking.

In that sense, Homeland isn’t about how the CIA – or Carrie Mathison – attempt to keep us safe and secure. It’s about how the high-stakes world of the CIA is the perfect incubator for Carrie Mathison; her paranoia – and her compassion – exploited in a game of mutual dependency that has no end.

Tragic though it may be, it’s a portrayal of femininity at its most raw. I doubt Carrie has an equal in modern day drama.

Alex Gibney – How to Make a Great Documentary – Empire

“On the face of it, the fall of Eliot Spitzer was just another sex scandal”, says director Alex Gibney at the start of his new film Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. The son of a prestigious New York Times reporter, Gibney confesses to having “journalistic baggage,” and each of his films – which include Taxi To The Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room – are stitched together with the rigour of good reportage. But he’s governed by a simple idea: “If you make films that are as entertaining as possible, you can say almost anything you want.”

Whether it’s the American military, the behemoths of corporate fraud, New York politics or Wikileaks (his next project), Gibney never bends his knee. Instead, he strips his subjects down to their constituent parts, getting both the central and the peripheral players in the room with him; ensuring there’s always more than one truth told.

Client 9 follows this mould. A sultry and slick movie that revels in the myths of America’s largest city, it follows the metronomic rise and disgraced fall of Spitzer, the former Governor of New York and self-proclaimed “Sheriff of Wall Street” who’s dramatic fall, after accusations of involvement in a prostitution ring, seemed to precipitate the financial crash. In relation to Spitzer, Gibney talks to Empire about the essential elements that constitute his movies.

How To Make A Great Documentary

Find the movers and shakers in the story
For the Oscar-winning Taxi the the Dark Side (2007), which traces the murder of an Afghanistan civilian in Bagram air base, Gibney found and interviewed the boy’s family in deepest Afghanistan before cross-cutting with interviews from the military interrogators who, under orders from on high, beat him to death.

In Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, he didn’t just talked to the commentariat but to the company’s executives, accountants and the traders that took 24 days to go from $65 billion assets to bankruptcy.

In Client 9, he finds ‘Angelica,’ one of the call girls Spitzer began to request when working as Governor. What her recollections reveal aren’t just salacious – she shows Spitzer to be as human, as frail and susceptible as the rest of us. Her recollections of the ‘Sheriff of Wall Street’ act as a corrective for Spitzer’s own mea culpa interviews with Gibney.

“Often important men – great men – tend to see themselves, whenever something happens, in grander terms,” Gibney says of Spitzer. “When the news broke, he was already referring to himself as Icarus. He does it again in the film. So Eliot Spitzer was defining himself as part of a Greek tragedy. He had already moved on and defined the scandal outside of himself. He hasn’t defined it from the inside out.

“But hearing what Angelica has to say, and talking to the people who ran the call girl company, meant that he wasn’t allowed that space to craft his own narrative. It provided a comparator, and what we end with is something very different.”
Use editing to achieve balance
“I get worried I’m getting played all the time,” Gibney says of his interviews with Assange, Spitzer, Enron Executives or American Military Interrogators, who will each bring their own agenda to the interviews. “That’s what the editing room is for.”

“With Taxi To The Dark Side, we had a cut of that film where I felt we’d gone way too far in terms of showing the soldiers as victims because, after all, these soldiers had collectively murdered this poor kid. And we went back in and put back some detail that was pretty damning in terms of how brutal they were, even after they knew that he was likely innocent. That was an important corrective. That was an important way of saying ‘you are not going to be treated as victims.’

“After the interviews with Spitzer we went back through and looked at some of his answers and thought we might have been played by him, so part of what we did was go through and get a bit tougher with some of the editorial choices.

“There’s a scene with his call girl recalling a conversation they had and laughing, and then we’d cut from that to a picture of Spitzer in black tie taking his wife out at night. That was a way of saying, ‘Let’s lot forget here, there was an element of high-hypocrisy going on.'”

How To Make A Great Documentary

Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Aim for objectivity
Gaining that elusive sense of balance remains paramount: “It is true there is no such thing as objectivity, but is it important to try to be fair? Of course,” he says. “It’s a pursuit, an aspiration, and nobody ever gets it right. But there’s a certain credit for trying to get it right.

“The law and order system is a morality play; it’s not really an attempt for the truth. That’s what good documentary film making or good journalism are for. It’s an attempt to search for the truth even while you know that nobody ever gets it perfect.”

Gibney is often accused of being a liberal polemicist, but he denies the charge: “I’ve found myself bristling because I’ve read over and over again Gibney’s thesis is that Spitzer was set up. That’s not my thesis. To me this film is more of an exploration. It raises a lot more questions than it does answers. But it’s not my thesis. If I had gone out to prove that he had been set up then I can tell you now, as one who understands polemics, I could have done a lot more convincing job.”
Recognise what a documentary can and cannot do
While the culture of documentaries has remained largely unchanged on television, Gibney’s career has coincided with the emergence of the feature documentary at the cinema. But, as his audience have become more informed, the doc as an idea in itself has become much more protean: “There’s a supposition that docs are supposed to do a certain thing, which is to act as proof of something or to act as an explainer device,” Gibney says. “But sometimes they provoke but they don’t fully explain.

“The audience are so much more aware these days. And that’s good, frankly. Let a million critics bloom. They can figure out whether someone has told a lie or been figuratively inaccurate, and that’s a good thing. I think audiences are a little bit more ahead than critics in terms of accepting the different vibe of the documentary: if it’s engaging, they’re into it without necessarily feeling that it has to serve some singular purpose.

“Now there are some docs that do do that, they’re very much calls to action. Inside Job, for example. At the end of that film the director is like ‘hang these fuckers.’ And that’s satisfying for viewers.

“But this was the year of the ultimate pseudo-documentary. Every so often that comes back around. Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish, I’m Still Here, is all that real or is it all just bullshit? I find that interesting, but I find it a dead end at times. That’s not a new idea, it’s been around a long time, and you can get to a point where you can say ‘I suppose it’s all fiction in some way,’ but, ultimately you have to ask yourself, ‘Did someone get stabbed or not get stabbed?'”

How To Make A Great Documentary

A scene from Gibney’s 2007 Oscar-winning documentary film, Taxi To The Dark Side

Let the camera do what only it can do
“There are a lot of people that look straight at the camera and lie in this film. But it’s not my style to self-aggrandise myself and pull them up on it. Because, within the context of juxtaposition, you can pretty much tell they’re lying from the way they look, and that’s what film does so well.

“It’s not about asking ‘Is this the truth or is it a lie?’ There’s something more mysterious than that, because sometimes people are good at lying because they’ve convinced themselves they are not lying. If you look at the answers on a transcript, as I did, you would weep and think ‘Oh god, there’s nothing going on here.’ But in fact there’s a lot going on, and you can see it.

“Spitzer was more than happy to talk about the political economy, and on this subject he is so voluble, so articulate. But when I ask Spitzer, ‘So why did you use hookers?’ he seizes up. When he’s talking about this stuff, he’s nervous, he’s halting, he’s inarticulate. Spitzer chooses his words carefully. He frames his answers carefully, but there’s a humanism about film; you can see what’s going on behind the mask.

“You can see it in his eyes, you can see it in his discomfort, you can see it in the way he winces sometimes, in the halting way he talks in comparison to the way he talks about the halcyon days of his crusading efforts as the Attorney General. I wanted to embrace those contradictions.”

House of Tolerance – Empire review

House of Tolerance

A group of Parisian prostitutes from a struggling backstreet brothel rely on friendship and sisterhood to get them through each day.


Hidden in the backstreets of Paris lies Bertrand Bonello’s House Of Tolerance. A brothel at night,by day a home for hookers; prey to a debt-riddled Madame and the secret wants of masked men. Washing champagne and semen from their skin, Bonello’s sex workers cajole, caress and dress in careworn finery before drifting downstairs to wait idly on their regulars. Ritually humiliated, they’re still capable of a potent sisterhood. We’re thrown into this world headfirst, in the period detail and the grace of an ensemble cast spurred by the easy motions of Bonello’s camera. But this grows overlong, opaque and impressionistic, the spattering of lucid drama swallowed by scenes of ogling fetish.


Erotically charged but overlong and untroubled by too much plotting.

Published in Empire January 2012 edition

Skin – i-D

Give Me Some Skin

In March 2011, five people volunteered to be part of an art project involving some of the biggest, most revered names in the contemporary art scene. Its stated aim was to ask serious questions about what, exactly, constitutes art.

The five volunteers – Jack, AJ, Leaf, Shauna and Conrad – gave their skin as a canvas for the likes of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Raymond Pettibon. They were to become a walking original; a permanent, mobile gallery piece from the hands of artists who routinely charge hundreds of thousands for their creations to hang in a frame or sit in the corner of a room.

Along for the ride was Stamp London founder and director Ryan Hope. The result is this achingly stylish documentary film. “What the film asks is how you classify fine art,” Hope told i-D. “Who decides that? Damien Hirst is probably the best known fine artist in the world, and he considers that tattoo his work. The guy at Christie’s told me that, even by making the film, we’re affecting the value of the tattoos. What he was ultimately saying is that there’s no distinction between art, advertising, production and product. But the thing is, these tattoos have no value, because they can’t be sold.”

Skin is the first film from a clearly talented, occasionally audacious director. It’s seamlessly cut, frequently inventive, with a throbbing score from Amon Tobin. But, for every flash of beauty, there’s a scene that feels posy and preening, unsure of when to hold off and when to show off, when to be serious and when to slyly laugh.

“Our body has its shelf-life, but so does everything else,” Jack says as he stands under a hose, beads dripping down his inked torso as he stares off into an imagined future – like the off-cuts of a Take That video. He talks of working hard to leave dead-eyed suburbia behind, to move to London and be around like-minded people. “Because everyone moves to Hackney don’t they?” he says dejectedly. AJ talks of being “uncomfortable in the suburbs. The death of a comfortable, conformist life moving in on me. I knew I would have to escape before it was too late.” “No-one else will ever give birth through a piece of Damien Hirst art,” Shauna says proudly. Leaf, an American-Chinese dude, is in a band called Drug Dealers “which I’d guess you’d describe as chill-wave.”

Skin invites criticism – no doubt. It almost wants you to accuse it of a Nathan Barley self-emulation. But it stands tall, rides the punches, keeps on going and eventually stays standing. It succeeds because it refuses to bow to the artists behind the inkwork. Pettibon, Koons et al never appear on screen, and Hirst only fleetingly. If Skin deals in hagiography, it’s for those who chose to be a canvas.

“I let their characters dictate the visual style,” Hope says. “I interviewed the people first off and then I hung out with them, and whatever came to the forefront led the way for the film. I wanted a snapshot of their lives that was true. That was the most important thing to me. That was the vibe, the point, the idea of the film.” And that core authenticity is the source of its strength. Because this writer has a tattoo from David Shrigley on the inside of his left bicep. He’s had his card declined on dates in restaurants, more than once, because he decided as a kid that the process of sharing art and creativity was somehow worth the effort and the sacrifice. For all its faults and sometime pretensions, Skin invokes that feeling, that excitement, that determination.

As Conrad says to sum up the film: “I think the fine art scene, or the gallery scene, or whatever you call it, has become annul and somewhat incestuous. Do you think the average person gives a shit about a $750 million piece of art? But tattoos aren’t like that. Someone looks at a tattoo and it’s direct, experiential and understandable, even if they don’t know why you got it. People are able to understand it by common terms, because the tattoo was made for common people.”

Original article here: http://i-donline.com/2012/01/give-me-some-skin/

Jeremy Irvine and War Horse – i-D

It’s always tempting to try and engage with a Steven Spielberg film on your own terms, with your own mind. But resistance is futile.

“The bones of War Horse is a love story,” Spielberg told a gaggle of not very insouciant film hacks at his press conference this week. “We wanted to create a bonding story, because [the horse] Joey has a way of bringing people together on different sides of the war, so he circumvents the entire emotional globe of the Great War.”

And that’s exactly it. There are no intellectual equivocations when you see War Horse. Your resolve will melt. Your lip will quiver. It has been ordained; Steven Spielberg wants you to cry, so you’re damn well going to cry. But there’s no shame in it because, after a sustained period of attempting to suck it up, i-D let Steven win, and let out a big, wimpy sob. So just relax and surrender. Here’s a tissue.

Sat in the saddle of Spielberg’s new movie is shaggy-haired, wide-eyed Devon-lad Albert Narracott, the lonesome boy who falls for a colt before he’s called up to do his bit in the Great War. Albert is played by 21-year-old Jeremy Irvine, who, in his last role before Spielberg came along, was playing a tree in the chorus of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He tells i-D about working with probably the defining artist of his generation…

We heard you got trench foot when Spielberg was shooting in the trenches. Has that all cleared up now? That’s been a little bit blown out of proportion, but yeah. You’re soaking wet up to your waist in mud for a couple of months. It’s like when you stay in the bath too long, apart from when you get out it doesn’t go away. As soon as you get to dry land, you’re all good.

It looked like a long, cold, hard shoot, and a real physical exertion to get yourself through it… Steven didn’t want to use CGI, so there are only three shots when CGI is used in the whole film. The set for the trenches was an entire airfield that got turned into the First World War. It was as real as it gets. There were explosions going off left, right and centre, we had rats, we had everything.

Were there times when you thought “I need to get out of here and go to the pub?” Yeah, but the thing was that I could do that. We were all, at the end of the day, going back to nice, warm hotel rooms. It certainly made you appreciate the fact that those young boys couldn’t ever do that. There is no way in hell that we could even begin to relate to what those men went through. Our rats were tamed, and we had fake ammunition, and we could go home at the end of the day.

Everyone in Britain seems to have a family connection to the Great War. How did you try and relate to a soldier going through that experience? Did you look into your own family’s past? I’ve always been a bit of a geek about the war. I’ve always collected stuff from the period, so my bedroom looks like a bit of an armoury. I read a lot of diaries from men that fought – you can download ten hours of men talking about their experiences in the war from iTunes, which is pretty amazing. In terms of finding the character, Albert, I really wanted to find an innocence. He’s fifteen years old in the film. Fifteen year-olds now are exposed to TV, internet, mobile phones, but he’s a young boy from an isolated little village that he’s probably never left. He has this amazing lack of cynicism, and he’s an only child, so when [the horse] Joey comes into his life he becomes almost like a brother to him. That’s why Albert is willing to risk his life to get him back.

They say the first rule of good filmmaking is never to work with animals. It must have been a struggle to act, take after take, with a horse? The horses we used in the film are the most highly trained animals in the world. They’re the F1 racing cars of the horse world. They are astonishing animals, and they are so powerful. If a horse wants or doesn’t want to do something then there’s no stopping them. But it’s funny; I can’t think of a day when we couldn’t do something because a horse wasn’t behaving.

How have your friends responded to your fame? People from back home are like ‘So you’re doing a movie. Whatever.’ I didn’t really tell many people about it because I’d decided to wait until the press came out, and when we were on set I’d gone a bit nuts with the catering. I’ve worked in theatre for most of my career, and in that industry if you’re given free food you stock up for a week. So I put on a stone in three months of shooting because I was nailing the great food on set. I was expecting a reaction from my friends when the press came out I got about twenty texts: “Jerry, did you eat the fucking horse?”

When your Grandson asks you to talk about the film, which is the moment you’re going to recall? I don’t think you can get away from the huge war sequences. I remember watching Saving Private Ryan when I was younger. My parents wouldn’t let me watch it because I wasn’t old enough so I got a VCR into my room and turned the sound right down. What boy doesn’t want to be in a Steven Spielberg war sequence? And to have the man himself sitting down and chatting to you about it before you do a take – I can’t tell you. The scale on film was for real, you genuinely couldn’t see the end of it. I remember reading the script for the first time, and it said I had to throw a grenade into a machine-gun nest. That’s every lad’s dream. If nothing else, I can say I’ve done that.

See original article here: http://i-donline.com/2012/01/a-one-horse-race/

Mother and Child review – Little White Lies


Mother and Child is another helping of what’s known as the ‘lasagne’ movie; layer after layer of narrative melted together with rich character arcs, seasoned with Emotional Scenes and some tasteful acting.

Director Rodrigo García introduces us to Karen (Annette Bening), caring for her ageing mother and peeking at life suspiciously before returning to her shell. Enter Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a poised and remote lawyer with implacable self-control and a disgust for domesticity. She is followed by Lucy (Kerry Washington) who, unable to become pregnant, seeks to adopt another woman’s baby.

Karen gave up her child and Elizabeth was adopted by a couple she no longer knows.These are the first suds of a billowing soap opera; of hope, loss and regret, of intimacy with strangers, of searching and waiting to be found. Mother and Child bears the fingerprints of exec-producer Alejandro González Iñárritu, the doyen of unlikely harmony, in its reverent tone, its knotted structure, its faith in the flowering dramas of reconciliation.

And yet Iñárritu is maybe most noticeable in his absence; think of the way Amores Perros and Mexico City are one and the same; or the way the undergrowth of Barcelona bursts from the screen in Biutiful – not so for Mother and Child.

A film this laconically paced and loosely plotted needs its environ to pick up the slack and stretch it out, but the Los Angeles of Rodrigo García is at odds with the neon circus of more visually inventive filmmakers. Hushed, discreet and cool, it’s a sprawl of picket fences and furnished lawns where private concerns quietly unspool. Too quietly, in this case.

As these separate lives collide, conjoin and intersect, a host of needling questions emerge. What does it mean to lose one’s mother, or to give up one’s child? Is adoption, as the film seems to toy with, really a juncture from the natural order of things? With more creative bravery, García will grow into a director of depth and imagination. But Mother and Child is too dutiful, overly sincere and its impressions are easily washed away.

Published in the Shame issue, Little White Lies

Link: http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/theatrical-reviews/mother-and-child-17550

Oranges and Sunshine Review

Jim Loach shows it runs in the family with this quiet, searing drama.

Who do we blame when hurt is caused by good intention? Who do we hold to account when things done with noble will go horribly wrong?

These questions, so often ignored, lie at the heart of Oranges and Sunshine, the deeply humanist new British film from director Jim Loach.

As if the pressures aren’t already enough, there is an extra weight of expectancy placed on this debut. The shadow of the director’s father –  Ken Loach, the man who gave British cinema the flat-voweled voice of Thatcher’s unwanted citizens – lies across this film.

So Jim Loach has taken on a story that at first glimpse seems mired in his father’s time and place – Nottinghamshire in the 1980s – but is actually searingly of its time.

In February last year Gordon Brown rose to the dispatch box and attempted to explain why tens of thousands of British children were plucked from an over-wrought welfare system, told their mothers and fathers were dead and shipped off to work in the Australian colonies, often ending up as the victims of institutional abuse. Brown offered to help these displaced orphans trace their lost families. Then, on behalf of the country, he apologised unreservedly.

That he did so was largely due to the campaign of social worker Margaret Humphreys, played here with characteristic discretion by the lovely Emily Watson. Humphreys, with the initial backing of the local authorities, spent 23 years listening to the stories of child migrants before searching for their lost parents, and has been gifted a CBE and a biopic for her efforts.

As Loach’s film shows, some of these people have to learn how to live with fathers who walked out, with women who bore them but could not raise them. For others, they had stone graves and hazy anecdotes waiting for comfort; their reunion came too late.

In its depiction of one woman’s assault on the pernicious culture of Government knows best, this could and sometimes threatens to be a triumphalist piece of the individual over establishment.

At its worst, we see slow montages of older Australian men – to whom we are never properly introduced – stuttering and choking as they recall the years of abuse they suffered at the isolated orphanage in which they were raised. This abuse was physical and sexual and to exhume it places the film on precarious ground. Pity can go too far, and misery is cheap and easy; a perishable commodity.

But Loach, in his father’s best tradition, manages to steer the film to the fault-lines of broken restraint, showing wounds that open and close just as quickly. These moments reach out from the screen, like Hugo Weaving’s Jack, his skin like tan leather, his shirt flapping in the sea breeze – living, in image alone, the Australian dream – telling Watson’s Margaret he doesn’t know where he came from, or even who he is. Or David Wenham’s Len, the macho man who can go it alone before revealing a nervous boy beneath as he approaches the house of the mother he never knew he had.

This is softly rendered, and not exactly interrogative. Margaret Humphreys is held aloft in her simple goodness (“I don’t ever lie,” she says to a heckling woman, placing a measured emphasis on each word that we’re never given cause to question), and as the film rushes to its climax, it begins to veer from knock-out scene to knock-out scene, unravelling some of the sensitivities and carefully posed questions of its earlier acts.

But no matter. This is a film of brevity, depth and regard; desperately sad, but as clear and honest as a voice across water. Ken, the boy’s done you proud.

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