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.’

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.”

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/

Catfish, the Khmer Rouge and Ethical Documentaries

This Friday sees the release of Enemies of the People and Catfish. Both are raw, digitalized documentaries that speak of the documentarian’s newfound portability. Both, in their own way, have at their core highly intimate and personal revelations. Both play out chronologically, as if they exist in time as it is experienced. But, in terms of their ethical attitudes and the questions they raise, they are poles apart.

One is a slightly dated but probing, highly accountable piece of videojournalism. The other is something entirely different – a film that eludes category altogether.

Enemies of the People, a collaboration between experienced BBC documentarian Rob Lemkin and senior reporter for the Phnom Penh Post Thet Sambath, traces the cautiously developed relationship between Sambath and Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s Brother Number Two and one of the chief architects of the Khmer Rouge. Sambath travels to the killing fields to meet and talk with the simple farmers asked to act as the executioners – mere cogs in the Khmer Rouge’s grand program. These men and women have lived with the stench of death – literally – for decades.

Rob Lemkin, who accompanied Sambath to the killing fields and documented the exorcising and visceral disclosures of violence from these kindly, giving people, said:

“The most important thing is that all times there was totally informed consent. That’s important with filmmaking of this nature. There must be a consensual nature where people could be unburdened and be feel free to talk about past crimes and past atrocities that they have been forced to live with. Informed consent for people who don’t have electricity in their houses, who don’t watch television, who don’t actually understand filmmaking, is quite complex. So at all times when we were filming I was showing the tape back and we were discussing constantly.

“The film making process was actually quite a small part of a much bigger process. They had signed up with Sambath to tell the truth for the world and for their society and for their country. They were on that process when I met them. All the time, that was the primary process. On a personal basis, telling the truth would not only help them to deal with their own guilt and trauma but would also attempt to bring some light to the period and contribute to the social good in some kind of way. All times these people all felt that the film making was always just a kind of that bigger process.”

The other is Catfish, a collaborative film between brothers Nev and Rel Schulman and their friend Henry Joost. Catfish is filmed with pocket camcorders, documenting the unfolding romance between Nev and a mysterious girl called Megan – a Facebook friend who becomes something much more intimate. It has began to be recognised as a film that explores the consequences of social media. Equally, the consequences of documenting reality are exposed.

Catfish has received months of festival buzz. Conversations have centered, repeatedly, around what kind of film it is. Is it a documentary or a fiction? Is it scripted, or were the filmmakers skilful and committed enough to film a narrative which seemed to write itself? Or, is it an ornate hoax – a mockumentary of grotesque proportions?

As the New York Times critic A O Scott writes: “Judged by the usual standards, it is a wretched documentary: visually and narratively sloppy; coy about its motives; slipshod in its adherence to basic ethical norms. The filmmakers, who occasionally appear on camera, shoot and edit with at least minimal competence, but their approach to the potentially volatile and undeniably exploitive implications of their stumbled-upon story is muddled and defensive. Shame on them, if that would mean anything to them.

“But at the same time — precisely because of these lapses — Catfish is a fascinating document, at once glib, untrustworthy and strangely authentic.”

But the film’s purposefully unconstructed, almost brash familiarity has a lineage. Catfish recalls the masterful Shirley Clarke’s documentary Portrait of Jason, in which an aging, Afro-Caribbean hustler from the wrong side of New York is exhorted to tell to the camera his most intimate feelings and baring vulnerabilities. The difference is – Jason was filmed in one evening, Catfish over the course of a year. Inference asks how considered this path of discovery truly was.

On its reveal when Nev and Megan are finally united, the film as a whole shits a gear, gaining sensitivity and some sympathy; it has little choice but to. But nevertheless, the queasy sense of voyeurism when watching these scenes is almost over-powering.

“They weren’t aware we were shooting for the first 30 seconds,” says Henry Joost. “We said to them, we’ve been making a documentary up this point and we’d like to tell your point of the story. Is that ok?

“I felt, when we found out what was going on, that we had to really take a step back, and let this person tell their story, and be documentarians.”

We’re never shown this moment of consent, and this begs questions. Did the filmmakers have a right to document the reality they found? How much did they manipulate it with dramatic conventions like, for example, editing? The subjects who become key cogs in the film’s machinations were asked to sign release forms before the film could be released. They have been absent from public view since. Only one interview was granted (for the ABC programme 20/20), and the word ‘schizophrenia’ was used in the course of it. Should this reality have been redacted or, as with Claude Lanzmann’s //Shoah//, did the compelling nature of the truth revealed act as justification in itself?

As A O Scott writes: “Mr. Shulman and Mr. Joost will continue to enjoy the success and cachet of having made a pop culture conversation piece, which is a tribute to their good luck and nimble opportunism. But the dark genius of their film lies elsewhere, beyond the parameters of its slick intentions, in the wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is.”

Ooooh Mrs Robinson.

My love of movies can be traced back to a juvenile series of transgressions. It was, in many ways, a serendipitous chance acquaintance motivated by an insatiable thirst to develop my recently discovered and all-consuming love of the opposite sex.

At impossible late hours like 11.30 (the Seymour family retires early) I used to painstakingly creep downstairs, spending minutes navigating the stairs and slowly opening wooden doors, impotently attempting to muffle every grind and creak. My 13 year-old self had an almost pathological fear of being caught by a somnambulist parent who would find me crouched, eyes-wide and pyjama-clad, bathed in the flickering grey halo of Television X’s 10 minute preview. Always wondered where the phrase red-handed originated.

There were tests and challenges along the way. If the cat managed to run between your legs as you entered the living room, she’d make a fee-line (get it?) for the comfort of my parent’s duvet. In this scenario, you would have to very quickly take one of two available options:

Option 1) chase the cat.

Option 2) as silently as possible, leg it.

Secret option number three, which I tried only once, was to hide outside in the winter’s air until the cat had been redeposited. Unfortunately, the sound of me coming in again through the front door justifiably led my progenitors to believe they were the recipients of a break in. On that occasion, I was at a loss.

Within this youthful journey of discovery, I accidently exposed myself to a lot of dreadful films (thankyou Channel 5) and a few very good films (mostly Channel 4). I also gained a more detailed knowledge of the numerous plot-lines in Sex and the City than a 13 year-old should because, to put it bluntly, it had the word ‘sex’ in the title. I was experiencing more tension than a G20 rally and we only had five channels, so try not to judge me.

On one of my midnight journeys, this time with rogue cat safely pacified, I became ensconced in what I now know to be The Graduate, the 1967 cult movie that launched Dustin Hoffman’s unlikely career as a sex symbol.

“Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me… aren’t you?” mutters young college graduate Benjamin to middle-aged Mrs Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft, only six years older than Hoffman in real life). Unwittingly, I was witness to one of the most famous seduction scenes in the movies. A recent child of juvenile and confused sexuality, I did not know what to do with myself.

I love it when art seems to aline with reality, so the sad news of Peter Robinson’s demise as Northern Ireland’s first minister was for me tainted by a little tit-bit of comedy. Thanks to Mrs Robinson’s midnight discoveries, I’m assuming a young, ruddy-faced Dustin Hoffman won’t be appearing on RTE’s channels anytime soon.

Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country

The Saffron Stand

A Burmese man, stood in front of a government building in the capital Rangoon, unfolds and holds a white sheet of paper above his head. The paper is scrawled with writing.

As the protestor stands defiantly, we are given a point of view shot from a car across the street. A man unzips a small, basic handycam and begins to film the solitary protestor. The image shifts and shakes as the cameraman’s hands tremble.

“When I first start filming,” the narrator says, “I cannot help but be scared, but soon I begin to feel calm, and then it is only the subject.”

Barely a minute passes before two plain clothed men descend on the protestor. They take the paper from his hands, grab him at the elbows and roughly bundle him into a waiting car, where he is driven away to God knows where. If the cameraman was spotted, he would also have been escorted away.

So is the state of Burmese democracy, revealed by the acclaimed documentary Burma VJ which premiered in Britain last night. The premiere was sponsored by the Co-Operative, who deserve credit for their involvement in such a project.

The scene left a bittersweet taste for me personally. I own the same camera as that of the video journalist, and in comparison I hardly use it. The scene, and the camera itself, seemed to embody the difference between an aspiring journalist and film-maker in the liberated West and his equivalent in the oppressed East, that of someone willing to risk prison and torture in order to express reality, and someone who regards the right to expression as such an absolute given it almost serves as a discourager.

Burma VJ is an exemplary piece of documentary film-making, collating hours of footage from the 30 or so video journalists who operate illegally for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exiled media organisation based in Norway and Thailand. The footage the VJs manage to secretly shoot is smuggled out of the country, digitalised in Thailand, sent to Norway and beamed by satellite back into Burma.

Burma VJ focuses on the extraordinary six week period in August/September 2007 when the Burmese people, supported by the country’s 400,000 monks, stood in peaceful protest against the military junta, only to be met with an iron fist of violence. The sight of Saffron monks being shot at by the country’s military must surely be one of the most iconic images of modern times. You can’t get a lot more fascist than that.

The film aligns itself with the perspective of ‘Joshua,’ a 27 year-old member of the DVB who is suddenly thrown into the role as tactical leader of the group of reporters. From his position in Thailand, he and we vicariously experience the footage sent to him from those operating in the field. The sense of occasion is palpable as he recieves increasingly revelatory pictures expressing the strength of the Burmese people and the brutality of the regime they oppose.

The images captured by the VJs, and first viewed by Joshua, were picked up by virtually every major news network in the world, and were viewed by millions upon millions of people. For a brief period of time there existed a profound sense of hope that the rusted manacles of the junta could and would be broken, allied with the pernicious fear of how it would respond to such an overt challenge to the status quo.

What director Anders Østergaard has done so well here is to collate and express the footage in a single, coherent form. Six weeks of disparate developments in an ongoing news cycle is captured in a two-hour cinematic experience which is, at times, breathtaking in its authenticity and intimacy.

From the first, solitary protests, to talk of politics and revolution on the streets of Rangoon, to small groups of demonstrators unifying and clapping each others presence. The moment when the Saffron monks emerged from their temples to take to the streets in support of the people, the first time they had done so for over a millenia, moving gracefully past the road blocks and towards Aung San Suu Kyi’s fortified house. The ever-presence of a nervous military as they await orders on how, or when, to retaliate.

“Let us pray, to reduce our fear of death,” cries one protestor as the Junta begin to advance.

This mosaic of images became a tangible and immediate reality to anyone with access to a television, and is now chrysalised in filmic form.

The thing that most upsets regimes like that of Burma, or for that matter autocracies, intolerant theocracies and organised terrorists all over the world, is the acceptance of more than one idea and the expression of autonomous right. For this to happen, as they are very much aware, an ongoing exchange of information is a categorical imperative.

What digitalisation has provided is a cheap, accessible and universal ability to engage in this ongoing dialectic and communicate to a potentially mass audience, as the Burma VJs so dramatically and courageously articulated.

We are seeing it on a more and more regular basis; the elections in Zimbabwe and Kenya, Georgia, India, the Gaza crisis, the recent sham elections in Iran (the modernism of which is characterised by Martin Amis). We are experiencing what David Miliband terms the “civilian surge,” and it shows little sign of abating.

Yet it is true that a third of the world’s population live under oppressive regimes, it is true that Aung San Suu Kyi is still under perpetual house arrest, and that almost every architect of Burma VJ is incarcerated somewhere in Burma without hope of trial.

But it is imperative to retain the hope that the pen (or maybe the camera) is mightier than the sword, and to do that films like Burma VJ must be seen, acknowledged, and acted upon.

Burma VJ goes on general release on July 14th. To sign the petition to free the VJs,  visit http://burmavjmovie.com.

A Chrysalis in Celluloid.

The Origin of the Camera and its Distortion of Reality. 

In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers invented the moving picture camera. The day it was finished, the brothers went outside the factory in which it was invented, set the camera on the pavement and made the first moving image ever, about 50 seconds of footage of their workers leaving the factory to go home at the end of the day.

They then took the camera to the local train station, set it up on a station and filmed a train drawing in. When it was screened, this image had audiences screaming, running for the door and trying to hide under their seats. They believed that the encroaching train would perforate the cinema screen and trample them under its mechanical wheels as it powered through the auditorium.

Louis Lumiere famously said:

The cinema is an invention without a future.”  

The vast majority of scenes he shot were of people going about the mundane banalities of everyday life; playing cards with friends, smoking a pipe, drinking tea. He could not understand why one would be willing to pay to sit in a dark room and watch images that you could see just as easily by walking down the street.

This reveals how he perceived his invention. He saw the camera as a porthole into reality, a window through which one could peer into a time already elapsed, an event that by all rights should have been discarded into the ever-growing, undocumented past. He had created a time machine that could play a happening and then replay it again, indefinitely. A chrysalis in celluloid.

Within weeks, the Lumiere Brothers also created cinema’s first ‘special effect.’ The camera captures a wall as it is demolished. As the workmen push at their wall with their picks it teeters, sways and finally falls to the ground. The separate constituents of the wall crumble and dust billows into the air.

At screenings, the brothers would play this scene chronologically, take the film from the projector and reinsert it back to front. The audience would see the dust suck back in and rubble shift and move and join together as the wall rises from the ground and orders itself intricately in place again. This simple but wholly effective trick shaped the entire ontology of the camera. The Lumieres became both the founding fathers and the Typhoid Mary of realist cinema.

Since this shot was screened to audience, one can map the use of the camera as progressing in two diverging strands- realism as social amelioration and the ‘cinema of attractions.’ Broadly speaking, the latter has been employed to make narrative-based cinema. The former is used for news, documentation, history.

But, as the extraordinary debate that has taken place surrounding the photography of Robert Capa has encapsulated, the two strands are not wholly separate. They weave together inextricably.

From its very conception, the camera’s ability to tell reality is united with the intention of he who holds the camera. He who captures the image also the distorts the image, be it through art, entertainment, documentation, propaganda or coincidence.

Any discerning, active viewer of cinema, or indeed any form of photography, is now compelled to inquire about the veracity of what they are experiencing. We do it without thinking, a knee-jerk reaction. How real is this image? How much has it been conjured and considered and created for our consumption?

One cannot tell. Therefore, the only way to approach this is to accept that, as soon as the lens allows light to colour the film, the intentions of the taker of the image becomes dislocated from the image itself.  A perfect example is Lumiere’s shots of French colonialists in IndoChina.

When someone says the word juxtaposition, this is what I think of. The dress that the women wear as they toss the rice seems to burn with a white intensity, the darkness of the doorway within which they are framed looms behind them. The women are the locus of a geometric mise-en-scene, raised slightly above the swarming throng of children. Children treated, and duly acting, like pigeons.

It is beyond argument a powerful image, maybe even a defining image, of Western colonialism. It also begs the answer to a host of fundamental questions:

  • Is the image meant to be an indictment or comment on any level or merely an exercise in aesthetics? 
  • If so, does authorial intention have any relation or relevance to the image?
  • Am I applying a modern perspective to a time and place of which I have a very limited understanding, interpreting it in a way that I can understand and assimilate easily?

It is impossible to say definitively. The image exists in its own right and in absolute isolation, ceaselessly adaptable to any given context. It is what it is, neither a window nor a painting but somewhere in between. Any other discussion is entirely academic. All I can do is interpret the image using my own cultural codas.

This characterises the ambiguities of photography. It is, nevertheless the tool that most defines our media, our history, our collective memory. As the columnist Geoff Dyer writes:

“The Abu Ghraib photos were the latest manifestation of a practice that thrived in America up until the mid-1930s, of photographing lynchings and sending postcards to friends to advertise one’s enthusiastic involvement. The corollary of this is that, if no photographs exist, then nothing happened.”

If no photograph exists, then nothing happened. In Errol Morris’ ‘Standard Operating Procedure,’ the soldier who held the camera and took the pictures of the inside of Abu Ghraib is allowed to try and justify himself. He talks of how it was necessary to document the torture of foreign men so he could hold those responsible to account. He believed, as a result, that he was absolved from participation and from blame.

These photographs are full of unalloyed, unspeakable and unwritable horrors. Their very existence act as a barometer for the ethical maelstron within which they were taken.

For better or for worse, we now have them as part of our history. A chrysalis in celluloid, they provide an alternative meaning to the Latin phrase that Lumiere’s invention derived from. Camera Obscura; the Dark Chamber.

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