Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Craft ideas: "Henry Glassie: Field Work"

Irish filmmaker Pat Collins last breached mainland cinemas with 2012's 
Silence, an oddly memorable drama about a solitary sound recordist roaming the highways and byways to see what his trusty boom mic might pick up. The figure enshrined in the title of Collins' stimulating new doc Henry Glassie: Field Work is far less solitary, being someone who's literally gone out of their way to seek out fellow humans, hear their stories and observe their passions. Yet he's engaged in a not entirely dissimilar quest: to chronicle what might otherwise go unnoticed amid the modern world's bustle and noise. A professor in folklore operating out of Bloomington, Indiana, Glassie has spent his life touring the globe collecting evidence of native, localised traditions. (Think of him as a latter-day equivalent to Alan Lomax, who toured America's cotton fields in the Jim Crow era, taping the foundational songs of the blues/R'n'B tradition; Glassie started out doing something similar with Appalachian banjo faves, but subsequently broadened his field of interest to encompass the full range of creative expression.) What's striking about Collins' film is that it isn't strictly centred on Glassie - for a long while, the most we see of him is a cursory glimpse in the opening credits - so much as a film that operates in Glassie's footsteps, to Glassie's MO. We find ourselves in the workshops, garages and garrets of Brazil, Turkey, the US and Ireland - sometimes with Glassie and wife Pravina Shukla in attendance - watching an array of sculptors, potters, carpenters and printmakers going about their daily business. The film becomes Glassie, in effect, looking, listening, learning, taking in these variably arcane processes. And so we become Glassie, doing all of the above ourselves, suddenly becoming cognisant of elements we might previously have taken for granted.

You soon see why Glassie goes where he goes and does what he does: it's fascinating. Field Work owes something to the slow cinema movement, allowing us to watch the creation central to Glassie's studies taking place in more or less silence, and in something akin to real time. Collins has understood that a big part of the appeal of this artisanal craft lies in its one-of-a-kind detail. That's why he shoots extended close-ups of sculptor Rosalvo Santanna's hands as he makes indentations that represent fingernails on a tiny clay hand; we get so immersed in this activity that the eventual pullback, showing the exquisite figurine to which these hands will be attached, qualifies as one of the best reveals I've witnessed in a long while. (If Field Work plays in cinemas in the months ahead, I guarantee it will prompt gasps, and possibly a smattering of applause.) Elsewhere, we watch a man pulling off a conjuring trick with a welding torch and a pile of metal fragments; another using woodworking tools to fashion a block of cedar into expressive human features; and his wife applying gold leaf to the finished work's base, another sequence that draws you in with the precision involved. (Her tweezers are as the bomb squad's wirecutters in The Hurt Locker: they demand the steadiest of hands.) There is a rare alchemy to be observed here: in all these cases, we're watching everyday or otherwise unpromising materials being transformed into artefacts that, even if not specifically demarcated as holy (and many of the Brazilian artworks are made for exhibition in churches), invite worship, or at least wonder. Glassie insists the requirements for his work are "reverence and patience"; the work he's watching would appear to require similar qualities, along with a spark or two of creative imagination. These are man-made miracles.

As with most miracles, some will ask "why?". Long stretches of Field Work are deliberately stripped of the context we've become used to in our arts docs. No clues are offered as to whether all this whittling and gilding forms part of a tradition passed down from one generation to the next, or merely something Collins' subjects tinker around with at the weekend, between property deals; indeed, we're not given any indication this painstaking, time-intensive labour generates any return whatsoever. (The craft scenes are only sparingly subtitled.) I suspect Glassie and Collins would retort with an understandably aggrieved "why not?". What they're interested in, I think, is creation embarked upon purely for the sake of creation, an ever-useful reminder that art - or intellectual inquiry such as Glassie has been engaged in all these years - shouldn't have to turn a profit to be considered valuable. It can just make the world a dash more beautiful. Rudimentary though it appears, this kind of craftsmanship retains an enigmatic air, as something practised, understood and appreciated by a small few - Collins notes this via a slow push into the pattern of a ceramic plate that, like the coffee cup in Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, seems to contain all the mysteries of the universe. Presenting it without immediate commentary just means we're free to make our own studies, to puzzle over it as surely and freely as Glassie himself does. It's where that patience comes in.

Field Work does start to fill in some of that context in the course of its midsection. Here, Collins turns his camera on Glassie himself - who, with his fulsome white moustache and shock of hair, resembles Bruce Dern as restyled by David Lynch - in the understanding his handiwork may urgently need chronicling itself. (He turned 80 earlier this year, and all that travel is surely a young folklorist's game.) The screen now floods with his notebooks and hand-drawn maps; these artefacts are interspersed with videoclips of the young Glassie in the field (facial hair restored to its earlier trim blackness) and contemporary interviews in which Collins draws out his subject's philosophy. It's a rare doc you may want to watch all over again the moment it ends, to bring the knowledge gleaned in these segments to bear on the observational stretches of the first - to spot exactly what Glassie went to Brazil to see. But Field Work has one last assignment to send us out on. The final third carries us to a small, out-of-the-way community of potters in North Carolina, where beardy types with clay-spattered faces bake their earthenware with long-necked blowtorches that are, at once, very cool and utterly terrifying. (The abundance of wild facial hair surely invites disaster.) Once again, Collins sets us down in Glassie's shoes, inviting us to feel our way into a place and its rhythms, grasp the initially ungraspable, discern what is specific to this location, and then marvel at the best of it. Glassie emerges as an extraordinary figure, somehow more 19th century than 21st, serious yet humane and perennially open-minded. History speaks through him - and through Collins' engrossing film: it would be impossible not to be engaged, challenged and awed by much of it.

Henry Glassie: Field Work will be available to stream from Friday.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Halting the diggers: "Groundswell"

We've had one or two other things on our mind, of course, but it's been a while since we had an old-school eco-doc to mull over. A decade in the making, Johnny Gogan's Groundswell is a film with clear precedent in GasLand, Josh Fox's Oscar-nominated 2010 record of the deleterious effects of fracking on the Pennsylvania landscape and population; Gogan acknowledges as much early on by excerpting the still-jawdropping setpiece in which one of Fox's interviewees takes a lighter to his gas-infused tap water with explosive results. Gogan's interest lies in how Fox's film became a rallying tool for Irish communities engaged in their own struggles to fend off companies with their eyes on the vast natural gas reserves bubbling away beneath the rolling hills on either side of Ireland's internal border. A former Green Party candidate who's segued into filmmaking as a means of extending the reach of his arguments, Gogan sees fracking as "the scraping of the fossil-fuel barrel", and a development that would fly in the face of all credible scientific evidence around climate change. Groundswell means to celebrate how communities in the South fended off these vultures (at least for the time being); yet their story is revisited here with an eye to the situation in the North, where the land is reportedly still under threat, in part because a different set of laws apply, doubly so post-Brexit. (Among the film's featured players, shown prevaricating as to fracking's ultimate safety: one Arlene Foster, erstwhile Minister for Enterprise and Investment.) Who'd have thunk that an area currently under the jurisdiction of Boris Johnson's Tory government might face the risk of being sold downriver?

As an independently produced documentary, the film has a few, forgivable rough edges: plainly, there's far less money in protecting this land than there is in carving it up. But Gogan's good with people, and here's where Groundswell starts to offer its own rewards. He talks to residents from what would appear radically different points on the political spectrum - hardened, practical farmers, concerned healthcare professionals, a bohemian playwright-sculptor couple with the most extraordinary-looking cafetiere - and teases out both how they came to be involved in this grassroots resistance movement, and how they recruited others. This carries the filmmaker into community hubs with evocative names like the Mayflower and the Rainbow Ballroom - places with a strong local tradition, where people have traditionally gathered to thrash out the issues of the day. Gogan's record of the many public meetings called to address the fracking issue offers a striking firsthand illustration of democracy in action, along with a salutary lesson for the mainland Left in overcoming internal differences to combat a common foe; the whole film demonstrates a natural born politician's gift for reframing an issue, joining diverse dots. Economy flights to the US connect the filmmaker with scientists and activists who share the data that emerged in Gasland's wake; having re-energised his leftier audience, he then shifts back towards the centre, showing how setting aside land for fracking is bad for the more established practice of cattle farming. If the drama is tangled up with the ins and outs of Irish politics, Gogan makes those involving, and he knows how and where votes are won. More importantly yet for the film, he grasps the importance of images, especially when it comes to countering what the politicians and lobbyists are telling us. (That's why he repeats that fiery clip from Gasland: the closest to a meme this subgenre has generated, the most spectacular demonstration yet that fracking probably isn't the best idea for those of us who don't stand to profit from it.) Even the sporadic drone shots, a modern docucliché, assume a political dimension, while flooding the screen with green. Why would anyone with heart, soul or eye for natural beauty want to rip any of that up?

Groundswell will be available to stream from Friday.

Monday, 12 April 2021

On demand: "Sound of Metal"

Darius Marder's
Sound of Metal both streamlines and intensifies last November's Mogul Mowgli. That Riz Ahmed vehicle was topheavy with issues of identity this American indie can take for granted; the very British bathos of the earlier film - with its protagonist who was reduced to texting an ex for nudes, and who eventually had to be helped off the toilet by his own parents - has been replaced by a familiarly American can-do confidence, some sense that there isn't a problem that cannot be overcome. We're still watching Riz Ahmed fall into physical disrepair; it's just that now he starts out with his shirt off, and his character will come to live with his condition. Sound of Metal is less of an editorial than Mogul Mowgli, and more - far more - of a show. From the off: we meet Ahmed's Ruben, drummer for the thrash-metal duo Blackgammon, at a gig we're parachuted into in the opening moments. The volume of this especially angular and aggressive noise does indeed suggest war being waged: there are around 25 people in the crowd, and that instinctively seems around 23 too many. On the tourbus Ruben pilots with bandmate and lover Lulu (Olivia Cooke), however, the air is filled with sweet, old-timey love songs and slow jams: metal's the day job, or night shift. (There's a reason they call it industrial.) Yet without ear protectors, making that racket is taking its toll. At a second gig, Ruben appears miles away, the result of his hearing coming and going; a few moments later, it's comprehensively gone - as has the bulk of the film's own sound, replaced by that disconcertingly dull drone one hears after being underwater for too long. From then on, Ruben is a young man trapped inside his own head, and - as Sound of Metal goes on to demonstrate - that's not an altogether healthy place for a young man with addiction issues to find himself.

For much of its duration, the film is a competition. Who's working hardest? Is it Marder and his technicians, immersing us in their protagonist's silence by consciously sabotaging their soundtrack, thereby reminding us of the privilege of full hearing? Or is it Ahmed, obliged to connect all this technical virtuosity to the daily reality Ruben has to live and suffer through? It's possible that internal struggle - one of several set up and set running here - ends in an old-fashioned tie. Those early gig scenes establish what's at stake here, and they're likely to sound brutalising even to dewy-eared teenagers drawn here by the photogenic young leads. Yet Ruben and Lulu's offstage relationship has been pitched at a similar intensity: if not quite the full Kurt-and-Courtney, then high-maintenance nevertheless, what happens when damaged people get together to thrash something out. Witness the scene in which Lulu takes her leave of Ruben for the foreseeable, knowing she has to walk away for the stubborn sticksman to seek the kind of therapeutic assistance he sorely needs; here, Cooke and Ahmed, very much the up-and-comers, go toe-to-toe with anybody else in this year's acting awards stakes. All of which leaves us with Ruben checking into a treatment facility, which could be movie Squaresville or Conventional City, except that this particular treatment facility is one of surely only a handful of facilities specifically tailored to the needs of Deaf addicts, and the sign language hereabouts won't be translated for the benefit of the hearing crowd. Thus Marder, his cast and crew lead us into a world-within-a-world; we have to adjust and adapt, much as Ruben has to his condition.

Holing up here gives Ahmed - and the film - the opportunity to go deeper into this character than any number of afternoon TV movies addressing Deafness as their subject. The worst thing to befall Ruben isn't that it's all gone quiet between his ears; as the centre's manager Joe (a nice promotion for lived-in TV veteran Paul Raci) insists, "We don't regard being Deaf as a handicap." No, it's that this silence forces Ruben to confront the storm that was always raging inside his head, and which the noise of the outside world (not least that generated by Blackgammon in concert) hitherto allowed him to drown out. Spot the quivering fear Ahmed channels when Ruben is ushered into an empty room offering no more than a pen and paper to distract him. How does someone used to living in a state of heightened stimulation - someone who only reluctantly gave up his smartphone upon entering the facility - deal with that emptiness? That's a question the movies haven't really asked in relation to Deafness, and this one has a good answer: that it might just serve as the gateway to some form of tranquility, and raise the possibility of self-acceptance. Marder never rushes that process of realisation. His film runs just under two hours, allowing us to feel our way inside and around Ruben's predicament, and eventually back out into the world. As a director, he's acutely alert to the potential pitfalls of this kind of material. Crucially, we hear no music beyond that Ruben generates for himself; there's never any overt attempt to manipulate viewer response. Given how Ruben got into this situation, maybe it's inevitable that his path through it should be a rocky road. Yet it makes for a far less predictable trajectory than Sound of Metal's logline might suggest, and also leads to an ending that struck these ears, at least, as pretty much perfect.

Sound of Metal is now streaming via Prime Video; it's currently scheduled to open in UK cinemas on May 17.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

From the archive: "The Shallows"

Sometimes all you really need to make a movie is a girl, a gull and a shark. 2016's The Shallows, a nifty B-movie from the increasingly reliable Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Run All Night), plays something like a 40th anniversary rethink of Jaws, paring away all that Spielbergian context that made its inspiration drag in spots, and leaving us with a stark image of survival: bikini-clad Texan surfer Nancy (Blake Lively), stranded some way out in the brine of an isolated bay down Mexico way, having been removed of her board by a sharp-toothed monster of the deep who fancies a piece or two of her for dinner. After a flashy, grabby widescreen prologue, it soon reshapes into an action movie with an unusually tight focus. Stuck on a rock in the wake of the initial shark attack, and resembling a mermaid in distress, Nancy is obliged to make small, life-or-death choices: between using her wetsuit to tourniquet her wounds or keep herself warm, between staying where she is and splashing out to retrieve her board. For much of the running time, our heroine is playing defence, attempting simply to keep herself alive. One further point of reference might have been the gripping Icelandic drama The Deep, though Collet-Serra can't quite sustain that film's high level of quality control: there's a bit of nonsense with that improbably well-behaved gull (who serves the same narrative purpose as Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away), several elements we're clearly not meant to dwell on (why don't the two surfers spot the conspicuous corpse on the beach?), and an outright misstep involving a cloud of CG jellyfish. Still, it keeps moving, and Collet-Serra thinks most of his material through, getting around any accusations the film might be objectifying its lissom blonde lead first by handing Lively a resilient, resourceful character to play, then by making everything else around her look no less bodacious. The claims some made for it around the time of theatrical release now look a touch elevated, but it's an efficient and effective job of work.

(April 2019)

The Shallows screens on Channel 4 at 11.25pm tonight.

Friday, 9 April 2021

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning April 9, 2021):

1. He Dreams of Giants (15) **** (BFI Player)
2. Tina (15) **** (NOW TV)
3. A Colony (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
4. Verdict (15) **** (Prime Video)
5. Judas and the Black Messiah (12) **** (Prime Video, BFI Player)
6. The Dissident (uncertificated) **** (Prime Video)
7. Eye of the Storm (uncertificated) **** (Modern Films)
8 (new) Songs My Brothers Taught Me (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
9. Undine (12) *** (Curzon)
10. Minari (12) *** (Prime Video, Curzon, BFI Player)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
2 (new) Soul (PG)
3 (10) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12)
4 (4) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
5 (23) Scoob! (PG)
6 (7) Trolls World Tour (U)
7 (2) Wonder Woman Double Pack (12) **
8 (21) Roald Dahl's The Witches (PG)
9 (new) The Passion of the Christ (18) **

My top five: 
4. Martyr

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. How to Train Your Dragon (Sunday, C4, 3.50pm)
2. Queen of Katwe [above] (Sunday, BBC1, 2.35pm)
3. Sing Street (Friday, C4, 1.40am)
4. Inception (Saturday, ITV, 10.45pm)
5. The Shallows (Saturday, C4, 11.25pm)

Home on the range: "Songs My Brothers Taught Me"

With Nomadland still on the horizon for UK audiences - now set for cinemas May 17, after previewing on Disney+ April 30 - MUBI are giving a belated runout to its director Chloé Zhao's feature debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me, from 2015. From the off, it would appear Zhao was pushing for a hybrid form of cinema, neither 100% drama nor documentary, one that fashions something loosely fictionalised from whatever Zhao finds on her travels. On her first pass, this was the tattered remnants of a family living on a reservation in the American plains: father in the ground, eldest son behind bars, leaving a crumpled mom (Irene Bedard, previously the voice of Disney's Pocahontas) to raise a close-knit pair of teenage siblings. Johnny (John Reddy) is getting old enough to stand on his own two feet, instigating hook-ups with various local women, and making plans to move out; his little sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John), whom the title would designate the film's protagonist, is starting to worry what will happen if her bro leaves her and her mother behind. Zhao is less overtly stylised - and far more softly spoken - in telling this story than, say, Alma Har'el, whose own hybrid of fiction and non-fiction (Bombay Beach, LoveTrue) was beginning to take root around the same moment. As in 2017's The Rider, there's a slightly tentative quality about the framing and some of the performances that suggests a director wondering how hard and far she might go with her choices. Still, you can absolutely see the filmmaker she wanted to be, and which she would very rapidly become: drawn towards the fringes and margins, no matter that - as here - these are sometimes found in something like the geographical middle, and most often drawn there at sundown, which takes the edge off some of the poverty. Even if you hadn't seen Nomadland, there would be enough here to position Zhao as the pre-eminent big-sky filmmaker of the moment. For a while back there, David Gordon Green appeared the keenest Malick scholar of modern American independent cinema; it might, in fact, be Zhao.

Which is not to say that Songs My Brothers Taught Me is entirely without first-film flaws. The Rider had a workable comeback narrative, but its casting was always slightly off for this viewer. Here, Zhao's casting is spot-on - be they pro or not, everyone assembled before this camera looks, sounds and acts the part - but her narrative proceeds in fits and starts. She's learnt to whittle down her hybrids: this early experiment sprouts in too many directions simultaneously to be easily contained, be those the explosive developments in Johnny's bootlegging sidehustle, the love triangle, or Jashaun's attraction to the rodeo that clearly fed into The Rider. (Zhao started to make choices, and she went with the handsome cowboy.) What holds the film together is its unrelenting wonder at being somewhere, and being somewhere perhaps the director, you and I have never been before. Whoever the location manager was here - there's no specific credit - they've gifted Zhao a tremendous itinerary of places with stories to tell and songs to sing: a living room that offers a flatscreen, a coal heater and a sheet slung over a window (and, bar some residual clutter, that's about it), a smalltown diner so ill-tended and underpopulated you wonder how on earth it can survive. If Zhao does have some Malick in her creative DNA, it's a Malick without the religiosity, grounded in the here and now by a certain hardscrabble poetry, and able to balance that magic-hour romanticism with something far earthier. When Johnny takes the diner's waitress to bed, we see him smearing her menstrual blood on the bedsheets. (And I began to wonder how much Larry McMurtry Zhao may have read.) However this director turned out, it's remarkable just how much of the movie that may win her major awards in the coming weeks was already present here - not least Zhao's adventurousness, her willingness to go off-reservation and properly mix it. I can reassure you that Nomadland is worth the wait; we'll wrestle with Zhao's decision to take the Marvel dollar (for the upcoming Eternals) in due course.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

And justice for all...?: "Verdict"

Every few years, a Filipino filmmaker emerges whom experts tip will finally fill the sizeable shoes of the late Lino Brocka, director of 1975's landmark Manila in the Claws of Light. The prolific but wayward Brillante Mendoza, briefly a favourite on the festival circuit, looks to have burned out in recent years; a new contender may be Raymund Ribay Gutierrez, a Mendoza protégé whose debut Verdict, a procedural account of a domestic abuse case, took home a Special Jury Prize from the Orizzonti section of the 2019 Venice film festival, before being picked as the Philippines' official entrant in this year's foreign-language Oscar race. Content warnings may be necessary for a film that opens with a flurry of punches, as methhead crank Dante (Kristoffer King) sets about wife Joy (Max Eigenmann), she defends herself, and the couple's young daughter Angel (Jordhen Suan) gets caught in the crossfire. I wish I could say everything calms down once we follow the family into the system: first to hospital, where wounds are sutured and Joy's father sets about his son-in-law; to police headquarters, where fingerprints and mugshots are taken, and it's established that Dante has a case to answer; and finally to a cramped courtroom, where the precise facts of this matter are tossed in the air to see where they might land. But nothing about Gutierrez's film is calming exactly. The traditional method of the procedural has been to extend a hand to the viewer, walk us through a varyingly typical case history, and reassure us there is a system in place that ensures justice will out - to show us something to help us sleep at night, in other words. Why, then, is Verdict so jolting? And why does it send us away, when the final ruling comes in, with several insomniacs' worth of questions?

Partly, I think, because it never lets us settle. Even after Gutierrez has shown us the crime under consideration, at bruisingly close range - so that we know which verdict we'd learn towards, if we were asked to play judge and jury - there's no guarantee of how this judicial system is going to interpret events, and we might start to wobble, too. This filmmaker's manipulation of screen time is such that, for a long while, the action appears more or less continuous: he sets his characters on a conveyor belt that doesn't stop, and never allows them to sleep, wash up, think or heal. The remorseless pace of the opening hour ensures that we, too, feel their fatigue and disorientation; this isn't a procedural drawn up along crisp, clear Law & Order lines so much as a (very Mendoza-like) ordeal for all concerned. The relentlessness is compounded by Joshua Reyles' handheld cinematography, which does just about everything physically possible to pitch the viewer into the middle of these situations. Gutierrez cuts him loose around what appear to be actual locations within the Filipino justice system, and there are points where the camera seems to bob and weave around real-world cases that might have attracted a documentary crew. One key reason the film jolts us so: it's a movie with domestic abuse at its centre that hasn't been shot with kid gloves. Yet its moral footing remains secure. Presumably someone associated with this production had to get sign-offs from the various cops, lawyers and prosecutors whose paths it crosses, yet shooting on something close to the fly allows Gutierrez to spot areas - and in places, vast territories - where the system might still be fine-tuned, improved.

It hardly seems fair on the horribly battered Joy that she should have to personally chase up friends and neighbours to serve as character witnesses, for starters; Gutierrez lingers on the notes and coins Dante's mother lays out for her son's bail, knowing that, ultimately, is what's making this system go round; and it's a strange yet dramatically effective quirk that husband and wife are processed in parallel to one another for long stretches. This couple spend more time together after the attack than they seem to have done before it; there appears very little in the way of insulation between them. (Which would explain the guarded look the excellent Eigenmann sustains throughout.) To a lack of time, then, Gutierrez adds the charge of a critical lack of space. It becomes especially prickly when Angel is summoned to testify against the father she adores, who just happens to be sitting within touching (or clutching) distance, but just from a practical perspective: if I was the lawyer working this case, I'd want my own desk from which to argue my position - and looking on from 2021, I'd certainly want more distance between myself and the hacking TB outpatient who blithely wanders in to observe one session. For all his pell-mell photography, Gutierrez keeps squeezing in these vivid local details: a major day of testimony coincides with a religious festival, meaning that everyone takes the stand with an ashy cross on their forehead. There may well be a future in procedurals with such regional variations, and Verdict would make an instructive double-bill with Chaitanya Tamhane's 2014 film Court, where the law was distractible to a fault. Here, though, it's so ad hoc as to be almost entirely arbitrary, a kick-bollock-scramble that at times appears scarcely more reasoned - or fair - than the attack that sets these wheels in motion. Call that justice?

Verdict is now available to rent via Prime Video.