“Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of early cinema short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by one of the programmers.


What with the recent release of Suffragette, it being the opening gala for the London Film Festival, there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the so-called “suffragettes”, a media term of derision originally, referring to the militant wing of women agitating for universal voter suffrage. Hence there’s this compilation film of early archival short films from 1899-1917 touching on their cause, which has had a short release at cinemas aside from its Festival screenings. The newsreel footage is relatively slender, but we get key events like the trampling of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Derby (such a brief snippet within the coverage of the race overall that you need only blink to miss it). Padding out the running time are some comedy short films, including two featuring the ‘Tilly girls’, two young Edwardian women with little regard for the stuffy conventions of their era, not to mention a silly film in which a husband fantasises about violent retributions on his nagging suffragist wife. In any case, my friend Pam has written much more volubly and eloquently on its contents for The Guardian so you’d be better off just reading her piece. As for me, I found it largely likeable, if sometimes (necessarily) challenging in its period attitudes. The clips are well contextualised by modern intertitles, and there’s an excellent new piano score by Lillian Henley.

CREDITS
Length 75 minutes.
Seen at Rich Mix, London, Sunday 18 October 2015.

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A Fuller Life (2013)

There’s no doubt that director Samuel Fuller had quite a life, and it’s his autobiography that forms the basis for this documentary by his daughter. The form is simple: a collection of actors and directors — both those who worked with him and admirers of his work — sit in his study and read from his memoirs. So we get the likes of actors James Franco and Constance Towers (whose towering peformance so enlivened his The Naked Kiss), and directors Wim Wenders and Monte Hellman, amongst many others. The first half of the film covers Fuller’s start as a newsboy and copy editor in New York, before moving on to his formative experiences in World War II, while the second half rattles through his film work over the following 30 years. The armchair-readings format is broken up with archival clips, many of them filmed by Fuller himself and taken from his own archives. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the formal methods, though his daughter provides a memorable introduction as the camera roves across his study and all the artefacts within it, but this is a solid and fascinating film portrait of one of the great American directors of the 20th century.

A Fuller Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Samantha Fuller (based on the memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller); Cinematographers Hilton Goring, Seamus McGarvey, Tyler Purcell and Rachel Wyn Dunn; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015.

Love Is All: 100 Years of Love & Courtship (2014)

This collage of romance-based clips, primarily a selection from British feature films and shorts from across the 20th century (more or less) as well as what looks like home movie footage and other archival sources, is a somewhat slight basis for a feature-length film, but is given extra weight by the prominence given to Richard Hawley’s musical soundtrack. This film then will appeal to fans of his occasionally wistful, sometimes washed-out and fuzz-heavy psychedelic rock, though I had not previously been familiar with his output and I found the experience a pleasant 70 minutes. Without any voiceover or overt framing, the clips themselves subtly suggest a changing century, especially with regards to racial and gay representation, which becomes increasingly obvious, the former as early as Piccadilly (1928) though brought up-to-date with Brick Lane (2007), and the latter with clips going through to My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Early on we see clips of women robustly fighting off lovers juxtaposed with women posing for photos, suggesting in that case a degree of self-determination, so this is hardly a random assemblage, and it seems to be built up in thematic blocks. That said, it’s easy to just let the score wash over you, and the focus that this affords to what’s happening in the image means that even the more famous films become defamiliarised. This allows the subtext to actors’ glances and movements to become far more recognisable, and it works particulary well with the films given extended treatment by Longinotto’s documentary.

Love Is All: 100 Years of Love and Courtship film posterCREDITS
Director Kim Longinotto; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 17 February 2015.

No (2012)

Films About FilmmakingThere are many types of filmmaking, and television advertising is one more. This is a film that finds common ground between filmmaking and political change, via the medium of television and the language of advertising.


As a story from his own country’s recent history, ostensibly this film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín is about the democratic overthrow of dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1988, following 15 years of his rule, since he seized power from the left-wing Salvador Allende in a coup aided by the United States. However, it’s not really straight history, and it deftly manages to wrap in a commentary on the importance of television and the power of advertising, not to mention being a human drama about one man in the centre of this movement for change.

The protagonist of the drama is René, a creative at an advertising company, played by the ever-reliable Gael García Bernal. He’s no hero though, no crusading campaigner against dictatorship, bent on exposing the unjustness and brutality of the regime he’s working against. He’s just a man who knows how to sell stuff to people, and so the anti-Pinochet campaign is just another portfolio, albeit one that his conservative boss tries to dissuade him from pursuing. What he sees in it may ultimately be a hope for a better country, but at first it just seems to be a challenge to his training. Watching one of the ads that the politically conscious action group have created, he is aghast at how bitter and negative it is, and so he goes about fashioning something a little more ‘saleable’ — which, of course, resembles nothing so much as a Coke ad, a bit of lifestyle product placement with a voting agenda (vote “no” to Pinochet’s continued rule).

The film that Larraín has put together takes the historical situation as a backdrop. The film is primarily about the ironic disjunction between the political aims and the methods used. Towards the end, René returns to the usual fare, a ridiculous set-up with a helicopter full of plastic low-grade local celebrities, and nothing seems different. The film seems profoundly ambivalent at a certain level about what exactly has been achieved (not that it’s in any way supportive of Pinochet or his regime, for which little love is evident). It’s just that for advertisers and people in the media, it’s global capital that dictates their jobs and the way they work, not local politics.

Working alongside the script, the film’s style is a key to its success, as it mimics the film format of the era. Partly this is done so as to integrate the original television adverts seamlessly into the drama, but it also puts everything at just that slight remove, with the grainy fuzzy film making it seem like something quaintly out of time (in a similar way to, say, Andrew Bujalski’s recent Computer Chess).

It’s an interesting story of a country and an era that doesn’t get much airplay outside the region. It’s also a fascinating take on an advertisers’ dream of the 1980s, and about the way that advertising and politics don’t exactly make for easy bedfellows. Most of all, though, it’s a human drama about one man dealing with an industry (not to mention a country) founded on corruption, and where exactly that can lead.

No film posterCREDITS
Director Pablo Larraín; Writer Pedro Peirano (based on the play El plebiscito by Antonio Skármeta); Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong; Starring Gael García Bernal; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 January 2014.

How We Used to Live (2013)

Like a lot of people — not least perhaps the director and many of those who worked on this film — I’m not from London originally, but have rather fallen in love with it over the ten years I’ve lived there. It is constantly being rebuilt and renewed, and its skyline is constantly changing, but if anything How We Used to Live shows what’s still the same: the commuting, the work, the concerns about the cost of living, the self-consciousness, and to a certain extent, the rebuilding as well. It’s like an anti-nostalgia nostalgic film in the way it comes across (plus ça change and all that).

The chief thing to note is that, visually, it’s entirely constructed from archive footage sourced from the British Film Institute (BFI). These clips have been carefully chosen and co-ordinated, drawn from colour footage spanning the 1950s to the 1980s, cut together with archival sound clips — plummy-voiced narrators whose words have been repurposed (sometimes to hilarious effect) to match images for which they were never intended. Yet it’s not simple montage, for there’s also a narrator (voiced by Ian McShane) — a character who comes across at times opaquely epigrammatic like Jean-Luc Godard, at times like the fictional and quixotic “Robinson” in Patrick Keiller’s films — and there’s Pete Wiggs’s musical score. Wiggs, together with one of the film’s writers, Bob Stanley, is a founder member of the pop group Saint Etienne and there’s a suitably downbeat gloriousness to the melodies, nicely-matched to the faded colours of the film’s footage.

If London provides all the material (and some may seem familiar to viewers of other BFI archival releases like Roll Out the Barrel or some of the BFI Flipside titles like London in the Raw), the finished film is more about the textures and experiences of living in a city. There are workers and commuters, musicians and artists, skateboarders and punks, kids and tourists, and all manner of expression. These disparate images are grouped into a vague chronology and thematic unity, while allowing for little poetic flourishes in the editing.

What results is an heady impressionistic rush of sounds and images, giving as much a hint of London’s wonder as of the enduring naffness of some of its busiest shopping streets and squares (like the rather too ubiquitous Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus). And I imagine that for most lovers of London, this will be a welcome view of the UK’s capital city.

How We Used to Live title cardCREDITS
Director Paul Kelly; Writers Travis Elborough and Bob Stanley; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 14 October 2013.