Day nine’s first film started early, so I’ll start early on it. I arrived early enough at BFI Southbank to finish up a few articles from late last night, though too late to grab a front row seat for Kevin Jerome Everson’s Park Lanes, screening in the cinema’s Studio screen – my favourite for its warm, atmospheric intimacy. The screening, we hardy cinephiles were informed, was sold out, so we ought to expect latecomers – some never materialised. Everson was present to introduce the film, inspired by his childhood town of Mansfield, Ohio – a factory town where he had once worked in making washing machines. All very mundane so far, so why the 9am start? It’s a working day, you see. The film was scheduled to finish at 5pm… 480 minutes later.
That kind of runtime doesn’t constitute a regular cinematic experience. It’s a different form of watching required to appreciate it – I guess if you’ve got it, and the film’s receptive to your receptiveness, 8 hours is a sizeable stretch of time over which to form a profound connection with a film. I’d endure Park Lanes countless times over. I’d awaken earlier than 7am to do so. I’d forego a free lunch, provided for us despite my expert planning, which included specific pre-judgements of when to consume each item that I’d purchased beforehand, and how much to consume at each interval. The generous BFI were looking out for the masochists among us, then, surprising the fools who hadn’t come prepared with a selection of wraps and sandwiches. I ate a fair few of them, and all of my own food too as the lights came up slightly for the mid-film meal, Everson’s film still playing on the screen.
You see, Park Lanes features a 31-minute lunch scene, at approximately 275 minutes in. Everson shot his documentary over three days in a factory in Virginia that makes bowling alley supplies, editing the footage down to resemble that of the average working day. It’s a transfixing experience and yet a distancing one, enlightening the viewer to the supreme conceptual artistry that both lies behind such a premise and emerges from its product. You can find some more fully-fleshed thoughts of mine in the review I wrote on my blog; here, I’ll move onto an AD exclusive…
The Q&A! Bless the London Film Festival and all its Q&As, which I was gladly able to attend in full today, though they were once more held at their Southbank cinema where no photographs are permitted inside the screens any more. And another exclusive: a Paddy Mulholland first, posing not just any question to the filmmaker but the very first question to the filmmaker! Experimenta programmer for the festival, Helen DeWitt, drew so much out of this funny, verbose, intelligent director that the small audience was duly inspired to bombard him with queries, all of which he responded to in great detail. He had been inspired to make such a long film by the works of Lav Diaz, the admission of which made my heart basically barge out of my chest and envelop the world. He believed that Diaz’s immensely long narrative films contained a depth of humanity in their extended edits that was unique to films of such a duration. I wondered, then, what he made of my interpretation of Park Lanes and how it differed from other works of ‘slow cinema’, of which Diaz is a key proponent – those films generally require intense concentration in order to fully appreciate, whereas Everson’s film almost encourages daydreaming and interruption, such is the accuracy with which he has created a snapshot of real, boring factory work. I was pleased to hear him concur, explaining that he too would allow his thoughts to digress when watching these labourers at their tasks. He went on to explain that the project had initially been conceived as a museum piece, designed to last for the full length of the museum’s opening hours; that he believes as few as 20 people stayed for the full film over five screenings at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year; that he even designed a box set for the film in another of its nixed incarnations, with one disc per hour and a ninth for the ‘best bits’. It was an exhaustive, engaging and humorous response to a question which the mere act of asking had sent me into a tremor.
What to make of this Q&A session, which was so incredibly immersive, much like the film that preceded it. The audience learnt so much, eager to remain in the seats they’d occupied for a third of a full day just to hear more and more about its themes, its production, anything that Kevin Jerome Everson would elaborate upon next. There’s a 70-minute edit of the film stacked with corporate secrets that didn’t make the final cut; some of the more abstract shots in the 480-minute edit weren’t approved either but were sneaked in. Everson chose not to include any material shot in the factory’s offices, considering its inhabitants ‘lovely but uninteresting’, before reconsidering and deciding that it was he who was ‘uninteresting’; this street photographer, sculptor, painter and print maker referred to the notion that the portrait is not about the subject but about the painter. His background in art informed his interest in the workers’ tools, in the processes of creating these bowling alley supplies – a process whose purpose he was keen to conceal until into the film’s second half, appreciating the abstraction of this approach. Funding was acquired via commission from the Virginia Film Office, which also scouted and selected the factory in which the film was shot. It was a non-union factory, 10-hour shifts Monday to Friday. Everson referred to his time working in a factory in his hometown in Ohio, a union factory in the north of the US, though little did that matter. All of Everson’s 16mm shorts are entitled ‘A Saturday Night in Mansfield’ – Saturday nights were black nights at the bowling alley. His Mason-Dixon line is the Canadian border.
The second screening for this most satiated of cinephiles today was Ben Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers. I didn’t enjoy Rivers’ last film, a collaboration with Ben Russell somewhat more conservatively-titled A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. But this film looked intriguing nevertheless, and I was free this evening so it became one of my 20 bookings – number 19, chronologically. I was sat among London’s hipster elite, their ages and dress senses varying but their levels of pretension certainly not. The gentleman two seats to my left kept his hand on his partner’s leg – her far leg – unnaturally long given the awkwardness of the position. The film was introduced by Rivers, producer Jacqui Davies, the executive producer of Artangel, the arts organisation in which a part of The Sky Trembles forms a short film installation within a former exhibition, sound designer Philippe Ciombi – yes, the sound designer, who oddly remained mute – and the sort-of documentary’s sort-of lead actor and also fellow filmmaker, himself making the film that’s an actual film within this film, Oliver Laxe. Laxe is the type of fellow you’d imagine would be an amazing fuck, but then you’d get him in bed and he’d be too concerned with making art out of the sex to actually make anything good out of it (kind of like this film). That’s why insecure people are the best lays – they rly fucking appreciate it.
I had high hopes but low expectations for the film – probably the ideal combination to set oneself up for disappointment. It was desperately pretentious, perhaps even worse than A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, but this audience predictably adored it, if their besotted post-screening questions to Ben and Oliver were anything to go by. Most of what I wrote in my notebook during the film amounted to questions, observations on the film that I was hoping would be resolved later into it and that my tentative judgements – that this was all just obtuse for the sake of it? Art for the sake of art, whether good or bad? Could it just be me, am I the only one in the world, are my opinions just completely invalid? – would turn out to be misinformed. I’ve spent much of my time at LFF this year reconciling myself with films that are just great films in and of themselves, insular and unconcerned with relevance or any broader cultural significance; until Park Lanes, all of my favourite films here had fit such a model. And here comes The Sky Trembles to prove that art for the sake of art can be a pretty fucking dreadful thing and everyone should stop attempting it unless their name is Hou Hsiao Hsien, whom I believe probably doesn’t even attempt it himself.
Ben Rivers spoke, or tried to, at the Q&A – he seemed half shy, half unclear on how to give any kind of meaningful response to a film that seemed so sure that it did have a meaning, but that surely did not. Maybe there’s one in the concept of cinema as an illusion, but it’s hardly as groundbreaking as the tone of reverence adopted by enraptured audience members and Q&A director Helen DeWitt would suggest. My sympathy was briefly won over when Rivers spoke of the film’s animals, but no further. Those poor ponies.
Other things happened today, like all the boring shit I’ve written about every other day. Other things will happen tomorrow, like a screening of Terence Davies’ Sunset Song to wrap my LFF 2015 experience up, and a journey home to be reunited with Thomas. So enjoy this boring shit while it lasts, readers! And then follow me on Twitter @screenonscreen, kk?