Blame thy Oscar-watching overladies and overlords not – the tardiness of the appearance of my first #LFF2017 diary was anyone’s fault but theirs. And by ‘anyone’s’, I may mean ‘mine,’ though you’ll never catch me confirming that. 8am starts aren’t going to get any smoother for me, not when my mostly-teenage coursemates at university live directly across the road from the campus. Smug bitches. Anyway, I soldiered through three hours of introductory lectures and workshops, the value of each of which was exactly nil, and in the process misplaced my beloved pencil case. This would later necessitate a journey home to check that I hadn’t left it behind that morning (I hadn’t), and another journey back in for an appointment, and then another journey, this one to my first film of the day, already exhausted by its 6:30pm commencement at this city’s most sacred cinematic ground (for me): the BFI Southbank. Few places I’d rather be when I look, feel and smell this nasty, though my fingers, toes and all other corporeal extremities remain tightly crossed in the hope that no-one’s yet noticed.
Would that Kevin Jerome Everson had known the profundity his latest documentary would acquire in the hours, then months following its filming! Or, perhaps, better that he did not – Everson is one of our most gifted and least pretentious filmmakers, and one suspects he might have fled from Tonsler Park as quickly as he filmed there, in Charlottesville, VA, on Election Day, November 2016. No overt political enquiry here, though, just Everson’s trademark observation – people, faces, duty, work. He trades in that most provocative manner of feigning pure objectivity, and indeed of crafting a film entire out of such an unyielding dedication to authenticity. White eyes in the crowd are caught scanning for their likeness on the screen, as Everson holds up a mirror to the other side, to those who have too often been seated behind it. A simple, 85-minute look into the practices of that most momentous Election Day, trained on the visages of those enabling their fellow citizens to vote for their future, trained on a present that has since become such distant past. Everson’s close-ups, in all their grainy glory, emphasize character – that resolute differentiator that thus unites us all in our varying individualities, and surely even the staunchest conservative would see these black faces in this blue state and understand just how dire a situation resulted from that day. Regardless of its content – whether you consider Tonsler Park an abstract indictment of voting restrictions among African-Americans, a poignant glimpse at the end of an era, or a non-judgemental depiction of real life in the real world – no doubt that this is a vital documentary and a vital document in equal measure.
It’s a largely unwavering fact: the more you know about a good film, the better that film gets. Kevin Jerome Everson appears at the post-screening Q&A not to explain but to expand, a verbose and genial presence who’s as enthusiastic to talk about his methods and his meanings as he is reticent to give credence to any irrelevant queries. He’s never unfriendly nor unkind, though ask Kevin a question to which he has no clear answer, and you’ll certainly not get one. This audience seemed suitably content to indulge his propensity to get technical, as you’d expect from a crowd that shelled out for a showing such as this. It’s as interesting to hear that our guest used a 16mm Arias camera for the shooting as it is to witness its rough-textured results, and to hear that he in fact shot over four polling stations and edited them all into the one film, and that the dislocation between sound and image was a necessary one due to concerns around sound quality and voter privacy, and that Everson had to manufacture the demographics of the present employees in order to better serve his intentions as director. Now that’s the kind of thing they’d actively discourage in documentary film school! Our University of Virginia professor’s flagrant flouting of unwritten rule is part of what makes him such a brilliant, unique auteur, and his self-imposed mandate to make the invisible visible through his work another part again.
Additionally, Tonsler Park was preceded by a short film from Everson and Claudrena Harold, How Can I Ever Be Late. The Sly and the Family Stone lyric refers to a rumoured account of the band’s arrival at the airport and their greeting by University of Virginia students upon landing. The short was filmed using some of Everson’s students as performers, and features the band’s ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ as its soundtrack. Some claim the event occurred, others claim it did not. Everson believes it did. He’s made a film about it. I guess now it did, then.
My #LFF2017 experience is relatively heavy on documentaries – nine in total, and two of them comprising my opening films. But now for a dramatic change of style, as I venture north of the river once more, a short, picturesque, invigorating walk above the Thames, for the first screening of an Official Competition title in this year’s festival. Funny how film changes lives… not that Andrew Haigh made any kind of superhuman leap in ability between his breakout Weekend and his Oscar-nominated follow-up 45 Years, but the latter film has catapulted his career into a much higher echelon of opportunity. I was here in London two years ago, shortly after 45 Years’ UK theatrical release: cinemas had the film as their WiFi password. They still do. Those assembled at the Embankment Garden Cinema, the temporary location on the Thames’ north bank first erected last year and back up for 2017, to see Haigh’s latest work, Lean on Pete, might well have Haigh’s date of birth as their password. Premature adulation like this is normally reserved for A-listers. I guess, among certain types, Andrew Haigh is an A-lister.
N.B.: I rather abhor ‘certain types,’ because they’re never good types, and I’m loathe to condescend, but it comes too easily – skinny, 20-something, fedora-wearing white hipsters congratulating themselves on seeing an ‘arthouse movie,’ Southerners and their obnoxious, deafening expressions of smug self-satisfaction, the Benjis and the Leilas and the Hamishes and the Spencers, all out in full, fabulous force for floppy-haired Charlie Plummer, sipping on IPAs and strawberry champagne, gasping in faux-shocked, swoony delight when a flash of Call Me by Your Name appears in the pre-film festival trailer. Sit down, shut up, and re-evaluate the state of your lives. Cinema audiences vary depending on where you are and what you’re seeing, and most of them are pretty intolerable. But middle-class festival-goers are THE WORST.
I’d read some backhanded compliments coming out of Venice about Lean on Pete from those expecting Andrew Haigh’s American sojourn to be the grand beginning of a new era of mainstream glory for the director. Apparently it’s ‘understated’ and such things. Maybe it was my lowered expectations (this was one of the last films I decided to see at the fest), but I found it immensely moving, and magnificently directed. Haigh’s classicism, his attention to those details that make a movie inherently cinematic, melds with his sensitivity toward achieving a distinct verisimilitude in the exchanges of his actors – those most essential elements of his films – to create something deeply involving. He understands the power of implication, and displays an unwavering savviness to the audience’s natural thought processes, to the things unspoken by the characters and unwelcomed by the viewer, until the film itself softly acknowledges them. It’s this unstressed depth of content that affords Lean on Pete its impact, and one detects the hand of a supremely intelligent artist at the helm, an artist whose training certainly must stretch back further than Haigh’s short career as director (it does – he was an editor first). You see it in the brilliant framing and blocking, you feel it in the gentle yet deceptively forceful edits and ellipses. And the cherry on top is Haigh’s talent with actors, and Carmen Cuba’s perfect casting. It’s almost disappointing that lead Charlie Plummer should be regarded now as one of 2017’s breakout stars – his is one of 2017’s best performances, hands down.
In the pre-screening introduction, our director spoke of his film as being about the importance of having a safety net, of having someone who cares for you, and boy has he hit the nail square on its head. Post-screening, he reappeared alongside producer Tristan Goligher and star Plummer, and their collective on-stage performance was a masterclass in modesty. Festival director Clare Stewart posed question after question to be met by an almost-noxious sense of gratitude. Haigh explained, regarding his skill with his cast, that he can’t act at all, and that the key to coaxing such excellent work from ensembles is mostly in casting the right people (I’m inclined to agree… almost). Willy Vlautin, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, was brought up a number of times, and rightly so – his involvement seems to have been crucial to the making of the film, as he was reported to have made frequent revisions to the script and trips to set, and always in an encouraging, positive manner; it was commented that novel and film strike a very similar, and impressive, tone. Haigh’s family, in attendance, provided him with the loudest reception of the night, although the squealiest reception was reserved for Plummer, looking much too dapper in a slim-fitting suit and that fucking wretchedly perfect blonde hair. While his physical attractiveness served, for me, to somewhat spoil the film’s sense of realism here and there, his co-stars fared a bit better – Haigh noted the ability of cast members Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny to integrate themselves perfectly into the rural, North-Western U.S. settings of the story. There was criticism, in fact, of the portrayal of the region, with the first audience question coming from a fellow front-row viewer who hailed from Laramie, Wyoming, where the story culminates. She complained that all but the lead character were drawn as drunks in trailer parks, a critique that was shot down politely by director, more vociferously by producer, and eventually quite definitively by an audience member, whose related question, much more astute as it was, found itself greeted by spontaneous applause from the audience. Boo! Hiss! Americans ruin everything!
If my tone seems hurried or my prose reads awkwardly, fuck it, I’ve got a screening in ten minutes, and I still need to go fix my face and finish a smoothie. Tomorrow, we get gay, with John Cameron Mitchell’s alien-punk Neil Gaiman adaptation How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and Sebastián Lelio’s trans drama A Fantastic Woman. Muy fantástico!
Follow Paddy on @screenonscreen