It’s hard enough to lure a hanging dog out of bed at any hour of the morning, although to be fair the one next to me was remarkably willing to greet the day in spite of their drink-diminished sleep. Friday is bar night for my boyfriend Thomas and his colleagues, and no-one’s gonna keep an Irishman from his Guinness, not even Sean Baker. If anything, it was harder luring myself out of bed with the prospect of another action-packed day of film-watching, and by no means do I wish to slander my beloved, so I’ll simply note that we were, alas, late for the 11:30 screening of The Florida Project at Odeon Leicester Square, if only by a matter of mere seconds of the actual film. I arrived to a darkened theatre and a pair of obnoxious young dimwits who’d decided they’d prefer our seats to their own; as Thomas purchased himself a late breakfast at the overpriced concessions stand, I bullied these two ingrates into their rightful seats tucked neatly well inside the aisle behind several rows of heads (Thomas hates the front row, so I meet him midway…-ish) and parked my sweaty arse just where I’d paid to park it.
Baker is, as a filmmaker, like a painter, one in love with colour both of the visual and character kinds. The Florida Project is his pastel-hued tribute to humanity, the latest in an ever-lengthening line, a tableau of people and places and all the delectable little grace details one discovers when beholding such a work of art for the guts of two hours. This is life, whether we initially recognize it or not, and any question of its worth, given its evident trials, is so swiftly beaten back by the film’s infectious ebullience as to dissipate almost entirely by its conclusion. I write ‘almost’, as it is only almost – Baker is too attuned to the rhythms of reality to betray them altogether, in pursuit of a fairytale ending. His film gets it in one way, and fumbles its chances of it in another; it relents to inevitability, yet not to expectation. Under scrutiny, The Florida Project holds up far better than this lilac-tinted neon extravaganza of ephemerality surely should, though no scrutiny, no cynicism is required to view it, nor encouraged. This is reality as escapist fantasy (it is Florida, after all), and this is what lingers, as the camera lingers on one last escape. Why can’t the whole world be as colourful as this?!
Thomas and I took the opportunity afforded us by a rare free Saturday afternoon to explore the sights – no longer tourists in London, we’ve so far settled in perfectly in that we’ve made most sparing use of the local attractions. The Tate Modern is always worth a visit, though that its current Turbine Hall exhibition is One Two Three Swing from Superflex made it a necessary visit. You’ll naturally all remember already that Superflex is the art collective responsible for the first film on my 25-strong schedule at the London Film Festival this year, The Mærsk Opera, a film that remains one of #LFF2017’s best even as the fest draws to a close. One Two Three Swing is as joyous as that film, a delightful communal experience in distilling complication down to its barest, boldest designs. We look, we touch, we feel – above all else, we feel, whether it’s nervousness at perching ourselves below the enormous metal pendulum swinging from the ceiling, or butterflies in our stomachs as we attendees swing from the installation itself. Typical me, I do love a swing, but I hate going too high. They probably heard my yelps in Florida.
Check out some of my pictures of the Tate Modern’s current exhibitions, including the marvellous Materials and Objects and the thought-provoking Between Object and Architecture. Thomas noted that I have a predilection for things with mundane titles. He’s right. I do. Don’t care though.
There’s another thing an Irishman loves: his bed. It does get dark awfully early on this latitude in winter; we tend to forget how far north we are thanks to the temperate climate created here by the Atlantic Drift, but we don’t even get eight hours of sunshine around the end of December. And so, Thomas retreated back to our Clapham headquarters following our Tate tour and the one and only film he attended with me at this year’s festival. I took my chance and got a bit of work done before my second screening of the day, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama. Oh how the global cinephile community has missed Ms. Martel, and oh how shamefully she was snubbed by fest organizers this summer, as noses were roundly snubbed toward female filmmakers. Meh. Fuck them. Their loss, not only in failing to snap up Zama for a competition slot, but in failing to realize how worthy of one it is.
Zama is a film of consummate absurdity, of immediate and thorough incongruity, a chronicle of colonial futility, a work of immense audacity. Lucrecia Martel summons up a dreamscape in hazy images in close-up, faces replacing faces, costumes in vivid aubergine clashing with the deep, caustic chartreuse of the foliage. These are images of impossibility, and yet where the seams ought to be, they exist not. The soundscape is one of words and more words, of jargon and waffle, of bureaucracy and politics and philosophy, in a land where simple survival seems to be the principal concern. Martel satirizes Europe and its cultures, its rotten sense of entitlement, rendering it illegitimate and impotent against those it seeks to supplant (small wonder Cannes and Venice treated it so frostily). It’s all artificial, and the insistence on following its every silly little letter is what tears this culture down in what shell of a gleefully bleak narrative Zama possesses. In its place, there’s a lot, though a lot of what I’m at rather a loss to relate. A lot of movement and a lot of stillness, a lot of beauty and a lot of depravity. A lot to admire, indubitably.
Q&As have been a bit thin on the ground as the LFF has begun winding down, so Martel’s presence at the screening was particularly welcome. We know this woman can direct, and now we know she sure can talk too. First, she expounded on the film’s disconcerting disregard for conventional tools in depicting the passage of time, informing the audience that the novel on which this film is based is known in Latin America as a novel about waiting; she dedicates the film to the victims of waiting, and of the false hopes fostered in that process. She referred to the judeo-christian concept of waiting as giving meaning to time, with the meaning behind the waiting only revealed at the end, and how she tried to resist this interpretation of time here. It found a parallel in the film’s production, lambasting the pressure placed upon filmmakers to work consistently, regularly churning out increasingly expensive works until bestowed an Oscar at the end! Just as her film’s protagonist literally loses his hand, he loses what connection he had to the socially-imposed prison of an assumed identity, mistaken for his sense of personal purpose. It has been nine years since Martel’s last non-documentary feature, and there’s no doubting her artistic identity as that of her own devising now, even with an Oscar potentially in sight (Zama is Argentina’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category).
When quizzed on her presentation of the black and indigenous characters in the film, Martel was particularly impressive, her response touching upon the political power of film in its depictions of peoples. She wanted to emulate Luchino Visconti, whose films frequently showed servants in the background not merely serving but engaging in their own activities, living lives that seemed to exist beyond the confines of the film’s prescribed story. But Martel went a step further, engaging herself with these background characters and making their stories that of the film. She opted not to take the approach of many directors when working with indigenous groups, who choose local faces and instruct them to just be themselves in the service of ‘authenticity’; Martel wanted her black and indigenous actors to actually act, and then pointedly declined to translate their dialogue. She creates true authenticity as such, admitting the innate unreality of film while placing her (largely European, or of European descent) audience in a position akin to the European settler characters at the centre of both the novel and her adaptation. She described it as important, given the history of her continent, to show these people as non-submissive, and instead to submit the rest of us to a dose of well-deserved confusion. Another question mentioned the future of South America in reference to the imperialism examined in Zama, and Martel expressed a lack of enthusiasm for where Argentina is headed, noting that the nation doesn’t especially identify with its native population – a very racially mixed country that cannot see its own diversity. She accepted that portraying such a stance on film is difficult, given that she is only one person, and thus any diversity of opinion in her work is, in fact, only ever the opinion of that one person; again, judeo-christian culture came up, as Martel claimed that, while catholic guilt is useless, catholic responsibility has served her well!
And now, another Irish person, long shod of any semblance of catholic guilt that might ever have wriggled its way into my consciousness (if any), retreats back to bed, from where I report to you, Zbigniew Preisner scoring my surroundings, the scent of nail polish undercutting any romantic notions that that might inspire, as I’m now lured away from the temptation of over-writing this tardy little piece, filling it with the kind of florid prose I despise almost as much as I employ. Three films to close this baby up tomorrow, and just try over-writing this lot – the longest runs just 95 minutes including credits. Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon goes to Afghanistan with The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey and executive produced by Angelina Jolie. I stay in Afghanistan for film #2 of the day, this time with French journalist Sonia Kronlund making her feature directorial debut with Nothingwood, a documentary about the country’s infamous film star Salim Shaheen. And a warm thought for the last of 25 films in my #LFF2017 experience, as Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix inform me: You Were Never Really Here.
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