(james benedict brown) on the road

Glasgow Film Festival: web me not

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 22 January, 2009

In the academic year 2007/2008, I saw an awful lot of films. I’ve given up trying to count how many, but suspect I may have been into three figures by the time I left Sheffield and moved out of seductive reach of the Showroom Cinema. A diligently archived stack of ticket stubs has become a jumbled non-chronological pile which I will probably avoid sorting until I have real work to procrastinate from.

Since the summer, however, I think I’ve seen about two films. The credit crunch (that which I blame everything on) has curtailed my consumption of films and put me on a meagre cinematic diet. I don’t know whether that diet would be so frugal if I were still in Sheffield, and still being tempted by the Showroom’s member ticket prices and brilliant programme.

But, now that I’ve been in Glasgow for almost six months, and perhaps that things are starting to look up in terms of the old money-in-money-out, I hope to get back into shape. Next month the Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) hosts the 2009 Glasgow Film Festival, with a handful of other screenings and events on at cinemas and venues around the city. Christmas (or rather a certain Minnesotan) brought me a Festival Gift Pass, which can be redeemed for ten tickets to any of the shows.

The GFT has been excitedly building up to the launch of the festival programme at midnight on 21 January, and the opening of booking.

So, first thing this morning, I hit the web and checked out glasgowfilmfestival.org.uk to find the programme and the shows. A note on screen apologised for online booking difficulties, but frankly, that shouldn’t be the biggest of their concerns. Desperately hunting around for a list of shows to browse, it seems that all the film information has been uploaded to a scrolling time plan, tabbed by day and arranged in rows by film.

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Top marks to the web designer who came up with this relatively smooth device. But nul points for the eeejit who thought that this could suffice for any kind of list of shows. Because while this is a great tool for finding out which shows run when, and for how long (facilitating multiple venues in an evening) it’s absolutely mind numbing if you don’t know what films are on. Without a printed programme or title summary, it takes three clicks to get into the day, film and then blurb just to discover what the film is about and who it’s by.

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As you can see above, clicking on an event or film title reveals virtually no information that you couldn’t already get from just looking at the programme screen. It takes another click to get the film’s details. And since there isn’t a single page or section of the site that just tells me film title, date & time, director and summary, I’ve wasted a whole hunk of this morning trying to find out what I’m going to cash my tickets in for. A whole hunk of cash seems to have been spent on a whole hunk of redundant web design (a personal beef, as you can tell).

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The colour coding for the strands is also pretty useless, since with 15 subtle shades the key is difficult to follow and it’s located at the very bottom of the screen. Unless you have a mahoosive monitor (and I’ll accept that many festival-attending hipsters who work in the arts may have a bigger screen than I do) it’s an arse to scroll the events out of view to find the key.

The solution? I’m going to hop on a train into the city, search out a printed programme and buy a coffee. It will be much more enjoyable and much more helpful for me to plan my festival. I’m very excited, and I’m not going to let some A-level web design spoil my fun…

Guilty cinematic pleasures

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 25 March, 2008

With the death of Arthur C. Clarke last week, a number of critics and reporters touched upon the film which with he is perhaps most famously remembered – 2001: A Space Odyssey, although as Philip Hensher writes in today’s Independent, that’s a shame since Clark’s only real input was to co-adapt the book for a screenplay. In fact, as Clark himself wrote in his companion to the film, The Lost Worlds of 2001, “the nearest approximation to the complicated truth” is that the screenplay should be credited to “Kubrick and Clarke” and the novel to “Clarke and Kubrick” (thanks to the many Wikipedia contributors helping me find that quote).

So it is, perhaps, insincere to remember Clarke with the film of 2001, when one considers how many other books he published during the course of his lifetime. Our fascination with the filmed adaptation of 2001 is perhaps as much because of our cultural obsession with the reclusive Stanley Kubrick, a director who produced so few films relative to his contemporaries and yet who has left film such a broad and meaningful legacy.

I must confess to being a fan of Kubrick, not just because of the films themselves, but also because of the convoluted and often eccentric processes that lead to their creation. I’m intrigued, fascinated and inspired by the creative life of this unusual director. I suspect I could be part of a generation that is as interest in the back story as the story itself. Wikipedia isn’t just interesting for discovering the facts about a film, but also the trivia behind the production.

I am not only a young Kubrick-ite, but also a naïve Tarkovsky-ite. It was a little under a year ago that I indulged in a Friday night of Andrei Tarkovsky at the Strasbourg Cinema Odysée, when a rare original print of Stalker (1979) was presented in a shabby basement screen. This week I’ve finally found the time to complete another installment in Tarkovsky’s career, the enigmatic and much-discussed Solaris (1972).

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I’ve ownd the DVD of Solaris for years now, but simply hadn’t got round to watching it in its entirety. This time I didn’t have the luxury of a cinema screen, just a shabby little laptop, but with enough pillows and cushions and a dark enough room I could just about imagine that I wasn’t watching it in bed but in a darkened French cinema (perhaps the best place to enjoy Tarkovsky?).

I don’t have the quote to hand to corroborate it, but from reading Tarkovsky’s diaries and other material, I’m lead to believe that it was one of the director’s least favorite films. It is too late to console the deceased Tarkovsky, but Stanisław Lem, the author of the novel Solaris liked neither Tarkovsky’s effort nor Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation. The problem with both films (and perhaps even the book) is that it is an essentially humanist exploration of memory, love and loss set on a space station. Were it not set on a space station, it might not be mistaken for science fiction, but because of the space suits and setting Solaris is often dismissed or celebrated as a work of science fiction.

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I feel guilty, therefore, for partly loving the film as a work of science fiction. Tarkovsky may have tried very hard to create a film that was not identified within one particular genre, but he is – as far as I know – the only Soviet Russian filmmaker who made something resembling a science fiction film behind the Iron Curtain. I could be proved wrong, and I would welcome recommendations for other USSR sci-fi flicks. I would just feel very guilty for not enjoying them as they were intended to be.

That said, I’m still on the look-out for a DVD copy of the utterly inexplicable 1981 Czech horror film Upír z Feratu – about a vampire rally car that drinks the blood of its drivers through a carnivorous accelerator pedal.

I have adored and devoured every film of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky that I have seen, but sometimes not for the reasons that those directors might have wanted or expected. The information explosion that has been fueled by the contemporary user-edited generation of web portals and sources makes us all much more aware of the conditions and climate in which works of cinema, art or architecture were created. It may lead us to enjoy things for different reasons, but at least it introduces us to new works.

The cinemaphile’s best of 2007

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 28 December, 2007

It is that time of the year – the almost measureless drag between Christmas and the New Year – when British media outlets love to fill airtime with largely meaningless but cheap-to-produce programmes that offer us a low down of the “best” of the past year. Books, television, celebrities, technology, cars and, of course, film.

2007 has, for me, been a fantastic year for new films. I’ve dotted about the place and watched many films in many cinemas in several different countries. Some cinemas, like the basement screen of L’Odyssée in Strasbourg were tatty, uncomfortable and poorly designed boxes in which to savour a good film. But as we all know, those are often the ideal specifications for a cinema; if you happen to fancy snuggling up with your companion during the film, you appreciate the fact that the arm rests have begun to fall off the chairs, many of which now recline further back than they were ever meant to. Other cinemas, like the Scotiabank Theatre in Edmonton, were just stupidly priced because they know that in a -30ºC snowstorm, once the customers are in the door they’re very unlikely to turn around and go somewhere else. Close to my heart is my long term love affair with the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield. This four and a half screen arts cinema is arguably one of the best independent cinemas outside London, perhaps made even better than those in the capital because the cumulative effect of the Showroom cinema, the Showroom café-bar, the Showroom restaurant and several excellent festivals and events throughout the year contribute a tangible year-round buzz to Sheffield’s arts scene. So proud am I of the Showroom, I’m also a student member, and I’m there at least two, if not three times a week when I’m in town.

The outspoken but rarely ‘off’ film critic Mark Kermode passed judgement on a number of films over the last few weeks on Simon Mayo’s BBC Radio 2 programme (and also on his own podcast), and tonight on BBC television the arrogant and unjustifiably expensive Jonathan Ross threw in his two pennies on the final Film 2007 of the year. Together, these programmes reminded me of some the entertaining, intriguing and stimulating films that I’ve enjoyed in cinemas this year.

The Lives Of Others was, with a cast unknown outside Germany, earth-shatteringly good and well within the realms of being classified good enough to buy on DVD. The Last King Of Scotland was brilliantly told and justifiably stolen by two incredible lead performances – Forest Whittaker had every reason to expect the BAFTA and Oscar he received. Control blasted into cinema screens across Britain and united audiences who were old enough to remember Joy Division and those who will now go out and buy the albums in chronological order. Not in a long time has a British film evoked such emotion or made me proud to recommend it to friends beyond these shores. Michael Clayton surprised me, as did George Clooney in the lead role. Established Holywood stars don’t have to work too hard to maintain an income once they’re successful, so for every Clooney who makes an effort to keep pushing the envelope, I am grateful. The first installment of Marjane Satrapi’s brilliant series of graphic novels Persepolis has been brought to the screen with both faith to the original and an inventiveness which builds on the book – I thoroughly enjoyed the original version in French (as will anyone who has read the book, regardless of their French) and look forward to the English version coming out in 2008. The love story (and unashamed publicity vehicle for Frames frontman Glen Hansard) Once was so sickly sweet it could cure a sore throat, but at least it was that most precious of things – a deftly constructed but beautifully simple love story that didn’t need anger or sex scenes to justify its purpose. Children Of Men was one of the first films that I saw this year, and it was also one of the last: it is that good that I have broken my normal standards and seen it twice in a relatively short space of time. Technically unprecedented, it compensates for some unforgivable indulgences with ambition and remarkable vision.

One question remains for all these end of year television and radio specials. Simon Mayo asked it of Mark Kermode, and Jonathan Ross asked it of his two guests tonight. What is your film of 2007? Perhaps not the best film, but what is your film of 2007?

I would have been fourteen or fifteen years old when I saw my first Cohen Brothers film: Fargo. By dint of an indulgent pre-Christmas season of ‘snow’ themed films at the Showroom I recently got to see it again. The print that had been secured for the screening had obviously been projected onto cinema screens up and down the country many thousands of times. As each reel started and finished, the screen became touched a massive cloud of buzzing black specks, like insects that had suddenly swarmed on the strange snow covered towns of northern Minnesota in which the film is set. The opening sequence, in which Jerry Lundegaard towns a “burnt umber Sierra” through a completely snowed out landscape was transformed from the virginal winter purity of the film I know so well on digitally perfected DVD. The specks did not detract from the film so much as remind me of what was there beneath them.

But I digress. Even as a teenager I was sensitive to on screen violence, and Fargo sank deep inside me because of the brief moments of unjustifiable and remorseless violence. Only with time have I come to appreciate the bigger structure of the film, and the subtle character deliveries of William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand. How could have predicted that the gentle hero of a thriller could be a pregnant small town police officer who doesn’t even appear until the second half of the story?

With this in mind, my film of 2007, then, is probably going to be someone else’s film of 2008. That’s because it opens in the UK on 18 January; I just happened to catch it while killing time in Edmonton back in November. The Fargo Brothers are back, and they’re bringing with them a film that will win them some significant metalwork. If you don’t know Javier Bardem, you will very soon. He is about to appear on our screens as the most terrifying psychopath to ever stalk a film’s supposed ‘hero’. Showroom members (£16 / annum) can see it for £2 on the day it opens. I’ll be there, because a film as phenomenally constructed as No Country For Old Men deserves a second viewing.

Video: paternoster

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 22 December, 2007

A glimpse of Sheffield before I leave for the Christmas break.

Friday nights are made of this

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 7 April, 2007

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Strasbourg’s superb city centre cinemas continue to distract me, this time with a fortnight of films by Andrei Tarkovsky at the Odysée. I’ve not had the time to see all the films I wanted to, but Friday offered an unmissable late night treat with a 22h30 showing of Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. The conditions were sadly less than perfect, with broken seats (no, they don’t recline on purpose, they’re just very tatty) and several couples who couldn’t wait until the end of the film to whisper questions and interpretations of the film’s complex meaning and story to each other – usually just as the ethereal soundtrack softened to the beautiful musical-semi-silence of water dripping in an echoing chamber. It was still, however, a special occasion to see this remarkable film on the big screen.

In the past I have described how the world’s ‘great’ cities are utterly representative of the nations in which they are located, but unlike anything else in that particular country. For instance, New York City could only be in America, and yet it is completely unlike any other place in that country. The same is true of Paris for France and London for Great Britain. I’d extend that analogy to Stalker, in that it is so majestic and beautifully measured that it could only have been produced in the Soviet Union; and yet its story is so unusual and bound with supernatural elements, that it is almost impossible to comprehend how Tarkovsky was allowed to make it.

If you get the chance to see this film, I guarantee that it is two and three quarter hours of your life that is worth investing. That is dependent, however, on you leaving your preconceptions of science fiction and mystery films at the door: Stalker was the product of a director and a system so radically different to that of western cinema that it can leave audiences utterly clueless, or rather unwilling to accept their cluelessness. A beautiful, beautiful film…

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