Dispatch: From the Front Lines of the Back Rows at London Film Festival 2017

An on-the-ground account of a whirlwind weekend in the cinemas of the country’s capital.

IIIIIIFestivals can seem like illustrious affairs from the outside. The ones that become known and ingrained in the public consciousness, like Cannes and Sundance, seem like hubs of glitz and glamour, a place to watch film secluded from ordinary society. This largely comes from the people who attend, stars and creative talent behind the projects in competition who walk the red carpets in the sunny French Riviera on the cusp of summer or hurry along the one in Utah’s Park City as winter comes to a close, attending press conferences, after-parties and galas.

Of course, these are not exclusive to the aforementioned pair of festivals, they comprise a key part of most, if not all. As do the press and industry screenings which constitute their own schedule, often running prior to other screenings, in order to give critics the chance to see as much as they can possibly can without running into as many timetabled clashes. And, there is a third type of festival experience, part and parcel with festivals like TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) and London Film Festival. That of the general public.

I’ll confess, much of that description is drawn from other’s examples, following festival buzz will eventually lead you down the rabbit hole of hearing about how the sausage gets made, so to speak, with regards to a critic’s experience. The London Film Festival, which runs from the 4th to the 15th of October this year, is the kind of festival that’s open to anyone that purchases tickets to a ludicrous number of screenings across the city –– 242 features plus shorts  –– though largely situated in the West End. It’s far easier to travel into London than it is to find accommodation, let alone make it to Cannes or Park City and a large part of the appeal is that it’s so close to home from many, offering the chance to see numerous releases; some out shortly, others still waiting on a UK release date. Earlier this year, I attended London Sundance –– in order to catch The Big Sick and A Ghost Story –– but that was solely situated at Picturehouse Central, my time there only encompassed an afternoon and the air was tense, a result of the attack that occurred the previous night.

While my experience with London Film Fest this year did primarily involve the same cinema, two of the four screenings I attended with a friend were based there, the fact they were spread out over the course of a weekend and a 36-hour period allowed to the opportunity to branch out a little more, wander and take in the sights of the surrounding area without the nagging need to linger in the lobby because it’s only an hour until the next screening. Upon arrival to Leicester Square on Saturday afternoon, it was clear to anyone that the festival was well underway, due to the numerous signs that adorned the surrounding area, not to mention the booth nearby and a red carpet that ran the length of the entrance to the Odeon, that I understand saw the premiere of Battle of the Sexes later that night.

 

IIIIIIThe first screening on the docket took place a short distance away, at the Prince Charles Cinema, an unassuming building from the outside, that was even more so due to the faulty directions we received that resulted in us passing by the unassuming back entrance. It’s more of a repertory cinema, the kind that’s prevalent in New York and Los Angeles, but sadly lacking in areas outside of England’s capital; the kind that I wish I could attend more frequently following this first-time visit.

Speaking of first times, we were there to see Columbus, the feature-film debut of Kogonada, a highly accomplished video essayist (http://kogonada.com) who has produced visual studies of the work of Terrence Malick and Wes Anderson, the neorealist movement and musings on the cinema of Richard Linklater and its relation to time. Deriving its title from its setting, the city in Indiana, Kogonada’s film is quiet and languid, meditative about its surroundings, ruminating on the architecture of the city and the nature of hanging around such a place. Having also written the film, it is the story of Jin, played by John Cho, a translator of literature in Korea, and of Casey, who never went to college, instead sticking around in order to care for her mother. She’s the kind of girl who’s described, by another character in the film in fact, as “bookish” – she works in a library and is clear on calling them “films” rather than movies. Jin comes to the city because his father has fallen into a coma, the result of a fall portrayed in the film’s opening. There’s a sense of what’s become Sofia Coppola-patent ennui, but it’s been applied within the framework of a Jim Jarmusch film, ever so slightly esoteric. Fans of last year’s Paterson are bound to find some small-town charms in this.

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Much like Lost in Translation, Jin arrives, but he’s unsure exactly what to do now he’s here –– he and his father never really got along. After deciding the first port of call should be the hospital where his father is recovering, he winds up at a restaurant with Parker Posey, in a magnificent supporting turn, as Eleanor and it’s here where the film really starts to crackle. The pair find that low-key gear that’s most appropriate for the conversation they’re having, one where they’ve had a couple of drinks and true feelings about the situation start to slip out as if they were casual small talk, pulling us in as we realise we want more morsels of information. And from there, it really comes alive. Jin shortly comes across Casey and over the course of numerous days, the pair walk to, and discuss various pieces of architecture in the city; though their conversations are frequently about more as the events in their personal lives develop. It should be said that these conversations are engaging on that architectural level, largely a result of Casey’s detailing avoiding a tour-guide vibe.

One observation, that a building’s front is adorned with an asymmetrical cross, has greater relation to the film’s form as well. Kogonada’s video essay about Anderson demonstrates he understands what goes into composing a symmetrical frame, but Columbus illustrates that he knows how to eschew this. Casey and Jin’s first meeting is filmed from a slight angle, when they start walking, Jin becomes briefly obscured by each post they pass. Just as the geography of Columbus has intense thought poured into it, the geography of Columbus has as well and it results in a tight formal grammar and allows from flourishes to spring forth. One conversation between Jin and Eleanor is relayed to us through a mirror and when it comes to a close, it does so on that and another mirror, each on different planes. This kind of shot doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it is breathtaking to see a debut from someone who has that assured confidence and control over their frame, not solely the themes that interest them.

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Said cinematography, the work of Elisha Christian, is subtly brilliant throughout, and bolstered by Kogonada’s editing, the pair working together to establish spatial dimensions first and foremost, scenes which exist in a real space, but temporal ones as well, particularly in the way that conversations are cross-cut together –– there’s an example early on, of which the artistry behind it will become clear once you’ve seen it. Casey and Jin have similar, but diametrically opposed problems. She doesn’t know when, or even if, she’s leaving while he has no idea whether he’s staying, but the pair find a register that suggests kinship in accordance to these ideas. The acceptance of stumbling across someone else also dazed by the suffocating smallness of the surrounding area.

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Cho has never really had chance to capitalise on his ability as a leading man, but front and center here, demonstrates exactly how good he can be, slipping into the vibe that Columbus demands even if his character can’t. Richardson had a supporting role in last year’s The Edge of Seventeen where she wowed, like much of the cast, but this is more of a knockout showcase, getting to play slightly older with a similar mix of comedy and drama. At first glance, the opening minutes of Columbus play out with a diffuse and elliptical nature, but on further examination go to show that if you prove willing to push through the haze, true instances of beauty on display will reveal themselves.

 

IIIIIIWhile discussing actors that have rarely been given a chance to showcase their full potential, one of the most noted examples of current times is Elizabeth Olsen who hit the big time with Martha Marcy May Marlene, but since then has largely been caught up in the franchise machine, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Scarlet Witch. Outside of that she’s been a part of such films as: the post-human Godzilla, a Josh Radnor movie which I won’t dare type the name of –– for fear that you will think to seek it out –– and this year’s Wind River where she falls prey to Taylor Sheridan’s inability to craft a female law enforcement agent that exists to do anything other than be woefully unprepared for the situation at hand.

(I should confess that prior to this weekend, I considered Avengers: Age of Ultron the location of her second best performance, although not by default, as the lynchpin of the film she’s phenomenal. It’s my favourite to come from the MCU)

Luckily, Ingrid Goes West is spectacular proof of what she can really do when given a substantial role and how well she can play against type, playing a social media influencer that’s outwardly bursting with energy and more akin to the socialite lifestyle of her sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley than the quieter persona she usually projects.

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Olsen’s character, Taylor, finds herself the subject of Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid. Ingrid is not in a good spot. Her mother recently passed away following a period of sickness and shortly after she wound up in a mental facility, a result of gatecrashing someone’s wedding and macing the bride because she was not invited. After her release, Ingrid reacclimatises herself to the world through the phone which doesn’t leave her side, catching up through social media, namely Instagram. As she scrolls through, pausing briefly and frequently to double tap each post, she encounters Taylor’s profile and by the time the montage of posts is over, Ingrid has herself a new fascination. What follows involves her moving to Los Angeles, making use of the money bequeathed to her by her mother, in the hopes of brokering a friendship with Taylor.

For some, Ingrid Goes West will feel like a personal attack, a result of how astutely it understands the millennial relation to not only social media, but technology itself –– one scene stresses the agony of crafting the perfect ‘haha’ response –– but it’s also deeply hilarious as a dark comedy. Contrasted against beats of seriousness, scenes which play out without jokes that prevent someone from forgetting that Ingrid is not well mentally. As much as the film, directed and co-written by Matt Spicer, plays for laughs, it avoids making Ingrid’s condition itself, which goes un-diagnosed, fair game to be mocked. However, as it is set in sunny LA, there’s no shortage of alternative targets to satirise: from Instagram culture to the world of socialites and socialite desirees to struggling artists –– Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) and Ingrid’s landlord Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) are a pop artist and aspiring screenwriter respectively.

At the centre of it all, of course, is Plaza herself, whom I’m certain is in every scene. Anyone who’s seen Legion is aware of exactly how multi-faceted her performances can be while still maintaining an air of eccentricity that gives the work a zippy pace. Here, she gets the chance to throw herself into a character who’s uneasily sympathetic a la Rachel in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but not a mere shadow of that role as she’s looking for a platonic relationship rather than a romantic one; a key difference. Plaza’s a great physical performer, whether she’s trying to be inconspicuous and unintentionally causing a scene, gradually adopting the mannerisms of the LA lifestyle or marching somewhere, making readily apparent that she’s on the warpath. And she has a delightful interplay with Olsen once they finally meet, one that’s packed to give them both lots to do despite the film running a taut 97-minutes.

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The script, co-written by David Branson Smith, is deceptively simple, calculating yet that runs as an undercurrent rather than as defining trait. While never rushing from scene to scene to burn through plot, the decisions for where the characters will go feel astute and in service of the wider film, stemming from their personalities and thematically relevant rather than from the need to push the narrative along. Even what seem like throwaway details at first glance feed back into the narrative later on and give it propulsion. The ending is not as sharp as the situation could allow for, but to say that Smith and Spicer run out of things to say would be inaccurate, letting it all come full circle while moving to an adjacent idea. Plaza’s performance is absolutely one of note, and that’ll be hard to shake for the impending future, but Olsen and Jackson Jr. shouldn’t be forgotten either. It’s probably impossible for Olsen to earn a supporting actress nod, although less so than Plaza for best actress, but it is absolutely the kind of performance that is so startling, it makes you furious that no-one had necessarily realised she was capable of that before.

To speak briefly to the screening itself, this was held at Picturehouse Central, and was in fact the UK premiere of the film. As such, it meant that the press were there for a photo-op, as Spicer, Plaza and Billy Magnussen, who plays Taylor’s brother Nicky, were in attendance as well. There were some behind the scenes complications, and the film started late although it is unbeknownst to me what the nature of this issue was. So we had to skip the Q&A that followed in order to make it back home. Something which we’d anticipated regardless due to the extent of our travel, but became certain as the film’s start time drew past the intended 21:00. While the delay certainly put a damper on the evening in a sense, if you’ve been to any post-screening Q&A’s, you know how they can devolve into what is essentially vamping a question into a comment, so maybe it was for the best. And so ended Saturday.

 

IIIIIISunday was similar, in the sense that the screenings we’d booked for were in the afternoon, but the first was at Hackney Picturehouse and so we had to set out in the middle of the morning to ensure that we’d be there on time. Luckily we were, and with enough chance to sit down in their cafe/restaurant. Despite being part of the same chain, there’s a difference between this and Picturehouse Central, if only because it seems out-of-the-way of the hubbub. Not empty by any means, but situated in such a place that it was possible to have a conversation without having to compete with so many people passing through.

We were here to see Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, written by Brian Selznick adapting his own novel. I’m a new fan of Haynes, truth be told, having found Carol and then worked my way through his back catalogue in the past few weeks, in a way creating a retrospective of his work in preparation for this. I was unsure how hard I’d fall for this one, but twenty minutes in, I realised that tears were streaming down my face and the fact they didn’t really stop is the best evidence I can provide that it got me good.

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Another period piece from Haynes, albeit dual-period as it seeks to coalesce two stories into one whole. The closest to our current time takes place in 1977, where Oakes Fegley’s Ben has not only lost his mother, portrayed oh so briefly by a comforting Michelle Williams, but he’s suffered an accident of his own that has left him bereft of his hearing. After finding some heirlooms concerning his family’s past, he becomes determined to find his father somewhere in the vast expanses of New York and sets off in search of him, leaving his Minnesotan town.

The second piece is set 90-years ago, in 1927, and features another deaf protagonist – Rose. Played by Millicent Simmonds, she too runs away from her home, although her’s is in New Jersey where she lived with her father, in search of Lillian Mayhew, an actress she takes every chance possible to see on the big screen and portrayed by Julianne Moore, who also has a part to play in the 1977-set section. Eventually both of these children find their way to the American Natural History Museum which serves as an anchoring point between the two periods, with some physical holdovers and connections creating a link between them before the narrative properly interlinks. I imagine you’ve got an inkling of how they do, but that feels right for this as a piece of Haynes’ oeuvre. With his work comes an inevitability, because of his focus on souls lost in the world; “girl[s] flung out of space”. They normally have little choice of where to go in life, but the interest comes from them finding where they fit.

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Much of this film rests on the shoulders of Fegley and Simmonds –– as much as Moore and Williams are key, they are supporting roles all the same –– and while much of Simmonds’ story sees her traipsing around alone, Fegley gets a screen partner in Jaden Michael’s Jamie, another kid and one who shows him exactly how magical the museum can be. While Haynes’ work until now has been primarily for an older audience, this will likely play well to a younger crowd and their families, the central mystery of Ben’s father having a tremendous and heart-warming payoff as the puzzle pieces that were previously missing snap into place.

This doesn’t mean that Haynes has turned into a workmanlike studio man however, as it’s still a remarkable rich and warm piece of work from one of the best in the game today. With Rose’s story comes a chance for directorial playfulness as he opts to portray this in the style of a silent film. As Far From Heaven proved, Haynes is a director indebted to the impeccable sense of visual storytelling of directors like Douglas Sirk. Even with the fact he’s operating in a Black and White world here, his frames are still crisp, working with frequent collaborator Edward Lachman, whose lensing is just incredible; both masters of any period setting thrown at them.

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With this playfulness comes a risk of drawing attention to oneself, but their work is anything but purely referential. Ostensibly lived-in, the pair are dedicated to crafting rich worlds with this applying to both sections of the whole. Both Ben and Rose’s arrivals to New York are a sight to behold for entirely different reasons and filmed with wholly different approaches. Now admittedly Fegley’s character and performance can be characterised as twerpy. He, is of course, a kid who not had chance to come to terms with the normal world, much less one without his mother and sound. Yet there is majesty to be witnessed throughout his exploration of the city. To set a story within a museum and not see what it contains would be a waste, and Haynes doesn’t squander the location, filling the tale with a startling amount of detail in every shot. That type of aesthetic quality is expectedly finessed, more than solely a ‘kid’s movie’ while still capturing a wide-eyed wonder –– not solely for the characters as they find a place in a world they were unaware existed, but also the audience getting to see it unfurl before them. For my money, it feels like his third best. Haynes at his most accessible while still working within his traditional framework. And for many children, it could easily be their favourite film, for very good reason.

 

IIIIIIAnd so, later that evening, came a return to Picturehouse Central for the final film of the festival for me. Well I say film, but that’s not necessarily what Manifesto is. A collaboration between Julian Rosefeldt and Cate Blanchett that was originally intended as an art installation. What Rosefeldt has done is appropriate various manifestos of the world, ranging from the writing of Karl Marx to that of Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier, turning them into extensive monologues for Blanchett to deliver as a variety of characters. By my count, there are 13 distinct characters that she plays on-screen, perhaps more dependent on the nature of the voice-overs that intermittently play over the footage of the surround area captured by Rosefeldt’s glacially panning camera.

Now as we all know, one Blanchett is great, if there are two then you’re likely watching Coffee and Cigarettes and presumably 13 would provide a new definition of pure cinema, but there is something missing from the work. I haven’t had the chance to experience the art installation this project was originally intended as, but I imagine that something has been lost in translation. The sequences have been truncated from what I understand about the original segments, part of which includes a chanting in each that creates an echo chamber as it plays simultaneously against 11 other chants. The idea of the segments playing all around you sounds like a more involving idea.

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A confrontational piece of work, but one of contradiction as well. The various sequences spill into one another, calling bullshit on what was stated not five minutes ago, only to have the same happen to them. Starting with one character that I’ll affectionately call Homeless Man with a Dog and Bullhorn (seen above) who is trudging through a disused and abandoned stretch of land, the film eventually segues into an eulogy being given at a funeral and another of a conservative mother saying grace before dinner. It’s clear that Blanchett’s having fun with each and every performance, relishing in the self-reflexivity, most evident when she plays both anchorwoman and weather reporter on the scene and they converse about minimalism.

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Of course it’s fun to hear her rant about Dadaism surrounded by people mourning. Almost as much as seeing her deliver the principles of Dogme 95 to children who are might not be old enough to count that high. It is certainly an experience, though whether it’s a grueling one will ultimately depend on whether the idea of it alone is enough to put you off. If the absurdity of the experiment sounds intriguing, that might be enough for it to win you over, leaning into the insanity. In a way, I don’t feel I’m doing it justice, it bombards the mind like a 90-minute college crash course on a full syllabus and likely requires a type of criticism more commonplace to the world of art as opposed to the world of cinema, despite also defying traditional criticism. Regardless, it is one heck of a showcase for Blanchett’s capabilities as an actress, some of the best proof that she’s the best working today and even the original form is lost in translation, it’s a bold kind of art that I’ll happily welcome more of across more screens.

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With that, my LFF 2017 has come to a close. The start of a new week saw my return to uni, travelling back across London and beyond. This weekend was an absurdly great time, the kind that makes you enviable of everyone who lives close enough to attend more over both weeks of the festival. Only a few hours away from it all, I’ll profess to missing it already, to the point where I scoured St. Pancras in search of a copy of Little White Lies, there being a great difference to the relative silence of a commute and the simmering buzz of being around people as devoted to film, also having conversations about the merits of what they’ve seen.

Still there’s always next year.

 

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3 thoughts on “Dispatch: From the Front Lines of the Back Rows at London Film Festival 2017

  1. Reblogged this on A Grand Quiet and commented:
    To fill in today’s break in my Bath Film Festival coverage, more is coming tomorrow I swear (I caught a wild preview of Lynne Ramsay’s upcoming joint this evening) the inimitable Matt of Streamed Consciousness posted coverage from the BFI London Film Festival. If you ain’t following him yet you seriously should.

    Liked by 1 person

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