Friday, 31 December 2010

Quote for the Week

We struggle to attain the unattainable – that is what separates man from beasts.
- Nikos Kazantzakis, The Fratricides

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Sunday, 5 December 2010

A Weekend at the Movies

One thing that no one tells you about directing your first feature (or at least, one thing that no one told me) is that it will destroy your ability to enjoy watching films. For the last month, whenever I've tried to watch films I've done nothing but think about things like headroom, continuity of lighting, and whether the focus is sharp. As a result of this I've hardly been watching anything. However, on Friday, two films that I've been wanting to see for a while played back-to-back at the Watermans, so I thought I'd take the risk and head down. Luckily, I think I'm finally over my issues and I might actually be able to enjoy films again...though unfortunately neither film on my Friday double-bill quite proved this for me.

The first was Hammad Khan's
Slackistan, a film which I really wanted to love. I've been following the production since I saw a post on Shooting People seeking a sound recordist for the project. I think it was Khan's citation of The Duplass Brothers as an influence which made me interested: despite being set in Pakistan, Slackistan is an independent British film with a true indie spirit, a project which is definitely worth supporting. (Unfortunately, not many people seem to agree with this point...there was only one other person in the whole cinema. I've written on this topic before, so won't go into it again here, but come on people, really...). Regrettably, if I'm honest, I found the film rather flawed, but I'd still recommend it, if for no other reason than to support the spirit with which it was made.

The second film I saw was the current arthouse favourite (and Palme d'Or winner)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Although I found the film beautifully captivating, it was far from totally satisfying. Perhaps a second viewing will provide further levels of appreciation.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Although my trip to the Watermans didn't prove a totally satisfying experience, it was enough to give me back the film bug. So, on Saturday morning I braved the London snow and arrived at the Empire in Leicester Square bright and early for the Show Film First Online Opinion Formers Showcase. The day started with a batch of trailers for films coming out early next year, which I found a rather depressing experience... Based on this evidence, 2011 will not be a vintage year for (mainstream) film.

The two preview screenings of the day (only revealed once we were all seated) turned out to be
The Next Three Days and TRON: Legacy. The first proved to be an engaging, tense thriller, if also something of a missed opportunity. Dealing with the life of John Brennan (Russell Crowe) after his wife (Elizabeth Banks) is sent to prison for murder, the film soon shifts gear from psychological portrait to a far less interesting man-with-a-plan crime drama. Dramatically it rattles along and, despite some dubious morality and nonsensical moments, it manages to engage the emotions to a successful degree...but it all just somehow feels rather shallow and forgettable. Which, when one thinks about it, makes perfect sense for a film directed by the man who brought us Crash...

It's fair to say that there also wasn't much intellectual depth to TRON: Legacy, but I doubt that that was ever the point. One part Wizard of Oz, one part Star Wars, one part Running Man, and two parts
Jeff Bridges, the film never feels particularly original, but is never much less than good fun. I still don't buy into the whole 3D thing, but beyond that the film is visually impressive and emotionally involving, and sustains enjoyment throughout its runtime. It's not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a good, solid ride all the same.


Thanks to the magic of DVD, I was able to round the weekend off with a viewing of Pasolini's
Theorem... a film I'll need to think about more before commenting on properly, but which is certainly something altogether very different.

So, while I might not have seen anything which really blew me away this weekend, at least I have rediscovered the joy of watching films. I was getting worried for a while there.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Quote for the Week

'"Do your best to sit through to the end," requested Mr [Woody] Allen before the show. "If you don't, I understand. I won't mind. I'll be on the plane back to New York." He paused before explaining: "I've seen it before, I know how it ends: low grosses". From Smell the concrete by Tom Charity in Sight & Sound November 2010.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Taking the Plunge

I was recently asked by Marvin over at Directors Notes to write a piece about the experience of directing my first feature. You can find the finished result here:

Friday, 12 November 2010

Life Just Was

It's been a crazy few weeks since my last post, but yes, Life Just Is has now wrapped! I've been blogging about it all at length elsewhere, so I won't go into details here, but I thought I would cross-post some of the 35mm photographs that I took on set, as it felt somewhat appropriate to include them on here too (those interested can see the full set at Enjoy.

Jack Gordon - 'Pete'.

Fiona Ryan - 'Claire'.

Nathaniel Martello-White - 'Tom'.

Will De Meo - 'David'.

Paul Nicholls - 'Bobby'.

Jayne Wisener - 'Jay'.

Niall Phillips - 'Ollie'.

Rachel Bright - 'Anna'

Andrew Hawley - 'Nick'.

Alix Wilton Regan - 'Zoe'.

Jason Croot - 'Walahfrid'.

Gillian Wisener - 'Beth'

Christine Hartland, Executive Producer

Alice Caronna, 1st AD

Niina Topp, Production Designer

Yosuke Kato, cinematographer, Alice Caronna, 1st AD and Tom Stuart, producer.

Alex Barrett, writer/director, as photographed by Jayne Wisener.

Tom Stuart, producer.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Well, it's finally here

I'm aware that I've been totally neglecting this blog recently. I've not given up with it, I've just been working flat out on my debut feature, Life Just Is, which starts shooting on Monday. It's been a hectic few weeks, but everything has fallen into place. Our shooting schedule is tight so I'm sure I've got a rough few weeks ahead, but I have a great cast and crew on board and I'm very excited about it. We'll be posting regular updates throughout the shoot on our blog, YouTube Channel, and our Facebook and Twitter profiles, so please follow along. See you on the other side!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Quote for the Week

Most men and women lead lives at worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul.
- Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Friday, 27 August 2010


Last night I attended the UK premiere of the new print of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The last time I saw the film must have been something like ten years ago, and I have to confess that it didn't do much for me at the time. But last night all of my doubts were blown away. Sure, the ending is still sentimentally simplistic, but it's impossible not to be swept away by the sheer scale and ambition of it all. Even by today's standards it's impressive, but considering it comes from 1927 it's nothing short of monumental. But it's not only the baroque excess that impresses. It's everything. The scene where Rotwang chases Maria around the catacombs by flashlight struck me as especially effective, a masterpiece of tension. Seeing the film with the new footage, one wonders how the film ever worked without it. Perhaps it didn't (it would explain my lukewarm the first time I saw it). But whatever the case, it certainly works now. So whether you've seen Metropolis before or not, if you haven't yet seen the new restoration, well, you haven't yet seen Metropolis. And boy, are you missing out!

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

On the Trail of Tarkovsky

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent the last two weeks of July on holiday in Umbria. A two-week summer trip to Italy has been something of a family tradition for many years now, with 2010 marking our 14th trip.

In 2008 we stayed in a villa near Siena, and decided to take a trip back to Bagno Vignoni, the spa town where
Tarkovsky shot parts of Nostalghia, including the ending. We'd been before, years ago, but this was the first trip since I'd discovered Tarkovsky.

Me in Bagno Vignoni, 2008.

This year, my Dad, who is also a huge Tarkovsky fan, decided that we should continue the Tarkovsky trail and go and visit the tiny town of Monterchi, in order to see Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto, the fresco from the opening sequence of Nostalghia. Much to my Dad's chagrin, I've always hated Piero's work, but due to the Tarkovsky connection I was, for once, happy to go along and see one of his works. At least I'd get to walk around the church where Tarkovsky shot, so I thought. But then my Dad told me that the fresco is no longer in the church where it originated, but is instead installed in a museum, detached from everything except a clinical white room. Sigh.

But Dad was still keen to go and see the original church, so the day was not yet lost.

Arriving in Monterchi, though, something didn't feel right. Nothing looked familiar. We asked about access to the original church, and were told it would be locked. Frustrated, I gazed upon the fresco and sighed. There was no mystical revelation: Piero's still crap, and I didn't even get to see a Tarkovsky landmark.

Returning to the villa at the end of the day, there was still something about what we'd seen in Monterchi that made me wonder if, somewhere, there had been a mistake. Was this really where Tarkovsky had been?

I hit Google and stumbled across
this article by James Macgillivray. It seems my instinct was right. Apparently Tarkovsky used a replica of the fresco in Nostalghia, installed in a church some 120 kilometers from Monterchi! Who knew? (Well, James Macgillivray, obviously, but who else?).

So, a word to the wise for those seeking to follow the trail of Tarkovsky: avoid Monterchi. Tarkovsky did.

Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto

Monday, 2 August 2010

Quote for the Week

This weekend I arrived back in London from a fantastic two week trip to Umbria. As is usual for my family holidays in Italy, we spent time reading and relaxing, but also visiting local towns and soaking in as much renaissance art as possible. Although I loved the two books I read while I was away (David Bordwell's Figures Traced in Light and Nikos Kazantzakis' Freedom and Death), I thought I'd go for a visual quote this week, celebrating some of my favourites from among the artworks we saw.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Luca Signorelli

Pala di Santa Maria de' Fossi (detail) by Pinturicchio

The Miracle of the Spring by Giotto

Saint Francis by Cimabue

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Monday, 5 July 2010

Quote for the Week

But there being no Self and No Bars therefore the Zoo of your dear Father hath no Lion
- Allen Ginsberg, The Lion for Real

Monday, 28 June 2010

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2010

This year's Edinburgh International Film Festival finished yesterday, and although I wasn't there for the closing weekend, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the festival for a few days earlier in its run. Unlike last year, I didn't have a film showing in the festival, but thanks to MarBelle over at Directors Notes I was able to get a press pass. All the coverage that I wrote for DN has now been posted on the site, so here are links to all the pieces, listed in order of publication. Enjoy.

EIFF2010: Return to Edinburgh
EIFF2010: And Everything Is Going Fine
EIFF2010: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
EIFF2010: Vacation!
EIFF2010: The Days of Desire
EIFF2010: Undertow
EIFF2010: If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle
EIFF2010: Festival Roundup

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Saturday, 12 June 2010

Hamburg International Short Film Festival 2010

The festival banner.

Earlier this week I returned from spending a fantastic few days in Germany, where I was lucky enough to attend the Hamburg International Short Film Festival with my short film Paintbrush: The Epitaph. After touching down at Hamburg airport in glorious sunshine, I was picked up by the festival chauffeur and taken directly to the apartment of my hosts Mathias and Isabel, who had kindly offered to put up a filmmaker during the festival (longstanding hosts for the festival, Mathias and Isabel went out of their way to make me feel at home and I am incredibly grateful for the generous hospitality that they showed me). The apartment was in the beautiful district of Altona, which was just a short walk from the festival centre. Home to the info-counter and its friendly workers, the festival centre also contained the infamous 35ml club, for which people from around the world bring along a bottle of their local drink. The final collection is then placed in the club for people to drink for free. Although, as a non-drinker, I perhaps wasn't able to appreciate the full benefits of this idea, it certainly seemed like everyone else was enjoying sampling the various tipples on offer (to say the least...).

The Rathaus in Altona.

The first screening of Paintbrush: The Epitaph took place just a few hours after I arrived, at the Lichtmess, a cinema with a lot of charm and the perfect venue for a late-night screening of NoBudget films. The film seemed to go down really well and my producer/co-writer Rahim and I were touched by the warm reception the film received.

My remaining time in Hamburg was spent in numerous screenings and partying into the early hours at the festival club (in general, it seems to me that Hamburg is something of a nocturnal festival, with fairly quiet days, packed evenings, and long nights). I also managed to sit in on an interesting panel discussion asking 'where is the parlour in virtual space?', and to explore some of the beautiful city. The quality of the shorts that I saw was extremely high, and this is especially true of the documentary work. While there were far too many standout films to go into detail here, a few of my favourites included The Zone, The Six Dollar Fifty Man, Kokon, Derby, L'Ultima Anguriera, Doris – In a Conflict Without Dialogue and Alitas, amongst many, many others.

Outside B-Moive before my second screening.

As well as a number of interesting cinemas with genuine character, such as the B-Movie, screenings also took place in the open air, on the top floor of a multi-storey car park overlooking the heart of the city. Complete with its own makeshift bar and BBQ, the Open Air screenings were definitey amongst the highlights and I hope that other festivals will follow suit in exploring alternative screening spaces.

The Open Air Screening. Photo by Stephen Fingleton.

The final award ceremony came complete with its own Eurovision style voiceover which had Rahim and me in stitches ('I'd love to know what Arsy-Versy means in English!'), and many well deserving films took home prizes. This is especially true of the superb documentary Holding Still, which scooped the Jury Award for best German film, and concluded the final screening before the closing party. The film's perfection was perhaps the most fitting end to an excellent festival I can think of.

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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Obscure, the Forgotten, and the Unloved

Towards the end of last year I took part in a poll, run by Iain Stott from The One-Line Review, to help find the best films from 'beyond the canon'. Now Iain has followed it up with The Obscure, the Forgotten, and the Unloved, described as 'a 2010 poll of committed cinephiles who hope to find, highlight, and promote films that have received a considerable amount of critical acclaim but have yet to find the audience that their evident quality deserves'. You can find a full explanation of the poll in its introduction, my personal list here, and the winners here.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

A Phantom of Phantom

For some reason, ever since I saw F.W. Murnau's Phantom back in January, I haven't been able to stop thinking about this image and the scene which it comes from. I guess that's the power of good filmmaking for you.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Quote for the Week

You begin to realise he is using the lens like brushstrokes, it becomes like a moving painting. Not only moving visually, but emotionally and psychologically.
- Martin Scorsese talking about Jack Cardiff in Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.
(If you get a chance to see this doc, make sure you take it).

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Essential Experiments

On April 15th the BFI inaugurated a new monthly strand 'dedicated to the history of experimental cinema'. Curated in partnership with Kingston University, the strand, entitled 'Essential Experiments', aims to 'trace the development of avant-garde cinema' through a carefully selected programme of screenings featuring introductions from a variety of guest speakers. The first film screened under the 'Essential Experiments' banner was Robert Wiene's 1919 classic, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. As Elisabetta Fabrizi (BFI Head of Exhibitions) explains on the BFI website, the film was chosen for being one of the first masterpieces 'to go beyond cinema's straightforward realism' by 'taking inspiration from the visual arts'. Fabrizi is, of course, absolutely right in her praise of Caligari, which stands up as one of cinema's first great masterpieces. Its painted sets are perhaps still unsurpassed as the ultimate use of expressionist techniques in cinema (few other films have attempted such extreme outright stylisation, and fewer still have succeeded as well). However, as great a film as Caligari is, it's also a film which has – at least up to a point – been widely seen, meaning that it's the second film screened in the strand which really makes things exciting: namely, Germaine Dulac's The Seashell and the Clergyman.

Premiered a full year before the release of Buñuel and Dalí's Un chien andalou, The Seashell and the Clergyman is considered to be the first surrealist film (a somewhat ironic fact, given that a group of surrealists, led by André Breton himself, heckled the film at its 1928 premiere, bringing the projection to a swift halt). While the film might not, in my opinion, have quite the same visceral impact of its more famous cousin, it's an intoxicating watch all the same, and one which incorporates many of the traits which would become standard tenets of surrealist cinema (a juxtaposition of seemingly random images which attack rational understanding, a focus on sexual desire, events strung together with a dream-like, subconscious logic).

The film was written and storyboarded by the writer, poet, actor, theorist and theatre director Antonin Artaud. Artaud's theories of cinema called for a displacement and disruption of reality in favour of raw images torn away from traditional representation, thereby forcing the viewer's senses into a violent reaction: the idea was to reproduce in the viewer the impact of a dream. Perhaps confusingly, Artaud would later accuse Dulac of having stifled his vision by imposing a dream-like logic onto the film. Artaud's intention, therefore, was not to recreate a dream-like experience, but to create an experience which would reproduce the physical, neurological impact of a dream on its spectators.

Judged from this angle, Artaud was right to view the film as a failure. However, Artaud's theories are lofty and his dismissal too quick. Dulac's own theories of a 'pure' visual cinema free from the influence of other art forms and, more importantly, her belief that cinema should present and explore the inner lives of its characters, render the film an effective and arresting piece of interior cinema, bending and jumping its way along the contours of the human subconscious in proto-surrealist fashion.

Upon its release, the film was banned by the BBFC with the bizarre statement that 'The film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable'. What's even more bizarre, though, is that upon seeing the film it's hard not to agree with them! Ostensibly a tale of the Clergyman's love and sexual desire for 'the woman', the film deliberately resists narrative cohesion and a simple decoding of its symbolism (the fact that the film's reels were projected in the wrong order upon its American release without anyone noticing speaks volumes). And yet, it's impossible not to read the film as some kind anti-clerical gesture, a comment upon the underlying desires masked behind the veil of common Catholicism. The Clergyman is sinister, violent and lustful in his dogmatic pursuit of the Woman, and Artaud's other work (such as the radio play To Have Done with the Judgement of God) makes his anti-religious stance clear. However, it would be reductionist to place any one meaning on a film of this kind: other themes come crashing out – like those of identity and the anxiety of usurpation (for it is the Officer who hears the Woman's confession, not the Clergyman) – while its hallucinatory play with the grammar of filmmaking prioritises the act of subjective viewer experience.

Indeed, on a formal stylistic level the film can be seen as a prelude to Dulac's final abstract films, which avoid narrative in favour of stressing the art of movement, or, as she put it, 'visual music'. One of these films, Étude cinégraphique sur une arabesque, was screened along with The Seashell and proved itself to be a hypnotic, rhythmic exploration of movement, texture and pattern.

The print of The Seashell shown was from the 2004 restoration of the film, and it was screened without any musical accompaniment, as per Dulac's wishes. The screening was given an extended introduction by the filmmaker and historian Prosper Hillairet, in which he discussed the life and work of Dulac and Artaud, their troubled relationship, the context in which the film was made, and of course the film itself. He also screened the short documentary Uproar in the Ursulines, about the commotion caused by the surrealists at the film's premiere.

The Essential Experiments strand is set to continue with such films as Man with a Movie Camera and L'inhumaine, and promises to be an ongoing strand of two slots per month. Based on the strength of its opening films, it looks like the use of the word 'essential' in its title isn't an exaggeration.

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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Freud on Film

As someone who doesn't have a lot of time for Freudian psychology, I was unlikely to ever love a film described as 'The first openly 'Freudian' movie', but as someone who does have a lot of time for silent cinema I thought I'd see GW Pabst's Secrets of a Soul on the big screen while I had the chance (it was screening at the BFI Southbank as part of their 'Psycho in Context' season). Although, as expected, the film didn't overly excite me on a narrative level, it felt like a pretty impressive piece of cinema all the same.

Based on a real case history, the film, co-written by Pabst and two of Freud's assistants, tells the story of a chemistry professor – Martin Fellman – who develops a fear of sharp objects, before a chance encounter with a psychoanalyst leads him onto the couch.

The opening scenes unfold at an impressively measured pace, slowly unfolding the events which lead up to the film's centrepiece moment: the elaborate expressionist dream sequence. Utilising all manner of effects and tricks, the sequence serves as a strong example of the power of German expression to render character psychology on screen solely through visual means (stylised sets, double exposures, miniatures, distorted images, etc.).

Given the impressive imagery of the dream sequence, it's all the more disappointing when the film then plods along into a pretty pat psychoanalytical breakdown of its meaning. Piece-by-piece, Fellman and his analyst discuss the dream and soon enough Fellman is cured and feeling fine just in time for a trite, sentimental ending.

While Pabst's sturdy directorial hand ensures that the film is never without interest, unfortunately as a whole the piece never lives up to the promise of its exciting dream sequence: perhaps a hint that sometimes the unconscious is best left unexplained.

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Saturday, 3 April 2010

Quote for the Week

'God created the world in week: the Cineteca di Bologna tried to make a DVD in about a month. If the former was somewhat faster, it was because he had no digitalization and no sound accompaniment to take care of, live music being provided by the birds and the waves'
– Mariann Lewinsky in her Introduction to the booklet of the DVD Cento anni fa Il cinema europeo del 1909 (which is an essential purchase for all fans of silent cinema).

Monday, 29 March 2010

Wood Green

I've spent the last few days travelling backwards and forwards between here and the other side of London. Why? For the 8th Wood Green International Short Film Festival, which kindly selected my films Paintbrush: The Epitaph and Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge. This is my third consecutive year screening in the festival, and it's been interesting to see how the event has developed and grown during that time. From the increase in the quality of the shorts through to this year's introduction of Q&A sessions, the fest has evolved into something really worth paying attention to (no doubt due to the hard work and enthusiasm of current festival organiser David Waterson).

As the actor
Adam Deacon rightly pointed out while hosting the award ceremony at Alexander Palace, people often have negative ideas about Wood Green, but the festival serves as a testament to the talent in and around the area. For instance, two of my favourite films from last year's FilmstockMilk Man and Modern Life Is Rubbish – were screened in the local programme, while the Venice-selected GirlLikeMe took home the local award. Moreover, the impressive work on show from the Youth Film Day showed that there's a promising new generation on its way.

Of the work I saw from outside the borough, I particularly enjoyed
Viliam and Stretching, while Photograph of Jesus was a fitting winner for the best UK short.

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