Archive for June, 2011

The Postman Rings Multiple Times

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2011 by dcairns

This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival wasn’t a total disaster — it afforded a rare chance to see both Jerzy Skolimowski’s ADVENTURES OF GERARD, and Gyorgy Feher’s PASSION on the big screen. So the latter is the subject of this week’s The Forgotten, over at The Daily Notebook. It was selected for screening by guest programmer Bela Tarr (recruited by former collaborator Tilda Swinton, a festival patron, I believe) and shows an interesting reflection of his own style — the blasted landscape above could have come straight from DAMNATION.

The movie is yet another adaptation of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and makes some of the same strange narrative omissions as the 80s Rafelson version, but because the film privileges overall mood over immediate dramatic moments, this WORKS…

Programme notes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2011 by dcairns

As the Edinburgh International Film Festival ends for another year, amid recriminations and denunciations, I thought I’d take a look at one aspect of its somewhat shrunken presence this year, extrapolating outwards to maybe establish a diagnosis of its ills…

Here we see the festival guide for 2011 sitting atop its equivalent from a previous year. Note the smaller size — an inevitable result, probably, of the massive loss in sponsorship this year. In fact, Fiona responded enthusiastically to the new “hand-bag-sized” book. And indeed, there’s no reason why the smaller size should be an insuperable problem.

But then we open the thing and search for content. And what we find is a seventy-five page delegate guide, with the films tucked away at the back. This offends me mightily — it makes the films seem like an afterthought, which indeed they appear to be. Worse, the guide provides no information beyond title, screening time, cast and crew. And there’s no index. And many short films, including mine, are not listed at all.

Now, every film accepted by the fest had to provide a synopsis, so there’s no reason at all why the guide couldn’t at least have included that. Space is not the issue, since shrinking or removing the delegate guide would have provided masses. What we have is a somewhat uncomfortable mix of two things, a list to help industry delegates find each other, and a catalogue of films screening. I take the view that the delegate guide should be a photocopied, hand-stapled document, to allow last-minute additions and corrections: completeness and accuracy being more important than gloss with such a document. And since you’re going to be giving it away free, why waste money?

The programme, catalogue, or souvenir guide should be another animal altogether. The fest has always struggled with this concept. Here are some older versions –

This early-ish manifestation (the fest is the longest continually-running film festival in the world) isn’t exactly glamorous, but hey, the sixties hadn’t started swinging yet. But it’s a clear, reasonably appealing guide, sold cheaply to patrons and packed with info to allow them to choose from the somewhat slender list of films. Interestingly, one of the movies on offer is THEY’VE STOLEN A BOMB, which I reviewed here.

A little later, and the magazine has shrunk to a chunky pamphlet, with a rather basic chevron motif as cover — an unappealing cover which the festival board stuck with for the next ten years. However, these were glorious years for programming, with a full engagement with the exciting cinematic events of the late sixties and early seventies. The booklets are just stuffed with interest, offering decent critical writing amidst the blurbage. The festival was also publishing books to accompany its retrospectives, with solid offerings on Corman and Tashlin and a rather notorious feminist reading of Walsh (not, it turns out, the most productive lens through which to view his work, or at least not the way it’s done here). We get a speedy retrospective on Michael Reeves following his tragic early death, and an admirable mix of high and low culture treated with equal respect. The festival has inherited from these days a tradition of screening midnight movies and cult shockers, but under Lynda Myles’ direction the fest addressed all this varied work with equal seriousness.

Lynda went on to become a successful film producer and is honoured with a plaque outside Edinburgh Filmhouse.

Image: Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s THE LAST OF ENGLAND. Tilda is now a festival patron and collaborated with Mark Cousins and Lynda Myles in contributing ideas for this years festival — ideas which were mainly ignored.

But if you want a model for how a film festival should cope after a budget cut, you ought to look at Jim Hickey’s tenure as director. Jim inherited a festival which had lost a huge amount of its funding and had to shorten its run from two weeks (admittedly an insanely protracted schedule) to ten days. He responded by programming the restored cut of Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON with live orchestral accompaniment, the most expensive single event in the festival’s history thus far. (And unlike Coppola, they showed the whole thing. Coppola took it upon himself to prune the movie down, before introducing it in New York as the definitive restored and complete version, while Kevin Brownlow, who had actually restored it, fumed impotently in the audience.)

NAPOLEON came with its own souvenir programme, both a valuable piece of publicity and a source of revenue.

And here are some of the programmes from Jim’s years running the fest –

Using glossy stills from actual movies seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? David Byrne’s TRUE STORIES may not be a great film (it’s quite good fun though) but it makes for a superb cover image. This is a festival that’s really opening its arms to the public, as Glasgow Film Festival does now. This is the era  when I discovered the fest — I saw BLADE RUNNER, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Good entry-level stuff for an aspiring cinephile. Packed screenings. We only occasionally got film-makers in attendance, since funding was always a struggle and the festival’s profile wasn’t high enough to make it a popular destination for publicity junkets. But there were challenging retrospectives (Syberberg!) amid the high-profile screenings of E.T. et al.

The ensuing years brought directors David Robinson, Penny Thompson, Mark Cousins, Lizzie Franke, Shane Danielsen and Hannah McGill. All had their strengths and weaknesses, but a certain consistency in their approach to the souvenir programme can be detected — the book kept getting bigger, with more and more of interest to read, but the cover image tended towards matte abstraction rather than glossy illustration. During Mark’s years, the doorstop volume seemed to be written by whoever was around, with predictably mixed results. Shane’s programme was written entirely by Shane, from cover to cover. He did it very well (he also seemed able to teleport himself about the city in his tuxedo to introduce every single screening) but a little variety might have been nice.

Mark built upon an innovation of Penny Thompson’s, bringing in top technicians and artists to talk about their craft — I’ve enjoyed talks by Ken Adam, Stanley Myers, Anne V. Coates, Carter Burwell. This was great stuff, and corrected a problem of previous years, when filmmakers would often be in town to talk to the press but would be hidden away from the public. Alas, this fine tradition has been totally abolished this year, along with the Michael Powell Award for best British film, which was a useful lure to attract movies to screen here. And there’s been no central retrospective. A series of events and guest programmers has resulted in a scattershot approach, with quite a few comparatively undistinguished older films screening just because they fit some kind of theme, so we get MEMENTO and BRAINSTORM illustrating the subject of neuroscience…

I’ve seen some good films this year and had fun — the screening of my own CRY FOR BOBO was one of the nicest I’ve ever been at (almost Milan-like levels of enthusiasm) and the New Cinephilia event was delightful — so many film obsessives around me made me feel almost normal, and certainly underqualified to be speaking publicly on the subject, but it’s no surprise that audience’s have been down. The festival has not reached out to audiences, and has not offered its wares to them in an enticing way. A film festival needs to be about films — and audiences.

On my way home from the last day, I overheard a couple on the bus commenting on the modest festival display outside Filmhouse. “I’ve never been to a film festival screening,” said the chap. “I don’t know how a film festival screening would differ from a normal one.” It’s the role of next year’s director to answer that question.

The Secret of Nim

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on June 28, 2011 by dcairns

James (MAN ON WIRE) Marsh’s PROJECT NIM was one of the hits of this year’s EIFF, predictably enough — it tells a compelling story with clarity and considerable emotion. In brief, the story of a chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, torn from his mother, then from his adoptive mother, shuffled through a spectacularly ill-thought-out experiment in linguistics, then exiled into a series of more and more horrible experimental facilities, then finally “rescued”, at least partially. Bob Ingersoll, Nim’s friend, was in attendance and got a huge round of applause as he’s really the hero of the film.

Since most of Nim’s life was extensively documented on film, Marsh had a great fund of footage to help tell his story, which he supplemented with interviews with the principle characters (a word I’m always slightly uncomfortable with in documentary, although “subject” is even worse — a word better suited to Nim’s role in Dr Herb Terrace’s half-arsed experiment than to Terrace’s role in Marsh’s film). Now, since Dr Terrace, who emerges spectacularly badly from the film, is reportedly unhappy that Marsh left out too much of the “science”, and since Fiona is a primate fan who can give you chapter and verse on the question of interspecies communication (more sympathetically explored in KOKO A TALKING GORILLA, Barbet Schroeder’s film available on DVD from Criterion), I thought I’d provide a few little bits of info Marsh left out.

Terrace’s experiment was, as is clear in the film, a disastrously poorly-organized affair, with the ape deprived of a stable home and no controls in place to keep the research on-target. While Terrace eventually decided that Nim’s use of language amounted merely to “sophisticated begging”, using sign language to ask for stuff like a dog sitting up and offering a paw to get treats, the other scientists in the field had been very careful to screen out what is called “Clever Hans syndrome”. Hans was an arithmetical horse who could apparently do sums — in reality he was stomping a hoof with one eye on his owner, waiting for the moment when the guy would look satisfied with the horse’s adding. He’d count until the guy smiled, then stop.

So Terrace announced to the world that he’d proven that apes can’t use sign language with any real sophistication, a claim thrown into doubt by the results obtained by actual proper primatologists, the guys who really know something about apes (and sign language). This claim is allowed to stand in Marsh’s film, with only Ingersoll countering it, but Ingersoll’s standpoint is more emotional than scientific so even though audiences are inevitably going to prefer the passionate hippy to the somewhat sleazy scientist, they may come away with the impression that Terrace proved something. This would be an error, in my view.

Another interesting bit of chimp science — we learn that Nim was eventually sent to a centre for HIV research, a very scary place which actually has death camp resonances — chimps are seen with numbers tattooed on their chests, but we don’t learn something quite interesting about this field of work (Marsh’s film isn’t about the science, really, so this isn’t a criticism). When HIV research really began, scientists turned to chimps as ideal subjects, infecting hundreds of them with the virus so they could test possible treatments for AIDS. And then they found out that chimps can’t get AIDS. So now they had hundreds of HIV-positive chimps which were of essentially no scientific value, chimps who could not get AIDS but who could bite you and give it to you.

This isn’t necessarily an argument against animal research. A cure for AIDS would be worth sacrificing some animals for, in my view. But maybe it’s an argument for greater caution? If we regarded chimps as only slightly less important than people, we’d have to be very sure of ourselves before we made the choice to inject one with HIV. And then we’d have discovered they can’t get AIDS before we’d gone so far as to create a whole population of HIV-positive caged apes.

The last fact I have to add to the film is one I’m surprised Marsh left out. Dr Lemmon is a minor character in the story, the guy who ran the centre where Nim was born, and into whose dubious care Nim was entrusted after his sojourn with Terrace’s harem of female assistants came to an end. We learn about Lemmon’s use of a cattle prod to keep his apes in line, but we don’t hear of the startling behaviour Roger Fouts describes in his book Next Of Kin … Lemmon wore a snake ring with ruby eyes, and he would walk between the cages of chimps and offer his hand to the alpha males… and the alpha males had to bow down to him and kiss his ring, or else they got an electric shock. Dr Fucking Moreau or what?

Some people may find PRJECT NIM sentimental, and indeed there are cute chimp shots and musical-emotional cues given to the audience, but the actual content is a pretty considered examination of our relationship to, and responsibility for, animals. Marsh claims not to judge his characters, but in his selection of voices and stories he certainly guides us towards forming our own conclusions.

Via Facebook, Nim hero Bob Ingersoll himself suggests some further reading:

Apes, Men and Language: Teaching Chimpanzees to ‘Talk’ Alters Man’s Notions of His Place in Nature (Pelican)

Silent Partners: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human: The Chimp Who Would Be Human

The book Fiona had read is:

NEXT OF KIN: WHAT MY CONVERSATIONS WITH CHIMPANZEES HAVE TAUGHT ME ABOUT INTELLIGENCE, COMPASSION

AND BEING HUMAN

Further viewing:

Koko: A Talking Gorilla: The Criterion Collection

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