Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Irish Are Coming

The last time I walked out of Boston’s Logan Airport I was wearing a sheepskin-lined denim jacket and I have to tell you, it’s been a while since I’ve worn one of those. Mind you,  I could do with one right now - it’s near freezing here, and the driver says there’ll be “a tickle ah snow” tonight. Meaning five or six inches.

I’m here with David Bolger, writer/choreographer/performer in Deep End Dance, a short film I directed of him dancing an underwater duet with his 76-year-old mother Madge. Madge is a staunch member of the IFI’s Wild Strawberries Cinema club, and unfortunately can’t make this trip (just to be clear, this is not for reasons of age – Madge can do anything).

We meet director Darragh Byrne and producer Dominic Wright at the baggage carousel. They’re here with their film Parked, which opens the Boston Irish Film Festival tonight. Deep End Dance will play before it. The lovely people at the festival have not only brought us all over for this, they are giving an award to each of the films at the opening ceremony. Which means I’ll probably have to explain what ‘chuffed’ means to an audience of bewildered Bostonians.

On Friday I’ll be getting the train south to meet my producer Katie Holly in New York, where our film One Hundred Mornings opens for a week long run at the Rerun theatre.  Boy From Mercury director Martin Duffy is over and says he’ll drop in, transplanted Irish filmmakers Niall McKay (The Bass Player) and Paul Rowley (Make Something Modern) are already there. Paul is very kindly lending Katie and I some video equipment to shoot an interview next week in New York for Making a Show Of Myself, our ongoing documentary about Dublin drag icon Panti Bliss. The interview will be with Angelo, who was the other half of the celebrated drag duo Candi Panti (they were very big in Japan) before he put down the lipstick and became a Prof. Eng. Lit. in NYU.

Before all that, I have a day to explore the town. Via Facebook, a Bostonian friend in Dublin offers some tips, but if I take even half of her suggestions I’ll end up with sore feet and a distended stomach. One of them catches my eye, though - apparently Boston has a pretty awesome aquarium. There’s a multi-storey shark tank down the middle of it, and loads of Bostonians running around going, “Tylah! Tylah! Lookit the shaaahk!” and “Whoah! It’s a staaahfish!”. It sounds great, and I wonder how David and Madge would look dancing in it.

Conor Horgan
One Hundred Mornings (Opens May 6th)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Part 3 of Neil Sinyard's fascinating talk on Woody Allen at the IFI

Third and final section of Neil Sinyard's fascinating talk on Woody Allen at the IFI

Music, Madness and Murder: Some Reflections on the Cinema of Woody Allen Part 3 of 3

Like Orson Welles, Allen has always been interested in magic and card tricks and skilled at it: he even told Robert Benayoun that, when he was a boy, he planned to become a professional gambler. He plays a magician in Scoop and a magician/hypnotist is a major character in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion; and in fact, magic emanates from all parts of Allen’s world — characters levitate in Zelig, Alice, Everyone Says I Love You; Mia Farrow becomes invisible in Alice; a screen character walks out of the frame of the film he is in and into real life in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Ghosts appear all over the place, most notably perhaps that of Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam. In Annie Hall, when someone in a cinema queue is boring the pants off the hero with his loud views on Marshall McLuhan, Allen’s character can magically produce McLuhan from the queue to refute the man’s ideas and tell him he’s talking rubbish. At which point, if you remember, Allen turns to the camera and says feelingly: ‘Boy, if life were only like that!’ Which is the point, of course: it isn’t, and for all that the fantasy life of these characters — their imagination, if you will — is a liberation and release, sooner or later they will need to return to, or confront, real life.

This deployment of ‘magic’ moments is an element of Allen’s Romanticism and a way of exploring the tension between Fantasy and Reality, Art and Life, which is at the core of many of his films. It’s also a way of suggesting that the world might be stranger than it looks, or that appearances can deceive. Again like Orson Welles, one of the forms that Allen seems to like is the ‘fake’ documentary, that looks real but isn’t, as in Zelig, or the bits with the philosopher in Crimes and Misdemeanors, or the whole structure of Sweet and Lowdown, as ‘authentic’ witnesses recall an entirely mythical jazz guitarist with an ambition to emulate the great Django Reinhardt. Allen’s films often take you beyond the constraints of the real, temporal world into the realm of dreams and the surreal. David Thomson called him ‘a sad impresario of the bitter comedy of emotional hope’, but he can also be a lyricist of the imagination who takes audacious leaps into the unknown or the absurd. Even in a relatively matter-of-fact film like the recent Whatever Works, there are moments when the comfortable barrier between screen and audience threatens to break down and where the real and the mundane become close to the romantic and bizarre — like the very unusual first meeting between the elderly hero and his new romantic partner when she happens to be fortuitously under his second suicide attempt.

Love is strange; life is strange. One of my favourite lines in Woody Allen is that comment from Mia Farrow’s downtrodden waitress in The Purple Rose of Cairo: ‘I’ve just met a wonderful man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.’ The whole film is in that line: what happens when a film character steps from the screen into the heroine’s real world; the theme of the tension between life and fiction; and a tone of wondrous humour tinged with melancholy, to denote the gap between expectation and fulfilment. The film has something of the yearning and ambiguity of Keats’ great Romantic poem, Ode On A Grecian Urn, where the lover on the urn is perfect but petrified: he can never age but he also can never reach his goal; but it is a reminder of the consolation that the dream world can offer in the face of bitter reality. When Mia Farrow watches Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat at the end of The Purple Rose of Cairo, having been deserted both by the fantasy screen hero and the real-life actor who has played him, we see her face gradually transformed by what she is watching as Astaire sings, ‘Heaven, I’m in Heaven’. Maybe she’s responding to a truth that lies behind Top Hat’s romance, escapism, and impossible beauty: namely, that art can, albeit momentarily, ease the pain of real life and indeed might regenerate feelings about life’s possibilities.

Still, I don’t think Allen has ever disguised the fact that, even in his comedies, his vision of life is essentially pessimistic; and indeed that his productivity is his main weapon for keeping pessimism at bay. As John Lahr wrote about him in an article in The New Yorker; ‘He is, like all great funny men, inconsolable . . . his antidote to anxiety is action.’ Even the magician in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion says: ‘The ugly curtain of reality will soon fall upon us.’ The world he presents to us is often despairing and violent: there are suicides or attempted suicides in, for example, Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, September, Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra’s Dream, Whatever Works; in three films where murder is at the core of the narrative — Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream — the instigator goes scott-free, as if confirming the basic injustice of the Universe: crime is not followed by punishment. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, as Martin Landau awaits some retribution for collusion in murder, God’s silence is deafening: the phone rings and he answers, but there is no one there (he reminds me at that point of the murderer in Robert Browning’s poem Porphyria’s Lover, who has murdered Porphyria but then sits with the body waiting for something to happen, for some divine retribution: ‘And all night long we have not stirred / And yet God has not said a word!’). You might recall the last scene of the film where Landau encounters Woody Allen’s character, who’s in a depressed mood because Mia Farrow has gone off with his celebrity brother-in-law (Alan Alda) whom Allen despises. ‘I’m planning the perfect murder,’ he says ruefully to Landau who, of course, is the right person to ask; and Landau makes a kind of coded confession, being surprised by how little his conscience has troubled him: as in Match Point, we see the comparative ease with which the powerful in society can evade or escape the consequences of their actions. Knowing that the Woody Allen character is a filmmaker, Landau’s doctor poses his confession as an idea for a screenplay: ‘he finds he’s not punished . . . he prospers . . . he goes back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.’ And when Allen protests that if the hero of the story doesn’t confess, then it won’t work because there’s no tragic catharsis or just resolution, Landau replies: ‘But that’s fiction, that’s a movie . . . If you want to see a happy ending, go see a Hollywood movie.’ As a rule, Woody Allen doesn’t make ‘Hollywood movies’.
What does he make movies about, then? Well, basically, Love and Death: pretty fundamental themes, also pretty awesome. There are obviously a lot of sub-themes there: when I mention the theme of Love, I’m not simply thinking of the romantic relationships at the core of his films, but familial love, which is often complex and curdled: mother/daughter, brother/sister, sister/sister relationships where there is a lot of devotion and compassion but also seething resentments, hostilities, jealousies that have built up over a lifetime and which can — in films like Hannah and Her Sisters, September, Alice, Deconstructing Harry, even Cassandra’s Dream — suddenly boil over: I’m often surprised by how much anger there is in Allen’s films and how good he is at writing and directing argument scenes. The films he makes are about people’s emotional lives, generally set in a cultural milieu he knows: people who are civilised but discontented, who are affluent and intelligent but whose materialist comfort seems to offer them no guarantee of worldly satisfaction, who find love and fidelity so hard. ‘For all my education and so-called wisdom,’ says Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters, ‘I can’t fathom my own heart.’

To quote the playwright Conor McPherson on Allen: ‘He’s one of the very few filmmakers who combine rare technical innovation with a disarming ability to dramatise the deep inner states that cause human beings so much complexity. Among his many preoccupations,’ he goes on, ‘is man’s inability to accept love and beauty in his life — as to do so is to welcome the attendant notions of responsibility and mortality.’ He cites the scene in Manhattan when Allen ineptly breaks off the relationship with the young Mariel Hemingway as the most poignant and painful example of that, where the latter’s unconditional love is the hardest kind of love to accept because it confers a responsibility on the recipient that can be hard to deal with and an estimation of himself that the recipient cannot accept. My prime example of this would be the whole Sean Penn/Samantha Morton relationship in Sweet and Lowdown, and the devastating consequences of the man’s inability to cope with the woman’s devotion, culminating in the moving final scene between them, when I suspect she misleads him about her situation out of compassion and where he belatedly realises what in human terms his selfishness might have cost him. Has Sean Penn ever done a more moving piece of acting on screen than in that scene? Has anyone ever chewed more pensively and poetically on a sandwich than Samantha Morton there?

Well, I will leave those tantalising questions dangling in the air, and bring this talk to a conclusion by reminding you of the ending of Love and Death. There are many of the things I’ve been talking about: the use of classical music (in this case, Prokofiev); the prominence of Death (he makes an actual corporeal appearance in at least three films); the anguish of love, or as one character puts it, ‘to love is to suffer’; the pastiche and parody of both a Russian classic and the cinema of Ingmar Bergman (allusions in this sequence to The Seventh Seal and Persona); and a final philosophical reflection on the meaning of life, which concludes that God is not evil, but an underachiever. He goes out with a flourish, literally dancing with Death, but the questions he raises about the meaning of existence are still being pursued more than thirty years later; and whilst Allen continues to average a film a year, we most assuredly have not yet heard his last word on the matter.

By Neil Sinyard

© Copyright Neil Sinyard and the Irish Film Institute.

Part 2 of Neil Sinyard's fascinating talk on Woody Allen at the IFI

Music, Madness and Murder: Some Reflections on the Cinema of Woody Allen Part 2 of 3

To coincide with the opening of Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, printed below is a transcript of the talk given by Neil Sinyard as part of last year’s Woody Allen retrospective.
Crimes and Misdemeanors

One of the things which gives the sequence from Crimes and Misdemeanors we have been discussing an unusual sheen and intensity is the music, chosen by Allen because he thought it a piece ‘gripped with tension’, ‘riddled with anxiety’. It’s the opening of Schubert’s last String Quartet, No.15, a piece of music Woody Allen had loved for years and which he thought seemed to fit that moment of the film exactly. To accommodate its inclusion, he inserted a line of dialogue which I think gives a whole new dimension to the sequence. There’s a moment where Landau and Huston have been together on the beach and he says her personality makes him think of Schubert (‘the sad one,’ as he puts it): she is to give him a recording of this piece as a present; so to hear it as a prelude then epilogue to her murder is particularly chilling, as is the string sound itself — if you didn’t know the piece, you might even be momentarily reminded of Bernard Herrmann’s all-string orchestra providing the ice-cold soundtrack to Hitchcock’s Psycho.

There are other things about the use of the music there as well:

a) it determines the editing — he can time the movement of the scene, e.g. her arrival at her apartment at the precise moment when there is a surge in the music — to fit the music, essentially doing there what Kubrick came to do in his films: instead of fitting the music to the editing, he fits the editing to the music.
b) there’s also a deliberate incongruity; a high-point of western culture is being used as an accompaniment to a murder scene, so there’s a disturbing counterpoint between a civilised surface and an undercurrent of violence, which relates to the characterisation of the doctor, an ostensibly decent, cultured and intelligent man secretly capable of collaborating in the vilest of human acts: what price, then, civilisation and culture?

Allen’s use of music in his films is highly distinctive and very unusual. Since his early films, he’s rarely used a conventional soundtrack score, which is one of the reasons why Philip Glass’ score for Cassandra’s Dream is so interesting: it’s the first orchestral background score to an Allen film for over thirty years. He uses classical music selectively but pointedly, rather in the way that Billy Wilder did. In my programme notes, for example, I briefly indicated why I thought the use of Erik Satie was a particularly well-chosen introduction to Another Woman (perhaps my favourite Allen movie). In Match Point, the hero’s deadly progress over the day that culminates in the murders he commits is accompanied over the soundtrack by an aria from Donizetti’s opera The Elixir Of Love. It irritated a lot of British critics who thought its use pretentious and distracting, but it’s worth remembering that it’s the main character’s love of opera that has initially propelled the plot and brought him into contact with the rich society he craves and which (like Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors) he is determined to hang onto by whatever means necessary. The aria is there to express a mood — ‘A furtive tear in his eyes dawned / Envy those young people who seemed happy / What else do I search? What else do I search?’ — furtiveness, sadness, envy of the uncomplicated happiness of others, uncertainty of his ultimate goal . . . the dilemma of the hero in a nutshell. And I always think that that aria is what is playing obsessively in the hero’s head as he goes about his dreadful business on that fateful day: in a way, it’s like Visconti’s use of Mahler in Death In Venice — not so much external accompaniment as inner reverie, a subjective immersion in an internal state.

Elsewhere in Allen, the quotations from classical composers are legion: Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Kurt Weill, Wagner, Grieg, Gershwin, to name but a few. The quotation is sometimes just incidental, sometimes more fundamental, but always very individual. Billy Wilder comes closest, but it’s not quite so pervasive; and, of course, Wilder comes from that European background and heritage which Allen doesn’t: when Wilder quotes Schubert in Double Indemnity, it has a very different connotation from Allen’s quotation of Schubert in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Typical of Allen, though, to underplay this, make a joke of it: ‘I don’t know much about classical music,’ says the hero in Stardust Memories. ‘For years I thought the Goldberg Variations were something Mr and Mrs Goldberg did on their wedding night.’
Stardust Memories
Stardust Memories
The driving force behind a film of his can often come from a popular song, which is used at the beginning almost like a Graham Greene epigraph as an intimation of the main theme: for example, What Is This Thing Called Love? for Husbands and Wives; You Made Me Love You for Hannah and Her Sisters; Cheek To Cheek in The Purple Rose of Cairo with its opening refrain of ‘Heaven, I’m in Heaven’. The narratives of Radio Days and Everyone Says I Love You are essentially driven by their songs. He himself wrote the score for one of his earliest films, Sleeper; is an accomplished jazz clarinettist who famously regards his Monday night jazz engagements in New York as far more important than turning up on Oscar night in Los Angeles to receive an award; his knowledge of popular song is compendious (again a link with Billy Wilder); though his particular love is of the classical jazz of the Big Band era of Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman (from whom, it is said, he took his name — he really is Allen Stewart Konigsberg). It is significant, I think, that one of the great epiphanies in Woody Allen’s work is musically inspired: that moment in Stardust Memories, when the hero is listening to Louis Armstrong singing Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust and simultaneously looks across at the face of his beautiful woman friend (Charlotte Rampling) and fleetingly experiences a moment of purest radiance and sublime serenity, the harmony and happiness he has been seeking. So music has all kinds of roles to play in his films — elegiac, nostalgic, idealistic, atmospheric, euphoric, ironic — and his deployment of it has an imagination and complexity to rival that of directors such as Wilder, Visconti and Kubrick.

I want to go back to the sequence from Crimes and Misdemeanors we watched and remind you of another odd detail. If you remember, at the end of the sequence, Landau is in the bathroom, no doubt still mentally washing his hands of the deed, when the phone rings: who can it be? Jack? There’s no answer. God? A reminder that he sees all? Or maybe just a suspenseful touch to suggest that, contrary to what Jack has said, this isn’t all over?

We never do learn who made that call: did he imagine it? It leaves us dangling slightly in mid-air — as if it might be some sort of voice from beyond the grave, something slightly unreal, even supernatural. It moves me on to another dimension of Allen’s work, which I have loosely termed ‘magic’, but which was intended as a broad term to cover the extensive element of fantasy, even the surreal, in his films.

End of the second section of the talk in three parts by Neil Sinyard.

Read part three here.

© Copyright Neil Sinyard and the Irish Film Institute.

Part 1 of Neil Sinyard's fascinating talk on Woody Allen at the IFI

Music, Madness and Murder: Some Reflections on the Cinema of Woody Allen Part 1 of 3

To coincide with the opening of Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, printed below is a transcript of the the first part of the talk given by Neil Sinyard as part of last year’s Woody Allen retrospective.
Woody Allen

You might not think it to look at him, but Woody Allen is a big subject. The critic Alexander Walker wrote that ‘it is a deception to see Woody Allen only as an American humorist’, and the French critic Robert Benayoun said that ‘his films spread out in all directions . . . the proof of him is to be found in his diversity’. These comments were made after Allen’s 14th film in the mid-1980s; they are no less true after his 40th film now, and it is this diversity more than the humour that is my subject today.

Woody Allen in Zelig

The persona has evolved and modified from its beginnings, from comic loser to cultural commentator; the cultural references have widened; he has done comedy films, serious films, and films both comic and serious (even with the same story). He has experimented with film form, with pastiche documentary and newsreel, media satire, use of split screen, subtitles to contrast outward speech and inward desire, chapter headings, direct addresses to the camera, and the dissolving of time-frames so past and present can be taking place within the same shot. There have been genre parodies, chamber dramas, Bergmanesque movies, Felliniesque movies, Renoiresque movies, comedies within the style of German Expressionism and Greek tragedy - and still he’s been criticised for being limited and repetitive. It’s why I quoted Roger Ebert in my notes and his amusing put-down of his fellow critics for their attitude to Allen: ‘There he goes again: doing something different.’ As with all the major film auteurs, certain themes recur and the particular social milieu he examines has been fairly consistent, but within that, the variety of subject and approach is enormous, and makes it quite difficult to talk about Woody Allen in total. There’s the Woody Allen of the ‘early, funny ones’; the more autobiographical (though he might deny that) confessional comedies; the American films, the European films; the films in which he does appear, the films in which he doesn’t; the present-day films as distinct from the period reconstructions etc. Even his choice of cameraman for different films is very idiosyncratic and personal: he’s had his Gordon Willis period, his Carlo di Palma period, his Sven Nykvist period, and so on. It’s almost as if a film like Zelig is his response to his critics: they want him to be one thing but, like Zelig, he is a man who cannot stop shedding his own skin.So, faced with that — and the time constraint of this talk — I thought the best thing to do was just to concentrate on some aspects of Allen that perhaps might not have been given as much attention as other aspects, recognising that there’s a whole host of other things that could be discussed; and I mentioned three things in my title for this talk — Music, Magic and Murder — though hopefully these topics will lead off in other directions as well.

Crimes and Misdemeanors

I’d like to begin, then, by looking at a sequence from roughly the mid-point of Allen’s career thus far: from Crimes And Misdemeanors of 1989. The title itself is a kind of literary pun: it invokes Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, not the only time in his career when Allen will invoke Dostoyevsky: indeed, you might have noticed that that is the very novel the hero is reading early on in Match Point, which might be a portent of the later murder. Tolstoy will be invoked in Love and Death, Allen’s take on War and Peace, and will provide the whole structural framework and philosophical bedrock of Hannah and Her Sisters, which was partially inspired by Anna Karenina; and there will be a distinctly Chekhovian ambience to films like Interiors and September. I mention this in passing because I wanted to pick up on something Alexander Walker noted in the 1980s and which is an unusual and distinctive trait: not only what Walker called ‘the breadth of his literary references and the reach of his ambitions’, but also that they were not characteristically American: as Walker put it, ‘his spiritual and literary baggage seems to have been freighted from Northern Europe and pre-Revolutionary Russia’. And when we look at the sequence — and I want to say something about some of its stylistic features — I think we’ll see that one of the things that makes it seem different and strange is Allen’s use of music.

But let me set the scene: the story so far:
Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a wealthy, highly respected eye surgeon whose reputation and livelihood are jeopardised when his mistress (Anjelica Huston) threatens to reveal their affair to his wife (Claire Bloom) and also expose details of some financial embezzlement in which he has been involved. What to do? He contacts his brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), who has dubious underworld connections, for help: Jack’s advice is to silence this woman permanently and, for a price, he can arrange it for him. Judah is horrified, but not for long, and gives the go-ahead. As we join the sequence, Landau and his wife are entertaining family and guests for an elegant dinner, whilst Anjelica Huston is being stalked by a hired killer and followed back to her apartment: we’ll follow it through until after Judah has visited her apartment and seen the dead body, to the point when he is in his bedroom, with his wife asleep, and the phone suddenly rings.

Some miscellaneous observations:
- I’m intrigued by the detail that Anjelica Huston’s apartment is ominously next door to somewhere called ‘Jack’s’: it portends what’s going to happen.
- We cut to the warmth of Judah’s home and the polite social chit-chat which is interrupted by a phone-call from Jack to tell Judah that the deed has been done: looks like ‘a small burglary’ he says (making it sound like Watergate):
- Landau whispers rather than speaks his shocked response into the phone even though he is alone in the room: it adds to the sense of conspiracy; tellingly and unforgivably, he uses the word ‘I’ five times in this conversation. Not a word about the victim: his response is entirely to do with how things affect him.
- ‘God have mercy on us, Jack,’ he says, before going into the bathroom and washing his hands, and three things strike me there:

a) the highlighting of the religious sub-text to the sequence (not the only time God’s mentioned);
b) it’s an echo of the last line of Vertigo, ‘God have mercy’ (there is a definite Hitchcockian element to the scene);
c) washing his hands, like Pontius Pilate.

He rejoins the others: implicitly, rejoining the world he wants to preserve and for which this awful deed has been done.When he sits down, the camera stays on him, and this is very like Hitchcock: although the conversation continues (and, significantly, is about eyes, a key motif of the sequence), we’re only half-listening: the camera is focusing on Landau: we concentrate on him and his mind is elsewhere: there’s a Hitchcockian counterpoint of dialogue and image where what the scene is about verbally is not necessarily what the scene is about visually. ‘What do you think, Judah?’ his wife asks. What is he thinking at that moment? There’s a single-shot flashback of him as he lies on Huston’s lap: a mental snapshot of guilt? ‘I think . . . I’ve done a terrible thing’, he replies: momentarily you might think he is going to confess, but the camera is pulling back, as if recoiling from what it’s seeing: it’s not looking at a penitent man, but a guilty man making plans to cover his tracks and checking on the deed.

Next scene: he is returning to the scene of the crime, à la Dostoyevsky. The camera placement is interesting: it’s as if it’s waiting for him, has been expecting him; has, as it were, reserved a parking space . . . the car stops: the camera moves down the front of the car as he switches off the headlights, picking up a lot of the elements of the sequence in a single movement: eyes/lights/ darkness/descent.

He gets out of the car and I do like the way Allen films this so that there’s no drop in tension (again a bit like Hitchcock: there’s a similar bit in Vertigo when Hitchcock has to get Jimmy Stewart out of the car at a key moment without any relaxation of tension and he does it in a visually ingenious way): he just moves the camera down in front of the car and then moves it back up and Landau makes a curious movement, where, instead of crossing the road immediately, he circles the car until he is standing at precisely the point the camera was the moment when Anjelica Huston went into her apartment for the last time: it’s a camera placement that emphatically implicates him in her murder. Maybe the camera at this juncture is ‘the eyes of God that see everything’ that we hear about in the brief flashback to Judah’s upbringing as a child: at this stage, we wonder, is this ironic? Or could it be the first stirrings of conscience?

When he enters the apartment and sees the body, there is a single continuous camera movement down from him across to the dead body which again implicates him in the deed and indeed emphasises his moral descent: the open dead eyes and the camera movement might remind you a little of Psycho: here the detail of the victim’s dead eyes looking up almost in blind accusation seems a cruel reversal of the single-shot flashback we’ve seen earlier.

When he shuffles round the body and sits on the bed, the camera moves up again to reveal a particularly disturbing image — his gloves: he’s not so shocked by what he has seen that he doesn’t instantly think about the saving of his own skin and not leaving any traces. Allen’s own comment on the camera movement here was: ‘I wanted the flow going in that scene because I felt that the moment had to be . . . reflective. So everything was done legato to keep the mood from breaking. I tried to get him into a trance and keep him in that. So the camera, moving like that, doesn’t break the rhythm, doesn’t snap off the rhythm with an awakening cut. It lulls you further and further into his state of mind.’ (Woody Allen On Woody Allen, In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman, Faber and Faber, 2004, p.217).

End of the first section of the talk in three parts by Neil Sinyard.

Read part 2 here.

© Copyright Neil Sinyard and the Irish Film Institute.

Monday, March 14, 2011

IFI Irish Film Archive’s Holdings Searchable Online

Thursday March 3rd saw the official launch of the Irish Archives Resource website, which allows users to search the collections of participating archives across Ireland. The site is a central hub for information and has the appearance of a search engine, where users can enter key words, names or subjects to search across multiple archives, or use an advanced search to look for specific archives, dates and locations. 

The Irish Archives Resource is funded by the Heritage Council and supported by the Archive and Records Association Ireland. All kinds of archives upload descriptions of their collections, and so far contributors include city and county archives, university archives, business archives and more. The uploaded descriptions give an overview of the content of the collections, as well as providing contextual information on who created the collections, and why.

The IFI Irish Film Archive has been contributing its collection descriptions to the IAR website since summer 2010, making a selection of its collections searchable online for the first time. Users can browse the Archive’s holdings, or search for individual donors, films or filmmakers, locations or subjects.

Currently the collection descriptions available include those from production companies, cinemas, directors and amateur filmmakers, as well as the archives of the Irish Film Institute itself. The collections include material from Hell’s Kitchen Productions (producers of My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and In America); the Horgan Picture Theatre, a cinema open in Cork in the 1930s; amateur filmmaker and naturalist Conway Maxwell; and 1950s film producer Lord Killanin. The descriptions refer to both film and documents in the Archive, so researchers may stumble across a range of material from prop designs, scripts and posters to feature films or amateur travelogues.

As yet only a selection of the vast holdings of the IFI Irish Film Archive are represented on the IAR website, although this is being added to regularly. To find out more about the Archive’s holdings or to make an appointment to view archive material please contact

Rebecca Grant
Document Archivist & Librarian

Mark O'Connor on 'Between the Canals'

Director of Between the Canals, Mark O'Connor talks about the making of his film

The idea to make a film set in the North Inner City had been in my head for a few years. When I wrote the script, the characters seemed to write themselves as most of them were based on people I knew. It was difficult to convince people to take a chance with a first-time feature writer/director. I had made several short films but the Irish Film Board hadn't seen any of them. I was planning to shoot the film whether I had the money or not. Guerilla filmmaking was something I was used to because most of my short films were made for almost nothing.

I wanted the film to portray a realistic image of the North Inner City. After auditioning several people from acting schools I knew the only way to get the real thing was to cast people from the North Inner City. I felt there had been a lot of films dealing with the rough side of Dublin but there had never been a crime drama. The General was a biopic, Intermission a crime comedy caper, The Barrytown Trilogy were comedy dramas and Adam and Paul was a tragedy. We shot the film in 12 days which was a challenge with so many speaking roles and locations.

I knew Damien Dempsey would have the ability to act because he has the stage presence and charisma of a great performer. It was easy to get a emotional performance from Damien because he is a person who feels every word when he sings. He is a true artist and I think he has the ability to be a great actor.

The film is being self distibuted with support from the Irish Film Board. Self distribution takes up a lot of time but it's enjoyable because you learn a lot and you have control over how you market the film. I'm in pre-production on my next film which is set within the travelling community. I want to make good stories with interesting characters depicting Irish culture so that people can look back in 30 years and see how people behaved and the language they spoke. I love watching films from the 1920s and 30s which are based in realism as it gives you an insight into what people were like back then.

Mark O'Connor
Between the Canals

Between the Canals opens on March 18th at the IFI

Friday, March 11, 2011

IFI National at Killruddery Film Festival this weekend (March 10-13)

The Killruddery Film Festival opens today at Killruddery House in Co. Wicklow. This is a unique event that looks at lost and forgotten cinema and is one of the most imaginatively programmed film festivals in Ireland. We’ve been collaborating with them over the last number of years bringing an Irish dimension with films selected from the IFI Irish Film Archive.

One hundred years ago the New York-based Kalem Film Company dared step outside the fledgling American film business and shoot ‘on location’ overseas. In June 1910 a small crew set sail for Ireland and shooting in and around Killarney, Co Kerry,  created the first fiction films made by a US company outside the Americas and the first fiction films set and shot in the Emerald Isle. They found such a welcome when they arrived - and such enthusiasm for the films they produced among American audiences back home - that they returned to Killarney four times in all between 1910 and 1914. The few films that survive from this period and which are preserved in the IFI Irish Film Archive  - rebel dramas, folk romances, and tales of exile and emigration - offer a remarkable insight into cinema practices in the transitional period (1910-1915) and the founding images of Ireland in American cinema from which filmmakers would draw on for decades.

This programme, presented by BIFF Films in association with the Irish Film Institute, includes this new documentary and one of the original films - Come Back to Erin, a film which was until recently believed lost but has now been restored by the Museum of Modern Art, New York with support from the IFI Irish Film Archive.

Killruddery is very much a family event and this year’s programme also includes a series of rarely-seen Irish children’s films from the IFI Irish Film Archive. It’s a nostalgic and amusing trip through Ireland’s past featuring films from the 1940s and 50s and should provoke a lot of memories as well as keeping young film enthusiasts entertained. The programme features a leprechaun, a monkey’s tail, pots of gold, and an adaptation of a Frank O’Connor short story that includes footage of Cork city in 1959.

Opening Event – The O’ Kalems in Ireland 

Lost Children’s films from the Irish Film Archive
Saturday 12th March, 12.30pm, tickets here

Festival Trailer here

For more information visit

Sunniva O'Flynn, IFI Curator

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Berlin Film Festival Report (Part Two)

The concluding part of Peter Walsh's report from Berlin.

The only major British film in competition was actor-turned-director Ralph Fiennes’ modern dress adaptation of Shakespeare’s late tragedy Coriolanus. My schedule was tight, with barely enough time to see Coriolanus and catch the next screening. Annoyingly, my plans were thwarted by one of those interminable awards ceremonies staged immediately before the screening. The festival was honouring Young European Talent, which was all very admirable, but this unwelcome distraction droned on for a full hour and didn’t put me in the best mood for seeing just over half of Fiennes’ film. I can’t honestly judge the film on that basis, but I can say that it gets off to a disastrous start. It’s not the modern setting that’s the problem, but Fiennes’ decision to mount the piece as an incredibly aggressive, loud and action-packed war movie set, I presume, in 1990s Belgrade and filmed like a hyped-up Paul Greengrass thriller, with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s giddy camerawork attempting to look like raw news reportage. More a disorientating mess than anything else, with Shakespeare’s words barely audible beneath the sound of explosions and special effects, I doubt if the film could ever recover from these early miscalculations. In fairness, though, I should add that the complete Coriolanus was well received by the British press.


Two British films that did impress me were Richard Ayoade’s Submarine and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, both screening in Berlin’s catch-all Panorama section and already boasting great reviews from Sundance. The most surprising and attractive of these two feature directorial debuts is Ayoade’s delightful Submarine. It’s based on Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel about a precocious Swansea teenager who’s often described as a cross between Holden Caulfield and Adrian Mole. Obsessed with dictionary definitions and losing his virginity, Oliver (Craig Roberts) chases classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige) whilst trying to save his parents’ crumbling marriage. The witty, self-depreciating Ayoade, who is best known as a comic actor in TV’s The IT Crowd, clearly identifies with his youthful protagonist and shows quite extraordinary skill in telling his story. He’s clearly aware of the American tradition of youth movies (everything from The Graduate to Rushmore), but his main source of inspiration is the French New Wave of the 1960s. Nouvelle vague tropes abound in Submarine, ranging from Jean-Luc Godard-style titles to some lovely references to the music of François Truffaut’s favourite composer, Georges Delerue. It’s refreshing to see a young British director show such appreciation of other cinematic traditions and Ayoade is clearly a talent to watch.


One of Submarine’s incidental pleasures is a very funny turn by Paddy Considine as a new-age motivational speaker and old flame of the hero’s mum. There are few laughs in actor-turned-director Considine’s Tyrannosaur, an expansion to feature length of his 2007 short Dog Altogether. This is a heavy yet surprisingly affecting study of the horrendous consequences of male violence. Peter Mullan plays a tormented soul whose pent-up anger explodes at the slightest provocation. A widower and alcoholic, he prowls around the mean streets of Leeds before taking refuge in a charity shop run by a Christian woman who may offer him some form of redemption. “It’s nice to see Peter Mullan trying something different,” quipped a friend after the screening. One takes the point, but the surprise here is not Mullan’s excellent performance but that of Olivia Colman (mainly known for her comic TV roles), who is astonishing as Mullan’s would-be saviour with a big secret of her own. Tyrannosaur is more than another slice of British miserabilism. Its sense of theatrical contrivance and a shocking plot twist work to its advantage and keep the audience on its toes.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Two of the giants of New German Cinema of the 1970s returned to Berlin this year with documentaries shot in 3D. Many cineastes and critics hate the modern craze for 3D movies, but I was curious to see what such distinctive auteurs as Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and Wim Wenders (Pina) would make of the process. Herzog was given privileged access to the Chauvet Caves in Southern France, which house some of the world’s oldest rock drawings. Given a number of severe restrictions in terms of equipment and personnel, the director decided to build his own small 3D cameras in order to capture a more accurate picture of the art works and their environment. The results are always engaging and frequently stunning. Even without the use of 3D, the project was ideally suited to Herzog, whose sense of wonder at the history of the caves and their contents is matched by his sense of amusement at the oddities of human behaviour. Herzog seems to find eccentrics wherever he points his camera, and highlights here include a scientist who reveals that he was once a circus performer and another who provides a very funny demonstration of how prehistoric man used crude spears to kill horses. “Prehistoric man must have been better at this than you are,” muses Herzog, who even goes on to find a nuclear power station and some radioactive albino alligators nestling in close proximity to the precious caves.


Wim Wenders says that 3D provided the inspiration for him to make Pina, a lovely tribute to the late, great German choreographer Pina Bausch. Wenders had been a fan of Bausch for years but didn’t think he could do justice to her work until he discovered the wonders of digital 3D technology, which “affords audiences a chance to appreciate the geometry of bodies in motion in a very palpable way.” And sure enough, the sense of depth and space generated by 3D proves crucial to the success of Wenders’ film, most of which is devoted to performances of Bausch’s most famous works, including Café Müller, The Rite of Spring, Vollmond and Kontakthof. The dramatic physicality of Bausch’s pieces works very well on screen and the staging, whether in the confines of a theatre or in the great outdoors, is often spectacularly beautiful. Wenders is not as good a documentarist as Herzog, and his film provides too little background information about his subject. Still, with his last fiction film (2008’s truly awful Palermo Shooting) causing Sight & Sound editor Nick James to suggest that Wenders should retire, the warm response to Pina (including a rave review from the same Nick James in The Observer) suggests that he may have a future as a filmmaker after all.

I’ve never had much faith in film festival juries, and Berlin doesn’t have a good record for awarding the best films. Last year’s winner of the Golden Bear was Honey, a minor Turkish art movie that created little impression beyond the festival. Then there is the case of José Padilha’s dubious Brazilian police drama Elite Squad, which was the inexplicable winner in 2008. Pointedly, Padilha’s follow-up, imaginatively titled Elite Squad 2, turned up at Berlin this year, but it was relegated to the Panorama section despite being a better movie than the original. It’s all the more surprising, then, that this year’s Berlin jury, headed by actress and director Isabella Rossellini, actually got it right when handing out the main prizes. I somehow managed to miss the Golden Bear winner, Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian family drama Nader and Simin, A Separation, but it was a favourite with the critics and by all accounts a very worthy winner.

The Turin Horse

The second main prize, a Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear, went to the great Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr for The Turin Horse, which was the one new masterpiece I saw at Berlin. Tarr’s dauntingly rigorous work, with its minimalist settings and incredibly elaborate long takes, is not to everyone’s taste. Yet he is a true visionary and one of the great stylists of post-war European art cinema. His towering masterwork is 1994’s Sátántangó, a seven-and-a-half hour allegory of social disintegration. The Turin Horse is not quite in that league, but it’s still one of Tarr’s finest and at a mere two-and-half hours, a relatively comfortable watch. It begins with an anecdote about the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was appalled to witness the whipping of a horse whilst visiting Turin. He tried but failed to save the animal, after which the great man was diagnosed with a serious mental illness that made him speechless for the next eleven years of his life.

Tarr’s film is not exactly about Nietzsche or his trauma. It might be seen as a fictional account of the subsequent experiences of that abused horse, which in the film is owned by a farmer and his daughter who live in abject poverty on the Hungarian plains. This is another of Tarr’s allegories in which human existence is pared down to its barest essentials, with man’s battle against nature assuming apocalyptic dimensions. The weather is relentless, with constant wind and rain, and one wonders how Tarr achieved some of his effects without the use of digital technology, which would be anathema to this director. One thinks of Samuel Beckett in terms of the basic dramatic set-up in The Turin Horse, but the film’s real artistry is in its staging, or rather its mise-en-scène. Shot in beautifully austere black and white and in a mere thirty or so shots by regular Tarr collaborator Fred Kelemen, the film is an extraordinary visual experience. It probably has the most elaborate use ever of the moving camera. I thought that much of this was achieved with the use of the Steadicam device, but cinematographer Fred Kelemen has corrected me and said that most of the moving shots were achieved with the use of a dolly.

The Turin Horse is often reminiscent of silent cinema and belongs to a privileged little group of movies — one thinks of Eric von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), of Lev Kuleshov’s Dura Lex (1926), of Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928) — which have managed to portray, with absolute credibility and conviction, the gradual erosion of the human soul by a hostile environment.
Peter Walsh
Cinema Manager

The Future has a UK/Irish distributor and will be released here later this year.
Coriolanus has a UK/Irish distributor but no release date at present.
Submarine opens at the IFI on March 18th.
Tyrannosaur is scheduled for release in October.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens at the IFI on March 25th.
Pina opens at the IFI on April 22nd.
Nader and Simin, A Separation has been bought for UK/Irish distribution but has no release date.
The Turin Horse has no UK/Irish distributor at present.

Berlin Film Festival Report (Part One)

Peter Walsh reports on the 61st Berlinale

Although it’s an A-list festival with a serious competitive section as well as a vast array of other strands showing hundreds of films, the Berlin Film Festival, or Berlinale, doesn’t quite have the same glamour or prestige as Cannes or Venice. Like every major festival today, it panders to the expectations of the Hollywood studios and the mass media by hosting glitzy red-carpet premières, but Berlin has always been considered a serious and sometimes highly political event. You won’t find many Hollywood blockbusters at Berlin, especially in competition, since the studios know they are unlikely to win major prizes.

The closest Berlin came to Hollywood glamour this year was with its opening night film, True Grit, for which directors Joel and Ethan Coen dutifully worked the red carpet with stars Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. This wasn’t even a world première, since the Coens’ rather splendid adaptation of the Charles Portis novel had been released in the U.S. last December. In fact, the film had been due for release in Europe in January, and it says something about the power of big film festivals that True Grit’s European release was put back just to accommodate a few screenings at Berlin. The festival was no doubt happy to secure such a high-profile and critically acclaimed title, but it’s doubtful that the film itself benefited much from its presence at Berlin.

Berlin’s main competition suffers because many of the best filmmakers prefer to show their work at Cannes in May or Venice in August. Pointedly, some of this year’s most eagerly awaited titles, including Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, are all expected to be bound for Cannes. The Berlinale also has a problem with Sundance, where the vast majority of new independent American movies are unveiled in January, a full month before Berlin’s dates. This year Berlin did a deal with Sundance whereby they shared a small number of competition titles; these included Miranda July’s The Future, a partly German-financed follow-up to 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Miranda July's The Future

July is first and foremost a performance or multimedia artist who dabbles in cinema. This proves to be both her strength and her weakness. The latter is all too evident in July’s cavalier attitude towards storytelling, which means that her films are essentially composed of a series of gags or set-pieces connected by a central idea or artistic conceit. If Me and You and Everyone We Know was all about people trying to make human connections, then the new film is concerned with the struggle to maintain or renew a relationship that’s reached an impasse. July herself and Hamish Linklater play a somewhat flaky thirty-something Los Angeles couple who are dissatisfied with their relationship and their jobs. They should be thinking about having a child but instead they decide to adopt an injured cat they can’t collect from the local animal shelter until it has fully recovered. They spend the thirty-day waiting period trying to reassess and change their lives.

It is typical of the whimsical nature of July’s strategies that the film is narrated by the injured cat, but The Future is ultimately less quirky and mannered than it first appears. As July’s character embarks on a somewhat seedy sexual affair with an older man, the film itself begins to venture into what its feline narrator describes as “the darkness that it is not appropriate to talk about”. In other words, what starts out as a mildly amusing series of sketches illustrating the absurdities of everyday life gradually morphs into a much darker but surprisingly delicate portrait of the vagaries of the human heart.

Yelling to the Sky

Of the other American films in competition, I missed J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, a star-studded thriller about the recent financial crisis. That left two very different independent productions, Victoria Mahoney’s Yelling to the Sky and Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood. The former is an over-familiar social drama that proved unworthy of the ballyhoo surrounding its world première presentation in Berlin. Zoë Kravitz, the beautiful daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, brought plenty of glamour to the red carpet screening, but the film itself hardly justified all the attention. Kravitz plays 17-year-old New Yorker ‘Sweetness’ O’Hara, who’s bullied at school and whose home life is dominated by an abusive, alcoholic white father and a mentally ill black mother. The bright, resourceful Sweetness decides to toughen up her image by joining forces with the neighbourhood’s unbelievably kind drug dealer and is soon in danger of becoming a hardened bruiser before seeing the light and mending her ways. It’s a hackneyed scenario whose similarity to last year’s Precious only goes to demonstrate the superiority of Lee Daniels’ truly excoriating drama.

The Forgiveness of Blood

Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood is a much more adventurous and achieved piece of work. Marston is rare amongst American independent filmmakers in that he looks far beyond U.S. borders for his stories. A former journalist and foreign correspondent, he’s best known to cinemagoers for the low-key drug-smuggling drama Maria Full of Grace. It comes as no surprise to learn that he’s a fan of Ken Loach’s work, which like his own avoids melodrama in favour of a heightened naturalism. With Forgiveness, Marston travelled to Albania to tell the extraordinary story of how the country’s centuries-old laws are still in operation today. The film’s chief protagonists are fairly typical modern teenage siblings whose ambitious plans for the future are thwarted when their father is accused of killing a neighbour in a fight over land rights. With the father in hiding, the Kanun or traditional law dictates that none of the family’s male members may leave the house without being legitimate targets for a revenge killing. Marston is excellent at building tension whilst keeping the melodramatic elements firmly in check. He brings an unfussy, accessible style of filmmaking to bear on an exceptional story shot on authentic locations and featuring fine performances from a mainly non-professional cast speaking their own language.

Read part 2 of this report here.

Peter Walsh
Cinemas Manager

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Even better than the real thing: 3D at the Berlin Film Festival 2011

On a freezing night in February, I was convinced of the actual wonder of 3D cinema after an eye-burning screening marathon of three new titles. Starting with Les Contes de la Nuit, this latest fantasy from French filmmaker and master animator Michel Ocelot teams his instantly recognisable silhouettes in the style of Lotte Reiniger with up-to-the-minute 3D technology, and the effect is dazzling.  His extraordinary Serengheti-coloured worlds are truly magical - although I had to admit that, at this fresh-eyed point of the night, I wasn’t quite convinced the 3D really added much more than to a couple of scenes.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

But then it was time for Werner Herzog and his Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary/meditation on the drawings inside the Chauvet caves of southern France. To make the film, Herzog got exclusive access but, as he outlines at the start, they weren’t going to get much time inside these highly guarded caverns. Unable to bring in a large crew or number of cameras, they fashioned a smaller hand-held 3D camera and went in first with the scientists and then on their own.

If you are wondering how someone could make the inside of a cave not only watchable but truly gripping, then you need to see this film. Who else but Herzog could bring together the motley collection of curious but wholly dedicated scientists and explorers that include a perfumer, a circus performer and a man who fashions spears which he insists on demonstrating. We’re reminded of Grizzly Man here; Herzog listens to and records each contribution with respect and patience, with his instantly recognisable accented voiceover adding wry comment to proceedings. But it’s inside the caves that the wonder of these ancient creations is revealed, through the most up-to-date technology. The 3D camera follows the drawings around the curves of the walls on which they were painted, slowly giving the viewer time to absorb not only their detail, but also to get a sense of their sheer historicity. Discovered in 1994, and believed to be over 30,000 years old, these drawings, some of eight-legged creatures – early attempts to convey movement – provoke Herzog’s contemplation of the art of film itself as well as bigger existential questions. Opening at IFI March 25th. To book, click here.


How to follow that? Bringing the 3D night to a splendid close was Germany’s favourite filmmaking son, Wim Wenders, who was on hand to present his new film, Pina, about the artistic director and legendary choreographer of Wuppertal Dance Theatre. Wenders, resplendent in mauve checks, talked briefly about his film and of how much they all missed its subject, Pina Bausch, who died in 2009. He had long promised her to make a film about the company, but he had told her that the technology was not yet available. For how could you convey the movement and artistry of this world-renowed dance theatre group? Then he saw U2’s 3D film in 2007 and informed her that the technology had arrived.

Wim Wenders with Pina Bausch

Following her unexpected death, he thought of abandoning the project but was persuaded by the members of the company to continue. What emerges, instead, is a tribute from each performer to Pina herself, through dance, performance and words. Wenders uses 3D technology to convey the sheer depth and range of their movements and as a viewer, you could hardly be more involved in the spectacle. Forget swans, black or white, other dance films such as Altman’s The Company, or dare I say, Flatley’s leaps which failed to get through the limitations of a 2D frame. This is breathtaking and memorable filmmaking. Wenders brings the dancers out into the open, onto busy traffic islands where the Wuppertal famous ‘Schwebebahn’ train hurtles along overhead and his camera moves around and about them, intercutting with their other verbalised tributes to their much-missed mentor and inspiration. Pina opens at the IFI in early summer. Whet your appetite and watch an early trailer here.

Alicia McGivern
Head of Education