A Personal Journey Through the 56th London Film Festival: Part Two

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 3rd November, 2012

It’s now over ten days since the end of the 56th BFI London Film Festival. I thought I would write diaristic reports throughout, as well as writing at least a short review of everything I saw, but the reviews have built up and hung over my head, and it’s been a struggle to get through them. I suffer from that disease where when you have too much to do and no deadline to get it finished, you end up doing nothing.

I said in my first ‘Personal Journey Through the London Film Festival’ piece that with over 200 features playing, you can’t see everything, and how true that is. People tell me there are films I must see that I know are screening at times when I can’t see them – the most mentioned of these are No, featuring Gael Garcia Bernal in a story of the referendum campaign against Pinochet; Wadjda, which is the first film by a female Saudi director, but people assure me is more fun and less worthy than that description sounds; and Eat Sleep Die, famed UK film blogger Phil Concannon’s favourite film of the festival.

The feeling of being snowed under is not just my affliction. Every reviewer who attends for the two weeks of sneak previews and the two weeks of the festival proper at some point starts to get the fatigue – the being run-down with half-flu and stressing at how little of the experience they’ve recorded in words, but having to keep going. When you attend the previews it means you’re pretty much camped out in the festival’s venues for a month. By the time the two-week festival starts you’ve already had two weeks of it.  You start to wonder “Will this ever end?” at the same time as “Wow, it’s passing by too quickly.”

The second day of the public festival, Thursday the 11th of September, I go to a 9am preview of Chavravyuh, a Bollywood film about Naxalite rebels fighting government forces, interesting mainly for how it takes a broad, colourful approach to a complex story with relevance to Indian society instead of shallowly ripping off the premises of American hits and throwing them in a Hindi blender. There are not a lot of attendees. I think the two weeks of press shows have already taken their toll on immune systems. Then again, I hear complaints of “early mornings” and “long films,” so some people are more full of stupid than they are of ill health. You wonder if they’ve ever had a real job.

Of course, attitude determines latitude not just for dummies who can’t sit still for two hours, but for us all. In my last piece I wondered about the festival’s “atmosphere,” and posed the question of whether this festival had any or was too spread-out and remote for the ticket-buying public to get that kind of indefinable excitement. I realise that my own habits and schedule are preventing me from experiencing some of the best of the fest. I go to a stunningly photographed, intermittently hypnotic film called Helter Skelter which has such confident aspects and such needless strands of muddle that I would have loved to pick the brain of its director, Mika Ninagawa. She is there to do a Q&A after the film, but I have to run to get to my night job. I want to meet the actresses whose performances have made me fall in love with them, like Marillon Cotillard, or Suzanne Clément from Laurence Anyways – people tell me they’ve interviewed them, but I have been adamant about scheduling around films rather than talent, and these folks pass me by. I run into familiar faces from the press shows, but I don’t strike up many conversations with strangers. For all my complaints about the lack of atmosphere and lack of rubbing shoulders with new people, I remember that last year I met a lovely management-consultant-by-day, film-fan-by-night called Alan Lyons, whose details I still have. We get in touch this year, but our schedules differ, and we fail to cross paths. I also remember that at the 2011 Surprise Film I first met Brendon Connelly of Bleeding Cool, a character with a unique take on pretty much everything, and the man through whom I met several of my best London moviegoing buddies. In other words there are experiences to be had and people to meet out there, but the LFF is something of a metaphor for London itself in that you can be run down by it, left alone in it or energised by it, and if you want to get the most out of it you have to be on the front foot. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our festival but in our selves.

Tired, backlogged and floundering, I realise that I’m falling behind on being fit for the fest and writing about it, but I carry on anyway. After working til 3am on Friday the 12th, I’m up in the morning to see Hyde Park on Hudson, which promises to be wonderful, as it features Bill Murray and Laura Linney among other terrific actors, and tells the story of King George VI’s 1939 visit with Franklin D Roosevelt. It’s dull, genteel, nonsensical in some of its framing, and everybody is disappointed. The good parts of the experience are that I assure myself of the ability to survive on little sleep, and I run into Rich Cline of Shadows on the Wall. Back in the late 90s Rich and I were two of the very first online film critics in the UK, but we haven’t seen each other in person for ten years.

I write some reviews that afternoon in the Curzon Soho. I have a few drinks with the film reviewers Shaun Munro, Les Pitt, Matt Mansfield and Alice Sutherland-Hawes. I think I’m going to fall asleep, and try to sell my ticket for the Japanese comedy Key of Life. I fail, and I’m glad I did – the film wakes me up and is one of my most joyous discoveries of LFF. It’s a trading-places comedy where a young slacker (Masato Sakai) steals the identity of a gangster with memory loss (Turuyuki Kagawa), and it has pitch-perfect observations about the idiosyncrasies of its characters and the nature-vs-nurture idea. Unlike Trading Places, it sides with nature, showing the slacker still being an idiot when he has money and purpose, and the hardman still being organised and sensible despite having amnesia and being confronted by assuming a ramshackle identity.

There’s another surprise knockout the following day. Ship of Theseus, directed by Anand Gandhi, tells the stories of a blind photographer, an animal rights campaigner who will die if he does not take medication that has been tested on animals, and a kidney transplant recipient who goes out of his way to help another man whose kidney has been stolen by an illegal transplant ring. The film is attempting to muse on how men are colonies of life rather than islands, and asks whether if we are made up of parts of others if we ever remain the same, but in effect it’s about more than that. It poses one fascinating narrative scenario after another, has characters talk gently about big philosophical questions, and is shot with a deeply absorbing, sensitive moving camera.

I have a personal policy that I’m not going to miss films to catch up on writing, and I’m not going to see reviews as a chore, but rather as a personal tool to remember what I’ve seen. I break that policy on Monday the 15th and Tuesday the 16th, taking two days off from screenings to attack the backlog, achieving very little. Wednesday I see Argo, the highly anticipated, Oscar-touted Ben Affleck thriller about the Americans who were smuggled out of the Iranian hostage crisis when the CIA intervened and pretended they were a Canadian film crew. The film has a vibrant retro texture and is beautifully put together, so even if some of its thriller elements have a by-the-numbers rhythm, the aesthetics of the film are so alive that they achieve heart-pounding intensity anyway. I’m planning to catch up on writing, but then I spend the day drinking coffee and gossiping with Adam Batty of hopelies.com. In the evening, it’s to the Hackney Picturehouse where I see a programme of shorts. Most of them are unremarkable. There’s a terrific one from Holland. I’m disappointed this is the only programme of shorts I get around to seeing.

Hackney reminds me of one of my great obsessions – the issue of film formats. I’m the kind of viewer who studies the screen for textures. Last year I got depressed at how pervasive digital screenings had become, how flat most of the festival films looked. This year, despite having made a documentary bemoaning the transition away from 35mm exhibition, I have mixed feelings on the matter.  The best-looking film I see is Helter Skelter, shot and presented on 35mm. No digital screengrab can capture how beautifully Ninagawa (a famed photographer before she began filmmaking) plays with light, and how organically her images dance when seen from a film print. All the Japanese films I see at the fest have been shot on film – Helter Skelter shows on a beautiful print, but The Samurai That Night shows on a dull, shaky one, and Key of Life has been scanned to DCP. The second best-looking film I see is Laurence Anyways, shot on 35mm but screened on such a deeply contrasting, richly textured DCP that I’m almost convinced it’s celluloid. The worst-looking film I see is the Australian cricket comedy Save Your Legs!, which is shown on a 35mm print that’s dull, bleary and has distracting marker-pen smears instead of ‘cigarette burns’ marking the reel-changes. The digital films seem to be more reliably well-produced, but then at Hackney the main screen is too big to handle the 2k images it’s projecting, and you can see big splotchy pixels everywhere like you’re up against a giant TV. I’m at the point where I almost don’t care if a cinema projects film or digital, I just want them to do it properly no matter which format they choose. I realise that at their best, either can be beautiful, and at their most mediocre, they make you want to give up.

On Thursday the 18th I see Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. Colin Farrell returns after working with McDonagh on In Bruges, and is joined by Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. It’s a self-referencing film about writer’s block in some ways, and its humour involves reducing gangster types to squabbling children. I like the film, and find myself reduced to giggling like a kid along with most of the audience, but find out afterwards that some people aren’t so keen. In the afternoon I hang out in the delegate centre with the film bloggers Craig Skinner, Eoin Mason, Ivan Radford and Stu Holmes – again, I mean to catch up on some writing, but get less done than I imagine. In the evening there is a screening of Jack Garfein’s overlooked 1962 film Something Wild, which is amazingly restrained and powerful as a study of a young girl reacting to being raped, but has a bizarre and, let’s say ‘problematic,’ ending. Garfein is there for a Q&A, but he gets asked stupid questions from the audience like, “What was your shooting schedule?” and “What was the aspect ratio?” When people ask such things all they’re really saying is, “Hey, look at me! I make films too!” I have to collar Garfein privately to pick his brain about the ending. I feel good that I’ve finally met a filmmaker at London Film Festival, when most of my time has been spent rubbing shoulders with critics and facing a neverending continuum of screenings, tiredness and increasing workload.

I take another day off on the Friday. A student film I produced called Once Upon a Time at the Beach is showing at BAFTA as part of the Central Film School’s graduation ceremony. Our film loses the audience award by one vote. The film that beats us is very good. Lots of them aren’t – it wouldn’t be prudent to review them publicly when they were screened for a semi-private audience, but I summed up my feelings in a Tweet that read as follows: “Woo! Student films! Where else can u see single parenthood, kidney failure, teen prostitution, fire & incest in a single 10-min thrillride?”

We get into the closing days of the festival. I’m starting to feel a sense of grief before it even ends. I see a wonderful Irish film called Silence on Saturday afternoon, then queue too late for the Surprise Film, and don’t get in.  It turns out to be Silver Linings Playbook, which is directed by David O Russell and stars Bradley Cooper, and which I’m sure I’ll have no problem catching another time. I go for a drink with Alice, Shaun, Eoin and the film reviewer Mike Ewins. On the way to meet them I get lost on Whitehall and take a picture of Field Marshal Montgomery.

I’m thinking of having an adventure day on the final Sunday – going on a bar crawl, getting a crew together, meeting strangers. It rains all day and doesn’t really feel like the best idea. Mike and I see a terrific 1967 Spaghetti Western in the morning called The Big Gundown, which stars Lee Van Cleef and features not one, but three!, emotional, climactic stand-offs. Alice, Katherine McLaughlin of Starburst magazine and myself go for breakfast and pints. Then Alice and I mess around the West End with my Super 8 camera and head to Southbank. We have drinks with my good friend Sam Inglis of 24FPSUK, and Joshua Hammond of Picture Show Magazine, who has been up for 60-something hours and has attended a John Carpenter marathon the night before, but who nevertheless has perfect hair.

Things are fizzling out. It’s starting to feel sad. My final film of the festival is The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology featuring the brilliant Marxist theorist Slavoj Žižek. It’s a disappointing follow-up to Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – Žižek seems stiff and rambling at the same time, not really talking about a grand thesis, not really talking about ideology, just making obvious if smart observations on a series of films. My neighbour in the screening is distracting. She clicks her pen, checks emails on her phone, rocks back and forth as if she’s having a fit. I have to tell her to behave herself. And then I exit the cinema, and London Film Festival is over for another year.

What I take away – good memories of seeing the film freaks on my Twitter feed in the flesh, being glad of catching flicks I might never have seen, being sad at missing others that were recommended to me, and knowing that I need to shape up if I’m going to attack this again next year. In fact, if I want to keep doing this website full stop. When I was a teenage online critic, I’d constantly be stressing about how much I had to catch up on. I don’t want to go back to that. Writing must serve my life, my life must not serve my writing. I say that and yet I’m in America, trying to move on to the next adventure but still typing up the last one, with a list of films I still need to record my thoughts on. One day I’ll get on top of all this. I’m not there yet.