Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Stories We Tell

This film is different. It can be classified across many genres - biography, autobiography, documentary and experimental. It is undoubtedly a film about story-telling which is Directed by and stars Sarah Polley. In the film she interviews her siblings, other relatives and family friends as her father narrates his memoire.

The central question Polley is trying to answer is "who is my biological father"? Is it the man who raised her or is it someone else - as the life-long persistent rumours have suggested. There is no question of her being phased by the outcome as it seems her relationships with the cast are sufficiently robust to weather any storm that the enquiries may summon.

If you like fast-moving action films this isn't for you. However, if you enjoy investigative film making and trying to decide who is telling the real truth, then you will love it. The film is comprehensive and the same questions are explored with different family members who manage quite often to retell different versions of the truth. Super 8 historical footage features throughout which adds a sense of realism to the story-telling.

This is undoubtedly a vital question for Sarah Polley to receive an answer to. It also has an importance for her wider family and the dynamics that inhabit their respective relationships. For me it was the methodology more than the substance that made this watchable. In depicting an almost utopian, liberal family where love outside of marriage was normative, I felt that the film lacked emotional impact and that we were watching a glorified family therapy session.

I won't spoil the outcome for you. If you are at all interested in story-telling and narrative art-forms, then watching this will serve you well. Both iMdb and Rotten Tomatoes are consistent, rating the film 76% and 79% respectively. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes score it at 94% - perhaps a formal background in media studies or film criticism enables you to appreciate it more? For me, I'll give it 7/10 and expect it to remain on the shelf for a long while.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Film & Theology at Gladstone's Library

Here I am back at Gladstone's Library for a couple of days on film and theology. A sell out course with an interesting mix of films led by Peter Francis and Tom Aitken.

The Lady in the Van

This is the second time I've written about this film - the first offering was here. I really enjoyed seeing this again and it was as though I was seeing it for the first time as I saw so many new things in it. I am writing this without referring back to my earlier reflection. It will be interesting to see if it is merely a repeat or whether there is something new!

I know that Alan Bennett is a wordsmith and one of the best there is, but his screenplay sparkled and dazzled in a way it hadn't before. I know that the Director intends to include every item in every scene and that the dialogue is what moves the narrative on, but the precision and economy of Bennett's words is simply remarkable. A masterpiece.

Similarly, for me the story was much more an exploration of whether or not Bennett was a saint. It seemed that every character had a view and at some point offered it in the film. Similarly, I saw the interplay between his mother's life, her diminishing health and the life of the Lady in the Van to be a very clever and subtle weaving together of the two women in his life that unwelcomingly gave it shape and direction.

The master stroke this time for me was the interplay between Bennett and his alter-ego the writer and how for him writing is the natural product of the intercourse between the two. How the death of both women led to him being to integrate his alter-ego and seemingly develop an ongoing relationship with someone.

This was a refreshing return to this endearing and lovely, but eccentric and very English tale. I liked it a lot and look forward to adding the disc to my library.

45 Years

This film was new to me. Starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a couple preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. It is a subtle and understated film but the story for me was disturbing and painful. It is very cleverly done with exquisite acting and Charlotte Rampling has lost none of her wow factor!

I won't spoil the plot but it centres on something emerging from the past out of the blue which has far reaching implications. In a marriage that had become the epitome of routine and seemingly now devoid of the je n'est-ce pas that makes relationships spark and work, the couple make their preparations for a low-key party to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

The film graphically depicts the power of the human mind to devise plots and alternative scenarios that may or may not have taken place and therefore may or may not have an impact on the here and now and the future. Once you know a fact or see something, you cannot simply un-know it or un-see it and carry on as it nothing has happened. This is a film about unintended consequences and their potential impact on a stable and long-lived marriage. It is about trust, disclosure, the need for grace, authenticity and the magic that lies at the heart of a long-term committed relationship.

The way this film left me feeling was similar to the way I felt after watching Indecent Proposal - if you've ever seen that. That is why I described it as painful. What that delivers in Hollywood excess, 45 Years delivers in understated British cool. Even the autumnal Norfolk Broads and quaint but claustrophobic Norwich contribute to the bleakness of the film's sub-text and contrast sharply with the jagged peaks and deep ravines of the Swiss Alps.

Time, the noting of it and the passing of it also feature throughout. The plot constantly reminds the characters and viewers alike that we are all getting older and the film invites exploration of the question what difference does the passing of time make.

This was a powerful film with exquisite acting and a powerful narrative that leaves the viewer to make up their own mind about the outcome and what followed the end of the film. I know what I thought. I wonder what you will think. Well worth watching - but I'm not sure I will want to see it again.


Our conference continued with a screening of Spotlight. Again, a film I had seen and reflected on here. I don't have much if anything to add I think. It is a brilliant film about a horrible subject that it treats with sensitivity and care.

Although it paints a bleak picture of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, sadly as history now shows, any denomination could be caught up in something similar. To remind ourselves that institutions are human inventions and distance them from the God they seemingly serve is a naive and unsatisfactory over-simplification. We are all complicit in the wrong-doing of the institutions of which we are a part. Prophetic voices are needed perhaps now more than ever.

I'm ever more certain that Mark Ruffalo should have got an Oscar for his performance.


The day concluded with a screening of Carol. Set in the early 1950's in Manhattan with eye-popping pastel colours and cool cars floating along the streets, this is a film about lesbians seeking relationships and confronting the taboos that made that kind of (overt) behaviour unacceptable in public in the 50's - or is it?

So much of the film is a pastiche of the many 50's films that Hollywood churned out for the movie houses. If it had been set today it would have been a non-story. However, 60 years ago notions of bisexuality and lesbianism being overtly played out on the streets of Manhattan were always going to attract too much attention.

The film establishes a number of contrasts. The wealthy socialites supposedly living the post-war American Dream set against the lowly shop-working immigrant unsure of how to make her way in the brave new world. Overwhelming confidence set against uncertainty and doubt.

It also pits the 'conventional' heterosexual husband stereotype against the bisexual mother who now that she has her child wants to pursue the lesbian side of her self and in so doing wrecks the stereotypical family unit.

Then there is the road trip where the younger Therese is groomed and showered with luxury and presents so that when the opportunity for seduction arises she is unable or unwilling to say no to the older and predatory Carol. Looks like she was up for it in any case. The muted grey palette of the road trip is jarringly set against the day-glow brightness of the bigs cities. 

This is a complex film telling what is essentially a simple story that is made so much more complex by the web of relationships and expectations that surround the central characters. Carol and Therese both had many opportunities to conform to social expectations and follow a 'normal' heterosexual lifestyle. They both chose otherwise. This film raised a flag in the 50's - a decade that ushered in the openness of the sexual revolution of the 60's that has become the norm. Stereotypes are now so limiting. As far as relationships are concerned, anything seems possible when self-determination trumps social cohesion.

A good film but it didn't leave me feeling good having watched it - although I'm glad I did.

Mad Max Fury Road

This was my first outing into Mad Max territory and it will be my last. What a tedious film. I'm generally not a fan of post-apocalyptic films who by their nature have to create a version of the world that is different yet has some continuity with what went before. This film was like Monster Trucks having fun on an abandoned set that had been used for Indiana Jones and Pod racing!

If you like action movies with lots of explosions and people being killed in gruesome ways, then this is for you. The story is pretty thin and whilst it's meant to be about redemption it is in fact about salvation and the saviour then drifts off - no doubt to plot the fifth film for the franchise.

As I drove home down the M6 I was tempted - once or twice!

Many thanks Peter and Tom for a largely excellent selection of films. Thanks too to those on the conference who added to the engagement and reflection.