Starring : Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey
Director : Kevin Lima
UK release 14th December
AFTER three Shreks and a Stardust, you'd presume that audiences have had enough of post-modern, self-aware fairy-tales: but the latest example, Enchanted, has been the hit of the American pre-Christmas box office. And it's not hard to see why: built around a delightful performance from fast-rising star Adams (Oscar-nominated for Junebug and likely to notch a second nod for this), it's a fluffy, family-friendly affair which both adults and children can enjoy – or at the least (in the case of straight, male viewers) tolerate. The story begins – once upon a time – in a classic, animated fairyland. It's a magical kingdom of cute animals and cuter lovebirds: beautiful, virtuous Princess Giselle (voiced by Adams) and her dashing fiance Prince Edward (James Marsden). After a whirlwind romance, the pair are set to marry – until Edward's malcontent/malevolent mother (a suitably-hammy Susan Sarandon), intervenes, consigning Giselle to another dimension. This turns out to be 21st-century (live-action) Manhattan: a disorientingly chaotic, crowded cynical new world for the Candide-like ingenue. But Giselle soon finds help from a bemused stranger, nice-guy single-dad Robert (Dempsey), and his young daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey)…
Enchanted plays, knowingly, very much like a little girl's fantasy – moppet Morgan's, to be precise – with Giselle the ideal, unthreatening mother/sister/playmate/best-friend to thaw Daddy's frosty-yuppie heart. But adults are the main target-audience – specifically the legions who made Wicked such a worldwide smash. Among numerous direct and indirect references to the Oz-redux musical, Wicked lyricist Stephen Schwartz provides half-a-dozen numbers – including one sparklingly witty standout: 'A Happy Working Song' sees Giselle clean Robert's apartment helped by Manhattan's native 'fauna' - rats, cockroaches, flies and pigeons. But despite Adams' best efforts – and she's been compared, not entirely unjustifiably, with Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball and Julie Andrews (Enchanted's narrator) for her delicious turn here – elsewhere the picture only intermittently comes close to that kind of inspiration. And while never less than winsomely watchable, this elaborate confection is a tad overlong at 107 minutes – you may find its 'spell' starting to wear off some way before those inevitable happily-ever-afters.
The Sacrifice [8/10]
Starring : Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood
Director : Andrei Tarkovsky
UK re-release 7th December
IT turned out to be the last work by the USSR's most acclaimed writer-director, but The Sacrifice was by no means intended as Tarkovsky's final testament – the Russian was working on a production of The Flying Dutchman for Covent Garden until shortly before his cruelly-premature death from lung-cancer at the age of 54. The film does, nevertheless, operate under a rapidly-encroaching shadow of mortality, and also under the rather more benevolent shade of Ingmar Bergman: most of the cast and crew (including superstar-cinematographer Sven Nykvist) are borrowed from the Scandinavian master, and also the choice of location – a bleakly-beautiful island off Sweden's Baltic coast.
It's here that sixtyish philosopher Alexander (Bergman-regular Josephson) lives with his English wife (Fleetwood) and their two young children. On his birthday, a nuclear war is announced on TV: telephones and electricity are cut off, and the air fills with the roar of passing jets. All looks bleak – until Alexander fervently prays to God, asking Him to avert the impending apocalypse. In return, he offers to take a vow of silence and abandon his beloved family forever. Next morning, the threat of annihilation has miraculously lifted – and Alexander realises he must keep his side of the "bargain"…
The Sacrifice plays like a compendium of ideas (faith, the role of artist, the power of nature, the virtue of innocence/childhood) and images (love as levitation, a boy and a tree) from Tarkovsky's previous six films. As usual, there's a daunting rush of philosophical verbiage – not all of which, on closer inspection, entirely holds water – combined with some of the most astonishing visuals in all cinema. Tarkovsky's rigorous control of image produces breathtaking tracking-shots as Nykvist's camera roves across the the island terrain, while the sound-design entrancingly combines far-off wailings, Japanese woodwinds, Swedish folk tunes, the rumble of jet-engines. The cumulative results are at times baffling, frustrating and uneven (the dubbing of Fleetwood's dialogue into Swedish is particularly jarring) – but, on balance, The Sacrifice's many strengths make it an overwhelming experience, one that makes most contemporary movie-making seem disposably lightweight in comparison.
BALKAN REPUBLIC ACCLAIMS HERO OF INDEPENDENCE
Ljubljana Film Festival Report
"JAMES Benning's films are among the most fascinating work in American cinema. Since the early 1970s, Benning has produced films that defy categories, but nevertheless echo major directions the avant-garde tradition has taken since 1945, including structural film and the new narrative movement. Benning explores the relationship between image, text and sounds while paying expansive attention to the 'vernacular landscapes' of American life. His films offer a complex and idiosyncratic view of American politics and culture in the late 20th century and beyond."
That's taken from the back-cover 'blurb' of a new book, James Benning, edited by Barbara Pichler and Claudia Slanar and published* by Vienna's Austrian Filmmuseum to coincide with the institution's exhaustive, month-long retrospective of Benning's 19 feature-length films, from 1976's 11×14 to the brand-new RR. It's the first ever such retrospective, and also the first book on Benning to be published anywhere – this in contrast to the libraries of volumes available on the likes of David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
Then again, Benning remains – for now, at least – something of a "hidden" master. Indeed, if you're not familiar with concepts such as "structural film" or "the new narrative movement", then it's very likely that you've never heard of Benning, although he's been glowingly mentioned on Tribune's arts pages on several occasions in film-festival dispatches. Just last month in Vienna I was blown away by his other new film for 2007, casting a glance: "Benning's wordless film is as ambitious, eloquent and thought-provoking movie as you'll see all year, a tantalising rumination on the nature of our environment, the role of the artist, and the fruitful intersections of the two."
casting a glance confirms that, at 65, the Milwaukee-born Benning – a lecturer at California's CalArts college – has strong claims to be regarded as America's most important living film-maker. And he's certainly among the most consistent: I've seen seven of his 19 features, and I'd describe five of them – El Valley Centro (1999), Los (2000), 13 Lakes (2004), Ten Skies (2004) and casting a glance as genuine masterpieces. I'm therefore more than keen to catch up with the remaining dozen, but this is complicated by the fact that Benning refuses to allow his films (each of which was shot on 16mm film) to be transferred to video or DVD, although he's reportedly exploring digital cameras for an upcoming project.
He permits only very rare TV screenings via WestDeutscher Rundfuk, the German channel which has been one of the main funders of his work for several years. In the Filmmuseum book, Dick Hebdige – the British sociologist and theorist, and a Benning confidant – sums up the situation thus: "Restriced access = JB's ethos — hard-to-get-to places, hard-to-access work; hard to see (distribution); hard to screen (16mm!); hard to watch (demanding.)"
Unable to return to Vienna for the retrospective, I opted for the next best thing: a three-film Benning mini-retro - Ten Skies (2004), 13 Lakes (2004: thirteen static, ten-minute shots of American lakes) and One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later (2005: tracing the progress of time on a particular industrial valley in Milwaukee) – programmed, alongside Reinhard Wulf's Benning-at-work documentary Circling the Image (2005), as part of the Ljubljana International Film Festival in Slovenia's cosy capital in late November.
The festival, which has been running since the dog-days of the old Yugoslavia and is now into its 18th renewal, is universally known by the awkward-looking acronym LIFFe (pronounced either "leaf" of "liff"), and for the latest edition I co-curated a sidebar of current independent American cinema. It's a section to which the Benning's pictures formed an illuminating adjunct – he is, in Richard (Dazed and Confused) Linklater's phrase, "an independent artist in the purest sense of the word."
Benning has operated as pretty much a one-man band since the 1980s, his equipment consisting of a Bolex camera and a Nagra tape-recorder. Untroubled by commercial concerns, relentless in his uncompromising commitment to his vision of the world and of cinema, Benning is clearly a 'film-maker's film-maker' – and has long been the darling of the world's most erudite film-critics. The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, long a champion and fan, reckons he "shares the all-encompassing ambition of Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe and Jack Kerouac to tackle [the USA] as a whole, geographically as well as historically."
But LIFFe '07 also showed that, given the right nurturing and support, Benning's work (which can, in synopsis, sound like the most off-puttingly austere exercise in uber-arthouse cinema) is able to connect with general audiences to a surprising degree. The festival's organisers were surprised and delighted to find all three films, plus Wulf's documentary, attracting very healthy ticket sales for each of their screenings – some of which were even sold out: BOFFO BENNING B.O. BEMUSES BALKANS, as the famously slangy headlines of trade-bible Variety might put it.
I personally counted 65 people remaining (roughly 2/3 of the initial audience) at the end of one screening of Ten Skies - a film which, when screened in Leeds a couple of years ago, managed to attracted precisely three paying customers (including myself and partner!) That Leeds screening was a bit of a disaster all round, marred by projection problems that included the first three "skies" being shown out of focus. This is something of a major issue when the whole film consists of ten ten-minute shots of the sky as seen from the immediate locale of Benning's residence in semi-rural California. This technique takes a bit of getting used to, but if you can make it to the third sky you may feel like the poet Heinrich von Kleist who, confronted by Caspar David Friedrich's 1809 painting Monk by the Sea, wrote "Since in its uniformity and limitlessness it has no other foreground than the frame, looking at it makes you feel your eyelids have been cut off."
Benning's films, it must be admitted, place major demands upon the audience – in effect, he teaches you how to watch them. But the rewards are great: his rigorous examinations of time, change and light force us to ponder the implications of what we are seeing and hearing – to examine man's place in the world, and the ways in which we affect (mostly for ill) the natural environment around us. Ten Skies is perhaps the purest distillation of Benning's approach: in its own quiet and unassuming way, it's radical and uncompromising as current cinema gets.
Jigsaw Lounge's reviews from LIFFe 2007
* James Benning is currently available for ‚¬20 from the Austrian Filmmuseum (www.filmmuseum.at, click on "shop"); it will be distributed in the UK next year by Wallflower Press (www.wallflowerpress.co.uk) and in the USA by Columbia University Press.