Bradford 2009 : Yeast, Who Is KK Downey?, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), P.Whitehead x 2
Apologies for what is a very belated roundup of the last five unreviewed films seen at this year's Bradford International Film Festival back in March.
Two of them I programmed into the festival myself, namely Mary Bronstein's deliciously spiky and uncompromised Yeast, part of the 'Uncharted States of America' strand dedicated to off-radar US cinema. One of my main criteria for this strand is that I shouldn't have heard of any of the actors beforehand – but I had to bend the rule for Yeast as it stars Greta Gerwig, who, while not anyone's idea of a household name, has become reasonably well-known in certain cineastic circles as the most recognisable "face" of that group of films labelled as 'Mumblecore.'
Yeast would make a particularly fascinating double-bill with Frownland, and not just because the latter was written and directed by Mary Bronstein's husband Ronnie. Both films are what I'd call horrible triumphs – endurance tests for the audience, as pretty much everyone on screen is unsympathetic and/or gratingly annoying. That's very much the whole point of Yeast, which is essentially seventy-odd minutes of dislikable people getting on each other's nerves – and ours. Doesn't sound like fun, but what emerges proves oddly compelling in its raw brittleness. The story focusses on a pair of roommates who've started to seriously fall out – there isn't a great deal story-wise, instead it's all about character, dialogue and the unspoken non-verbal communication that reveals just how deeply dysfunctional these people really are.
Patience is demanded – but it's very much rewarded, especially during a breathtaking climax set in a grim (real-life) amusement-park, Six Flags, involving a cutely nightmarish stage act that features a certain 'Annie Amnesia.' As the story hurtles towards its inevitable dead-end, what we're left with is a kind of 21st-century American-anomie update of Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating. Except this time, there's only one girl left in the boat.
I was very wary of how Yeast was going to play with the Bradford audience – and was delighted by how warmly it ended up being received. I had few such worries with Who Is KK Downey?, a raucous comedy from north of the 49th parallel – indeed, it could easily have formed the centrepiece of an 'Uncharted States and Dominions' if I'd been able to find other Canadian independent films of similar wit and economy.
A breakneck, pitch-perfect satire of the J T Leroy literary hoax that made some headlines a couple of years back, it's the wildly implausible – but, as we now know, all too believable – story of a schlubby white-bread novelist who can't get his sleazy book Truck-Stop Hustler published because his image doesn't fit the content. His socially-desperate best pal takes this as a sign to devise an outrageous alter ego, who instantly becomes a national alt-culture phenomenon. Breezy, daft shenanigans ensue, but with a pleasingly jagged satirical edge – not to mention a wonderful supporting-performance from co-writer/director Pat Kiely as a fashion-victim taste-monger whose dialogue consists almost entirely of snorting-sneering put-downs.
That leaves us with three movies from the archives which I had no hand in programming. I was delighted to catch Tonite Let's All Make Love In London which I'd seen at Tromso in northern Norway in 2007. What I didn't realise at the time was that this elliptical, episodic record of late-sixties London had been shown at Tromso without its final sequence – a poetry happening at the Albert Hall featuring Allen Ginsberg, in which the poem which provides the movie with its title is read out. I don't have much to add to my earlier review, except to note that the film does hold up to a second viewing and that David Hockney is just as funny even when you know what he's going to say (and of course seeing him up on the screen in his native Bradford, mentioning Bradford, to an audience comprising many Bradford folk, adds an element that the Tromso screening, for all its charms, could never hope to match.)
Major disappointment of BIFF 2009 for me was Whitehead's supposed magnum opus The Fall, a wretchedly pretentious mishmash of ego-massaging nonsense that features one of the most offensive things I've ever seen committed to celluloid: the protracted and utterly gratuitous killing of a chicken, whereby the bird (was Whitehead aware that chickens are about as intelligent as horses?) is repeatedly smashed into the exposed wires of a semi-destroyed piano. For me this scene was so unbearable and unjustifiable that it utterly negates what other (dubious) virtues this compendium of verite newsreel, sub-Godardian musing and narcissistic home-movie might possess.
Infinitely preferable was Robert Wise's original The Day the Earth Stood Still from 1951 – though I have to admit considerable surprise that it turned out to be of roughly equal merit to its much-derided, in my view significantly underrated special-effects packed remake.
A talky, ruminative, deeply humanistic study of how easily the media can foster paranoia – topical, prescient stuff during the chilly early years of the Cold War ("everyone seems so –" "– jittery is the word!") - it features Bradford's own Michael Rennie (we get plenty of chances to scrutinise the planes and angles of his lean face) as a scholarly humanoid alien tasked with deciding whether or not the human race should be allowed to continue, now that it has developed nuclear weaponry which might conceivably imperil other planets.
The cosmic and the domestic come quite neatly together as Rennie's Klaatu hides – in pretty plain sight – with an ordinary Washington DC family (vague shades of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt), and while there's never much doubt about his ultimate verdict, it's refreshing to encounter such subdued, thoughtful, quietly speculative and unapologetically pacifistic science-fiction. The plot, for example, turns out to revolve around the planning and organisation … of a conference! Though of course the kids of the time got a major kick out of Klaatu's flying saucer and giant robot Gort.
The script's religious undertones do sit a little awkwardly alongside the general progressiveness of the tone – there's a resurrection, churchy organs competing with theremins on the soundtrack, talk of "the almighty spirit", and it's surely no accident that Klaatu should elect "Mr Carpenter" as his nom de terre.
14th July, 2009
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL : [7/10] : USA 1951 : Robert WISE : 92m : Pictureville cinema (DVD projection), National Media Museum, 26th March
THE FALL : [2/10] : UK 1969 : Peter WHITEHEAD : 120m : Cubby Broccoli cinema, National Media Museum, 26th March
TONITE LET'S ALL MAKE LOVE IN LONDON : [8/10] : UK 1967 : Peter WHITEHEAD : 70m : Cubby Broccoli cinema, National Media Museum, 25th March
WHO IS KK DOWNEY? : [7/10] : Canada 2008 : Darren CURTIS & Pat KIELY : 90m : Cubby Broccoli, 27th March
YEAST : [7/10] : USA 2008 : Mary BRONSTEIN : 77m : Pictureville, 26th March
all timings from BIFF catalogue
all screenings seen via complimentary tickets, Bradford International Film Festival
Jigsaw Lounge Bradford 2009 index-page
Neil Young has been International Programming Consultant for the Bradford International Film Festival since 2005