On Monday 20 May I hosted a Q&A with Rebekah Tolley, producer and co-author of new documentary We Went To War. Directed by the late Michael Grigsby, it’s a terrific film and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to raise its profile a little.
Last week at Watersprite (the Cambridge International Student Film Festival) I was given a chance to sit down with one of their guest speakers, John Logan. He was very funny, clearly passionate about his trade, and generous with his time. The full interview is now up at Take One (link at the bottom of this article). Thanks again to all those at Watersprite who pulled off what was, by all accounts, a great festival.
John Logan – the writer behind GLADIATOR, THE AVIATOR, HUGO and SKYFALL – was in energetic and affable form at this year’s Watersprite Student Film Festival in Cambridge. A lively speaker, he extolled the virtues of poetry as a means to learning the craft of scriptwriting: “Poetry teaches economy.” The 51 year old playwright-turned-screenwriter, nominated for three Oscars over the course of his brief yet productive film career, is keen to raise awareness of the debt owed to history in today’s cultural landscape: “Know the continuum of writers”, he urges. “If you want to learn how to write, read Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And then read it again and again, until you know and understand it completely.”
Verdict: A great final day of the festival. First up was The Extraordinary Voyage, a documentary about the importance and restoration of a rare colour version of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. One of the highlights of this year’s festival has been the strength of the silent movie presence, following on from the British Silent Film Festival earlier this year. The documentary gave a very accessible and entertaining overview of Méliès career and how the restoration took place over more than a decade. It was preceded by a showing of the end result, the fully restored film (including elements I hadn’t seen before in other surviving versions) along with a jarring new electronic soundtrack, which initially brought back horrible memories of the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis, but improved as it went along.
The last entry in the Hitchcock Revisited strand was Marnie, one of his later works which I hadn’t seen before. Plenty to like and admire – a couple of good suspense sequences in particular – but its attitude towards the psychologically damaged Marnie (Tippi Hedren) and her treatment at the hands of Sean Connery’s aggressive lover has dated it in some unfortunate and uncomfortable ways. It’s also a touch overlong, but as compensation it does feature a splendidly lush Bernard Herrmann score.
Finally, the closing night film was Holy Motors, a bewildering tour-de-force of whimsical nonsense, with a plot that is deliberately impenetrable but entertains and challenges in any number of ways. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of a film: a pointless puzzle so beautifully contrived that attempting to solve it seems futile, but doesn’t stop you trying anyway.
After that it was back to the bar at the Arts Picturehouse for celebratory drinks and the obligatory photos. I had a fantastic time as part of the Take One team at this year’s festival, and I can only hope I’ll be there to do it all again next year.
Verdict: Today started brilliantly with the Not-So-Silent Movies session led by Neil Brand, introducing families and kids to the world of silent cinema. So we had clips from shorts like The (?) Motorist, The Fatal Sneeze, The Great Train Robbery, and Laurel and Hardy. The latter went down brilliantly with the children, who squealed with laughter as they hit each other and ripped people’s trousers off. Joyous.
Then it was straight in to The Birds, Hitchcock’s freaky horror from 1963. It was a revelation on the big screen, with surprising levels of tension and feathery violence. The fact there is no musical soundtrack only amplifies the suspense. Another Hitch classic.
It was the big man again later on with The Ring, his 1927 silent drama about a love triangle between two boxers and a girl who can’t choose between them. Surprisingly long – almost two hours – yet the time flew by. Neil Brand on the piano again no doubt was instrumental in this. Lightweight compared to his later works it might be, but well worth revisiting.
Finally I tried to make it through Thundercrack!, a bizarre cult item showing in the Scala Beyond strand, but despite some unintentionally hilarious dialogue and performances, I had to bail. Sleep beckoned, and there’s only so much sleaze a guy can take.
Biscuits: 1, plus one large smartie cookie (just because)
Verdict: Not as productive as I would have liked in the end – had hoped to catch a morning screening – but both movies were very good. The Mattei Affair was the first film I’ve caught in the Francesco Rosi season, in a brand new restoration that was apparently premièring for the first time outside of Venice. A fascinating drama-documentary (mostly drama though) about an infamous incident in Italian post-war history, which beats its political drum very loudly but is no less gripping for it. This at least had subtitles showing, which an earlier screening apparently did not.
Hitchcock’s Blackmail was yet another of his restored silent movies, this time with piano accompaniment from John Sweeney. As funny, exciting and inventive as you would expect from the Master of Suspense; only the vaguely unsatisfactory ending disappoints. The Hitchcock strand at this year’s festival has been truly brilliant.
Films: 1 – Vertigo (plus a Hitchcock talk given by George Perry)
Beverages: 2 teas
Biscuits: One large banoffee cookie (purely for medicinal purposes)
Verdict: A quiet day today before the final three days of the festival. Just the one film, but a biggie: Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in a brand new restored print on the massive Screen 1 at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. I’ve only seen it once before, so I was keen to reacquaint myself with the film recently voted as the greatest ever in Sight and Sound’s esteemed decennial poll. Inevitably it failed to live up to such massive hype; it’s surprisingly un-Hitchcockian in some ways, being rather slow-paced and with a central character who becomes increasingly disturbed and unsympathetic as the story progresses. Yet I wanted to see it again almost immediately after it finished, which clearly suggests that Vertigo not only invites repeated viewings but demands it. One can easily see why it’s been re-examined over the years; the ideas about recapturing or escaping the past, about love and obsession, about history repeating itself clearly make it a film student’s dream. It doesn’t entertain like the best of his films – there’s none of the subversive fun of Rear Window, say – but it is clearly the work of a master.
Verdict: Not as many films as I would have liked – I sadly missed the opening film in the Francesco Rosi season – but Take One reviewing duties took precedence (which is fine; I’ll be seeing at least one of the Rosi films later on in the festival). Now is Good was a serviceable weepie aimed squarely at the teen market: not particularly well written or performed, but slickly made and it pushes the right buttons along the way. Destined to become a big dvd hit among 14-year-old girls everywhere.
Looking East forms part of the regular strand of archive programming at the Arts Picturehouse, digging up ancient treasures from the East Anglian Film Archive among others. There was some brilliant footage of work outings and sporting events, stretching from the turn of the century to the 1970s – including the opening ceremony of the Lion Yard shopping centre in Cambridge.
Finally, Frank was a low-budget but strikingly shot UK drama about a man coping with mental illness in a rundown seaside town in the North East. Dark, and darkly imaginative, it features a terrific central performance from Darren Beaumont as the damaged Frank, who spends his time collecting anything and everything in his squalid flat – even two dead bodies he finds washed up on the shore. Not the easiest watch and it doesn’t completely work, but a memorable experience nonetheless.