||Raindance is now in its 17th year. For anyone who doesn’t know about it, it is a London based institution that not only provides one of the best Cinema events in the Capital City, but all year round hosts master classes in all aspects of the motion picture business. The festival has a considerable rep and each year receives thousands of applications from independent film makers eager to showcase their work, enter one of its competitions – or both.
Recession Raindance lost all of its sponsor money – this did not show in the quality of the presentation, this year being held at The Apollo Cinema in Lower Regent Street – just off the hubris of Piccadilly Circus. The Apollo is a beautiful cinema with comfortable seating in its separate rooms that have the right amount of space and intimacy for screenings and Q & A. There is always something very unique about festival attending: the viewer gets to engage in the creative process where accessibility to those immediately responsible for the piece being watched get direct interaction, both in the auditorium and whilst mingling.
The Apollo is perfect for this to transpire. Off the beaten track but at the same time central – intimate but undeniably swish. The toilets, as an aside are the best in the West End. Whoever designed the staircase had obviously been inspired by Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video.
The Raindance Café was the second space – an enormous basement tucked under a hip record store off Oxford Street. Here the parties and writing seminars took place – the seminars were put on for free. The writer giving his advice and time was Bill Martell, someone responsible for the selling of action scripts to Hollywood. Looking every second a fork lift truck driver (his old job), Bill put on five different tutorials as well as a weekend course. This was more useful than ten different screenwriting books: his insight as to how Hollywood really works (he wrote a Vampire movie that was filmed in the daytime) proved exceptionally honest and refreshing.
And now to the films…
The trailer this year was hard to sit through countless times. ‘Raindance: Films to die for…..’ depicted a faux crew filming a man (on a set), plummeting from the top of a tall building to his death. Apparently it was banned, by who is not clear… what is clear however, is that this particular festival likes its brave individualism more than most. Even if the subject matter grates or disturbs. Those that did are reviewed below.
There were numerous shorts on offer, that unfortunately were not seen by this reviewer due to conflicting interests which is always going to be an issue covering London. This was undoubtedly a shame, but there was a very rich mix in the feature department to enjoy. The rest of this article will be devoted to the best of those seen, and what was good about those that could have been better.
Two brilliant documentaries were very different and both came out of the US. Special When Lit is an extravaganza of colour, light and noise looking into the history of Pinball. Everyone remembers this pastime fondly, but until now there has been no in depths look into its conception, rise and demise in the face of the popularity of video game technology. Therefore this documentary was long overdue and welcome. The theatre was packed to capacity with the audience thoroughly enjoying what was on offer; although there were a lot of the films supporters there from its country of origin to help promote it. This always helps build an atmosphere. All aspects of this form of entertainment are given in depth analysis from origin, to mechanical and design perspectives to the inevitable look into the lives and motives of its most staunch devotees: “sexually frustrated people play pinball – a lot” noted one observer. Over half a mile of wiring goes into the making of one of these machines and takes more man hours on a production line than the making of a Ford. 4 million machines have been made since 1941 and they were only made legal in the US in 1976. It is hard to empathise or like some of the hardened aficionados, one man in particular filming players to non-existent audiences was sad to say the least “ I’m simple – you’ve got to be,” his only justification. Not only has this pastime declined in popularity, but it has lost its essential simple quality by making their design too complicated. Only 5% of the players engaged in Pinball understand the game, which is undoubtedly a shame. A wonderful slice of Americana.
The other exceptional documentary was Popatopolis a fly on the wall following the director Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall, Return of the Swamp Thing), whilst he makes a soft porn flick ‘The Witches of Breastwick’ in three days. Jim has a reputation for many things: making successful movies on budget and on time, for the amount of these he has made and for the irritation that he inspires in cast and crew alike. This documentary cleverly mixes the humorous with the serious: the hilarity coming from the pseudo sex scenes, the bickering, the creative differences and the general unorthodoxy with which Jim conducts film making. He is nonetheless a professional and interplayed with the action are interviews from household names that respect him, such as Roger Corman and Andy Sidaris. The sadness at the disappearing nature of both the soft porn film and B-movie feature is in this picture with actresses articulating serious views on an ever changing Hollywood that doesn’t care for B-movie picture making anymore. A funny film with points to make without hitting the viewer over the head to make them is a rarity – Popatopolis is pitch perfect in accomplishing this.
Stuck! Is the sort of film that Popotopolis makes a plea to try to save. It falls under the prison chick flick category of exploitation, B-movie feature. Jonathan Demme made his bones making such a film long before he garnered Oscar winning status for Silence of the Lambs. The opening credits and score are fantastic and come over with the urbane quality of a fifties crime noir. Impressive stuff and instantly engaging. It follows the fortunes of Daisy – a woman wrongly accused of the murder of her mother, following the testimony of her neighbour (played by Karen Black). Of course Daisy lands right in the slammer and has the usual lesbian inclined bitches as fellow inmates as well as the token hard as nails prison guard who makes her life a misery. It ticks all the right boxes in fulfilling genre expectations. The dialogue is sleazy and clipped and with the all necessary Amazonian requirements of the female characters. Karen Black is a revelation and looks not that much different to her heyday in films such as Five Easy Pieces. The fellow inmates are the usual: 2 tarts, a simpleton and a religious zealot that have firstly an antagonistic relationship with the new girl on the block, but then there is the rise of sexual tensions that inevitably come about from bitch slapping between women inmates. A joy. It also, to its credit sometimes feels like a British classic ‘Yield to the Night’ starring Diana Dors.
Slovenian Girl follows what we hear about all the time but dismiss as an urban myth: the student making ends meet by living as a prostitute. It just so happens that she is a student of English. This is a gentle, understated film about someone who makes a life choice and what happens when she is living it. It helps the credulity of the film that the girl in question looks like a student and not a whore. The opening sequence immediately draws the viewer in – the lead protagonist is with a client who has just taken Viagra and is having heart trouble. She calls for assistance leaving the name ‘Slovenian Girl’ as the message giver. She is controlled and even when dealing with weird customers, she is in charge but not in a domineering sense. There is a natural realism to this movie – not all her customers are appalling, one even pays her extra. Her family life with her father is juxtaposed against her other life that her family, friends and fellow students know nothing about. Her wonderful Dad is a member of a cheesy EuroPop band and thinks that an electronic pepper grinder is better than the internet. He has a resigned view ‘life’s one big disappointment after another.’ It is her need for a better life that pushes her to this potentially dangerous profession. The flat she acquires (small and pokey but considered the lap of luxury by her and her friends), is hard won and under threat when the inevitable happens. She is tracked down through the small ads she uses to attract customers by a couple of vicious pimps. In the final analysis the need for a normal life takes a bigger hold and watching the exceptional main lead make this journey is engaging throughout.
The Life and Death of a Porno Gang is one of three camcorder films on small/micro budgets that are under review here. Not that there is anything wrong with this – so long as such movies have good stories and premises. What all three have in common is that they are pieces of work told from the point of view of the struggling creative within the ‘Mocumentary’genre. It starts very well and had the audience in stitches. Marko – the main lead has a particular pornographic vision as a film maker – what this is won’t be gone into here: but this aspect of the film was funny in the extreme and highly memorable. It is this vision and its singularity that leads him to collate a like minded Porno Gang to go from village to village expressing their particular bent on human sexuality in pieces of live theatre. Brilliant as a premise and highly unusual. The first third of the movie depicts the gang doing just this to the delight of their peasant villager audiences and the one in the cinema in London’s West End, but unfortunately about half way through, the movie decides to take a decidedly weird turn. They encounter a producer of snuff movies who wants the gang to turn their performances to theatrical filming of suicides – but conducted by the gang members themselves. This is where the makers of the film completely lost the audience causing a great deal of emotional confusion. There is a sequence where the Porno Gang (a rag tag of lost but amusing and likable characters), are gang raped. All of them, male and female. What started out so well turned sour and nasty, the audience were repelled by this and rightly so. Had the movie followed a different path – it would have succeeded well as an original comedy and been well remembered. As it is, it made an unnecessary and sad descent into self destructive madness.
Resurrecting the Streetwalker falls into the same trap. Starts well and has a fresh insight into the life of the aspiring creative as runner for a production company in Soho, London. Everyone knows that these people are treated badly and the main lead engages the sympathies of the viewer. James, the central lead, discovers some old film stock at the production company where he works and becomes obsessed with finishing the film he finds: ‘The Streetwalker.’ The woman in charge of James hamstrings him at every turn, being a consummate bitch whilst treating him like a dogsbody. There is a revealing voiceover – he talks to the audience from his point of view but pointing out obvious and objective realities of the film industry and making it in it. According to James there is the big likelihood and threat that an aspiring individual will at some time cop out and sink into the day job. This though, does no happen to James. Instead James is given some freedom to finish The Streetwalker, firstly on his own, then under the watchful glare of his pregnant nemesis. The cop out here is James’s gradual descent into madness as not only does he not take a serious fire during a shoot seriously, but becomes unhinged at the prospect of what he believes is a snuff movie on his hands. The ending is unpredictable, avant garde and unusual but rather nasty. What could have been an uplifting piece about a put upon individual making it and putting a v sign to his most hated, or a poignant piece about the cost of lost dreams was, ultimately, like James himself, a cop out.
Borges & I was shot entirely by a surveillance camera. This is not surprising as the main lead is a surveillance man for a living. Which is why the audience has to watch endless shots of an individual coming in and out of a house without knowing exactly where this relates to the subject matter of the film. Boring. The crux of the film is about a young man (Tim) preparing for an important audition and wants to know if knowing external opinion of himself will help in his preparation. So far so good – again, a good premise. So, he sets about asking general passers by “what’s your first impression of me?” Surprisingly, a woman responds to him by telling him her first impressions, but instead of telling him the obvious (insecure), a relationship is struck up between her (Sally) and the main lead. At one point he is facing the camera saying her name over and over again. Sally is also a Philosophy student and gives her new man a treatise on Solipsism (the one about believing we are the only thing that exists) without telling him that it is important to be a good actor and play the part well. This is what is so surprising about this movie – the extent to which all those around the central lead indulge him. Or at least fail to tell him that this stunt is not likely to help him at all succeed in what he is trying to achieve. He tries to film him and Sally having sex to no avail. What this would have told him about his auditioning and acting skills had he succeeded is beyond understanding. An interlude with a hooker is particularly funny though as she chooses to be more comfortable on the floor – far away from the hidden camera. The only lesson Tim learns from this exercise is that “you can either do – or watch yourself doing – you can’t do both.” Watching him learn it tells us, the audience, nothing.
The Dinner Party is well made fare from Australia that begins with a series of interviews being conducted in a police station, so we are given a prologue and the reason why they are all there in the first instance is told in flashback. Angela and Joel are a couple and have a suicide pact. There is no reason as to why aside from the hint of clinical depression running in Angela’s family: her brother committed suicide. Angela makes for a most dislikeable individual, living inside a medicine cabinet and having no discernable redeeming features. In one of the most unlikely sequences, she and her friend go to purchase heroin from a dealer, with the dealer getting emotionally involved as to the reasoning for the visit and the need. All of the characters have problems with recreational drugs which is probably why the film is so lacking any sense of moral heart or reality. Joel’s ex seems to be the only one amongst the characters on display who has any semblance of humanity or character consistently protesting, to the audience’s relief, that the central character who is leading the proceedings and manipulating her entire environment is stark raving mad. It is difficult to see the point or enlightenment in this movie as there is no redemption whatsoever in the characters and the situation itself lacks realism. The ending is satisfying – the direct responsibility for the outcome being paid for where deserved, but the theme of moral collective responsibility – which is hinted at, goes under explored or concluded upon. The Dinner Party is well made and the characters bring out the repulsion and nasty taste in the mouth that they should, but again, madness for its own sake resonates nothing.
The Alexander Mackendrick Memorial Lecture ( Followed by Time and The City ) showed how it is possible to put across to an audience a subjective piece without going into self indulgence. Terence Davies was interviewed before his film was shown. He enlightened the audience with memories of his childhood, an abusive father, put upon mother – without at any time coming across as either damaged or victimised. This was a truly revealing and close moment between the audience and interviewee with a very candid view of the private life of a director. Not only this but we were given insights as to his thoughts of modern film making and what could we learn from his experiences. “One tract is an event,” “you need to know more at the end.” Terence informs us of the need to use the right thing for depicting the emotional truth of a piece – “if the image and the dialogue are doing the same thing, one of them is redundant.” A very accessible director with none of the distant preciousness usually associated with this profession. He has written all the screenplays of his films and wanted to tell others to look to Europe – not America as validation. “We are becoming a puppet state of America.” He told the audience of the need to safeguard our culture and that by distancing ourselves from the US we could do this. He acknowledged though the difficulty a modern film maker has in finding the money for a feature. Whosoever finds the money has their say and that is the creative conundrum modern film makers’ face. After the lecture had finished, there was a showing of Time and the City what was, and has been described as a lullaby to an ever changing Liverpool. The piece was a continual montage of historic pieces put together with care and attention. The film focuses on the lives of its inhabitants in various working and recreational scenarios showing us the evolution of a city and its people. With a consistent voiceover, it was a gentle reminder of what once was in Liverpool, a city of which Terence Davies is proud. At no point, although presented from a subjective point of view did this piece seem tired or indulgent, or mad. Rather an historically significant film for its audience to enjoy and learn from.
All in all a rich and eclectic mix.