7:30am Thursday 7th March 2013
By Parky at the Pictures
Although eight decades have passed since his heyday, Erich von Stroheim remains the most important Austrian film-maker in screen history. The success of Amour both at the box-office and during the recent awards season, however, suggests that Michael Haneke is narrowing the gap. But Yves Montmayeur has his work cut out in proving the case in Michael H. Profession: Director, as the Munich-born, Wiener Neustadt-raised auteur is not only highly reluctant to talk about himself, but he would also prefer not to analyse his work or discuss the reasons why he was drawn to specific subjects or opted for particular shooting techniques. It is very much to Montmayeur's credit, therefore, that this discreet profile captures something of the 70 year-old's enigmatic personality, while also revealing more about his methodology and preoccupations than he perhaps intended.
The documentary opens with Haneke watching the scene in Benny's Video (1992), in which teenager Arno Frisch shoots Ingrid Stassner in his bedroom while his parents are out of town. He betrays no emotion as the action reaches its shocking conclusion before confiding that he has always taken his audiences seriously, as that way he can explore potentially contentious themes without patronising them with sensationalism. However, he questions the notion that he is a great artist by stating that he is a craftsman who occasionally surpasses himself.
His pragmatic approach to production is certainly evident as he walks through the nightmare sequence in Amour for the benefit of actor Jean-Louis Trintignant and then brings the same level of perfectionism to rehearsing the moment a hand covers his mouth from behind. In an interview on the set, Trintignant jokes that he accepted the part because his agent said he would have fun working with Haneke. However, only the director enjoys himself because everyone else is so afraid of falling foul of him that they are forever on tenterhooks.
The affability witnessed on set wavers slightly when Montmayeur tries to coax Haneke into discussing the political and/or personal aspects of The White Ribbon (2009). He deflects the questions with a smile and the focus shifts to his use of monochrome and the pleasure he derived from working in German after almost a decade of filming in French. But it is clear that Haneke is a man who expects things to be done his way and actress Susanne Lothar says she would much prefer to answer to a hard taskmaster than a director who didn't know his own mind.
Yet, there is an evident rapport between Haneke and Josef Bierbichler and Enno Trebs as they rehearse the scene in which the baron's steward thrashes his son for stealing a whistle. Moreover, he leavens a session with some drama students with anecdotes about the time he played the Chekhov piece they are workshopping and urges them to establish their own style rather than trying to emulate someone they admire.
What is clear, however, is that Haneke plans his pictures to a tee. He is seen filming with a small camera in the street that proves pivotal to Hidden (2005) to ensure he can control every facet of the final image. Given this reputation for precision, therefore, he finds it amusing that Hollywood keeps sending him entirely inappropriate scripts. While driving to the house in the country that provided the backdrop to the chicken slaying that gives Daniel Auteuil nightmares, Haneke recalls being contacted about a scenario devoid of dialogue. On expressing an interest, however, he was sent a potboiler about a father and son battling lions and bears in the jungle and he despairs of the arrogance and ignorance of American executives who think that Cannes winners would jump at the chance to work with them. That said, of course, he did venture Stateside for a remake of Funny Games (2008) and it is perhaps telling that this is the only picture not mentioned in this otherwise thorough survey of Haneke's career.
He doesn't have an inflated opinion of his worth, however, and says that he is privileged to be a film-maker and is grateful that he can exorcise his demons on the set and not have to pay for a psychiatrist. He does work with some highly strung personalities, though, and Montmayeur cuts to a photo call for Time of the Wolf (2003) that is disrupted by a Béatrice Dalle tantrum and the incident is cleverly linked to a scene in the film in which her character launches into a similar rant only to be slapped across the face and told to calm down. In fairness, Dalle laughs that Haneke did know how to handle her and she compares him to an orchestra conductor for his lightness of touch.
This musical reference leads neatly into The Piano Teacher (2001) and Isabelle Huppert confiding that she and Haneke are on the same wavelength and that she trusts him to share her obsession with a role and take her to unexpected places to achieve the ultimate performance. Haneke explains that he wanted this rite of sexual passage to be a parody of an old-fashioned melodrama, but was quite prepared to introduce an element of obscenity to root the action to reality. Huppert compares his willingness to take risks to Ingmar Bergman's and points out that his films often have an underlying current of dark wit, which she claims is very much part of the Austrian tradition.
According to Haneke, Austria is best known for its culture and its neuroses and he reminisces about seeing The Marriage of Figaro as a boy and getting disapproving tuts from a bourgeois couple in the next row for daring to laugh at the jokes. He confesses that he would have loved to have been a musician, as music is the most subtle form of communication. This, of course, was the central theme of Code Unknown (2000), which was Haneke's first French film and spawned a surfeit of articulation issues during the shooting of the fight sequence between Malian migrant Ona Lu Yenke and Alexandre Hamidi after the latter throws some rubbish at a female beggar.
What is most revealing about this on-set excerpt is the keenness of Haneke's eye for detail and his insistence that even the contributions of the most insignificant extras are spot on. Yet, he drives people hard to save time and money, as nothing is more frustrating than having a long take ruined by somebody not concentrating. Juliette Binoche certainly appreciates this understanding of the actorly process, but wishes Haneke's pictures contained a little more light and hope.
These were in short supply in Funny Games (1997), although he reveals that he told Frank Giering and Arno Frisch to act as though they were in a comedy to make the torment being endured by Ulrich Mühe, Susanne Lothar and their son Stefan Clapczynski all the more excruciating for the audience. Despite the grim brutality that divided those seen here emerging from a festival screening, Haneke intended this to be a pastiche thriller, as, by playing with the rules of the genre, he could remind audiences that children and animals do sometimes die and that not every injustice is avenged.
Yet, over clips from the bank robbery sequence in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), Haneke insists that he has no imagination and can only film scenes he has examined thoroughly to ensure their authenticity. He qualifies this over scenes from Benny's Video and The Seventh Continent (1989) by saying that he likes to reduce things to their core truth and admits to being concerned that his fidelity to this principal has slipped over the years. Yet, while his debut was about unliveable lives ending in death, Amour shows how a pleasant existence could be terminated with dignity - although Emmanuelle Riva clearly found shooting the deathbed sequences traumatic and she would not have been able to do them so well without Haneke providing such support. Co-star Isabelle Huppert is less interested in his cosseting side, however, and hopes that his radicalism continues unabated. But even she might be surprised to learn that the principal reason Haneke makes the films he does is not a desire to force society to confront its ills, but a fear of suffering.
A decade in the making, this is a remarkable achievement, if only for presenting such an intimate insight into such a deeply private man. However, Montmayeur not only persuades Haneke to investigate the morality that underpins his existential dramas, but he also makes inspired use of extracts from his films that illustrate the issues and ideas that his self-deprecating subject is often so reluctant to review. Consequently, this provides an excellent introduction to the cinema of a visionary whose dissections of the 'disturbing strangeness' of the modern world are so candid, distinctive and scrupulous.
Back in 1992, BBC Scotland showed a documentary by Jan Leman called Acoustic Routes, which was fronted by Billy Connolly and charted the career of singer-guitarist Bert Jansch. In order to mark the 20th anniversary of the show and Jansch's sad passing in 2011, a feature-length version is being released in cinemas before being made available on DVD. A treat for all folkies, this is not only a fascinating history of what is a much-maligned musical form in this country, but it also presents a number of specially recorded performances by Jansch and several other folk legends.
Long before he made it as a stand-up comedian. Billy Connolly was active on the Scottish folk scene and Bert Jansch was his hero. Armed with a collection of old vinyl and a battered Dansette record player, he settles in to celebrate the career of a musician whose talent was matched only by his humility and generosity, as he credits so many influences and contemporaries for his own success.
Following an opening rendition of `The Parting', Jansch is bombarded by Connolly with fulsome compliments and gratefully seeks sanctuary in a request to play `Strolling Along the Highway'. As the sound dies away, Leman cuts to Jansch returning to the Howff Folk Club in Edinburgh where he got his big break, alongside such other hopefuls as Hamish Imlach, Archie Fisher and Anne Briggs. The latter was a traditional revivalist singer, noted for tunes like `Go Your Way', and she caused something of a sensation when Jansch became her accompanist. They play `Blackwater Side' together before Imlach goes solo on `Solid Gone'.
All agree that they were heavily indebted to Davey Graham, whose jazz-influenced `Angi' became one of the first standards of British folk. However, as items like `Sitar Ram' and '40 Ton Parachute' testify, he was also intrigued by world music and did much to transform the sound of folk in this country by introducing the DADGAD system of guitar tuning, which Jansch demonstrates with a lovely performance of Ewan Macoll's `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'.
Leaving Scotland for London, Jansch landed a gig at the Troubandour Coffee House a week after a young Bob Dylan had played there. However, he was surprised by the drug culture he encountered in the capital and wrote `Needles of Death' in response to the excesses he had witnessed. But engagements at venues like The Half Moon led to friendships with the likes of Wizz Jones, who admits to being a bit of a hippie and demonstrates the influence of the blues and Big Bill Broonzy in songs like `The First Girl I Loved' and `Happiness Was Free'. However, Jansch and Connolly concur that Jones could have been a superstar, but he seems content with his lot and his prioritising music over celebrity seems all the more admirable in our pathetic '15 Minute' age.
Seeking out another old friend, Jansch plays `Paper Houses' and `First Light' in the kitchen of John Renbourn, with whom he recorded the album, Bert and John, in 1966. He also hooks up with Ralph McTell, who plays `That'll Do Babe' and `First Song' and confides that he enjoys being on the road and gigging, but wishes more people realised that playing the guitar is a fragile art. Jansch provides a perfect illustration with `High Emotion' before Leman introduces American singer Duck Baker, who follows a rendition of Thelonius Monk's `Round Midnight' by revealing that Jansch was a major influence on the finger-picking style he employed on songs like `The Blood of the Lamb'.
There was a brisk exchange of ideas across the Atlantic throughout the 1960s and Connolly recalls director Philip Saville inviting Bob Dylan to London to star in Evan Jones's Sunday Night Play, Madhouse on Castle Street (1963). However, Dylan's accent proved problematic and he had to settle for essaying a flatmate strumming an early version of `Blowin' in the Wind' after the lead was given to David Warner. As they stroll around Soho to the sound of `Daybreak', Jansch and Wizz Jones remember appearing at Les Cousins with Al Stewart and join forces on a version of `Blues Run the Game' by Jackson C. Frank, whose sole album was produced by Paul Simon, whose `Scarborough Fair/Canticle' owed much to `The Elfin Knight', which Jansch plays with Martin Carthy, who was much admired by Dylan.
Having played `Running From Home' and met up with Peter Kirtley for `Let Me Sing', Jansch reminisces about his days in the folk supergroup Pentangle, with Renbourn and Jacqui McShee. They reunite to play `Chasing Love'. But Jansch was something of a restless soul in the early 1970s and spent much time in the United States working with the likes of Albert Lee, who fetches up to jam on `If I Were a Carpenter' and `Heartbreak Hotel'.
Yet one person Jansch never managed to play with was his idol, Brownie McGee, who had toured Britain in 1958 at the invitation of Chris Barber and had been amazed by how much more his music was appreciated by UK audiences than by those back home. However, Jansch and McGee make up for lost time by teaming on `Walk On' before looking at some footage from 1947 of McGee performing `John Henry' with Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry. He is proud to say that he still plays with Terry some 35 years later and they pair up on `Red River Blues' before Jansch revels in accompanying McGee on `Parcel Post Blues'.
As he sits on a beach gazing out to sea, Jansch expresses his gratitude for the chance to play with such an icon. But he frets that the connection with the past will disappear once his generation dies and he wonders how long acoustic folk can retain its appeal. As the film ends, Connolly watches Jansch play `Tell Me What Is True Love' and `Been on the Road' with a true fan's hushed awe before picking up his banjo to join him on `Country Blues'. One is left with the suspicion that this reissue will only be seen by those already au fait with Bert Jansch and his music. However, if anything can win over a few converts, it is this affectionate profile and the 1993 album spawned by the original teleplay.
Changing the mood drastically, Barry Levinson's The Bay is an eco-apocalypse picture that starts out like Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) or Joe Dante's Piranha (1978) before mutating into something closer to Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011) or Park Jeong-woo's Deranged (2012). Yet, while this has been dismissed in some quarters as the latest cynical excursion into `found footage' territory, Levinson is actually less intent on creating a generic horror (despite the presence of Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli among the producers) than a critique of American attitudes to environmental issues and the ease with which misinformation can be disseminated in an era of rolling news and social media.
Following a montage of clips from genuine news reports about fish and birds dying inexplicably and bathers blistering after swimming in Chesapeake Bay, the action settles on Kether Donohue, who is a survivor of a calamity that claimed 700 lives in the town of Claridge, Maryland on 4 July 2009. She explains in a Skype chat how she was working as an intern for a local TV channel on the fateful day and has always been frustrated that all footage was confiscated by the authorities as part of a cover-up to prevent widespread panic. Three years on, however, Donohue has obtained the suppressed imagery through a Govleaks website and is keen for the world to know what really happened.
She starts her report with extracts from a video diary being kept by oceanographers Christopher Denham and Nansi Aluka, who were investigating marine life in the region in the month before the outbreak. They discovered that a breed of parasite named cymothoa exigua had begun passing through the gills of fish in order to feed on their tongues, while their larvae devoured the flesh from within. Yet, although they sent evidence of their findings to town mayor Frank Deal, it was completely ignored, as was a warning from green activist Justin Welborn that steroid-infested waste from the nearby poultry farm was being pumped into the bay at an alarming rate.
Determined to protect local industry and allay unnecessary fears, Deal reassures those gathering for the Independence Day jamboree that everything is fine and bullishly presides over the crowning of Miss Crustacean and the annual crab-eating contest. Yet, while Donohue is on hand to see several of the contestants start vomiting profusely, nobody suspects that the seafood has been contaminated. Indeed, she thinks she has a murder inquiry on her hands when cops Michael Beasley and Jody Thompson come across a body on a grass verge in a quiet suburban neighbourhood.
Yet, while Donohoe and cameraman Brandon Hanson are covering this development (and her news anchors back in the studio are caught off air debating whether she has the experience to handle such a scoop), townsfolk are being stricken with stomach cramps and clusters of pustules that are not only ugly, but painful. One girl (who is strangely uncredited, despite delivering a touchingly vulnerable performance) calls her friend for reassurance, as her parents have gone out for the day and are not answering their phone. But ER doctor Stephen Kunken is disturbed by the sudden incidence of similar lesions and calls Robert C. Treveiler at the Centre for Disease Control for advice on how to treat what is rapidly becoming a terrifying epidemic.
Away from the escalating crisis, yuppies Will Rogers and Kristen Connolly set sail for Claridge with their new-born baby. They are due to spend the day with her parents and their idyllic voyage contrasts starkly with the mayhem paralysing their destination. Donohue tries to keep pace with the story, but admits to her Skype correspondent that she was out of her depth and has only now been able to piece events together. She returns to the findings of Denham and Aluka and, having shown them being attacked in scuba suits, laments the fact that their demise is blithely put down to rogue sharks. The fate of high-schoolers Madison Nulty and Sean Johnson on their first date proves equally gruesome, as do clips of people bleeding profusely from wounds and orifices and a webcam shot of an entity moving around inside a frightened man's distended stomach. But, as Deal and sheriff Andy Stahl discover, the lice-like critters aren't the only cause of death and, by the time Rogers and Connolly arrive around 9pm, Claridge has become something of a ghost town.
Given the frantic nature of the narrative to this juncture, it's disappointing that it tails away so tamely in the final third. Upset by the discovery of hideously maimed bodies, Donohoe stops reporting, while Rogers's discovery that he has been infected almost feels parodic after so much carnage. Similarly, the urgency of Kunken's interfaces with Treveiler is allowed to dissipate and he wanders off to an inevitable fate after castigating Homeland Security officer Anthony Reynolds for withholding information about the impact of the chicken manure and a recent nuclear waste seepage. A caption tells us that vast quantities of chlorine were pumped into the sea to eradicate the plague, but the sobering fact that the water is still 40% lifeless feels resoundingly anti-climactic after such an audiovisual rush.
Some critics have complained that a director of Levinson's calibre should be producing something more sophisticated than a Cormanesque B movie. But they have surely missed the point, as this isn't a creature feature, but a treatise on eco denial in the United States and the rapidly changing way in which news is gathered and broadcast. Levinson had originally planned to make a documentary about the spoliation of his childhood home, but teamed instead with screenwriter Michael Wallach to examine how the media would cover an unexplainable catastrophe.
Apparently, cinematographer Josh Nussbaum operated on 21 different digital platforms and editor Aaron Yanes makes intelligent and potent use of the blizzard of footage taken from Skype, news bulletins, radio streaming, CCTV, home movies, camera phones, emergency service recordings, text messages, website and scientific instruments. But Mariusz Glabinski's sound design proves equally effective in drawing on 911 calls, Coast Guard transmissions, police microphones, radio chat shows and answerphone messages, as Levinson and Wallach chart the arc of the breaking story that begins with a supposed shark attack and is variously reported as a murder, a satanic cult ritual, a terrorist plot and a stoner prank before the experts at the CDC begin discussing the bacteriological and fungal possibilities that are only dismissed when the buried truth about the isopods is finally revealed.
Considering we know already the outcome, Levinson manages to generate a surprising amount of suspense and is much aided in this regard by composer Marcelo Zarvos. However, only Donohue comes close to being a fully formed character, although neat touches do abound, such as Denham's inability to understand Aluka's French accent and the argument on the jetty between Rogers and Connolly that shatters the illusion of marital bliss. There is gore, but the emphasis is much more on community meltdown and the federal decision to contain rather than cure the problem. But, what is most chilling is the fact that cymothoa exigua actually exists.
Finally, this week comes a cautionary tale about urban dwelling whose moments of poignant poetry are ultimately outweighed by its more pretentious pronouncements. Clearly a work of some ingenuity and intelligence, Babeldom has been meticulously constructed by writer, director and cinematographer Paul Bush and editor Lawrence Huck from footage captured in London, Berlin, Barcelona, Dubai, Shanghai and Osaka and animated graphics gleaned from a variety of international research facilities. Yet, while the imagery often dazzles, disconcerts and dismays, the ideas presented by an urban explorer (Mark Caven) and an archaeologist (Youla Boudali) in a series of voice-over meditations are too frequently swamped by statistics, truisms and sci-fi clichés to seize the imagination or vex the conscience. Consequently, this ambitious snapshot of a hellish metropolis always feels more like an avant-garde experiment than a provocative critique of our troubled times.
Opening on clouds parting to permit a view of Pieter Bruegel's 1560s impression of the Tower of Babel, the action centres on the communication between a female archaeologist who has problems envisaging the inhabitants of the locations she excavates and an urban explorer who skittishly counts his steps as he scurries through tunnels in an unnamed city that is so vast it is rumoured that past, present and future co-exist within its limits and that it is possible to come across one's own birth and death during the course of one's peregrinations. The pair seemingly met while she was working at the British Museum, but it is not known whether they became lovers (although he does once address her as `darling') or why they are now apart. However, their shared sphere of interest dominates their correspondence, which is delivered over ever-shifting montages of live-action and computer-generated imagery.
She explains how cities have always regenerated by building on sites whose edifices have either decayed or been demolished. Layers of maps showing London through the ages are used to illustrate the point, before a digitised male voice (Ian Gouldstone) interjects to explain how the universe is subject to physical laws and mathematical theories and why humanity was unable to impose itself on its environs until it cracked the (fictional) code of Ubermath. Suddenly, the possibilities became limitless and the city began to expand at such a rate that it made sense to build upwards rather than outwards.
A slow tracking shot in a skyscraper elevator conveys a sense of living in the air. But the other animated graphics and diagrams are not explained and this tangential connection creates the impression that they have been selected primarily for the pleasing aspect of their colours, shapes and rhythmic dynamics. Similarly, the choral chants accompanied by driving percussion imply a link between the primitive and the civilised whose significance is again left ambiguous.
The explorer describes how the growth of the city diminished the amount of sunlight reaching the lower depths and how gardens and parks had to be planted on rooftops as a consequence. Domes were also created to preserve buildings of historical interest, which came to seem like objects inside giant snow globes. But, as these created their own shadows, it became impossible to distinguish between night and day and the citizens found themselves existing on one endless today in which everything was either forbidden or compulsory.
Giant cranes appeared to form a crown over the top of the city, as new levels were added on a daily basis. Indeed, it soon became so vast that travel became increasingly difficult - and yet no mention is made of where the raw materials needed to sustain the project might be coming from or how the power was generated to meet the demand for so much artificial lighting. Nor do we learn what people actually do inside the glass and steel structures that are variously lit to seem chic and soulless. The explorer recalls penguins in a faux Antarctic enclosure and a shark circling its tank in an aquarium, but is uncertain whether he witnessed or dreamt these creatures and this confusion seems to have been devised by the Big Brother-like authorities to prevent the populace from threatening the unstoppable march of progress.
The focus now falls on CGI images of jaws and tongues in motion, as an Oriental female voice (Masako Toniya; accompanied by a dubiously large-breasted avatar in a see-through top) discusses the failure of past attempts to coin a universal languages and the success of the city's own system based on the seven notes of the major scale. The irony here is that the supposed simplification has served only to make communication more difficult and, as the explorer complains, the imposition of the Solresol code also led to the outlawing of music.
According to the archaeologist, the living now outnumber the dead for the first time since Noah. But nobody seems to be enjoying life judging by the top shots down on to pavements full of pedestrians milling around in pursuit of dreams they can never realise and moments of pleasure that are so fleeting as to be pointless. As the line between real and CGI people blurs, the screen splits into dozens of frames that resemble those in Eadweard Muybridge's 1890s studies of motion. But we are left to decide for ourselves whether this suggests we are all now players on a vast surveillance movie set or that inventions intended for the betterment of life are almost invariably put to nefarious use somewhere along the line.
The explorer tells the archaeologist that he wishes they could be together, but doubts she could survive in such an increasingly polluted environment. Fatalities from collapsing buildings are also on the rise, while the undermining of Ubermath had led to everything becoming provisional. As the screen fills with cyber women gyrating in various states of undress (another specious gambit that begs the question why only female forms feature in these plastic porn sequences), the explorer muses on the fact that the future becomes the present so quickly that a time will soon come when the past will become so amorphous that our century will be lumped in with several others in the same way that we have carelessly bracketed many different periods within the category of `Ancient Egypt'.
He bemoans the fact that we can only truly know our own age or appreciate our own perspective and wishes the city had done more to promote integration and understanding than prejudice and uncertainty. But, as we see the archaeologist reflected in the window of a high-rise building, we realise that he has also slipped into obscurity, as he had come to the conclusion that everything we do generates a heat that contributes to chaos. Even wisdom is entropy, while thought merely speeds up time to prevent us from attaining our goals. Consequently, he has decided to fall silent in the hope that they will somehow meet again. But the melancholy in her concluding remarks betrays the fear that she has lost him forever.
Revisiting ideas and images contained in his 1996 short, The Rumour of True Things, Paul Bush deserves considerable credit for attempting to fashion a modern metropolitan myth. But, while his elegy is undeniably elegant, its premise that our present will become the past for future generations lacks depth. He has clearly been inspired by the cine-essays of the late Chris Marker and the mischievous early films of Peter Greenaway and it is refreshing to see `found footage' being put to such imaginative use. But Michael Palm tackled the concept of relinquishing privacy and anonymity in return for security and convenience with much greater trenchancy and less self-conscious audiovisual flamboyance in the splendid, but little-seen Low Definition Control - Malfunctions #0.
© Copyright 2001-2013 Newsquest Media Group