Kino Pravda Docs: #1 – The Golden Age Of The Circus: The Show of Shows

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Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?

 

I love the circus. In fact watching it as a small child is one of my earliest memories. But this is not a film about the circus I saw. Or in fact, the circuses (circuii?) of the recent years. No this documentary is a striking recollection of the circuses of old, a time when circuses were one of the primary sources of entertainment and film was still in its birthing phases. Although there is more modern footage smattered in, coloured home videos and the like so it’s not entirely stuck in the timeless ‘old’ period of cinema.

The Show of Shows is presented as just that, an arrangement of the most astonishing clips in a parallel re-enactment of a circus show, where a ringleader in his time introduced the show to the crowd, he now introduces it to us, decades, perhaps even centuries after his original announcement. And what a show it becomes. Humans are excellent at two things, those things being forgetting and risk taking. We are excellent at forgetting just how our viciousness and penchant for cruelty could express itself before hand, and we are excellent at taking unnecessary risks, that no animal driven by its instinct of self-preservation would ever dare to take.

You find all of this and more, in The Show of Shows. Any preconceived notions of this being a quaint, delightful little curio quickly fall to bits, as the relatively perfunctory opening gives way to stranger and seedier delights, a view from a window closed long ago. Because very soon, the film shows which has been long abolished. Humans as a collective are not bad at remembering, but individually, when our experience comes forth, we consistently fail to remember past transgressions, how deplorable they were or how those affected suffered, and how much of an impact they had. This film very much brings that to light again, in quite a visceral way, as for the first time in my life, I’ve seen real footage of animals kept in cages, made to dance, to ride motorcycles, to eat at a table dressed in human clothes and more.

Perhaps, since I am young, this might not be new to many of you. But to anyone of my age who hasn’t sifted through disorganised troves of both public domain and private collection film material, as the director  Benedikt Erlingsson has done, this film is a genuine startling and haunting introduction to the role that a circus played. Because I too am guilty of said forgetfulness. I knew about the issue of animal cruelty, one still being fought today in areas of England at least, but I can never say I knew it as I do now, watching elephants be whipped and polar bears made to stand on pyramids, and monkeys and bears riding bicycles and motorcycles. And for me it is eye-opening, both in its cultural dissonance (I after all have been raised to care for animals and treat them as independent, equal partners in the ecosystem of life, except of course when I want some chicken) and the raw fascination and exhilaration that must have been experienced by those crowds so long ago of watching a man, or Man himself, dominate the animal kingdom in such a total way. To watch a man actually fight a lion, to wrangle a bull with his bare hands.

These disturbing vignettes are more than just factual reporting. Accompanied by an absolutely haunting soundtrack done by Icelandic band Sigur Rós, the film opens a portal into a world inaccessible to our current world. It is a legitimate transportation vehicle, as it shows the past in a supercut of what it really was, a neo-documentary if you could venture that far, in its essence of constructing an informative and emotional piece of film out of previously disparate unconnected elements. There’s clips from dozens of circuses, all throughout time and location, different cities and people and acts.

And yet they share common elements. Each section is marked by a reel changing, and the ‘reel’ on woman helps to show the slowly ever-increasing open sexualisation of women, as they go from stilted conservative beauty pageants to risqué strip teases to full-blown erotic nudity. The reel on animals helps to show the commonality of it all, that bears on bicycles was normal, or interesting then, but is absolutely shocking now. Usually the march of progress works the other way round, as we build more and more upon the foundations laid before us, we grow out of their trappings, new innovations become old, and we take them increasingly for granted. The digitalisation of cinema for example, ten years ago was a vibrant and hard to grasp debate, whereas now is completely bog standard and its developments are what we are interested in now.

So in this sense, its amazing to be wowed by the old, to be encompassed by it by fusing it with the new (the Sigur Rós soundtrack), as we watch a mother place her babe in front of a knife throwing board, a father throwing his baby around on his hands balancing him with masterful precision, even the acts no longer possible in our society, the bear riding a unicycle, the big cats on see-saws, the monkey’s acrobatic transitions to moving motorcycles. And the magnificence of the skill of the technicians, the acrobats who move so gracefully. The trainers who exhibit complete control over their animals who could easily kill them. The clowns, who’s rubber bodies and practical jokes juxtaposed against their off duty moments. And then finally, as the film ends, we’re shown us. The audience, the crowd, who watch in awe, in fear, in terror or laughter.

Whether the acts are morally sound is irrelevant to the film. They happened, and we watch them, in all their goodness and badness. It’s downright tough to watch at some points, but there’s a reason for it. It shows us acts which were common, the horror we feel out of its time. This is the ‘Golden Age’ of the Circus, and this is all of it. It’s a tribute to the best and worst of human impulses. And its potency lies in its realness and its paradoxes. Humans can be kind, or cruel. Banal or evil or good. But they can be both at the same time, because what can be good in one period is bad the next.I’m not really one for relativism, but it does operate to a certain degree in society. And we need artifacts like this to remind us of it. Otherwise we’ll forget.

At 00:26 of the trailer, a man dives from a water tower.

 

Maybe in 100 years, they’ll include this clip paralleled alongside it.

(The film is located here for the next 28 days in the UK as of writing, the soundtrack can be streamed here worldwide. Any updates will be re-edited as appropriate.)

-Alex

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Kino Pravda Docs: #1 – The Golden Age Of The Circus: The Show of Shows

We Need To Talk About … ‘Carol’

“Today I can state that I was betrayed by a film’s trailer. And I feel hurt.” – A C MAHMUD (2016)
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                   In Carol, there is a scene where Carol yawns. This sums up Carol. Okay I’m sorry, that was a low jab, but that is honestly what I felt during Carol. Seeing what is supposedly a masterpiece of passionate and intimate romance of love against the backdrop of a societal unwilling to care, has all the makings of a fantastical melodrama.
                   And Todd Haynes, venerated queer filmmaker does the opposite, and instead presents a quiet, subtle tale that sweeps like a delicate application of Carol’s make-up as opposed to the oncoming train of emotions regarding the typical Hollywood melodrama fare.
                     And good for him, good that this film exists, good that the story exists mostly in its intact form, that it hasn’t been warped, manipulated or butchered behind the screens of imaginary fat cat executives, setting fire to the gorgeous film reels with their cigars. This film is a very clear, very honest and earnest artistic endeavour. It is also quite honestly, crucifying dull.
              There’s been so much talk about this film. The most recent edition of Little White Lies had Carol for its cover story. It seemed to enrapture almost every film critic around. The fact it has been ‘snubbed’ for a nomination of Best Picture at the Oscars is a cause for thinkpieces abound, as to whether the Academy is intent on just hating gay people. Forever. I’m very hesitant to wade into these waters, because once you start to mix politics of this kind into this, it becomes a messy fight about what Carol represents rather than what Carol is.
                    And just what precisely is Carol? A love story, a critique on societal pressures? A crime story? All three? Yes and more, but it all just sails by in one long cruise ship of a film (I’ve used a lot of metaphors, I apologise), which there is just surprisingly little to talk about or even consider. By wearing its heart on its sleeve, or rather its entire shirt, it ends up being mostly surface.
SURFACE
                  Well let us start with the surface. The supposedly lush cinematography, which was pushed into my skull since I sat in the second row of the cinema, is…well its fine. It doesn’t really do anything besides underscore the performances, which is fine, Steve Jobs| did that and it worked well. Everything is in soft light, and it all functions well. Everything is too dimly lit to ever drive home the emphasis of the soft light, nothing really looks warm or intimate, so much as everything looks lukewarm.
                    The music is a terror, a blundering, vomiting drunk in a civilised party. It is discordant, and not in an intentional way, just in a jarring, painfully suspense breaking way. All the tracks come down with the blow of a hammer, even the subtle tracks. The film doesn’t exude enough life to justify its score, filled with supposedly swelling emotions. Like the couple who realised they had come to the wrong screen, the music actually walked straight into the wrong film.
              Also the film has an uncomfortably stagey feel anytime Carol and Therese aren’t just the two of them. This I’d bet was a design choice, but nevertheless lends the film a frustratingly phoney feel, a feeling of  faux authenticity, which helps to kick every character while they’re down (dealing with the slow/boring script) just to help elevate Carol and Therese, to peacock them in front of us to show us just how special they are.
              The costumes were nice, and the set design was. But Crimson Peak had absolutely gorgeous set and costume design and no one batted an eyelid. Nothing to write home about, just borderline functional, with yes, enough style to be appreciated. Good on them.
UNDER THE CELLULOID SEA
                      Okay, the performances. My company at the film were far more crushing of Rooney Mara than I. I thought Rooney Mara was fine, childish whilst only being really annoying in small doses. All of the supposed ‘stolen glances’ and ‘quick loving looks’ as these two circle each other rapidly lose their effect, as what actually happens is two people who don’t inspire any feeling whatsoever apparently begin to feel. Cate Blanchett on the other hand, given the most meat (in that the fact the film circles her like a maelstrom center), give a good performance. She’s just good enough in the role to be believable. And that’s a testament to her acting abilities. My favourite was Kyle Chandler, the sidelined (and I guess rightly so for the context of the story) husband of Carol who is essentially a bitter divorcee. Props to him for not overplaying his role.
                       However the performances, all of them (bar one scene which I will get to) are dead. I’m watching fish float at the top of a barrel. Everyone in this film is so bitterly repressed, so closed off, that it helps to illustrate one of the key faults of the movie. That a story such as this, cannot survive the transfer from internalised reading to external visualising.
                    This is not just the actors fault. The script, is a turgid and dare I bloody well say it in this day and age, bourgeois nonsense fantasy. It assumes such a grandiose self-importance, that the film never earns or makes up for that leap. Nothing in the film is as interesting as it ponders itself to be. Therese is ultimately a drab, shy woman buffeted by every wind around her. Therese could at this point literally be hit by a newspaper blown down the street and follow that for 2 hours. The same effect would occur. Watching someone be purely reactive can be excruciating to watch, but done well it can produce a truly elating piece of work.
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                         The Apartment is this film. When we watch a film, we want people to be proactive as well as reactive, otherwise we can become frustrated with their lack of action in the fictional world. Jack Lemmon in this is excruciatingly reactive, always being nice at the expense of having a backbone, and its hard to watch at some point because he’s so flimsy. But the catharsis comes when he finally does make that stand. And so the film gives way to melodrama, the release of emotions over realistic portrayals. But so goddamn what, film is not real life. It’s not a place which has to conform to realism, in fact every piece of art has that some right  Carol on the other hand, is not a melodrama. And so it doesn’t appeal to our emotions. But it does, because it’s about passion and insecure love. Or is it?
THE BRINY DEPTHS
                       This film. No, this story, is where the issue lies. I have not read The Price Of Salt, so I can’t speak for the book, but my god this story. Obviously it’s captured the attentions of many, and I will only cautiously venture into the possibility of the film taking in a hell of a lot of ‘culturally enriched’ middle class artsy types who’s tastes and declarations of love for this film say more about them than the film. But look what’s at the heart of this story. The love story between two women, and the fight between reality and the intimate world of their relationship.
                   And I’m sorry, but who cares. Therese is a walking stone. Trying to relate to her is like trying to relate to water in a cup. Carol and every other character in this world, is just as lifeless. Because everything is repressed, nothing lives, not even this supposed romance. The only flicker of life, is when Carol and Therese kiss. The film comes alive with the potential it could have had. Their relationship isn’t particularly intense, their bodies don’t communicate the chemistry of people even attracted to each other, Therese gets heartbroken and I couldn’t care less. Carol gives up her child and I feel bad for her child. They don’t gain anything by being selfish, the love the have is as listless and beige as the colour scheme which permeates. Even in a land of repression, love can’t sustain anything, beyond a slight flicker.  But that’s not true, 1984 (once again the book, not the film) managed to convey the fierce rebellion of love in a repressed world. So if Carol is devoid of melodrama, it becomes a piece on love where love isn’t particularly important or more importantly…IT DOESN’T MATTER.
                     Nothing matters in this world. Characters, events, the inter-relational conflicts going on, none of it seems to matter, besides the relationship between Carol and her husband. It has a tangible effect on the world. But nothing else. Everything is inner turmoil. And you know what, inner turmoil is not the strongest trick of cinema! In a medium relying on sight and aural sensations, inner turmoil is incredibly difficult to convey, and even harder to make engaging. Which is why it often isn’t tried! There’s an entire medium, in fact one of the oldest that does that much better. Writing. The original form of this story. There will be a lot of arguments about how the meta political context of this will be the reason why Carol will never gain its supposedly deserved recognition. All of those can be put to bed, because it’s just not interesting. It’s not an interesting world, and it’s not an interesting film.
                   Todd Haynes’ Carol, in my eyes, is a disaster. It’s story is already dull and myopic in the world of film. It asks you to stop and care for this world, this supposedly precious tiny diamond, when in fact upon closer inspection reveals itself to be a lump of coal. It has nothing to say while pretending to say so much. Therese ends up with Carol at the end so its happy? Who fucking cares, when the entire fictional construct is not engaging.? I understand, and respect the intentions behind this film, but I fundamentally disagree with it on almost every level of its existence. I’m glad it’s out there, but I’ll only defend it if I have to defend the medium of film itself. Otherwise, it can fade quietly into film history.
In short, not my cup of tea.
-Alex

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We Need To Talk About … ‘Carol’

(British) Hidden Gems #1 : Telstar: The Joe Meek Story

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What is it to be forgotten? To just fade from memory. Not to vanish, as if a magician’s trick, but to simply be there in an instant, and then as the infinite train of time rattles along, to be left behind. More importantly, what is it to be forgotten when you’re desperately trying to be in the limelight?

This film, in so many ways, asks these questions.Everything, from its actual content to its meta-content, comes to help push these questions to light.

For a little history lesson, Joe Meek was a man I’d never heard of until I saw this film, and history seems to have little time for him either. A music producer in the very early 60s, Joe Meek managed to produce a No. 1 hit, “Telstar” by the Tornadoes, which was the first British song to reach Number 1 in the US Hot 100. He also produced the British hit ‘Johnny Remember Me’ by John Leighton,  a man now forgotten to time, who was a big actor/heart-throb who starred alongside Frank Sinatra. He is also known as one of the men who passed on the Beatles, Rod Stewart, and a then unknown David Bowie. Ultimately, with a court case leaving him unable to procure any of his royalties for Telstar, mounting debts and depression, he shot himself and his landlord in 1967.

However the film is so much more than that, and a for a film about someone popular culture never even elevated, it is one of the most poignant portrayals of the tireless workers behind the surface layer of music. Down here, we can only see the album covers in the shelves or on itunes, we don’t see the backing band, the back-up singers, the producers, the record execs, the studio owners. All the workings from behind the curtain are uplifted and shown to be so damn full of life, that it makes you feel melancholic for the amount of work gone unnoticed, unsung by the countless musicians streaming in and out, completely distant and not cared for by the general public and their obsession with pigeonholing bands into their front-mans and their names.

(WARNING: Skip this part if you have no interest in British culture, or just don’t want to read it.)

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The film and the story itself are a veritable treasure trove of Britain and its culture. Let’s start with the characters, and their acting counterparts who help to illustrate my point:

-Joe Meek (Con O’ Neil), a genuine pioneer in musical history, whose torch is carried still by the older generation of musical fanatics.

-Major Wilfred Banks (Kevin Spacey) – Meek’s partner in the record company. Went on to make the first artificial Christmas trees. Mr. Spacey of course, is a veritable phenomenon at this point, achieving the kind of super level where money is so redundant that he can genuinely pursue whatever he wants. And it shows, because he’s the only really high profile name in a film that would fly by the radar of most people, let alone most A-list celebrities and their agents.

-Clem Clattini (James Corden) – A session drummer who has appeared on more No. 1 songs than anyone. As for James Corden, a man who I didn’t like until I’d seen this, he’s a British jewel at this point, famous for the BBC show Gavin and Stacey and for his frolicking and karaoke with stars.

-Chas Hodges (Ralf Little) – Chas is one part of good ol’ Britain in his duo, Chas and Dave. Famous for being absolutely British to the fucking core, these guys are not the British Legends of the 60s, but they are truly British legends. Ralf Little, is an actor I love who starred in the grotty cult BBC show, Two Pints of Lager and A Packet of Crisps. Possibly the most English thing ever committed to screen right here.

-Ritchie Blackmore (Matthew Baynton) – Ritchie Blackmore, a name that doesn’t resonate immediately, was one of the founding members of legendary rock group Deep Purple. Matthew Baynton, was one of the stars of beloved children’s show also for adults based on classic British book institution, Horrible Histories.

-Billy Kuy (Shaun Evans) – not a famous name, but his actor plays a young Inspector Morse in ITV’s Endeavour.

-Billy Fury (Jon Lee) – A largely successful singer during this time. His actor was part of S Club 7, a pop group beloved in my childhood of the noughties.

-Jess Conrad (Nigel Harman) – A lesser known star, in the same vein as Billy Fury. Nigel Harman was a long running star of the never-ending British soap Eastenders, about Cockney’s in East London. Also a runner for the most English thing ever committed to screen.

-Mitch Mitchell (Craig Vye) – Mitch Mitchell, a week after the life-threatening audition shown in the film, shortly went on to be the percussion part of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. You know, Jimi fucking Hendrix.

And finally, the footnotes. Jimmy Carr and Marcus Brigstocke, both famous British comedians appear, alongside George Bellamy, a session musician featured in the film who is the father of the frontman of Muse, Matthew Bellamy. Also the guy who calls Will in The Inbetweeners a “BRIEFCASE WANKER” is in it.

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So good for them. This may be one of the most culturally British films ever to have been made, but that doesn’t make it good or bad. Thank god then, that its good. It’s actually incredible, brimming with raw power and emotion from an absolutely monolithic performance by the lead.

Because what is it to think you’re right until you’re wrong? To shout into the ether and expect it to shout back at you? One part comedy two parts tragedy bursting forth (another classic British sign, thank you Shakespeare), Joe is a pioneer, and by being so, has no one around to compare himself to. For a single moment he walks onto the cutting edge, manages to capture and enrapture those artistic spirits into something successful. And the world, or at least the music charts, listen. And when you look around, walking that edge, and can’t see anyone else around you, well it either catapults you into echelons unknown or absolutely rips you apart. And for Joe, it was the latter.

Joe is crushed and ultimately doomed by his success, along with a helping dose of paranoia, depression and being a homosexual at a time when it was illegal, immoral and possibly life-ruining. Joe’ manic and desperate need to create becomes tainted, and the people who once stuck by him continue to disappear, while Joe pushes the others away.

Because at the end of the day, Joe was an artistic gambler. That’s what pioneers do. They forge forward, but not always in the right direction. He pushed forward, opening doors and closing others, closing doors which went on to be severely popular. He gambles on the wrong horse, and throughout history, we forget those gamblers. Joe isn’t a poor music producer, at least in spirit, he knows what he’s doing. But he hedged his bets on a horse which didn’t win. But unlike horse racing, whose outcome is determined, happily or grimly by the fastest horse, music is far more nebulous. What is the reason people didn’t like Joe’s music? Well they were listening to something else, something different. How can you tell what people are going to listen to next? You can’t, so you try and replicate what is already there. It’s what Joe does with his acts, who replicate those dream boys of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrin. But that never lasts for long, and so you gotta keep moving forward. But moving forward can also mean abandoning what you love or think is the right way. So what it ends up as is hundreds of producers, all trying to find something different. That’s the easy bit. The hard bit is making different popular.

The film suffers from these same problems. It’s different, its radical, it’s not perfect, and it didn’t find an audience it needed or deserved. It will probably be consigned to the vaults of obscure British cinema, and its a damn shame. Not because its poorly made, or its parts are weak. The script is electric, if faltering a little towards the end, the acting is excellent, the cinematography is overstuffed with excellent uses of both the physical space in the film and the frame of cinema itself. It’s different to so many films, so many blander music biopics, and the film itself shines with life, same as Joe Meek. It’s just not the right kind of different at the right time for people to seemingly care.

There’s an excellent video game critic, who runs a series called Errant Signal who talked about the ethos that runs through artistic thought, “That if you build it, they will come.” but as he elaborates “Sunset [game in question] shows that if you build it, they might not come.” Telstar: The Joe Meek Story is a brilliant, ragged and jagged piece of cinema. And it will be lost. No one will even count this among a movement, like the New British Wave So here’s me celebrating this hidden gem.

I leave you with the best thing Britain ever produced.  Thanks Chas and Dave.

-Alex

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(British) Hidden Gems #1 : Telstar: The Joe Meek Story