Festen: A Cause for Celebration

If you thought your family was bad...

If you thought your family was bad…

Festen (The Celebration) serves as something of a landmark in independent cinema, not due to its shocking content, but rather because of its stark rejection of mainstream cinematography. This is because Festen is the first film that was produced in adherence to the ‘Dogme 95’ movement, a cinematic ‘vow of chastity’ established by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. So, before I plough into what the film is actually about, I want to talk about how it is filmed.

Dogme 95 films reject all special effects, technical tricks and other forms of overproduction. This is a return to simple, inexpensive and naturally captured film, with all cinematography falling within the possibilities of the filmed scene (diegetic). What this means is grainy film, wobbling handheld cameras and no abrupt post-production cuts across space or time. For those interested, I shall outline the Dogme 95 rules in full:

  • Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  • The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs when the scene is being shot).
  • The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  • The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  • Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  • The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  • Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  • Genre movies are not acceptable.
  • The film format must be Academy 35mm.
  • The director must not be credited.

So, with all that in mind, what is Festen about? And how does the Dogme style of filming shape the viewing experience? Well, Festen centres on a set of siblings who are attending their father’s 60th birthday at his ornate country house. We have Michael, a chauvinistic hot-head with wife and three kids in tow; Helene, the wild-card leftie of the family who brings along her black boyfriend Gbatokai (much to everyone’s amusement / distaste); and Christian, the quiet and mildly-mannered brother. Reunited for the first time since a family tragedy, the group’s wounds have clearly not healed. As the birthday toasts begin, the party spirals into disorder as family history is dredged up in plain sight of all those attending. I will go no further with my synopsis, despite it barely scratching the surface of this intensely awkward and tragic dive into a family’s underbelly. The less you know plot-wise, the better.

Whilst performances are all strong, it is the cinematography that amplifies it to a compelling level. These actors completely embody their characters, greatly aided by the fact that we see all of their imperfections and everyday actions: extreme close-ups, tripping over in the shower, unglamorous sex, and arguments in their raw intensity, all shorn of any cinematic over-stylisation. The mood of the film is perfectly charted by the timeline of events; all taking place within a day, a night and the morning after. As natural light fills the halls, guests are affable and polite, but once the candles need to be lit, the content gets much darker.

So why should you watch Festen? Well, because despite being shot in accordance with a manifesto, and all the poncey elaborateness that suggests, this is film stripped back to its bare bones. The style really makes you consider how alienating Hollywood conventions are, as with no editing or overly-obvious directorial decisions in the way, these characters’ lives are completely laid bare. It also manages to be engaging (at times, riveting) whilst set in only one location, and following a relatively small cast of characters. This is a film that really demonstrates that “less is more” and most importantly, is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

 

Have a CAU, Man!

- Minimal Design, Maximum Flavour.

– Minimal Design, Maximum Flavour.

Overall rating: 4/5

So, having been well-hyped ever since our return from China, we had heard “Cau-this” “Cau-that” and thought we should probably do something about it. This popular new restaurant with its bold modern façade has popped up right nearby the market square in Cambridge. Stark white and black design makes Cau look quite pretentious and made me pause at first. Once inside however, all stuffiness dissipated (aside from the stuffiness of the 30 degree day!). The staff were unbelievably friendly and welcoming, even catering for our inebriation at the time, joking and bringing us a massive pitcher of water. We were seated close to the window (well, more of an open-front) which have a really pleasant view down the Cambridge streets… Not that we really took advantage of that, we only had eyes for the menu.

The Order

  • Corn on the Cob
  • Causlaw
  • Triple-cooked Chunky Chips
  • 2 x 10oz. Rib Eye Steaks (Rare) with Side-Salad and Peppercorn Sauce

So, firstly the sides. The corn on the cob was weirdly enough the most expensive side on the menu. Whilst still over-priced it was drizzled with a generous slathering of blue cheese (or some such garnish). Since I don’t actually like cheese, this was scraped off, and although the corn was grilled to perfection, it was still just corn for £3.50.

The chunky-chips are something pretty special. Triple-cooked really does add an extra thick layer of crunch, and these are huge slabs of potato in the first place. They also came presented in a miniature deep-fat fryer basket which was an awesome touch.

Now, the Causlaw. Jeeeeez, the waiter warned us that some people said it was the best coleslaw they’d ever had, and I’m finding myself hard pushed to disagree. Essentially red-cabbage slaw with just enough mayo to bind it (but no excess) and little shavings of carrot thrown in. Considering there were steaks ordered, it makes it even more astounding that this was the best part of our meal, and it ended up being wolfed down pretty much instantly.

The steaks: A generous 10 oz., with not too much fat to boot either. Most of the fat that there was crisped up well, although some bits were still slightly too chewy / bloody. Although the quality of the meat was excellent, I have one bit of advice for ordering here: ask for it done rarer than you would like. And if you want rare, really stress to the waiter rare. Ours reached us medium-rare, which to be honest, we didn’t mind one bit due to the quality of the meat, but if you’re one that wants a lot of blood from your steak you may be slightly disappointed.

Overall, Cau was a slightly expensive punt (our order came to just over £45 with no alcohol), but you do get what you pay for. And it is a steak restaurant of course, so there were no big surprises when the bill came! However, my only slight niggle is that when you’re paying this much, you probably do want your steak cooked to order correctly. However, the sides were both fantastic and inventive, and the overall ambience and staff-attitude were great. All in all, well worth it as a treat, just make sure you book in advance as it is certainly a happening spot at the moment!

The Cantabrigian Tales

Canterbury Tales

The Pilgrims pitched their tents…

Following the whacked-out zaniness that theatre company in situ brought to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I decided to check out their follow-up production of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Being staged at The Leper Chapel in Cambridge, an intimate, 30-person capacity church, we were surprised to see tents set up around the venue upon our arrival. But then again, this is in situ…expect to have your expectations dashed.

We were greeted and ushered into the chapel, where upon entering we see a motley bunch of characters, attired rather scrappily in all manner of gear. Some of the pilgrims were clear from their dress, whereas others were pretty much in contemporary garb with Nike rucksacks.

After some communal chanting and humming, each character introduces themselves in middle English, before popping to the front of the group and saying something like “I’m the Miller, my tale is about x, y and z, and if you’d like to hear more, please follow me outside.” The play therefore takes a kind of open promenade format, where the pilgrims pitch up their tents outside the chapel, whilst you wander around at will, dipping in and out of the stories you wish to hear.

This makes reviewing the play actually somewhat difficult, because we ultimately saw only four of the eleven tales on offer that evening. Luckily the tales are compressed massively and the language is contemporised, although the tellers will often drop in Chaucerian quotes and explain them, often in a very humorous way.

The standouts (that we saw) were Richard Spaul’s Miller’s Tale, one of the bawdier of Chaucer’s canon. Spaul played up the filthiness masterly, managing to mime anal-licking and quote Barack Obama within the same sentence. Historical inaccuracies are played up for laughs, and the idea here is that the teller really leaves their imprint on the tale. This does not just go for Chaucer’s fictional tellers, but in situ’s actors as well, who don’t try to embody their characters realistically, but try to leave their own mark on the tale as well.

This worked particularly well with Kathleen Richardson’s rendition of The Knight’s Tale, which was really quite innovative and far removed from the original. Camped out in a fortune teller’s stall behind the chapel, she narrated the (greatly condensed) tale mainly through tarot cards. Occasionally, Richardson would break out of the tale and digress on the nature and meaning of tarot, giving some indication as to why she’d chosen this means of exposition. Ultimately, this was a very personal performance that tried to carry a bit more meaning than some of the bawdier tales on offer.

Meanwhile, inside the chapel: all the pilgrims who are currently on ‘standby’ deliver lectures on various aspects of medieval history related to their tales. Audience members can come and go as they please, even following a pilgrim inside if they particularly liked their story in order to get further information. This was a fantastic idea, although we didn’t devote too much time to it, wanting to cram in as many actual tales as possible.

At the end of the evening, a bell was rung, the pilgrims all file into the chapel, and build up a polyphonic chant. This builds to an overwhelming drone as more and more of the pilgrims join in line, until they raise they arms…and bow. Yet again, in situ have built-up a thoroughly original and entertaining take on a classic, and I certainly recommend you get on down to The Leper Chapel this week.

The Canterbury Tales is playing June 25-29 at The Leper Chapel, off Newmarket Road, Cambridge.

Upstream Color

Upstream Color

– There’s something about worms in Upstream Color.

…What did I just watch? Well, let’s start with the plain details. Upstream Color is Shane Carruth’s second feature film. This is the man who debuted with Primer; a dense, confusing time-hopping film about two guys who create a rudimentary time machine in their garage. That film was so complex it had to be explained by using a flow chart.

Upstream Color is something very, very different however. Primer had a plot that could be quantified, whereas Carruth’s latest offering is ephemeral and resists being pinned down. It is soundtracked with a booming, beautiful ambient score and the cinematography is mostly comprised of discreet close-up shots often with pauses and black-screens between segments. Close-ups of leaves, riverbeds, faces, floors, books: this is certainly a film that must be watched in high quality.

But what is it actually about?  Well, I shall describe the opening of the film but go no further. We see a man (Thiago Martins) buying plants from the garden centre and scraping a strange blue residue off their leaves. We see him collecting worms from the plants’ soil and running a strange liquid over them. We see children drinking this liquid and becoming able to harmoniously synchronise their body movements with one another. The man puts the worms into capsules and attempts to sell them as drugs outside a club. Failing to receive any customers…he tasers a woman (Amy Seimetz) and force feeds her a worm. The worms have a scopolamine-like effect, making the woman completely open to suggestion. He instructs her in all kinds of maxims, and eventually dupes her into mortgaging her house and leaving him all of her savings.

We are only ten minutes in here, but this shall suffice to talk about some of the themes of the film. Needless to say, it gets all the weirder, but the backbone of the film is actually a heartfelt love story between Seimetz’s character and Jeff (played by Carruth himself). The couple are visited by uncontrollable bouts of emotion that affect their everyday lives and we are invited to speculate as to why these impulses occur.

Upstream Color is essentially a film about free will and offers a bizarre model for how external forces affect our lives. There is plenty of metaphorical guesswork to be had here, and in fact, the film becomes hard to follow without considering some events as metaphors. This is not a film for those who want concrete answers and will certainly be very boring and displeasurable to some. I was left feeling completely aimless in the middle of the movie, but fortunately the threads started to come together (very tenuously, but at least it’s something) towards the end.

Looking back on the whole thing, as an experience (and it certainly is an experience) I feel myself gently in awe. Upstream Color doesn’t smack you in the face with a crazy revelation, but it certainly gives you the fleeting impression that it embodies a concept almost perfectly. The film is trying to tell you its secret, but it left me feeling like an outsider, able to glimpse some of its truth but otherwise feeling fairly bemused. I do not say this in a negative sense. This is ninety minutes of beauty that has quite a humbling effect. Just don’t expect to be able to appreciate it all on the first watch…

Terrence Malick’s Badlands

- Martin Sheen, a scarecrow of a man.

– Martin Sheen, a scarecrow of a man.

Badlands starts on a very subdued note. A sleepy Midwestern neighbourhood, Martin Sheen as a garbage collector, hassling his co-workers into buying some boots and kicking a can down the street. A plinky-plonky score soundtracks all of this, lending a tone of innocence to the setting. We appear to be lined up for one of those ‘delightful stories about nothing’ that certain directors go in for, and I fully expected this from Malick.

The great thing about Badlands is that this innocence coats everything. With sparse dialogue, most of the film is narrated by the fifteen year old Holly (Sissy Spacek) who admittedly doesn’t know much about the world and is just looking for a swell time. A relationship flourishes between the two protagonists, with all of the hallmarks of an offbeat romantic comedy. Then Kit (Sheen) kills Sissy’s father, seemingly on a whim. Oh. As the couple skip town, faking their own suicide, they head north in an attempt to recapture their innocence and carve an identity out for themselves as lovers.

Still this naïve tone persists. And this is the brilliance of Malick’s first movie. The couple encounter more and more problems as various witnesses spot them, resulting in an almost ridiculous body count. Kit kills without blinking, telling Holly that she shouldn’t think on it too much, because that’s bad luck. With each murder, we feel rather bemused as an audience, not knowing what to make of these random acts. But this is precisely the effect of Malick’s innocent girl narrator, beautiful scenery and childish score. Everything is filtered through the lens of a bemused fifteen year old who is being swept through a series of events she cannot really begin to process and understand properly. So the murders are glossed over, not given their due weight, and to us this feels almost farcical at times.

As the film progresses however, Holly becomes more and more disillusioned and the youthful standoffishness turns into numb detachment. It still doesn’t feel like we’ve watched something as brutal as Natural Born Killers (which it has been suggested is based on the same source material) but if we attempt to recount the couple’s actions objectively, it seems like a much darker tone would fit the subject matter. This is why Badlands works so well, it’s a killing-spree film with no emphasis on the killing. Instead, we see it all as youthful antics between a couple in love, becoming complicit as an audience in the same fuzzy logic that allows Kit and Holly to barrel through life as if it’s a dream shorn of consequences.

It takes a little time to digest, and separate the tone from the events, but in the end we are left with a brilliant coming-of-age movie. Holly does grow up, deciding she wants out but (boys will be boys) Kit carries on a cowboy to the last. Malick has much to say about the American male and his need to belong (watch out for the imagery of hats throughout) and this is what is most tragic about the movie. As the narrator and film’s perspective both mature towards the end, Kit cannot or will not.

Badlands is insanely impressive for a directorial debut, and has aged well, given it’s now forty years old. This is a very different fare from the Tree of Life, although certain cinematographic buds can be seen, and I thoroughly recommend it. Even to those who are absolutely convinced they hate Malick…as I was!

Ovid Metamorphosed

- "Everything is changing"

– “Everything is changing”

Cambridge-based theatre outfit ‘in situ’ have always operated on the experimental end of the spectrum. Last year’s (and their upcoming) performance of Macbeth in the Leper Chapel was one of the most intense and claustrophobic I’ve ever experienced. A two-person performance using only mutilated and decrepit toy dolls delivered to a 30 person audience at close-quarters will have that effect.

Their latest take on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (their own reworking of the script, as well) is similarly ingenious. Taking the form of a country walk around Wandelbury Country Park, the audience are greeted by their guide: a blustering, rather overly-cautious gentleman who explains that sometimes (he can’t really explain why) he just has to take a nap. This sets up the format of the show: as the audience are shepherded around the park, tuxedoed figures can be seen at the periphery chanting incantations under their breath…

Whenever your guide falls asleep, these figures will start to tell their stories. Sometimes these are delivered together at a loud volume, sometimes they form a chorus, and at other times they separate to deliver monologues. This was particularly novel as the audience were given free rein to wander about, pick a figure of their choice (in my case, a bespectacled man in a tree screaming about how Philomela “was absolutely fucked”). Then, when you’ve had your fill, you can head to another figure and try and pick up another story, although this at times proved hard if you’re not completely up-to-date on your Ovid.

The form that the stories take constantly shifts, in an effort, no doubt, to mimic the subject matter of the Metamorphoses. We are greeted with animal noises, mime, song, monologue, chorus and metatheatre. This really must have been a gymnastic effort of behalf of the actors involved, and they did a damn good job of it too.

There are some minor quibbles however: the guide’s character (Richard Spaul) is perhaps too hesitant and his delivery too eked out to stay engaging at all times. I appreciate that his role is mainly to stall whilst the other actors could get themselves in place for whatever madness is about to ensue, but the character simply isn’t gripping enough and the process of shepherding gets repetitive because of it. Also, not all of the poem-deliveries work perfectly, with some being completely lost during a long-distance shouting match and some unintelligibly hinted at through chalk sketchings.

Despite the quality of the poems’ delivery however, what is important is the manifold different forms that ‘in situ’ try. This is what is most important in terms of getting the moral of the Metamorphoses across, as well as being the whole reason that the performance is great fun. Perfectly timed so that the curtain falls (so to speak) as the sun goes down, I left Metamorphoses feeling that I wouldn’t see anything like that again in a long, long time.

 

Here Be Vikings!

Vikings

Earlier this month Vikings careened onto our screens, setting the precedent with a gory, hacking introductory scene that said little for the plot but much about the tone of the show. Cue a brooding introduction with abrupt flashes of fire, gore and crows. This show looks to be promising and on the high-end of the production budget! Adverts made the show look somewhat trashier than the initial five minutes suggest, and whilst my fears weren’t completely allayed, the show certainly seemed to be going for refined cinematography and hinting at subtexts to its violent façade already.

Overall, the show is unbelievably entertaining, thanks to some quite fast pacing. We are introduced to Ragnar Lothbrok and his plans to sail west despite the unfalteringly villainous Earl Haraldson’s demands, and by the end of the first episode he’s already sailing off on his newly constructed longboat. The show accelerates from this point on, occasionally jumping periods of months between episodes, at other times picking up immediately where the last left off. This can sometimes give a disjointed feel to the show, but ultimately prevents the show from ever dragging.

Another surprisingly pleasing thing about the pacing is that it isn’t really done episodically. What I mean by this is that over the nine episodes of the show, the impression we receive is of a timeline of important events with the episode breaks falling every 45 minutes regardless of what has occurred. Some (in fact, most) of the grand climaxes of the show happen towards the beginning or even the middle of episodes, and at times they end on a sombre note rather than an enticing cliffhanger. This makes for a refreshing break from our viewing conventions and keeps us constantly on edge once we come to realise this.

The fast-pace rollicking ride that ensues, whilst thoroughly entertaining, does lead to some downfalls. Mainly that characters are not particularly well-developed and some of the scenes seem very simple, in that there is little subtext / subtle tensions between the characters. Many of the scenes in the earl’s hall are quite flat conversions designed purely to move the plot from A to B, without really fleshing out the psychology of characters. Earl Haraldson demonstrates this the most, since he is pretty much set up as the epitome of villainy (hey look, it’s yet another scene where he kills a child!) and this can get either boring or grating quite quickly.

Overall however, Vikings is an extremely entertaining show, and definitely made me want to wait for the second season. Especially since some of the mystical undertones to the plot look like they shall be taking centre-stage in future. Some have started to liken the show to Game of Thrones, but this is misplaced. The story and characterisation look downright bare in comparison, so best not to judge it in the shadow of that HBO giant. Nevertheless, if you come to Vikings expecting a well-produced, fast-paced, plot-driven romp, it will deliver on every count.