Documentary of the week – Anvil!

Sacha Gervasi (2009)

Whether you love or hate heavy metal, or are totally indifferent, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be beguiled by this charming and funny documentary of the band that never quite made it, but after over 25 years hasn’t stopped trying. Director Gervasi was one of the most devoted followers of Anvil in his teens, and became their roadie during a Canadian tour, shades of Almost Famous. His affection and admiration for their heroic tenacity has made a film that manages to be both howlingly funny and surprisingly touching.

It’s 20 years since the making of the glorious spoof documentary This is Spinal Tap, and its memory is never far away. There’s even a swift glimpse of an amp which actually bears the number 11. But these guys are for real. Vocalist ‘Lips’ Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (not to be confused with Rob Reiner, director of Spinal Tap – a teasing little coincidence thrown up by fate, that) have never quite given up on the final come-back. Still hairy but now age-worn, both of them, Lips has been in therapy and Robb’s in a low pay job loading school meals for Children’s Choice Catering, but their dream keeps resurfacing, and as they prepare to cut their thirteenth album, a European tour is planned, organised by their new manager, guitarist Ivan Hurd’s volatile Italian girlfriend Tiziana. Getting lost down the back streets of Prague and being paid for playing with goulash dinners, missing the train in Sweden because it’s already full of metal fans, their increasingly dispiriting yet comical trail through Europe culminates at the torpid Monsters of Transylvanian rock festival on a muddy sports field with a tombola.

Back in England they begin to record the album, with all the usual gamut of emotion, falling out and rebonding, insult hurling and hugging, so familiar from Spinal Tap, and you have to keep reminding yourself this is all true. But as we meet their loyal, long-suffering families, (Robb’s wife especially deserves some kind of endurance medal), looking at family photographs in the ordinary sitting rooms of Toronto suburbia, hearing how both families have been touched by the holocaust, and see them in the real context of ordinary life, our affection for them imperceptibly grows. Tiziana marries her guitarist, and the two worlds come together when the band plays at the wedding, and permed grey and bald heads of family members attempt some unsure proto-headbanging.

Like The Wrestler, it’s a film which celebrates the right to fail. And Robb’s stoical make-do acceptance of his humdrum job while holding the dream of a more heroic other life brings that film strongly to mind. And after laughing all the way, you’ll be amazed at how emotionally involved you feel at the last putsch, a concert in Japan that looks doomed to failure.

London February 2009



Little extras – In Love with Alma Cogan

A night in Cromer in the dreamy exhaustion that follows the completion of long distance walk – 96 miles from Thetford via Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path – has put me in mind of an obscure British film I caught 4 years ago at the Bradford film Festival. WhiIe never making UK distribution – and quite understandably, to be honest – In love with Alma Cogan is still a charming, sweetly romantic film that captures the unexpected allure of this quirky little town in the northern corner of Norfolk, and looks at the passing of a kind of entertainment that’s almost gone – the end-of-the-pier summer variety show. Here’s the review I wrote then:

Filmed in and around the lovely, luminous Cromer pier, in one of the few remaining theatres of that kind, it’s the sentimental story of crusty old Norman (A lovely performance by Roger Lloyd Pack) and his attempts to keep the theatre unchanged and uncorrupted by the dead hand of bureaucracy. Salvation comes in the form of an Alma Cogan look-alike singer who wows ‘em all and provides an almost mythic reawakening of old and cold hearts. Who is Alma Cogan, I hear you ask? Well, as someone old enough to remember her songs playing on the Light Programme in my childhood (eek, I hardly dare admit that I remembered all the words of ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ as the impressive Catrine Kirkman, a real look- and sound-alike, pounded it out!), I can reveal she was one of the big names in UK music in the late 50s, her popularity fading as tastes changed and The Sixties washed away all of that chirpy tuneful schmaltz, big frocks and variety show stuff, though she remained a great hostess and party girl (tis even rumoured she had an affair with John Lennon) till her early death from cancer in 1966.

Whether she was ever quite as revered as this film makes out I doubt, but it’s a fair premise for a gentle plot that only goes too far when it strikes out into unnecessary melodrama involving wild seas and lifeboats, and irritatingly heavily signalled late-blossoming romance. Cromer in winter proves a fine characterful setting, and it’s great to hear real Norfolk accents rather than the generic rustic Mummerset we’re usually expected to swallow for anywhere east of Peterborough. Sentimental and stereotyped it may be, but it’s hard not to like its unaffected enthusiasm and good-heartedness.

Bradford Film Festival 2012

Classic of the week – Love (Szerelem)

Karoly Makk (1970)

A frail but stately old lady (Lili Darvas) wanders through her apartment dreaming of her son Janos returning home from his successful life in the USA. Unfortunately her imaginings are based on a fiction. Her daughter-in-law Luca (Mari Torocsik) is concealing the fact that he is in fact a political prisoner, and she regularly brings fake letters from him that she has written herself describing an idyllic and fabulously successful life in the movie business. As the women contemplate these tall tales of grandeur, which at least one of them knows is a falsehood, black and white images of their fantasies and memories fill the screen. Mari Torocsik is just wonderful as the vivacious, modern woman who keeps up appearances for the old woman while her own life, job and home fall apart because of her husband’s imprisonment. It’s clear she needs to write the letters as much as the mother needs to hear them.

The second part of the film moves to Janos, unexpectedly released, returning home too late to see his mother alive. The reunion of the couple is a masterpiece of subtle tenderness. Few films have managed such a perfect balance of humanism, political criticism and sorrowful fragile beauty. Superb cinematography from Janos Toth captures both the faded ancient regime style of the old lady’s now shabby apartment and the harsh modern world outside inhabited by the resourceful Luca. At Cannes in 1971 Love won the Jury Prize and both Torocsik and Darvas (unbelievably only 64 at the time), gained Special Mentions. Made around the time of many very fine films such as The Conformist, Death in Venice, and Days and Nights in the Forest, and rarely seen on Best Films lists, this film deserves to stand alongside them as a masterpiece.

Transylvania International Film Festival, Cluj, 2012

Documentary of the week – Of Time & the City

Terence Davies (2008)

Black and white archive film has rarely looked more melancholy or gorgeous than in this beautiful, bitter love song to the lost Liverpool of Terence Davies’s childhood. The sometimes worn nature of the film itself adds a feeling of something precious irretrievably slipping from one’s grasp, as we watch the details of humble day to day lives in their warmth and hardship.

The blue remembered hills of Davies’s opening Housman quote are here the murky 50s streets of some of the worst slums in Europe. But glowing with life all the same. The crowds of children playing in the streets, the playground singing games, the special treat of trips across the Mersey to New Brighton, where bodies are laid out to sunbathe side by side like so many pale corpses. Glamour as stars gather for a gala night, the hard grind of the docks, the cheerful lads going off to the Korean War. Never such innocence again. And always the feeling that we are observing and celebrating the dead – for so most of them now will be.

For working class baby boomers who remember when life was like that it’s a particularly melancholy experience to watch those still familiar styles and people, who now look almost as strangely different as those jerky crowds cheering on Queen Victoria or World War I soldiers in early newsreels. Lives become social history.

There’s humour – the ironic comments on the hated monarchy come rather shockingly from Davies’s rich, surprisingly posh, tones, and his nostalgia is not too rosy – the guilt imposed by the beginnings of sexual longings that were then illicit, the damage done by his youthful involvement with the Catholic church, are stabbed home. Who would really have their lost content returned to them? Other regrets seem just plain grumpy – his displeasure at the coming of the Beatles washing away the pop songs of the likes of Dickie Valentine and Alma Cogan (oh come on, Penny Lane and A Day in the Life a bad exchange for Mr Sandman and Never do a Tango with an Eskimo?).

Sound is perfectly matched to images: Mahler and the Hollies, Ewan McColl, and, most moving, Peggy Lee’s The Folks Who Live on the Hill, soaring over the demolition of the awful slums and building of the hopeful but dreadful 60s tower blocks, almost unbearably painful images of yet more dreams dashed. But views of Liverpool’s regeneration and the new crowds who throng its streets, along with words from Eliot’s Four Quartets, leave us with an, albeit shaken, optimism.

 Tyneside Cinema Newcastle October 2008


Classic of the week -Viridiana

Luis Bunuel (1963)

Bunuel made this film in 1963, when Spain was still in the tight double-handed grip of Franco and a very right wing Catholic Church. It was almost immediately banned. Shocking enough to watch a nun taking off her stockings, but things get rapidly worse, culminating in a grotesque parody of Leonardo’s Last Supper… watching it today, we shall never totally feel the impact it had in that time and that place, but it is still a very powerful film, with devastating and relevant things to say about fallible humanity.

Viridiana is a beautiful, pious nun who is called away from here convent for a visit to her wealthy land-owning uncle (Fernando Rey). He is doting, she is dutiful, and when he asks if she will do him the favour of dressing in his dead wife’s bridal gown, (she died on the wedding night…) because she resembles her so much, what can she do but comply. He drugs her drink, and when she wakes up, tells her he has raped her while she slept. After he later kills himself, using a child’s skipping rope, Viridiana inherits the house. Such is her purity and unworldliness that she gathers together a group of beggars and houses them there. Later in the absence of the family the beggars hold a banquet there that begins like an innocent celebration but soons descends into savagery, violence, and rape.

So what does it all mean? Like Bunuel’s best films it is constantly wrong-footing and undermining the viewer. It’s fine for a nun to be beautiful, but could the audience then accept her sexuality? The beggars are quaint and deserving characters to begin with, the banquet scene begins as a joyful celebration of life, a beautifully filmed sequence of movement and happiness, culminating in both the Last Supper tableau, which we find amusing and clever, and then come the scenes of cruelty and violence, which wipe the smiles off out faces. Humanity is corrupt and irredeemable, or perhaps it is that what we call ‘humanity’ does not exist all, once imposed constraints have gone, and that morality is never anything but a thin veneer.

Another chilling moment comes when a well-meaning man unleashes a dog from a rope that is tying it to the underside of a cart and forcing it to trot along at the cart’s pace – immediately afterwards along comes another cart with a dog similarly attached… individual acts of kindness are useless, and make no difference to the world. Even here the feeling of despair can’t help but be laced with amusement, because the dog looks almost contented with its lot – are people happy without freedom after all, then?

As a young man Bunuel studied insects, and his view of humanity has always had a backwards look towards that fascinating, amoral universe – the beautiful and ugly, living, mating, destroying each other and dying, unstoppable and inscrutable. It’s a bleak world view. And so one comes away with a confused mixture of chilly nihilism and yet still a sort of delight in humour and appetite for life – the ‘sweet subversion’ which Bunuel was soon to develop in greater, funnier and harsher films over the years to come.

Baltic Arts Centre, Newcastle, March 2005

Documentary of the week – 2 Years at Sea

Ben Rivers (2011)

Ben Rivers is an experimental artist whose work is more usually seen in galleries than cinemas. This film, winner of a FIPRESCI prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, (2011) is his first full length feature. It’s a disarming portrait of Jake Williams, subject of a previous short by Rivers, an amiable and eccentric fellow who lives alone in a remote spot in Scotland in a tumbledown cottage which has grown organically over the years to incorporate new lean-tos, a caravan and car or two, and numerous sheds. All are full of ‘things that will come in useful one day’, and indeed we see him perform cock-eyed wonders, like the raft he makes (‘been meaning to do it for months’) out of an old patched Li-lo, empty carboys, twine and various bits of other half-broken things.

At the Q&A Jake expressed genuine surprise that being filmed by Ben might have made him uncomfortable in any way or act up for the camera – ‘but that would have meant me acting myself… people don’t do that,’ he said incredulously, little thinking that many in his metropolitan audience probably do, most of the time. But Jake’s simplicity, definitely not naivety, carries us through the humdrum and sometimes amusing nature of his day. Like his cottage, he seems to have become almost an organic part of the landscape, underlined when he takes impromptu naps a in odd locations that take his fancy – a caravan he’s just opened up for what looks like the first time for many weeks, a heathery pasture – and almost blends into the background. Meanwhile benevolent, rampant nature surrounds and smooths over the ramshackle mark his being there has made on the landscape, taking it into itself. Inside old photographs tell a partial tale of a past life he’s left behind. Rivers’ use of old cameras and film makes the medium itself as hazy and gloriously dappled as the dusty interiors and typical northern British weather.

You end the film thinking you’ve seen a portrait of a charming solitary man content with his own company, but there’s more – afterwards up popped an ebullient tartan-betrousered Jake to take questions, totally relaxed in front of a full house, revealing another side of his life – partying visitors, a daughter who comes to stay – and you realise that it isn’t just a picture of a recluse, but of someone so at ease with himself that he is equally comfortable alone for weeks on end, and with company; dozing in the fields or patching up his roof, or making a roomful of people laugh: that rare thing, a totally happy man.

London Film Festival October 2011

Classic of the week – Brief Encounter

David Lean (1945)

It all looks like another country now, the odd, narrow-vowelled speech, the preposterous hats, but this story of two people who fall marvellously and disastrously in love still has tremendous emotional power. Scripted with panache by Noel Coward, and with much of it told in agonised voice-over by Laura (Celia Johnson) the story cunningly both begins and ends with their terrible last minutes together on the railway station, seen from different points of view. The expressionist-inspired cinematography, where black and white can turn in an instant from the grey of utter mundanity to the landscape of romantic despair, and the fabulous score – how can dark Russian romanticism be so perfect for a drab postwar England of tea urns, bath buns, and dowdy women on their way to change their library books? – make a small tragedy being played out in a suburban station unbearably poignant. It almost becomes Anna Karenina, but ends, really, more bleakly. Life must go on. No great causes to fight for, you know exactly what the rest of this woman’s life will be, her comfortable claustrophobic home, chattering neighbours, squabbly children, kind dull old husband. Though it’s easy for the subsequent Me Generations to make fun of these lovers who chose not to go for their desires, the moral choice here is not so much about respectability and ‘duty’, but about how far one is justified in destroying other people’s happiness for the sake of one’s own.

There’s a lot of humour too – the lovers’ tale is punctuated, punctured even, by the banal chat of the station staff, (Joyce Carey’sMyrtle is surely Dot Cotton’s mum!) recounting a far more basic view of life and love, a kind of Hardy-esque chorus. And there are classic sardonic Coward moments – Laura’s husband doing his Times crossword -‘ah yes, romance – that fits in nicely with Baluchistan and delirium’. But Coward makes his mark strongly too in the intense portrayal of undercover, impossible love, ‘that strange diversity of misery and joy’, that must have been so familiar to his circle.

After every (often very funny) parody the intervening years have thrown at it, Brief Encounter emerges truly tragic, witty, and glowingly beautiful.

First reviewed September 2007