Archives for April 2012

Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”, Comfortably the Film of the Year

Farhadi's "A Separation"

Iran’s A Sep­a­ra­tion has just cleaned up at this year’s Asian Film Awards. Before which it had won both the Acad­e­my Award and the Gold­en Globe for Best for­eign-lan­guage film. And last year it sim­i­lar­ly tri­umphed at the Berlin Film Fes­ti­val where it first sur­faced. So there you are then. Some­times good guys do come first.

This is Farhadi’s fifth film, but his first to break through inter­na­tion­al­ly. Before which he’d worked exten­sive­ly in the­atre. So it’s unsur­pris­ing to hear him site Ing­mar Bergman as a key influ­ence in the inter­view he gives on the dvd extras, and to hear him allud­ing to Scenes From A Mar­riage from 1973. Impres­sive­ly, it’s a com­par­i­son that A Sep­a­ra­tion com­fort­ably merits.

Accord­ing to Jan Fleis­ch­er, the Nation­al Film School’s script guru in Lon­don, a well told sto­ry needs to move through five dis­tinct phas­es: Expo­si­tion, where we are intro­duced to the var­i­ous ele­ments of the sto­ry, Con­flict, Cri­sis, Cat­a­stro­phe, and final­ly Cathar­sis, as the sto­ry is brought to a defin­i­tive end.

This film illus­trates that dynam­ic pro­gres­sion bril­liant­ly. Indeed, it’s a long time since I’ve seen quite so much plot shoe­horned into to a sin­gle sto­ry. Prac­ti­cal­ly every scene turns, as yet more twists are revealed and yet anoth­er sur­prise is unveiled. Which might have proved prob­lem­at­ic, were it not all han­dled so very deft­ly, and in such a sub­tle, nuanced and all too believ­able way.

It’s a foot per­fect real­i­sa­tion of Strind­berg’s famous wish to see a dra­ma per­formed as if in front of a fourth wall. So seam­less and con­fi­dent are the per­for­mances and the direc­tion here, that you find your­self perched for­ev­er on the edge of your seat, watch­ing as two fam­i­lies descend into all too avoid­able tragedy.

Robert McK­ee main­tains that the rea­son that Bergman is one of the most impor­tant film mak­ers of the 20th cen­tu­ry is because he was one of its great­est scriptwrit­ers. A Sep­a­ra­tion strong­ly sug­gests that Asghar Farha­di has con­fi­dent­ly tak­en up that mantle.

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Alabama Shakes, the Sound of Summer, But Don’t Hold That Against Them.

In 2010 it was Sleigh Bells, last year it was Odd yawn Future (reviewed ear­li­er here). And this year, the break­through act to emerge from SXSW was, by all accounts, Alaba­ma Shakes. And already you can hear the back­lash to the release of their debut album Boys & Girls begin­ning to build.

Much the same thing hap­pened after Amy Wine­house released what was her sec­ond and, as it turned out, her final album, Back to Black. One minute, all the right peo­ple were smil­ing approv­ing­ly stroking their beards and nod­ding their heads to the silky new sound. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, it was every­where.

They nev­er real­ly for­gave her. Which is most unfair. It’s hard­ly her fault if every­one else is des­per­ate­ly try­ing to latch on to the next big thing. And you can detect that same sense of faint resent­ment seep­ing out between the lines in the admir­ing reviews that Boys & Girls has been provoking.

Yes they’ve paid their dues, and Brit­tany Howard plain­ly means every­thing she sings. And the ener­gy and pas­sion of their live shows has most­ly been faith­ful­ly repro­duced here in the record­ing stu­dio. And there’s no mis­tak­ing that aura of authen­tic­i­ty, and the sense that here’s a band who go to bed with the Phil Spec­tor box set Back to Mono by their bedside. 

And yes, after they’ve fin­ished tour­ing with him this year, their next album is cer­tain to be pro­duced by Jack White, who’s sure to even fur­ther fine-tune their impec­ca­ble musi­cal instincts. But you just know that come the sum­mer, this album’s going to be all over the place.

On ads, movie sound­tracks, jet-set cat­walks, and, final­ly, as back­ground muzak in all the lazy retro wom­en’s retail dis­count cloth­ing bou­tique stores in every shop­ping mall in the west­ern world, and even­tu­al­ly beyond.

But you can only real­ly hold that against them if they’re the kind of band who are active­ly court­ing that sort of atten­tion. And good­ness knows, there are enough bands out there that are. But this plain­ly isn’t one of them.

But what are you going to do? The fact of the mat­ter is, Alaba­ma Shakes sounds like a lat­ter-day Janis Joplin has joined the stage at a pri­vate par­ty host­ed by Prince to briefly take the mike and lead his band. And nobody can believe what they’re hear­ing, least of all the host. You’ve been warned.

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Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not A Film”, Yet Another Iranian Triumph, Not

This Is Not A FilmIn late 2010 the gift­ed Iran­ian film mak­er Jafar Panahi was sen­tenced to six years in jail and for­bid­den from mak­ing films for 20 years.

Films of his, such as The Cir­cle from 2000 and Off­side from 2006, had sug­gest­ed that here was yet anoth­er Iran­ian film mak­er who seemed to have suc­cess­ful­ly found a way to gen­tly cri­tique the land of his birth, espe­cial­ly its atti­tude to women, but to do so in such a way that the author­i­ties were begrudg­ing­ly pre­pared to put up with. Not any more, alas.

Under house arrest, and for­bid­den from in any way being seen to make films, he invit­ed a film mak­er friend of his around to record a day in his life. Light­heart­ed­ly at first, he begins to act out the film that he’d hoped to be mak­ing. It’s a sto­ry of a girl impris­oned in her own home, for­bid­den by her tra­di­tion­al par­ents from leav­ing to pur­sue her stud­ies at university.

But as he tries to tell the film, that lev­i­ty evap­o­rates, and the hope­less­ness of his sit­u­a­tion begins to dawn on him. You can’t tell a film, that’s not what a film is. And sud­den­ly, the title’s no longer fun­ny or mis­chie­vous, but qui­et­ly trag­ic. He might nev­er make a film ever again.

Some­thing quite remark­able hap­pened to Iran­ian cin­e­ma about 20 years ago. Its nat­ur­al mode had always been that of neo­re­al­ism. So when we see the boy impa­tient­ly ask­ing an elder for direc­tions in Kiarostami’s Where Is The Friend’s Home from 1987, the old man con­tin­ues prepar­ing his pipe before stir­ring him­self to reply.

His face seems to say, empires rise and empires fall, but noth­ing ever real­ly changes, so I might as well enjoy my smoke before even­tu­al­ly address­ing your ques­tion – which by the way, and unsur­pris­ing­ly, I’ll not be able to help you with.

But in 1990 Kiarosta­mi made a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent kind of film, with the bril­liant if unchar­ac­ter­is­tic Close Up. It fol­lows a man who imper­son­ates anoth­er major Iran­ian film mak­er, Mohsan Makhmal­baf. But as you watch what appears to be a doc­u­men­tary, you real­ize that a lot of what you’re see­ing must in fact have been re-enact­ed. And the film’s sub­ject, truth and lies, is mir­rored by the form it takes to tell its sto­ry, as it becomes increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to untan­gle fact from fiction.

The fol­low­ing year, in ’91, he made a doc­u­men­tary cum fea­ture film about the actors from Where Is The Friend’s Home called Life And Noth­ing More. And in ’94 he made Through The Olive Trees, which was a film about the actors in that film, and the ten­sion between how they treat­ed one anoth­er on and off set. In oth­er words, he made a film, about a film, about a film.

Then in ’96, Makhmal­baf, he of Close Up, made a remark­able film about a film mak­er mak­ing a film about an inci­dent in his youth, when he’d stabbed a police­man. But the film, provoca­tive­ly titled A Moment of Inno­cence, starred the actu­al police­man play­ing his old­er self, advis­ing the actor who was cast as his younger self!

Most remark­ably of all, Makhmal­baf’s 18 year old daugh­ter Sami­ra then made a stun­ning film called The Apple, in ’98, about which I’ll say noth­ing oth­er than I defy any­one to unpick which scenes were fic­tion­al­ized and which ones actu­al­ly happened.

So when we see the for­lorn Panahi point­ing his iPhone at his friend, as his friend films him in his apart­ment in This Is Not A Film, it’s a par­tic­u­lar­ly poignant image. Here are two Iran­ian film mak­ers engaged in a yet anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing explo­ration of arti­fice and the film mak­ing process, and how it can impinge on the every day lives of ordi­nary peo­ple. It’s an artis­tic con­ver­sa­tion that we in the rest of the world have been hyp­no­tized by and have watched and lis­tened to in wonder.

What an amaz­ing coun­try, to have pro­duced so many serous film mak­ers pro­duc­ing such an extra­or­di­nary vari­ety of films. A Sep­a­ra­tion for instance, is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent kind of film (reviewed here). And yet here is yet anoth­er major film mak­er qui­et­ly ques­tion­ing the coun­try he loves and lives in.

But what was once a source of domes­tic pride has been trans­formed into one of nation­al shame. The author­i­ties in Iran appear to be inca­pable of see­ing the wood from the trees. And instead of cel­e­brat­ing one of their many, bril­liant film mak­ers, they’re send­ing one of them to gaol. Shame on you.

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Weather Forecasts, and What We Now Know in the BBC’s Superb “Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey”.

Orbit: Earth's extraordinary journeyLast autumn, Kate Hum­ble pre­sent­ed a one-off pro­gramme on BBC2 called Will It Snow? The ques­tion it asked was, is it pos­si­ble to make long-range weath­er fore­casts? And the answer was an emphat­ic No.

Weath­er pat­terns are sub­ject to what chaos the­o­ry dubbed the but­ter­fly effect. A but­ter­fly beats its wings off the coast of Tokyo and six months lat­er there’s a hur­ri­cane in Florida.

The prob­lem is, every time you try to make a set of pre­dic­tions you need to fac­tor in about a dozen vari­ables. If any one of those vari­ables behaves slight­ly dif­fer­ent­ly than expect­ed, then that will have a knock-on effect on half a dozen oth­er variables.

And each of those will affect half a dozen oth­er vari­ables, each. Any num­ber of which will even­tu­al­ly come back to rad­i­cal­ly affect many of those orig­i­nal vari­ables a few weeks or months later.

Any mid to long-range pre­dic­tions there­fore will have been ren­dered com­plete­ly use­less. And that’s assum­ing there’s only a slight vari­a­tion in one of the orig­i­nal twelve. Invari­ably, there are innu­mer­able small vari­a­tions across the board.

So whilst it is pos­si­ble to make accu­rate pre­dic­tions over a four or five day peri­od, because you can allow for those slight vari­a­tions, over any­thing more than a few weeks those small changes will come to have huge and com­plete­ly unpre­dictable ramifications.

This top­ic was treat­ed in a much more mea­sured way when Hum­ble teamed up with Helen Czer­s­ki for their three part series, Orbit: Earth­’s Extra­or­di­nary Jour­ney. Dur­ing which, they fol­lowed our plan­et as it made one of its annu­al orbits around the Sun.

Using var­i­ous exot­ic loca­tions across the globe to illus­trate the dif­fer­ent phe­nom­e­na they were explor­ing, they com­bined exact­ly the right mix of glossy, trav­el­ogue loca­tions and fas­ci­nat­ing, sober sci­en­tif­ic explanations.

We learnt and were shown how the Earth­’s tilt is respon­si­ble for the annu­al sea­sons, and dis­cov­ered how it, the tilt, is one of three ele­ments that deter­mine when and why our plan­et expe­ri­ences spo­radic Ice Ages. Cru­cial­ly, they kept the sci­ence acces­si­ble with­out in any way becom­ing patronizing.

For not with­stand­ing our inabil­i­ty to ever be in a posi­tion to make long-range weath­er fore­casts, for the first time in our his­to­ry we can pro­vide a sci­en­tif­ic expla­na­tion for a huge range of the weath­er phe­nom­e­na that gov­ern life on this planet.

Though the Earth­’s tilt has long been guessed at, it is only now that we under­stand defin­i­tive­ly that it has a 41,000 year cycle, dur­ing which it moves from an angle of 24.5 degrees to 22 and back again, and that cur­rent­ly it’s at 23.5°. Like­wise, whilst tor­na­does and mon­soons have long since been mar­veled at, today we can pro­vide a sci­en­tif­ic expla­na­tion as to how and why they take place. And although we’re nev­er going to able to say exact­ly when and where they are going to hap­pen, dis­cov­er­ing what we can and can’t pre­dict is the most valu­able gift of all that sci­ence had giv­en us.

Once again, the BBC took us on a guid­ed tour of what we now know, and how it is that we know it. It’s an area they’ve become increas­ing­ly impres­sive in, and there’s a dis­tinct sense that, as far as sci­en­tif­ic pro­grammes on tele­vi­sion are con­cerned, we’re liv­ing in some­thing of a gold­en era.

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