Federico Fellini’s Satyricon gets a rare public screening in London next week.Niall Anderson welcomes it back.
Little dates faster than cinematic representations of the future; except perhaps cinematic representations of the past. Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (or, to use its pettifogging official title, Fellini-Satyricon) is ostensibly set in and around Nero’s Rome, but it couldn’t be more 1969 if it quoted Shelley while opening a big hamper of dying butterflies in Hyde Park.
A rarefied episodic adventure involving witches, cannibalism, mutilation and at least one character becoming a god, Satyricon is so committed to modish 60s estrangement techniques that the viewer is sometimes distracted from what’s really strange about it. Not the nudity, the gore, the jump-cuts, the spikily intrusive score, or the scenes that end mid-sentence; rather the bizarre calmness of the cinematography and a casual scenic beauty that constantly upstages the actual drama. Satyricon doesn’t play these aspects off against each other so much as it keeps piling them on, layer after layer. For all the deliberate dreamlike elaboration of its technique, Satyricon comes across as a very different dream to what Fellini may have intended. Continue reading A Science Fiction of the Past→
The Digital Intermediate process, known as DI, has been around in cinema for over a decade now. Basically, it is the transfer of filmed material to the digital realm, allowing for total control of the image in post production, especially with regards the colour palette. Traditionally it is an expensive process (10 years ago, around $200,000 for a feature film) and involved scanning the film in its entirety. But as film itself has become all but obsolete, this part of the process is unnecessary and digital grading has become more widespread. Continue reading Digital Grading: cinema and the blue rinse brigade→
One of the interviewees in this thoughtful account of the rise of digital moviemaking called the film production process “sculpting with light”, and they have a point. Film-making captures light and shade, and creates something solid, permanent: a thing that can be carried between places, handled, edited and projected. Whether digital or celluloid, the end result is the same, isn’t it?
Niall Andersonwatches two very different cinematic confidence tricks
As the old joke has it: on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. But what kind of dog are you? Are you housetrained? Do you like children? Do you have any infectious diseases? Are you even, actually, a dog?
Hoaxes and confidence tricks have always been fertile ground for drama, but certain crops have withered in recent years. The clever confidence caper (epitomised by The Sting) doesn’t seem to flourish as it used to. If it hasn’t quite died out, it’s been genetically modified into something almost unrecognisable. The films of Christopher Nolan, for instance, are all confidence capers at root, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the overbearing foliage.
Besides, there’s a new harvest. Films about, for want of a better term, being a dog. Where once the cinematic conman played a short game, hoping to trick himself into money or out of danger, he now does what he does indefinitely and for no immediately intelligible reason. His first hope is that you’ll accept him as a dog. His highest hope is that you’ll accept him as a dog for a really long time. The usual pleasures of the cinematic con trick – whether and how he’ll get away with it – are replaced by the mopier issue of why he wants to be a dog in the first place.
Catfish (2010) remains the exemplar of this new tricky cinema. A transparent and risibly faked “documentary” about how social media allows people to disguise their real identities, Catfish takes callow New York brothers the Schulmans into the American heartland to discover that the hot twentysomething pixie one of them fancies is actually a dowdy middle-aged woman with no friends and a lot of Facebook accounts. There is shock, followed by hugging and learning. The Schulman brothers learned so much, in fact, that they felt compelled to franchise their wisdom into Catfish: The TV Show – an MTV production in which Nev Schulman spies on internet daters and exposes them if they’re not telling the truth.
This seems to me to be a fairly crippled notion of the truth. It is also a fairly obvious bit of reactionary posturing about the rise of online communication. But the note of paranoia – the idea that you can’t trust anybody till you see them in the flesh – feels authentic in both its fear and naivety. Everything will be all right once all the masks are dropped. Two films coincidentally released this week take on this idea in very different ways. Continue reading Ready to take your order→
It’s International Women’s Day – yes there is, it’s on the 19th of November – and last year we celebrated with a look at some of the women who had defined cinema in front of the camera, decade by decade. This year, we thought we would go behind the scenes, paying no attention to the man behind the curtain, and look at those perhaps less celebrated women who have shaped film from the back rooms.
Niall Andersonlooks at a new documentary about migrant experience in London
The Road runs 260 miles, from Holyhead in Wales to Marble Arch in London. We call it the A5, but the Saxons called it Watling Street and the Romans called it Iter II. It’s still the main westward approach to London, which gave filmmaker Mark Isaacs an idea: “Just to go along the road and meet people who’ve set up homes in this stretch that’s more associated with constant travel.”
Originally conceived as a series for the BBC, The Road was going to traverse the entire length of the A5, but that was, says Isaacs, “a difficult pitch”. It was the advent of the 2012 Olympics that eventually gave the film its final 76-minute shape: “The idea of all these different nationalities converging for a few weeks on London, set against London as a migrant city from day to day: the persistence of migration in London’s history.” Continue reading A Long Way From There To Here→
Niall Andersonlooks at Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1967 recreation of War and Peace, which is showing at London’s Renoir cinema on 7 October at 10am.
Like the novel it adapts, the single most extraordinary thing about Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is that anybody had the nerve, skill and patience to bring it off. Granted, Bondarchuk had a technically unlimited budget and the full coercive weight of the Soviet Ministry of Culture behind him (he could, and did, call in 15,000 mounted cavalry to restage the Battle of Borodino), but the politics of the film’s production don’t get close to explaining the surreal attention to detail of the resulting film – nor the fervour with which it tries to animate even the smallest of Tolstoy’s fancies.
Take, for instance, the bear. Readers of the novel will recall that one strand of the plot begins with a policeman being strapped to the back of a bear and thrown into the Neva River as part of a bohemian jape. It would have been easy for the film to just refer to this incident in passing, or to do away with the bear altogether (surely a drenched copper proves the point, whatever he’s strapped to). This is not Bondarchuk’s way. Tolstoy wrote that there was a bear, so there must be a bear. And indeed there he is, unremarked at a dining table during a loud party: one extra among a hundred.
A scene like this could easily be dismissed as a stunt, or – maybe worse – as evidence of a slightly crazed literalism. But there are too many such stunts across the film’s seven-and-a-half hours for that word to carry the necessary weight, and the literalism comes to seem like a shrewd recognition that an epic is really just the magnification of the intimate. So it was in Tolstoy’s hands, anyway, and Bondarchuk seems to have realised that to compromise on the small details would have been to compromise the whole Tolstoyan vision – and his own. Continue reading Time and Patience→
A famous technical innovator, Stanley Kubrick was defiantly behind the curve in one regard. He always mixed the sound of his films in mono. His reasoning was simple: you can’t predict the sound environment of a movie theatre. You can’t predict the size of the room, the output or placement of the speakers, the number of channels in a theatre’s mixer or the competence of the projectionist. A complicated stereo mix would leave too much to chance. So just make sure the dialogue is audible, mix the whole shebang in mono, and get the film out there. It will sound pretty much as good in a suburban fleapit as it did on the sound stage.
This may seem like a mere technical consideration, but it has artistic consequences, the major one being that with only one audio track to play with, you have to think carefully about your approach to volume. Working in mono, you can’t have a sudden violent explosion in a viewer’s right ear while the rest of the soundtrack potters on at its usual level. Big surges in volume have to be carefully planned or the entire sound mix will be destabilised. The result being that the loud parts of Stanley Kubrick’s films are rarely objectively loud (in terms of decibels); they’re just loud in relation to the other bits. Mono means that you have to pay equal attention to the quiet stuff.
Of course, it’s entirely possible to achieve this kind of careful audio balance in stereo. Indeed, given the advances in sound recording and mixing afforded by digital technology, it should be easier now than ever. Digital sound recordings have a much wider frequency spectrum than analogue recordings, which means, first, that a larger range of sounds can be captured and reproduced, and, relatedly, that there is now less need to rely on sheer volume to distinguish between – for example – an explosion and dialogue. In addition, the technology gap between what a sound designer hears on the sound stage and what the moviegoer can expect to hear in the theatre has drastically narrowed since Kubrick’s heyday. Even the worst suburban fleapit now has Dolby Digital stereo sound, and even the most careless or high-handed sound designer will have this minimum standard in mind when mixing and mastering the sound for a film. For all these reasons, we should be living through a golden age of sound: crisper, cleaner and more dynamic than before. So why are people leaving IMAX screenings of The Dark Knight Rises, for instance, complaining both that the whole thing is too loud and that the dialogue is inaudible? Surely a purpose-built IMAX theatre is the perfect environment to see it? More generally: why hasn’t the golden age come to pass? Continue reading Betting On Red→
I spent four years making Barbaric Genius, my first feature documentary. I’ve been a director for about twenty-five years, but I learned more about every aspect of filmmaking – and more about life – in those four years than in the first twenty put together.
The film is finally getting a cinema release this week, a year after its festival debut, and it felt like it might be a good time to try to figure out how to pass on some of the things I’ve learned, for what they’re worth.
Do you remember the acclaimed nineties BBC drama that brought actors Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig to popular attention? I recall it fondly as ‘Our Wigs in the North’. You see, friends, I have a problem with hair and make-up. The anachronistic mullet, the dreadful syrup, the misplaced pout; I cannot rest when it doesn’t work in a TV or film drama. Immune to the frustrated protestations of my viewing companions, I just can’t ignore it and be another brick in the fourth wall. The distraction of an obvious scratchy looking wig or time travelling bonce infuriates me deeply, often forcing me to shout obscenities about fringes at the telly.