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Watching Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

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I first watched Jeanne Dielman in the bath.

Watching films in this way is a favourite, and necessary pastime of mine. Finding the time to indulge my love of long, long baths and films can be a little tricky: both activities take upwards of 90 minutes. There’s only so long in the day.

I’d heard of Chantal Akerman, but that was all. I’d read her name in journals, seen it tweeted by respected film writers. I knew she must be something special, so on this particular evening, I decided watch her most famous work – Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

I didn’t check the run time before I turned it on. (201 minutes, in case you didn’t already know). Its long run time is because much of the film takes place in real time.

I watched Jeanne – the film’s title character – wash the dishes. I watched her peel potatoes, make the bed and eat soup with her son. She opens doors, closes them, turns lights on and off as her routine takes her from room to room.

She’s alone for most of the day.

The camera is unobtrusive, and she never looks towards it. Conversations are spoken through doorways with obscured visitors. She avoids eye contact with her male callers, she sits at right angles to her son at the dinner table, and kisses him goodnight with her body facing at odds to his.

It sounds claustrophobic, but there’s no cliché or aggression in this portrait of domesticity. I read that Jeanne’s movements were lovingly recreated from Chantal Akerman’s observations of her own mother.

Jeanne seems resigned to her lot. Does she enjoy it? Slight flourishes would suggest so. The way her fingers linger on the door as she closes it, a microscopic embellishment in a well rehearsed routine.

I became soothed by the familiarity of her movements.

My bathwater went cold. I topped it up. It went cold again. My boyfriend knocked on the door to check I was okay. My cat came in, sat on the edge of the bath, got bored and left.

I watched Jeanne peel potatoes. I got to know her routine, and her apartment. I was mesmerised.

Half way through the second day, something happens. Perhaps there was an incident between her and her male caller. Something about her seems different. Her hair’s a little ruffled. She seems a little flustered.

Something’s amiss.

Camera angles change.

She leaves the lid off the soup tureen – that’s not something she would do.

She spoils the potatoes, the dishes are re-washed, there’s nowhere to put a hot pot.

She’s unraveling, she snaps.

My boyfriend heard an exclamation from the bathroom.

The credits rolled. I didn’t move.

 

Three hours and 20 minutes in the bath leaves your hands pretty wrinkly.

 

The Cube is hosting a rare screening of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at 2pm, followed by a preview of her last work, No Home Movie, on Sunday 31st .

By Georgina

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Interview: Meet SeventySeven Film Club

Kris, Mark and Owen run SeventySeven, a Tuesday evening film club held in the basement of the Arts House Cafe.

 

What is SeventySeven, and how did you start?

Kris: Me and Owen used to do film nights together, and we’d introduce each other to films we were interested in. We’d been doing this for a long time, since 2008, when then the opportunity came to do it publicly at the South Bank club in Bedminster.

Our first screening, The Passion of Joan of Ark (1928) was October 2013, followed by a double bill of Peter Watkins films.

We moved to Stokes Croft in April 2014. South Bank was a great venue, but it felt kind of isolated, so we moved to this more central location in Stokes Croft, where you’re more in the thick of things.

Mark: I’d been aware of SeventySeven for a while. I used to see their film posters in and around Bedminster, and thought it’s something that I should be going along to. At the time, I was screening films myself film for LinkAge in the the South Bank, but it wasn’t until February 2014 that I went to a SeventySeven night.

I remember the first screening I went to was Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969). I turned up at screenings regularly, we talked about films and I ended up getting more and more involved.

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Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Your programme is one of the most ambitious – and eclectic – in Bristol. How do you choose your films?

Owen: All three of us are into films generally, but each of us has specific areas that we specialise in. Kris is knows way more about silent films than I do. I like really psychedelic British films, 70s American films and crazy Japanese stuff. I also really like European art house.

Mark: It’s quite educational for me. I’ve seen a lot of films myself; when i was at University, I studied art history, but I also did a cinema module. I’ve also liked films since i was a kid – all of us have.

Specifically, I like a lot of French and Italian cinema, but together we have eclectic tastes with varied intellectual interests. Kris has a philosophy background, Owen is a musician, I’m interested in the visual arts, and i think our film choices reflect this.

Kris: Theres no real method to our choices really, other than avoiding the well known stuff.

Bladerunner (1982)  is one of my favourite films, but there’s no real pleasure in showing that. It’s much more of a pleasure to show lesser known films. We’re just interested in showing things we like, and that we think people will like.

Owen: Yeah, big cinemas show that stuff. There are lots of cinemas around Bristol, and we just want to offer something different, we want to have our own thing.

Mark: That’s not to say we’ll never screen something that’s well known. Very occasionally we will. We played Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) this Halloween, for instance. But Kris is right, screening films that are lesser known or obscure, probably for many reasons, unjustly so, is important to us. It’s revelatory, really. You see things and just think, why is this not more talked about?

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You’ve screened some very challenging films in the past. Have any of your screenings seen a strong reaction from the audience, positive or negative?

Owen: We screened Peter Watkin’s The War Game (1965), which is a faux nuclear war documentary.That, I think, is one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s like being punched in the face for 45 minutes.

Kris: Another one of our biggest screenings was The Other Side of the Underneath (1972), a feminist film about schizophrenia. It’s an extreme British art house film, which turned out to be really popular.

Kris: we had a group three or four walk out of that. They went to see a Terry Gilliam film at the Cube, which had sold out, so they sent them to us. They left. But to be honest, most films we show aren’t extreme at all. Just the odd one or two.

Mark: It is surprising. This year we showed a film by Marco Ferreri – Le Grande Bouffe (1973), and I was amazed at the number of people that came to that. It’s a fun film, it’s pretty nihilistic – it’s about four men who come together, enjoy the company of these prostitutes and eat themselves to death – but someone walked out of that screening.

There was one  chap who stood up, and just said ‘no’, and walked out. A very nice guy. Actually, we haven’t seen him for a while. In fact, the more i think about it, i don’t think we’ve seen him since Le Grande Bouffe. But that was one of our walkouts. And I like the idea that you can create an environment for lively debate and disagreement.

 

What’s your biggest source of inspiration for your programming?

Kris: Well the internet is really our biggest resource, plus all books and documentaries about film. One thing leads to another, and sometimes films just fall into your lap. You could be looking up one film, and that leads to another film, which leads to something else.

Mark: I go to the Watershed and the Cube a lot, but the biggest resource for me is probably 20th Century Flicks. I’d go once a week and rent maybe a couple of films.

Kris: Second Run is also a great resource. It’s amazing. It leads you from one great film to another.

Owen. And let’s not forget friends.

Mark: Yes word of mouth as well. Kris and Owen have introduced me to a lot, and vice versa.

Owen: That’s been the best experience for me, being part of this film club. Kris has screened old silent films that I might not necessarily have chosen to watch myself, but we’ve screened them and i’ve just been blown away by them.

 

Do you ever put on film nights outside the Arts House?

Kris: We did three screenings for Scalarama in Cafe Kino. Last year we did a screening of Savage Witches (2012), which was a homage to Dasies (1966), and we did live music for that. Owen played, along with a couple of friends…

Mark: …and this year we screened a film by an Iranian film director who lives in Dublin, Rouzbeh Rashidi, who has own group called The Experimental Film Societyand makes films himself. I’ve been aware of his work for some years, so I emailed him and we ended up showing his 2012 film, He (2012).

Kris – I talked with our friend Angus, who’s a musician, I asked him if he’d mind doing a score to a film called The Goddess, a silent Chinese film from 1934, and he did a live piano score. I think it’s my favourite screening to date. It’s not necessarily the best film we’ve shown, but it was just a great event.

SavageWitches_promo-13-920x688Savage Witches (2012)

Can I have three film recommendations?

Owen: F for Fake (1973, Orson Welles), Punishment Park (1971, Peter Watkins) and Performance (1970, Nicholas Roeg).

Kris: Loss of Sensation (1935, Aleksandr Andrijewski), Hortobágy (1936, George Hoellering) and Evil Speak (1981, Eric Weston).

Mark: Patton (1970, Franklin J. Schaffner), Le Feu Follet (1963, Lous Malle), Who Can Kill a Child (1976, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador) and The House that Screamed (1969, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador). Oh, that’s four. 

Aesthetica Short Film Festival

By Tara Judah

Deciding what to see, and what not to see, at a film festival is always an issue; when I attended Cannes in 2013 I missed the Palm d’Or winner in favour of dinner because I hadn’t eaten a meal in a week, at LFF I had to skip High Rise and Carol to talk about a bunch of other films on radio, and in Oberhausen I missed all three sessions of Jennifer Reeder’s films because I was writing on something else. Call it an occupational hazard, but the truth is, no matter how sleep deprived you’re willing to be, it simply isn’t possible to see everything.

So as someone who doesn’t specialise in short films – but who believes that they are entirely an art form unto themselves – I find selecting sessions based on genre or categorisation deeply problematic.

Though I know I would enjoy a drama and a thriller or two, I’m not entirely sure I want to sit through an hour and a half of them in one go. Won’t I be weary of the generic tropes after I’ve seen them repeatedly and in such concentration? Is there an arguably good reason as to why an Opening Night showcase offers a taster across genres, to entice a supposedly broad audience, but the four-day program it samples does not?

Like many festival attendees, I’m experienced enough to be aware of my own tastes and preferences, but I also want to be surprised and challenged. Having also contributed to short film selection for various film festivals over the years, one thing I know well is that I tend to favour non­narrative works. I find their inherently disparate nature more engaging across those ninety minutes in the dark.

As such, at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival, with no possible way for me to see all 300 films in the program, I decided to attend, almost exclusively, the Experimental and Artists’ Film strands.

Four days, and I’m not quite sure how many short films later, what I’m left with are questions. Cheifly, what are the parameters or guidelines for separating ‘Experimental’ and ‘Artists’ Film’? And who are those categories best serving; programmers, audiences or filmmakers?

There seemed to be some grouping of aesthetics or thematics in some of the sessions I attended, but what mostly I found in seeing these films, that are seemed much like each other, was monotony. Clearly it’s not the fault of the third film in a sequence of aesthetically and formally aligned films that I should grow bored of watching it, and yet, that is what happened.

What, then, is the alternative? Would it have been to the audiences’ benefit to see but one of these among a selection of completely atonal works? Mixed in with documentary, dance, music videos, thrillers and comedies? For mine, after attending Oberhausen over the past three years, where that’s exactly how they program their international competition screenings, I’d say yes.

I used to think (perhaps naively) that a short film program should be curated to tell a story, or have an arch, or collectively make a point of some kind. But that’s as daft as expecting to extract meaning from all visual art works, or in thinking that a full day of feature film viewing should be somehow cohesive. Context and tone can be useful, for sure, but artworks must stand alone, too.

Giving a film the space it needs in any sort of grouped program is a terrifically difficult task. And, even as I write this report, I can’t be at all sure that I didn’t miss the most successfully curated sessions of the festival -­ perhaps I was having a meal, or getting lost in the charming streets of York as I meandered between venues, or maybe I was writing and reflecting on something else, entirely.

Why you should visit the Cube

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It’s hard to be a film lover in Bristol without having visited the Cube. If you haven’t been, it’s the squat red brick building hidden away on Dove street.

It’s run by a dedicated team of volunteers, who clean, serve, curate, perform and manage the entire operation. In this respect, it well and truly is an independent space, a work of love for art and community, a place to meet, learn and create. Sure, it’s a little grubby, and the seats are uncomfortable, but for me, that’s OK because it has everything I want from an independent cinema: cheap drinks, late night conversations, off beat films.

Aesthetics and clientele aside though, this cinema needs to be talked about for one reason:  it takes a step off the usual track, predominantly shunning obsequious blockbusters and dusty, overplayed B-movies in favour of a ferociously ambitious programme created around lesser-known gems, documentaries, live music and talks.

You know what you won’t find here? The vein of sexism and racial sourness that is so often running through bigger, more commercial offerings. And overpriced popcorn. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to the multiplex, just be sure to consume a healthy dose of antidote cinema whilst your at it, the kind of stuff that can be found at the Cube.

Oscar Season: A Look Ahead

By Liam MacLeod

With the closing of the summer blockbuster season this is the time of year that critics like to limber up their intellectual muscles in preparation for the winter months. The kids are back at school, cinemas are quieting down and the big awards like the BAFTAS and Oscars are right around the corner. So now is the time we’ll start to see the more notable art-house films and ostentatious awards bait lining up for recognition. You know the type, the films making noise at festivals like Cannes, Toronto and the upcoming London Film Festival. These are the lavish period pieces, hard hitting biopics and the all-important ‘issue’ films vying for your money and attention before the Christmas Holidays. The question then is which films are these and are they actually worth your time?

Black Mass

The first entry goes in our ‘long-shot’ category thanks mostly to the now execrable reputation of its leading man. Scott Cooper helms the biopic of Whitey Bulger, the Boston mob boss who effectively played rival gangs and the FBI against each other for thirty years while working as an informant. If any of this sounds familiar it’s because Bulger was largely the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s coked-out crime lord in The Departed. Cooper’s last noteworthy film was the country music biopic Crazy Heart which earned the Best Actor award for leading man Jeff Bridges. For what it’s worth Johnny Depp’s performance as Bulger seems closer to Fear and Loathing territory than, say, Mordecai. Whether or not Black Mass can redeem the actor in the face of critics and Academy Members though is another question.

In the Heart of the Sea

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Ron Howard has been tipped for Oscar glory as a director for some time now, but despite the success of Frost/Nixon and Rush it’s an honour he’s been thus far denied. In the Heart of the Sea reunites Howard with Rush star Chris Helmsworth for a seafaring adventure based on the real life sinking of the whale ship Essex. In addition to being an epic man-versus-beast story (the events inspired the book Moby Dick) the film also looks set to be an intense survival story. In depicting the ninety days the crew spent stranded at sea the film will cover the survivors battling starvation, thirst and inevitably each other. This is a genuine opportunity for Helmsworth to demonstrate his range as a dramatic actor and one I’m eager to see. The film is set to open in December, the very heart of awards season, so if nothing else it has Warner Bros confidence behind it.

Joy

Yeah I know, I can’t get enthused about the invention of the Miracle Mop either. However like it or not David O. Russell’s last two films have earned awards recognition seemingly by default so his latest entry goes on the list. Joy stars frequent collaborator Jenifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano and will follow her life before and after inventing the mop which allowed her to build a multi-million dollar business empire. If you didn’t get that from the incredibly vague and incoherent trailer, don’t worry you’re not the only one.

Steve Jobs

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From one innovator’s biopic to another. Steve Jobs is the long-awaited, chaotically-developed biography of the eponymous Apple founder. With a script from Aaron Sorkin the project has been stalled in development hell for some time, seeing a number of actors, directors and even studios become attached to the project only to drop out. Finally however Danny Boyle has been able to bring the film to completion, with Michael Fassbender donning the turtleneck. It’s an intimidating prospect for Fassbender, playing one of the most famous and divisive men on the planet. While a genius of tech and business Jobs was also a demanding perfectionist who fired employees without warning, screwed colleagues out of stock options and denied parentage of his daughter. Not to mention the question of ‘is it too soon?’ with Jobs only passing away almost four years ago.

Carol

Moving onto this year’s big success story at Cannes, Todd Hynes’ 1950s romance Carol. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith the film stars Cate Blanchett as a married woman who begins an affair with Rooney Mara’s young store clerk. While Hynes is a compelling visual director this looks set to be a showcase of Mara and Blanchett’s considerable skills which have already won accolades (Mara tied for Best Actress with Emmanuelle Bercot). With one Academy Award under her belt Blanchett won’t be under too much pressure but a Best Supporting nod for Mara could seriously legitimise her reputation as a talented actress.

The Danish Girl

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Last year Eddie Redmayne won the award for Best Actor for his performance in The Theory of Everything. Now with the release of The Danish Girl in 2015 he may actually earn that award. Kidding aside this looks to be one of the big ‘issue films’ of the year with Redmayne playing Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Tom Hooper is in the director’s chair for this one so expect a high value reproduction of 1920s Denmark. As with Carol the big draw will likely be Redmayne’s return to glory after his less than well-receive performance in Jupiter Ascending. Also look to see Best Supporting buzz around Redmayne’s co-star Alicia Vikander who has already delivered compelling performances this year. However do expect the film to be coloured by the conversation of why we’re still casting cisgender actors in transgender roles.

Suffragette

Another of the ‘issue’ films, a fictional account of a battle for civil rights that many are still fighting today. Suffragette promises to focus on the early years of women’s suffrage with an emphasis on the little discussed violence the movement endured. Controversially the film is told through the lens of fictional protagonist Maud Watts, played by the ever charming Carey Mulligan. Alongside Mulligan will be the likes of Meryl Street and Natalie Press will be playing the historically factual suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davidson. It feels like the film is attempting to court the Selma press for being a portrayal of the ‘real’ protest with all the pain that gets exercised from history books. Whether it’s in good taste to court the Selma press with a cast that’s whiter than marshmallow fluff is probably another matter.

And that’s what you’ve got to look forward to in the next few months. It’s true that some of these seem fairly targeted at the Academy’s sensibilities if we’re being cynical. At the same time though many of these look like very powerful stories; battles for survival, love, dignity, identity. All have the makings of the best stories and all still have the potential to surprise us.

An interview with the Hellfire Video Club

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Meet Joe, Matt and Brig, the Cube Microplex’s resident curators of fabulously bizarre monthly film nights in Bristol. 

What’s your history, how did you start?

MATT: I’d been programming stuff at the Cube for a few years and had tried to get a semi regular thing off the ground showing under-loved or obscure films that I thought were worth trying to get people to see. It was kind of a tough sell though, and I wasn’t sure how to ‘market’ it. Then Joe suddenly got in touch…

JOE: I was holding monthly nights at my house with a bunch of friends where we’d watch all sorts of atrocious and weird old films whilst drinking lots of beer. As there was nothing going on like this in Bristol at the time (although unbeknownst to me, SeventySeven film club were screening oddball arthouse things in Bedmo) I decided to try and do it on a larger scale, with The Cube Microplex being the best place I could think of to hold them. When I contacted The Cube, Matt was working there and had been trying to do something similar, so it was a natural fit. The First Hellfire Video Club (HFVC) night was June 2011.

We’re all long-standing record nerds, so a big part of the night for us is playing theme-appropriate music in the bar before/between/after the films to help people adjust their brains in alignment with what we’re screening. Lots of weird Soundtracks, library music, psychedelia and strange synthesiser records.

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Altered States (1990)

How do you choose which films to screen?

JOE: The three of us running HFVC have all spent our teenage and adult lives hoovering up weird old films so we each have a massive list of potential films to show. We try to keep each month’s films within a certain theme and generally stick to films from the 1960’s – 1980’s, as it’s a period we’re all interested in and there is such a vast amount of totally amazing yet under-seen films within it. Personally, I have no interest in genre films if they have become self-aware or tongue-in-cheek – I’m looking for cinema as outsider art, a personal vision gone wrong, something so lost-in-translation that it becomes mind bending, or a film that seems like it was made by someone who has never seen a film before.

BRIG: By democracy, it’s the British way. We each take it in turns to choose films and sometimes we all agree on a film or two we’d all like to see on the big screen. We’ve each watched thousands of films, so there’s plenty to choose from.

MATT: Some we pretty much all agree on, whereas some months are more our individual ‘subject areas’ – stuff we feel particularly passionate about.

How do you find them?

JOE: Constantly checking out other films by directors and actors we’ve liked other work from, reading a lot of old film books and zines and checking out any recommendations from reliable sources.

BRIG: The internet, the greatest resource on earth. There aren’t many films you can’t find out about from somewhere on the web.

MATT: …though it’s nice to have a go trying! The best thing about this is no matter how much you think you’ve exhausted it you’ll always find new stuff you’ve never heard of. There’s really so much out there waiting to be exhumed. The deeper you dig the more you’ll find.

What’s been your most popular film? Have you ever done repeat screenings?

JOE: Our busiest night was definitely our screening of Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (1982) AKA: Turkish Star Wars! Probably because of those last two words I suspect – it was great fun, everyone really got into it! But often other nights will be very busy that we hadn’t expected, our Czech New Wave night was rammed!

BRIG: I remember Zardoz (1974) was packed to the brim. Well worth it to see Sean Connery in a nappy for 105 minutes on the big screen.

MATT: It’s kind of unpredictable, which is great. We’ve never done a repeat screening, though. There are so many other films to show!

What’s the weirdest film you’ve ever screened?

JOE: That’s very subjective! The Boxer’s Omen (1983) is one of the most overtly brain-smooshing films in existence, but we then again we have also screened a low-budget Canadian horror called Things (1989) that is so badly made and brutally mundane that it has a deeply weird vibe, to an almost psychedelic degree…

BRIG: We’ve shown plenty of slightly odd films, but most of the truly weirdest films I’ve ever seen are pretty unwatchable, and would struggle to keep most people in a cinema for 90 minutes or more. The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973) was a pretty bizarre two hours of wonderful phantasmagorical imagery with no real plot.

MATT: Yep, Things is pretty fucked. It’s like waking up inside someone else’s deeply disturbed mind, and not being able to get out. You can never recreate that kind of weirdness. It just IS. You either go with it or just feel as though you’re being assaulted.

Has a screening ever upset?

JOE: I recall someone walking out of our screening of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) – and it hadn’t even got going properly yet!

BRIG: Several films have offended the odd person here or there. Particularly films from the 1970s where boundaries were pushed further than before or since. I remember a 1970s Spanish horror film ruffling a few feathers as a family were strung up like animals in an abattoir to be cut up by a maniac hell bent on revenge. Some people are so easily offended.

MATT: Someone also got upset at the spaghetti western night because the audience were laughing at the dubbing. That was kind of unexpected. I could understand where they were coming from in a way. It’s so subjective…watching things with an audience is such a radically different experience to viewing at home. Depends what you’re used to. I guess he felt the general amusement was insulting to something he felt was serious, or at least seriously intentioned. Personally I find I can laugh at something’s ‘idiosyncrasies’ without feeling as though it diminishes it’s worth as a film. In fact I love the fact they co-exist. Ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are reductive! You can have both!

Boxer's Omen (10)

Boxer’s Omen (1983)

Do you ever screen your films outside of The Cube?

MATT: We did a couple of screening at Supernormal festival, which is an amazing, small (but perfectly formed) artist run festival in Oxfordshire. There was a nice build up effect, where people just wandered in, watched a bit, then would wander off and return 10/15 minutes later having convinced others to come and check out the ensuing oddness.

We may try and do some more DJ/visuals sets In the future. We’ve built up a pretty choice selection of crazed visuals, and we tend to buy way more wonked out records than would be considered healthy.

Do you ever go to the multiplex?

JOE: I’m not averse to it – but can’t stand big showy CGI/ superhero films. A small baby has prevented me from going anywhere of late though….

BRIG: It’s been at least a decade since I set foot in a multiplex. Why pay to watch mindless modern Hollywood crap when you’ve got plenty of great old films to watch at home?

MATT: Occasionally. Contemporary films rarely step out of line though. And you have to step out of line to get to somewhere truly great, for the most part.

Any special plans for the future?

JOE: It’s our 5th birthday next summer so we’ll have to do something big for that!

MATT: I’d definitely like to do more DJ/visuals sets. Maybe at a few festivals. I’m wondering about an all-nighter for our ‘anniversary’ (or just maybe an all-dayer, we’re no spring chickens after all).

Top 3 films?

JOEBoxer’s Omen (1983), Holy Mountain (1973), The Conversation (1974)

BRIGSweet Movie (1974) Seconds (1966), They Might Be Giants (1971)

MATTMessiah of Evil (1972), Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969), Christina, Princesse de L’erotisme (1971)

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Hellfire Video Club is held monthly at the Cube Microplex, Dove St South, Bristol.
Follow them on @HellfireVC and on Facebook
Georgina Guthrie interviews the Hellfire Video Club for the Bristol Film Critics Circle.

Critical Tides, Critical Times

Lady in the Water (2006)

By Tim Hayes

Wise words echo from 1991:

“In such a world, art becomes the remaining link to the unknown. Art may be needed now to provide us with just those fearful insights that the uneasy complacencies of our leaders do their best to avoid. It is art that has to take the leap into all the truths that our media society is insulated against. Since the stakes are higher, art may be more important to us now than ever before.”
– Norman Mailer, grappling with Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Continue reading “Critical Tides, Critical Times”

FrightFest 2015

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By Jonathan Bygraves

Having last year made the smooth transition from its old home of the Empire Leicester Square to the neighbouring VUE West End, FrightFest’s sixteenth edition continued the festival’s outward expansion to encompass nearly eighty feature films across six screens in its five day duration. As ever it remained a snapshot, however impressionistic, of the current state of the horror genre, and if there was ultimately no single stand-out film, then it must be said that the overall standard was higher than usual, with fewer outright turkeys than I can remember compared with recent years.

The absence, too, of any obvious tent-pole titles in the main programme, coupled with the choice from up to four films playing at any one time, made picking which films to see a more agonising proposition than in previous festivals. Small changes from last year’s model of acquiring tickets for the smaller screens also made certain films difficult to get into, most notably Steve Oram’s Aaaaaaaah! (2015) which ideally should have played across the larger main auditoria, but this was only a minor niggle about the overall festival experience.

As ever, the main programme delivered a diverse selection of scream-laden offerings, running the gamut across the porous genre boundaries of what one might term ‘horror’. The only questionable inclusion this year was the largely uninspiring Enragés (2015), a remake of Mario Bava’s poliziotteschi Rabid Dogs (1974), which appeared to my eyes to be firmly in fairly conventional policier crime thriller territory. Elsewhere, though, there was a strong showing from (semi-)Francophone titles with French-British co-productions Road Games (2015) and Night Fare (2015), the latter superb as an energetic, taut, crescendoing chase film, only somewhat cheapened by a last act down-shift into flashbacks and moralising.

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Night Fare

Other international highlights were the unpromisingly titled Jeruzalem (2015), a solid Israeli found footager which made excellent use of its eponymous location, though another work illustrative of limitations of the form, and Adrián García Bogliano’s tonally distinctive and decidedly offbeat Scherzo Diabolico (2015), which subtly recast the revenge drama as a mischievous, dreamlike farce. New Zealand heavy metal-themed comedy Deathgasm (2015) was popular with the festival attendees, though while frequently amusing it proved to be too ramshackle and formulaic to be anything more than intermittently satisfying.

Demonic teenage pregnancy drama Cherry Tree (2015), from Wake Wood director David Keating, proved something of a drab, damp squib of a festival opener, and was comprehensively shown up by Pontypool director Bruce McDonald’s Hellions (2015), which used a similar setup as a platform to conjure an expressionistic, near-psychedelic visual and aural state of psychosis. Other British films fared better, with Bait (2015) a surprisingly successful marriage of soapy bonhomie and stony-faced brutality, and the Blaine Brothers’ strikingly idiosyncratic Nina Forever (2015), a profound, yet also absurdly comical, meditation on grief and the inescapability of memory.

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Hellions

Two films in the main programme highlighted the continued resurgence of the portmanteau format: A Christmas Horror Story (2015), with its interwoven segments featuring demonic elves, a vengeful Krampus and an increasingly inebriated William Shatner, perhaps didn’t quite hit the Trick ‘r Treat anthology gold standard of structural elegance, but it was an uproariously entertaining watch nevertheless. Tales of Halloween (2015) meanwhile boasted segments from the likes of Lucky McKee and Neil Marshall, and while rather patchier was still a considerably more enjoyable watch than the obnoxious V/H/S films which the festival has played host to in recent years.

Hitting bum notes in the festival were the bland, unimaginative creature feature Stung (2015), Blumhouse thriller Curve (2015) which appeared to be entirely reconstituted from elements of other films (most obviously Buried, 127 Hours and Saw), and the odious Landmine Goes Click (2015), a repetitive and borderline misogynistic revenge drama entirely devoid of the suspense that its setup might suggest. Meanwhile, Turbo Kid (2015), originally intended as a segment for The ABCs of Death, ultimately felt like the expansion of a short film that it was, its somewhat amusing vision of a 1980s-styled post-apocalypse weighed down too heavily by a messy flashback structure clearly designed to pad it out to feature length. Equally unfortunate was grisly Australian kidnapping drama Inner Demon (2015), which worked well while in subjective survivalist mode, but suffered a catastrophic collapse when it eventually got around to delivering on the paranormal promise of its title.

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Some Kind of Hate

More praiseworthy, however, were a number of films which displayed a certain ambition with regard to established genre codes. Some Kind of Hate‘s (2015) intended reconfiguring of the paranormal slasher film was interesting conceptually (though its portrayal of self-harm was in morally questionable territory), even if its clichéd indie drama aesthetic ultimately proved enervating. The Diabolical (2015) similarly over-reached in attempting to fuse the paranormal with an ambitious sci-fi conspiracy plot, but nevertheless its fingertips skimmed some effectively melancholy notes. Agoraphobia-themed home invasioner Shut In (2015) made some particularly nimble about-turns in spectatorial identification in its first half, deflated only by an overly convoluted and explanatory denouement.

Most pleasant surprise of the festival was perhaps the James Wan-produced Demonic (2015), as slick and finely-honed as one might expect and with the infuriatingly well-marshalled jump scares present and correct, but also impressive in its seamless blend of genres and forms. Slumlord (2015), whose synopsis and promotional poster suggested unbearably prurient sleaze, surprisingly emphasised its domestic drama over its lecherous landlord setup with considerable restraint, while psycho-nanny drama Emelie (2015) was even more impressive as an exercise in sustained, quietly insidious transgression, if one wanting for a few more modulations in pace and tone.

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Demonic

Director Bernard Rose made a welcome return to the festival this year with Frankenstein (2015), which relocated Mary Shelley’s novel in modern-day Los Angeles. Fine as a visceral, and decidedly Oedipal, nature/nurture reclamation of the emotionality of the original material, it was an intriguing halfway house between the two poles of the director’s recent work, though the contemporary setting was perhaps not quite as resonant as has been in his Tolstoy adaptations. Meanwhile, Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here (2015) served its purpose as a pastiche-cum-homage to the Fulcian tradition, even if its curiously leaden pacing sometimes felt at odds with its contemporary indie horror sheen.

The festival was inevitably coloured by the announcement on the Monday morning of the death of Wes Craven, whose work undoubtedly helped to cultivate the horrorphilia of several generations of attendees. As such, it seemed the best conceivable place to be to receive and reflect on the sad news: surrounded by knowledgeable and passionate fans ever keen to discuss the finer points of the genre’s variegated linga francas, as well as a place to reflect both on the contemporary state of the art and the rich traditions of its past.

Recommended viewing:

Nina Forever (Ben Blaine & Chris Blaine, 2015)
A Christmas Horror Story (Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban & Brett Sullivan, 2015)
Night Fare (Julien Seri, 2015)
Bait (Dominic Brunt, 2015)
Emelie (Michael Thelin, 2015)

We Need to Talk About Criticism

Persisting with film criticism in an Internet age is tough – much like running a DVD and video rental business, really, which is my other line of work… With the advent of the listicle, click-bait news articles and synopsis style reviews, long form film analysis has been relegated to something far too close to a hobby for my liking.

While financial remuneration is all too often attached to publishing puff pieces and generating sound bites (we all have bills to pay), there are still reasons to persist.

My personal journey with film, as both a critic and someone who’s worked in the industry under various guises over the year, has been tumultuous.

To be clear, I love film. What I don’t love, however, is institutionalised sexism, racism, homophobia, capitalist propaganda and the insidious dissemination of other ideologically dubious issues. But that’s also why I persist.

Being a critic, for me, means calling out these agendas and championing the films that offer something else. It’s also about appreciating great works of art.

Film is visual, aural, haptic, phenomenological, philosophical, political, polemic and ideological. It’s also a reflection of how I understand and make sense of the world.

Though I like to joke that I was raised by a television, I did sort of grow up in front of a camera and a screen. Later, it was the combination of a suburban video store and a rep cinema that shaped and directed my passion for film. When I started out as a film critic, I was wide-eyed and determined. Some years later, the description is still apt, only I might be wide-eyed in a different way.

Though I spend hours of almost every day calling out misogyny and quite possibly overusing the term heteronormativity, I never waver in my conviction that there’s a genuine need for good quality film criticism. Even more so when so many lament its demise; the rise of the clickable commentary only serves to re-affirm my belief that there’s value and need for in depth analysis.

Bristol is rich in film culture, from traditional theatrical exhibition to community start-ups. And we need a rich pool of criticism to go with it. The Bristol Film Critics Circle is a small collective – at the time of writing there are just eight of us. But our voices are loud and disparate. We each have our own outlets and projects besides, but we do hope to create a conversation, here.

It’s not just listicles that we intend to hang up, like so many dirty towels strewn across the Internet. We speak, write, create and curate. Welcome to the conversation.

By Tara Judah

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