Monday, 26 March 2012

A hit and Amis

Martin Amis's magnificent, most-recent novel, The Pregnant Widow (cover detail, pictured), is largely set in the Italian countryside in 1970 but there are some lovely London bits. When central character Keith Nearing's stay in a castle with at least three beautiful young women ends, Amis reflects: 'This summer was the climax of his youth. It had come and gone, it was over... Now he thought of London and its million girls.'

Forty-seven pages later: 'He went out among the women of London. And it was the strangest thing. Each and every one of them hated him already.'

Monday, 12 March 2012

Entering Lars von Trier's The Kingdom

Amid justified excitement about political drama Borgen and two series of The Killing it's been overlooked that 18 years ago producer Danmarks Radio was behind another landmark series, directed by one of contemporary cinema's most reliable directors. Lars von Trier created horror drama The Kingdom (Riget) after securing his reputation with breakout feature Europa (1991).

The series could take its cue from a line in William Blake's poem Vala: 'The dark religions are departed and sweet science reigns.' Von Trier peoples his technologically advanced hospital, the Kingdom, with eccentrics and ghosts. Malingering spiritualist Mrs Drusse is the first to notice the cries of a young girl, and then there's the ghostly ambulance that calls in at night from another time...

As in The Killing, there is a nod to that foreign neighbour, Sweden, in the form of pompous consultant neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (a career-defining portrayal from Ernst-Hugo Järegård), whose cry goes up in each episode: 'Danish scum!' He is caught between cunning junior registrar Hook and the management speak of Professor Moesgaard, a role that runs to parallel to that of Colonel Potter in one of the greatest TV series ever, M*A*S*H. Helmer can only console himself with a litany of Swedish greatness: Tetra Pak, Björn Borg, Volvo...

The eight episodes of The Kingdom, split over two series, are steeped in a sepia of rust and blood - von Trier deliberately deteriorated the condition of the film stock as far as possible. The chorus is provided by two hospital dishwashers, played by actors with Down syndrome, and there are moments that cause a cold wash to come over you. There is startling imagery, including floating pavements and other moments reminiscent of Europa - the direction is never less than assured throughout.

There are moments, too, that presage Antichrist (2009), while elsewhere there are elements of Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (2011), the familiar tropes of hospital drama (this ran concurrently with yet another great US TV series, ER) and even jokey nods to Ghostbusters (1984). Amid the grotesquerie and high comedy there may even be moments presaging Swedish director Roy Andersson, while the corridors - we're told the hospital has 30km of passageways - are all David Lynch.

There is, also, obsessed researcher Dr Bondo, played by Baard Owe, who stars as the wholly different lead in Bent Hamer's lovely O'Horten (2007). German actor Udo Kier, who appears in a host of von Trier's work, here makes the all-time great screen entrance. He had previously made a name for himself for campy turns on Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), and he has a greater role in 1997's second series - what is the relationship between his Little Brother and the Little Father of last year's magnificent Melancholia?

By now both the humour and the focus are broader, potentially to the detriment of The Kingdom II and, like many long series, it appears to lose its way - the total time runs to something like nine-and-a-half hours, so that's a good use of a weekend. In 2004, the series was picked up by horror maestro Stephen King for Kingdom Hospital, starring Andrew McCarthy and Bruce Davison.

They will have missed one of the highlights of the Danish original, which is von Trier's closing skit following every episode. In the mould of a mischievous Alfred Hitchcock, each time he sketches the sign of the cross, followed by the devil's horns, and reminds us all to 'take the good with the evil.'

Monday, 5 March 2012

Top five unexpected film dance scenes

5. Damsels in Distress (2011)
The tremendous Whit Stillman is back after a 13-year hiatus with only his fourth feature (the first, Metropolitan, came out in 1989). There's a musical element to his latest as Greta Gerwig's character, Violet (pictured above, far right), aims to cure her fellow students' suicidal impulses with the therapeutic influence of tap dancing. Violet, too, dreams of creating her own international dance craze - Sambola! - to match the Charleston and others. But the cast breaks into an impromptu number, reminiscent of (500) Days of Summer (below), that ends atop an ornamental pond - look out for the campus security guard.

4. Inland Empire (2006)
I was inspired to write this post after catching David Lynch's three-hour mindbender in the BFI Southbank's February season. Inland Empire boasts an outstanding central turn from Lynch fave Laura Dern but such is its opacity it would sit happily alongside anything by Christian Marclay, Douglas Gordon or Matthew Barney in an art gallery. Just when the film's flagging Lynch throws in a roomful of finger-clicking, dancing prostitutes (or former loves of Dern's husband, perhaps) doing the locomotion. The director certainly knows how to end on a high. Sweet!

3. (500) Days of Summer (2009)
Posting a link to a North Korean military parade, Douglas Coupland once commented on Twitter that he imagined such scenes every day when he left home. It's not quite the same level, but greetings card copywriter Tom (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) has a fairly whacky walk to work the morning after he finally cops off with the kooky girl of everyone's dreams, Zooey Deschanel. Instead of military music, there's Hall & Oates, workmen, a marching band and a cartoon bird.

2. Simple Men (1992)
'I can't stand the quiet!' Whit Stillman's contemporary Hal Hartley likes chucking a snappy dance sequence into his movies out of the blue, but none is as good as seeing Elina Löwensohn frug out with Martin Donovan and company to Sonic Youth's Kool Thing, which is pretty cool in itself. Look out for Donovan dancing in character - as Graham Fuller writes of a brief dance in Hartley's earlier Surviving Desire, 'the dancers wear no Gene Kelly smiles; here is the quintessential American music number, shorn of classical artifice and genre tropes.' And it owes it all to...

1. Bande à part (1964)
The ultimate unexpected dance scene occurs in Jean-Luc Godard's movie. Robin Wood suggests Anna Karina and co's impromptu dance in the café has 'the classic function of dance numbers in a musical, that of giving expression to dimensions of the characters which can only be hinted at in naturalistic action...' For him: 'The dance suggests our final separateness. Although the dancers are linked by the beat and steps of the routine, each appears entirely self-absorbed, unaware of the existence of the others...'

Damsels in Distress is out 27 April.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Aki Kaurismäki recommends... Teuvo Tulio

The new edition of Little White Lies features an interview I did with fantastic Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. We start off by talking about his latest film, Le Havre, which was inspired by TV documentaries about people trafficking into Europe. 'Lots of crooks cheated people to come here with a dream,' he explains.

Despite its dispiriting origins, Le Havre is lovely and uplifting - the type of film I could watch every day of the week and be a happy man. It reminds me of Mystery Train (Jarmusch is the only director whose work Kaurismäki will go out to see), Tarr's The Man from London and The Young Ones; there are elements of Carné, Fassbender, Melville, Sirk...

A confirmed cinephile, the director eulogises when we meet about the work of fellow Finn Teuvo Tulio, whose work stretches from the silent period through the 1950s. According to Kaurismäki, half of Tulio's work was destroyed in a laboratory accident; the director made his last film in 1973 and died in 2000 aged 87. I wish I'd caught a retrospective of his work at the ICA in December 2011, now. (Pictured: a still from one of Tulio's films, The Cross of Love, 1946, featuring his partner - and regular star - Regina Linnanheimo. She looks like my kind of trouble.)

Le Havre is out 6 April for the Easter weekend - and do check out the latest issue of LWL, it's ace!