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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

This week at SFC: The Lives of Others

Our screenings are free and all are welcome.

Film starts 8:15 pm. Doors open 7:30 pm.

Thursday August 30th

The Lives of Others
(Florian H Von Donnersmarck/2006/Germany/138')

You know within minutes of watching The Lives of Others, the debut feature that brought writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck an Oscar for the best foreign language film of 2006, that you are in confident, authoritative hands. The film opens with an interrogation in East Berlin in 1984 at the temporary detention centre of the German Democratic Republic's Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (the Ministry for State Security), better known as the Stasi. Forty years earlier, the Stasi's job was being done by the Gestapo, which was active for a mere dozen years and employed around 45,000 agents with some 160,000 registered informants. The Stasi lasted 40 years in only half of the country, employed 100,000 full-time workers and had, so this movie tells us, 400,000 informants.

The interrogator in this initial scene is Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a lean, humourless man seeking a confession from a political prisoner. There is no direct physical torture (though we know there was no form of punishment or persuasion the Stasi balked at). But the accused is made to sit on his hands and is forced to stay awake. Wiesler informs his victim that merely to question the probity of the Stasi is itself a serious crime. When the necessary confession has been obtained, Wiesler places the fabric from the seat the prisoner has been sitting on in a bottle to retain the offender's odour for the use of tracker dogs. Wiesler then uses the tape recording of this scene to lecture recruits in the art of interrogation. While indoctrinating them in his form of mad logic, he's asked a question about the possible innocence of a victim; Wiesler puts a little cross beside the questioner's name. At the end of his lecture, he's buttonholed by a suspiciously hearty old schoolfriend, Lieutenant-Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), now head of the Stasi's Cultural Department.

The colonel asks Wiesler to join him in the staff canteen, where he hears a lieutenant mention a joke about President Honecker. The embarrassed young man is forced to repeat it and we know (and two hours later actually discover) that the joker's career has been seriously blighted. Similar incidents lead to jail sentences in Milan Kundera's novel The Joke and Emir Kusturica's film When Father Was Away on Business. This sense of social unease and constant suspicion, which informs the whole of the film, leads on to the next scene: Grubitz takes Wiesler to the theatre and suggests he take an interest in a potentially dissident playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), whose beautiful girlfriend (Martina Gedeck) is appearing in his new play. It is first hinted at, and then made clear, that an influential minister (Thomas Thieme) has designs on the actress and intends to use the Stasi to tarnish the playwright. Wiesler is assigned to the case by his old friend and proceeds to bug the writer's flat and put him under 24-hour surveillance.

We then see the Stasi at work, doggedly recording everything for the organisation's files, with entries in their log such as (noting the end of a birthday party) 'unwrap presents and then presumably have intercourse'. Their targets, however, are largely innocent of any plans to undermine the state. The theatre people are dedicated socialists who merely seek artistic freedom and a certain licence to criticise and exercise democratic rights.

In John le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the Stasi man targeted for destruction is a dedicated true believer, while the man being kept in place by MI6 is a corrupt, time-serving career man. Similarly here, the wily, unprincipled Grubitz is manipulating the honest communist Wiesler, who really does believe what everyone in the Stasi professes, that 'we are the party's sword and shield'. But like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the lonely, essentially decent Wiesler comes to doubt what he is doing and to suspect the patriotism of those around him. Listening in on the playwright and his girlfriend, he develops human sympathies for people his superior believes to be suffering from a sickness known as 'anthropocentrism'. He reads Brecht. A little boy he meets on the lift insults the Stasi, but he doesn't inquire, as he should, about the child's father. He begins to make minor interventions, protecting the couple's privacy; then acts in a serious, protective manner that puts his own life and career in danger.

The film turns into a suspenseful thriller with a complex and powerful moral drive. Were there people like Wiesler in the Stasi? Some of its victims say not. However, von Donnersmarck and Ulrich Muhe persuade us of that possibility without suggesting such figures were common. The Lives of Others subtly evokes a vindictive society that exists by turning citizens against each other in the interests of national unity and collective security. It serves as a major warning to ourselves and our elected leaders about where overzealousness and a lack of respect for individuals and their liberties can lead.

The film has a remarkable coda, set in 1992 after the Berlin Wall has fallen and the Stasi files were opened to the public. When Dreyman the playwright visits the former Stasi headquarters, a trolley is required to bring in his bulky files. Reading them provides him with something like the walk down a nightmarish memory lane that British historian and student of Eastern European affairs Timothy Garton Ash describes in his fascinating book The File: A Personal History, which resulted from examining the dossier that the Stasi had opened on him in 1981 when he was doing research in Berlin for a book on the Third Reich. Dreyman finds some illuminating surprises in his files. He also meets the lecherous minister, who, like many of his kind, performed a Vicar of Bray act and recreated themselves in a new Germany as many Nazi sympathisers had done 50 years before.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Favourite foreign-language films

We're not big fans of "best of" lists here at the SFC blog (who decides? what criteria? to what end?), but we are fans of the blogger Jai Arjun Singh, whose frequent posts on film are always worth reading. So when he posts a list of fifty of his favourite foreign language films (foreign language taken to mean both non-English and non-Hindi, since Jai is Indian), we take note. We also note that of all the films on his list, only two appear to have been screened at SFC, though a few of his "honourable mentions" have been shown, as well as different films by directors on his list.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

This week at SFC: 'Round Midnight

Our screenings are free and all are welcome.

Thursday 23rd August 2007

Film starts 8:15 pm. Doors open 7:30 pm.

'Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier/1986/USA France/133’)

No actor could do what the great jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon does in 'Round Midnight, Bertrand Tavernier's glowing tribute to the golden age of be-bop. Mr. Gordon, who stars in the film as an expatriate American named Dale Turner, becomes the very embodiment of the music itself. It's in his heavy-lidded eyes, in his hoarse, smoky voice, in the way his long, graceful fingers seem to be playing silent accompaniment to his conversation. It's even in the way he habitually calls anyone or anything ''Lady,'' as in ''Well, Lady Sweets, are you ready for tonight?'' In that instance, he's addressing his saxophone.

The film, with its lovely, elegiac pacing and its tremendous depth of feeling, was, according to an opening title, ''inspired by incidents in the lives of Bud Powell and Francis Paudras,'' the American pianist and the French jazz enthusiast who befriended him. Drifting easily between French and English, it takes place largely in Paris in 1959, among the expatriate jazz musicians and the French aficionados they attracted. Dale Turner arrives there from New York, and has an instant caretaker in the form of Francis Borier (Francois Cluzet), who is his longtime admirer.

At first Dale is only interested in cadging drinks from this fan, but he quickly realizes that Francis's helpfulness will be far more substantial. Francis, who himself lives in straitened circumstances, nevertheless undertakes to make sure Dale is well-looked-after. He does what he can to keep the musician's self-destructiveness in check (''S'il vous plait, I would like to have the same thing he had,'' Dale says to a bartender, after watching the man next to him keel over), and even begins to water down his wine. He takes Dale home, introduces him to his little daughter Berangere (Gabrielle Haker), and even borrows money from his estranged wife so as to rent a larger apartment. His present place, she points out, was large enough for a family of three. But now Francis wants to look after Dale on a full-time basis and, as he puts it, ''I want the greatest sax player to live decently.''

'Round Midnight, which takes its title from a Thelonious Monk composition, doesn't have a great deal of narrative, and it moves with the leisurely feeling of a reverie - sometimes it even seems to drift forward in time, so that the vibrant, colorful images of Dale and Francis briefly turn into the black-and-white, home-movie memories they will someday become. Much of the film takes place in the Blue Note, a jazz club, and simply lets the audience experience the place and its atmosphere. Here, and in a recording studio, and in several other nightclub settings, Mr. Gordon plays with musicians including Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. The music is sublime. Much of the film is purely atmospheric; the camera may move through an empty apartment as a saxophone plays lazily in the background and Dale, in voice-over, offers his thoughts. ''You just don't go out and pick a style off a tree one day -the tree is inside you, growing naturally,'' he says at one point. ''When you have to explore every night, even the most beautiful things you find can be the most painful,'' Mr. Hutcherson (in the role of a fellow musician and neighbor) explains. The screenplay, by Mr. Tavernier and David Rayfiel, is both rich and relaxed, with a style that perfectly matches the musicians'. Some of the talk may well be improvised, but nothing sounds improvised, but nothing sounds forced, and the film remains effortlessly idiosyncratic all the way through.

Among the film's many memorable moments are a Billie Holliday number by Sandra Reaves-Phillips during a party scene, and Lonette McKee's brief appearance as Dale's old flame; there is also the sight of Mr. Gordon, as much of a giant physically as he is musically, wandering around Paris with his diminutive French friend, getting the lay of the land (''Very pretty town,'' he pronounces Paris, with typical sang-froid). Once the action shifts to New York, Martin Scorsese turns up as a club owner, and a very unlikely civic booster. ''When you go back to Paris, you're going to be raving,'' he says, ''just raving about how nice New Yorkers can be.''

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

This week at SFC: 24 Hour Party People

Thursday 16th August 2007

Our screenings are free and all are welcome.

Film starts 8:15 pm. Doors open 7:30 pm.

Antonioni, Bergman...Wilson?

This Thursday SFC pays tribute to the recently deceased Tony "Mr. Machester" Wilson, one of the main men behind the Manchester music scene from the late 70s to the early 90s.

24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom/UK/2003/115’)

The Manchester music and dance scene, from punk to post-punk to acid house, is the subject of Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, one of the sharpest and funniest movies about the music business ever made. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and extending from the late seventies to the early nineties, it covers the Sex Pistols and Joy Division, the founding of Factory Records and the Manchester dance club the Hacienda, as well as the ascendancy and crash dive of the group Happy Mondays.

The impresario holding everything together is Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), TV host and Factory co-founder, who continually turns to the camera and clues us in on what's happening. As Wilson moves through the years, he goes from a foppish Oscar Wilde hairdo to tie-dyed shirts and ruffled neckties until, in the end, he looks a lot like David Frost. He has a gyroscopic gift for steadying himself in the maelstrom.

Winterbottom really gets the look and sound of this era in which pathos and slapstick and psychosis were all jammed together. Punk and the rave culture come across without a smidgen of moralizing, which makes the manic intoxication bubbling up before our eyes seem all the more real. It all had to end, of course, but the movie does justice to Wilson's plum observation that this was the "moment when even the white man starts dancing."

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The films of StudioFilmClub, updated

The list of films shown at StudioFilmClub has been updated,
and is now complete to Thursday August 9, 2007. The list can be accessed at any time by clicking on the link on the middle right hand side of the page.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

This week at SFC: Two For The Road

Thursday 9th August 2007

Our screenings are free and all are welcome.

Film starts 8:15 pm. Doors open 7:30 pm.

This week SFC presents what has been called one of the best films ever made about relationships...the stylish and sophisticated Two For The Road, with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

Two for the Road (Stanley Donen/USA/1967/111 minutes)

In preparing his romantic comedy Two For the Road, director Stanley Donen decided to utilize many of the cinematic techniques popularized by the French "nouvelle vague" filmmakers. Jump cutting back and forth in time with seeming abandon, Donen and scriptwriter Frederic Raphael chronicle the 12-year relationship between architect Wallace (Albert Finney) and his wife (Audrey Hepburn).

While backpacking through Europe, student Finney falls for lovely music student Jacqueline Bisset, but later settles for Hepburn, another aspiring musician (this vignette served as the launching pad for the film-within-a-film in Francois Truffaut's 1973 classic Day for Night). Once married, Finney and Hepburn go on a desultory honeymoon, travelling in the company of insufferable American tourists William Daniels and Eleanor Bron and their equally odious daughter Gabrielle Middleton. Later on, during yet another road trip, Finney is offered an irresistible job opportunity by Claude Dauphin, which ultimately distances Finney from his now-pregnant wife.

Still remaining on the road, the film then details Finney and Hepburn's separate infidelities. The film ends where it begins, with Finney and Hepburn taking still another road vacation, hoping to sew up their unraveling marriage. While critics did nip-ups over Stanley Donen's "revolutionary" nonlinear story-telling techniques, audiences responded to the chemistry between Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, not to mention the unforgettable musical score by Henry Mancini.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

This week at SFC: Coffee and Cigarettes

Thursday 2nd August 2007

Our screenings are free and all are welcome.

Film starts 8:15 pm. Doors open 7:30 pm.

The Studiofilmclub is pleased to screen Jim Jarmusch's documentary "Coffee and Cigarettes", a series of short vignettes built on one another to create a cumulative effect, as the characters discuss things as diverse as caffeine popsicles, Paris inthe '20s, and the use of nicotine as an insecticide--all the while sitting around sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. As director Jarmusch delves into the normal pace of our world from an extraordinary angle, he shows just how absorbing the obsessions, joys and addictions of life can be, if truly observed.

Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch/USA/2004/93')

Coffee and Cigarettes was initiated in 1986 when Jim Jarmusch shot the first skit in black and white with Roberto Benigni as Bob and Steven Wright as Steven. The second scene was shot in 1989 with the twins, Cinqué Lee and Joie Lee, and the waiter Steve Buscemi where they discuss Elvis and the oppression of African-American musicians. The third piece was filmed in 1993 with Tom Waits and Iggy Pop meeting in a Californian bar where the two get together. This suggests that Jarmusch has been working on this idea for some years and there is much more to it than what meets the eye. The culmination of Coffee and Cigarettes came when all the 11 skits were put together in a film in 2003 for the audience to experience and ponder.

Self medicated existential philosophy, awkward dialogues with moments of silence, human connection, and health conscience characters drive the story of Coffee and Cigarettes where Jim Jarmusch displays 11 disjointed vignettes all set in different milieus. What ties the 11 incoherent skits together are the coffee and the cigarettes as they function as a brief opportunity for human connection away from time and responsibilities. The characters continue to inhale the nicotine and consume the caffeine during their meetings in order to stay alert and rid any slight hint of social anxiety. Yet, all the characters remain uncomfortable with one another as silence and meaningless conversation seems to fill their time cramped lives. This creates a socially symbolic oxymoron where the coffee and cigarettes are suppose to function as the key to human connection, but instead these two social drugs for self-treatment of anxiety and sleepiness become an impenetrable unfriendly wall.

There are several highlights in Coffee and Cigarettes as the film has a brilliant cast that occasionally seems to improvise. In addition, the characters in the film often play themselves in an invented situation, which enhances the authentic atmosphere around the characters as they sit down around a small table for coffee and cigarettes. Cate Blanchett's dual performance is dazzling as she presents a rich, famous and successful performer and her envious poor cousin. The connection between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan brings the viewer gleeful vengeance as the two are apparently distant relatives. All the skits offer humor, insight, and some irony as they continue to inhale their nicotine and drink their caffeine leading to a terrific cinematic experience.