Friday, 26 June 2015

EIFF: Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960)

    Overall at EIFF this year, my favourite screenings were the classics - I saw The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974) and The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978). But Macario was the surprise of the festival for me. A magic realist fable set in the 18th century - but nonetheless feeling incredibly modern - Roberto Gavaldón's film is at times jaw-droppingly beautiful (courtesy of Gabriel Figueroa) but also sharp and humorous in its presentation of a simple woodcutter in a deal with Death. My review is now up at Eye for Film - here.
    David Cairns has written about Macario (herein his regular 'The Forgotten' column - like him, I'd like to see more of Gavaldón's films because on the basis of this one he merits further investigation.

    This is the last of my EIFF posts. I reviewed nine films for Eye for Film in total, four of which were Mexican films that I've already linked to on here, but among the remainder The Iron Ministry (viewable over at Doc Alliance), Precinct Seven Five (which I think is getting a UK release later in the summer) and Prophet's Prey are all interesting documentaries about very different subjects - the latter is quite harrowing viewing, but I'd watch the other two again (in fact it was my second viewing of The Iron Ministry). Normal service on the blog will resume shortly...

Thursday, 25 June 2015

EIFF: 600 Millas / 600 Miles (Gabriel Ripstein, 2015)

Tim Roth and Kristyan Ferrer

    A tense and suspenseful road movie - and effectively a two-hander for much of its running time - Gabriel Ripstein's directorial debut seems to me to have a good chance of acquiring at least a limited release in the UK, not least because of the presence of Tim Roth and the bilingual nature of a story that unfolds on both sides of the US / Mexican border. 
    Roth plays Hank Harris, an ATF agent who gets taken hostage and taken over the border into the badlands of Mexico when he attempts to bust two young gun runners (Kristyan Ferrer and Harrison Thomas) who are aiming for the big time. It's revealing that this central scenario is born out of a combination of lack of planning (Harris spots the two men by chance while he's doing his rounds of the gun shows in the area and mistakenly thinks he sees an opportunity when they part company) and panic (Carson (Thomas) acts impulsively towards the threat but it is the unsteady Arnulfo (Ferrer) who then decides to bundle the agent into his truck and drive back across the border alone) - throughout the film, all of the characters are required to think on their feet when events do not turn out as planned and they must try not to let fear get the better of them.
    I actually don't want to say too much about 600 Millas / 600 Miles before more people get the chance to see it. I've read some reviews since I saw the film in Edinburgh and a lot of them reveal too much information given the suspenseful nature of the narrative - I'd advise you to go in as blind as possible because I think my experience of it was all the more effective for knowing only the one line synopsis. But the other reason that I'm not going to say too much is that I was so engrossed in the film that I barely wrote anything down (and what I did write down, I wrote over the top of what I'd already written because I was looking at the screen)...which I guess is indicative of a recommendation, but it's not exactly helpful for analysis.
    But I will say that it's an interesting representation of the performative nature of masculinities - learning to put up a front, living up to familial expectations, the play and display of homosocial bonding, and knowing that certain situations require different modes of behaviour - particularly in the performances of Ferrer and Thomas whose youth underlines the malleability of the personalities of their respective characters (they are still defining themselves but are also (self)conscious of how they are seen through the eyes of others). But Roth astutely also demonstrates that less is more in his interpretation of an inherently watchful and shrewd man. Ripstein and co-writer Issa López expertly crank up the tension through the skilful use of extended silence and (an often related) lack of comprehension, in a range of contexts - shock at violent events, fear, the sense of being out of your depth, and also not understanding what is being said because it's not your language. The bilingual aspect is also used to indicate shifts in the balance of power onscreen. 
    In short, I'd like to watch it again because I think it's a really tightly constructed film that pays attention to - and economically employs - the mechanisms of cinematic suspense but is also rooted in its characters and their relationships in a way that we don't see often enough onscreen. I recommend it if it plays near you.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

EIFF: La Danza del Hipocampo (Gabriela Domínguez Ruvalcaba, 2014)

"Like salt in the sea, we are made of an infinite number of moments"
    La Danza del Hipocampo / The Dance of the Memory (Gabriela Domínguez Ruvalcaba, 2014) screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival as part of the Focus on Mexico strand. Structured around the question of which seven memories you would use to sum up your life (our short term memory can only hold seven items), Gabriela Domínguez Ruvalcaba's essay film delves into her long term memory (located in the hippocampus) and personal family archives for a lyrical meditation on the meaning and formation of memories.
    The film includes an exploration of the fragility of memory formation and maintenance, i.e. the biology of it - the haphazard nature of electrical impulses (memory effectively exists in voids or, from another perspective, fills them) and the fact that of the five senses, taste and smell are also stored in the hippocampus (hence those Proustian rushes of memory that can be triggered by flavours and scents). But the director concentrates on our efforts to 'fix' memories in place through the use of visual mementoes and recordings, described within the film as "leaving breadcrumbs through time" - the physical traces that we use to find our way back into the past. She also looks at how - in the accumulation of moments that make up this "intimate cartography" of selfhood - we co-opt the memories of those close to us.

All images taken from the trailer
    Every family has shared experiences - stories that are retold over and over, running jokes, and significant moments that crystallise a given event - but we don't need to be present at all of them for them to in some way shape us. Hence Domínguez Ruvalcaba decides that one of her seven memories will be one that actually belongs to her grandfather - it is not an experience that she has lived (and it is not technically her memory) but, in the telling of it, her grandfather has made it part of the fabric of her identity and that of her family. Family is important to the director and central to her film. As she goes back into her past, she relies on home movie footage - an uncle who worked in film "dedicated himself to making a 'behind the scenes' of his own life" resulting in a copious amount of footage of the director as a child - but the compulsion to record (to see life through a lens) seems to have been passed down from one generation to the next because the moving images (in a range of formats) date all the way back to her grandparents. By extension, this sets up a further question - do you remember the event itself, or is your memory influenced (distorted?) by the recording of it?

    The director gets up close to the texture and form of the different film formats, an element that reminded me of José Luis Guerin's Tren de sombras (1997) - which is a different kind of reconstruction of the past, but the extended inclusion of the actual fabric of film seemed like a connection to Guerin's playfulness with form and representation. As Domínguez Ruvalcaba points out, a film cannot change (the image is photographically fixed onto celluloid or digitally stamped into pixels) but it changes because we change - each time we revisit the film (or still photograph) we see new details, and view events with the benefit of hindsight or the changing perspectives that come with ageing. Within that context, the degraded state of the films that La Danza del Hipocampo scrutinises - the scratches, colour desaturation, and lost definition - stands as a metonym for the mutability of memory and how it fades over time.

    The film also touches upon the idea of physical places as repositories for memory - both in the sense of troubled histories but also as a stimulant to recall the past - but ultimately this is a personal meditation on the accumulation of the scattered moments that define us as individuals. The process of making her film seems to have changed the director's perspective on the need to embed her memories in visual physical manifestations - she decides that some things deserve to be remembered (as a conscious decision) while we are living them rather than recorded to be revisited at one remove at a later date. However, as a record of its maker and her familial web of memories, La Danza del Hipocampo is a skilfully crafted and visually distinctive essay film - worth seeking out if you get the chance.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

EIFF: María Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, 1944)

My review of Mexican classic María Candelaria is now up over at Eye for Film (here). I was a bit disappointed by it - I'm not sure what I was expecting but I found the acting very stilted and film to be quite dated overall. The quality of the print also meant that Gabriel Figueroa's cinematography was not as impressive as it could have been (having seen clearer still images elsewhere) - although, as I've said in the review, there were still several standout compositions that made it worth seeing. Perhaps it's also just not my sort of film. But Edinburgh maintains its record of screening the best subtitle of the year so far: in this case, "[indistinct shouting]".

Monday, 22 June 2015

EIFF: Llévate mis amores and Viento aparte

    The first of my reviews of films in the Focus on Mexico strand at EIFF 2015 have now gone online:

  • Llévate mis amores / All of Me (Arturo González Villaseñor, 2014) - a documentary about the tenacity of a group of women who, on a daily basis, attempt to feed the hundreds of migrants onboard the train known as "The Beast" as it passes through the village of La Patrona. Recommended. My review is here.
  • Viento aparte / A Separate Wind (Alejandro Gerber Bicecci, 2014) - a sibling road movie in which two adolescents have to make a 2,500 kilometre journey across Mexico on their own. My review is here.

Still to come in terms of my Eye for Film reviews are the two classics: María Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, 1944) and Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960). I will also be writing blog posts about two other Mexican films - 600 Millas / 600 Miles (Gabriel Ripstein, 2015) and La danza del hipocampo / The Dance of the Memory (Gabriela Domínguez Ruvalcaba, 2014).

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

EIFF Focus on Mexico: Gabriel Figueroa (1907 - 1997)

Dolores del Rio in The Fugitive (John Ford, 1947), the film that Figueroa believed contained his best work.

    I’ve only had time to watch a handful of Gabriel Figueroa’s films, and I’m writing this before seeing María Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, 1944) and Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960) in Edinburgh – so this is a general introduction to some of Figueroa’s (relatively early) work, but I hope to track down some of his other films in the future. I’ll say something more about the two films showing at EIFF once I’ve seen them.
    Gabriel Figueroa was born in Mexico City in 1907. Orphaned and without financial support, he and his brother had to go out to work at a young age, but he began his professional career as a stills photographer before using a moving camera for the first time in 1933 when Howard Hawks and James Wong Howe went to Mexico in order to shoot exteriors for Viva Villa! (Jack Conway, 1934). Two years later Figueroa went to Hollywood as part of a government-funded initiative to develop Mexican cinema, and with the aid of a letter of introduction from the Mexico-based cinematographer Alex Phillips he was taken on by Gregg Toland as his student. Although Figueroa returned to Mexico in 1936, he and Toland remained in contact, with the (only-slightly) older man continuing to serve as Figueroa's mentor up until Toland’s early death in 1948. Such was Toland’s regard for his protégé that when Samuel Goldwyn refused to release Toland to work with John Ford on The Fugitive (1947), Toland suggested Figueroa as his replacement – and when Toland died, Goldwyn offered Figueroa his contract (he declined). In fact Figueroa would find it difficult to work in the US as due to the combination of his union work (he co-founded the STPC - 'Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Producción Cinematográfica' [Union of Cinema Production Workers], the first such independent union in Mexico, in 1944) and a refusal to answer questions from US officials about his political affiliations, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and couldn’t get work permits (in an 'every cloud has a silver lining' situation, this did however mean that he was free to work with Luis Buñuel in Mexico throughout the 1950s and 60s).

    In 1941 Figueroa co-founded the production company Films Mundiales, which became the starting point for the team he was part of with director Emilio ‘el Indio’ Fernández and actors Dolores del Rio and Pedro Armendáriz. Figueroa and Fernández made 23 films together over the course of 13 years and the relationship is central to the kinds of images that the cinematographer is associated with. Figueroa said in interviews that Fernández was one of only four directors (the other three being John Ford, Roberto Gavaldón, and Ismael Rodríguez) who would instruct him as to the effects that they wanted the scene to achieve but then allow him to design the scene’s composition as he wished. Other directors with whom he is associated – such as Buñuel (they made 7 films together, including Los Olvidados (1950) and The Exterminating Angel (1962)) – expected him to change his style to suit their requirements, and he did not have the same sort of artistic freedom on all of the 200+ productions he worked on. In terms of world recognition, the Fernández/Figueroa partnership’s breakout film was María Candelaria, which not only jointly won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1944 (an award that would later become known as the Palme d’Or) but also won Best Cinematography (the first of many major prizes for Figueroa).

    What does a cinematographer do, and why is the style of certain films ascribed to Figueroa rather than their respective directors? Exploring the concept of 'authorship' in relation to cinematic images, Lieberman and Hegarty outline the responsibilities of a cinematographer:
[...] there are several duties that can generally be ascribed to the cinematographer: (1) devising a lighting strategy and supervising its implementation; (2) making choices regarding lenses, filtration, film stock, camera, and lighting equipment; (3) determining exposure, contrast, focus, and depth of field; (4) orchestrating and executing (or supervising the execution of) camera movement; (5) collaborating with the director on framing and all aspects of shot composition as well as on the breakdown process in which the scene is divided up into individual shots; (6) participating, oftentimes, in positioning the actors on the set and blocking their action; (7) placing, moving, or removing set dressing, and (8) consulting on wardrobe, makeup, location choice, and production design. In all of these ways, and many others, the cinematographer contributes to the authorship of the image, making creative decisions that [...] inscribe his or her sensibilities and vision onto the finished work [...] (2010: 33)
Certain visual commonalities across a significant number of the films Figueroa photographed highlight his own cinematic signature. Lieberman and Hegarty's article (which is very interesting but not available online without a subscription - the full reference is below) compares the 'technical and aesthetic convergences' between Figueroa and Toland - unsurprisingly, given that one was the pupil of the other, their work shares certain characteristics (most obviously deep focus compositions and chiaroscuro lighting - for example, several scenes in The Fugitive take place in near complete darkness apart from an outline of light around Henry Fonda's priest on the run) although that is also indicative of their shared influences (German Expressionism and Renaissance painting, for example). 
    But their analysis reveals that despite these similarities, 'both cinematographers used virtually every one of their overlapping techniques to quite different ends' (2010: 37) - for example, if in Toland's work deep focus / the use of multiple focal planes is used to convey shifting power relations, Figueroa (who composed scenes with shallow and medium focus as often as he did deep focus) was instead more likely to utilise it to connect characters with their environment, and likewise their respective use of low angles conveys distinct things about the onscreen characters (power versus empowerment and ceilings versus skies). The article goes into a lot of detail with the comparisons and interpretations. Figueroa's influences were also rooted in Mexico in the form of Dr. Atl (a.k.a. painter Gerardo Murillo), who had multiple vanishing points in his landscape paintings (which informed Figueroa's distinctive use of curvilinear perspective - creating a spherical, or three-dimensional, visual space), and Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished 1931 film Que viva México (which is out of copyright and viewable here - the commentary is in Italian, but it's the images that are important).  

    As I say, I've only watched a few of Gabriel Figueroa's films so far, so I can't expand on the topic any further at the moment. But I'll be reviewing María Candelaria and Macario, so when I link to those reviews on here I'll possibly write a bit more - but whether I return to him as a focus on the blog or not, I will be seeking out some of the films seen in these videos (there are more - each arranged around a different theme - here).

I've read a few good articles / interviews with Figueroa as their focus - 

These ones aren't freely available online but you should be able to access them via a library:

  • Dey, T. (1992) - 'Gabriel Figueroa: Mexico's Master Cinematographer', American Cinematographer, March, pp.34-40.
  • Feder, E. (1996) - 'A Reckoning: Interview with Gabriel Figueroa', Film Quarterly, 49:3, pp.2-14.
  • Lieberman, E. and Hegarty, K. (2010) - 'Authors of the Image: Cinematographers Gabriel Figueroa and Gregg Toland', Journal of Film and Video, 62:1-2, pp.31-51.

Online texts:

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

EIFF Preview: Focus on Mexico

    The Edinburgh International Film Festival traditionally has at least one strand of its programme focussed on the output of a specific country. The 69th edition of EIFF starts next week (running between 17 - 28 June) and - as part of the Year of Mexico in the UK - it will take Mexico as its country focus. Encompassing 19 films from different genres and eras, the strand includes short films, new feature films, and a variety of classics.
    I've seen some "contemporary" Mexican films - namely those by Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, and a handful of others (usually starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, or one or other (or both) of Demian and Bruno Bichir) - but I'd by no means consider myself up-to-date with current trends or familiar with up-and-coming names. So I'm looking forward to the window on Mexico and recent Mexican cinema that EIFF will offer, and also for the chance to see a couple of films from Mexican cinema's 'Golden Age' in the form of María Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, 1944) and Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960) on the big screen.
    The full list of films in the Mexican strand (the links take you to the respective pages on the EIFF website):

Pedro Armendáriz and Dolores del Río in María Candelaria

    I won't manage to see all of them. I'm reviewing Llévate mis amores, Macario, María Candelaria, and Viento aparte (and films from other parts of the programme) for Eye for Film - so I'll link to those reviews on here. But I also hope to catch at least four more (I'm definitely aiming for 600 Millas, El comienzo del tiempo, La danza del hipocampo, and La Tirisia - and I'd also like to see the shorts) and I'll write about those either on here (in one of my periodic broadenings of the blog's remit) or elsewhere. I'm also thinking of writing something about Gabriel Figueroa - he links Macario and María Candelaria (the latter is one of many films he made with Emilio Fernández), but was also DoP for the likes of Luis Buñuel (seven times, by my count), John Huston, and John Ford. He's currently the focus of a retrospective at Film Forum in New York in conjunction with the exhibition 'Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa - Art and Film' at El Museo Del Barrio. I'm not sure what form my piece will take yet, but it will probably be dependent on me managing to see a range of his films (given that he has more than 200 credits to his name, I'll probably stick to a selection of b&w ones). To be continued... 

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Festival Report: D'A Festival 2015

    I've written a report about the 5th edition of D'A Festival and it's over at Mediático (click here). As I've reviewed most of the films that I mention elsewhere, I've gone into a bit more detail about the festival itself before highlighting some of the standout titles / groups. It was the first time that I'd been to a film festival outside of the UK and - although I had my doubts initially (mainly to do with the expense of travel and accommodation) - I had a great time and I hope that my enthusiasm in relation to the films I saw (and the experience I had) has come across in what I've written on the blog and elsewhere. It was an adventure, and I'm glad I went for it.
    There are a couple of outstanding pieces to be completed (or, indeed, started) in relation to D'A Festival - I still need to translate my interview with Crumbs director Miguel Llansó (lack of time since I've been back at work has been the delay on that one), and I'm intending to get that done by the start of July because Crumbs will be screening at the East End Film Festival (1-12 July). That's the only pressing thing that I need to get done. As I've said before, I'm intending to write about the (Im)Possible Futures films or recent Spanish sci-fi more generally, and at some point I also want to write a post about docu-fiction No todo es vigilia, which was a film I really liked but I didn't review it (because Eye for Film already had a review) and as a result it's ended up a bit left behind on my 'to do' list. But those things will have to wait until later in the summer because I'm now gearing up for the Edinburgh Film Festival (posts forthcoming) and I also have something about documentaries that has been developing in my mind for a while, so I'd like to write that one sooner rather than later (certainly it will be my priority after Edinburgh). So that's it for my coverage of D'A Festival 2015 for now.