In Conversation With William Friedkin

With an encyclopaedic knowledge of film, and 45 years of experience in the industry, William Friedkin is as expansive a raconteur about the world of cinema as you could hope to meet. In town to promote his new film Killer Joe, he talked at length about the filming of French Connection, the current studio system, and why violence is a compelling subject matter. 

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Women in Horror: Berberian Sound Studio vs V.H.S.

An incidental happenstance of watching so many films in a short period of time, as I am at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, is that films with quite disparate aesthetics and subject matter start to echo. The viewing of one film informs another. So it is in the case of Berberian Sound Studio, for which my love is well-documented, and V.H.S. The former is a sleek fugue of a film about Gilderoy, a sound designer losing his grip as he creates the sound-mix for an Italian exploitation horror in the 1970s. The latter is a crass American enterprise, a horror anthology, set in the modern day. But both are about men who film women, and how they hurt them. Continue reading

EIFF: Fred

There is something uncomfortably churlish about picking apart a film that has honourable intentions. It’s a little akin to picking on that clueless kid in primary school who would show up for mufti days in full uniform and spent too long talking about their toenails (Reader, that child was … me). But there is a wide divide between good ideals and good cinema, and Fred (2012, USA) utterly fails to cross that gap. It is a universally awkward film, weak and uncertain, despite boasting a wrenching central turn from Eliot Gould.
It is slight on plot: the titular Fred (Gould) is tip-toeing gently towards Alzheimer’s. His wife, Susan, is considerably further gone, spouting gibberish and barely mobile. Currently looked after by a live-in carer, the film depicts a brief spell in which Fred and Susan’s adult children struggle to reconcile the belligerent Fred with the idea he and Susan are being moved into a nursing home.  
The press material for the film compares Fred to a Woody Allen movie, but the only discernible corollary is Fred a) contains dialogue and b) contains Jewish characters. The script itself is risible, a mixture of clunky expository dialogue and laboured monologues. Gould transcends the dialogue with a delicate and sensitive performance, but the rest of the cast are woeful. In particular, it is a crushing disappointment to see Fred Melamed, so brilliant as the suavely malevolent Sy Abelman in the Coens’ A Serious Man, give such a stilted and unconvincing performance as Gould’s self-absorbed son Bob.
Stylistically Fred is just as poorly executed – the editing so amateurish and jarring it frequently jolts you out of the picture. Vague flails towards an aesthetic sensibility are scattered throughout – rapid-cut close-ups, sudden light saturation – but achieve nothing save for calling attention to how awkward they look. An hour in, I found myself celebrating at a brief, pretty shot of a forest. It’s a sorry sign if a film leaves you that desperate for distraction.
Most people will have experienced the pain of seeing a loved one experience Alzheimer’s, or indeed may be facing diagnosis itself. It can be a protracted form of agony when someone struggles with the loss of identity, autonomy, and dignity, for them and all who love them. It is evident Fred is trying to be sensitive to its subject matter and avoid condescension, but in doing so it also fails to create relatable characters or a genuine sense of consequence. Sarah Polley’s delicate masterpiece, Away from Her, does an infinitely more artful and insightful job of depicting what it is to essentially lose yourself. People tempted to Fred would do better  to seek out Polley’s 2006 gem. Fred is a quiet disappointment.

EIFF: California Solo

If, as the saying goes, we are all each other’s angels and demons, then Lachlan MacAldonich (Robert Carlyle) has played the demon to more than his fair share of people during his life. Whippet thin, every feature a grimace, he’s a barely contained streak of bitterness and regret, the former guitarist of a Madchester rock band, now living in self-imposed isolation in California.  Selfish, ungrateful, and often ragingly drunk, his attempts to overturn a deportation ruling – sending him back to his native Scotland – are disastrous, resulting in him finding ever new ways to hurt those around him.  It’s a testament to the conviction and ferocity of Carlyle’s performance he’s never less than compulsively watchable in so toxic a role, and that ultimately you end up on Lachlan’s side. It’s a career-best turn.

The washed up musician is well-trodden cinematic territory, most recently with Jeff Bridge’s Oscar-nabbing turn in the country music schmaltz fest Crazy Heart, which California Solo shares common ground with: both Bridges’ and Carlyle’s characters are irascible, high-functioning drunks. Both films are anchored by bravura lead performances. What distinguishes California Solo, however, is an intelligently realised, lean script, which deftly handles the bleak subject matter without ever seeming too maudlin. Whatever his faults, Lachlan is shot through with a healthy dose of Scots wit, so you can always spy the charisma that first draws people towards him before he pushes them away.

The cinematography is garishly beautiful, painting California in grainy, abrasive light – seeing the world through Lachlan’s hangover. The soundtrack, featuring tracks from Lachlan’s old band the Cranks, aptly apes the gangly guitars and ironic lyrics of Mancunian rock. It’s soaringly good, as is the moment where Carlyle performs the titular lament on acoustic guitar. As with the film itself, you’ve heard this story before, but it’s no less beautiful for it.