“I see you’ve got your Jean-Luc Godard bag, too,” said one young man to another, observing an accessory over the shoulder, a beige satchel adorned with a quotation of Godard, the exact wording of which now escapes my recollection. The young man’s phrasing bemused me; it not only suggested that his acquaintance’s bag was one of many in the vicinity, but the ‘your’ gave rise to the implication of a full variety of Godard fashion accessories, a notion that would almost certainly mortify Monsieur Godard himself. As a less-than-proud owner of a pair of shirts whereon popular alternative band logos are refashioned into the names of comparatively lesser-known cinematic auteurs – Metallica/Fassbinder, Black Flag/Bela Tarr) – I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at Jean Luc’s carry-all catchphrase being paraded before my eyes as some sort of cinephilic badge of honour. It was all a bit of harmless fun. In any case, I had only just arrived in London, had only just emerged unscathed from the London Underground and wasn’t entirely game on letting the inner-city aura of dread and discontent latch itself onto me so easily and so early. Simply put, the man with the Godard bag, along with a few dozen middle-aged couplets drifting to and fro across the street and singing high praise of the recently released ‘Ida’, was all but mere signage required to point me in the direction of my final destination: the waiting area of the Curzon Mayfair, a modest lounge space stuffed to the gills with countless film fans sweating pools of fluid through their linen as the staff prepared the main screen for another BFI London Film Festival premiere.
These ill-timed buckets of sweat notwithstanding, I vastly prefer the hustle and bustle of the festival proper to the somewhat dry atmosphere that comes to define a string of press screenings for the very same films. I often wonder if some of those I encounter amongst the paying public would be better positioned in spheres of influence than a few of the self-proclaimed ‘tastemakers’ I’ve come across in darkened Soho screening rooms. What’s more, watching alongside a discerning cinephile audience can fuel one’s hope that unorthodox styles of cinema are still capable of drawing a large audience, and it’s always interesting to see whether a film seeking distribution can make its mark and begin a rolling momentum.
Case in point: Listen Up Philip, the latest from indie director Alex Ross Perry, who along with most of the film’s cast was absent from the London premiere due to a schedule conflict with the New York premiere, apparently occurring concurrently, give or take a few hours. On hand to pick up the baton was star Jonathan Pryce, who asked the audience to share their thoughts over social media in the hopes of tantalising a potential distributor or few. Belly laughs were scant throughout – secondary to enlivened smiles, I’d imagine, speaking for myself alone – but to pigeonhole the picture as a ‘comedy’ would foolishly re-equip audiences with genre expectations and wholly unprepare them for the acerbic sting of lead character (‘protagonist’ being an unwise term) Philip Friedman, an early-30s New York literary upstart whose two published novels have bestowed upon him a God-given right to berate those who either don’t recognise the magnitude of his success or have otherwise simply failed to replicate it for their own good. Everyone is his inferior – that is, everyone except his superior, an equally narcissistic curmudgeon named Ike Zimmerman (Pryce), aged and jaded, isolated in the country at a remove from the riff-raff. His present is Philip’s future, but it also rings true of an existing literary history, the film premiering stateside in the same week that Philip Roth (a key influence here: look at the title’s typeface for one of many sly allusions) was again ‘rumoured’ to have taken a successive Nobel Literature snub much too personally than is healthy for a self-respecting human being. I doubt it’s true, but talkers will talk.
Characters resistant to change are a hard pitch to sell, since we’re often told (by who, I forget) that our fictional protagonists must be ‘likeable’ in order to engender interest in their plight. Nonsense, plainly. For those who subscribe to that self-defeating predilection, I defer to Elizabeth Moss’ Ashley, long-suffering girlfriend of Philip who over the course of the film steadily breaks free from her prescribed role as passive supporter of Philip’s destructive ascent (or, realistically speaking, stagnation). Her narrative arc, along with those of a number of other supporting characters, provides welcome tangential relief from the unchanging disposition of Philip, chopping up the 109-minute runtime and providing crucial subjective perspectives in a film thematically drawn to individuals predisposed to look inwards for all the wrong reasons. Voiceover narration from Eric Bogosian helps to fill out some of the finer details of each persona, and at times this knowing drawl gives much too much away, but if one worries of a precedence to tell rather than show, Ross Perry’s frequent reliance on expressive close-ups of his characters compensate well enough. These tight examinations not only give a much deeper reading of emotional states, they also supplement the film’s ideas about privileged personal headspace and all that it precludes. Close-ups, zooms and the like are comically timed and judged purposefully, the camera pulling back to reveal a character that was assumed to have not been present, or perhaps accentuate the effect of somebody’s perspective jarring against the objective reality of what truly occurs, all players considered. This aesthetic alertness is veneered with lush 16mm visuals from cinematographer Sean Price Williams, accompanied by a smooth jazz score that altogether comprises a formal rigour at once composed and hurried, smoothly elegant yet further at the mercy of its subjects’ erratic behaviour. Listen Up Philip is a confidently handled depiction of narcissism run rampant, furnished with enough richness and insight into its characters that it could make as equally great a novel – even so, this is a uniquely cinematic endeavour.
Artistry is also at the heart of Mr. Turner, a biopic of the famous landscape painter Joseph Mallard William Turner, and a welcome return for one of Britain’s most beloved filmmakers in Mike Leigh. I will not profess to all of a sudden hold substantial expert knowledge of JMW Turner and his life’s work; in fact, I went into the film a blank slate, curious to see what I would glean from a genre I so abhor handled by a director I so regularly hold in great esteem. For one thing, Leigh does not ‘begin at the beginning’, does not show young William Turner as a young child endowed with a wondrous talent for watercolours and assured of a bright future. Instead, we meet Turner more than halfway through his life, portrayed with enormity and restraint by the magnificent Timothy Spall, whose Cannes honour for Best Actor earlier this year is wholly justified and, I would wager, through half-gritted teeth, land him an Oscar nomination to boot. Spall’s Turner grunts his way through conversations requiring much too much energy – and deserving of even less – conserving all power for fixated periods of craftsmanship. One concrete truism that can be extrapolated from this picture is that Turner was steadfast in his convictions and committed to his art, unwavering in the face of cynicism and hurtful barbs. If that sounds like a cliché statement to make about a character in a biopic, that’s probably because it has been bandied around unjustifiably to the benefit of more conventional narrative models wherein a thinly drawn historical figure overcomes their demons to achieve the greatness for which they have come to be praised. But the assertion scarcely ever rings more truer than here, and perhaps that is because Leigh and Spall have instilled in their Turner so many small contradictions as to render him ultimately unknowable, escaping elementary definitions and plaudits. This partnership is less willing to draw a line under a man than build a world around him and have him live and breathe and come to life within it, and to this end the magnificent 19th century production design establishes a beautiful milieu, captured in wide shots that maintain a distance between ourselves and the closed-book artist, inviting and piquing our curiosity.
Turner is often taken aback by the onset of modernisation – evident in his dialogue with an eccentric daguerreotype operator, and in his awed reaction to a steam train barrelling through the countryside – yet he is also the proponent of a more impressionistic, radical advancement of his art; he’s dismissive of his own daughters yet close to his father; belongs to an elite which he comes to disdain, yet remains oblivious to the emotional wellbeing of his doting maid. Audience regard will waver over the 159mins spent with JMW Turner, so too will emotional reflexes traverse the range from the absurd to the melancholy as all players in orbit of the artist are duly considered – by we the audience, if not him – from his oddly discarded daughters to his self-important peers. Indeed, much of the humour in this tragicomedy – and it is the funniest film I’ve seen this year – arises from the pompousness of those in the art scene, prone to exhibit a temper tantrum borne of self-entitlement or burst with giddiness at the apparent extent of their critical expertise. Turner’s disillusionment with the crowd is palpable in a scene that finds him deny a substantial sum of money for his collected works in favour of donating the entire lot, free of charge, to the British museum for the benefit of the viewing public, rich and poor alike. The irony was not lost on me as I looked around the packed out Odeon West End, seeing clearly that the audience was mostly comprised of elderly white middle-class patrons, with those on a more modest income presumably locked out of the culture due to the normalised practice of charging a twenty-pound-plus premium for a gala premiere. Well, that’s London for you, I suppose, and to quote from and appropriate the temperament of a character from the aforementioned film, despairing yet resigned to the inevitable, ‘it was ever thus’.