When marking out one’s festival schedule, one can easily make the mistake of jamming together so many films in safe temporal proximity while simultaneously ignoring their physical distance, an oversight that can only result in countless tube journeys and, as a consequence, a rather sizeable oyster card bill. Stop, think, space it out whenever and wherever you can. On the occasion where one film’s end credits are not at a mere 15 minutes remove from the opens of another, I make it a priority to keep above ground, sample some delicious smog-tinged city oxygen, and develop a mental GPS of the many interconnecting streets. Sometimes, if I really want to depress myself, I keep a tally of all the Pret-A-Mangers I see, from Pret-a-Mang-A to Pret-a-Mang-Z. (I hate them all.)
Putting the tube system in the rear-view gives one the opportunity to stumble across something else they might not have considered: possibly another, smaller cultural event occurring concurrent to the festival, outside of and drowned out by the filmic bubble we can all too happily hermit and fester away inside. En route to my next screening, I was glad to see Diwali celebrations were getting underway in Trafalgar Square, replete with a mammoth stage construction, music and an array of food stalls. I was less happy to see a plague of marquees draped in corporate logos, and quite disgusted at the sight of staffers at a Sky stall impinging on the festivities with their latest overpriced movie and sports packages. Nothing is sacred. Welcome to Christmas, Diwali.
Landing at my next film venue, I happened upon an acquaintance of sorts who, through detailing in bullet points his thus far unspectacular Sunday, revealed to me that he was one of forty-plus workers the institution employed on a zero-hour contract. I’ll neglect to name names, though the very reason I’m warranting the case its word-space is that the institution in question is a self-appointed progressive establishment, whose first sight upon entering is a bookshop comprised of texts on the ills of neoliberalism and capitalist ideology. What a hoot. Give the bookworms their medicine, pat their heads and send them on their way. Our cultural gatekeepers are utterly counterfeit.
Freshened by outrage (watch out, caffeine), I took my seat for Butter on the Latch, one of two Josephine Decker films on the festival bill. Butter is a gratifying prospect: a film directed by a woman, starring primarily women and focused on a complex female relationship. Sarah Small, who was on hand with Decker for the post-screening Q&A, stars as Sarah, a vacationer on the inside of a Balkan dance camp deep in the woods, accompanied by her friend Isolde. An undeniable chemistry and witty exchanges between the two are duly met with appreciative audience guffaws, before it becomes clear that the Isolde provokes within Sarah an overwhelming anxiety. Frequent flights of panic are evoked by an avalanche of fleeting cuts, beguiling shots that don’t linger long enough for us, or even Sarah, to fully grasp their meaning. This is disorientation via brutal montage, though DP Ashley Connor finds other ways to consign the woodland surroundings to an altogether other plane of reality, her camera situated at low levels and off-kilter angles, unable to capture the true breadth of the landscape on one modest handheld lens, the vertical stretch from the grounded leaves to the towering redheads. From what Decker revealed afterward, it seemed as though Connor had a great deal of autonomy in determining much of the filmic grammar on show here.
One audience question relating to social detachment between Sarah and her fellow campers led the director to concede that, upon editing the final amassment of footage, she had elected to chop out much of the general socialisation between the larger cast in order to focus on the crucial central partnership, though one wonders if the resulting sense of detachment between protagonist and supporting players was fully intentional, due to the fondness with which Decker, in person, regards these communities, contrasted against the eeriness of their onscreen presentation. Decker’s method, not without merit, also speaks to a larger digital tendency of improvising a shoot and proceeding to feel out the final cut in its aftermath. She revealed that her frequent collaborator and mumblecore mainstay, Joe Swanberg, has his own way of doing things, and it may explain his enormously prolific output: Swanberg spends just four hours a day shooting actual footage, then spends the rest of the afternoon and evening editing everything in the film so far, ready to arrive the next day with a clear sense of purpose as to where the film is up to and where it’s headed. This would imply that a Swanberg film is firmly in the can almost immediately after production has wrapped. That’s… that’s a lot of coffee.
From the sticks to the mud: next up was Hard to Be a God, the first film from the late Russian director Alexsei German in fifteen years – also his very last – and the result of a painstakingly protracted shoot lasting from 2000 to 2006 with an editing process, completed by wife and son, reaching far beyond. The first frame is of a long shot-cum-landscape portrait of a destitute medieval land, a Middle Ages End of Time, deprived of its own Renaissance, said to be situated in a faraway world whose spiritual poverty is not totally unfamiliar. From there we barrel into the fracas, the camera our body, drawn further inward by snatching arms and wide eyes making fourth-wall contact, given a guided tour around a seemingly never-ending terrain in rich black-and-white tracks. We accompany Don Rumata, alleged son of a God, as he travails the region navigating a conflict between the Blacks and the Grays, searching for a modicum of answer where there might be none at all. The view is never less than awe-inspiring at three hours running time, every inch of the screen dense with lavish impoverishment, the scene stretching onward for an eternity beyond the constant smoke, steam and vapour spreading texture across the air. This is a film whose humidity you can almost feel against your nostril hair, whose squelches of mud you imagine shaping around the imprint of your feet.
I will confess that for long stretches I had some difficulty following any such narrative line in spite of remaining consistently in thrall to the film’s formal pleasures, and I lay a measure of the blame at the poor English subtitles. I had this issue with one of German’s earlier films, My Friend Ivan Lapshin, and here again the translation appears nonsensical, a jumble of disordered words. The effect proves impenetrable whether intentional or not, although it detracts not from the visual majesty of the picture. I couldn’t take my eyes away. Not everyone agreed, however. Unallocated seating had me placed at the back of the screening room, where I had the distinct pleasure of both witnessing one or two people walk out of the film every few minutes (across three hours, that’s a hefty number), and hearing the deserters fume and/or giggle on the other side of the door as they left. Hey, if you can’t take the heat…
I flirted with a walkout myself during White God (I never would), Kornél Mundruczó’s cautionary tale of a bloody canine revolution sparked by animal cruelty. It wasn’t that the film was essentially terrible, but rather its direction and plotting so matter-of-fact and at times a little too cute, even with the vast subtext underlying its simple story. In this tale of a young girl (Zsofia Potta) forced to inadvertently abandon her dog Hagen to an life of successive dog-fights, we encounter through parallel narratives of human and animal a variety of metaphors: violence begetting violence, the assumed superiority of man, the universal healing language of art, the colonial imperative, and the intransigence of the white male. All of this delivered in what felt like a composite of two classic Simpsons episodes: Dog of Death and Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badaaassss Song. And yet, the accumulation of these themes never feels too heavy a burden for the film to bear. It breezes along.
Detractors such as myself will have their ears stand on end and their interest piqued during any scene with more dogs than humans, for it’s clear that what Mundruczo offers in a mundane action/reaction capture of human activity, he more than makes up for in how-did-he-do-that direction featuring dozens upon dozens of dogs acting as one, simultaneously disobedient onscreen and, one can only assume, largely obedient off-screen. Events truly hit their stride once the dogs all but run the show in the final act, where the tone shifts comfortably from coming-of-age adventure to full-blown horror leavened with a dash of pathos. The final shot almost made me want to cry, which came as a total shock considering my total indifference to everything that had preceded it. It’s a gut punch of a final statement, a beautiful prayer for hope and peace, and one of the best shots of the year in any film positioned right at the end of one possessed of so few truly striking visual moments. If Mundruczó is to be believed, it is also the last cinematic frame ever witnessed by the late, great Miklós Jancsó, to whom the film is dedicated.
It’s a film about a dog uprising, so of course it already has a distributor and allotted release for the New Year. If the girl sat across from me was any indication – perpetually on the edge of her seat, hunched forward, palms clasped to cheeks – this one’s set to go down a treat. Let’s hope the film’s original title is retained over potential replacements – say, Night of the Living Dogs, Army of Dogness, or perhaps The Dog Days Ain’t Gone, Girl.