Dismayed to learn membership numbers were down from previous years, The Lumière Reader knows what Film Societies are up against: the disillusionment of movie-going, the convenience of DVD, the instantaneity of the internet. As another season’s programme is unveiled, the tendency is, invariably, to check off the films that can be accessed by other means. We implore you to join anyway. Long-time members will vouch for the pleasures of communal viewing, and there’s nothing quite like indulging in big screen cinema – whether it be classic, marginal, or grossly underseen – in the company of a regular, appreciative, mobilized audience. If music fans can extol the virtues of witnessing a band live over listening to their albums, cinephiles should argue that watching a film at home on a television screen (or worse, on a computer monitor) cannot compare to absorbing it in a theatre alongside other people. Film Society 2008 offers plenty of opportunities to experience this: its annual silent cinema presentation always a highlight (Harold Lloyd’s immortal Safety Last! screens), forgotten festival fixtures are afforded a second life (this year, German features Requiem and Longing), while films you won’t have heard of or seen make for discoveries to look forward too (Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels, or the Charles Burnett retrospective instances that are especially hard to come by in this country).

Though individual Societies vary in screenings between regions, the overarching New Zealand Film Society promises an excellent nationwide programme. TIM WONG (with additional words from Brannavan Gnanalingam) appraises the five films you should at least consider joining for.

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1. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Back in 1967, this emphatic homage to musicals wanted desperately to rekindle the euphoria of breaking into song and dance. Seen today, its affection for gold standard Hollywood hasn’t dwindled in the slightest, and despite the likes of Chicago and Hairspray reconstituting the genre into a graceless, epileptic fit, Jacques Demy’s pictures of the sixties and seventies still gloriously carry the torch. In The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy’s nostalgia for musicals burns brighter than ever – his lovesickness positively contagious as a yearning for the past. Opening to a signature Michel Legrand melody, it’s a film that never lets up, committing to a fresh musical number (or a variation on its theme) approximately every eight minutes; pirouettes and horizontal leaps replace the humdrum of walking; characters, seemingly overcome by their colour-coordinated surroundings, elect to sing rather than converse.
Featuring real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac (the latter tragically killed shortly after Rochefort’s completion) as twins who aspire towards the big city magic of Paris, Demy fills his lovelorn players with a sense of longing and unfettered romance, whose pining for something is a projection of his boyhood dreams (see: Jacquot de Nantes). Living vicariously through the breezy flirtations and star-aligned courtships within the film (which also includes Danielle Darrieux as a sassy café owner, and the peerless Gene Kelly, who probably wished he had signed off with this and not Xanadu in 1980), Demy is head-over-heels, and it shows: unlike the bittersweet The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – by turns lyrical and stubbornly subversive, with its entire dialogue unfashionably sung – The Young Girls is optimistic, ecstatic, and hopelessly devoted to the musical. They are, and will always be, the ultimate escapist vehicles, however incongruous among the franchise superheroes, doomsday futurism, and migraine-inducing special effects of a new millennium. [Screening Details]

2. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Proponents of Memories of Murder and The Host will find the makings of Bong Joon-ho’s eccentric cinema in his feature debut, an unclassifiable slacker comedy about desperate human beings who, throughout the course of the film, either kill or eat dogs. Set in a rancid apartment block – itself, a kennel for social depression – a feeble university lecturer thwarted by academic corruption takes his frustrations out on a series of neighbourhood pups. The resident janitor, meanwhile, sequesters the corpses for his lunchtime stew. The noblest character, a yellow-hooded mooch who channels her inner-superhero to perform daring feats of canine rescue, is played by none other than Bae Doona, Korea’s best and most willing actress. Sullen and makeup-less, Bae’s readiness to dispense with the cosmetic trappings of the profession has become a hallmark of her career, as has her dopey physicality, which varies from beanstalk lankiness to Chaplinesque disorientation. Bae’s comic levity, so memorable in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Linda Linda Linda, is among the film’s other great discoveries, with Bong’s knack for tonal shifts established too: through nonchalant pacing, free-jazz bursts, and a delightful genre ambiguity, he shares in his characters’ perpetual funk, all the while maintaining a cruel state of flux between heartlessness and humanism. If ironic as a statement on economic malaise – it was released the same year as Joint Security Area, a blockbuster which propelled Korean Cinema into the black – Barking Dogs Never Bite remains dark and downbeat as a leveller, reducing people to the stature of animals (and pets to a basic food group). It’s also a film that has no right to be funny, but is. [Screening Details]

3. Time Indefinite (1993)

Ross McElwee’s documentaries, which never stray far from autobiography, are qualified by strange forces, private fears, and unscripted revelations that, across a body of work, thrust the seemingly ordinary into metamorphosis. Holding a mirror up to himself (and his family tree), McElwee’s films are neither insufferable nor knowingly therapeutic in the way they are unfurled. Unlike the frantic, go-for-broke exhibitionism of Tarnation – an ad hoc collection of home movies by Jonathon Caouette, whose overearnest exorcism of the past resembles little more than a pre-YouTube video blog – McElwee’s self-documenting is by contrast measured, unobtrusive, and almost entirely beyond his control. Indeed, what makes McElwee’s personal investigations so genuine is the aimlessness in which they are filmed, something he is all too aware of (and at the same time powerless to reform). Whether it is an increasingly futile search for links to a tobacco-prospecting movie in Bright Leaves, the hijacking of Civil War documentary Sherman’s March for the purposes of reflection on the opposite sex, or the need to record everything – a compulsion that invariably irritates all his subjects at some point – McElwee’s obsession with life through a viewfinder is central to his intrigue as a filmmaker. This constant diarist is best witnessed in Time Indefinite, where negative paternal vibes do their best to sabotage his camera, and where a series of tragedies plunge the newly married father-to-be into a meditative huff on the alienation of the medium, the nature of moving images, and the ethics of shooting a dying fish. The preceding films, Charleen and Backyard specifically, are prerequisite viewing; they establish McElwee’s disarming persona, self-effacing narration, wry sense of humour, and affecting family history. [Screening Details]

4. Jacquot de Nantes (1991)

In Agnes Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes, a young Jacques Demy sees the world in colour, even if his memories are processed in shades of grey. Not a biography so much as an enduring farewell, the film remembers Demy, in various states of adolescence, as a boy afflicted with a common disease: cinema. As a recollection of childhood, it attributes small but meaningful details to the moving images he would later create: his father, a mechanic, the building blocks for Catherine Deneuve’s lover in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; a puppet show, or a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the impetus behind his rendition of Charles Perrault fairytale Donkey Skin. More than simply a love letter to Varda’s late husband (who died shortly before the its release), or a memoir anchored as a coming-of-age, Jacquot de Nantes is an article of magnificent obsession, tactile and joyous in its affection for flickering pictures. Like Cinema Paradiso, it extols the watching and making of movies with passion and poignancy. It’s little wonder that Demy’s films, against the knowledge of a disapproving (but ultimately supportive) father, resemble unstoppable dreams, wet with crayon-coloured hues, sprightly Michel Legrand piano riffs, and the sexiest French women: Deneuve, Anouk Aimee, Delphine Seyrig among the director’s desirable female leads. It’s a touching, softly observed dedication to a filmmaker’s zeal, the results of which are splashed across this year’s Film Society programme. [Screening Details]

5. Killer of Sheep (1977)

Until recently, Killer of Sheep has never had a distribution deal, and has never been available on video or DVD. It’s also one of the most important American films of the 1970s – The Library of Congress originally picked it as one of the 50 American films for its National Registry. Its director, Charles Burnett, made it on weekends between 1972 and 1973 for less than $20,000, submitted it as his thesis film for UCLA, and in the process made one of the most influential independent films in film history. A direct response to blaxploitation and the limited portrayals of blacks in Hollywood, Burnett (whose classmates also include highly influential black filmmakers Haile Gerima and Julie Dash) released his feature in 1977, but its initial run, while highly important to a new generation including Spike Lee, was limited. It was a film more talked about than seen. A valuable document, it tells the life of a family and assorted hanger-ons in South-Central Los Angeles. The major focus is the eponymous character (he works in a slaughterhouse) who works an honest day, everyday, despite life’s little crushing blows.
The film, however, doesn’t simply focus on one protagonist, and in this respect, is rather subversive in its treatment. It’s unlike a Hollywood film where a single character has the “burden” of representing and standing-in for all black people. It’s not a Sidney Poitier film where the character merely exists to prove to white people that black people are decent. This aims to show a multiplicity of views; a cast that shows the warts, the frustrations, the happy moments, the anger etc. of a community. In other words, these characters aren’t ciphers or representing some other ideal conception of black people – they’re simply shown as everyday people living an everyday life. In this respect, you could see how Burnett has been influenced by the great French director Jean Renoir: “everybody has their reasons”.
Broadly drawn but intimate in scope, Killer of Sheep is populated by miniature moments – eye movements, bursts of happiness, small crushing failures (e.g. the memorable picnic scene). It also feels authentic – documentary-like with its muted black and white imagery, yet tightly scripted and structured. Consequently, some of the non-actors are a little wooden, but that also allows for a story that doesn’t exploit its characters or setting. It’s highly political in its effect and tone. But even more, it’s a rare privilege to see such a piece of filmmaking that shows real-life as bleak, funny, high-spirited, crushing, happy and angry. In essence, as life really is.—Brannavan Gnanalingam (originally published 1/7/07) [Screening Details]

Jacques Demy, Korean Showcase, Ross McElwee and Charles Burnett seasons are programmed nationwide. The Lumière Reader will review Wellington Film Society screenings throughout 2008.

See also:
» Charles Burnett on Killer of Sheep
» Film Society Preview 2007
» Samuel Fuller and Francois Truffaut: An Appreciation
» An ode to Film Society; a fatwah against DVD

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