Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 11: Otel·lo, On The Bowery, The Grandmaster

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Day 11, the final day of the festival, and always a day of mixed emotions. I can still remember my first festival, back in 2010, when all I was doing was watching films, but even so it had been a day to remember: I met the director of a film I was watching for the first time, asked some of my first ever Q & A questions, saw my first surprise film and rounded the day off with Made In Dagenham. As I made my way back to the car park, it was a strange feeling that I’d been to the cinema for nine out of the previous ten days, and I almost didn’t want to leave. Doing so was an admission that this beautiful season of culture and film education was at an end, and normal life was about to rudely intrude once again.

And that year I saw just nineteen films, had only passing conversations with strangers and the four films I saw on the last day were the most I saw on any day that year. In 2014, I needed to see only three films on the final day to take my total for the year to forty. In addition, I’d interviewed two directors and a composer, hosted a Q & A and had seen a host of people at the festival either every day or nearly so. For me, although I have upgraded from casual observer to amateur journalist and now watch a total of films that surely would allow me to move my bed in, it’s like a strange film family. I saw more of around two dozen people, including cinema staff, trust staff, fellow Bums On Seats and Take One contributors and general cinephiles, than I did of my wife during the festival, and to suddenly cut yourself off from that extended family can become hard.

It was all the more strange when I arrived at the cinema to find it practically deserted. Once the crowds from the second sold-out screening of the Frozen sing along had subsided, the festival had become eerily quiet. There were still reasonably crowds in many of the screenings, but for much of the day the bar was quiet enough that tumbleweeds wouldn’t have seemed out of place and the hustle and bustle of the first days of the festival had hustled and bustled itself out. The good news was that the move forward of the festival (by about three weeks) had generated the desired effect, and takings were 20-30% up on the previous year. The festival is once again in rude health, and with the campaign to keep the cinema as an art house establishment seemingly to reach a successful conclusion within weeks, the future of the festival seems assured.

But I still had one day to get through, and a late night on day 10 meant a screener to watch on Sunday morning before making an appearance at the cinema. In the end, I managed three and a bit films on the final day, hitting my total of forty, but as with the previous day my programme had ended up being somewhat fluid. On arriving at the Arts Picturehouse I ran into festival director Tony Jones, looking for someone to do a Q & A after the scheduled hoster had to drop out due to unforeseen circumstances, but it was for the Rogosin season and I’d only managed to see Shadows, so felt it was better left to someone more expert in such matters.

Otel·lo

Othelo

The last of my selections from the year’s Catalan film strand, and a significant departure from the themes of the other films I’d seen. It was also a step into the unknown: there’s nothing like reviewing a film based on one of the most famous plays in the world by possibly the most famous playwright in the world when you haven’t seen the play. Thankfully there’s this wonderful thing these days called the internet which allowed me to do a bit of background research: Cliffs Notes suggests that the key themes include love, jealousy and the difference between appearance and reality. What Hammudi Al-Rahmoun Font’s film works as is both primer to the core themes of Othello and a reflection on them, as Othello effectively becomes the play within the play. The film’s structured around just showing the filming of key scenes from the director’s perspective and the methods he uses to get the most from his cast; methods which bear an uneasy parallel to the manipulations at work in Othello itself.

Despite filming a significant amount of footage, the final cut of this film is barely an hour and a quarter, but the director’s choice of both scenes and his filming style are well judged. The niggling question at the back of my mind was, “why haven’t the cast twigged that their director is manoeuvring them in the same way as the characters in the play?” The feasible answer within the construct of the drama is that the actors are all first timers and become so engrossed in what they’re being asked to achieve that it would never occur to them. What results has a raw intensity and captures just the key messages that Shakespeare set out to encapsulate, but in a much more concentrated form. A twist in the tale at the very end is perhaps unsurprising, but still kept me thinking about the film for some time afterwards.

The Score: 8/10

After catching the end of the film again in the cinema, I then diverted to see Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance Of Reality, the first film from the Chilean writer / director in nearly twenty-five years. For some reason, this surreal treat wasn’t striking a chord with me in the way that The Distance had done a few days earlier, so my phone quietly vibrated with a text during the screening I decided to duck out and see who it was from.

It was another appeal to find someone to host the Q & A for the Rogosin screening later that afternoon. So I had seen Shadows the day before, the John Cassavetes debut feature, but I’d not managed to see any of the actual Lionel Rogosin films such as Come Back, Africa showing during the festival. There also wasn’t a screener for On The Bowery or the documentary following it, or indeed time to watch either as the showings started in less than an hour. Also, the Q & A was with the documentarian, and son of Lionel Rogoson, Michael Rogosin. The only option would be to watch the film and the documentary during the screening and then leap straight into the Q & A. And, being the last day of the festival, everyone else was either already committed to other events or had departed for their regularly scheduled lives. So, sensing there was no other sensible option, I said yes, then started Googling the bejesus out of American independent cinema in the half hour I had left.

On The Bowery

On the Bowery

So, first things first: On The Bowery is a forgotten piece of American cinema history. I’ve been expanding my knowledge of cinema history this year with the likes of Bicycle Thieves and Jules Et Jim, and you can see a clear through line between the subject matter and setting of the more desperate end of Italian neorealist cinema such as the former, to the grand stylings and intimacy of the latter (via other American independents such as John Cassavetes’ Shadows which I had seen the day before). Remarkably it was Rogosin’s first film, after he’d decided to become a crusader against the evils of racism and fascism, and he learned his craft on the job; I can only be very jealous as he has a natural insight into the characters that populated the Bowery and how best to capture them, spending the better part of a year of his life in the environment to better know his subjects.

Rogosin’s film deals with the intersecting lives of three drifters, one of whom (Ray Salyer) comes to the Bowery only to be relieved of his possessions by another (Gorman Hendricks), and we bear witness to the depths of poverty into which the likes of Ray and Gorman have sunk or been dragged. Rogosin is fascinated with the appearance of his charges, his camera staring deep into every crag and crease on the worn faces of these desperate men, but despite the honesty of Rogosin’s venture into the live of these unfortunates it never pities and his film retains a remarkable dignity.

Despite the quality of the film (it was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar and also picked up the documentary award at the Venice Film Festival), the subject matter didn’t sit well with audiences and Rogosin’s films never achieved the kind of commercial success that their quality probably deserved. Michael Rogosin has produced a documentary which looks at the production, legacy and reception of the film and for those attempting to piece together an education in film such as myself, this was the ideal accompaniment to his father’s film, giving a comprehensive context to the film and its place in American cinema history.

The Score: 9/10

The Q & A with Michael Rogosin after the film ran for about twenty minutes, and thankfully the film had given both me and the compact audience plenty to chew over, and Michael was more than happy to answer any questions. I also then took the opportunity to have a further chat with him in the bar over a drink after the session finished, where I think he was just as keen to understand about the local film scene and education possibilities as I was to understand his experience. All in all, both the films and the Q & A were a delight and it’s great that the Cambridge Film Festival continues to attract guests of this calibre and quality, even if they then let the likes of me loose on them.

Following that, I arrived at my fortieth and final film of the festival. I’ve always taken in the surprise film in the five years I’ve been at the festival, whether there were one or two, and despite a great variance in quality of the films I’d seen in previous years – for the record, my previous surprise films were Chico & Rita, Contagion, The Debt, Looper, Sunshine On Leith and The Trials Of Muhammed Ali – but this year, the two surprise films were scheduled against each other so it came down to a choice. I plumped for screen 1 on the simple basis that the bigger film was likely to be playing in the bigger screen.

Much of the fun is in trying to guess the film, but with other major festivals in the calendar at similar times such as Toronto, Venice, New York and London, chances were that most studios wouldn’t be prepared to give a major release to a festival the size of Cambridge. Of course, surprise films can be a curse as well as as blessing to film festivals, especially . Take the surprise film at the London Film Festival in 2013: Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster arrived in a significantly different version, to the great consternation of most of the audience. Despite being a major release from one of China’s foremost international directors, the Weinstein fingerprints all over the edit ended up being the major topic of discussion.

So what would the surprise film for Cambridge 2014 be?

Surprise Film 1: The Grandmaster – Weinstein Cut

The Grandmaster Zhang Ziyi

Oh.

Having been stuck in release hell, Wong’s more austere and dramatic take on the life of Ip Man than the martial arts movies that have previously been released arrived in Cambridge in the shorter cut. First to the differences: Ip Man might be most relatable to Western audiences as the man who trained Bruce Lee, but the original played down these links, focused on the life of Ip (played here by Tony Leung) and clocked in at 130 minutes. The Weinstein version trims down Ip’s life a little, adds more detail around his relationship with a rival’s daughter (Zhang Ziyi) and more of the status of Ip’s method Wing Chun among the various varieties of kung fu and adds a huge amount of explanatory intertitles to make the plot more digestible for Western audiences. The other main change is to trim the film down to a more compact 108 minutes.

What we’re left with is a film with a series of martial arts sequences that vary wildly in quality, interspersed with dramatic sequences that vary even more wildly in their understanding of what drama is. Despite employing the most renowned fight choreographer in the business, Yuen Woo-ping, the cinematography and staging of a couple of the earlier sequences render them dull and confusing. More crucially, the front-loading of what exposition has been culled from Wong’s original vision leaves the first act leaden and clumpy, and the intertitles are so frequent in the last act the film verges on patronising. When Leung and Zhang are on screen together, the film often soars, but it’s too regularly dragged down by decisions made in the editing room to placate the perceived needs of Western viewers. Whether we’ll ever get the original 130 minute cut to be able to compare and contrast is debatable, but this version of The Grandmaster is a mixed blessing. The decision to show it as the surprise film here in this version, after the reception it received at London last year, can only diplomatically be described as brave.

The Score: 6/10

And that’s it for another year. It’s taken me more than a month after the festival to get everything written up, but after two years of failing miserably to document the entirety of the festival for the last two years, I was determined to get to the end this year, long after most sensible people had stopped caring and moved on with their lives. Thanks to everyone involved with the Cambridge Film Trust that put together the festival, the staff of the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse for their moral support when my spirit was flagging, to Bums On Seats and Take One for once again allowing me to contribute, and finally to everyone who was simply there doing what I was doing – trying to soak up as many films as possible – and who were just willing to make conversation about what they’d seen. It wouldn’t be the same without you all. See you at the festival in 2015.

I’ll end with my list of the best films, both old and new, from the forty I saw for this year’s festival.

Top 5 new films shown at the festival

1. Stations Of The Cross

2. Cherry Tobacco

3. 20,000 Days On Earth

4. Night Moves

5. Violet

Top 5 re-releases or classic films shown at the festival

1. M

2. On The Bowery

3. Down By Law

4. Frozen Sing Along

5. Inferno 3D

One thought on “Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 11: Otel·lo, On The Bowery, The Grandmaster

    Hugh Taylor said:
    October 17, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Congratulations – not so much for making it to the end of the Festival itself (anyone can do that bit!), but of writing up the experience. That’s the hard part – even without the added burden caused by leaving the later days for a month or more. I know, there aren’t enough hours in the day!

    Next year, I’ll show you how to work out your schedule on a single piece of A5. Unless you can come up with a program that can cope with the “repeat” screenings, transfer times between venues or screens, a pecking order (so you don’t miss the best films). And, of course, some recovery time in between to give you a chance to catch up with your friends 😉

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