Sunday, 29 March 2009

LLGFF 3 & 4: Retrospectives

I've spent much of the weekend so far watching revivals of old classics that I'd never seen. The great thing about the BFI is the way they restore and revive old films, letting us watch them on big screens rather than video. At this year's festival, a number of seminal works have been restored (the photo is from Nighthawks), and others are getting extremely rare screenings and discussion events. I haven't caught up with the Stonewall movies yet, but I have seen...

LA Plays Itself (1972) ****
This striking 55-minute experimental film is made with remarkable skill even though filmmaker Fred Halsted insisted that he had no training or influences. The sound is disconnected from the images, and the film is made up of two distinct halves: in the first we see (and hear) a couple of men who meet up in an idyllic mountain wilderness, and in the second another two men (a hustler played by Halsted and a Texan just off the bus) meet on the mean streets of Hollywood and get into a series of increasingly unsettling bondage scenarios. There's a clear sense of paradise found and lost here, showing how the city can eat away the soul and make it impossible to find satisfaction. It's pretty full-on, but also seriously important for anyone interested in film.

The Sex Garage (1972) ****
A companion piece to LA Plays Itself, this 35-minute short was shot in just six hours (as opposed to the longer film's four years!), and continues the themes of nature vs culture as a young mechanic has sexual encounters with a hippie chick, a rich kid customer and then a long-haired biker, who gets bored turns to his motorbike for sex instead. It's shot and edited with serious inventiveness, complete with asynchronous sound and a variety of musical types. It's interesting to note that this and LA Plays Itself are the only two explicit sexual films in the permanent collection at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

(1978) *****
Ron Peck's landmark gay drama is strikingly realistic, avoiding all sensationalism and stereotypes as it follows a schoolteacher through his day-to-day life in London. He's looking for a serious relationship, but has to settle for meaningless one-night stands instead mixed with workplace friendships. It's often painful to watch his loneliness and even panic at the thought of being alone forever. All of this is shot and edited with a gritty authenticity, and the dialog is wonderfully unfussy, full of smalltalk and throwaway moments of humour and real emotion. It's also a little eerie that 30 years later it's still so true to life - well, except for the 1970s clothes and music.

I've also been watching lots of short films, which is great fun in a big cinema with a lively, reactive audience. And here are a couple of others over the past two days...

I Can't Think Straight **
A decent plot and strong characters can't quite overcome the limitations of this low-budget British film, mainly because the director struggles to inject much energy or spark into the story. But there's enough in the premise to make it worth seeing - namely in the characters themselves. It's a romance between two women: one is a Christian from Jordan and the other is a Muslim from India. Both obviously have big family issues to deal with, but the film seems a little unsure whether to play it as a romantic comedy or a cultural drama, and opts for something a little too simplistic, never really digging into the big themes its raises.

Patrik, Age 1.5 ****
This Swedish drama has a breezy tone that keeps us from ever really wondering how it'll end up, but the characters and situations are involving and entertaining. It's about a gay couple preparing to adopt an 18-month-old baby, but then realising that the adoption agency got the decimal in the wrong place when a surly, homophobic 15-year-old boy turns up. this is a warm and relaxed film - it does go through some serious plot turns, but also takes the time to grapple with the issues without wallowing in them. And it's nice to see a film in which characters actually develop and learn to relate to each other in positive ways. And the whole issue of gay parenthood is never simplified.

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