A Story of Children and Film (Mark Cousins, UK, 2013)

Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, Film education, Film reviews

This blog post is written ahead of introducing A Story of Children and Film at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 27 May 2014.

A Story of Children and Film explores the way in which cinema has dealt with children over the course of its florid history. Mark Cousins, most famously responsible for The Story of Film (UK, 2011), makes a movie that involves clips from some 50 plus movies from all periods of film history and from all over the world.

Analysing clips from films as diverse as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1982), Beed-o baad/Willow and Wind (Mohammed-Ali Talebi, Iran/Japan, 2000) and La petite vendeuse de soleil/The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal/France/Switzerland/Germany, 1999), Cousins suggests that children bring to cinema an energy, a vitality and perhaps even an innocence that is not always present in mainstream, adult-centred fictional cinema.

Indeed, remarkably Cousins brings into the film his own niece and nephew, who themselves are by turns timid and performative as he trains his camera on them.

It is an entirely everyday scene, with Cousins and his young wards dressed in pyjamas playing with toys on his living room floor. Nonetheless, there are several things to highlight here.

Firstly, the very everydayness of the situation is important. For, in presenting to us a scene of everyday life, rather than a specific and rehearsed performance of children singing, for example, Cousins brings to his film precisely what he admires in those of other filmmakers, namely life.

This is in part Cousins’ documentary spirit at work, but with the child, it ties in with the sense of energy that children can and do bring to a film, and which Cousins describes in an interview. For, even when acting in a fiction film, there is a sense in which the child is not acting (even if they are acting up), but rather are performing themselves, performing as themselves, and thus revealing to us something more genuine than a studied performance.

In effect, in not being an adult, the child brings to cinema something unadulterated – and this sense of the genuine, of the unadulterated, is perhaps the most exciting thing that cinema can offer – not a projection of our fantasies, but a mirror that shows back to us our world, replete as it is with fantasies of being or becoming cinematic (kids can be and often are, after all, very aware of the camera).

As their moods range from timid to performative, we see in Cousins’ nephew and niece another of cinema’s chief powers, namely its ability to capture change. Cinema is perhaps unique among artforms in this sense, since it alone allows change to be made visible. Where painting and sculpture can show us the static, cinema shows change – and children help to bring both change itself and the possibility for change to the fore, since children are always on the cusp of change, always changing from day to the next, changing from minute to minute. Children are perhaps, then, inherently cinematic – and this is something that Cousins draws out in spades.

The ability for cinema to depict time means that cinema is also not just about depicting things and objects, but the relations between them. What I mean by this is that cinema is not necessarily about one moment and then the next – even if most mainstream films are structured in such a way as to suggest that cinema is precisely this.

Instead, cinema can and often does show us how we get from one minute to the next – the in-between moments that painting perhaps can never depict (although there is a whole history of painters that do try to do this). In showing us how we get from one moment to the next, cinema is interested in the relations between one moment and the next.

This ties in with what I am calling Cousins’ documentary spirit, or instinct: for, as children make clear to us a sense of the unadulterated, a sense of change and a sense therefore of relations, then cinema at its most powerful for Cousins is a cinema that shows a child struggling against elements in transporting a sheet of glass to his school (as happens in Willow and Wind).

That is, even if this is a scripted scene, it is a scene that takes place in the real world, and which takes time – or which is ‘slow’ from the perspective of mainstream cinema – because mainstream cinema often shows to us what needs to be done and then the thing done, with no sense of the work gone into it.

Cinema with more of an eye for documentary, cinema with more of an eye for what cinema, as a time-based medium can do, thus embraces the slow, it embraces work, it embraces effort, it embraces change, it embraces relations and how we fit into the world. Perhaps it is only apt that Cousins (no pun intended) would include his own relations in the film.

And perhaps it is only apt that he, too, should be such a prominent figure in the film – not least as a result of his voiceover – because he is not an abstracted observer of the world, but, too, is participant in, in relation to, the world – just as films exist in relation to us, influencing and changing us as we change in and with the world ourselves.

So cinema is about relations. And the breadth of Cousins’ choices, from America to Senegal to Iran, helps to demonstrate that all films, just like all humans, themselves exist in relation. Thinking of both cinema and the world ecologically, we come to the conclusion that Senegal is as important as America, even if from the commercial and/or economic perspective it is easy to overlook.

In effect, Cousins adopts a child’s perspective on the world – and finds fascination and takes delight in the so-called ‘small’ film as much as in the big-budget expensive film, because he, like a child, has not yet been trained to take notice only of what is big and loud, but he can be fascinated, too, by the small and the quiet.

In effect, Cousins is, like a child, undiscriminating in his tastes; he takes his cinema pure, unadulterated, not filtered for him by the mechanisms that typically make us view only the fast and the furious (which being full of sound and fury surely signifies little to nothing), but open-eyed and whole.

Cousins says in another interview that his films are all about the richness of looking. This is indeed true. His films are not about the solipsistic world in which, as we grow up, we are encouraged only to look out for ourselves, to think only of Number One, but in looking we also realise that we are in relation to other humans.

In private correspondence, Cousins has told me that he works on budgets for his films that are very similar in size to the budgets that I use to work on mine (which puts me to shame given how good his films are).

This, too, is important: he has made a small film here, about small humans. It encourages us not to look over that which is small, and he encourages not to be fooled by surface appearances. Like a child, we can instead look for and find joy in internal richness

We can find joy in the world as cinema presents it to us: perhaps a bit slow, but unadulterated and full of energy and life.

Ur stars busy on stage and at Sundance

Beg Steal Borrow News, Uncategorized

Various of the stars of Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux are busy this summer with stage work – and at the Sundance Lab.

Rosie Frascona, who plays Rosie in Ur, is currently starring as Baby in the touring stage production of Dirty Dancing. She has been interviewed for the production in the Daily Star – and will be heading around the UK, Ireland and Belgium with the show between now and next year.

Rosie has also told us that she has plugged Ur several times during her radio interviews for the show.

If you’d like to catch Rosie on tour with Dirty Dancing, then click here for dates and venues.

Laura Murray, meanwhile, who plays Laura in Ur, has been cast as Lady Macbeth in a stage production of Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play, which will be held at an open air theatre venue in the grounds of Lady Margaret Hall, one of the University of Oxford’s prestigious colleges and halls.

Details of how to see Laura in Macbeth can be found here.

Finally, Alex Chevasco, who plays Alex in Ur, has been selected to take part in the Sundance Lab this year. The Sundance Lab has launched the careers of the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson. So this is exciting news indeed…

What great achievements by these Beg Steal Borrow collaborators. It is an honour for us to have worked with – and hopefully to continue working with – these wonderfully talented people.

We wish them luck over the summer and look forward to seeing them soon!

En Attendant Godard plays at Sweden’s Cinemateket

Beg Steal Borrow News, En Attendant Godard, Screenings, Uncategorized

Beg Steal Borrow’s first film, En Attendant Godard, has enjoyed a screening at Sweden’s prestigious Cinemateket in Stockholm. The screening took place on 12 May 2014.

Screening in the Victor Room (named after great Swedish director Victor Sjöström), En Attendant Godard played to a sizeable crowd, many of whom were film students at the University of Stockholm.

Alex Chevasco, Hannah Croft and Kristina Gren on the screen of the Cinemateket's Victor theatre in En Attendant Godard.

Alex Chevasco, Hannah Croft and Kristina Gren on the screen of the Cinemateket’s Victor theatre in En Attendant Godard.

Director William Brown then gave a lecture on digital cinema to those who wished to stay. Not everyone seemed bored by this.

We feel very privileged to have had the film screen at such a wonderful and historical venue. May more and similar opportunities arise in the future!

Many thanks to Anna Backman Rogers and to the staff at the Cinemateket for their invitation and their kind welcome.

Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, USA, 2013)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

This is a written version of an introduction that I shall be doing this evening for a screening of Blue Ruin at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London.

The blog's author introduces Blue Ruin at the Ritzy on 2 May 2014. Photo courtesy of Matt @ The Ritzy!

The blog’s author introduces Blue Ruin at the Ritzy on 2 May 2014. Photo courtesy of Matt @ The Ritzy!

The film tells the story of Dwight (Macon Blair), a seemingly homeless guy living in a car on an anonymous beach somewhere (in Delaware – where else?). A police woman (Sidné Anderson) tells him that a man has been released from prison – and this compels Dwight to drive across the States to his hometown in Virginia to find and kill this man.

This man, Wade Cleland Jr, allegedly killed Dwight’s parents. Dwight therefore murders Wade as an act of revenge, and drives away in the stretched limo that his family has hired for the day to see him out of jail.

However, Dwight soon realises that in the limo with him is William (David W Thompson), Wade’s youngest brother. Dwight lets William go – but only to realise that of course the Clelands now know who killed Wade.

As a result, Dwight reunites with his estranged sister, Sam (Amy Hargreaves), in order to protect her from the Clelands – who of course do come in search of their revenge, too.

And so begins a cycle of revenge that culminates in the film’s final, bloody and brutal showdown at the Cleland household.

Blue Ruin has some strikingly beautiful moments in it – Dwight going through trash cans next to a seaside amusement park and Dwight’s near-dead sedan driving down the mist-filled roads of the USA are two that stick out in particular.

The latter image is in particular haunting – the mist conveying a sense of uncertainty regarding the future, adding to the film’s ominous, suspenseful tone, while also featuring Dwight’s beat up sedan which is of course blue in colour, and thus is perhaps the ‘blue ruin’ that is the film’s title.

In this sense, the film takes on a mythical quality: the once-vibrant dream of the road movie – open space and adventure – is now foggy, the adventure shabby, the future not wide open like the road, but murky and threatening. If the West once found revenge an almost thrilling prospect, it is now tired, haunted, exhausted and dulled. Everything falls into ruin; perhaps Saulnier’s remarkable film is about the fall into ruin of the USA itself.

But what has brought about this ruin? Well, it would seem in part that the desire for revenge, or the violent nature of society, has become so naturalised that even a mild-mannered and middle class man like Dwight will become sucked into it.

And how has revenge and violence become so ingrained in an American society such that it is a/the knee-jerk response to all problems? Well, at least in part through the movies.

Blue Ruin has earned comparisons to the films of the Coen Brothers, and in some senses these are justified, particularly films like Blood Simple (Joel Coen, USA, 1984), Fargo (Joel Coen, USA/UK, 1996) and No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2007). With these films Blue Ruin shares a fascination for often quite unexpected violence, delivered in a deadpan, quite detached fashion.

(Note the way that the shots in Blue Ruin just seem a little bit longer than in a conventional Hollywood film, giving a sense of space and how characters are not necessarily agents who conquer space, but who perhaps are smaller than that space, quite small in comparison – something director Saulnier no doubt acquired through his collaborations with Matthew Porterfield, for whom he worked as a cinematographer on several features, including the acclaimed Putty Hill (USA, 2010)).

However, I am going to compare Blue Ruin to another Coens film, their cult classic The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, USA/UK, 1998). There is a scene in that film in which Jeffrey Lebowski, also known as the Dude (Jeff Bridges) finds himself in the house of pornographer Jacky Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). The Dude sees Treehorn scribbling on a notepad, before Treehorn takes the piece of paper and pockets it. Treehorn then leaves the Dude, who scrambles over to the notepad, takes out a pencil, and starts to shade over the topmost piece of paper – in a bid to trace out what information Treehorn will have left.

What inspires the Dude to do this is of course Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, North by Northwest (USA, 1959), in which Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill does exactly the same thing in trying to find the location of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).

But where Thornhill is successful, the Dude only uncovers a picture of a man with a massive cock drawn by the rather puerile Treehorn.

The reason that I mention this moment is because here we have encapsulated what is perhaps the guiding genius of the Coens: the fact that everyone – at least at times – believes that they are in a movie, and so they adopt behaviour that they have seen at the movies, here the Dude imitating Thornhill, only to find that of course, they are not in the movie that they thought they were – and that reality always has in store for us something different from what we were expecting.

What is true of the Coens is in this respect perhaps also true of Saulnier’s remarkable debut film. Two key examples: when Dwight goes to stab a tyre on the limousine, and when Dwight takes a shot at Wade’s brother Teddy (Kevin Kolack) from all of two yards. Each moment in which Dwight assumes that he can carry out an action seen many times before, but never performed by himself, Dwight comes quickly undone. He has been fooled into thinking cinematically, into thinking, in particular, that actions are easy to carry out and can be done without practise and without work. This is the myth of the movies written large: that we can achieve anything. And it is this myth that Blue Ruin busts, thereby making it an exceptional film.

The body, its imperfections and inadequacies, is what looms large, then. For while violence is so easy and so beautiful in so many mainstream Hollywood movies, such that we aspire to be violent as Dwight pursues revenge here, the body always comes back to remind us that we are inept, malcoordinated and incapable. Rather than being lighter than air – the superhero myth – Dwight is human, all too human – as is signalled by the sheer physical pain he endures through the film, and through all of the fluids that ooze out of his body, which is that of a most unlikely hero.

(Macon Blair’s performance is, by the way, excellent.)

The frailty of the body, then, when compared to its desires (it wants to run, fly, kill; instead it trips, falls and tears open), is the source of the film’s dark, dark humour. And also the source of the film’s suspense: for, will Dwight make it out alive of this world that is far more real and violent than he could have imagined? In this sense, the film’s relative slowness is also its great power: Dwight will have no easy victory, if victory he will have at all. If he is to get out of this alive, it will a long, slow and difficult trudge.

If Blue Ruin is, then, a critique of what I am terming cinematic thinking, the naturalisation of violence and the desire for revenge as a result of the myths peddled by the movies, then it is a film that is, paradoxically, deeply cinematic as a result. Perhaps all art, then, must reflect upon the conditions of its own making in certain respects.

Furthermore, the difficulty and, ultimately, the pointlessness of revenge lends to the film a political edge. For in a world in which we read about the need for payback, and in which violence is indeed a common part of our globalised existence, Blue Ruin suggests that in the real world, revenge is deeply unsatisfying, breeding only more violence that in the end ruins families rather than bringing them together.

Common Ground playing at American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase

Beg Steal Borrow News, Uncategorized

Beg Steal Borrow film Common Ground is playing right now at the American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase.

The festival opened on 1 May 2014 at 2pm UK time.Image


As per the above picture, the film is even *trending* as the festival reaches the close of its first day.

Common Ground is a contemporary film noir about a man, Dennis, who goes looking for his missing brother – only to inherit a whole bunch of problems he did not expect. Set against the backdrop of the economic crisis and Occupy, the film is also a love letter to London.

If you’d like to watch the film, please follow the link here.

Otherwise, fingers crossed that Common Ground gets some views, gets some fans, and maybe even qualifies for an award at the American Online Film Awards in New York at the end of the year!