Circle/Line Filmmaker’s Diary #4

Beg Steal Borrow News, Circle/Line, New projects

Day 11: Sunday 14 June (Victoria)

It is quite surprising how most people whom we interview are very cagey about revealing not only where they work, but also what they do for a job as a whole. I am not sure if people are always worried about what judgements they think that others will make once the nature of their work is revealed, but few people seem willing to say the area of their work.

With regard to naming the company for which they work, the reluctance to name a company speaks surely, meanwhile, of a lack of job security in the current climate: if X interviewee says Y thing about Z company, then Z company might have good cause to sack X interviewee. Indeed, anyone who is in work clothes (from Transport for London employees to Big Issue vendors, both of whom we have interviewed) has in fact been trained not to talk to people in front of a camera. In this instance, the company is also afraid of a lawsuit, since if X interviewee says Y thing about Z company, then W viewer of the film in which the interview takes place might sue Z company because they take offence at X interviewee’s comment/Y thing.

For me, this has two effects. Firstly, it makes me sad that we live in such litigious times, in which people are running scared the whole time, and in which we fundamentally live in a condition of bad faith because no one trusts anyone else.

And secondly, it reveals as in some respects untrue people’s claims to be happy, especially when they relate their happiness to their work situation (which is the first thing that people mention in the majority of cases). For, if they were happy at work, they why not sing from the rooftops what work it is that they do, such that others might be inspired by these claims and thus want to work in the same, happy-making industry themselves?

Nonetheless, at Victoria we meet a TfL employee who does mention his place of work. I am not sure whether I shall include any such mentions in the film – for fear of getting our interviewee the sack! But they seem happy both with work, and to talk to us for a few minutes into their shift. He also speaks about his family, which seems spread all over the world, as a source of happiness as he works on his music.

Across the road from Victoria, in Grosvenor Gardens, we also meet two young chaps who are up in town after their exams. They are studying at a private school outside of London, and are about to break up for the summer – heading back to their respective homes in the north of England and Hong Kong. And we also speak to two young Bulgarian women, one of whom has been in London for a few months now, and one who has arrived today, and who is in transit towards Edinburgh.

In particular, these women speak of how the perception of Bulgarians in London is that they are here to nick jobs from ‘proper’ British citizens. However, from their own perspective, they are just young people looking for a bit of a change of scene. Both hope to make it to New York at some point.

At the end of the interview, the one woman who has lived in London for a while suggests that there are too many black people in the area of London where she lives (Stratford). I am sure that the comment speaks more about an unthinking cultural prejudice, rather than a considered, conscious evaluation of a race of people. Nonetheless, after a pleasant and informative conversation about being young and Bulgarian in London, this seems disturbing, if out of character.

Furthermore, the comment is unjustified given the wonderful conversation that we then have with Egbert, a Dominican Rastafarian who has been living in London for many years now. He speaks of living in the moment and embracing a loving attitude towards others that is inspirational and cheery-making.

Finally, we end in Victoria with a conversation with Lini, a Malaysian cleaner who must be about 60, and whose English is very limited. She smiles broadly, though, exudes a warmth and pleasantness that, while making for a not particularly successful interview, means that she has a memorable face and persona.

Day 12: Monday 15 June (Tower Hill)

Since Grosvenor Gardens proved a successful hunting ground for interviewees (surely the fact that people are sitting down and not rushing is key), Tom and I decide to start out in Trinity Square Gardens, just opposite the entrance to Tower Hill, which otherwise is undergoing works.

We speak to Alex, who is studying history at Queen Mary, University of London. He says that art and other wishy washy things along those lines do nothing for him with regard to happiness, but that he instead is made happy by things logical. We then speak to George, a West Ham fan who is in the area to see a concert at the Tower of London. George is in particular good to speak to, because he is of about retirement age (I would not like to speculate on a precise age) and thus represents a demographic – over 55s, let’s say – that we have had trouble convincing to speak to us up until now.

And then, like the proverbial London buses, along come Mark and Dennis, both of a similar age to George, and who also talk to us. Mark is down from Lancashire on business. Having been involved in the London 2012 Olympics, he still does some work in London, but it seems as though his passion is (beyond his family) playing and training others to play rugby.

Meanwhile Dennis, an Irish-American New Yorker who has been travelling the world of late (he has just touched down from Malaysia), is one of the most enlightened interviewees whom we have met: the oldest of 12 children, he was the senior male in his family after the death of his father in his early teens. He tells us that struggling to raise the family was great shakes compared to the struggles that the average young person faces today, but he does not lord this over anyone. Instead, he is humble and suggests that seeking happiness is today is the only worthwhile philosophy in life – even if it is a philosophy that took him many years to cultivate.

Day 13: Wednesday 17 June (Great Portland Street)

I am always worried when I turn up at a station that I am facing another Moorgate: a station where no one will stop to speak to us because they are too busy. After a couple of false starts, however, we do manage at Great Portland Street to speak to a woman, Sarah, who has worked in housing for many years, and who tells us about the problems with housing in London at the moment.

There are, she says, not enough houses for the growing population, and with too many people snapping up houses that remain unoccupied – a fact also reported in our media. Space, Sarah is convinced, is key to happiness – and without space, it is harder for people to be happy.

We also speak at Great Portland Street to a nurse, Michael, who was born in the UK, grew up in New Zealand, but who returned to the UK as an adult (he still has a New Zealand accent). In what seems like another serendipitous coincidence (three more senior men at Great Portland Street, two people who work in issues relating to social welfare), we discuss the National Health Service in the UK and the role that it, too, plays in ensuring the happiness of as many people as possible.

Finally, Tom and I speak – in our longest interview yet (40 minutes; most are between 12 and 20 minutes, though some are of course shorter) – to two artists, Lyndon and Toby, who have just been putting up stands at London’s Taste Festival.

Lyndon is about to start teaching at a school in Suffolk and is worried about leaving London – although he recognises that the capital is also a hard place in which to eke out happiness as a result of the swelling of its population and the seeming lack of job opportunities.

Toby, meanwhile, is staying in London, where he runs an illegal psychedelic ice cream van that sounds like a sort of installation/performance art piece that he drives around London (getting told regularly to move on because he does not have a license to sell the generic ice creams that he stocks).

The pair also work on party-event-installations, the last of which sounds stupendous if crazy: everyone came in costumes designed by other people attending the party, which had as its theme something in equal measure amusing and bizarre (although my poor memory – I write eight days later – does not recall).

After some early noes, then, Great Portland Street works out well.

Day 14: Monday 22 June (Sloane Square)

Sloane Square itself seemed likely to prove a good place to talk to people – and yet most refused to speak to us. I hate the tone of voice that people adopt when, after I have spent a few minutes explaining what we are doing, a lack of trust remains, a thin smile crosses the would-be interviewee’s lips, and they explain that they do not want to take part. It’s not so much that it is a no, but more what I perceive to be insincere friendliness.

I am sure that in this I am wrong, because there is of course a camera present, but I cannot help but feel that to say no to someone who wants a conversation is unfriendly, and so to try to be friendly in saying no is insincere. The presence of the camera: why does this affect people’s decision not to talk? Because they are wary of their appearance, perhaps. But this speaks of how we are all supposed always to look not like ourselves but ready for a camera, or cinematic. Or perhaps they say no because they are worried about what they are going to say and how it will be portrayed. Again, understandable, but to experience someone’s general lack of faith (they do not trust others) is hard not to take personally (they do not trust me). Clearly I am not good enough (cannot be good enough) at explaining/demonstrating to people that I am, or hope that I am, trustworthy.

And yet, Sloane Square is also the venue of the most annoying interview yet – an interview in which someone does agree to speak to us, and then proceeds to spend 20 minutes being as vague as possible in their responses, resisting right up until the end the invitation to say anything interesting about themselves. Furthermore, the man in the end refuses to sign our Letter of Release, insisting that he gets a cut of the film before we do anything with it because, in his own words, I might put him in a porn film.

While to get rejected is frustrating and a cause of self-doubt, to get accepted – he agreed to do the interview – only then to film 20 minutes of ongoing rejection, which ultimately I am unlikely even to be able to use – just seems to be obstructive and destructive, as if the man took pleasure in wasting my and Tom’s time (in his defence, the man did start by saying that he had nothing to do, so why not do the interview – i.e. he had some time to waste).

The man runs a watch company and has lived in Sloane Square all of his life, except for two years in Westminster, which apparently were awful, although there was a fantastic flat on offer there, so he had to take it. I ask him whether working with watches has changed the way he thinks about time. No. How did he think about time before he started working in watches? He didn’t. How did he get into working with watches? You can do this several ways. Which ways are those? There are several of them. Which one did he do? With some seeming regret he says that he got trained – as if it were an embarrassment to admit that anyone else might have helped him in making his fortune… The interview is painful and, ultimately, unpleasant.

Thank heavens, then, to meet Luke and his friend Ivan. Luke is a writer who writes stories for people for money. He is a traveller and has an uncontrollable laugh and smile – full of the joys of the universe. He cheers us up no end before going off to a Beethoven concert in Cadogan Hall.

Finally, outside the Royal Court we talk briefly to Paul, an actor who, despite wearing shades**, speaks candidly about how most people who tell you that they are happy are liars, and that he is not. I like Paul. I like Luke. I like Ivan. I guess you cannot like everyone.

** I have a theory about sunglasses. Basically it runs this way: curious people look, but curious people also want to show that they are curious by also showing that they are looking. This is a means then to start dialogue, which can engender learning, which satisfies curiosity. Sunglasses are what one wears in order to look, but not to be seen looking (as well as being associated with ‘cool’ – with cool in most of its forms being associated with detachment from, rather than engagement with, the world). I’d much rather be and demonstrate the fact that I am enworlded, and that we are all entangled with the world and with each other than putting on some masquerade that somehow I am detached from the world and that I have nothing to do with it. People who tend to believe that they are simply the authors of their own destiny tend to be the sort of people who have lived lives of privilege, and whose greatest privilege is to believe that they were owed or won their privilege, and to forget the fact that they are enworlded, rather than remembering that all that they have necessarily depends on the contributions of other people.

Plemya/The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine/Netherlands, 2014)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Ukrainian Cinema

This is a brief review of The Tribe in order to accompany the introduction to the film that I made last night at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London.

I have been meaning to write about a number of the films I have introduced, but only now have had the chance.

The Tribe is Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s first film, and it tells the story of a young deaf man (Grygoriy Fesenko) who arrives at a boarding school for deaf people in Kiev/Kyiv.

Soon he becomes embroiled in the students’ criminal activities, being chosen after the accidental death of one of his peers to pimp out girls from the school.

He falls in love with one of the girls (Yana Novikova), and then proceeds to defy the rule of King (Oleksandr Osadchyi), the lead gangster.

Developing on from Slaboshpytskiy’s Glukhota/Deafness (Ukraine, 2010) – which can be seen hereThe Tribe contains almost no dialogue, with almost all discussion and conversation taking place in Ukrainan sign language. It also features no subtitles.

The Tribe is relatively easy to follow in terms of plot. Nonetheless, clearly the effect of the sign language (some, but few, viewers will be Ukrainian signers) is to alienate audience members somewhat from what they see.

Slaboshpytskiy also achieves this in part through his stylistic choices: The Tribe often features long takes, or sequence shots, which also are long shots – i.e. the camera maintains a relatively long distance from the events that we see onscreen.

That is, by refusing to ‘speak’ both in terms of dialogue (with traditional subtitles) and in terms of the usual language of cinema (close-ups explaining to us what we need to know, linked to shots that match the eyeline of the characters, such that we know who sees what and when), The Tribe, while easy to follow on some levels, is also a complex film to follow: what are we supposed to look at during each frame? What is going on?

In refusing to answer these questions, Slaboshpytskiy’s film clearly wants us instead to think. And in some respects to see the world anew. For, in being a film without dialogue, The Tribe clearly recalls the classic, silent cinema.

And as silent cinema, when it first arrived, helped audiences to see the world anew, through techniques such as slow motion, fast motion, reverse motion and freeze frames, so, too, might The Tribe achieve the same goal.

More than this: The Tribe might not only allow us to see the world anew, or as if for the first time (a process of estrangement/defamiliarisation from the world that Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie), but might also allow us to see cinema as if for the first time.

Why would this be important?

It would be important because we live in a world in which cinema is the measure of reality. Why do I say that cinema is the measure of reality?

Well, obviously it is a provocative statement (though others, like Jonathan Beller, also argue as much) . Nonetheless, we live in an age in which we all try to force ourselves to look as much like movie stars as possible. This is not simply copying the fashions of the movies, but about creating an image of oneself that conforms to the lighting, make-up, image quality, variable focus and so on of cinema and photography. We detag ourselveis when we look ugly on Facebook. Because do not look cinematic – even if we look like ourselves. And as you are not really real if you not on Facebook, so if you do not conform to the widespread image standards do you not really get to exist in the same way as everyone else.

In other words, if we accept my prognosis that the world is cinematic (‘it was just like in a movie’ says everyone when something exciting happens to them, as if the rest of their lives, the uncinematic bits, were inferior, boring, not worth commenting upon, unreal), then to see the world anew is by definition today about seeing cinema anew, too.

One of the ways in which we can see cinema and the world both anew via The Tribe is through the film’s emphasis on gesture.

Benjamin Noys, drawing on the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, suggests that cinema might not be about image, but in fact about gesture. And yet, we tend to think of cinema as being so much about image, rather than about gesture, and we tend to think of the world as being about image rather than about gesture, too. Thus, for The Tribe to foreground gesture – the gestures of Ukrainian sign – is for most audience members a way for them to rethink what cinema is and what the world is.

This needs greater explanation. Most of the time, when we watch movies, and indeed when we see people going about their daily lives, we see people carrying out movements, but not necessarily gestures.

What is the distinction between movement and gestures? Movement has an end: I go from A to B (in order to carry out X). Gesture, meanwhile, has no end.

More: the world under capital is about the control of the body, such that the body’s movements are productive, and thus function as a means for capitalists to profit.

This is the philosophy of the production line: the production lines enforces repetitive, mechanical movements that are the control of the body’s gestures, turning them from gestures to movements for the purposes of capital.

As an example, we are back to silent cinema, with Charles Chaplin as the filmmaker par excellence of the production line, especially in his Modern Times (USA, 1936).

We also know that capital is about the control of bodies, because we find so funny and liberating bodies that are out of control. Think, for example, of the Ministry of Funny Walks or David Brent’s dance in The Office.

(Of course, we also find out of control bodies disgusting at times, too: a general antipathy towards certain ‘unruly’ body types, or bodies that cannot maintain strict boundaries – we dislike bodies that ooze, for example, sweat, snot, piss, blood, sleep, and so on.)

Furthermore, in the contemporary age, so many YouTube videos are about not out-of-control dancing, but controlled dancing. Control of the body, especially then to turn controlled body into image, such that the image of the controlled body can then capture attention, which in turn helps that body to become monetised, since if we all always look at certain types of body (woman as the world’s biggest industry), then we can use that body to sell things (cinema as the base language of advertising; advertising as a clear expression of capital).

In contrast to controlling our bodies, we might otherwise work out what weird and strange things that our bodies, in the spirit of Baruch Spinoza, can do. That is, as we are all different, so do we all move differently and thus we ought to be concerned with individuality and not conformity in terms of how we move. In other words, we might progress from movement (controlled bodies under capital) to gesture (bodies doing unfamiliar things, bodies out of control).

The Tribe is a film that is quite consciously about what bodies can do (and, through its non-mainstream filmmaking techniques – the long shots and long takes – about what cinema can do) . Indeed, this is a film in which all of the characters not only express themselves linguistically (Ukrainian sign) through their bodies, but in which violence, prostitution and various other bodily movements and gestures become prominent for us to see.

Importantly, though, the film does not limit itself to showing to a hearing audience the unusual bodies of these deaf people – making of it a voyeuristic exercise in seeing different bodies, but fetishising them precisely for being different.

On the contrary, the film is also about the control of bodies, and about how the limits of Ukrainian sign (language also as a system of control?) are quickly reached, and bodies must as a result find new ways to express themselves.

It is entirely logical and appropriate, then, that The Tribe is also a difficult film to watch in the sense that it is full of violence, sex and, ultimately, a gesture carried out by the lead character (referred to as Serhiy) that is so terrifying that the film thoroughly deserves its 18-rating in the UK.

For, these are gestures that shock us out of our unthinking perceptions and movements, making us see the world anew. And we do not just gawp at deaf Ukrainians in watching The Tribe, but we also are moved by the gestures that we see, causing us to reflect upon what our bodies can do, and to think (with thinking being a journey into the unknown in which we do not so much repeat what we already know, but work out what it is that our brains can do, but following routes of thought that we have not yet discovered – what mental associations can I make; a journey by definition into the unpredictable).

This, then, is what makes Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe a great movie, and one that I think as many audiences should watch as possible. It is troubling, harrowing, alienating. But in forcing us out of our comfort zones, the film engages us in the ethical challenge of finding out not just who we are, but who we could be – with the result being that consciously we ourselves choose to become, perhaps, better, more ethically engaged human beings.

Accidental Love (David O Russell, USA/UK, 2015)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

I wrote this review for The Conversation. They spiked it because they needed the piece to be shorter than it is, but did not see how to make it shorter and to get across the point that I am trying to make with it.

Why a website cannot be flexible with regard to word length beats me. Especially one that caters primarily to an academic audience. But there we go. The spike allows me to post it here, and at least without The Conversation‘s usual unmaginative headline – of the sort that makes you think Rabelais was correct about the Agelastes.

Also, editing out a reference to Karl Marx/Slavoj Žižek (which happened between drafts) seems strange to me, again given the academic readership of the publication. Some identity uncertainty seems to be in place: for whom is The Conversation? (With whom does it want to converse? On this occasion, apparently because I speak for too long and namedrop philosophers, not me!) Perhaps we see here an up-front/a priori (unthinking) capitulation to (unthinkingness and) academic research as only useful when of identifiable use (and preferably surplus) value.

Anyway, such speculation aside, here goes the review, which of course may be incomprehensible, as per the view of my editors. If this is so, and I am living alone in a land of blindness and stupidity, then I apologise…


The premise is utterly ridiculous. On the night that small town Indiana cop Scott (James Marsden) proposes to roller skate waitress Alice (Jessica Biel), a nail is driven through her skull during a DIY accident in a local restaurant.

Alice has no insurance, and so the hospital doctors refuse to operate (eating burgers instead). Basing his decision on the probability that the nail will cause Alice’s behaviour to become erratic, resulting eventually in death, Scott dumps her.

This prompts Alice to endeavour to win him back by going to Washington DC to see Congressman Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will help her to put through a healthcare bill that will allow those without insurance to receive medicare when necessary.

In Washington, Alice finds herself embroiled in a plot that involves Machiavellian intrigue as Birdwell bows to Representative Pam Hendrickson (Catherine Keener), who wishes to put into action her plan to build a military base on the moon – all in the name of defence.

What follows is a farce along the lines of the Marx Brothers meets Capra, something like Groucho Goes to Washington, except with more references to sex and to race.

The film’s ‘lunatic’ story involves Alice sleeping with Congressman Birdwell as a result of uncontrollable urges brought on by the presence of the nail in her brain. Everything nearly goes wrong, but after a dose of _deus ex machina_, the film ends with a wedding and everyone’s happy — even if the wider issue of healthcare remains unresolved (because who could resolve that issue without alienating a large chunk of the American audience?).

So … after giving you such a synopsis, you may well ask why I’m writing about this film, not least because it has been almost universally panned. Well, I’m interested because the film’s director, ‘Stephen Greene,’ is in fact a pseudonym for David O Russell, the successful director of such illustrious fare as Three Kings (1998), I Heart Huckabees (2004), The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013). His second film, Flirting with Disaster (1996), demonstrated that he is perfectly capable of this kind of farcical comedy.

Why the change of name, then? Mainly because Accidental Love, which for a long time was to be called Nailed, is a film that went into production nearly ten years ago.  However, owing to financial difficulties – on some occasions the crew wasn’t paid, while on others the cast quit for the same reason – it allegedly got shut down 14 times.

In 2010, Russell quit the film, which he had co-written with Al Gore’s daughter, Kristin Gore. The remaining scenes were supposedly shot without him. So the film, like Alice, was in effect lobotomised. Fast forward through five years of limbo, and Accidental Love gets released on all of the contemporary platforms (VOD, DVD, etc), including a small theatrical release in the USA – with test screenings apparently taking place unbeknownst to Russell and the stars in the interim.

Now, just because Russell at least partially directed it does not make Accidental Love particularly interesting (or particularly good). But what is interesting is what its troubled history reveals about contemporary Hollywood.

That a woman’s libido expresses itself only as a result of a nail in the brain (Alice’s lobotomy) is of course problematic. It suggests that female sexual desire is somehow abnormal, the result of a brain gone wrong. This in turn suggests that Hollywood cannot tolerate an active female sexuality.

(See how ScarJo in The Avengers films has to end up single because her agency, even if she can deflate the Hulk – male-eating Black Widow as causing loss of erection.)

But this plot device suggests to us that the film as a whole, like a nail in Hollywood’s head, also gives expression to things that the American film industry otherwise tries to deny. The film is a repeat of the kind of farcical films that today seem anachronistic and unfashionable – as made clear by the presence of supporting actors from another time in Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Reubens and Kirstie Alley.

If Hollywood does anything, it repeats itself, returns over and again to the same things: sequels, remakes and ‘reboots.’ But if, in the spirit of Karl Marx and, more recently, Slavoj Žižek, what happens once is tragic and what repeats is farce, then the industry denies that this endless repetition is farcical. Rather than an admission of being forever out of ideas, we are told that this is perfectly controlled filmmaking.

Hollywood has sought to get rid of Accidental Love as quickly and as unnoticeably as it can (the film grossed a meagre US$4,500 at the American box office). And yet, that the film has resurfaced at all suggests the return of the repressed, namely the fact that the processes of repetition and return themselves reveal the film industry’s inability to know what it is doing and why.

You may have heard of a man called Phineas Gage. In 1848, he had a bar driven through his skull when at work – and yet he lived for many years while supposedly undergoing something of a complete overhaul of his personality (he was ‘no longer Gage’ say contemporaneous reports – although the validity of these has been doubted).

Accidental Love is something of a cinematic Phineas Gage – a film that got nailed in production and which continues to be nailed by the critical community.

And yet, in this accidentally lobotomised film, we might find much to learn about the ‘normal’ functioning of Hollywood’s film industry, just as Gage is the exception that allows us better to understand the brain’s role in ‘normal’ human behaviour.

Better put, in an era when industry, including the film industry, demands rationalisation and when risk is removed as much as possible (and one removes risk by sticking to what one knows, i.e. by repeating), Accidental Love helps us to understand that Hollywood, perhaps industry as a whole, is in fact deep down irrational, and that its compulsion to repeat and to return is a sign not of a reduction of risk, but really of its overall lack of control.

It is a sign that Hollywood, maybe even capital as a whole, is not superhuman and beyond question or doubt, but wonderfully, farcically, profoundly human – and thus wholly open to question and to doubt. With regard to Accidental Love, then, even if the film is no great shakes, sometimes there’s nothing so interesting as a complete failure.


Announcing screenings of The New Hope in London and Oxford

Beg Steal Borrow News, Screenings, Selfie, The New Hope

The wait is soon over!

Two screenings, one in London and one in Oxford, have been arranged for The New Hope, the film that Beg Steal and Borrow shot in Hyde Park last summer on a shoestring.

The first is a preview screening at the Whirled Cinema in Brixton, London, and which takes place on Saturday 11 July at 2pm. Spaces are limited to 75 for this, but the event is free. So if you wish to book a ticket, then please follow this link.

The second screening takes place on Monday 20 July in the Mary Ogilvie Lecture Theatre in St Anne’s College, Oxford, at 8pm. This screening is part of the annual Film-Philosophy Conference, which this year is being held in Oxford.

In principle this screening is open only to delegates at the conference, but if you happen to be in Oxford on that evening, I am sure that you could sneak in if you wanted.

The New Hope tells the story of Dennis, a man who believes himself to be Obi Wan Kenobi. An updated adaptation of the first part of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the film itself tilts at the biggest windmill of them all, the myth that is the Star Wars universe, trying to show that cinema can be made not with CGI and massive budgets, but with a dustbin lid, a piece of string, and a colander. I wager my right hand that anyone watching The New Hope will find something of worth in it.

Come along to one of these and/or other screenings, and see if you agree.

Finally, it is hopeful – though not confirmed – that Selfie will also be screening at the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in the not-too-distant future. Discussions are under way, then, to arrange a mutually convenient date.

Circle/Line Filmmaker’s Diary #3

Beg Steal Borrow News, Circle/Line, New projects

Day 9: Wednesday 10 June (Mansion House and Cannon Street)

Cameraman Tom Maine and I were apprehensive as we reached Mansion House. Our experience at Moorgate, also a Circle Line station that sits in the City, had been so poor (and dispiriting) that we feared more of the same.

However, that fear was not wholly necessary, for, despite some rejections (always disheartening), we did manage to convince a few people to talk to us. Brian, the first person with whom we spoke, seemed to enjoy the interview and took my number, since he works at an advertising firm and thinks that he might need interviewers for a show that he is producing in which people discuss what it is like to be thrown out of an aeroplane.

I have no idea whether to believe Brian, and the way he spoke to me led me to believe that he thinks me younger than I am, but either way it was nice of him to offer potentially to offer. Who knows? Maybe my interviewing skills will transfer to a new project before too long.

AJ, Ves, Prash and Kerry all followed, with Kerry perhaps being the most vocal. ‘No,’ she insisted straight away, she is not happy. And she laughed. ‘Why,’ I asked? ‘Money,’ she responded with a smile. ‘I have expensive tastes and I need lots of it.’

Over from New York and studying in London for a year, Kerry said that she is enjoying her time here, and is most happy when walking around London. I find it odd that Kerry, fun as she was to talk with, wants money for happiness, and yet is most happy when she is doing something, walking, that is free. Perhaps I should challenge people more with regard to their definitions of happiness.

Tom finally featured me in some wider shots of the interviews today – mainly with Brian and AJ at Mansion House. This made me think of my friend Jonathan Taylor, who has directed episodes of such high-profile BBC documentaries as Great Ormond Street and Protecting Our Parents.

In late 2014, Jonathan gave a masterclass on making observation documentaries at the university where I work. I remember him saying that more or less the first key lesson he learned about making obs docs – from a figure as influential as Roger Graef, no less, Graef being one of the giants of British documentary – was that while the film wants to give the impression that you, the filmmaker, are invisible, in fact you have to be absolutely visible and fully participating (after a fashion) in the events that you are seeking to portray.

The logic is that if you are invisible, or say nothing, then people will not open up to you. It is only by being fully present that your subjects can trust you, Jonathan explained. And given that so many of our interviewees have a propensity to speak for as long as possible in abstract terms or in generalisations, without ever being specific about things that interest them, what makes them happy, then getting them to open up becomes important.

Therefore, even though Circle/Line is not an observational documentary, I believe that this idea of needing to make yourself present is equally true with Circle/Line. The more I put into these conversations, the more I get from people in terms of them opening up and moving beyond those generalisations – even if the film will not reflect my participation as it emphasises the people whom we have met rather than me. In effect, while based increasingly on conversations rather than on monologues from the participants, it is through a two-way conversation that the most interesting things that people say can come out.

This evening a few people did the usual ‘walking away as soon as they see us coming’ routine. This is fair enough and one learns not to take offence, even though we (or at least I) believe that everyone with whom we have spoken for this film has had a few minutes of interesting fun with us. Maybe this is not true in the eyes of others, but thinking that you are offering people something that in fact is, or might be, quite pleasant, makes the out of hand rejection quite disappointing.

Thinking about these rejections, Tom and I discussed whether one of the reasons why various people seem unwilling to talk to us, and many completely unwilling to open up to us if they do, is because we live in a society that is much more media savvy than it used to be. It is safer to give nothing away, even about one’s own happiness, except to speak in vague generalisations, and rarely if ever with specific examples about personal experiences. (Maybe I am a bad interviewer.)

As I have perhaps mentioned before, Circle/Line takes its inspiration from Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer, a 1961 film shot in 1960, and which itself is a movie comprised of vox pops of people in Paris – with Circle/Line also featuring a touch of Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le joli mai (1963) thrown in for good measure

In the Rouch and Morin film, from what I recall, people seem so willing to talk to the camera. Of course, we don’t know how many people said no, nor how long interviews lasted in order to get to what we see in the film. Nor, indeed, how prepped people were (I refuse to tell my interviewees the first question – ‘are you happy?’ – explaining to them that if they know it in advance, then it will spoil the response).

Nonetheless, in Chronicle of a Summer, it strikes me that when someone turns up with a camera in the street, people wander curiously over and want to know more. Nowadays, however, the camera is treated with suspicion, people are wary, tech savvy, and while some people are curious about what we are doing, most are not.

As Tom and I hang outside Cannon Street, I tell Tom about how it is apparently possible to run from Cannon Street to Mansion House in the time it takes for a Circle Line train to get from one station to the other, meaning that one can get off a train at Cannon Street and get on the same train at Mansion House. I shall have to check where that story comes from and whether it is true or not.

Tom and I continue to be concerned that older people are harder for us to persuade to take part in the film and that, oddly, we have not convinced a family to talk to us all at once so far. Still things to work on…

Day 10: Friday 12 June (Blackfriars)

A pleasant evening and people seemed willing to talk. If only all stations were like Blackfriars (especially because the station has a pub, the Black Friar, right opposite – meaning that finding people with whom to talk is, so Tom says, like shooting fish in a barrel).

We discuss amateur dramatics with Luke, the systemic shortcomings of capitalism with Omar, what it is like being away from one’s family with Julien (he has a brother and a sister in Mexico, with the majority of his family in his native France), and the joys (or, as I believe, the horrors) of shopping on Oxford Street and in the Westfield with Anisha.

I even questioned Anisha about several things, mainly because she is contagiously happy, and I am not sure why. Firstly, Anisha, like Kerry, feels that walking makes her happy. Secondly, Anisha suggested that poor people can and are happy and that in fact rich people are often unhappy. I asked her if she plans on giving away her money in order to be happier. She said that she will not.

I am not sure how much I should ‘challenge’ my subjects, but like Kerry who believes that she wants to be rich and yet is happiest doing something for free, Anisha seemed to say that happiness is inversely proportional to money, while also being unable to give up money for happiness.

This is not to single out Anisha; I feel this myself, and assume many people do (not that poor people are happier, but that one might well be happier if one sacrificed more money, while being unable to sacrifice that money). But it does raise the issue that our happiness, particularly if it is linked to money (as the overwhelming majority of responses would seem to suggest so far), is in fact illusory. As Julien says, perhaps we are all in the Matrix.

A final thought: a few people in these last few days – AJ, Ves, Prash, Anisha – all seem to believe that if you truly want it, then you can bring about happiness in your life. I hesitate to agree with this, mainly because to believe that we are the authors of our own destiny suggests a belief somehow that we are not quite in, or with, the world, but rather that we are separate from it, somewhat. For, we can do what we want, and the rest of the world does not constrain us, since it does not really touch us.

I am delighted that so many people tell us that they are happy. But I am always intrigued when people say both that unhappiness exists, that the unhappiness of others brings them down, but that they don’t let the unhappiness of others affect them too much. For me, this speaks of a lack of being touched by the world; happiness thus today becomes something not to be shared, but something more like a wall, or a womb (a matrix, indeed) that we construct around ourselves in order not to be touched by the rest of the world.

And yet, while it heartens me to know that so many people are happy, with exceptions like Kerry unhappy not because of loss but because she has not yet reached the point in life where she wants to be, I am concerned about the lack of touch, as well as the resort to insular as opposed to common happiness. Is constructing a common happiness what I am really wanting to ask people about here? I do ask questions along these lines. Indeed, Omar this evening suggested pessimism about the possibility for common happiness. Maybe I am making the film in search of how we can achieve it.

As Tom and I head home, we work out whether the Cannon Street to Mansion House dash is feasible. I reckon it is. Tom is a little bit more sceptical. Perhaps we should try it when Circle/Line wraps.

The Rock Face, or The End of Capitalism (Inspired partially by San Andreas, Brad Peyton, USA/Australia, 2015)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

The film sucks.

Except for the fact that the Rock still somehow manages to be appealing when wooden. But maybe this is the point.

I thought that I would have to save for another time a piece about how the Rock seems to symbolise the potential for true goodness that lies at the heart of America, as his retriever/labrador eyes speak of a simplistic desire more than anything else to be loved, a sense of kindness that means even when he tries to do hard-assed heroism it comes off as ironic – because he’s just more pup than pop in spite of his gargantuan muscles.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if off the screen the Rock was a demented fuck machine with a thousand roid-induced sexualities to share around the self-same people whom he wants to love him, because that desire for love – and for what the Rock might call putting his strudel in some poontang pie, especially when simplistic, is also redolent of extreme narcissism.

But regardless of what happens off the screen, on the screen, and especially as his eyes get older around the edges, the Rock is the manifestation of the American soul as it wants to be seen: too much experience credibly to be that dumb, too wide and assuming to be that smart. He is a labrador/retriever – smart, but too afraid to be independent.

Looking back, we might say that Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, France/Germany/USA, 2006) was the moment, now forgotten if ever seen at all by most people, when this genius of the labrador/retriever Rock was revealed (Southland Tales is also about the end of capitalism).

It is also there in Nina Davenport’s masterly documentary, Operation Filmmaker (USA, 2007), in which Dwayne Johnson plays the Rock as he works with Iraqi refugee Muthana Mohmed on the set of his latest blockbuster.

The Rock also achieves a wonderful sense of this labrador/retriever star persona in the opening moments of The Other Guys (Adam McKay, USA, 2010), especially when he suicidally throws himself from a building in the name of work.

But perhaps Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, USA, 2013) is the most exact expression of this, since the film hints at the protein-guzzling winky-shrinkage roid machine while showing that you can program the innocent Rock to do anything. It is perhaps apposite that in that film, the Rock’s co-star should be Marky Mark, since Marky Mark has a very similar labrador/retriever quality. Note that Marky Mark also takes over the case from the Rock in The Other Guys.

Indeed, one wonders whether it has something to do with people who become famous under one guise, and then become actors under a different name. The use of the ‘real’ name (Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg) reveals that we are in fact only ever seeing an act. Life is the ongoing invention of self that is work.

Now, there are loads of films I’ve been wanting to blog about of late. But I have not. So why this film?

Well, aside from the usual sense of feeling at times quite overwhelmed by the spectacle of the film-as-Hollywood-blockbuster – when I cried whilst watching the equally demented Battleship (Peter Berg, USA, 2012) I realised that Hollywood has found a way to affect me regardless of my intellectual defences against the film – I spent the whole film thinking that this is a movie about the end of capitalism.

And this is why it will not be in another, but in fact in this piece of writing that I deal with the face and demeanour of the labrador/retriever Rock, since it has much to do with this.

Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, Mark Fisher. All have questioned at some point why it is easier for humans to imagine the end of the world than it is for humans to imagine the end of capitalism.

And yet, with San Andreas, one wonders that we have achieved what previously we thought was impossible – and that the film really is about the end of capitalism.

Why would I make such a claim, especially when it goes against the nihilichic of the above thinkers, and especially when San Andreas is about as capitalist a film as one can get?

It has to do with the family. For of course the film is about the restitution of the family, in that Ray (the/The Rock) wins back ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) by in effect showing that he loves his daughter, Blake (played by Tits McGee, er, I mean, sorry, the paternally-monikered Alexandra Daddario), more than the other guy (one day Ioan Gruffudd will be recognised properly for his excellence as an actor).

But while the restitution of the family would suggest ongoing hope for capitalism (‘we rebuild’ says Ray at the film’s end, as if in these two words were the aleph of philosophy), the fact is that we just don’t believe that shit anymore. San Francisco might be rebuilt, but not in the way that it was before; instead, the entire system must change. We wanted the disaster, we got it; and now spectacle is over. It’s time for something else.

Why do I make this quaint, if not downright silly comment about this quaint, silly and otherwise potentially dangerous film? Mainly because the labrador/retriever Rock, precisely because he is a labrador/retriever, doesn’t convince anyone.

It’s not his woodenness per se, which, as mentioned, is a completely amiable part of his amiable persona. It’s the fact that the Rock comes across as a dog trained to do the part. He retrieves his daughter like a lovely pop-pup, and he is the labrador/labourer who will never give up.

Except, oddly, that the very casting of the Rock lends to San Andreas something weirdly Brechtian – because it makes clear the labour that goes into its making. We either see the Rock trying too hard to act, or we see clearly that he is doing what the leash holder (Brad Peyton, I guess) tells him. In effect, the face of the Rock takes us to the Rock Face.

And the Rock Face, like the California of San Andreas, is about to collapse. Indeed, if capitalism is in some respects synonymous with cinema, in that it is about devising ways of capturing, maintaining and then monetising human attention, as Jonathan Beller might put it, then the end of California – the home of cinema – is the end of capital.

But why does the fact that with the Rock there are no illusions – we can see the Rock Face – equate to the end of capitalism?

It does this because capitalism hides work, even though work is the very Rock upon which capitalism is itself built. Capitalism hides work because if we knew really that all we ever did was work (phones always on, ready for the text/call/email, with screens everywhere, cramming every second of our time with immaterial and affective labour that uses where we point our eyeballs as a means for advertising companies to make money), then maybe we’d stop. And if we stopped, then like a shark ceasing to swim, capitalism would sink.

Or rather, we all know this already, but don’t do anything about it as long as it we collectively pretend that this is not the case. Once it is exposed, in the face of the Rock and in a film as tired and derivative as San Andreas, then we cannot lie to ourselves anymore.

San Andreas seems to demonstrate a Hollywood that is buckling under its own weight, with the Rock being its odd, likeable visage. The film is tired. So tired that it must stop and go to sleep. And as soon as it sleeps, maybe it will dream. And with that dream will come the thought of something different. A new day.

I realise why I love the Rock, then. Because he cannot hide the work that goes into his own making, and into his performances. He looks a bit tired, too. Sure, we love him because despite being tired, he fights on, giving it his all – like a true American hero. But the collapse is inevitable. In the Rock Face, like the collapse of California in San Andreas, we can begin to see the end of capitalism.

Circle/Line: Filmmaker’s Diary #2

Beg Steal Borrow News, Circle/Line, Interviews, New projects

Day 8: Thursday 28 May (Westminster and St James’ Park)

Today, Tom and I returned to Westminster because we did not feel that we had enough interviews there first time, even though we did speak to an unhappy footballer.

Fortunately for us, we got three interesting interviews. The first was with Faiz, who is a journalism student from Balochistan, and who was outside the Houses of Parliament in order to commemorate the fact that on 28 May 1998, Pakistan detonated six atomic devices in Balochistan and in order to exert pressure on the UK government in order to help bring about independence for Balochistan, where otherwise Balochis are treated as second class citizens, complete with what Faiz describes as unlawful arrests, state-sanctioned torture and worse.

Faiz is generally happy and believes that most Balochis are happy. Nonetheless, he still believes that for general happiness to be brought about, work needs to be done. And perhaps by all of us.

We then had a brief chat a student from Spain who is about to finish after eight long years his degree in aeronautical engineering, and to Mark, a laconic, big white-bearded black man who lives in a hostel nearby and who also claimed to be happy, suggesting that what goes around comes around.

Meanwhile, at St James’ Park, Tom and I had what is for certain our longest interview, talking to two civil servants who may or may not have had a few drinks prior to our arrival. Aggressive in their counter-questions, they put me to the test in terms of why I am doing the film. Clearly very smart, I worried that they also found me a bit dumb, not least because they think that the idea of limiting ourselves to stations on the Circle Line is a silly idea…

However, most interesting of the day were the people who declined to speak to us. Not because the average person who says no is that interesting. But in fact two people, one a woman approaching us from Whitehall at Westminster, and one a man in a blue suit called Sam who walked past us at St James’ Park, both refused to speak with us, not because they did not want to, but because they cannot go on camera and be seen… In other words, it was interesting to see that Westminster in general is home to some people who feel compelled (who need) to keep a low visual profile. I wonder what their Facebook pages are like…

Finally, since it was getting late, Tom and I had a drink in one of the pubs by St James’ Park, where we spoke at some length to Derrin, an ex-army officer who claims to be a ‘patriot’ (although I did suggest to him that if he were such a great patriot, then he might at least pronounce the word in the British (‘pat-tee-ut’), rather than the American (‘pay-tree-ut’) fashion.

He did not declare to be a UKIP supporter, but definitely referenced UKIP as he explained to us his (detailed) knowledge of British history, especially our involvement in various wars, and the difference between terrorism in the UK at the hands of Irish Republican Army and terrorism in the UK at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. He believes that better a few civil liberties be denied than anti-patriotic sentiment be allowed to bloom.

I may not agree with all of what Derrin says (I don’t agree with much of it), but he was both admirable in many ways and certainly would have made for an interesting voice in this project.

With only one (admittedly long) interview at St James’ Park, we might need to head back at some point.

Common Ground and China: A User’s Manual Available for free online

China: A User's Manual (Films), Common Ground, Screenings

Fans of Beg Steal Borrow’s film will be pleased to know that we have made available for free both Common Ground and China: A User’s Manual (Films), two films that we completed in 2012.

The former played at FEST Film Festival in Espinho, Portugal, in 2013, as well as being selected for American Online Films Awards Spring Showcase 2014.

China: A User’s Manual, meanwhile, has had very few screenings, mainly because it is too smart for most audience to understand and thus is not really fit for selection in a lot of places. Smart, or boring. Whichever way you feel about the film, it likely says as much about you as it does about the film and its maker.

Either way, if you fancy watching either film (and in the case of China, there is black leader in between sections because the film is designed to be seen in small chunks), then please do!

Here are the links:

… and…