LFF Day 11 – Ex Libris | Three Peaks | Lady Bird

Ex Libris

At a bum-numbing 197 minutes Frederick Wiseman’s watchful documentary set at various branches of the New York Public Library requires you to give in to its gentle flow and not check your watch for fear of displacing yourself. When standing on a high bridge you only feel the drop beneath you when you peer over the edge and with Wiseman you only struggle with the length when you keep an eye on the time. If you give in the film with loosen you up and pull you along with its tide.

As with his many previous films Wiseman satisfies himself with no talking heads, no introductory title cards; just pure observation. The film starts at a talk by Richard Dawkins and before it ends passes through numerous other talks, committee meetings, community groups, and research projects. If there is a message to the film it is spoken by one of the library’s employees; “access to information is the solution to inequality”. We see all manner of New Yorkers make use of a hugely diverse set of services and get a real sense of the library as a place where nobody is excluded.

If you can get over the running time and find yourself a comfortable seat then this is a beautiful experience.

Three Peaks

Throughout the festival I kept a notebook with me to help jog my memory in picking apart the 40+ films when it came to write them all up. Sometimes would inspire lots of scrawled notes either because of a plethora of amazing parts I wanted to remember or grumbles I needed to make sure I included. On the flip side an empty page either means a film was so enrapturing I forgot to make any notes, or was so inconsequential I had nothing to write. Sadly Three Peaks falls into this final category; a definitive three star film.

Mother, son, and step-father are on holiday in a remove mountain cabin. On the one hand the young boy and his new father-figure seem to get along but one another’s presence occasionally grates on the other leading to moments where they lash out. These scenes are very well observed and show the subtle clashes that can happen as a family goes through change. The film then takes a surprisingly undramatic dramatic turn leading to tense and suspenseful scenes that lack the necessary suspense and tension.

A peculiar film that fails to get up to speed when it needs to.

Lady Bird

I don’t have any notes for this year’s Surprise Film either though thankfully for the completely opposite reason. Lady Bird is a delight.

Coming from the mind of Greta Gerwig Lady Bird is every ounce as offbeat and charming as you want it to be. We follow a year in the life of the titular Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) in her final year of High School as she prepares to go to college and find her place in the world. Refreshingly the heart of the film is not Lady Bird’s love story with a classmate but her love-hate relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). The two clash frequently but it is clear to everyone but themselves that they love each other deeply.

Metcalf and Ronan give layered performances as women at different stages in their lives, both equally selfish and selfless. Time spent in this casts company under the helm of Gerwig is time well spent indeed. Lady Bird is a film about learning who you are and trying not to hurt everyone you love in the process.

Lovely stuff.

Lady Bird is in UK cinemas from 16th February 2018.

National Gallery – LFF Review

National Gallery

I have a very varied relationship with documentarian Frederick Wiseman and the films he brings to the London Film Festival. In 2011 I saw my first Wiseman film Crazy Horse and was bored out of my skull by the dull background antics of the Parisian club. Last year I changed my mind about Wiseman and fell in love with his four-hour epic study At Berkeley. This year I feel neither love nor hate but fall somewhere in between.

National Gallery is a three-hour portrait of the National Gallery on the north side of Trafalgar square in London. In typical Wiseman style the documentary consists only of footage of events taking place in the gallery, both behind the scenes and amongst the public. What the film does not have is anyone talking directly to camera or any narration or score. This approach allows the National Gallery to speak for itself and for it to be seen in full unadulterated form.

Where Wiseman’s style works best is in peering behind the scenes of the gallery. I love moments spent sitting in on internal meetings as various departments push their own agenda and fail to listen to one another. I love finding out about the detailed restoration work that takes place in workshops to maintain the paintings as they give in to natural aging. Seeing into the nooks and crannies to see the day-to-day workings of a large institution is what makes a Wiseman film fascinating. It is the curious characters that come through in candid moments that make the film work and help maintain the audience’s interest through the long running time.

National Gallery 2

Where the film sags slightly is in allowing the gallery’s employees to speak in a less candid fashion and film them in presentation mode. While there are no interviews to camera Wiseman does allow himself to film subjects giving interviews to other journalists which, as I said with Crazy Horse, feels like cheating. There are also quite a few moments when the camera joins a tour group to learn about the history of a painting. While it is fascinating to hear this in-depth detail it feels like something that could be experienced by visiting the National Gallery itself and not exclusive to the film. What I want from a Wiseman documentary is the behind the scenes action, no matter how mundane (in fact the more mundane the better), the bits we can’t see if we visited the gallery ourselves. I love watching other institutions’ meetings; so much more fun than attending my own.

One other hole I will poke in the film is that it includes footage of Greenpeace hanging an anti-BP banner outside the gallery. As BP are sponsors of the National Gallery it would have caused some reaction in the managerial levels of the gallery but the documentary does not show any of this. Presumably the gallery didn’t want any discussion of their sponsors caught on film. An assumption perhaps but I see no other reason why this potentially fascinating avenue wasn’t explored more. A slight hint of narrative thread from something akin to the BP banner, like the student protests in At Berkeley, would have helped give the film a little more meat.

I remain loyal to Wiseman and will continue to sit through his future films at the film festival no matter how long they get. Sadly National Gallery failed to live up to the heights of At Berkeley and at times felt like more of a chore that a joy. There are definitely moments of interest and intrigue to be found but the film isn’t as consistent as its predecessor. In December a similar documentary will be released called The Great Museum which I will review nearer the time. I mention it now because it takes Wiseman’s style to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna but does so with more interesting behind the scenes goings on and half the running time. In comparison National Gallery feels lightweight and overstuffed at the same time.

One for fans of the National Gallery or people who want to visit but would rather watch a film instead.

National Gallery has no UK release date yet but screens at the London Film Festival on the 14th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

At Berkeley – LFF Film Review

At Berkley

Two years ago I saw Frederick Wiseman’s previous documentary Crazy Horse in which he took viewers inside Paris’ nude dance revue for just over two hours. Despite the potentially titillating subject matter I found myself bored out of my mind and running for the exit when they threatened us with a Q&A with Wiseman. This year I found myself back in the grip of the much-lauded documentarian as I sat down to watch his latest documentary about Berkeley university that comes in at an astonishing 244 minutes in length. If two hours of strippers won’t entertain me what chance does four hours of university lectures have?

Robert Wiseman does not indulge in the usual tropes of documentary film-making as he avoids any interviews with his subjects talking to camera, there are no title cards or graphics to guide you through the story, and we don’t even get so much as the date or a subject’s name onscreen to help us know who is speaking and when. Wiseman is a documentarian who simply sets his camera off rolling and relies on his subject to be interesting enough for us to watch. Luckily Wiseman has chosen a bustling, vibrant, and diverse university that over the course of twelve weeks offers up a large bounty of interesting discussions, amusing moments, and probably much more than four hours of engrossing footage.

The film is a mixture of prolonged visitations to a university class where we sit and listen to a faculty member lecture to, or discuss with, their students and time spent in the endless staff and faculty meetings in which budgets are discussed as the university struggles with reduced state funding and the demands of staff and students alike. The financial strain of the recent recession permeates throughout the film as time and time again we see people discuss in various contexts the difficulties they are having to either pay tuition fees or hire enough staff to keep the lawns well-trimmed.

The film is not entirely made up of extended footage of people’s conversations and classes as throughout are sprinkled small moments on campus; a student struggles to program a robot to pick up a towel, a member of staff chases a rogue leaf through the campus with their leaf blower, and a glee club perform an energetic song about Facebook. At Berkeley has such scope across its four hours that by the end you feel you know Berkeley intimately as if you have spent twelve weeks wandering its campus walking from door to door and dipping into a variety of lectures, meetings, and just getting lost in the surrounding area.

Towards the end of the film it briefly finds an event to focus on and almost allows itself to take on a narrative as students stage a protest and occupy one of the libraries. We are allowed to see not just the protest itself but inside the faculty office as they try to deal with the situation and are baffled by the conflicting list of demands. Wiseman doesn’t let us off that easily though as we are soon enough back in an astrophysics class being baffled by talk of red shift and supernova spectroscopy.

Whether Wiseman needed four hours to make At Berkeley is debatable; without a single narrative thread and hundreds of hours of footage this film could conceivable have been any length between ninety minutes up to a full day. At four hours long the film does not overstay its welcome but manages to completely envelop the viewer’s mind. Once inside the documentary I had no way of telling how many minutes had passed and found myself completely adrift in time with no anchor to tether me. I was completely immersed and loved the experience.

At Berkeley is an enjoyable endurance and has finally allowed me to see what a fine film-maker Wiseman is.

At Berkeley screens at the festival on the 14th October.

BFI London Film Festival 2013

Crazy Horse – LFF Review

In 2009 renowned documentarian (love that word) Frederick Wiseman spent months accumulating 150 hours of footage at the Crazy Horse in Paris, a venue that “boasts the greatest and most chic nude dancing in the world”. Unfortunately the result is a dull, over-long documentary with nothing to say. I’ll admit to being ignorant about Wiseman’s oeuvre so maybe need some educating in order to appreciate better his cinéma vérité style.

I understand that Wiseman likes to film his subjects as they are with no interviews or talking heads, but surely he could have still found a more interesting two hours worth in the 150 he shot? A massive proportion of the film is made up of extended footage of performances at the Crazy Horse, often a whole dance is presented. While entertaining and pleasing to the eye, this fails to get under the surface of the operation.

Highlights of the film are the moments when the dancers are not performing, be it during a live show or in rehearsal, what is more revealing is how they spend their down time (watching ballet blooper reels) and the meetings between management where business and artistic objectives clash.

In the second half of the film it is as if Wiseman wishes he would allow himself to interview the staff so resorts to filming the management as they are interviewed by French journalists. Wiseman finds a loophole in his own rule making the rule itself farcical.

The footage itself is well shot, the Crazy Horse and it’s inhabitants look stunning but I can’t help but feel that a better piece could have been assembled from the raw materials available. After two hours of Crazy Horse I was tired and bored, and considering the number of people who left, never to return, I wasn’t the only one.

After the film Frederick Wiseman appeared to do a Q&A but I scarpered. I needed fresh air and didn’t trust him not to overstay his welcome; I had another film to see. Sure enough, as I headed for my next appointment I overheard staff explaining to a long queue that there was a delay in their screen, the very screen I had escaped from 30 minutes before.

Robert Wiseman has a great eye, but could just do with refining his editing his little. So says the humble blogger about an award-winning documentarian.

Crazy Horse has a second screening at the London Film Festival on Wednesday 19th October.