Biografilm Festival in Bologna, Italy, markets itself as an ‘international celebration of lives’, with an emphasis on not just the extraordinary (Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Greenaway and Cate Blanchett) but the ordinary through fiction and documentary. The programme is filled to the brim with films by unfamiliar directors starring unfamiliar protagonists, features which may seem obscure in comparison to their more recognisable counterparts. Biografilm also immediately appears to strike a balance between hagiography – the reverent portrayal of genius – and the apparently mundane. And so it seems that the central task of the festival is to see the extraordinary in the ordinary and the ordinary in the extraordinary.
Chasing Trane (John Scheinfeld, 2017)
What could be more relevant to the current revitalisation of modern jazz, and contemporary cinema’s interest in it (Miles Ahead, Born to Be Blue, Whiplash, What Happened, Miss Simone?, La La Land) than a reappraisal of the great master of the saxophone, John Coltrane? All the common elements of his biography are here: Coltrane’s rise from obscurity to fame and beyond; the terrible lows – heroin, dismissal by Miles, liver cancer – and the ecstatic highs – A Love Supreme and his relationship with Alice Coltrane. As is often the case with modern jazz, this journey begins in 1945 at a Charlie Parker concert, where a young Coltrane sees this great man revolutionise the form, and continues travelling through his experience with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, the great Quartet (1961-1965) and into the post-1965 era.
By the end of Coltrane’s story, the film’s talking heads (Dr. Cornel West, Bill Clinton, Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, among many other luminaries) suggest that the exponential development of his music into demanding and challenging territory still provokes utter bewilderment today, fifty years after his death. The Golden Age of Coltrane is noted as the period 1955-1965, a ten year stretch which begins with his involvement in Miles’ ‘First Great Quintet’ and ends with A Love Supreme, his final masterpiece.* While Chasing Trane has less time for Coltrane’s experience with Duke Ellington, Johnny Hartman and Milt Jackson, the sheer breadth of Scheinfeld’s vision, and the constraints of the feature film, excuse such neglect.
Ultimately, however, what we are offered is a familiar story in a familiar form, perhaps not the way the great experimenter would handle an approach to his life. Is this a film for John Coltrane fans or for an audience unaccustomed to his genius? As an introduction, Chasing Trane covers all bases, placing his career in a socio-historical context (civil rights, institutional racism, the political movements of the 1960s) and gives us a good idea of his musical development and brilliance. Denzel Washington’s reading of Coltrane’s words also carries some power. But this is hagiography in its most pure form. I was sold on the film through my love for Coltrane’s music. Whether this will be the case for non-fans is perhaps a more interesting question.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Bonni Cohen, Jon Schenk, 2017)
An Inconvenient Sequel begs the question whether a film can be important solely through its political content. Like its predecessor the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006), its subject is both climate change and ex-Vice President Al Gore; although this time around, emphasis is placed more so on the latter than the former.
Climate change is of course the most important issue of our time, and this film does not let us forget it. But instead of offering the science of global warming or how our knowledge has developed since An Inconvenient Truth’s release, we are shown how Gore has attempted to raise awareness of our impending doom in the past ten years. Gore, himself, has clearly taken on a noble mission, and should be commended for his efforts. Something tells me however that he is not the sole protagonist in this Herculean task and that in reality, the genuine story is much more complex.
Cinema Grattacielo (Marco Bertozzi, 2017)
Cinema Grattacielo (Skyscraper Cinema) is not a celebration of human life but an honouring of a building. The focus is on a 1950s brutalist skyscraper which incongruously sprouts up through the streets and apartments of Rimini, a city on Italy’s eastern coast. The building remains symbolic of a profound period in Italian history known as the economic miracle, whereby the country transformed from a poor, agricultural nation into an industrial, consumerist power; a process which began in the post-war years with assistance from the Marshall Plan and continued into the 1960s and 1970s.
Modernity, technology, cinema, cars! An age which ceased looking back towards the greats of the Risorgimento, Renaissance and Roman eras and fully embraced the intellectual and cultural movements of the moment. As was the case in Britain, the overwhelming rhetoric associated with such dreams has today been erased by the ugliness and incongruity of the concrete and glass buildings erected in the name of progress (see also the transformation of British city centres in the 1960s and 1970s and T. Dan Smith in Newcastle). The building in Rimini is today an eyesore, a blip on the Riviera Romagnola, but equally one which accords sentimental value to some of its occupants and residents of the city.
The skyscraper is not just the film’s main subject but its central protagonist. The building speaks to us, narrating its near sixty years of existence. We hear its thoughts, feelings, passions and sensations. Bertozzi offers a postmodern collage of material which coalesce to form a fragmented and splintering image of the skyscraper. We see drone shots in the magic hour, close-ups, images of the exteriors and interiors, extreme long shots at night, and the stories of many of its diverse occupants. Twenty different nationalities live on the building’s twenty seven floors; the skyscraper of Rimini is a melting pot of culture, history and experience. But yet, while the central idea of the film is fairly profound, something in the film is slightly off. In the end, the final execution does not match the interest of Bertozzi’s initial set up.
Venus (Lea Glob, Mette Carla Albrechtsen, 2016)
Lea Glob and Mette Carla Albrechtsen open documentary Venus with a zoom, a slow pullback which reveals a statue of a Greek or Roman female nude. An idea of feminine sexuality thousands of years old, constructed by men for men. This is the only time the film leaves the casting room where Glob and Albrechtsen are conducting their research.
The two directors begin with a question: what constitutes female sexuality and desire in modern Denmark? They invite a hundred participants to a blank room to talk about their experiences with sex, pleasure, desire and romance. Gently, they probe the women on their likes and dislikes, on losing their virginity, on feelings of shame and the effect of peer pressure on sexual behaviour. Soon enough these conversations become the film’s drama itself. Which terms do the women use to refer to their genitalia? How do they view their bodies? What does it mean to be an object of the male gaze? What are their experiences in same-sex relationships?
The women participants reveal all in raw, frank discussions. Fantasies, memories, recollections, sensations are all told in great detail. What could function as a clinical scientific study instead is instead surprisingly intimate. Venus is a rare glimpse of what it means to be young, female and sexually active in the 21st century.
It’s Not Yet Dark (Frankie Fenton, 2016)
It’s Not Yet Dark is fundamentally about how we can live when what seems to constitute living is taken away. Simon Fitzmaurice was a promising filmmaker with two shorts under his belt when Motor Neurone Disease began to eliminate his mobility. It was while presenting his film The Sound of People (2007) at the Sundance Film Festival where he noticed his foot had lost some of its receptivity. He began to limp and struggle in the snowy streets of Park City, Utah. He was given four years to live. For most filmmakers, inclusion in Sundance’s Official Selection would usually mark the beginning of successful career in the film industry. For Fitzmaurice this was when his life took an unexpected turn for the worse.
Fitzmaurice is a cinephile – an early love affair nurtured through his father’s passion for films – someone who loves not just cinematic storytelling but also the craft of filmmaking. A large part of It’s Not Yet Dark’s emotional power arises from the home movies Fitzmaurice made during his slow descent towards immobility. Afternoons playing with his children, holidays to Australia and kisses shared with his wife Ruth, the love of his life, are rescued from time’s abyss, as are recordings of conversations and other episodes in his life.
Soon Fitzmaurice would lose the use of his limbs, fingers and ultimately his lungs and voice. The wonders of 21st century science and technology, however, have allowed him to continue to live and work. His voice has been replaced by synthetic American speech while a computer that monitors pupil movement allows him to write, speak, use household technology and access social media.
What is inspiring about It’s Not Yet Dark is Fitzmaurice’s sheer determination and grit. He writes a book also called It’s Not Yet Dark based on his experiences and successfully finishes his debut feature film My Name is Emily (2015) from his wheelchair. The documentary additionally includes many extracts from Fitzmaurice’s book narrated by Colin Farrell, whose lush Irish voice does justice to such material. There is a certain poetry and significance to Fitzmaurice’s elucidation of his experience.
A few years ago, Fitzmaurice had the chance to disconnect himself from the world and die a peaceful death. Instead he chose to live. And it is through his book and this film that he shows us how to live too.
Francis Ford Coppola in Conversation
Francis Ford Coppola appeared at L’Oratorio di San Fillipo Neri last Friday. It was a secret event – guests were instructed to not reveal details or write about their excitement on social media – autographs, selfies and video recordings were strictly forbidden and no press were admitted. The room was packed with students, the young (under 25s) and the occasional bodyguard. The talk functioned more as a conversation with the audience, a chance for Coppola to bestow insight to the presumed next generation of filmmakers – those enrolled in the Biografilm School and at the University of Bologna – rather than as a press conference or critical symposium.
Coppola began with a personal definition: acting and writing are the two fundamental ingredients of the ‘cinematic’, everything else is dressing and can be learned quickly. To understand acting is the crucial skill of a successful director. The cinema is a child of the theatre and we must not allow ourselves to forget this. From here Coppola discussed the space between documentary and fiction, the studio system and difficulty of making personal films, Hollywood now and then, self-finance/production/distribution and his Italian heritage.
As expected most audience questions were directed towards his Golden Period – The Godfather (1972)-Apocalypse Now (1979) (the equivalent of a veteran rock band returning to play the hits) – but one question about Youth Without Youth (2009) managed to squeeze itself in to the American director’s delight. I wanted to ask why he considers that film and Tetro (2009) to be ‘student films’ – as attempts to return to film school – and whether he considers himself the founder of modern television, as New Yorker critic Richard Brody has suggested, but I was never called upon. Coppola ended the main part of the talk with his plans for the creation of ‘cinema live’ – filmmaking on the scale of Lawrence of Arabia shot and distributed live – an interesting proposition whose potential and plausibility still baffles this writer. It was great to see that this filmmaker is still thinking about the future, even if we were all stuck in the past.
*This critic would like to stress the importance of Transition (recorded in 1965 but released in 1970) and to a lesser extent First Meditations (1965), Sun Ship (1965) and Ascension (1966). And I must admit that I struggle, like the film’s talking heads, with Coltrane’s post-1965 period.