EIFF 2019 – Aniara

Aniara,
Directed by Pella Kågerman,
Starring Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini

Another day, another Edinburgh International Film Festival outing for me, today’s viewing on this first weekend of the festival kicking off with something even a major SF&F fan like me doesn’t come across too often – a Swedish science fiction film. Aniara is inspired by Nobel Prize-winner Harry Martinson’s 1956 poem, which was inspired by the Cold War era and the rapid proliferation of ever more power nuclear weapons and humanity’s seemingly mindless ability to use its intelligence to create new inventions that threatened our very existence.

The Aniara itself is a vast ship – really more a space city with engines – designed to take thousands of people in each trip, with comfortable cabins, swimming pools, bowling alleys, dance floors, shopping malls, restaurants and more. Think of a combination of hotel, cruise liner, major airport and shopping complex and you get the idea. She transports these thousands to a new home on Mars, swiftly, despite her city-sized bulk, with a voyage lasting only 23 days or so. We never see the full backstory, but the film is littered with references and inferences of the mess humanity has made of our own world, the only one in the whole solar system that we know could create and sustain life. Martinson’s original poem drew on the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the nuclear stand-off of the Cold War, but here it is more suggestive of humanity ruining their own biosphere, a topic which obviously resonates with a contemporary audience (although the film was made before the latest Extinction Rebellion wave of environmental campaigning captured media attention).

‘MR’ (Jonsson) is a Mimarobe on the ship, and we see her first on the Space Elevator carrying huge numbers up to board the orbiting ship (for those of you not familiar with the concept, a Space Elevator is pretty much what is sounds like, a tether to the Earth at one end, to a platform in orbit at the other, elevator cars run up and down the cable, eliminating the expense and limited lifting power of rockets. Long an SF concept, they are seriously considered by NASA and others). There’s a beautifully handled combination of the awe of seeing the Earth from space, looking down upon a huge storm gathering below in the atmosphere, and the ingenuity of the Space Elevator itself, mixed with that feeling of the workaday familiarity of those who have done this too many times as work. Imagine how astonishing the sight of a speeding train once was to people, but how nowadays many of us slump against the window pane, half asleep as we commute – that’s MR as she rides the Elevator to her work on the ship.

MR’s role as a Mimarobe is akin to a form of therapy – she operates a semi-sentient computer system which can interact with human minds and memories. Within its space she uses it to calm passengers, with the system gifting each individual their own beautiful image of Earth (before it was ruined), tailored to them, letting them leave their bodies for a few moments, the experience leaving them calmer, content. Normally a way of keeping civilians quiet during the trip to the Mars colony, this becomes vital when a tiny piece of space debris strikes the vessel, damaging the engine core which has to be ejected, leaving the crew unable to steer the Aniara, which is now off course. As the fear of being trapped in space, perhaps for several years, until they can correct their course by sling-shotting another celestial body grows, MR’s function becomes a form of respite care and the demands for her services soar, overloading both her and the sensitive computer.

As it starts to become clear the crew may be unable to create the manoeuvre they promised and their voyage may be far longer than thought, understandably, despite MR’s efforts, morale starts to break, people under extreme stress start to act in odd ways. The ship becomes a floating microcosm of every kind of humanity, from the eternal optimist who keeps trying for the best to the fatalistic (MR’s room-mate, The Astronomer, told her even before they were lost that life and humanity had no real purpose in the infinity of space), to those who crack and start to develop bizarre cults as a coping method. The Aniara, once the gateway to a New World, like the liners of old who took emigrants to the Americas in the last century, has now become its own closed system, adrift, the view from all windows an eternal night of space, the decks within now a pressure cooker for competing behaviours and neuroses as the weeks turn to months turn to years.

There are some obvious plotholes in Aniara which may irk SF fans – quite why a vessel this large and advanced doesn’t have emergency engines in case of the main reactor being damaged or failing is peculiar. As is the fact the highly trained crew cannot conceive of any other method of altering her course – the ship is able to alter gravitational fields but can’t affect its own trajectory? It doesn’t have basic reaction-control thrusters like any other space vehicle? Heck, you could even use some of the atmosphere (the ship produces its own) as a reaction gas for a jury-rigged thruster to push you back on course (think on the repairs the Apollo 13 crew made in space with an old sock and duct tape and then wonder why a huge ship with a whole engineering staff can’t figure out something this basic?).

But that kind of criticism, while perhaps valid in terms of plot flaws, is more nitpicking – this isn’t a film about the hard science of navigating in space, after all. This is a film about people, both at the individual level and at the societal level, and how they react to shock and stress, and the enclosed environs of this drifting ship are a perfect stage for this kinds of emotional and psychological drama, and on that level alone Aniara scores highly in my view. We see everything from depression and suicide to religious fanaticism, authoritarianism, denial and more among the people now trapped on board Aniara, from the blood-soaked cabin of someone who couldn’t take it any longer to the mad partying and drinking and sex of others trying to forget their concerns, from rank despair at a meaningless existence to the hope of shared love and warmth, Aniara offers all of this richly human drama, viewed mostly through the eyes of MR. An unusual and highly compelling addition to world science fiction film.

Aniara will get a UK cinema release from 30th August and will also be on digital platforms via Arrowhead Films

EIFF 2019 – Memory: the Origins of Alien

Memory: the Origins of Alien,
Directed by Alexandre O. Phillippe,
Exhibit A Pictures

Hard to believe, but here we are in the last third of June and that means Edinburgh International Film Festival time. My first screening out of the bunch I have booked was Memory: the Origins of Alien. You may know director Alexandre O. Phillippe for some of his very interesting previous documentaries, The People Vs George Lucas and Doc of the Dead (both highly recommended), and here he and his team have created another fascinating set of insights – this is not a standard making-of approach, rather this is an exploration of the myriad of people involved in the gestation of this now-iconic film, their thoughts, their inspirations, their dreams, their nightmares, the ingredients which would coalesce into the film Alien.

As anyone who has ever had to study Alien for an essay will know, it is one of those films that is replete with elements that can be endlessly debated and discussed, and some of those you are likely familiar with already, not least the surreal, dream-nightmare imagery of H.R. Giger, with its biomechanical, highly sexual motifs, which dovetails with other sexual aspects of the narrative (the “baby” alien chestbuster looking like a penis with teeth, as actor Veronica Cartwright put it, the “male rape” and insemination and the abomination of a birth), or the real-world parasitic insects which lay their eggs within other insects to feed from within then burst forth at birth inspiring what is now one of the most fabled scenes in cinema.


(above, the Furies, below, paintings by Francis Bacon, which fed into the idea for the chestbuster version of the Alien)

But Memory, while exploring these qualities, dives deeper, into the stories and myths that influenced Alien’s various creators, taking us from the Furies of Classical Greek culture (a beautifully shot scene takes us from Delphi, the “navel of the world” into a cave which becomes like an Alien set, right down to the laser beam from the egg cavern, except here the Furies wait below that glittering beam) to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Various talking heads comment, from academics to some of those personally involved, such as editor Terry Rawlings and art director Roger Christian, or co-writer Ron Shusett, with some clever use of archive interview material to allow some who have passed on, such a Giger or co-writer Dan O’Bannon, to be a part of the process, while others who worked with them also give us more insights into how those creators shaped their work, from early drafts, O’Bannon;s work with Carpenter on Dark Star and even his time with Giger on the Jodorowsky attempt to film Dune, all filtering into the eventual ideas in conjunction with the other film-makers.

As you may expect O’Bannon gets a lot of the running time here, as the original story creator, and we hear from his widow and from Shusett about “Star Beast” and how he knew he had something but he just couldn’t get past page 29 on the script, so Shusett pitched in, and the now-famous chestbuster scene was born. This scene, understandably, also takes a fair amount of the running time here – everyone involved, from the early drafts of the script (studio execs not being overly impressed until hitting that scene and experiencing their WTF moment) through to setting up of the actual scene, the puppet, the effects and filming it, they all knew this was where the film would live or die. It may now be one of the most well-known and important scenes in film history, but they had no way of knowing that when crafting that moment, and it is truly fascinating just how much went into its creation, from so many people.


(above, the now iconic chestbuster scene from Alien, below some early concept sketches for the scene, bottom: writer Dan O’Bannon on the Nostromo set)

And as for that iconic scene, so too for the whole film – Memory rather deftly tugs on the many different strands that went into the making of what we saw on the big screen, from childhood reading habits to art influences, to friendships or arguments that opened some doors or pointed people towards others. Of course all films are a gestalt entity – too often the director and the stars are the only ones focused on by the media, but those of us who love cinema are very aware of the huge amount of talents that go into the making of any film, and Memory beautifully, warmly. and with great respect for the creative process, shows how all those individuals, with all of their own histories and ideas and influences, work together to craft a feature film, in this case one that is now forty years old and assured of its place in cinematic history.

The EIFF screening also boasted a short post-show Q&A with producer Annick Mahnert who has worked with Phillippe before (he often uses a lot of the same team), and it was interesting to hear one of the team talk about how they brought together so many different strands of influences and people’s recollections to put together Memory, and she also let us know that their next film, which is mostly shot already but is now going into editing, will be about William Friedkin and the Exorcist, so I shall look forward to that.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the “Memory” title comes from a very early version of the story by O’Bannon.

Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out

Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out,
Directed by Bert Scholiers,
Starring Evelien Bosmans, Daphne Wellens, , Frances Lefebure, Patrick Vervueren

I don’t know Bert Scholiers or the starts of his Belgian film, but sometimes I just get a vibe from a film or book and know I am likely to enjoy it even before I start. Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out was another of those that I just had that feeling about as soon as I spotted it going through the Edinburgh International Film Festival programme. I am happy to say that gut instinct was on target, and that this was a film which had me smiling throughout.

Shot mostly in black and white (save for a short segment in strong, almost lurid colours), the basic premise – two girls, best friends, Hannah (Daphne Wellens) and Charlie (Evelien Bosmans) head out on the town for a night out with friends – doesn’t really do this justice. What starts as a pair of slightly kooky but charming young women, joking and laughing as they try to have a nice night out while figuring out their place in the world and why they are as they are (jobs, boyfriends, work, life, the same things we all think about), soon starts to bend off into a more unusual track, starting with some fourth wall breaking as they occasionally talk to the audience, then slowly starts to feed some fantastical elements in (after the pair have swallowed some magic candies which, they explain with a smile are certainly not drugs, they’re “homeopathic”).

Starting small – at a small party with friends Hannah’s breasts start talking (strangely in male voices for some reason), offering advice, bickering with her and each other (one breast complains that it has to get up early tomorrow to work on an opera libretto). Charlie goes out into the garden for a smoke, hears what sounds like someone having some sexual fun in the bushes and yes, indeed there is, it’s Catherine the Great (a horse can be glimpsed in the background, playing on the old myth) and naturally she bums a smoke from Charlie before offering some advice on not sleeping with some famous Russian historical figures. Soon, however, it goes off onto an increasingly surreal bent.

The pair talk about testing their friend Fons (Patrick Vervueren), making him perform odd tasks such as finding a “mummy in denial” (the bandage-wrapped Egyptian style mummy, not the maternal type), their friends produce a picture book of Hannah’s life to explain things, then flip to later pages to show what’s just about to happen next. As the evening wears on with the inevitable “I should go home” moments from the various friends, Charlie and Hannah go off on their own routes, each with a different man, but their evenings still revolve around each other as even apart they talk to their male friends about one another (the men are, well, not exactly superfluous, they have a role, indeed there are many men in this, but this is very much a film about the two women).

The evening – or now early hours of the morning – become increasingly fantastical, travelling to strange places, transformations, a magical mystery tour that takes in talking buildings and haunted houses and bordellos staffed by famous literary characters (fancy a Jane Austen foursome?). Imagine mid to late 70s era Woody Allen, if the films were more female-oriented, mixed with a dash of a more light-hearted Francis Ha, and fantastical flights of early Jean-Pierre Jeunet (and a friend suggested to me perhaps a touch of Mighty Boosh). Fun, funny, silly, sweet, touching, surreal and totally charming and smile-inducing. Loved it.

Talking silent movies: Saving Brinton

Saving Brinton,
Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne,
Starring Mike Zahs

Saving Brinton is one of the movies that leapt out at me when I was busy circling the movies I most wanted to try and get tickets for at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival: a documentary about a man, Mike Zahs, in a tiny Iowa farm town, who just happened to have collected, protected and shared some gems from the very, very earliest days of cinematic history. It’s an irresistible subject for those of us who love film.

William Franklin Brinton was an itinerant showman, he and his wife travelled up and down the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, from Texas to Minnesota, with shows which included music, gadgets (some of the existing music boxes are preserved in the collection as well as film), attempts at heavier than air flight (several years before the Wright Brothers managed several seconds in the air), some truly enchanting magic lantern slides and, always a sharp showman with one eye on getting those bums on seats, but another eye always on technological innovation, which fascinated this intelligent, curious man, he was an early adopter of the new miracle of the Victorian era: moving pictures. Some, even innovators like Edison who would contribute to the development of the medium, saw film as a passing fad. To be fair, he was not alone, few could have predicted film would grow to be one of the great art forms and mediums of the following century and into the next, let alone that it would become so entangled with our own lives, our dreams, fears, aspirations and hopes.

Brinton saw more in this infant medium, and in a later, more settled part of his career he managed the Graham Opera House in the small town of Washington, Iowa, which has been showing film pretty much since the birth of the medium, and has now been recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest continually operating cinema on the planet. There is something rather pleasing that such an accolade goes not to some historic old cinema in Paris, or London or New York, but a wee town in the middle of the great farming fields of Iowa, right in the heart of the vast American continent. Once every town had such palaces of delights, but most are long gone in the US, as here, long since converted to other uses or ripped down and built over. Here though, a slice of entertainment history still lives, still serves its community, and for around three decades it has also seen some of the rarest early film works from the Brinton collection projected on its venerable screen.

Zahs, an incredibly genial, modest and charming man with a mighty beard (he looks like Gandalf crossed with Father Christmas, perhaps), a teacher, historian and collector, has been saving and documenting this collection for years, trying to interest the wider world in these treasures. There is a delicious irony that the small community here has been watching films, some of which cinema historians had, for years, lamented as lost, totally unaware of Mike’s collection. But eventually perseverance pays off, local academics from the University of Iowa work with Mike, and as academics do, they bring in other experts, including the Library of Congress. It’s soon recognised that the collection has remarkable works, such as rare moving images of Teddy Roosevelt, the first known film from Burma (how astonishing and exotic would that have seemed to an 1890s audience in an era before television, internet and easy international travel?), absolute gold: works by the first true genius of our beloved cinematic medium, Georges Méliès. Actually scratch that, Georges Méliès is not so much a genius as a wizard.


(above, Brinton projecting one of his shows, image from University of Iowa’s Brinton collection; below, Mike Zahs and the film-makers at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pics from my Flickr)
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 02

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 03

All of this “lost” cinematic history being rediscovered as academics finally take notice, increasingly enthusiastically, of what Mike has been trying to show them for years, would be fascinating enough, and the triumph, from only local folks watching to international recognition of the importance of this collection (complete with showbills, photographs, glass slides for the magic lanterns, projectors and more along with the actual nitrate films) is satisfying: Mike goes from showing the works to his local friends and community to an outdoor film festival screening in an ancient square in Bologna, and the international film festival circuit. But there is much more to Saving Brinton than the rare works saved from vanishing into history: this is a film which is as much about people and about community as anything else.

It’s to the credit of the film-makers that they spend quite a bit of the running time on Saving Britnon exploring this small local community, and Mike is their way into this small farming town. As well as putting on shows with Brinton’s films, magic lantern slides (some very sophisticated, allowing for overlaps and dissolves which are still gorgeous looking even to modern eyes used to CGI wonders), we see Mike planting peach trees on the family farm close to others that go back generation in his family, Mike delighting young kids at the local school showing them all sorts of odd-looking historical artifacts from his collection and engaging them into learning without even realising it (always a good trick to play on kids to enthuse them), even giving a talk to some of the local Amish families on local history. As Mike said himself at the Edinburgh screening, the most important part of the world “history” is “story”, and stories are about people. And Saving Brinton shows how that remarkable collection is more than preserved celluloid frames and ephemera, it has been woven into the local communities since 1895 when Brinton took it from town to town.

At the Edinburgh Film Festival screening we were lucky enough to have the film-makers Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherbune present, as well as Mike himself, who seemed utterly delighted to be showing this work at the world’s oldest continually running film festival (quite an appropriate venue for such a subject, surely), and in person he was as delightful and fascinating as he was to watch in the film. As a bonus, after the film and a Q&A we were treated to ten minutes of these very short works – works that, as is said in the film, were made when the people we now think of as the stars of the silent era, the Chaplins, the Keatons, would still have been children, they are that early. These included the “flying machines” which many in the UK will recognise (created by Brinton’s contemporary Sir Hiram Maxim, still flying at Blackpool today), some truly glorious early 1900s colour film (each frame painstakingly hand-tinted to produce the effect, which still looks magical), and treasure upon treasure, a Georges Méliès film which was thought lost for most of the last century, and here Mike and his small town had been enjoying watching it for the last thirty years…

This is just an utterly enchanting, beautiful film about shared history, community, art, lives. Mike and his wife have donated the collection to the University of Iowa Libraries, where it is being carefully examined, conserved and digitally copied so it can be shared. There is a dedicated site for the Brinton Collection run by the university, which I highly recommend visiting for more information and also to find links to watch some of these incredibly early films online, such as the hand-coloured Serpentine Dance and other little gems that were so nearly lost forever, and the official Saving Brinton site has more information. This is an absolutely magical, warm, smile-inducing documentary that is a must-see for anyone with a passion for film.

Delightful chills in The Secret of Marrowbone

The Secret of Marrowbone,
Directed by Sergio G Sánchez,
Starring George MacKay, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg, Nicola Harrison

My first movie at the world’s longest continually running film festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it is one I have been eagerly anticipating, arriving with some good word of mouth. It marks the directorial debut of Sergio G Sánchez, who also wrote the story; although this is his first time as a director many film-lovers will know his name from writing the likes of the superbly creepy The Orphanage.

Marrowbone itself is the name of an old, semi-derelict, sprawling house in an isolated rural part of America, the family home of the mother (Nicola Harrison). She returns here after decades away, bringing her young family, fleeing some horrible catastrophe which has left a trauma on them all, some terrible event way back across the ocean in Britian. She draws a line in the dusty floor and declares to all of them that when they cross it and join her they leave their past and memories behind, and even their family name, for now they will take the surname of their home estate and be the Marrowbones, starting a new life, a free life, a new beginning.

Brave words and at first it seems they are starting a new chapter, the youngsters coming out from that dark cloud, almost literally as Sánchez has them exploring the nearby countryside and beach in glorious summer sunlight, meeting Allie (the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch) at a skull-shaped rock where she is one of the few to get to know the withdrawn, secretive family, to become close to them. For a few scenes it seems they have turned that corner, playing with delight in the sun with their new friend, smiles, laughter.

But the family has run away from a terrible past and harbours a horrible secret, and the past never really releases us, no matter how we try to move on. Their mother knows she is dying and fears what will happen – Jack, her eldest, must reach his 21st birthday to claim his inheritance and to be legal guardian to his siblings. She makes him promise to always keep the family together, even though it means concealing her death until his birthday allows him to legally take over. He vows to keep his family together, but it is not going to be easy.

Their lawyer is suspicious of this family which rarely leaves their dilapidated home, keeps itself to itself, he is jealous too of Allie’s obvious attraction to Jack, and he wonders why their mother is always too ill to see him to sign important papers. He also hints ominously to Allie about the dark secret the family is running from, that their father was a monstrous figures who was eventually brought to justice back in Britain for his crimes but later escaped. Jack tells her he was indeed a monster, hence their flight to Marrowbone, to changing their name, trying to keep a low profile, but he also adds that their father is dead.

If he is dead, though, what are they hiding from? And what is the ghost that young Sam talks about hearing in the middle of the night. Why are all the mirrors in the home taken down and shoved into one room they never enter, save for a couple too large to move, instead covered up, including a huge one on the staircase, which seems to drop its dustcover by itself? What are those many noises? The soundscape here is exploited well, Sánchez mines the old, wooden country home location for maximum effect, every creaking floorboard, and sigh of wind through gaps in windows serves to immerse the viewer into the film, building layer upon tense layer, crafting an atmosphere of wrongness, a sense of something unnatural, disturbed.

Even when nothing obvious threatens the chill of fear and menace is palpable. And there are questions outside the family – their lawyer wonders why the mother is always too ill to see him, and he is increasingly jealous of the obvious love growing between Allie and Jack. He knows a little of their secret, but not all of it, there are layers here, to be excavated like an archaeological dig; the past does not let go with a simple act of starting again, but neither does it give up its secrets easily or quickly…

Sánchez avoids the cheap “jump scares” too many modern horror film-makers use to get a quick scare (I don’t count those as real scares, it’s just reflex, real scares are when they storyteller plants unsettling ideas right into your mind). Instead this film takes its time to patiently build that disturbing atmosphere, giving more hints at the secrets the family is hiding from, slowly cranking it up, trusting the viewers to invest into it until they too are permeated with that atmosphere and almost feel like they too are in that old, creaking house, slowly building to a climax, which I will not ruin here save to say it was, refreshingly, not what I expected and again show trust in the audience to interpret much themselves.

Sánchez and some of his young cast were at the festival screening last night, and he commented that he never set out to be a screenwriter (I am glad that he did though!), and that he and his regular film-making partner had been looking for something just like this to be his first directing gig, and what a wonderfully disturbing, chilling debut it is, moving from the sunny moments of friendship at the start (reminiscent of some old Enid Blyton tale of children’s adventures away from the adults) to the increasingly shadow-laden, creaking sound infested house and a feeling of the past closing like a noose around them and a secret that just cannot be contained. There is a timeless quality to the film, it feels like it could be set in 1860 as easily as the modern day for much of the running, until we see a 1960s wall calendar in one scene and 60s cars on a rare trip into the small town nearby.

Sánchez praised his young cast saying how lucky he was to have them for his debut, and indeed they were superb, despite their youth. It is a lot for such young actors to carry most of a film, but they do it so well, not least the youngest, wee Matthew Stagg, who takes little Sam from wide-eyed childish joy playing with Allie or his big brother Jack showing him how to send Allie morse code signals by light at night to her nearby farmhouse, to wide-eyed fear at this “ghost” and the sounds and movements in the old house, and grief at the loss of his mother. This is a slow-burn film, trusting the audience to wait, to slowly let themselves be immersed into that ever more disturbing atmosphere, leaving you wondering how much is true, is there a supernatural element here or is it all in their traumatised imaginations? What is the secret they must contain, what causes those noises, why does the top staircase end in a bricked up doorway? This is a delicious chiller that draws you into film beautifully. It is on general release in mid July.