Monday, September 3, 2012

2012 Sydney Underground Film Festival Preview

The sixth annual Sydney Underground Film Festival is taking place from the 6 to 9th September at Marrickville’s Factory Theatre. The festival features an eclectic line up of over 100 local and international films that will showcase the year’s most subversive, underground, cult and off-the-wall content. Tickets are available to book online at Tickets are selling fast so be quick to snatch them up.

As I have seen a few of the films screening at this year's festival prior I thought I would provide personal thoughts on them.

Opening the festival is the Australian premiere of Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie. Closing the festival is Bobcat Goldthwaite's God Bless America. For thoughts on both of these films check out Sam McCosh's SUFF overview at An Online Universe.

Berberian Sound Studio - Friday 6.30pm (Main Cinema)
Berberian Sound Studio was one of my most anticipated screenings at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) last month and it was certainly the strangest film I watched while I was there. Peter Strickland's creepy mind-bender is an assured and confident conception and an eerie, unsettling and undeniably fascinating watch. I left the film processing a plethora of questions and interpretations and the immediate desire for another viewing.

Set in the 1970's the audacious Berberian Sound Studio stars Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Gilderoy, a quiet and reserved sound engineer summoned to Italy to work on the lurid new 'giallo' picture, The Equestrian Vortex, from director Gianfranco Santini (Antonio Mancino). Being thrust into one of Italy's sleaziest post-production studios to work on a sordid film is not what Gilderoy expected when he left his garden shed in Dorking, especially considering his prior work: nature documentaries. 

We never see a reel of the misogynistic mayhem of The Equestrian Vortex (well, with the exception of the opening credit sequence) but by the end of Berberian Sound Studio we feel like we have experienced it all the same. The narrative, manufactured by Gilderoy through his inventive methods of creating accompanying sound effects, begins to reflect Gilderoy's work in the studio and through a series of mishaps - exploited actresses, the production's failure to reimburse his flight to Italy and conflicts with the film's producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) - Gilderoy's sanity begins to become victim to the repetitive horrors and he begins to lose his grip on his reality. As an audience, so do we.

The premise of the film is conveyed through the sequences of Gilderoy tweaking with the soundtrack and dubbing the sound effects the old-fashioned way - slashing watermelons to convey a limb being decapitated, ripping radishes to convey a neck being broken and pouring oil into a hot pan to substitute for a red hot poker being thrust...somewhere vile. Though the images, projected by a black-gloved hand (a nod to Argento), are being presented for Gilderoy and off-screen for us, we hear the sounds Gilderoy is constructing and they feel wincingly real.

Just like Gilderoy is an expert sound technician, so are the team behind Berberian. The sound design is an extraordinary achievement - and there are some excellent decisions made by Strickland to heighten the claustrophobic environment Gilderoy operates out of. Visually it is pretty surreal as well. The film gets so complex that the image begins to bubble on one occasion. Mulholland Drive was a film that came to mind a couple of times and the presence of a blinking red 'Silenzio' sign outside of the recording room is but one example. Toby Jones is perfectly cast, and delivers a terrific performance as the hapless fish-out-of-water.

There are a bunch of pieces to the puzzle - rotting vegetables, possibly discarded from use on the shoot, a spider which appears in several different locations (Gilderoy's private quarters and the studio) and several letters from Gilderoy's mother, which must be significant because the camera tracks down the page and ensures that we read every word. The contents of these letters make a strange appearance in another form. It is hard enough processing both Gilderoy's story and The Equestrian Vortex, but the film goes even further, turning itself inside out in the final act. Divulging what happens is a disservice, but I don’t have an explanation for what happens either. Strickland has constructed something excitingly original and fans of surrealist cinema - Lynch and Bergman - will find plenty to admire here. It is an eerie, fascinating and genuinely puzzling thriller.

Despite the Gods - Saturday 12pm (Main Cinema)

Despite the Gods is a documentary put together over the course of the shooting of Hisss, a US/Indian co-production about a snake who can take human form. It is an ambitious project written and directed by Jennifer Lynch, the daughter of director David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), and the director of the critically savaged Boxing Helena (1993) and the award-winning Surveillance (2008). Hiss was shot on location in India and stars Bollywood starlet Mallika Sherawat.

Director Penny Vozniak, a friend of Jennifer who was asked to take footage of the production for the DVD extras, follows the tumultuous shoot for over eight months (the original scheduled allocation was three months) and Jennifer, when dealing with an array of issues – compromise, vast cultural difference, shooting delays and her desire to realise ambition and craft as opposed to relinquishing that for speed and disassociation – becomes more and more comfortable opening up to the camera. The film’s producer, a prominent Bollywood director, is unhappy with the presence of Jennifer’s teenage daughter on set and continually threatens to take over the project.

Sherawat, a huge star in India, drew too much attention wherever she went (immovable mobs meant they couldn’t shoot where they desired) and grows increasingly uncomfortable with her image given what appears to be a tasteless treatment of her character. Hiss looks like a mess, and with such a small budget and what seems to be an inexperienced crew when working outside of Bollywood constraints, it might have been a doomed project from the beginning. I am intrigued to see how it turned out.

Despite the Gods, while a privileged insight into this bizarre, yet undeniably interesting project, doesn’t offer much more than a document of life on set and Jennifer’s mental state over the course of the production – her growing doubts about the success of the film, her confessions about her relationship with her father, and her bafflement at the reaction to her 1993 debut Boxing Helena, which was a box office disaster and led to her retreat from filmmaking. We hear her personal thoughts when faced with the mounting pressures and Vozniak effectively captures the on-set atmosphere. Unfortunately, because it is exclusive to the set – only relaying Jennifer’s return to California with an intertext - it becomes a little bit monotonous. Still, for those interested in Lynch’s films, this is an absorbing study.

Francophrenia (Or Don't Kill Me, I Know Where The Baby Is) - Saturday 4pm (Main Cinema) and Sunday 1pm (Fusebox Cinema).

Francophrenia is an experimental documentary comprised of footage taken by a small crew of videographers hired by actor James Franco (Pineapple Express, 127 Hours) to follow him around for the duration of a marathon all-night shoot of soap opera, General Hospital. Franco was guest-starring on the show, booking a recurring role as a villain, a multimedia artist-come serial killer also named Franco. This was a decision that had admirers of the man scratching their heads, and from my understanding, critics panned the episodes. The shoot took place at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art and features hours of mundane footage of a slick-haired, tuxedoed Franco wandering around set, getting his hair and make-up done, waiting in-between takes, chatting with the show’s director and producer, and graciously interacting with fans, who have flocked to see him in action.

These hours of footage were handed over to director Ian Olds whose tweaking resulted in the film adopting the tone of a thriller/psychodrama, which sees Franco the actor, with the accompaniment of voice-over narration (supplied by Franco), deconstructing as a man to the brink of paranoia as he finds himself being taken over by Franco the character. This narration, which is meant to be contextualized by the leering shots of Franco – who does seem to be thinking: what the hell am I doing here? – conveys some striking statements on celebrity and comments on an actors role in the big machine of a film or television production. They exist as puppets – and to their fans, zoo animals – and their job is to get to the spot, say their lines and get out.

As he wanders around, he hears voices emerging from the icons on the door of the men’s room claiming he is “going to fuck up the scene” and grows concerned he won’t remember his lines. He begins to distrust the director and the producer, even considering killing the latter. Some of the most interesting parts of the film are watching Franco wander up and down a barricaded line of fans who are handing over photographs for him to sign. He never says a word, but smiles pleasantly and poses for photographs. His demeanour is quite extraordinary. Also, the footage of him preparing for a scene immediately before the call of ‘Action’ is fascinating.

This self-aware, self-deprecating film can be admired as an experiment, managing to craft something remotely interesting out of nothing, and delving not only into a now-infamous shoot, but also the actor/artist that is James Franco. I was one who questioned last year what had happened to James Franco. One minute he delivers an astounding performance in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, the next he is making a fool of himself as Oscar host and involved in one of the worst films released in cinemas in some time, Your Highness. Many viewers, Franco idolisers/haters alike, will find Francophrenia fascinating. Having said that, it is at times a tedious watch, and even at 68 minutes, the thin premise runs out of steam, and there are only so many whispers of “Where am I going?” one can handle. But it will provoke plenty of post-screening discussion and fits into the Sydney Underground Film Festival program like a glove.

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