Animal Instinct and Family Ties

The sublime Animal Kingdom and why I can never watch it again.

Animal instinct and family ties – Animal Kingdom

There are some films I’ve seen repeatedly. I love them. Each time I watch I am comforted by the familiarity, like spending time with old friends. Sometimes I see something new within, or simply find myself delighting in the little details as I know the film and the dialogue inside out. These are my favourite films, the ones I’d put in any top film list if you asked me to.

There are some films I would put on my list, however, that I have only watched once and can never watch again. These are remarkable films, but the emotional impact is just too strong. Films I absolutely couldn’t bear to sit through again, because I know what’s coming this time.

Sometimes the reasons for watching a brilliant film just once can be obvious. I’ve seen The Elephant Man for example. It’s amazing but emotionally draining and I don’t need to put myself through that again. The same with Schindler’s List. It’s an important film to watch but I think I can be forgiven for a lack of repeat viewings. And don’t get me started on the emotional rollercoaster that is Watership Down.

Other films catch you unawares though, and your visceral reaction is like a sudden electric shock to your system. There’s no obvious reason why they get to you, they just do. There’s no need to watch them again as they stay with you. Sometimes you find yourself thinking about a scene out of the blue, or just a feeling, a look or an image burned into your mind. The way a certain line is delivered, like a knife twisting in your gut.

For me, one of those films is Animal Kingdom. Released nearly 10 years ago, the Australian family crime drama directed by David Michôd tells the story of teenager Joshua ‘J’ Cody, who has to move in with his grandmother and uncles after the sudden death of his mother. But his new family are a troubling proposition, heavily involved in the suburban Melbourne crime scene.

It’s a dark and brutal film, its ordinary setting within dull suburban streets adds extra layers of menace, jarring with our usual perception of criminality and underworld affairs. The performances are nuanced and low-key, no American histrionics or French stylistic touches to distract you from the callous, barbaric actions of the characters. This isn’t the usual gangster film experience, it’s a slow paced but stomach churning journey. It’s unsettling. It gets under your skin.

For a crime film, it’s rather emotional. It is about basic survival of the fittest, about trust, loyalty and family ties. Ordinary actions and concerns sit alongside criminal activity. The family bicker, brothers get annoyed with each other and battle for their mother’s attention. A simple trip to the supermarket ends with offhand cruelty. The opening scene itself is unexpectedly shocking.

Our view of the family is through quiet and awkward newcomer J (James Frecheville). There’s no bravado with him, just fear. His uncles are intimidating, wonderfully played by Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton and Luke Ford. Mendelsohn’s rattling performance as the alarmingly unpredictable coiled spring Pope stands out, as does Guy Pearce as the good cop intent on stopping the family.

But the scariest prospect is family matriarch Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody, played by Jacki Weaver with mesmerisingly sinister undertones. Her version of motherly love still gives me shivers. I can hear saying ‘sweetie’ in my sleep.

Each plot twist unsettled me and lingered in my mind, long after the closing credits. Films can touch your emotions in different ways. Some, like Animal Kingdom produce a visceral reaction that leaves you reeling.

I’m a big fan of Australian cinema, and Animal Kingdom is a brilliant example, a film beautifully executed and performed. It immediately entered my list of ‘favourite’ films. But it got to me, absolutely and profoundly, without reason. I can’t explain why, it just did, and it was too much. I would definitely recommend you see it, just make sure it’s without me.

On the edge.

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The power of emotion and physicality at the heart of This Sporting Life.

In Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 film This Sporting Life, Richard Harris plays Frank Machin, a Yorkshire coal miner and ruthless rugby league player, a rising star of the game who, despite his success on the field, feels his life is empty. We witness his inner turmoil bubble to the surface as he attempts to find love with his widowed landlady Margaret Hammond, played by Rachel Roberts. But his impetuousness and rage create a barrier between them.

The film was adapted for the screen by writer David Storey from his own novel, in turn based on his own experience as a rugby league player in his youth, and it remains faithful to its working class origins. It fits within the movement of the British New Wave, all those frustrated and cocky young men trying to be on the up, but this film stands apart.

It’s an intelligent but deeply powerful film, with a rawness and sense of urgency rarely felt in British cinema, and it hits you like a punch to the stomach.

The film doesn’t hold back in its portrayal of a man on the emotional and physical edge. Harris commits himself to the role of Machin with total physicality. Not just in the realistic scenes on the rugby field, his pent-up frustration and anger ooze out of him in every scene. He’s a man you don’t want to mess with, arrogant, fierce, authentic, perhaps the epitome of the angry young man, but where others showed only surface, he is all feeling, with layers so deep you could search his soul for a week and still not find answers.

Machin is gifted on the field of play, a working class lad, but he’s also successful, an early version of a sporting celebrity and the trappings it could bring, and its hypocrisies. This annoys the men in suits. He’s patronised and messed around, they don’t like his success, he should know his place.

The film was shot on location in Wakefield, with the action played out on a real rugby field, with real players and crowds. The scenes on the pitch are visceral, you feel every movement from the players, every throw of the ball,  and wince with every thud as the masculine bodies hit the muddy ground. You can almost taste the tang of blood in your mouth as players collide. There’s realism perhaps never matched in a sports film since.

But there is also real passion shown in the torrid love affair between Machin and Hammond. The scenes between them are as raw and intense as the rugby, and just as emotionally brutal. Theirs is a love to be completely believed, if not emulated.

The portrayal of women in the British New Wave films has always fascinated me, and Roberts’ performance in this film makes Hammond one of the most rounded and interesting characters. She’s emotionally damaged, a shadow of herself. Her understated portrayal of a woman troubled tells a thousand stories of betrayal and loss, and quiet resignation.

This Sporting Life is social realist filmmaking in all gritty glory, and ultimately its raw, claustrophobic energy perhaps signalled the end of the British New Wave. But what a way to go out, it’s an uncomfortable and challenging watch but it’s a vital one.

Love in a Social Realist Climate

The art of love in the films of Ken Loach

It’s 15 years this month since the release of Ae Fond Kiss, the cross-cultural love story set in Glasgow directed by Ken Loach. Possibly seen as his most overtly romantic films, it continued a theme which features throughout his work but is often overlooked, the need for love and comfort. 

His collaborations with regular screenwriters, and in particular Paul Laverty, have produced thoughtful portrayals of everyday issues. The focus is inevitably on the social realism of his work, but from Poor Cow, My Name is Joe and Ladybird Ladybird, to Carla’s Song and The Angel’s Share, romance and the need for love drives his characters and highlights the very human struggle at the heart of his films.

Based on Nell Dunn’s novel of the same name, Poor Cow (1967) was Loach’s first feature film. It tells the story of 18-year-old Joy (Carol White), who makes a series of poor life choices, often in the name of love. She runs away from home to be with Tom (John Bindon), and they marry and have a son. But Tom is physically and emotionally abusive. When he’s sent to prison for armed robbery, she finds comfort in the arms of Dave (Terence Stamp) but the course of their love doesn’t run smooth as Joy is faced with tough decisions. Poor Cow is not an easy watch, with a heartbreakingly poignant performance by White.

Ladybird Ladybird is a 1994 film from Loach which on the surface feels like an unrelentingly grim tale of one woman’s spiral into desperate circumstances due to the action and inaction of the state, as she battles to keep custody of her children. Former stand up comedian Chrissy Rock gives an outstanding performance in the role of Maggie, and the film pulls no punches in its depiction of the experiences felt by many told through one woman’s story. Yet the film is told through the lens of the tender and loving relationship between Maggie and boyfriend Jorge (Vladimir Vega), who faces persecution in his home country of Paraguay. We learn about both their past lives in flashback as they begin to get to know each other, their intimate conversations driving the story, and the intensity of their need for comfort in each other laid bareas their relationship develops. 

Set in 1987 during the Contra War in Nicaragua, Carla’s Song (1996) tells a story of love at the heart of war, and the relationship between Scottish bus driver George (Robert Carlyle) and Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a Nicaraguan refugee living in Glasgow. It’s clear that Carla has gone through trauma, and as George tries to help her, he agrees to go back to Nicaragua with her to piece together fragments of her shattered life and that of her ex-lover Antonio. The film uses the love story of George and Carla to navigate the often overlooked political and social story of mid 80s Nicaragua and the plight of those involved, and was the first collaboration between Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty. There is a similar theme of love and fragility amidst the trauma of battle in 1995’s passionate Land and Freedom.

In My Name is Joe (1998), love plays a major role in the attempted recovery and redemption of a man who wants to turn his life around. Peter Mullan stars as Joe Kavanagh, an unemployed recovering alcoholic in Glasgow, who meets and falls in love with a health visitor, Sarah (Louise Goodall). Again, the film is scripted by Paul Laverty, and you can feel the warmth and empathy in those scenes between Joe and Sarah. There is a sweetness, a nervousness, to the way Joe pursues her. He’s a man afraid of his past, and his future, and there is real depth and tenderness to the way their relationship is played out. But there are also barriers to break down, ones of class and lifestyle and the ability to trust, all of which are treated compassionately.

Another collaboration with Paul Laverty, starring Atta Yaqub and Eva Birthistle, Ae Fond Kiss (2004) explores the complications and reactions surrounding the love affair between a second-generation Scottish Pakistani Muslim man, Casim, and Roisin, a white Catholic woman from Ireland. The film’s title is taken from the song by Robert Burns, the complete line being “Ae Fond Kiss, and then we sever…” reflecting the bittersweet experience that their relationship brings. There is a warmth and humanity to the telling of their story, in many ways a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, but there is a realism too. No Hollywood-esque hearts and flowers romance here, just the tender passion and intimacy of two people who need each other but know they ultimately can’t be together.

The Angel’s Share from 2012 is a sweet-natured comic heist film which evokes elements of Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling (1980) with its group of hapless young Scottish lads attempting to pull off a clever swizz at the expense of those who think they know better. This time it’s the whisky distillery business. Again, it’s set against the backdrop of a reality of youth unemployment and lack of opportunity, but there’s a wonderful spirit of optimism underpinning it. Another collaboration with Paul Laverty, at the heart of the story is Robbie (Paul Brannigan) who wants to do right by his heavily pregnant girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly). He’s determined to go straight and look after her and their baby, to be a good partner and father. There’s an innocence and old-fashioned romance to their relationship, and Robbie’s determination to provide security for his family in a way that neither of them experienced themselves.

Loach continues to produce films that focus on social justice and the very human fallout from political discourse and actions, but the effectiveness of those stories is strengthened by the focus on the relatable feelings and decisions we take in the name of love. By framing those stories with relationships at their core, they resonate more deeply.

Being human – Professor Alice Roberts

Ahead of the Leeds International Festival, Professor Alice Roberts talks to Anna Cale about what makes us human, inspiring conversations, and how science can enrich our culture.

Professor Alice Roberts (original photo David Stevens.)

At school, I always thought I wasn’t very good at science. Apart from paying meticulous attention to my apparatus diagrams in chemistry lessons, I always felt overwhelmed by it, rather than engaged. I regret that now.

When it comes to the art of engaging people in the joy of science, Professor Alice Roberts would be top of anyone’s list. A biological anthropologist, author and broadcaster known for ground-breaking television shows such as The Incredible Human Journey, she was in Leeds to take part in the city’s International Festival. Speaking a few days before she took to the stage, Roberts talked about why this particular festival was top of her list.

“I think festivals are a great way of engaging with a wide audience. And I love Leeds, I’ve got an honorary doctorate from Leeds University so I’m looking forward to coming up. I love it as a big vibrant northern city.”

Roberts is always keen to do gigs away from London, “I think it’s incredibly important that people like me travel around the rest of the country and don’t just engage with the South East. I try to avoid London and focus more on other places.”

Appearing at festivals and other live shows is also a way to inspire others to join a conversation, “Part of my impetus for doing live shows as well as the television and the writing that I do, is to engage directly. I think there’s something really powerful about a live appearance and enabling people to have a conversation.”

Roberts is also keen to stress that you don’t need to be a scientist to be interested in science, “I’m a huge advocate of science being part of our culture instead of separate from it. There are wonderful stories that emerge from science.”

“It is about inspiring young people, but it’s also about lifelong learning, because people can continue engaging with science throughout their lives.”

Roberts was appearing at the Leeds International Festival as part of a series of talks curated by Leeds Beckett University on the theme ‘what does it mean to be human?’ I suggest that’s quite an ambitious question to ask.

“It’s a great question, because you can approach it in so many different ways. You can approach it in artistic ways, in philosophical ways, and you can approach it in a scientific way.”

For Roberts it’s about trying to understand who we are as humans and approaching it from a biological and scientific perspective.

“It’s fascinating that wherever you go around the world, every single culture has an origin story. People have always been fascinated by these questions of who we are and where we came from.”

“Those questions played within the domain of philosophy and religion for many centuries, but increasingly it’s science that is providing us with the answers.”

Roberts continues, “We’re not just talking about metaphors, we’re not just talking about fairy tale origin stories but real origin stories. Where did our species come from? How did we evolve? What makes us human?

“I think for a long time we thought about humans being quite separate from nature. What biology says of course is that we’re not separate from nature, we’re part of it. We’re just another twig on the great tree of life.”

The focus of Roberts in her talk was to look at human migrations around the world during the Stone Age. It’s a theme she covered as part of her landmark BBC series The Incredible Human Journey a decade ago, but new research means the story has moved on since the programme was first broadcast and we can now paint a new picture of those ancient journeys.

Roberts talks about the origin of our species in Africa, and the expansion of our ancestors. Most remained in Africa, a very successful population, but a small proportion expanded out. “Those pioneers go and colonise Europe, Asia, the Americas, and eventually Australia as well.”

“But there have been some astonishing revelations in the last 10 years, that we weren’t aware of when we made that series, so it’s a great time to update.”

Part of that shift is due to advances in technology. Ten years can be a long time in science.

Roberts explains, “The massive breakthrough has been ancient genomics. When I made that series 10 years ago there was some ancient DNA knocking around. People had managed to extract DNA out of old bones and very old fossils and had started to look at parts of that DNA.”

“Most of the story we were able to tell 10 years ago was based on a very small part of DNA called mitochondrial DNA. Now we’re in an era where we are actually looking at ancient genomes, all of the DNA that’s in the chromosomes, as well as the mitochondria.”

“We’ve now got a wealth of information, from not only into humans, but also the later species.”

Roberts explains the big revelation that first broke the surface in 2010 was that modern humans, Homo sapiens, had interbred with Neanderthals.

“Looking at the Neanderthal genomes, scientists have been able to extract DNA from Neanderthal bone. Looking at the Neanderthal genome that they reconstructed, it became clear that modern humans and our species Homo sapiens, had interbred with Neanderthals.”

“That was just astonishing, and something we wouldn’t have know if it wasn’t for genetics.”

The field of ancient genetics and genomics has leapt forward since then, while still complimenting archaeology and the traditional study of fossils. Although the story has moved on, the broadcast of The Incredible Human Journey was a turning point, “It opened up that whole area of science to a new audience. It’s a really positive story as well. For me as an anthropologist I’m very aware of the background of my discipline, and a fairly sordid past.”

“Going back into the 19th century, anthropology was very tied up with a lot of racist ideas which developed into some dreadful political fallout in the 20th century. I think that modern anthropology is now able to tell a much more positive story of humanity, a story of diversity, and is celebrating differences.”

Those advances in technology and research show that the story of humans is always evolving, and the constant change means it’s an exciting field to work in. “I think this is what is exciting about science generally is that it doesn’t stand still.”

But Roberts is concerned that science is often not seen as a dynamic and creative subject, something which means there’s often a lack of interest in studying it, “I’ve interviewed teenagers who’ve said that they’re giving up science at A level because they want to do creative subjects instead. And I’ve felt utter horror at the fact that they don’t perceive science to be creative. I wonder what we’re doing wrong in order for them to think that.”

Roberts is passionate about conveying the creative possibilities of science. It begins with a body of knowledge, but there is so much more, “It is about standing at the edge of that and looking out into the unknown, working out ways of probing that unknown and being creative in terms of making hypotheses.”

“It’s exciting and creative, and always changing. We’re always adding more knowledge and it is extraordinary.”

Roberts is keen to harness and encourage the continuation of the joy and wonder younger children show,When I go into primary schools all the kids are interested in science, they’re all interested in everything.”

“They don’t see these boundaries between the subjects that we then erect in secondary school and at tertiary level education. I think that’s sad. We somehow need to break those boundaries down and allow people to continue being interested in science.”

People of all ages should be encouraged to retain a health interest in science, “There’s so much joy there. It’s not just about making sure that you’re informed and able to make decisions from an informed basis, it’s about tapping into that source of enrichment in our culture too.”

That’s where an event like the Leeds International Festival comes in. The festival aims to showcase the creative ideas of the city and provide a platform to discuss big ideas. An ambition that Roberts is also keen to support,I think it’s wonderful, it’s time out from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and an opportunity to reflect and consider. And I think the diversity of the festival is very exciting.”

Life is a highway…

The joy of watching a film with your child for the first time.

When you become a parent, your life changes beyond recognition. There’s the hazy period when your child is tiny, and you need to keep them alive at all costs and you basically never sleep. Getting washed and dressed each day is a major win. You enter the months where they can now support the weight of their own head, but you can plonk them down somewhere safe and they won’t move, so you can at least put the washing on. Then one day you discover that they can climb out of the small prison you’re so grateful for (ok, playpen) and the quiet times are over. Your child is a fragile, movable object with a short attention span, and you can’t do anything or go anywhere without them.

Many parents, myself included, assume they’ll keep their kid’s screen time down to an absolute minimum. It’ll be all wooden educational toys and healthy organic snacks made from scratch, their Mini Boden clothes remaining pristine throughout. But sometimes you’re so grateful when a five-minute episode of Peppa Pig comes on and you can finally go for a wee, that you quickly hand them another biscuit and cry actual tears. You become so familiar with various CBeebies characters that you almost set a place for them at the dinner table.

One thing I had been looking forward to with my daughter was watching films. Quality time spent together, enjoying her reactions to old Disney classics I’d loved as a child and creating new shared memories. But she wasn’t keen on the idea of sitting still for more than five minutes, let alone an hour or so. This was a bit of a surprise, I’d just assumed it would be there from early on like an innate skill, but it just didn’t materialise.

Even when she was beyond her toddler years and we were starting to have wonderful little conversations, or she was sitting down to draw of her own volition, she didn’t want to watch anything for longer than ten minutes. She’d rather create her own stories with her toys, and that was wonderful, but I also wanted to sit cuddled up on the sofa, watching her face captivated by the magic on the screen. I felt we were missing out.

Then one day on a whim I bought a copy of Disney Pixar’s Cars on DVD. Released in 2006, it wasn’t a particularly recent film at that stage, and it wasn’t one I’d thought about showing her (I was hoping she’d watch Toy Story.) But one day I put it on while making her tea, hoping it would keep her occupied for a short time and, well, she liked it. She liked it a lot. I remember thinking it was unnaturally quiet in the living room, so I peered in and saw her standing there in front of the TV, mesmerised. Tea towel still in hand, I sat down and watched it too.

She made it to about halfway through the first time. Then she asked to watch it again the next day. It’s a fun film and well made (even though it rips off the premise of Doc Hollywood.) The soundtrack is great too. I commented once that I liked a particular song in it, and from then on, every time she watched it and it got to that point, she’d pause it and shout for me to come in with, “Mummy, your favourite song is on!”

One day she finally got through to the end of it. There were tears from both of us. There is an element of jeopardy in the film, but not too much. She’s not good with that sort of thing, it makes her anxious rather than excited, and often even now films go unwatched beyond a certain point in the story. But I just felt so relieved, in my mind watching a film together was an important milestone on our shared journey. My emotions were stirred by that moment, just as much as the film’s sweet ending.

We watched Cars many times over the next couple of years, each time she’d talk about my favourite song or her favourite scene or character (Mater, obviously.) Eventually her tastes shifted, and she stopped watching it so frequently. Then she started making her own little films instead, her imagination sparked by the magic of cinema and storytelling, and now Cars sits on the bookshelf with the other films she never watches.

My daughter is nine now, and her screen time often involves building worlds in Minecraft or watching a few inexplicably popular vloggers on YouTube. But I look back so fondly on those sporadic Cars viewings. It was an important time for both of us. And I still have that song I liked from it on my iPod, a poignant reminder of our first shared film experience.

Corruption in the ranks – the legacy of Between the Lines

Before Line of Duty, another group of cops fought the good fight to uncover police corruption.

Before the juggernaut of tension and suspense set in the murky world of bent coppers that is Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty, there was another drama that followed those who sought to expose corruption in the ranks.

J. C. Wilsher’s Between the Lines was shown on the BBC in the early 1990s, running for three high quality series and displaying equally compelling levels of drama and deceit.

There are numerous parallels between the two shows, not just the setting. But Between the Lines stands as a wonderful example of early 90s event television and deserves more credit for paving the way for similar shows that followed.

The drama, which ran between 1992 and 1994, was set in the internal Complaints Investigation Bureau of the Metropolitan Police, the unit responsible for policing the police. It starred Neil Pearson, Tom Georgeson and Siobhan Redmond as honourable coppers tasked with investigating their own. Their boss Deakin, an ex-RUC officer played with a sublime undercurrent of menace by the wonderful Tony Doyle, turns out to be corrupt himself.

Pearson plays Detective Superintendent Tony Clark, whose private life is as eventful as the bureau’s caseload. Clark is meticulous and ambitious, but inherently flawed. His private life is awash with mistakes and misdemeanours, a marriage break-up after an affair with a colleague and numerous dalliances. His life and work feel like a ceaseless moral maze.

His two colleagues in the team, Harry Naylor (Tom Georgeson) and Mo Connell (Siobhan Redmond) provide professional and personal support as they navigate the sea of corruption and sleaze. Each character was superbly constructed and played, three-dimensional and complex but inherently human. Despite the challenges of the job and being in each other’s pockets, loyalty and trust were paramount. Clark knew they’d always have his back.

The show had Tony Garnett as executive producer, whose screen CV reads like a roll call of cultural successes across multiple decades, including the Play for Today and This Life. A hit with audiences and critics alike from the start, the third series, which saw the team entering the equally murky world of the secret service and MI5, won a BAFTA for best drama series.

We got to know the characters and their lives, we grew to understand their motivations. Although it was clear that Clark’s was mainly in his pants to be fair. Redmond’s Mo was bisexual. Perhaps ahead of the curve, it felt like a character detail rather than the main focus of the plot. Georgeson’s stoic Harry cared for his disabled wife, the pressure of the job adding to the complexity of his domestic situation.

Clark was the central character, but it was the relationship between the three close colleagues that was at the heart of the show. Amongst the dirt and scandal of the job they had to do, they knew and respected each other, and trusted each other implicitly.

This was a show that carried the weight of intelligent, complex high-end police drama and carried it triumphantly. The intricacies of the plot, the background detail of complex police procedure and the nuances of the relationships were meticulously maintained, even with the continuous stream of edge-of-your-seat plot twists. The tension and excitement of each episode never waned, and the characters gave you hope that despite the corruption, all was not lost. Between the Lines was top quality drama and should be cherished.

 

 

The winds of change have begun to blow

The unwavering power of Lillian Gish in silent classic The Wind.

Do you ever feel like you’re caught up in a seemingly endless struggle against adversity? Are you strong enough to fight back? The Wind (1928) directed by Victor Sjöström, stars Lillian Gish as a young woman pushed to her limits by the unending harshness of the prevailing, remorseless winds in the inhospitable American desert that has become her home.

It’s an extraordinary film, a triumph of endlessly building tension and sensitive melodrama, driven by an exemplary central performance by Gish.

Gish plays Letty Mason, a smart Southern belle who leaves her comfortable existence in Virginia to start a new life in Texas, the harsh life of the pioneers now her destiny. Even from the start of the film we feel the winds of change blowing through as she travels towards an unknown new life.

She is to stay with her rough and ready cousin and his family. There is a wonderful contrast between her delicate beauty and their crudeness. Not exactly feeling welcome, she quickly marries a local man, an unfulfilling and dismal outcome for her. But she also falls for a handsome stranger and things take a further turn for the worse for Letty. The constant wind becomes her enemy as she tries to find a solution to her terrible situation, but she fights back against it.

The Wind is a beautiful work of art. Dramatic yet poetic, truthful and realistic but also incredibly bold in its depiction of the harshness of living in the American desert. Gish owns every scene in the film, the director giving her space and time to build the character. She displays unenviable stoicism as she relentlessly fights against the wind which wants to destroy everything. She is strong, her portrayal of Letty is incredibly physical, but she allows us to understand the mental anguish of her character through a nuanced and delicately balanced performance. We feel her sense of isolation, and her sense of endless fight against her surroundings throughout.

There is so much to the framing of the film which brings power to the story. The depiction of the harsh desert landscape, nature battling against the invasion of the men who try to drive through their changes and modernity. The wind perhaps a metaphor for nature’s determined struggle to fight back.

The Wind is a silent classic, which showcases one of the greatest performances by an outstanding actor at the height of her career. The film is much admired and has been restored in recent years by director and film historian Kevin Brownlow with a new score by Carl Davis.

This film, made in 1928, sits on the cusp of a new era in cinema. The end of the silent age, which was at it the very peak of its artistic power and looking ahead to the sound revolution. Some amazing films were made that year, and this was one of them. It transcends era, its compelling storytelling and artistic merit means it still powerfully resonates now.

 

 

Feelings, nothing more than feelings.

Why The Fabulous Baker Boys always gives me feelings.

Sometimes love is transitory. It can be raw and passionate. You have a deep attraction to each other, you speak with your hands or a glance. The way that person looks at you with such intensity can knock you off your feet. There’s a physical connection between you, an urgency. In that moment the two of you are as one, and when you can’t be together your heart aches. But then it’s gone, floating away like bubbles on the breeze. You both move on, but the memories remain. Now it’s just a feeling. Sometimes of loss, more often of something gained, but at least you felt it.

That’s the kind of love at the heart of The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). It’s a rich, sensual film with a passionate connection between two people who aren’t quite in the right place but find each other at its heart.

Written and directed by Steve Kloves, it stars real life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges as Jack and Frank Baker, who after years of playing together are struggling to make a living as lounge jazz pianists. In a bid to turn their fortunes around they take on a female singer, Susie Diamond, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Her presence revitalizes their career but forces the brothers to re-examine their relationship with each other and their future path.

This is a tale of lives lived in the heart of an anonymous feeling city, tinged with regrets and disappointments. Time is passed ruminating over bitter tasting coffee in cheap diners the morning after the night before. They are people getting by, but not really getting on. They bury their broken dreams, coming together to perform then disappearing again into the seemingly endless night-time.

You can taste the whiskey, smell the cheap perfume covering over the loneliness and broken promises. Love in this life is about finding someone to give you some comfort, an escape, so you don’t have to spend another night alone.  It’s a film full of ambience, of smoky bars and bluesy music and the evocative score is perfect.

I first watched The Fabulous Baker Boys in my early teens, before I really knew about love and relationships. Pfeiffer is fantastic as Susie, all raw sensuality and street sense. She’s sharp and witty and nobody’s fool. We know hardly anything about her, but the feeling she puts into her singing tells a thousand stories.

Naturally I fancied Jeff Bridges as Jack. He is brooding and intense, and I knew even then he was the kind of man you couldn’t trust to do the right thing, but because he has great hands it was probably worth the risk.

The relationship between the two Baker brothers is touching and poignant. The acting is wonderful, with Beau Bridges bringing a delicate, nuanced performance to his portrayal of stoic older brother Frank.

But the scenes between Susie and Jack are electric and really make the film come alive. I love the build-up of sexual tension, with Jack’s intense indifference masking his true feelings for Susie. There’s a touch of obsession about their behaviour, the endless watching of each other and waiting. A spikiness to their dialogue adding to the feeling of wanting and waiting for the inevitable. That intense feeling when you know you shouldn’t, but you really want to.

I also found it deeply romantic, all that doomed love and star-crossed attraction. I hadn’t experienced that kind of attraction back then, but I felt the pull of it. Later in life I felt it, and that gave me a deeper understanding of the nuances of the film.

The New Year’s Eve piano scene, where Susie sings Makin’ Whoopee while writhing around on top of Jack’s grand piano to his seeming indifference, is the iconic moment of the film and it’s wonderful fun to watch. Pfeiffer oozes confident sensuality, it feels as though she is fully in control of her sexuality and reacting to the moment and the music.

For me, the most significant scene of the film is the one after that. The party has ended, the audience have left. It’s just Susie and Jack alone in the empty ballroom, surrounded by streamers and balloons and the inevitability of their attraction to each other. Jack massages her aching neck, those amazing hands touching her at last. The camera focusses on every movement and we feel every soft caress, every shiver as he touches her skin, the warmth of his lips as he begins to kiss her neck and her back. The connection between them in that moment is all-consuming, they kiss passionately as he slips his hands into her red velvet dress.

The passion of the moment is pierced by the inevitable regrets of the morning after. They fight it, but you know if it’s that good it will happen again. You can feel it.

This is a film that tells a simple story of relationships, between siblings and between lovers, with a hefty dose of regret and longing. It’s so beautifully played and paced. We want all three of them to follow their dreams and find happiness, but the feeling that all good things must come to an end looms large as the film nears its conclusion.

The last scene, when Jack waits for Susie in the street, is ambiguous. We’re not sure if they will see each other again. And even if they do, I’m not convinced it would last anyway. As people they seem too broken to be able to heal each other. Theirs is a love that ran deep but brief, but they’ll always have that connection and the memory of the moment, the feelings of love.

I find that premise romantic, it’s just as wonderful as the typical boy meets girl and falls in love scenario, but more evocative because it’s raw and real. It might not be an idealistic story fit for the message in a greetings card, but it’s a living, breathing, feeling love that takes your breath away. We all need that in our lives at some point.

I put it in the river.

Reflections on The Demolition Project at the Leeds Compass Festival 2018.

I found myself thinking about the time I first arrived at the house in Headingley. It was late afternoon in mid-summer. I’d been stuck inside the car for hours as we travelled north. As we weaved our way along the lines of tatty student dwellings, which stood like a motley identity parade, I felt relieved to be there after such a long drive. That house became my sort-of-home for a while, but I didn’t want to be living there. It was chaotic and unkempt, a transitory place.

I hadn’t expected to suddenly be reminded of it almost twenty years later when sat in a draughty market hall. I felt a pang of something in my stomach, something familiar, nerves perhaps? Possibly regret. Whatever it was, it was unexpectedly raw. I hated that house. I looked at the map of Leeds and I wanted rid of it, that was my instinct, to take it away.

This was my reaction as I visited The Demolition Project as part of the 2018 Compass Festival. A collaboration between artist and photographer Alisa Oleva and writer-performer Debbie Kent, the project invited people to reshape Leeds with a few simple tools – a map, a scalpel and their imagination. It posed a simple question, what would it be like if ordinary people had the chance to transform their city instead of politicians or big corporations?

Over the space of two days people were invited to transform their city. In return, the artists asked that participants gave a reason for their change by writing it on a sticky note. There were no rules on what you could cut or change, no restriction on the reasons given.

The event took place in Leeds Kirkgate Market, amongst the hustle and bustle of the city. The biennial Compass Festival aims to bring immersive art into the heart of the community through interactive encounters. By placing this in a familiar public place it became a truly democratic process. It wasn’t hidden in the safe space of an art gallery with an audience already familiar with the script of immersive art. Anyone could pass by, be intrigued and step inside.

Oleva and Kent aimed to open a dialogue about urban spaces and how we define and reimagine our city and live in it. Every transformation of a city begins with the loss of something, another building perhaps or the filling of an empty plot.

I arrived on day two of the project. The image had evolved, with holes punctured as parts had been wiped from the map. There was a blank strip where the Ring Road used to be, the airport had been moved into the centre of town. That was one of the most fascinating aspects for me, the logical movement of places. I expected gleeful demolition, but the careful consideration given to the placement of things was inspiring. Students had moved all the buildings they needed closer together. But Rodley Nature Reserve had been moved from the outskirts to the centre of town for all to enjoy. There was clear logic on display, and some wonderfully creative choices.

The true beauty of the work was revealed when you looked at the sticky notes on the nearby wall. These captured the reasons people had given for their decisions and gave meaning to the gaps created in the map. There were social comments too, removing the glitzy casino for example, or the bland city centre apartments. Another participant had taken away one of the shopping centres as ‘it’s good, but I’m too lazy to work there (I put it in the river).’

But there were several personal and thought-provoking reasons for changes too. The removal of an area of rough parkland near the university because young women felt unsafe walking through it at night. Someone had demolished their childhood home to erase the bad memories it created for their mum. I wanted to explore those anonymous stories further.

When I looked on the map for the area where my old house was, I noticed there was already a hole very close by. I consulted the handwritten notes on the wall. They’d taken another house in that street because it was ‘a cold, damp and dirty house. I love the people who used to live here but have always hated the building. It now gives me the shivers when I pass it.’

It was as if that person had reached into my own memory bank, and I felt a connection. That’s why The Demolition Project worked so well, it provided a platform for a shared understanding of our city and our hopes of making things better.

Look, this one’s got Bruno Kirby in it.

A shared film journey with my brother.

Sibling relationships can be tricky, but I’m lucky to have such a strong bond with both of my brothers. The three of us siblings are unique but united, you can tell straight away we are all related, and not just by the unfortunate family noses.

In the early 1990s I spent a fair bit of time watching films with my eldest brother Tony. He’s seven years older than me, but I’ve always thought of him as one of my best friends, not just a sibling. We are similar in nature and have always been close.

Tony was always kind to me. I was a thoughtful child, writing poetry in the middle of the night or putting my heart and soul into writing a story, and it was Tony I’d show my work to. He was the first customer to visit my pretend library, and patiently listened while I recited all the lyrics to songs on the first A-ha album that I’d written out in my best handwriting.

When he was about 16, he had his first serious girlfriend. Being the intense soul that he was, this was the love affair of the century, and I’d listen patiently as he described his feelings. Have you seen Gregory’s Girl? The scenes between Gregory and his little sister in that film are so similar. He spent all his time with his girlfriend, with evenings in the local churchyard (it was the mid to late 80s, they were goths). So we wrote notes to each other to keep in touch. I even made special postboxes for our bedroom doors. When she broke his heart, I was there for him with all the wisdom an 11 year old girl could offer.

In my early teens, Tony got a job in a record shop. Such a cool place to work and with his staff discount, an excellent source of new music and classic films to bolster my growing collection. The age gap between us meant he moved out of home when he was 21 and I was 14. Our middle brother had moved out aged just 16 so the house was suddenly quiet, but I finally moved out of the tiny box room and into the big bedroom so it wasn’t a bad result.

I’d often stay with Tony in his various scruffy rented terraced houses on a Saturday night. We’d watch endless films and eat takeaway pizza and Star Bars. It would take us forever to choose the film though, ambitiously selecting at least two titles and staying up until the early hours discussing what we’d watched. Often it was based on the random collection in whatever off license / video shop set up he had a card for. Sometimes a tense standoff in the video shop would be avoided with a conciliatory “look, this one’s got Bruno Kirby in it.”

This period in our relationship was when we really hit our film watching stride. Complete freedom. No parents upstairs asleep to worry about, nobody to tell us to stop watching and go to sleep. We watched a lot of 1970s and 80s American independents, many of them from the New Hollywood set. We feasted on films from Scorsese and Coppola, Hal Ashby, Cassavetes, Woody Allen and Altman. We threw in a few randoms, I developed my longstanding love of obscure Australian cinema after we discovered Wendy Cracked a Walnut together in one particular rental place. And Tony remains the only other person I know who has seen The Doberman Gang.

The film that sticks in my mind the most as a representation of this golden time is Scorsese’s black comedy After Hours (1985). Ironically we came across a late night TV screening of it. I think we’d just finished watching something else. Starring the often underrated Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette, it’s a low key Scorsese film, a forgotten gem. It plays out over one night, with random chance encounters and an endless set of unfortunate events that unfold to set the hapless Dunne off course. It has a surreal, dreamlike aesthetic, made more enveloping due to the lateness of that viewing I’m sure. We held that film in high esteem for years afterwards, united in the shared random experience of happening upon it by chance.

When I left home for university, Tony moved south to Birmingham. Our lives went in different directions, but we still remained solid, and I enjoyed trips to see him when I could scrape the train fare together. We’d watch videos in his flat, which we rented from the highbrow video shop in Moseley where he lived. In order to join you had to tell the owner your three favourite films, and when you returned your videos you had to give a detailed verbal review and justify your reading of it.

I moved to London to seek my fortune aged 23. Tony had moved down himself just a few weeks earlier, renting a flat in Ealing. I slept on a mattress on his floor and he helped me navigate the rental accommodation pages of Loot. We returned to the familiar routine of takeaways and video evenings, of enjoying each other’s company and being the best of friends. There was Fincher’s Fight Club, Donnie Darko and one particularly ridiculous argument about The Mexican.

We even made our own film, with him roping me and a cast of friends and relatives into making a feature with him (Easy Money – a detective crime caper sadly only available on the handful of copies he made on VHS.) Happy times.

Our film taste often diverges. He has no interest in the British New Wave, despite my detailed PowerPoint presentations, and my endless lectures on French contemporary cinema largely went unheeded. I don’t think he ever agreed to see a Ken Loach film with me in the end. But there is tremendous common ground to be found, that’s the beauty of discovering cinema together. That connection forged in badly furnished flats and the lengthy discussions about auteurs as we walked the scruffy streets of the city on our way home from the local flea pit. Often now we still communicate in remembered film scenes and dialogue, shared jokes and fond memories of those precious times.

We’ve both grown up and settled down, he met and fell in love with the loveliest woman, but who happened to be Australian, and now he lives on the other side of the world. A million miles away, but still just as close. When I watch a Scorsese film I think of him, I can’t help it.