Name: Harry Windsor
Twitter handle: @PalaceSt
City I call home: Sydney
Area of cinema I am most passionate about: The area where quality resides. I'm interested in all kinds of films so long as they're good, or at least trying to be.
A film that changed me/my mind: Wake in Fright. So many recurring themes in Australian cinema first unspooled in this film, and it's fascinating to try to untangle its influence. Pathology in Aussie movies is usually delivered with a degree of charm, but not here. It’s beady-eyed and brilliant.
MIFF film I’m most looking forward to: The Immigrant. James Gray, for me, is the most consistent young American filmmaker working. His last film, Two Lovers, saw him drop the very male milieus of his earlier films, and now he’s made a film about a woman, his first. That she’s played by Marion Cotillard is a bonus.
I’m looking forward to Critics Campus because: As a Sydney boy and having just spent two weeks bunkered away in the State Theatre for the SFF, I’m intrigued to see just how different the experience is in Melbourne, which has traditionally had more of a cinephile culture. And I look forward to being pushed by contemporaries at Critics Campus.
Cinema excites me because: It's the unique medium that is made up of all the others, and it hasn't yet been ghettoised outside the mainstream, which is useful in keeping it honest. Cinema catapults us inside other people’s lives. Globally, there’s no better empathy-building device.
A publication I’d one day like to write for: The Big Issue.
Favourite critic and why: Richard Brody is the film editor at The New Yorker but his writing is primarily on the web, not in the magazine. Maybe because of this, he's wonderfully contrarian, unafraid to deflate hype and poke holes in received wisdom. He also sports a beard that'd impress a Fitzroy barista.
Feature: Episodic Highs
Harry Windsor on the small screen takeover.
Of all the curatorial trends, the programming of television at major film festivals seems the most counterintuitive. They might both be visual mediums, but TV is inevitably at a disadvantage in a cinema. Shows either look boxy on the big screen or their rhythm is awkwardly compressed. DVDs and streaming has made bingers of us all, but the long uninterrupted cinema experience is something different, and it conflates episodes into an artificial whole.
My griping, needless to say, is unlikely to put the brakes on this boom. One reason for it is the new fluidity between high-end television and film. Todd Haynes had Mildred Pierce at Venice a few years ago, and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake premiered at Cannes. At MIFF this year, no less than Danny Boyle (Babylon), Rachel Ward (Devil’s Playground) and Sean Durkin (Southcliffe) presented shows. As a programming initiative this might seem progressive, but as that roster suggests, it also smacks of condescension. Acclaimed filmmakers are invited to Cannes to premiere their new HBO miniseries; directors who work solely in television – not so much.
The effect of the new paradigm (DVDs, Netflix, cable dominance et al) on the construction of shows has been well documented. Plot points don’t have to be reiterated from episode to episode and nuance no longer has to be a dirty word. It’ll be interesting to see if the rise of TV on the big screen will have a parallel effect. Southcliffe, directed by Sean Durkin, seems like a fair indication of where we’re headed. Made for the UK’s Channel 4, it’s a four-part drama about a shooting spree in a town north of London. It was written by Tony Grisoni (the Red Riding trilogy), premiered at Toronto last year, and is intermittently mesmerising.
Durkin premiered his debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, at Sundance in 2011. Dreamlike and chilling, it starred Elizabeth Olsen as a young graduate who goes to stay at an idyllic-looking commune in upstate New York. The film toggles back and forth between Martha’s introduction to the farm and her life after it, in which she tries to make sense of what happened to her. This community, we realise, is less commune than cult, ruled with an iron fist by the quietly terrifying Patrick (John Hawkes). Durkin made Marlene after an earlier short, Mary Last Seen, a kind of capsule version of the subsequent feature, but more sinisterly enigmatic.
The director’s taste for the dark side of community gets another workout in Southcliffe. Gulf veteran Stephen (Sean Harris) isn’t exactly the butt of every joke, but a whole climate of condescension hovers over most of his interactions, particularly with the local lads. In the pub he’s mockingly referred to as ‘The Commander’. He tries to befriend a young soldier on leave, Chris (Joe Dempsie), but their attempt at war games turns suicidal. As Chris says to Stephen afterwards: “You need help mate”.
The sentiment is echoed by Claire (Shirley Henderson), a care worker assigned to Stephen’s ailing mother. She asks Stephen to talk to somebody but is aggressively rebuffed. Episode one is spent establishing these interlocking strands: Stephen, Chris, Claire and her husband (Eddie Marsan), as well as a local publican who treats Stephen with lazy disdain, and a hotshot reporter (Rory Kinnear) who grew up in Southcliffe and returns to cover the story.
This kind of topographic approach is de rigueur. There’s nothing that brings a community into stark relief like a shared tragedy. Shows from Twin Peaks to The Returned to Broadchurch all riff on the same theme: what constitutes a community? Southcliffe broadens the question to interrogate an entire national identity. It’s this combination of density and breadth that television does so well. This is the Middlemarch approach, with a dollop of homicide added for zest.
Durkin’s sense of control is formidable. He holds on shots of inaction with a confidence that belies his years (31). After Stephen has been beaten and humiliated, and before he goes on his rampage, he calls Claire. She doesn’t pick up, and he leaves a message before setting off to slaughter strangers. Later, in the second episode, we see Claire at work as she listens to her messages. Instead of cutting straight to Stephen’s voicemail, Durkin has her listen to and delete two other, unrelated messages first. The effect is that it feels real: drab and unexceptional.
Durkin’s favoured shot is from within a moving car, looking out the windscreen from the back seat. It’s a neat way of encapsulating the idea of neighbours who are essentially remote from each other, unknowable and incurious. The motif of screens is one that’s becoming essential to all our lives, and here they’re everywhere. If physical isolation breeds neglect, we’re in for pain ahead.
At three hours long, Southcliffe is short enough to be shown in one sitting at MIFF, the perfect length for the festival environment. It’s also the rare example of TV that looks utterly at home on the big screen, chiefly by not overdoing the close-up. But as it goes on it runs out of gas. One reason is that Stephen is central, it seems to me, to the show’s thesis, but he disappears shortly into the second episode. Durkin establishes him as a human being, not faceless monster or aberration, only to discard him altogether as soon as the shooting starts. Even his death is relayed to the audience second-hand. Talk about accidentally proving one’s own case. You could argue that it’s intentional, but in the last two episodes the show becomes exclusively about grief, which ultimately seems like a much narrower point than the one promised. The strength of TV is that you have time to burrow into several different lives at once. But you do so at the risk of losing sight of whose story most urgently needs telling.
The promise of a new film from Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan is enough to send some critics off to the shops for a fresh set of steak knives, grinning in gleeful anticipation. Dolan is young – only 25 – with five features under his belt already, and a healthy respect for his own abilities. At Cannes earlier this year, where his latest, Mommy, was joint recipient of the Jury Prize, he took a swipe at Jean-Luc Godard (with whom he shared the award) and you could almost see the steam pouring out the ears of a certain generation of cinephiles. This was Dolan as heir apparent, kicking the king. It was an apposite moment: if there’s one theme Dolan is obsessed with, it’s the Oedipal complex, and in Mommy it gets its fullest expression yet.
Diane (Anne Dorval) is 46-years-old and dresses like an impoverished Bel Air housewife. We first see her climbing out of her car after a prang, blood running down a face caked in make up, howling obscenities. She’s a fearsome sight – but positively mousy compared to her son. Blond and cherubic, oscillating between childlike sweetness and unhinged aggression, 15-year-old Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) comes to stay with his mother after being expelled from school for setting the cafeteria alight. In the aftermath one of his classmates requires skin grafts to 75 per cent of his face. Steve is fanatically devoted to his mother and jealous of anyone who competes with him for her affections, but he’s also capable of terrorising her – a ball and chain with spikes sticking out of it. An opening title card clunkily introduces a new Canadian law that enables parents to commit their children to institutions without their consent, and a queasy sense of doom hangs over the entire film.
Dolan has quickly established a recognisable style. He favours pop anthems rather than original scores (Oasis and Eiffel 65 get a workout this time) and he deploys them sincerely. His aesthetic here is pure 90’s MTV, bursting with pastel shades of blue and green and orange. Dolan’s nostalgia for the box might have something to do with his tendency to tinker with aspect ratio, something he played with in his other films such as Tom at the Farm (also screening at MIFF this year). Most of Mommy is presented in 1:1, a vertical sliver of image bookended by black on either side. The film’s image expands outwards and contracts in accordance with the horizons of its central characters.
And it has to be said, those horizons look pretty bleak. For all its colour, Mommy is marked by the flintiness of its picture of the maternal instinct and of the way it can be corroded. Dorval starred in Dolan’s first film, I Killed My Mother, and in many ways Mommy is an inversion of that film. It’s also Dolan’s first without explicit queer content, so it’s tempting to read it as less personal. Steve is bluff and macho, very different to the director’s previous protagonists, who have usually been played by Dolan himself. Yet the film never condescends to Steve, or to his loud, brash, bling-encrusted mother. In his willingness to steer clear of the cooling balm of detached judgement, Dolan has made a film that’s compassionate and devastating; in which two people share a love so total that each ends up destroying the other.
Review: The Infinite Man
The closest we’re likely to get to Beckett in the outback, Hugh Sullivan’s spry and ingenious The Infinite Man is the second Australian film at MIFF – after Predestination – to wonder what it might be like to travel through time and decide that, really, it ain’t such a great idea. If these two are anything to go by, there’s no more surefire way to lose one’s sense of self.
Dean (Josh McConville) is a man who likes to plan ahead. So when he takes his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall) to an outback motel for an anniversary getaway and it turns out to be abandoned, he’s a bit put out. So much so that when Lana’s ex Terry (Alex Dimitriades) turns up, Dean ends up losing his cool. Soon Lana is driving off while Dean sits weeping on the ground. Of course, Dean has a time machine, and promptly goes back in time to rescue his relationship. Every time he does, something goes wrong, and pretty soon the derelict motel is overrun with multiple Deans, a few Hannahs and even another Terry, all from different time continuums and all stuck in a temporal loop that spirals rapidly out of control.
McConville’s star has risen fast on the Sydney stage, but this is his first lead in a feature film, and it has to be said there’s a touch of theatricality to it – especially next to the gloriously understated Alex Dimitriades. But the contrast works: Dean all jangled nerves, Terry implacable and self-satisfied, a man who sees himself as the inheritor and embodiment of the Hellenic ideal while slouching around in a tracksuit.
Science fiction cinema has always had its own set of obsessions, themes that recur again and again. First contact with alien life is a big one; the moral implications of artificial intelligence are a running preoccupation, too. Australia’s contribution to science-fiction cinema to date has been in post-apocalyptic movies such as Mad Max and now These Final Hours, in which society breaks down and human nature is revealed at its most primal.
There are endless possible permutations to all these themes, but ultimately they’re all about the same thing: what makes a human, human? What distinguishes us from aliens, or apes, or robots? It’s a question that becomes even thornier in movies about time travel, because often they’re about what distinguishes us from the most unknowable species of all: our past or future selves. If science fiction is all about identity, time-travel makes its theme its conceit: what would it be like to meet yourself? The Infinite Man explores and deconstructs this idea simultaneously, and it’s refreshing in its complete absence of portentousness. The film works as a riff on the impossibility of not accruing regrets, but Sullivan is also unafraid to poke fun at his central gimmick. In fact, poking fun at it might just be the point.
If MIFF 2014 is anything to go by, time travel looks set to supplant the end of the world as our genre hook of choice, and no wonder. In The Infinite Man, an endless loop makes for one reusable location, and a cast of three. In other words, you can do it on the cheap.