Callum Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017, Day 2

Picturehouse strikes, L’equilibrio (Equilibrium), Wonderstruck, and Manifesto.

If I lived in London, and were capable of working in a cinema without having an existential crisis or eventually hating movies, I would want to work at the Picturehouse Central.  I was first introduced to it this time last year, and immediately went on about just how taken I was by the venue in that day’s article, but it bears repeating, since I fell in love all over again yesterday when I turned up for the day’s screenings.  Multiplexes are all largely-samey corporatized efficiency-machines, designed to put the film in front of your eyes in as impersonal and cost-effective way as is humanly-possible, whilst the (very) few independent-ish cinemas in my nearby (50-mile radius) area try their best to replicate that multiplex feel because they don’t have the budget available to do anything else.

But the Picturehouse Central really is a Movie Lover’s cinema.  There’s a relaxed, appreciative atmosphere from the second you walk through the front doors, where the snack counters on the first floor feel as fussed-over and, for lack of a better term, classy as the café on the ground floor and the restaurant on the opposite end of the first.  Every screen, regardless of its size or floor placement, has been calibrated to maximise comfort and enhance one’s viewing experience – ALL of the chairs are comfortable, not just the more-expensive “premium” seats; ALL of the chairs have an ample amount of legroom; the sound-systems are loud but not so much as to bring about a raging headache; the screen can be seen clearly and fully from all angles, regardless of whether somebody’s fat head is in the way.  Hell, the toilets are always clean, low-lit, and have enough cubicles so you don’t have to stand about for an age busting for a piss and looking like a nitwit!  And the staff are all lovely, and helpful, and knowledgeable about their stuff.  If I were to work in a cinema, I would want to work nowhere else.

Which is what made it such a shame to discover on Wednesday evening, as I returned to my lodge for the night, that much of that perception has been built on exploitative labour practices and a since-backtracked threat to silence dissent.  At the premiere of Breathe, upwards of 50 members of staff from the Picturehouse chain – including the Central, Hackney, East Dulwich, and Crouch End Picturehouses, and the Ritzy in Brixton – demonstrated in protest of their employer’s refusal to pay staff a living wage, provide them with sick pay, and to stop meddling with and intimidating their union.  Picturehouse (and their parent company, Cineworld) argue that they already agreed to a pay rise in September last year, but they refused to cover breaks in that rise, despite the law requiring them to, so the staff still don’t make a living wage – which, let’s not forget, is higher than the government-labelled “living wage,” by £2.50 per hour as of 2016.

They were there today, too, once the building opened up to the public again after press screenings had finished, and I’m unsurprisingly fully behind them on this.  I mean, why is it seemingly so hard for companies to remember that their employees are human beings that deserve liveable pay and should be treated as such?  Why are the basic standards of decency apparently a barrier that’s just too high for a corporation that made an £82 million profit in 2016 post-taxes to even attempt clearing?  Sadly, it seems like this may be an issue that will continue to remain unresolved, as Picturehouse employees have been waging this war for years now – in 2014, their attempts to get a living wage nearly led to an entire third of the workforce being laid off, until completely expected public backlash forced management to do a U-turn on those plans – but I’d like to hope that that won’t be the case.  In the meanwhile, I’ll just keep sheepishly apologising to one of the striking members of staff as I head in to do my assignments.

In a weird coincidence, though (and at the risk of trivialising this issue for the sake of a transition), it somewhat echoes the central conflict of the first film I saw that morning, Italian drama Equilibrium (B).  In it, a devoted and principled priest, Father Giuseppe (Mimmo Borrelli), transfers from Rome back to his home village in order to try and help make it a better place.  Once he arrives, he is guided around his changed village by outgoing Father Antonio (Roberto del Gaudio), who has been campaigning to raise awareness about the toxic garbage dump that’s been responsible for a large influx of tumours in the community in recent years, but Giuseppe is focussed on more deep-seated issues within the community.  The fact that his school’s kids have to play football in the street because somebody decided to give the football pitch to a pet goat, the rampant drug abuse and addiction festering in almost-plain-sight, and how nearly everybody seems perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to the worst acts perpetrated by the local mafia because of a belief that the town will completely die should the police come snooping around.

What writer-director Vincenzo Marra (Bridges of Sarajevo, The First Light) builds Equilibrium around, then, is the difficulty of shocking a village that has long ago slid into complacency into action when confronted with the evils at its centre, and just how they go about rationalising them in order to avoid taking any action that could personally affect them in order to stop that evil (and there’s the link you were looking for).  Giuseppe’s village has largely been forgotten by those with the funding and power to do anything for them, with even the police needing to be physically reached before they’ll go out and investigate any calls, which has allowed the gangsters to swoop in and hook their tendrils into every corner of the community.  They pay members more than any real job in the area could and for less hours, those who don’t work are sold the drugs that allow people to escape the crushing mundanity of their dead-end lives, and they’ve got the muscle required to hit back should anybody threaten them.  So people are just willing to accept it, the implication that things are just naturally this way, and that changing it would disrupt the balance people have fooled themselves into thinking is acceptable.

It takes the outsider, Giuseppe, to see that this is wrong, since even Father Antonio has accepted that this is the way things must be, and his constant attempts to expose that corrupt heart, which just gets blacker and blacker as time goes on, fall on deaf ears.  He’s trying to a be a priest, to earnestly help his community, but everybody else wants him to be the stereotype of a priest, the guy they go to for mass but is otherwise silent and non-existent.  Marra’s script, whilst never going melodramatic, courses with palpable anger but, although things eventually end in tears as expected, never even so much as glances in the direction of nihilistic.  One may not be able to successfully enact sustained change on a systemic scale, but the fact that they dared to try whilst others vehemently reject such notions is at the very least something.  Equilibrium is also helped by a very strong performance from Mimmo Borrelli, who brings the kind of warmth and compassion (and growing frustration) to Giuseppe that makes his crusade genuine (in spite of claims from others about an egotistical drive for martyrdom) without making the character feel one-note.  I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would.

Conversely, I spent upwards of 90 minutes of Wonderstruck (B-) being left surprisingly cold.  Theoretically, the latest from Todd Haynes, whose Carol was my second favourite film of 2015, was made specifically for me.  An extensive homage to the wonders of silent cinema, that’s also the kind of family-friendly drama movies that don’t get made anymore, situated around the “young kid gets lost in the big city” wonderment stories that are deliberately made to appeal to the imaginations of kids the same age as the protagonist, making frequent use of large-scale dioramas that look stunning on-screen, AND features prominent focus of the music of David Bowie and Sweet?  Wonderstruck could not have been more made for me if it had a title card that read: “For Callum.  Petch.  The writer.  Up North.  Yes, that one.”

And yet… for so much of Wonderstruck, everything failed to click for me for reasons I couldn’t quite understand; it’s not even got the best usage of “Space Oddity” in film this year!  This doesn’t mean that I did not like Wonderstruck, however.  There is a difference between being left cold by something, and just straight up not liking it, and the act of viewing Wonderstruck is about as far away from “unlikeable” as one could possibly get.  Haynes, completely unsurprisingly, throws himself totally into recreating the aesthetics and feel of both 1920s silent cinema and 1970s heatwave-stricken New York City, and the results are spellbinding to look at.  The silent 20s sequences walk the fine line of replicating the exaggerated gestures and deliberate artificiality of 20s silent cinema, whilst still being situated in a recognisable reality (for the 20s sequences are not actually a fictional silent movie) and therefore not being hammy and stupid.  Whilst the 70s sequences radiate stifling heat and the sense of a city that’s struck the sweet-spot between run-down wasteland and gentrified civility, all without hammering too hard on any period-reminder signifiers.

This ultimately turns out to be the film’s glaring flaw, though, for Haynes and his team – special shout-out must also go to composer Carter Burwell, whose wonderful score harkens back to silent cinema without belabouring the point, largely concerned with working as music in its own right and mostly relegating synced action stings to the background of the score – spend so much time luxuriating in the aesthetics and worlds they’ve so lovingly and sincerely crafted that they almost forget to bring a movie to go along with them.  The dual-narrative, penned by Hugo’s Brian Selznick from his own novel, follows two children – Ben (Oakes Fegley) in the 70s and Rose (Millicent Simmonds) in the 20s – who are deaf – Rose has been her entire life, whilst Ben suffers a freak accident at the start of the film that robs him of his hearing – and run away from home to New York City in search of one of their parents – Ben is looking for the Dad he never knew, whilst Rose is looking for her mother (Julianne Moore), who is a famous silent actress.

We switch between the two stories every now and again, each contrasting, complimenting, and intersecting in little ways, whilst the film’s sound design frequently puts the viewer in the shoes of our protagonists by forcing us to experience the world through their lack of sound.  But narrative is largely something that’s at the back of Wonderstruck’s mind, and the film accumulates a whole bunch of symbolism that it rarely seems willing to pay off, plus a distinct feeling that there’s little thematic point powering any of this.  At almost two full hours, that’s a long time to be indulging in a lovingly-crafted aesthetics exercise, and there really is not enough here to justify that…

…and then the final half-hour kicks in, almost everything snaps into place, and the tears just would not stop flowing.  The final half-hour of Wonderstruck is, no exaggeration, some of the most emotional heart-wrenching filmmaking that I have seen all year.  It is one hell of a knockout blow that just gets stronger and stronger, even though I was operating about 5 minutes ahead of the movie’s reveals, and even though Selznick appears to have just forgotten to finish writing the last two or three pages of the ending.  It’s where the overflowing heart that went into the aesthetics and feel of the film finally manifests in the characters and narrative that had largely been underserved until then, and the way that the two work together is achingly, devastatingly beautiful.  This is the kind of ending that’s standing-ovation-worthy and could make one forgive everything else up to that point…  I can’t quite go that far (so maybe take that grade down one notch if you want a truly representative verdict), but it did absolutely keep me from just being fully disappointed in something I should have full-on loved.

By contrast, I walked into my final film of the day, Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (C, I guess?), knowing I would absolutely hate it and yet still came away feeling like I’d wasted 90 minutes I should have instead spent watching Beach Rats.  What’s even funnier about this is that I really do only have myself to blame, since nobody can possibly accuse Manifesto of false advertising.  A former art installation that’s been cobbled together as a film, it features Cate Blanchett monologuing 12 different art manifestos as 13 different characters for a total of 94 minutes.  That’s it, that is literally it.  We listen to Cate Blanchett start monologuing one of these manifestos in voice over, then watch her speaking them through one of the visual personifications of the ideals within – Marx’s Communist manifesto is delivered by a drunk homeless man, surrealism via a puppeteer and her puppet replica, Dadaism as a riotous speech at a funeral – all played by Blanchett, and then we rinse and repeat for 90 minutes.

And if you think that this all sounds so very, very, very pretentious and insufferable, then that’s because it is.  I mean, have you tried reading an art manifesto without falling asleep or reflexively making a jerk-off motion to nobody in particular?  Except that, at the same time, Manifesto occasionally seems to display some self-awareness of how utterly ridiculous and pretentious the whole thing is, even having some genuine fun and humour with its conceit.  The manifesto of Fluxus is personified by an unpleasable, short-tempered, egotistical ballet director.  The question of conceptual art is presented by Blanchett as a stern-faced anchor-woman, purposefully delivering her lines with an overdone dramatical bent before holding a further back-and-forth interview with a less-certain field reporter version of herself that’s hilariously weird.  The Dogme 95 movement has Cate as a schoolteacher lecturing her primary class on how “nothing is original” and that all that matters is the art you want to make, before fussily strolling up and down the room forcibly correcting their ideas into something more in line with Dogme ideals.  Funniest of all comes from a constantly interrupted Pop Art monologue, delivered in the style of a pre-meal prayer by a housewife whilst the rest of her family become more visibly restless and bored each time we cut back to her droning on and on.

So maybe Manifesto is laughing at the pretentions and elitism of documents like these?  Pieces allegedly designed to inspire hearts and minds yet are so closed-off, smug, self-important, and uninterested in appealing to anybody who doesn’t drone on to nobody in particular at every opportunity about how much of humanitarian they are for driving a Prius, that they achieve nothing except stroking the egos of those who write them?  If so, then it’s done a really fucking bad job at it seeing as I had to go Google the vast majority of those manifestos after the fact in order to understand how each segment’s visuals corresponded to the endless noise of meaningless gibberish being vomited out of the speakers, cos the film is not interested in telling anybody who is not already intimately familiar with what it’s covering.  The film even ends by openly mocking those who aren’t intelligent enough to “get it.”  Besides, even if it’s meant to all be a joke… it’s still 94 minutes of Cate Blanchett monologuing art manifestos and, even with her clearly having a whale of a time and those occasional flashes of fun and humour, it is still super boring.

Look, on the one hand, I am willing to be the bigger person and admit that I am just entirely the wrong person to be reviewing Manifesto (hence the non-committal nature of that grade).  I am willing to admit that I just may not be smart enough to get whatever point it was making, and I really don’t know what else I expected would happen when I walked into a film that was as honestly advertised as something could possibly be.  …but on the other hand, this is exactly why I am glad that I don’t have to deal with academia anymore.


Tomorrow: Stephanie Beatriz stars as a survivor of rape in The Light of the Moon, and Alex Ross Perry returns to the festival once again with Golden Exits.

Callum Petch is singing, “World, shut your mouth.”

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