21 June 2008

a film by Marco Martins
Portugal, 2005
As the first feature film by Portuguese director Marco Martins, Alice is incredibly impressive, offering an emotionally and visually stunning portrayal of grief, loss and desperation, centered on every parent’s nightmare: the disappearance of a child. Rather than allow his story to dissolve into a run-of-the-mill, too-often-told police / detective drama, however, Martins focuses intensely on the emotional and psychological damage and destruction inflicted on the parents. Usually shown as a sunny, vibrant city on the Atlantic coast of Portugal, Lisboa is depicted here as dark, rainy and dismal – further underscoring the sense of loss and ultimate isolation felt by the mother and father of the missing child.
ALICE 004Nuno Lopes gives an unforgettable performance as Mário, an actor living and working in Lisboa, whose life is quite literally turned on its head when his 3½ year-old daughter Alice inexplicably disappears – near the start of the film, we discover that she has been missing for almost six months, and that efforts by the police to find her have come up empty. His wife, Luísa (an equally fine performance by Beatriz Betarda), goes completely to pieces, drifting into a state of numbness that settles on her like the cold on a damp day. She continues to go through the motions of her life, but with less and less hope and feeling as the film progresses, leaving Mário to pursue the search for their daughter. Frustrated by the seeming inability of the authorities to make any progress in the case, he hits upon the idea of placing small surveillance cameras around Lisboa in an attempt to spot any hint that Alice is still in the city – it’s a daunting task in such a bustling metropolis, the population swelling daily by the influx of commuters. His life quickly settles into a routine that absolutely defines desperation and loss – each day he walks the same path he walked on the day of Alice’s disappearance, down to the smallest details, to the point of delivering the same suit to the same dry cleaners, buying an origami dog from the same beggar, traveling on the same train at the same time. He makes the rounds of friends’ homes and businesses where he has placed his cameras, changing the tapes, then viewing them on multiple television screens – at one point, when a friend questions both the validity of this method and Mário’s ability to watch so much footage, he explains that over time he’s acquired the ability to monitor several screens at a time, a dark illustration of the numb, robotic existence into which he has slipped. He has become detached from a world that seems to become more and more unreal – much like the video images he watches for hours on end.
The walls of Mário’s room at home are almost completely covered in photographs culled from uncounted hours of this surveillance footage – every time he spots a child that looks the least bit like Alice, he blows up the image and adds it to the wall, a gesture that alludes to the hope that he refuses to allow to die…but one that rings more and more hollow as the film progresses, like an icon that has lost its power to inspire anything at all in those who view it. He haunts the locations where the cameras captured the images – the aching desperation that he feels is conveyed wonderfully by Lopes, the growing emptiness in his soul painfully palpable. Luísa teeters more and more precariously on the brink of complete emotional collapse, sapping the strength of his spirit even further.
Removed from the realm of a cut-and-dried ‘lost child’ story, Martins uses every tool at his command to draw the viewer into the heart and soul of his characters. Shots of Mário crossing a heavily-traveled overpass, surrounded by hundreds of cars carrying commuters, are made more effective by the use of a telephoto lens, compressing the picture in such a way as to intensify the claustrophobic aspects of the task of finding a small girl in a large city. He is frequently seen moving through crowds, as well as traffic, in opposition to the main flow of movement, much like swimming against a strong current. As the pain of their loss frays their relationship, Mário and Luísa find themselves almost unable to communicate – sharing a lunch in one scene, she can’t stop wondering how the chips all come out the same size. At this point, the numbness that has crept over her during the preceding months allows only a single tear to roll down her cheek when she mentions ‘today is Alice’s fourth birthday…did you know that?’ The truth of course, is the Mário is keenly aware of this fact, and of the relentless passage of time – it’s the depth of damage done by the pain they are both feeling that is out of their realm of awareness.
Martins’ use of sound is finely attuned to the emotional thrust of his film – most of the time, the music consists of a melancholy piano score, beautifully composed and executed by Bernardo Sassetti…but the audio effectiveness doesn’t stop there, with Martins and his crew using fades and dropouts masterfully to enhance the emotions of the film. Mário’s painful withdrawal from feeling anything but his grief is audibly underscored by the silence that suddenly surrounds him in a crowded, busy place. Viewers will be forgiven for thinking of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s adventures in Wonderland – director Martins even includes a shot of Mário walking past a wall that has been painted with large, repeated images of the White Rabbit carrying his pocket watch. The ending is not sewn up ‘nice and neatly’, either – it’s left pretty open-ended, with the viewers no doubt variously wondering if Mário will continue his seemingly fruitless search, or if resignation will set in. Martins even ends the film with a quote from Carroll: …but the wells of fantasy always end up by draining and the tired storyteller tried to escape as he could; tomorrow the rest – it’s already tomorrow!

I first read about Alice a couple of years ago. The film has won awards at numerous festivals around the world, including garnering the Prix Regards Jeune at the 2005 Cannes Festival. All of the detailed reviews I read raved about it – but after waiting all this time for a US DVD release, to no avail, I finally ordered a copy from Portugal (after making sure that it came with English subtitles). This of course made it a bit more expensive – but after viewing it, I don’t regret my decision in the least. This is truly one of the finest recent examples of filmmaking I’ve seen – especially impressive considering that it’s Martins’ first feature. I don’t know how widely it’s been distributed on the US art-house circuit – I don’t recall ever seeing it play here in Austin, even for a week (although many fine films have darted in and out, escaping my notice). I’d love to experience it on the big screen – but at the same time, I feel fortunate to have acquired the DVD. Alice bears repeated viewing – it’s a keeper.

01 June 2008

Ivor Cutler :
Looking for truth with a pin
directed by Peter Spencer
What can one say about Ivor Cutler that needn’t be said...? He was truly a man of many hats – quite literally, as you'll see when you (hopefully) watch this incredible documentary – poet, musician, artist, author of children's stories, teacher...and an inspiration to many. It would take a stony soul indeed not to be at least slightly touched by his gentle, whimsical view of his world.

Among the folks reminiscing about Ivor's work and his effect on their lives are Paul McCartney (who had heard Ivor and asked him to appear as Buster Bloodvessel in the Beatles’ Magical mystery tour film), Billy Connolly, Phyllis King (Ivor’s life partner for 30 years or so), Neil Innes, Robert Wyatt, Alfreda Benge, Peter Brown, Alex Kapranos (of Franz Ferdinand), and others – as well as Ivor himself. The film offers a wealth of information (since almost none was available previously!) about Ivor’s childhood and early adult life. Some of the more poignant recollections of Ivor as well as some of the others are of his time as a teacher – when I watched this with a friend (who has had little exposure to Ivor’s work, but who was captivated by him immediately watching the DVD), we both began to make a comment simultaneously about how wonderful and unforgettable an experience it must have been both for the children he taught and himself, as a teacher. As several of those who knew him said in the film, Ivor had a unique way of looking at the world – and he was always touched by the openness of children in expressing their thoughts and feelings. Its obvious from his own work that he shared that innocence – even when dealing with subjects that are more 'adult' in nature, it's there.

Ivor c. 1973
Ivor, c. 1973

Throughout the documentary, there are performance clips – some of which are very rare, from 1950s British television &c, and some from what was called ‘Cutler’s last stand’, his performance from February of 2004 (several selections from this performance are viewable without narrative interruption, apart from the documentary itself), his farewell to the stage. Sadly, he passed away in March of 2006, at the age of 83 – he’ll be missed by countless fans...even though he was considered to be an artist with a ‘cult following’, his admirers are legion. Over the course of his career, he recorded for several major record labels – and did 21 sessions for the late great British DJ John Peel.

Ivor’s songs are both melancholic and humorous – sometimes both in the same song – and deal with everything from his childhood to his wry observations of everything from insects to birds to nature to people. Nothing was beyond his gaze – and no one else had quite the take on it that Ivor employed. A brief example is his short poem ‘The wren’ (not from this DVD, but it'll give you an idea): The wren hopped around on the cat's tongue, searching for the exit. ‘Just wait until I get home,’ she said – ‘I shall have a tale to relate.’

Here's a short clip (I think from 1986) from the British TV show The old grey whistle test of Ivor singing his song 'Shoplifters', accompanying himself on the harmonium...

Priceless. Looking for truth with a pin is a fitting, loving tribute to a one-of-a-kind, gentle soul who will be sorely missed. Our poor world could use more of him. Fortunately, most if not all of his recordings are still available – the albums combine songs, poetry and spoken word pieces, all delivered in his inimitable style. Indulge yourself – have a look at the film, then check out some of his audio work. It’s unlike anything else – a breath of fresh air.
Ivor Cutler.org offers a wealth of information.