BFI John Boorman Season – In Conversation
In the few years before I premiered this humble site I was an infrequent visitor to the BFI and an eager participant in some of the special events and screenings that the institute hosted – I’m guessing there are no surprises there. There are a few memorable evenings I wish I could have shared with you, such as the four-hour screening of the remastered and restored Heaven’s Gate for example, then there was the Peter Bogdanovich Q&A which was one of the first special film events I visited in the capital, narrowly preceded by an explosive screening of Paths Of Glory introduced by Christine Kubrick no less, the first Kubrick related event I ever saw at any cinema, unless you count the opening night viewing of Eyes Wide Shut in a mostly vacant Odeon back in Brighton in 1999. Why this murky wander down distant memory lane I hear you ask? Well, one of the other events I attended was an entire weekend of screenings and events which was collectivized under a ‘Crime Season’ banner back in around 2004 or 2005, a criminal programme of events over the course of a bank holiday weekend which included the screening of one of my favourite 1990’s films The Grifters alongside a Q&A with Stephen Frears and special guest screenwriter Donald E. Westlake, the author of the beloved Parker series of books under his Richard Stark pseudonym. The night before the institute screened Point Blank which was based on the first of this rogues gallery of tales, and alongside Westlake was none other than director John Boorman to offer his recollections and anecdotes that prowl around the making of his first American film. My memories are of a very amusing and self-deprecating fellow who wasn’t afraid to slam the then relatively recent remake starring a certain Mel Gibson before his precipitous fall from grace, clearly when you reach a certain age or stage in your career you really don’t care what other people think as his thoughts and opinions were, shall we say, quite deliciously candid. It was a pleasure to see that the BFI have commissioned a full retrospective of Boorman some eight years later, a blessing to commemorate the award of BFI Fellowship, so I popped along to the South Bank for a second evening in his illustrious company for an interview, Q&A and ceremony hosted by critical Positif cinema legend Michel Ciment.
The interview was a little dry I have to say, with anecdotes and stories having to be coaxed out with the dexterity of pulling an irritable tooth at times, but once he got into his stride Boorman was quite an amusing raconteur, with particular emphasis being placed on the early stages of his career. I think I’ll save the specific stories around Hell In The Pacific for a standalone mini-review, I’ve been meaning to revisit that favourite of many for a while as I never rarely gravitated to its rather obvious metaphorical designs, but the amusing production stories around Toshiro Mifune’s antics are too good to abandon. Boorman was most illustrative when he launched a gentle tirade into the so-called infestion of screenwriting gurus, their insistence that every film has three acts to a cookie cutter template with story arcs for all the main protagonists and a clearly defined antagonist wrecking the surprise and joy of movies, like Lean he started as an editor and the way he built and continues to build his films is to fashion scripts and pacing around ten reels of roughly ten minutes each whereby (as he put it) ‘the format organically inputs into the form’ – this was good stuff.
In terms of an overarching fascination Boorman’s characters go on journeys – not quests but journeys and there is a crucial difference in that their isn’t a clearly designed goal or objective at the start of their mental or physical expeditions, although when Ciment raised this observation it was met with a rather dismissive shrug, So I’ve decided to devote some time to cover three of John Boorman’s pictures, being realistic I can’t commit to any more than that given work commitments over April but I think my choices should provide some appropriately illuminating viewing. As a small aperitif I thought it best to briefly graze over some of his core work, his best known films which I haven’t selected for this brief programme, nevertheless those of you with a skilled eye should be able to discern what I have in store, purely by a process of omission and my predilection for the more fantastical and bizarre end of the celluloid spectrum;
Point Blank – Normally this would have top of my hit-list but as mentioned I’ve already seen it on the big-screen, there is plenty to talk about with this crime masterpiece so maybe I’ll come back to in the future. David Thomspon has published a pretty good reassessment of the film in this months Sight & Sound to celebrate its modest re-release, although I must confess there wasn’t much new or particularly inciting in his analysis which mostly rehashed old ground and well rehearsed opinions. Yes the film is infused with a sly sexual nature to the violence, yes the ability of a foreign, ‘alien’ creative to come to America and see its capitalist society with fresh unsullied eyes was quite revealing back in the 1960’s, then there is the theory that the entire piece is Walker’s final fever dream hallucination as he bleeds to death on the cold, mausoleum floor of Alcatraz, a strand of film criticism which is increasingly and rather ineffectually deployed these days to anything remotely psychoactive – I’ve seen these ‘it’s all a dream or nightmare’ tags tediously hung on just about anything by Nolan which is just lazy criticism, pure and simple. In any case Point Blanks fractured and displaced structure is a potent precursor to Nicholas Roegs psychoactive work of the following decade (and also casts my mind to Trance which I shall be seeing at the weekend),like Bonnie & Clyde or of course Easy Rider these movies heralded the entire golden age of American cinema to come, when the lunatics sequestered the asylum.
Deliverance – Now of course it would be all too easy to make any ‘squeal piggy’ gags or references to the South’s legendary hospitality in conjunction to this wilderness survival classic, one of the iconic screen representations of rednecks and their rather unusual & uncomfortable displays of affection for portly tourists. It’s a great companion piece to Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort if you ever fancy a bayou survival double bill, a machismo fuelled nightmare which has quite the fascinating production history.
Hope & Glory – Boorman’s most autobiographical picture, this testament to a childhood perversely enjoyed under the spectre of the Blitz is an amusingly entertaining bio-pic, it also garnered a fine haul of awards and recognition across Europe and the States in a blitzkrieg of praise. Although I haven’t seen it in many years if memory serves it has quite an effective blend of comedy and horror as Hitlers aerial onslaught was seen as a terrifically exciting game for a charcoal faced, breathlessly excited wee nipper, the ruins and craters of every nights assault serving as the next days hiding places and treasure troves of artifacts and collectables.
The General – After he moved to Ireland Boorman made this critically acclaimed Belfast crime drama which stratospherically raised the profile of supporting celt Brendan Gleeson, his portrayal of the charismatic organised crime figure Martin Cahill forming the buttress of his career and he’s never looked back, working with the modest likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, Ridley Scott and Paul Greengrass over the past fifteen years. I’m still not entirely sure why Boorman opted to shoot this in Black & White, only the second monochrome of his career after his 1965 debut Catch Us If You Can, I shall have to do some digging around as one assumes it wasn’t just due to budgetary constraints?
Quite an eclectic talent I think you’ll agree, perhaps no unimpeachable masterpiece with arguably the exception of Point Blank – yeah in its own quiet way it’s that good – but certainly enough of a range of variety in material which would make other helmsmen and women green with envy. After the Q&A Boorman made quite a moving speech explaining how back in 1951, just after it opened he started haunting the NFT to watch films by Griffith, Keaton and Chaplin where he gained his film education – and let’s not forgot that this was before TV when these texts were more easily accessible – so the fact he was standing on that very same stage some sixty years later was quite a humbling honour. The fellowship accolade was presented by Sinead Cusack (which would explain the presence of her spouse Jeremy Irons in the audience) and crowned with a well crafted montage of his fifty years in the business, before his well deserved standing ovation. So by now you can probably guess two of the three films I have planned for this mini-season given my affinity for fantastically and futuristically themed cult movies, hopefully the third will be something of a surprise and a teeming change of pace from the normal parade of new releases, horror and crime vagabonds that wander through the Menagerie. Speaking of the BFI we have much to anticipate as 2013 soldiers on – there is the intriguing sounding Gothic season which begins in October which seems certain to offer some spooky celluloid offerings, more ambitiously from my perspective a certain living German legend is being honoured, a prospect which has my has my head spinning at the possibilities…..