Empire of Light – a slightly muddled love letter to cinema

Empire of Light

At home, 23rd January 2023

I really wanted to like everything about this film. I wanted it to be like when I came out of The Artist on an early date with Mark at the art deco Electric Cinema in Birmingham and feel like the world is looking inside my head and making films just for me. Not necessarily consciousness-changing films, but ones that make me feel warm and fuzzy. I knew that I was going to get on board with a lot of this film: set in an old cinema, 1980s setting, Olivia Colman, Toby Jones, projection rooms, Sam Mendes… and so I was very excited as I sat down on my own last night with a G&T and some cola bottles, because I am both middle aged and a child.

Of course I loved the cinema setting. I grew up with The Electric Palace in Bridport (pictures on the left) as my main cinema, was in the Lyme Regis Regent Cinema (RIP) film club (top right) at 16 and when I lived in Helsinki had a friend who worked at the iconic Bio Rex (bottom left) who used to give me free tickets. I am obsessed with the idea of old projectors, reels of films, waiting for the cigarette holes and the amazing trickery of watching 24 frames a second come to life. I know the power of film and being in that warm (not the Dorchester Plaza), dark space and being moved to another place. I totally get what Sam Mendes was trying to do and I loved all elements of that, especially the opening shot of turning the lights on, Toby Jones explaining the projector and Olivia Colman luxuriating in the feeling of watching a film. The Roger Deakins cinematography was, of course, beautiful and I want to retire immediately and spend every afternoon at the cinema in run-down seaside towns.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just two hours of that as that may not have been a commercial success. Despite my attitude, I did like the other strands of narrative: the racial tensions in the UK, Olivia Colman’s character’s abuse by men and breakdown, the love story, the coming of age of Michael Ward’s character, but it just felt like a lot. I didn’t feel that any of those elements were dealt with in enough detail or with any subtlety and I don’t think Sam Mendes’s strength is in his dialogue as a lot seemed very clunky and just existed without time to examine it or think about it on a deeper level. The acting was beautiful and Michael Ward was completely hypnotic to watch, but it just felt a bit superficial and therefore left me slightly jangling as nothing was fully considered or explored and consequently I didn’t know what to do with my emotions (although that may have been the sugar from the cola bottles). Despite its shortcomings, we’ll always have Toby Jones as the projectionist.

Tár – an intense, sparse acting masterclass

Tár

At home: 14th January 2023

I am very proud of us: every single evening this weekend we did something downstairs together (film watching, Exit escape room game, board game) after putting the children to bed. This doesn’t sound an exciting achievement, but for the last four and a half years, we have not managed this more than a handful of times. It feels like life is changing again and we are able to get back in to what we love more consistently. The tiredness is still very real, but it is starting to feel more manageable and makes me realise we have just lived through a crazy, manic time. Anyway, I digress.

As I waited for Mark to finish sorting out the girls I was watching a bit of How to Lose A Guy In Ten Days (a stone cold classic) and, although enjoying it, we decided to take the plunge with Tár, which could not have been more of a contrast. Over two and half hours of intensity, drama and tension.

During Covid I have become a Radio 3 obsessive, which is now on all the time (although it has to compete with the endless shouting of Radio 5 Live as Mark’s preference). I think all the anxiety-inducing disease, war and financial news of Radio 4, the over-stimulation of Radio 2 and the slight smugness of Radio 6 has meant that I find Radio 3 an incredibly soothing friend. Therefore, I found the subject matter of Tár fascinating with references to the Berlin Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, contracts with Deutsche Grammophon and the concertos of Elgar and Mahler.

However, although the setting was a draw for me, it really wouldn’t matter what Lydia Tár did for a living – she would clearly be impressive in anything she did (an entrepreneur, artist, writer) and that is the first part of the film. Showing what a pioneer she is and how she is seemingly helping other women to achieve, despite suggesting she has not suffered any misogyny in her profession. One of the things I was really struck with watching Tár and Everything Everywhere All At Once last week is the explosion in female roles and the discussion of gender issues in film. I genuinely don’t think we would have seen these roles and the amazing performances by Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh ten years ago.

The performance by Cate Blanchett is a masterclass. She is in nearly every shot and her physicality and dominance is astounding. This is inititally something to admire, but quickly becomes disturbing and her control of every facet of her life and others around her is shown in minute detail. The slow build up of tension and how you change your perception of her is fascinating. The ending is a brilliant reveal and throws up so many more questions. The film certainly had an impact as my dreams on Saturday were mad!

Catching up with film (in every sense of the word)

So. It has been a long time since I have blogged. My life has been a crazy whirlwind over the last five years and I have lost my way with watching films. Two children, a Deputy Head job and lots of other things have meant that cinema trips are few and far between and even watching a telly programme is difficult after the children have gone to bed. Luckily, for the last five years I have had delightful film studies classes and have got my film discussion fix out on them. Unfortunately, this year I am pure English teaching and so I am really feeling bereft from my passion.

However, if you don’t do what you love, you start becoming a miserable so-and-so who doesn’t know themselves any more so I have made a plan to get back on the film wagon. Last month I re-subscribed to ‘Sight and Sound’ (still waiting for the physical magazine though), I continue to be a patreon of ‘The Secret History of Hollywood’ podcast and we have seen a few of the big name, interesting films that are up for awards so I don’t feel completely out of the loop. Big thanks to Uncle James for getting me access to some of them!

What I have seen so far:

Triangle of Sadness

17th November: The Phoenix Cinema

Mark had got tickets for this on our special day off from school and despite the children being ill, Grandma still took them and we crept off to see this. I’m so glad we did. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to show it to my dad (especially the insane slapstick of the middle part) who will cry with laughter. I found the three act structure really soothing and loved the dramatic change from arthouse Scandinavian introspection to crazy knockabout chaos. I know it has got lots to say about the modern world, but didn’t do it in a preachy way and the ending was properly gripping. I still don’t know who I have sympathy for. Excellent fun.

The Banshees of Inisherin

25th December: Uppingham (Sue’s house)

I loved everything about this. Martin McDonagh is clearly a genius and the dialogue was sublime as he has proved in his other films. The pathos in Colin Farrell’s face is ridiculous and I love how he has gone from pretty boy to credible and impressive actor. Particularly beautiful acting also from Barry Keoghan who was completely compelling and film-stealing in his part. The story is so beautifully minimal, but the consequences and development of that butterfly wing of not wanting to be someone’s friend was wonderfully done. It is a film not easily forgotten and definitely made me want to visit the west coast of Ireland (but not in the 1920s)

Everything Everywhere All At Once

7th January, at home

We have decided to watch the current award season films (thanks again Uncle James for facilitating this) on a weekly film night and this was the first one. What a start! It felt like a fever dream from start to finish. I loved lots of it and some of the imagery was fantastic, although I felt like it could have been 20 minutes shorter (as I do with most films). I loved the main protagonist and the idea of a mother/daughter relationship being the focus and Michelle Yeoh was fantastic (as were all the cast). Bits of it were laugh out loud funny and there was also a lot of poignancy and intensity. Not one I would watch again in a hurry, but very interesting.

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A Sunday treat!

Joey (sister) and I had a wonderful afternoon today at De Montfort Hall in Leicester for her early birthday treat.

We had two front row seats for Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’ with a live accompaniement from the Bardi Orchestra.

I love the power and intricacy of having a full orchestra in front of you, but after a few seconds of the gorgeous black and white film, I had forgotten they were there and luxuriated in the richness of the sound and images, until Joey pointed out the amazing work the cellos were doing during the party scenes.

I have always been a diehard fan of Buster Keaton and fashionably dismissed Charlie Chaplin blithely, but here you really understand how much of a genius he is – expressive, athletic, emotional, funny, pathetic, vulnerable and heroic.

It was a joy from start to finish, enjoyed by everyone evident when you listened to the laughter and exclamations. I welled up at the end as the perfect story finished and it reminded me again of the beauty of silent films.

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The final crescendo at the end of City Lights with the Bardi Orchestra

I am in love with this podcast!

I am an awful blogger. I got a stupid, stressful job, bought a house and got a husband and gave up on my teach your own film MA. I still hope to come back to it one day and have half a dozen films lined up to watch, consider and create from. Unfortunately, I have just got myself an even more stressful job and I’m buying another house. Anyway.

Luckily, after Mark Gatiss’s enthusiastic recommendation, I found the most wonderful podcasts – The Secret History of Hollywood – to make me not feel like such a film fan fraud. They transport me back to being a little girl again who was constantly watching or reading about old films and who knew the names of long dead editors, writers and character actors.

I am so grateful to Adam Roche for creating these, I love them and have happily signed up to be a patron.

http://www.attaboyclarence.com/the-secret-history-of-hollywood-a-modern-guide-to-the-golden-age-of-hollywood/

Rome, Open City (1945)

Mum and Dad were up this weekend and I was keen to show Dad The Phoenix cinema. After a lovely Sunday lunch, we went off to see Rosselini’s ‘Roma Citta Operta’.

I thought it was magnificent. Very few films make me actually cry full tears, but Magnani’s acting and the heart-breaking ending had me blubbing immediately.

I highly recommend this blunt, raw masterpiece that, having been made just after the war on a shoe string, has a mesmerising and brutal quality. I feel very lucky to have seen it on the big screen.

‘Neville Rumble’ (2013) – useful contacts!

A colleague of mine at school recently revealed that he was making films, which is always lovely to hear, especially in the local area. He lent me a copy of his most recent work – ‘Neville Rumble’ a full-length, well-made film that has some great performances and a gripping storyline. I’m hoping I can get involved in some way for his next picture, even if it’s just previewing it.

Why I failed. 10 points…

I’ve given up on my screenplay. I hate giving up on anything. During my final screenwriting course session I reflected on why I failed.

1. I can always use the old excuse of life getting in the way. It has been especially busy for the last few weeks at work and participating in the Poetry By Heart competition, but you can always do things if you want to. However, teaching, more than any other job I’ve done, seems to drain you mentally and so I have time, just no brain space.

2. I didn’t love the story I chose. I wasn’t sold on it entirely and couldn’t figure out some of the characters.

3. I have been working on receiving criticism for the last few years. I used to be really bad at it, , but I know it’s a really important thing to get better at. However, I found the way the tutors gave me notes, was contradictory and unhelpful. I have realised that I need a lot of reassurance in my life.

4. I’m really not a writer. At all. I did finish The Hall last year when some friends and I did a writing competition, but it nearly killed me.

However, I have realised a lot of positives from the whole experience:

5. From doing the course, we have found out about a film production course at The Phoenix in May and June, which we may do and I think will be more my thing. I’ve also realised what a great place it is for getting involved, which will be really great when Joey lives here.

6. I have read some really nice books from the reading list. William Goldman and Stephen King have been great inspiration.

7. I’ve found a career I definitely don’t want to do.

8. I have realised that I was teaching screenwriting in a fairly conventional way. Although, maybe with more resources and variety. Two hours in a room with just one voice is tricky…

9. I’ve learnt all about formatting, which is very useful and really enjoyable.

10. It has been really nice doing something creative with Mark and seeing how much he enjoyed the process. I also really like his idea and hope he keeps working on ‘The Gloaming’.

I’ve also realised that I set myself big challenges and maybe I shouldn’t kill myself when I fail. It’s good enough just to try things.

Screenwriting 5

The assignment this week was to help us start using dialogue. We had to put our main character in a greasy spoon cafe. Unfortunately, all of the screenplay formatting I had done on my google drive has gone, but hopefully you get the gist…

OUTSIDE ‘DAVE’S CAFE’ NEXT TO A BUSY ROAD. IT’S NINE ON A COLD, GREY BRITISH MORNING.
Lara is about to enter the cafe, but hesitates fractionally before doing so.

INSIDE THE CAFE, WHICH HAS THE RADIO ON. IT IS A UTILITARIAN PLACE WITH LAMINATED TABLE TOPS AND INDUSTIAL SIZED BOTTLES OF KETCHUP.
Lara looks around, a little unsure. She is well aware of how much she sticks out and therefore studies the menu board intensely.

DAVE – CAFE OWNER
What can I get you darling?

Lara bridles a little at the familiarity, but also faintly warms to the affectionate name, like a stranger in a foreign land

LARA
Oh, um… Please could I have a cup of tea?

DAVE
I think we can manage that. I’ll bring it over.

He turns to get her order.

LARA
Oh, sorry, do you have Earl Grey?
(As soon as she has said this, she knows she shouldn’t have. It’s a stupid affectation and makes her even less comfortable in the environment)

DAVE
No love, sorry. Just the standard builders’ tea.

LARA
Oh, ok. Ummm…. That’ll be fine.
(It’s not fine, but she knows she already looks like a fool and would trust the coffee even less)

DAVE
Anything else?

LARA
A couple of pieces of toast please.
(If she is going to have to sit here with the thick tea, she may as well have something else to not consume with it.)

DAVE
£2.20 please love. I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.

She hands over a £20 note.

DAVE
(With a sigh) anything smaller?

Lara starts furiously hunting for change by upturning the entire contents of her bag. She is getting redder in the face and more flustered. Dave, knowing this will be a fruitless search, simultaneously starts sorting out change from the till and as she looks up and shakes her head, he hands her £17.80 in coins. Lara shamefacedly takes this in her hand while trying to clutch all her dislodged possession under her arm and finds a table as far away from everyone else as possible. She sits down and tries to reassemble everything and restore some of her dignity.

Screenwriting course – Assignment Four

OK, so this is a bit more developed and I have removed any directorial comments.

The Search

Scenes of young lovers in the dark making wonderfully intense love are folded into the sudden horrific burst of an IED on a sun baked dirt road.  We can’t clearly see any of the faces, but the stark contrast of colours from the dark night with muted street lamps to the bright sun is blinding and the images blur and become abstract so we can’t fully identify the faces.

We close on a cold empty house that is achingly neat.  It feels starched and sad.  It is evidence of a person living quietly and trying not to disturb things in their daily habits.  Someone who lives a solitary and self-contained life. On the sideboard bookcase in the hall there is a letter from Lara that details to her soldier husband Rob why she has decided to leave him.  It refers to a lover, who has made her realise how lonely she was with his absences and his lack of emotion, but how, even with that, she finds it difficult to leave .  It says how she has not taken this decision lightly and that she is so sorry that it is going to cause him so many problems.  It describes all of the good times and how she hopes they can still remain friends.  We see this letter propped up near the phone while it rings and rings. Next to this letter we also see a photo of how he proposed to Lara – it is a colour photo of a garden with candles that say ‘will you marry me?’ in a heart.

Lara is a primary school teacher who has always done everything right for her parents, her husband, who she married at 22, and her friends.  She was never in trouble at school, did well at university and has always worked hard as a teacher. People assume she is completely fulfilled by her job, seeing friends occasionally, keeping up with her book club and baking cakes to take in for colleagues.  We next see her get into a car in an agitated state and start to passionately kiss James (her lover and a work colleague who at 27 is a year younger than Lara and has never been in a long, sustained relationship) Her mobile starts to ring loudly. She ignores it, until she can’t any longer and with a frustrated reaction she answers it. Everything becomes blurred and we see her pained reaction, although we can’t hear what it says.

We see Lara at the airport waiting to see what Rob looks like.  Her face reveals her guilt, her frustration, her fear and her anticipation.  Rob (a man who enjoys his job as a soldier and sees the world in black and white.  He has always admired Lara and her quiet confidence, but found it frustrating that she is not more adventurous in bed.  He feels that men should be masculine and women feminine in everything) is shielded by people and airport screens for a long time until Lara sees his damaged face and that he is in a wheelchair. He doesn’t need the chair long-term, but it’s the initial trauma. The IED exploded near his left side and broke his collarbone, some ribs, punctured his lung, damaged his pelvis and shrapnel landed around his eye and jaw.  Rob looks dazed and closed and he sees her muted reaction, although she looks happy to see him and immediately willing to support him, her eyes reveal her turmoil and guilt.  On some level he has understood this, but can’t process it.

They go through the rehabilitation process and we see Lara throwing herself in to it.  She physically helps the nurses move Rob around, helps organise the house to make it work for him, discusses his progress with doctors and throughout keeps a fixed ‘smiling, but suffering wife’ expression.  He doesn’t seem to have reconnected with her in any way and resents having to be treated like a child.  He is friendly, but clearly frustrated with his new secondary position.

During this time and increasingly as the physical recovery has finished, Lara and the audience understand the amount of mental damage that Rob has.  We see Rob struggle with  nightmares, flashbacks and anger outbursts about insignificant things.  Lara struggles with these as she is still feeling incredibly guilty about her betrayal, but is even more removed from Rob. He doesn’t understand how he is hurting her feelings, that he is cutting her off and often almost getting violent, but stopping himself just in time. We continually see her reaction intimately and how she is struggling to cope.

The relationship keeps deteriorating and she meets up with James one night after telling Rob she is going to a ‘wounded wives’ support group. They have an angry and sad sexual encounter in a car that is incredibly physical and she is clearly craving lustful, sensual contact.  James initially wants to talk to her, but she avoids any conversation and is kissing him when he attempts to speak.  She is petrified that he is going to ask her to make a decision or burden her with his problems and a desire to see her more often.  During their encounter, we see her face, which shows a mixture of disgust, lust, desire and pain.

These scenes are combined with scenes of Rob watching her leave the house.  Her seems to initially not mind that he is left and carries on watching television.  We then move through the house with Rob and watch him select some books to read.  He picks one on the hall bookcase and discovers the leaving note she had written on the day he came home. She had hurriedly tucked this into a book when she brought him back from the airport.  We watch him slowly understand the contents and how both flashes of anger and enormous sympathetic pain cross his face.

After her unsatisfying tryst, we see Lara enter the seemingly empty house and in a panic look all around to find him.  He is out in the garden, which is covered in candles and he has recreated the engagement picture, but with ‘I love you’ and asks her to give him time to recover and work out what the post-traumatic stress disorder has done.  He doesn’t mention that he found the letter and never will. He also doesn’t mention the fact that he now knows that she has been cheating on him.  This is a conversation that he is not prepared to have with her and respects her life and what she has also had to go through.

Lara realises that the husband she loves is in there somewhere and they look at each other properly in the eye for the first time since his return.  She has shed the power of her guilt and silently understood that it doesn’t matter anymore and that there is a future.