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A Magazine for Sheffield

Debts and Derivatives / Celluloid Screams.


A critic is nothing but a well-informed individual with a megaphone, as a fellow Portuguese filmmaker once said on a half-remembered televised discussion panel from years ago.

It was a hugely entertaining set-up. Established filmmakers who had endured the tightening grip of the fascist regime were sharing air-time with up-and-coming auteurs who challenged their views at every opportunity. Another amusing aspect was the way most of them would refute any allegation of being influenced by various masters of Cinema.

As true as my opening statement may be, I much favour the view that film critics are necrophagous intellectuals who suffer from serious delusions of their own importance. They tend to believe that their opinion matters more than the film itself. As far as they're concerned, once the credits start rolling a film becomes a dead leviathan at their mercy and they soon start tracing its outline in chalk, as in a crime scene, proceeding then with the onslaught of comparisons with previous closed or unresolved cases.

Before I go any further, I must stress my admiration for a handful of British critics, whose personalities inform their views in a refreshing way. Although Mark Kermode took his time to grow on me, his appreciation of Walerian Borowczyk's unparalleled output and championing of David Lynch's immensely underrated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) are evidence of his heart being in the right place. The same can be said for Mark Cousins, whose documentary TV series (and subsequent book) The Story of Film: An Odyssey is both a love letter to Cinema and an archival treasure for the future. Then there's Jonathan Romney, who may be a less visible figure but whose consistent views have made unconventional visions accessible to the wider public, particularly in his astute scrutiny of Portuguese Cinema, in which he pinpoints the key aspects of a helplessly avant-garde culture.

My distaste for critics, which I acknowledge is in direct conflict with my activities here as editor of Filmreel, pales in comparison to another side of this altogether more structured culture I chose to inhabit.

In Britain, there's a definite historical tendency to perceive the criticism of art as an art unto itself. Appreciation of an art form is, of course, valid and very much invaluable in the process of dialogue one aims to establish. But there's a large cross-section of 'appreciators' that use this to further themselves and their agendas, whilst trying to shake the shackles of mediocrity they were born with. This is even more striking when it comes to film. Certainly, all filmmakers make films because we love films. But, with the exception perhaps of a handful of names from the French 'nouvelle vague' of the 1950s and 60s, not all film critics can make films. I would go further and say that, with the exception of individuals like Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodóvar or Martin Scorcese, very few film buffs are good filmmakers either. This brings me to the point that provides the title of this article.

There's a pantheon of filmmakers who have become an integral part of the film lexicon. Along the progress of film as an art form, the names Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Hitchcock, Welles and Kubrick have become synonyms of innovation in the use of cinematic techniques. In their own personal way, they all dug deeper into their subjects. Everything they expressed was infused with sheer perfectionism and a deep understanding of the medium. What they also shared in common was the aspiration to better themselves by pushing boundaries and challenging expectations. Enthusiasts play a role in sustaining the popularity of these filmmakers, but now and again you come across observations that totally undervalue their achievements. Such views not only demean what these visionaries delivered for posterity, but they also fail to recognise the crucial difference between "being indebted" to something and "being merely derivative".

There's no questioning that cinema has evolved from other pre-existing art forms: composition, tone and depth-of-field had all been established in painting; the technical possibilities of photography enabled those further; theatre provided basic notions of mise-en-scéne and the deeper psychological consequences of acting; and literature informed the word, spoken and written. But it needs to be added that music and poetry, with their capacity to evoke and create unexpected correlations between a phrase and an idea, are what cinema resembles most when at its best.

It's in the ongoing practice of filmmaking that the terms "indebted to" and "derivative" can easily get muddled up. A film that is being made or comes out now will unavoidably - often with some degree of self-awareness - touch upon themes and find ways to present them that have been done before. There is nothing wrong with being referential, and even less with overtly paying homage to something great - be it from a renowned classic or an obscure work of exploitation.

Yet when filmmakers reduce a section of their film - something that has been done before in an altogether superior and more complete way - to, let's say, a plot device, they are delivering something derivative. This is unquestionable, whether they acknowledge the previous work as inspiration or not.

An example may come handy at this point. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009 original or 2011 remake), the turning point in the investigation comes with the "looking again and better" at a detail in a succession of images. Over 40 years earlier, Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) introduced us to a photographer who overlooks a detail in a series of casually taken pictures. When the time comes to "look again", what we have is complete integration of narrative with character, direction of pointof- view and knowledge of the camera angles that best convey them. By displaying a mere cleverness of plot, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes its scene derivative.

On the other hand, filmmakers who understand the essence of film and seek to explore the possibilities of the medium further may still have their own influences and points of reference. In that sense, they are indebted to someone who preceded them, but never derivative.

A simple yet irrefutable example is Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), which uses August Strindberg's play The Stronger as its starting point but is far from an adaptation. In fact, the resemblance ends on the set-up of having two women interacting - one silent, the other filling the silence with chatter and personal confessions. Indebted to Strindberg? Yes. Utterly original in form, tone and structure? Without a doubt.

The name of Leos Carax has found its way onto these pages before. His sparse yet exhilarating filmography is informed by the ground-breaking work that preceded it. Based on all accounts, his new film Holy Motors is one of the most original you'll ever see. And still, every section of it includes a nod to a previous cinematic artefact - even self-reference, to some degree. Of all upcoming releases, it's the one I'm most looking forward to watching. Oh and, before I forget, it co-stars Kylie Minogue...


26th - 28th October.
Niki Bierton.

It's fast approaching us, the horror film festival held at the Showroom over the weekend of Halloween. This year is no different to any other year - the line up is full of gore, screams and rising tension. It's going to be a scorcher, not only because of the films on show, but because there will also be an accompanying exhibition. Local artist Mute is curating and has entered his own art into the exhibition, celebrating some classic horror films that have been shown at the festival since 2008 with unique posters of such classics as The Evil Dead, The Thing and The Lost Boys. Guess what? It's also free. And while you're looking at the art, go ahead and check out this selection of films.

The first one up is a hide-behind-your-popcorn film - Steve Stone's Entity. Set in the Siberian forest, TV show Darkest Secrets sets out to uncover the mystery behind the discovery, and dismissal of 34 unidentified bodies found buried deep within the forest. Along with psychic Ruth Peacock, played by an awesome Dervla Kirwan, they delve into the mystery of the bodies, but what they don't expect is the horror awaiting their arrival. This is, as producer Rob Speranza told me, "a movie that makes you not want to go into the dark kitchen alone at night", full of tension, intensity and atmospheric music. For me, just watching the creepy trailer is enough to make me want to see it again and again.

In a completely different vein is found footage anthology V/H/S, which is an interesting watch. A group of miscreants break into an old house on the request of a mysterious employer in search of a VHS stored somewhere in the house. When they get there though, they find hundreds of tapes and decide to go through each one to find the one they need, bringing in short films directed by horror filmmakers such as Ti West ('The Innkeppers') and Adam Wingard. However, even though the film is fully POV, it doesn't seem nauseating, despite featuring plenty of gore, especially during the 'Amateur Night' segment, in which one character starts devouring another. So yes, lots of fake blood and guts.

Remember though, preceding almost every feature is a short film, for instance 72 and 3:00 AM. I would recommend you get there in time to watch them, because sometimes even the shortest of films can leave the most lasting of memories.


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