Postcard from Perth 28
Teens and Monsters
Perth Revelation Film Festival 
The Perth Revelation Film Festival is a small but perfectly formed rival to its bigger Melbourne and Sydney cousins, this year screening about 120 films over 10 days – including 17 features, 20 docos, a 6-feature Iranian Film Festival sidebar, 6 locally funded WA shorts, 10 local student shorts, a quartet of longer shorts, a international animation showcase, an experimental showcase, and a host of one-off multimedia, talk-show, 8-track, 16mm, Super 8 and other analogue and lo-fi events like the Vladmaster Viewmaster Experience (which involved the audience watching a 3D stereoscopic slide-show through hand-held viewers and clicking through hand-made reels in time to a synchronised soundtrack), plus a series of informal workshops and panels – all culminating in the 26th Annual WA Screen Awards.
In comparison with the behemoths over east, Perth Rev has its own local brand of small-town indie-geek street-cred. Screenings are concentrated in a trio of Luna Palace arthouse cinemas in Leederville, Northbridge and Fremantle. Audiences weren’t huge at the sessions I attended in Leederville and Northbridge; Fremantle was (as usual) a little more packed, but that could have reflected the more fashionable films I saw there: Gia Coppola’s debut screen adaptation of James Franco’s short stories Palo Alto, and Jonathan Glazer’s new Scarlett Johanssen vehicle Under the Skin, both of which drew a substantial hipster crowd.
Highlights for me last year included seeing Italian band Goblin playing their original score to Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria; Josh Oppenheimer’s epic psycho-drama-documentary The Act of Killing; Sophie Huber’s exquisite black-and-white interview-doco Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction; and Interior. Leather Bar, James Franco’s bizarre documentary-reconstruction of the missing 40-minute gay orgy sequence from William Friedkin’s Cruising. This year I bought a 6-movie mini-pass and for one reason or another (schedule, impulse) ended up choosing 6 new-release features, most of them from the US or anglophone, and likely to gain at least limited arthouse distribution (which isn’t my usual festive habit, as I generally prefer to catch rarities that are unlikely to show up again elsewhere).
I kicked off last Sunday in Fremantle with Palo Alto and Under the Skin. I haven’t read the Franco stories, but I’m guessing they deal with material drawn from or inspired by his own teenage years in his eponymous home town. Coppola’s film takes a few of these stories and fuses them into a loosely constructed single narrative. Two principal protagonists each have their own stories but are also in love with each other and struggle to hook up throughout the film. There are also two supporting characters who each play an antagonistic role in relation to the two principals but also have their own story (and failed connection) as a kind of comic-ironic counterpoint.
The two leads are charmingly played by actor-singer-model Emma Roberts (who just about gets away with looking like a teenager) and newcomer Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s 18-year old son); Nat Wolff and Zoe Levin lend character to the two supporting roles; and Franco himself commendably underplays his guest role as a lascivious high-school netball coach. The film was partially shot in the homes of Gia Coppola’s mother and Val Kilmer (who also has a hilarious cameo as a permanently stoned step-parent). In short: it’s a low-budget family affair, made with love, beautifully shot, and finely crafted by its young writer-director (Francis Ford’s granddaughter and Sophia’s niece) in a neo-realist style that’s distinct from either of her famous relatives.
There’s not a lot of substance or originality to the stories themselves, but they’re convincing and sharply etched vignettes that hint at broader psychological and social observations about growing up in contemporary middle-class America. In comparison with the great teen-movies of the 70’s and 80’s (American Graffiti, The Outsiders, Rumblefish or the more populist but no less significant films of John Hughes), Palo Alto is a lot more modest and a lot less nostalgic or sentimental than its precursors, and in many ways much more realistic and disturbing. Perhaps because I’ve got young adult kids myself now, but also because of the film’s artlessly insouciant style, I was on the edge of my seat with anxiety on behalf of all the characters throughout the film, right up to its not altogether hopeless but still ambiguous ending.
Under the Skin is loosely based on the surreal sci-fi/fantasy/horror novel by Michel Faber which I read when it came out ten years ago and has haunted me ever since. British director Jonathan Glazer spent the best part of ten years making it into a film very much of his own, following his own much-acclaimed debut feature Sexy Beast. His delayed follow-up feature is a cool (some might say cold) and (for most of its length) uncompromising work that calls to mind Kubrick and Nicholas Roeg – in particular the former’s abiding interest in the inhuman in all shapes and forms, and the latter’s fascination with the personal, cultural and philosophical boundaries of the self.
Like Roeg’s supremely strange sci-fi epic The Man to Fell To Earth, Glazer’s film views the world through the eyes of a seductive extraterrestrial stranger. In this case, David Bowie’s 70s alien-rock-star persona makes way for new-millennial screen siren Scarlett Johanssen in black wig, borrowed clothes and English accent. As iconic in her own way as Bowie, Johanssen is the Garbo of contemporary cinema: her luminous face endlessly watchable, her voice alone a veritable metonymy of desire –most recently and notably in Spike Jonze’s Her, which in many ways forms an angelic counterpart to Glazer’s more demonic excursion into the realm of what might be called cinema morbida. Here she barely speaks, spending most of the film driving a van around Scotland, picking up men (played by unwitting extras secretly filmed by Glazer and his hidden crew in the back of the van) and luring them into a sinister, mysterious and literally consuming underworld. As such she functions like a kind of latter-day incarnation of Coleridge’s Christobel or Keats’s Belle Dame Sans Merci; a wandering vampire in all but name, employed in the service of some obscure but unearthly higher power, whose agents have somehow infiltrated our world for their own nefarious purposes. The book is more explicit here, as it describes her victims being fattened and eaten by their alien captors; in the film their fate is more symbolic, though no less visceral in its representation.
There’s a lot of physical and metaphysical darkness in Under the Skin. In fact it recalls the tenebrism of Caravaggio or Bacon. The most memorable sequences are shot inside the van on grainy, light-starved footage, with faces and bodies dimly lit. These are matched by the more abstract, nightmarish underworld scenes, in which Johanssen’s hapless male prey are lured into and devoured by a Stygian lake of inky blackness. Conversely, the film begins and ends in blinding white, from which Johanssen herself emerges and into which she is finally absorbed. It’s as if isolating the human figure from all visual or contextual background and suspending its image in a void renders it a specimen rather than a fellow creature. The cold gaze of the predator, the artist and the viewer here disturbingly coincide.
The last act of the film, which breaks out of this pattern and attempts to lead its protagonist towards some kind of epiphany or redemption by establishing an emotional connection with others and the world, is on the whole less successful. In terms of form, the film works best as pure exposition and hypnotic repetition with minimal variations; once it attempts to develop a conventional character journey or narrative arc, it becomes arbitrary and unmotivated. Johanssen is convincing as a beautiful monster, but the film’s grip falters once she is humanized and all-too predictably becomes a victim herself in a predatory male world. Perhaps ten years in the making was just a bit too long-drawn-out, and the clarity and rigour of Glazer’s vision became clouded or compromised. Nevertheless I found Under the Skin a unique and mostly compelling experience. Apparently it was booed at Cannes; the screening I saw at Perth Rev was received in stunned silence.
More Perth Revelation Film Festival reviews follow later this week.