The Paperboy (2012)

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 23.53.09This movie is TERRIFIC!

It made me think of Deliverance, of Chinatown, of Bonnie and Clyde – of the very best American crime stories. And yet, who has ever heard of it? Another minor masterpiece that has slipped off the radar or never appeared on it. And yet everything about it is perfect – the cinematography, the story (a woman who writes to a convicted murderer in prison and believes she loves him, but is secretly loved by someone else), the script, the acting – everything. It has a truly star cast – Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers ClubTrue Detective), Nicole Kidman – not her first role as a Southern slut – Zac Efron and John Cusack. 

In my part-time mission to save neglected masterpieces from oblivion, I have found a new cause. Lee Daniels, the director, is a black American, and I haven’t seen his other movies (The Butler most recently), but I will soon. 

So many movies I’ve viewed recently are just dull fodder for dead minds. This one is head and shoulders above them all. Everything about it is convincing and naturalistic. The story of interwoven, cross-cutting and internecine romantic obsessions. Amazing.


What’s in a name?

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 21.41.45Back in Touraine after a stint in Paris, this short film is a riff on the Paris-country push-me-pull-you, something I know a little bit about… It may seem a bit biased, because it is. You just have to say “Champs Elysées” to a Parisian and they say “La plus belle avenue du monde !” Excuse me, but it’s just a luxury shopping precinct arranged in a straight line. And since 13 November, if you carry a bag you can expect to have it turned inside out at every shop.

The charms of ne0-ruralism is another thing, and a subject I shall return to. In the meantime, if you want to see this profound, game-changing cinematographic oeuvre – click here!

Une Promenade dans le 11ème

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 22.37.17Today, 1 December 2015, Geraldine and I are in Paris. This morning we went for an hour’s walk through our arrondissement, the 11th – the district that bore the brunt of the terrorist attacks on November 13th. The memorials remain – a photo on a door, showing the young woman who lived at that address, killed at the Bataclan – and there are many signs of heightened security, such as patrols of heavily armed police at sensitive spots. But the hardy Parisians are back in business, and back on the café terraces. During that hour’s walk, I filmed anything and everything that caught my attention and put those adventitious glimpses together, in chronological order, to make a short film, accompanied by a 1949 Francis Lemarque song, À Paris.

Click here to watch the film on YouTube. 


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The other day, my daughter – Lizzie – asked me to recommend films that address the subject of acting, and the rapport between actors and directors, in movies. I gave her a long list, but top of that list was Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.

This extraordinary 1968 docu-drama is in two parts, “Take 1” and “Take 2 and a half”, with over 30 years elapsing between the two. It is the work of African-American director William Greaves (1926-2014) and consists of a screen test in Central Park. Several different couples are screen tested, with a first film crew filming them, a second film crew filming the first film crew filming them, and a third film crew filming not only the second crew filming the first film crew filming them, but also anything that happens around the screen test, involving for example curious passers-by – including one delightful intervention by a highly educated homeless man. 

The curious title comes from a social science philosopher, Arthur Bentley, who coined the term symbiotaxiplasm to describe all events that human beings are involved in, affecting their character and environment. William Greaves added the “psycho” for mental mechanisms involved in creative processes. The film also owes something to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Stanislavsky, Chaos Theory, mysticism and – well, the 1960s…

Fundamentally, it is about how actors and directors work together – with the added bonus that in 1968 the technical crew mutinied, rebelling against William Greaves whom they considered totally incompetent, and filming their mutinous discussions to add to the debate – confirming the hypothesis that “everybody wants to be a director”. It has also been called “a site of creative tension between individual vision and collective endeavours” and, by Steven Soderbergh – largely responsible for saving the film from oblivion – “the ultimate reality piece”.

In the second “take”, two of the actors and the director and crew get together over 30 years later – a touching encounter, seeing how everyone has changed – and shoot a sequel screen test, again in Central Park, after a showing of “Take 1”. The two films were first screened in 2001.

Even if this metatextual “happening” idea does not appeal to you, it is great fun watching people interacting back in 1968 – nearly half a century ago. Everyone smokes, and the attitudes seem at once modern and dated, by turn. The Actor’s Studio cast show just how varied the same scene – a woman suspecting her boyfriend/husband of being homosexual – can be played.  In its way, it is a kind of Master Class.

3D Vision

P1010364Last night, a vernissage was held for a new exhibition of photo-montages by members of the Caméra Photo Club du Lochois (CPCL) in the Loches Hôtel de Ville, a beautiful 16th-century building that is part of the Porte Picois, one of the ancient fortified gates of the town. Click here for an article (in French) about this exhibition from La Nouvelle République. The main reception room of the Hôtel de Ville (see photo above, with the President of the CPCL, Didier Gosselin, addressing the assembly) has been wallpapered in red tartan in preparation for the upcoming twinning of Loches with Saint Andrews in Scotland. 

The CPCL has been going for half a century and is very active on all fronts. Some years ago, it received a donation of wooden boxes which, upon being opened, revealed a historical treasure: over 200 glass-plate stereoscopic images of Loches dating from 1908 to 1921 – intended for viewing with a wooden handheld stereoscope – showing views of daily life in the town, the local countryside, the flooding of the river Indre, gymnastic events, early automobiles, military manoeuvres, and much more. Putting over 1,000 man-hours into the enterprise, the CPCL took digital scans of the images and painstakingly restored them. The result is a unique archive, a 3D DVD (3D glasses provided) that transports you straight into the past, a century ago. 

This is early 20th-century Oculus Rift, the dawn of virtual reality, and time travel rolled into one. The DVD, “Loches à la Belle Epoque”, is a unique example of how a local photo club can bring the past to life for the whole local community.


My Winnipeg (2007)

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 20.42.37It’s now a more or less open secret in earnest cultural circles that I’m about to make inroads into film-making, so the moment has come to declare an interest in order to pre-empt any accusations of plagiarism. The film I adore, and would love to have made, is My Winnipeg (2007). The director and writer, Guy Maddin, has achieved the impossible.

Mr Maddin blends autobiography and factual or fictional statements about his home town, turning it into one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities with a visual vernacular all of his own. It is unfettered delirium, pure surrealism, verbal and ocular poetry of the highest order, every black and white edge-blurred scene fuzzed with snow. And over it all presides his overwhelming, sinister mother, with her fear of birds and grapnel-like clutch on him and his siblings.

The silent movie-style filming, interleaved with shadowplay animation, the refusal to allow any distinction between reality, memory, dream and fantasy, the euphoric humour, the melodramatic voice-over that pulls all the drawstrings to give the whole credibility – this is what film-making was once, and should always be. Where else does one find anything like this, except perhaps in the hands of the Soviet director Dziga Vertov, possibly one of Maddin’s inspirations? I could go on, but everything you might want to know about where this movie came from is online.

They call it a “mockumentary” or a “docu-fantasia”. It is a grid of a secret city, right on top of the named one. It is the portrait of a place that nobody would have thought deserved a portrait. a hymn to the unbridled soarings of the parochial imagination. It is about someone desperate to leave Winnipeg, but psychologically hamstrung and unable to do so. This is the most gorgeously wild hallucination I’ve ever seen. It shows how the language of film can be appropriated to uses that no-one thought possible. Forget Bunuel. Meet Mr Maddin. There are no easy pigeon-holes for this sort of thing. It is art, artifice, parody, beauty, seriousness, frivolity, illusions, delusions and reverie, all rolled into one glorious whole.


A Fungi to Be With

P1010186Didier Raas is a pharmacist in Loches. He is also an expert mycologist, so as October comes round and the well-nigh 4,000 hectares of the Forêt de Loches bristle with multi-coloured mushrooms popping up through the carpet of newly fallen leaves, he is definitely “a fungi to be with”. 

Didier has been taking eager groups of amateur mushroom-pickers into forests for 30 years and helping them understand the contents of their wicker baskets. Today was no exception. Our little band thronged round him as he took our pickings and arranged them along a felled log, grouped according to family. 

There is quite simply nothing Didier Raas does not know about mushrooms, toadstools and fungi in general. He talked us through the anatomy of the mushroom – the cap, ring, gills, spores, stem, volva and mycelium – pointing out the extraordinary differences in texture, friability, colouring and odour, from one mushroom that smelled unmistakably of the welding gas acetylene, to others that smell like washing detergent, locomotive smoke, clementines, geraniums and even a seaweedy high tide. No mycologist worth his spores should smoke or wear perfume or aftershave, says Didier. Surprisingly, not a single mushroom we picked smelled of… well, mushrooms.

The question that was on everyone’s lips, as we peered proudly or shamefacedly into our baskets – the elephant in the forest, so to speak –  was “Is it edible?” Every now and then, Didier’s face lit up and he said, “Yes, indeed. A fine specimen!” More often than not, though, the answer was in the negative. 

 “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But there are 2,500 varieties of mushroom in this particular species and only four of them are edible.” 

 “Beautiful, isn’t it? But instant diarrhoea, I’m afraid.” 

 “Look how similar these two look! This one’s delicious, but this one will kill you!” 

 At one point, an elderly gentleman next to me who was looking increasingly crestfallen chucked his mushrooms on the ground and discreetly made his exit. The death sentences continued unabated.

 “Now there’s an interesting thing about this family of mushrooms. They’re perfectly OK to eat, unless you drink alcohol. If you drink alcohol they can kill you. There’s a court case going on in Nantes at the moment. A woman who fed them to all of her dinner guests, knowing full well that only her husband would be drinking during the meal.”

 He took each of our baskets and one by one tossed aside the noxious ones. “This belongs to a lethal family. The funny thing is, you have no symptoms for 14 days, then it kills you.”

 “And this – well it makes you sweat like a pig, weep and go blind and only injections of atropine every 10 minutes will save your sight.” 

 “Ah yes, a toadstool that makes you feel as if your legs are dropping off. The pain lasts six months and is so intense that only massive doses of morphine can make life bearable.”

 “Didier, is this one edible?” “Yes, it is. But look out for its cousin. Almost identical, but with a very fine red line just here, around the gills. Absolutely deadly.”

 “Can I eat this?” “Yes, but not too many, please. Since Chernobyl, it absorbs radioactive Caesium at a very high rate. In Russia, they drop pamphlets on forests by plane to warn people against picking these fellas.”

 “Aha! Eat that, and you’ll be seeing pink elephants within 30 seconds.”

 By this time, everybody was sticking very close to Didier, as if mushroom Armageddon was approaching and he was our sole Redeemer. The question now on everyone’s lips was, “How can we ever go mushrooming without Didier?” Didier smiled knowingly. Clearly the answer was, “Forget it. You can’t”. But Didier is on a loftier plane altogether, in the end. You see, fundamentally he couldn’t care less whether a mushroom is edible or not. He finds them all beautiful in their different ways. It also turned out that he knows how to identify apples just by looking at their cross-sections, horizontally and vertically. One thing our little trip into the forest definitely taught all of us was the enormous variety of mushrooms out there, and how many of them were terminally toxic.  But in the end it’s a case of “The mushroom-eater is dead, long live the mushroom!” Verily, if you are one of those who think that life’s too short to stuff a mushroom, Didier Raas is not your man. 

 This outing, on a day of resplendent sunshine, was a fascinating insight into that barely visible world of pretty domed caps shunting up beneath our feet. But when the visit was over, like the elderly gentleman before us, we discreetly emptied our basket onto the forest floor and headed for Loches market before it closed. No offence, anyone. There’s a Dutchman there who grows mushrooms in his cellar, under controlled conditions – Paris mushrooms, shiitake – and accepts forest mushrooms such as pieds de mouton, girolles and cêpes – from mushroom Maharishis such as Didier.

To hell with the expense! We just don’t want to die…






Get Your Goat

P1010084Throughout France, Southern Touraine is known for its goat’s cheese, generally available in either fresh, semi-hard or hard consistencies, and often rolled in salt and pine ash. There are goat farms everywhere, but one of the more interesting is La Ferme du Cabri au Lait near Sepmes, run by Sébastien Beaury and Claire Proust –  not least because their goats are fed organic grain and allowed to roam free in a green meadow, rather than caged up in a barn. There are some 100 of the latter, of the hardy Alpine Chamois variety, and their milk is used to produce faisselle, cylindrical Sainte Maure cheese, round petit Cabri cheese, goat yoghurt and confiture de lait.

Both Sébastien and Claire are neo-ruralists, having moved from the town to the country in 2009. They’ve produced a thriving affair, but still have to hold down regular jobs to keep the goat business running. Because of time restrictions, the goats are only milked once a day, in the morning, and the small production is sold through local organic cooperatives. When we visited, they had no produce left to sell. They also grow aromatic and medicinal plants. The goats’ eyes have eerie horizontal, rectangular slit-shaped pupils, giving them depth perception in their peripheral vision – 320 degrees as opposed to the 120 degrees of human vision – to help avoid predators. Predators, on the other hand, like certain cats, have vertical-slit pupils which are adapted to homing in on a prey. Mingling with them in the meadow is a moving experience, since they love to rub up alongside people. “My Caroll raincoat!” wailed one young woman in our group as a goat pushed its nose into her raincoat pocket, then pulled out the lining and starting chewing on it.

Goat’s cheese is famously low in fat and a healthy option, but production does have its inhumane side. When the kids are born, the male goats are taken off and butchered, partly for meat – though not common fare on the menu in France – and partly for the rennet that is extracted from their stomachs. The latter is bottled and used in the cheese making to accelerate coagulation and separate curds and whey after the starter culture is added to the milk. In other words, your innocent little goat’s cheese is the product of mass infanticide, not to mention an unashamedly sexist cull. Vegetable rennet exists, but is less popular because less effective, and genetically engineered animal rennet exists too, involving no harm to baby animals. However, when you buy your goat’s cheese, the label rarely tells you what kind of rennet has been used. In a week in which the WHO has declared processed meat a carcinogen, the question of man’s inhumanity to animals is once again being kicked around, and dairy production should not be overlooked. 

Like 13% of the  young farmers in Touraine, Sébastien and Claire have taken the organic road. They have also opened their doors to visitors, being a “ferme pédagogique”. If you’re in the area, arrange a visit!


Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 11.06.33“I believe that street photography is central to the issue of photography—that it is purely photographic, whereas the other genres, such as landscape and portrait photography, are a little more applied, more mixed in with the history of painting and other art forms.” – Joel Meyerowitz 

 One of my recent pastimes has been studying the motivation and techniques of street photographers – those urban man watchers par excellence – through the medium of documentary. The film Joel Meyerowitz 1981 Street Photography, is an excellent case in point. Meyerowitz is one of the greats in this realm (see the famously polysemous Paris photo above) – as he is also, indeed, in large-format landscape photography – and we see him in this rough-and-ready shoot standing on a New York street corner and brazenly photographing anything that catches his eye. He says at one point “It took me a long time to realise you could stand still” – a good point, since the street photographer has a choice between moving through the crowd or standing still and allowing the crowd to wash around him. In common with Vivian Maier (viz the wonderful recent documentary, Finding Vivian Maier), there is nothing furtive about the way he takes pictures – though some street photographers opt for a surreptitious approach. It is in-your-face, though so instantaneous that with a blink of the eye you could miss it. Sometimes, consequently, his subjects are entirely oblivious, while others play up to the attention in ways that can sometimes make a good photo.
As someone once said, when people see a photographer, they see the lens, not the person behind it – and their first thought is often about how they will appear. Indeed, producing a camera at a gathering – any gathering – immediately changes the human electricity, as if you are conferring an importance on the people present, and the moment, which wasn’t there before – and this despite the fact that today everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times.
Meyerowitz lives off the energy of the street, like a predator hovering over his prey and then swooping on it at the click of the shutter. Taking a photograph, in this respect, is a very concrete manifestation of what we call a “split-second decision”. He says: “Photography is a response that has to do with the momentary recognition of things. Suddenly you’re alive. A minute later there was nothing there. I just watched it evaporate. You look one moment and there’s everything, next moment it’s gone. Photography is very philosophical.” 
It’s also about being there. The hunter who stays at home is no hunter. The photographer who does not venture out, purposefully seeking subject-matter, is no photographer – unless his or her subject-matter happens to be at home. In the words of Jay Maisel, “If you’re out there, shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not there, you’ll only hear about it.” Diane Arbus concurs: “My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been”. She is the subject of the documentary Going Where I’ve Never Been: The Photography of Diane Arbus which takes us beyond the “freak show” clichés about her work into a mind that engaged fully with its subjects and their predicaments, while not – as one might have imagined – seeking shock tactics. Arbus again, “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.”
Another in my miscellany of favourite documentaries about photographers would be The Many Lives of William Klein. Klein’s photographs of New York and Paris street life – not to mention his films – are the work of someone with a superbly whip-smart eye. Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank stand alongside him. The short film The Decisive Moment, narrated by Cartier-Bresson, is a good point of entry into the latter’s motivations and ways of seeing, particularly interesting for his thoughts on geometry. The short documentary Fire in The East is a suitable “beat” oriented introduction to Robert Frank. Though Klein also photographed in London and Tokyo, it is New York and Paris that are most associated with this strange art. Why is that?
Other revealing documentaries about individual photographers are Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye, Bill Cunningham’s New York, The Real Weegee and William Eggleston In The Real World. With a few exceptions, the photographs of the latter are the apotheosis of banality, that “Who would photograph that?” moment. While definitely the curator of a certain kind of Americana – a pale and hollow echo of David Lynch, less darkly potent – he is the living proof of what you can get away with in a culture that venerates and enshrines images, sometimes for the most arbitrary reasons. The fact that he was exhibited and praised at an early age by John Szarkowski, Photography Director at MOMA, conferred an academic stamp of approval on him that is, to say the least, questionable. A picture may speak a thousand words, but it helps if photographers are eloquent about their art. Eggleston is so affectedly inarticulate that he has to have subtitles, though what he actually says is so dull that it’s hardly worth reading them.
Nowhere more than in street photography does rapid decision-making, sheer chutzpah and a high-adrenaline scanning of all horizons for the visual quarry come into its own. Nothing is “set up”, ideally (and with notorious exceptions) – it is the raw vernacular, the potluck, the awkwardness, and hugely serendipitous nature of the enterprise that appeals, and its dependence not on technical wizardry but the alacrity of the human eye and brain, the instant response to the emotional energy of a given ephemeral vision. As Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera”. This too comes across in my pick of top street photography documentaries – the fact that photography fosters an extreme acuity of vision. He who hesitates is lost. As a predator will lose its prey if it hangs back an instant, so the moment is fugitive, there to be snapped up, a fraction of a second away from being lost forever. Hence, if you want to learn what a photographer fears losing, watch what they photograph…
Stieglitz: “Photography is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
Despite Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, despite the vast democratisation of photography, this is still an incredibly elusive art – when it is an art, and not just a technology. What differentiates a bad photo from a good one? Robert Frank gets close to an answer when he says “When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line lof a poem twice.” 
And to come full circle, Meyerowitz once again:
“What I think is so extraordinary about the photograph is that we have a piece of paper with this image adhered to it, etched on it, which interposes itself into the plane of time that we are actually in at that moment. Even if it comes from as far back as 150 years ago, or as recently as yesterday, or a minute before as a Polaroid color photograph, suddenly you bring it into your experience. You look at it, and all around the real world is humming, buzzing and moving, and yet in this little frame there is stillness that looks like the world. That connection, that collision, that interfacing, is one of the most astonishing things we can experience.” 
© 2019 Adrian Mathews