December 30th, 2006


Six films I could actually stand in 2006

Back in 1993 I was asked by Britain's leading cineaste magazine, Sight and Sound, to contribute to a series called Obsessions. You were supposed to say what films obsessed you, but I decided to go against the flow. "I've looked back over my life," I wrote, "and I can't say I've been obsessed by any film. I'm not sure I even like cinema very much". Why? "I have to keep vigilant against seduction by my political enemies. I also have very little fat on my bottom and find long sittings in cinemas an ordeal. I have a short attention span and hate naturalistic narrative."

Scraping around in a year of Click Opera to give you, today, a list of my favourite films of the year, I notice that things haven't changed that much. I still, basically, don't get on with cinema as an artform. It's, by and large, too long, too epic, too boring, too normative, too violent and emotionally manipulative, too expensive to make and distribute, too dependent on teamwork, too loud, with too much hype and stars who are just too incredibly dull. (Yes, Klaus Kinski is dead.)

But, somehow, I have been able to scrape together six significant cinematographic experiences this year. These are the six films I could actually stand -- and more than happily sit through -- in 2006.

I blogged about Funky Forest: First Contact, Katsuhito Ishii's follow-up to the charming Taste of Tea, on Click Opera before I'd seen it. Well, last night our friends Miya and Clemens sat us down on their sofa and, after feeding us some great food, showed us their Funky Forest DVD.

I can honestly say it's the best thing I've seen in years. I love the way it dispenses with any pretense at consistent, continuous narrative, instead adopting the remix or dub plate as its creative principle. (One scene even shows a DJ trying to make the perfect transition between two records; huge speakers plonked down on a beach feature in another.) Many of the characters from Ishii's previous films appear, but basically this is a string of brilliant, frequently hilarious cameos, each episode topped-and-tailed with graphics. It's a bit like watching an entire series of Monty Python shows, or a vastly more imaginative version of Japanese late-night comedy TV. (It even adopts the graphics-rich style of Japanese TV: there are inset reaction shots, video game graphics, intertitles, a frequent logo overlay saying "Funky Forest", and even an intermission half way through with a counting-down clock).

There are cinematic precursors for the film's relish for utter directorial freedom and narrative anarchism, though: Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" springs to mind, or Godard's brilliantly arbitrary 1960s editing style, or Qui Est Vous Polly Magoo? for the way people break into dance at the slightest provocation, and the sheer visual flamboyance. Other parallels might be the sheer formal exuberance of the 18th century novel; here be animation, prosthetics, sci-fi, conceptual art (the scene where three kids "play" a forest like a musical instrument, or the Matthew Barney-like biological inventions), beautiful women, and some of the most inventive metaphorical euphemisms for sex you'll ever see.

Funky Forest is a film I've waited all my life to see -- a film that restores my faith not just in cinema, but in narrative itself. I can't wait to get cracking on my "Lives of the Composers" book now (my major project for 2007). Ishii has shown me that, with charm, you can do absolutely anything with a story. Including throwing it away and just busking. His confidence is inspiring and infectious. Who knows where he'll go from here, but, for me, for now, he's the world's best director.

My other films of the year are Drawing Restraint 9, The Brothers Quay's The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (much better than their previous live action feature, intensely atmospheric), Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, Luke Fowler's film on Cornelius Cardew, the Densha Otoko film (a great tear-jerker, fitting a classic boy-meets-girl story into the new context of the internet, with the web as the point where the individual meets the collective, the particular the universal. Here too, onscreen graphics were well used; the screen split into a mosaic of computer users, and at the end the neons of Shinjuku became a sort of text messaging system, one enormous collective "banzai" for an individual's success.)

My Newcomer of the Year award goes to Joji Koyama, whose 18 minute film (starring Hisae) From Nose to Mouth aired on Channel 4 on December 15th (admittedly at 3.40am). Joji's film has some of the same weird ostranenie as Funky Forest going on. There are odd computer games, bizarre machine translated emails, lots of Max/MSP sound dust, Hisae playing the recorder with her nose, learning competitive ice skating, and spilling milk from her mouth while cackling inexplicably. Again, oddly enough, Matthew Barney seems to have been a harbinger of a certain kind of contemporary cinema. The fresh ideas currently informing cinema came, not from outer space, but from the white cube. No, scratch that, they came from anywhere; television, video games, art, comedy... Some people were open enough to see it all, synthesize it, and put it all in a film. I think they just saved the medium.