Sunday, October 22, 2006

Last of the tough girls

Actresses? Look anywhere and there seems no shortage of talented female performers all ready to outshine the latest batch of dull vacuum-moulded male actors in films and TV dramas.

Female characters? Tell me the last time you saw a really fascinatingly well drawn original female character? I don't mean an actress giving a great performance, I mean a really great female character. One you could relate to.

Personally I've got thing for 'women of courage' characters. Sadly there aren't many of them of to be found. I can think of three - one you will know, one you probably won't (so I won't write about her) and another that - until tonight has managed to remain alive...Back in 1986, one of the things that made Aliens such an achievement is how action and mayhem in a fantastical world are used to paint out a richly detailed and totally believable female character - the legendarily tough but tender Ripley.

In Aliens, Ripley is a woman with the guts to turn to face her tormentor, the intelligence to give herself (and a bunch of marines) a fighting chance against an overwhelming enemy, and a woman who uses her maternal instincts to kill another mother who is also fighting to protect her young.

Ripley like Joan before her soon makes the ultimate sacrifice.

Tonight, in the usually miss-able world of the television drama, there will come the demise of a more down to earth fighting female - DSI Jane Tennison - the central character of the Prime Suspect series. I for one shall be pretty darn sad because its the Tennison character that's made Prime Suspect the only drama I've actually remembered to follow.
The character, played by Helen Mirren in all seven episodes of series is to be killed off. Having battled sexism, blonde-ism (?) and a barrage of grim crime the character now faces ageism, loneliness and alcoholism - the sad product of a life surrendered to the 'job'.

Prime Suspect isn't anything movie-ish, - its great television - which means it sneaks into our mind in the form of entertainment and then forces us to reconsider how we see the world around us.

But all in all, what makes the series so special is that its about a female - who fights for the power to do what she loves in a male-dominated business whilst making mistakes - lots of big dangerous and embarrassing mistakes - but she manages to preserve her career. It's something that, since the series started in 1991, has given a lot of courage to a lot of people.

Prime Suspect has always been subtle, economical and unflinching in its examination of a wonderfully believable character. And now its over. Case closed. No Christmas special. Just the DVD box set (please!).

Here's a short clip. Watch how many emotions Helen Mirren reveals about her character in just a few short seconds.

"When I'm at work..." she says.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Where is the art?

Now I'm in England I watch one old film (1930s-70s) practically every two days. I find almost all of them fascinating and always wonder why 'We just can't make them like that anymore'. I'm quite convinced that traditional cinema really began to suffocate in the 1990s and died off almost completely around the year 2000. Today its trying to resuscitate itself with shock therapy - crueller violence, unsimulated sex, faster cutting and computer effects. And the trench foot isn't only in Hollywood products - how many recently promoted arty or 'independent' films are worth watching more than two times? And in thirty years time? Will the advent of RealD will give traditional cinema the swan song it deserves? Maybe.But what about Real Art - the stuff you look at in the galleries? As with cinema's last life signs (Lynch, Almodóvar, for me particularly Sokurov) there are some old-style artists amongst the sea of garbage still trying to make something worth remembering for a reason other than its shock value - the painter Paula Rego comes to mind. But who's interested in a new painting when 'cutting-edge art' can take the form of some semen-stained newspapers? I'm increasingly certain that there is great art today - we just have to find it. Its occurring unintentionally and its often the individual them self who is the art. Paris Hilton is a prime example. Doesn't she herself and her material output reflect the times we live in - with supreme accuracy? And yet despite the greatness and relevance of her life-as-art, it too is utterly forgettable.

But for timeless 21st century art, have a look at this picture below that I came across by chance on the internet yesterday. This one of three pictures showing Disney/Milne's Piglet character posed by a tourist in different places around Auschwitz death camp where over a million people were killed. All three Piglet pictures look almost superimposed but they're not. I'm quietly sure the young woman who took them isn't aware of the many layers of truth and emotion to be found in them. Doesn' t that make them all the more richer? What's more their presence among a whole load of "Piglet's Holiday Photos" makes the series into a potentially powerful work of modern 'accidental’ art... Or am I losing it?

A friend of mine has filmed tourists smiling and poising for the camera inside Auschwitz, a porn film has also been made there (secretly) but this 'Piglet's Auschwitz Walkabout' series taken with all its ghastly casualness - feels like the most devastatingly simple work of unintentional art I've chanced upon in a long time. Stare into those pictures. What do they say to you?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Having left Poland

It might come as a surprise to some of you - but I've left Poland. I left it almost as soon as I'd made it back from Switzerland. 'What happened?' you might wonder. Well, I had actually planned to return to spend the majority of my time in the UK at the end of November. Life in Warsaw was already a psychological struggle but certain events during the trip to Switzerland tipped the balance, making it clear that it was really high time to go, immediately.

But there's no finality here. I shall be returning to Warsaw fairly often. I shall miss filming the beauty of the Polish autumn, but I hope to be back in time for my other love - the snow.

Was I too soft for Warsaw? No, I just wasn't willing to become harder. How Kieslowski (as a Warsaw boy) ever managed to make the deeply humanistic films he did seems a miracle to me. But then again he spent most of his life under Polish Communism and not Polish Capitalism.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sound of Music

I will be away without internet until next Monday - in Switzerland in fact. Wow!

Catch you later.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Miss Warsaw and the Star

Today I performed lighting and grip duties for a friend's photosession.
We'd spent several days setting it up - a two model studio shoot featuring several old mirrors moodily lit using only flashes. I'd taken well over 150 test shots to make sure the unpredictable combination of flash and mirror would lead to no surprises. We were now all ready for our two stars' arrival...

But by 10am (the start time) we had only one heavily pregnant stylist and zero models to show. An sms arrived - one of the girls (a 21 year-old former Miss Warsaw we were told...) had taken hormones (?) the night before and wasn't feeling 'OK'. She promised let us know how she was feeling by 11. Perhaps then she might come...

Moments later another sms landed - our second model explaining that her mobile, money and documents had just that minute been stolen and she was now on her way to the police station! A Warsaw version of 'my dog ate my homework'.

The poor stylist (working for pictures not cash) sat on her makeup box holding her swollen stomach protectively and stared grimfaced at the news. We now had a standard issue low-budget production crisis on our hands: no subjects to photograph. We called the hormonal Miss Warsaw and conveyed with force:

"Taxi will come. Just get in."

Most young models just starting out seem to respond best to commands that provoke feelings either of journeying upwards in the world or the immediate anticipation of it. Stardom it seems, can be made to feel like just one taxi ride away.

Soon enough, all 190 centimetres and 5 kilos of her arrived. She had one of those eerily deep voices caricatures of models often have. (The reason for the hormonal treatment perhaps?)

As she was keen to show - she had the body to match many a Warsaw chick - but her face needed Work. While I and another assistant fought to adapt the mirrors to our single subject the feverish fingers of our heroic stylist performed miracle upon miracle on the loveless face of Miss Warsaw. Soon we were set.

The flashes flashed. The film began to roll. Shooting medium-format meant every shot had to be very carefully positioned. Miss Warsaw was given precise commands "Tilt your head 10cm to the left, keep your eyes on the camera, don't blink".

It quickly became clear that something was wrong. It was like taking pictures of a puppet battling with its own strings. Our Miss Warsaw couldn't keep control of her movements, continuously breaking position to lurch into different poises as if enacting a beach shoot for Pirelli. "10cms to the mirror" would result in a jarring jerk towards the glass and then back again, a few variations and then a default 'looking towards the light' poise complete with opening her lips slightly á la Angelina Jolie. She seemed to have been pre-programmed with 'top tips for success'.

2 hours, 4 costumes and 5 films later we wore her down and she got the hang of holding still. Another hour later we were all done. After which we went straight to a cafe and downed a litre of beer each - and lamented our luck with laughter.

The films will be developed tomorrow. I am not optimistic, but whatever comes out of the whole affair I think we should try to convince the stylist to accept some payment. She truly was a star.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Tempest Reloaded - Video Exclusive

I never I thought I'd ever find shots of Nazi soldiers on my Final Cut timeline [see previous post] - so with this brief sequence I've tried to make the most of it. Click below for the video. (If the highlights seem burnt out then Windows gamma is to blame.)

About the shooting:
Without a press pass (as usual) I was relegated to jostling for a position with the rest of the gormless folk behind the barriers. Filming through the bars of the fence I had to move the tripod every time I needed to pan more than a few degrees. This is a terrible way to work - you can't follow the action and then people get excited and rattle the fence rattling your camera with them. Unlike those packed into the media zone I was shooting straight into the afternoon sun which is usually a total no-no with video - unless perchance there is smoke billowing into the sky...

In my time filming things alone I've been sworn at, spat on, shat on, hooted at a hundred times, had things thrown at me or planted on me (and that was just in Oxford Street) but this time to my surprise I was in for something different:

Folks, I got sweated on...

Yes, to film through the barrier I was ducked down low, squeezed between the legs of two 'camcorder dads'. As the battle raged I began to feel spots of rain falling against my cheek, but with a clear summer sky above it soon became unpleasantly clear that the drops were not coming from the heavens but from the chubby Zbysek above me. Thankfully the poor chap managed to stem the flow before the uprising was over and my LCD was saved further corrosion.

Shot from a single position I had to flip a few shots to make a watchable sense of space. Compared with a normal evening spent editing my film - making this little clip was great fun - and a thousand times easier.

For those without QuickTime 7 I might manage a Flash version...

Missed my last video clip? Experience it here.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

What the phoenix of Warsaw does best

We strode at full speed through the streets of Warsaw's Old Town. Passing by the long feeding pens of Tyskie [Polish beer] sozzled tourists, my comrade and I poured over the hottest developments in the field of digital video cameras.

(Its been about eight years since something significant happened in that field - now suddenly there's a lot to talk about. More on that later.)

"So you're telling me that for $4000 you can now get a camera that'll do image quality comparable to Star Wars: Episode I?", I exclaimed as we turned a corner. A pack of about nine battle-worn Nazis looked up from their bottles of mineral water. For about 0.5 milliseconds our brains experienced something I think is called 'gun lock' - or was it the FOF response? A moment later we chuckled as we passed a Polish Home Army officer talking to his mother via mobile phone.

Its not often I have purely positive things to say about an experience in Poland - not least a government-funded one - but the dramatic reconstruction of the Warsaw Uprising (Powstanie Warszawskie) by teams of loyal history enthusiasts - was sensational and caught me by complete surprise. [See my video clip of it]

I was expecting to see a few old men running up and down a street with the kind of pop guns you can buy at the Central Railway Station.

Nothing like that here. Machine guns blazed, the sky turned black with smoke, an SS division repeatedly exchanged attack and counter-attack with the AK (the Home Army). In the midst of the mayhem a kind of Polish David Attenborough of history marched with a radio mic condensing 63 days of conflict into about 30 minutes.

Having spent enough time in England to have the phrase 'Health and Safety' etched forever into my perception of the world I winced as explosive charges detonated only feet away from small children, the bangs loud enough to cause me temporary hearing loss. But a lot of care had clearly been taken to make it close but not damagingly close. Even as earth bombs rained debris down on the fringes of the audience I mused:

"That'll do them some good. In many places around the world today its for real."
In England they'd probably have us wearing luminous jackets and ear defenders and about 100m back from the action. This is one of the reasons I love Eastern Europe - they haven't yet wrapped themselves in cotton wool - and this makes for a great show.

The passion and attention to detail that the actors and pyro-technicians put into the battle reenactment was phenomenal. The exploding grenades thrown by the German side were replicas of the type they really used. Soldiers sported realistic wounds and dirtied uniforms had the level of detail big budget Hollywood productions usually use. Perhaps it was because they were playing the enemy or just because they were older - but the Polish actors did a better job as Nazis - especially the German commander who was clearly relishing his role as he used the bodies of his fallen comrades for cover.

I had the feeling that this is the kind of unique event tourists and visitors to Warsaw would rush to see. Humans love fighting and its a great answer to that frequent question 'Why does Warsaw look such a mess?' But obviously very strong emotions are still linked with WWII...

So what about a massive annual event in Warsaw’s Pilsudski square showing Polish military courage throughout the ages? "They charged tanks with horses?!" – all that kind of thing. So its about the Poles and not one particular war. Sell tickets to the tourists with a fair premium for the pro photographers - who’d love it.

We might have found a way to show what only Warsaw can do best.