Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Andy Childs

Andy Childs | 3rd January 2017

…In which, as we enter a new year, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;

Most of my shadows this year have, mercifully, been glimpsed in the semi-darkness of a small cinema as I anxiously count the number of people that we have managed to entice into our newly-opened state-of-the-art film theatre at The Brewhouse in Taunton. And in keeping with our remit to serve as an antidote to the limited fare on offer at the local Odeon multiplex, a lot of the films we’ve shown this year have reflected and tried to make sense of the tumultuous and bewildering times we live in.

After having its various grants and subsidies rescinded in 2012 The Brewhouse theatre, previously immune to the harsh realities of the commercial world, was forced to close, leaving the already culturally impoverished landscape of Taunton without a major arts venue in the town centre. An obviously unacceptable situation for the county town of Somerset and one which, thankfully, a dedicated band of people did not allow to persist indefinitely. Money was raised and spent on refurbishment, the local council was prodded into action and involvement, volunteers were recruited, and in 2015 The Brewhouse re-opened for business. Furthermore, brand new cinema equipment was acquired with the aim of providing the ideal cinema experience – big screen, great sound, comfortable seats.

There are approximately four hundred and fifty independently-run cinemas in the UK at the moment; some are small, community-based affairs held in the local village hall, others are professionally-run franchises, and despite the fact that a large number of them hardly make any money and are run by dedicated volunteers, and despite the establishment of online streaming services offered by the likes of Netflix and Amazon, their numbers are steadily growing. More and more people, it seems, want to go out to the cinema to see good quality films in comfortable surroundings, with other like-minded people. I’ve had to remind myself of this perhaps not-quite-so-self-evident truth once or twice this year, as I’ve sat in our plush cinema as the trailers end and before the main feature starts (we don’t show adverts!) and I can just about make out six other souls in the audience. It’s a Monday night, it’s raining; what can you expect? When my pal Eddie and myself offered our services to The Brewhouse as film programmers we, or at least I, had definite ideas about the kind of films we would screen. Nothing that’s showing at the Odeon if we can help it, no tired, predictable re-makes, no dumb comedies, and no film with Nicholas Cage in it. We would show intelligent, well-crafted films of all genres, we’d screen documentaries (we are apparently living through a ‘golden age’ of documentaries in case you haven’t noticed), and re-released, re-whatever-it-is-they-do-to-films-to-make-them-better classics. We would avoid the deathly phrase ‘art-house movies’ and instead appeal to the intelligent, liberal-minded film fan who would rather watch a film with a glass of wine in hand than in surround-sound munching popcorn. And largely speaking we’ve stuck to our guns. The good people who run The Brewhouse have shown faith and determination in the face of some head-scratching attendance figures but in recent months I sense we have turned a corner with two films – The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years and I, Daniel Blake – that have attracted our largest audiences to date (we’re talking nearly two hundred here). Never underestimate how long it will take to reach your target audience – a fact of marketing that’s often conveniently overlooked but which has been our lesson this year. Continuing to draw inspiration from cinemas like The Watershed in Bristol, I would hope that next year there will be many more shadows to count in our modest enterprise and more great films to reflect on.

All of which is a rambling way of prefacing a list of my ten favourite films of this year (in no particular order), practically all of which we’ve shown at The Brewhouse. For jaw-dropping audacity and bare-faced criminality that, incredibly, went totally unpunished, the demise of the Lehman Bros bank in the U.S. and the collapse of the gobal financial markets as told in The Big Short is so shocking it left me stunned and not a little light-headed. The film’s style has a light touch and attempts (and mostly succeeds) in explaining what some of the gibberish that bankers pass off as language actually means. Mesmerising performances from Christian Bale and Steve Carell. Similarly serious but altogether more sombre is Spotlight, which tells the story of the story that the Boston Globe broke in 2001 about the systemic sexual abuse committed by and covered up by the Catholic church, not only in Boston but around the world. It’s a prime example of an extremely sensitive subject handled in an unsensational yet thoroughly absorbing manner. And completing a trio of films that confronted and exposed some of our most pertinent issues of the day, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is most potent for being closer to home and most explicit in its condemnation of a social injustice, namely the callous, government-sanctioned bullying and deliberate policy of obfuscation directed at helpless people rightfully entitled to state benefits and essential help. One would hope that films like this could solicit such outrage as to be the catalyst for change and reform but as Paul Scraton has eloquently suggested in an earlier Shadows & Reflections posting: “you can’t fight these sour times with creativity alone, but it plays its part. We need to tell our stories and we need to tell them well.” Ken Loach certainly does that for the Daniel Blakes of this world. On a lighter note, Ron Howard’s The Beatles : Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years was a revelation. Wonderfully restored and enhanced live footage provides the cornerstone for an insight into the circus that was Beatlemania and how, once it had propelled the group to unprecedented fame and popularity, it quickly began to erode their unity as a group and threaten their creative impetus. To realise that John Lennon sang ‘Help!’ for a reason so early on in their career is surprisingly poignant. The film is bolstered by well-chosen interview material from the time, as well as contemporary reflections from a diverse assortment of celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver and Elvis Costello. As I may have mentioned, we had a large crowd at The Brewhouse for this film and I would say that about half of the audience were women who could well have been those girls in the film who screamed The Beatles into eventual submission.

This year has been a pretty good one for sci-fi films and the pick of the bunch for me is Arrival, a film that is actually essentially about linguistics and the idea, first posited in the 1940s, that the structure of a language determines, or at least influences, how we perceive and experience the world. This theory is taken to a mind-boggling extreme when twelve huge alien pods appear above the earth’s surface and start communicating in a language that has a profound effect on the linguist (Oscar performance from Amy Adams?) who is sent to find out what they want. Again, it’s a film for our times – an entertainingly-disguised comment on the importance of open-minded communication in promoting co-operation and harmony between differing cultures. Truly great soundtrack by Johann Johannsson as well. Alas, no such harmony exists in the savage, cannibal-infested and unbearably tense western Bone Tomahawk, surely destined to become one of THE cult westerns and which puts Kurt Russell firmly alongside Jeff Bridges as one of the great, grizzled cowboys of film history. And no sense of resolution either in Eye In The Sky which explores, dramatically but even-handedly, the moral dilemmas arising out of the drone warfare and computer-based technology that in theory allows the military to isolate ‘legitimate’ targets from innocent victims. That’s the theory; but in reality of course things aren’t as simple as that. Things were never simple either in the vision of J.G.Ballard, whose novel High-Rise was adapted into perhaps one of the most unsettling films of the year. Predicting life in a futuristic tower-block where an economic hierarchy creates explosive tension, unrestrained hedonism and violent anarchy, Ballard’s warning is as prescient as ever and the visual dystopia that the film excels in is stark and spellbinding. The unprecedented impact on our lives, both now and in the future, of the internet is examined with typical perception and some humour by Werner Herzog in his documentary Lo And Behold: Reveries of The Connected World. The possibilities of where the internet and cyber technology will ultimately take us are either too alarming or exciting, depending on your affinity with the predictions of the some of the other-worldly boffins who Herzog interviews. But like the financial system, the benefit system and language systems, we need to at least try and understand what’s going on in the online world to ever have any hope of being able to control it. My final choice is The Childhood Of A Leader, a dark, claustrophobic film in which every character in the film is afraid, spooked and on edge; all except the child protagonist whose quiet arrogance, wilful defiance and sense of power and control is allowed to flourish amidst a family and within a Europe that is exhausted by the First World War. Scott Walker’s jagged, menacing soundtrack is an insistent warning of what’s to come and propels the film to its inevitable conclusion and the emergence of the mother of all shadows.

Andy Childs on Caught by the River