Apr 22

"Vita & Virginia" written by Gregory Mann

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(St. Louis, Missouri Film Festival, April 28th, 2019, Landmark Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard St. Louis, MO 63130, 5.30 pm)

 

http://www.cinemastlouis.org/schedule

 

 

"Vita & Virginia"

 

 

"Vita & Virginia" details the intimate relationship between author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and socialite, Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), which was to become the inspiration for Woolf’s Modernist novel, 'Orlando: A Biography'.

The affair and the friendship between literary trailblazer Virginia Woolf, and the enigmatic aristocrat Vita Sackville-West, both uncompromising in their insistence to live, love, and create to the fullest, constitutes one of the most fascinating and passionate relationships in literary history. The film tells the story of the birth of the novel their intoxicating encounters inspired; Woolf’s bold experiment in art and androgyny, ‘Orlando’. The year is 1922. Though happily married, Vita is as notorious for her dalliances with women and subversive attitudes toward gender as she's famous for her aristocratic pedigree and writerly success. Virginia a celebrated writer, publisher, and member of 'The Bloomsbury Group', already revolutionising literature. When Vita receives an invitation to 'Bloomsbury', she's elated at the thought of meeting the enigmatic Woolf. When their paths cross, the magnetic Vita decides the beguiling, stubborn and gifted Virginia will be her next conquest, no matter the cost. Between the concern of their husbands, families, and mutual friends, their romance is bound to be tumultuous. The film is a celebration of their unconventional bond; a vivid exploration of gender, sexuality, creativity and passion. Yet tumult can fuel creativity, Vita's singular persona will eventually be channelled into one of Virginia's greatest works, ‘Orlando'.

The idiosyncratic worlds of artists and aristocracy collide in "Vita & Virginia", which brings into focus the years of friendship, sex, love and letter writing between two literary powerhouses. Vita Sackville-West is introduced to 'The Effervescent Bloomsbury Set', at the heart of which is Virginia Woolf. Their refusal to play by society’s rules offers an enticing escape to socialite and author Vita, who's no stranger to rule-breaking herself. She's constantly chastised by her overbearing and dismissive mother, Lady Sackville-West (Isabella Rossellini) and resents the duties she must undertake for her bisexual, MP husband, Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones). Vita is drawn to the progressive and sexually liberated group of artists, politicians and authors, intrigued particularly by the mystery and apparent aloofness of Virginia. Having a long-held and deep contempt for the upper classes, Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando) is suspicious of this socialite’s sudden appearance in their lives but Virginia persuades him that their publishing house, 'Hogarth Press', should publish Vita’s next book. Something more than a working relationship blooms between the two women; although each writer holds the other in high regard and they're celebrated in their own right, they crave a particular acceptance from each other.

Their mutual admiration, though fast becoming charged with a tension and a passion which excites them both, is peppered with doubts. Their backgrounds and sensibilities are so far apart on the social spectrum that their relationship and even friendship seems doomed. A brief but significant visit to Vita’s ancestral home marks their inescapable differences in Virginia’s mind and it reignites her fear that she cannot love others in the same way as they do her. Vita and Harold’s marriage of convenience threatens to crumble as she becomes frustrated and suffocated by the role of submissive and dutiful wife, distracted by the exciting opportunities that being Virginia’s lover offers. There's always a sense that Vita is desperate to lift the curtain on the real Virginia, to reveal the truth behind the myth and Virginia relishes the challenge, even if she's not always entirely comfortable with it. Their relationship oscillates, they circle around each other and there are constant contradictions between what's said and what's meant. It's when they're separated by Harold’s diplomatic responsibilities that the truth pours out. Their letters are infused with a fierce love and longing, a desperation to explore and analyse the heart and the mind; this is where they're most comfortable, each a muse for the other.

Vita is a real conundrum, she has a public persona, she has a huge character, very fun-loving, insatiable in all aspects of life but also deeply private and shy. There are always two things going on, which are completely contradictory. She's very loving and caring but could be brutal and cold, altogether a fascinating person. Going into Virginia feels like falling down a rabbit hole. It’s a fascinating abyss, one can really never know her and yet it feels like getting to read her work in a different way to many other people. A lot of the dialogue is taken directly from the letters they wrote, which is hard to naturalise because letter writing is very considered. Vita is fun and cavalier, she comes from a different world and Virginia is somebody who's fascinated by people. She's always trying to absorb things from life and when she recognised that there's something in someone that she could learn from, that she hasn't perhaps accessed before, she's drawn to it. We've to remind ourselves that these people are wordsmith how they spoke. The film is trying to honour the cerebral landscape of these women but also give you something very physical and raw and human, and so much of their story is so physical.

Many films focuses on iconic geniuses. First of all, they’re usually men and second of all, it's not interesting to just watch an intelligent person be clever. Over the course of the film, we climb inside Virginia’s mind, particularly when she’s feeling inspired by Vita and certain emotions are woken up. We've these surreal, visual, magical realism trips that suggest what it might be like to see the world through her eyes, which rips it out of the genre of period drama fairly conclusively, it’s become genreless in a way. These two women had extraordinary lives, the scope is enormous. The film is a snapshot of the more intense part of Vita and Virginia’s relationship. It’s also about Virginia connecting to her sexuality, her body and her relationship with sex; that’s something that Vita really gives her. Virginia Woolf is someone who we associate with fragility, if people can be relied on one thing to know about her, it’s the fact that she committed suicide and the fact she struggled her whole life with a spectrum of emotional and psychological challenges. What the film captures and crystallizes is a moment of profound strength, which is Virginia using her amazing intellect to digest and overcome an experience which everyone thinks will overwhelm her. The film tells the story of the moment in which she uses her ability to write and create great work as a way of moving on from a crisis that Vita brings about. It's not a biopic in that sense, we’re looking at a very specific moment, a moment of great strength from a woman who we may otherwise associate with vulnerability.

Vita’s world represents castles and grand places, opulence and decadence whereas 'The Bloomsbury Group' side is muted and feels worn and lived-in. 'The Hogarth Press' set is completely ‘wow’, you didn’t know where the set ended. We've these meandering corridors that keep going, you feel like you're in an underground den where all these anarchic ideas are happening! There’s a real contrast in the film because Vita and Virginia are so different, the design is very impressive. In terms of Vita’s costumes, the film wants to get across that she's a trendsetter, she's daring for her time and dressed androgynously. She's very rich so she could spend a lot of money on clothes and is also very well travelled, so the film incorporates some of 'The Middle East' in her costumes. Wev a lot of punk references, David Bowie is a big influence on the film, specifically that androgynous style that he played around with. When you think of the 1920s, you think of flapper girls etc., but the film has a lot more fun not being completely strict to the period. David Bowie meets Keith Richards meets Louise Brooks! Virginia has a more soft, steady silhouette, she’s less confident in her look but very precise in her aesthetics, it's important to keep that constant. She's fragile which is reflected in the fabrics and softer colours. Virginia is soft, like a pool of water, she swims around in blues and cooler colours, which is such a contrast from Vita who wants to dictate so strongly the shape that she carves out in the world as a woman, she looks so different in every scene whereas Virginia looks almost the same throughout. Of course you've to study the real life people but because the actors don’t necessarily look like them, the film moves away from that image. So instead of trying to replicate them, we find the essence of the real people and then go our own way.

Recreating 'Charleston House', where 'The Bloomsbury Group' were based, has been a very special thing to do, it’s a world that's created by a bunch of punk artists who wanted to live their own kind of life. It's an iconic place, which is in itself a work of art, is a metaphor for the fact that this film is about a community of characters who designed their lives to serve their passions and their interests and to be free. 'The Hogarth Press' set has this ‘tunnel’ feel to it and at the end of it, is Virginia’s door, it feels very much like the energy is going down the hall into this room where she would be creating. It feels that the flow of energy seemed to come to and from the room. The set itself is underneath this great manor house and it's quite dark and damp, the exact contrast of Vita’s world, so it feels quite right that the light and the colours of the world of the Woolfs contrasted so hugely from the airiness and breeziness of 'The Nicholsons’. What Virginia is doing with 'Hogarth Press' is quite radical and the film depicts that by bringing it into this basement, somewhere underground, not gritty but essentially a working, buzzing environment. The film takes some inspiration from 'The Prohibition Era' in America.

Based on Sackville-West and Woolf's personal correspondence and co-scripted by distinguished stage and screen veteran 'Eileen Atkins', "Vita & Virginia" is bold, sensuous, and smart, and will make you swoon. It's a love story, told in a contemporary style, about two women, two writers, who smashed through social barriers to find solace in their forbidden connection. "Vita & Virginia" offers a glimpse into the complex nature of relationships and marriages, questioning what it's to be female and feminine and details the fraught hypocrisies of living in the 1920s. Punctuating the film is Virginia’s well publicised mania, depicted through visual, imaginative metaphors, a reminder of her vulnerability that Vita is eager to dispel. Throughout the story, characters struggle with the unwritten rules of jealousy, revolution, power and the myriad forms that love takes. It's from one such struggle, after Virginia sees Vita with another woman, that 'Orlando: A Biography' is born, canonising Vita forever as Virginia’s muse.

"Vita & Virginia stand out from other period dramas because the characters, such as 'The Bloomsbury Group' are so cutting edge for the time. They're pioneers and breaking down a lot of barriers. The 1920s was a time of shaking free of 'The Victorian Era' and the focus is on the people doing just that. The film feels young and fresh. The casting is quite young. This is never going to feel like a sleepy period drama. It should feel incidental that it’s set in 1927, it feels contemporary and punk and edgy. The world that 'The Bloomsbury Group' built for themselves was liberal and progressive, that’s what has dictated the vision for this film. Vita and Virginia’s relationship was light years ahead of it's time so the film doesn't want to be stuck in the past. The script is very bold and unique in the way that it tackles Vita and Virginia’s relationship. It’s intelligent and sharp, the incorporation of their literary canon with the letters and how they speak to each other, it’s an honouring of their work but it brings them into a human realm, and at the centre of it's this love story which is really poignant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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To see that world in color, the way Jojo, Rosie and Elsa would have experienced it, gives it a whole new dimension and aliveness. We've seen so many muted period films from 'WWII', whether in black & white or in more somber colors, that we're shocked to see such a vibrant spectrum of color.  But that's the reality and once the film decides to reflect this, it's an idea that circulated through the set design and the costumes and helps to set the tone for the story. At Jojo’s age things are a little more rosy-tinted and the world seems bigger and more amazing. So, the film recreates this feeling, the feeling we all have in childhood, but within 1940s Germany. For most of the film, we’ve been in Jojo’s imagination, with his playful view of war, but when the battle hits the town, we’re suddenly struck with the reality of what war really is. The frightening atmosphere and noise of it feels very real. In some ways it feels very visceral and real, but the film also creates something that becomes a kind of magical and surreal moment in the film. As the events in the film grow darker, so too do the colors. For the happier, more playful moments in the film, we've a diverse palette of oversaturated colors.  Then, the film tapes those off as more drama comes into play. Most of the film takes place in 'The Autumn" so we've lush greens sprinkled with gorgeous reds, oranges and pinks into the street scenes. However, hidden deep within the lightness of the house is Elsa’s dark, cramped space behind the wall, which forges an opposite feeling, mirroring the nearly unbearable tension under which she's forced to live. Rosie’s look has to be so distinctive that the audience recognizes her, in a flash, in the scene that's a devastating emotional turning point of the story. The butterfly seemed to express who she's, and the film uses a very distinctive pair of shoes, which stand out for a lady in that era. It's more powerful when you just see the shoes and make the connection to the butterfly in this moment. The camera always tries to make sure the audience is aware of Rosie’s shoes. For example, you really notice them when she’s dancing by the river in that light moment. The best comedy has always come out of the hardest human situations and 'Nazi Germany' is one of the hardest situations in history. "Jojo Rabbit" offers a sharply funny, yet profoundly stirring, child’s-eye view of a society gone mad with intolerance. The film makes a powerful statement against hate with this pitch-black satire of 'The Nazi Culture' that gripped 'The German Psyche' at the height of 'WWII'. It's a story almost too appalling to approach with sober solemnity, that of a boy who, like many at that time, has been brainwashed into absolutely gung-ho devotion to Hitler. He then mines from it a dark, mesmerizing comedy that ultimately unravels the toxic ideas of 'Anti-Semitism' and persecution of the other. Balancing on a comedic high-wire, the film mixes the fury of satire with an insistent sense of hope that fanaticism and hate can be overcome. The film follows very much in the footsteps of Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and Stanley Kubrick to name a few. The script has a charged, satirical edge in the vein of say "Dr. Strangelove" and other black comedies that confront heavy subject matters by making them very funny. "Jojo Rabbit" is a fresh way to re-visit the most unsettling of topics through the paradoxically moral force of out-and-out parody. But much as the film owes to its bold forbearers, The film feels very much of our times, with it's deeply human characters whose blinded foibles might amuse but whose inner predicaments are deadly real and pointedly relevant right now.     The film opens a comfort zone but also any notion that stories about 'The Nazi Era' have been played out, especially when the lessons of those times are so urgent right now. With 'Nationalism', 'Anti-Semitism' and other forms of religious and racial intolerance on the rise, the stakes of grabbing people’s attention felt sky-high. The film brings the audience in with laughter, and once they’ve dropped their guard, then start delivering these little payloads of drama that have serious weight to them. Even if you don’t see them right away, you’ll feel them. It’s after the laugh that the strings start to be felt, drawing one’s consciousness to things that aren’t quite right, aren’t entirely funny, into deeper, more complex emotions, amongst these, the realization of the absurdity of the situation, and the tragedy and pain. In the end, as much as "Jojo Rabbit" showcases the tragically absurd realities of authoritarianism and nationalistic fervor, as well as the personal wages of prejudice and hate, the film equally reminds us of our human connection and the simple responsibility we all have to do what we can, including simply trying to be good to one another. This feels like exactly the right time to tell this story, because this is a case where you don’t want it to be too late to tell it.
  • (London Filn Festival, Thursday October 10th 2019, Odeon Tottenham Court Road, Central Cross, 30 Tottenham Court Rd, London W1T 1BX, UK, 18:15 pm) https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=cunningham&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id= "Cunningham" "Cunningham" traces Merce’s artistic evolution over three decades of risk and discovery (1944–1972), from his early years as a struggling dancer in postwar New York to his emergence as one of the world’s most visionary choreographers. The '3D' technology weaves together Merce's philosophies and stories, creating a visceral journey into his innovative work. A breathtaking explosion of dance, music, and never-before-seen archival material, the film is a timely tribute to one of the world’s greatest modern dance artists. During the years 1942-1972, he made his dances against all odds. He was always ready to place himself in unfamiliar situations and find new solutions. Throughout his career he embraced new technologies, from 16mm, television and video to the use of computers, body sensors and motion-capture technology. Cunningham had arrived in the city in 1939 with an invitation to join Graham’s company. In the 1940s, Merce Cunningham, along with John Cage, began a journey that would change the relationship between contemporary dance, music and art. Cunningham proposed the revolutionary idea that dance could exist independent of music, a concept that would dominate his unparalleled career for more than half a century. He popularized the idea of dance as a visual experience and trained some of the greatest dancers of his time, including Paul Taylor, Viola Farber, Douglas Dunn, Charles Moulton, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Ashley Chen and Jonah Bokaer. 'The United States', and New York in particular, was becoming the global center of artistic innovation. 'Abstract Expressionist' painters like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, radical composers including Arnold Schoenberg, and Martha Graham’s revolutionary troupe dominated the cultural scene. In 1944, he presented his first solo concert with composer John Cage, who became his frequent collaborator and lifelong romantic partner. Together they explored groundbreaking artistic philosophies, incorporating experiments with chance into their work as a way to free themselves from preconceived ideas. The pair acquired a third creative partner in 1952 when they met the then- emerging artist Robert Rauschenberg at the experimental, arts-focused 'Black Mountain College' in North Carolina. Like Cunningham and Cage, Rauschenberg resisted labels during his lengthy career, but is widely acknowledged as a forerunner in many art movements that developed after 'Abstract Expressionism'. Without a steady source of income, they collected scrap wood off the street and burned it to keep warm in winter. Cunningham rehearsed in his living space and often alone. In 1953, Cunningham launched 'The Merce Cunningham Dance Company' so he could concentrate full-time on his explorations. "Cunningham" includes a treasure trove of archival materials, a visual record of the dancer’s singular talent, Merce alone and with his company, rehearsing, performing, choreographing, and teaching. Often dressed in rehearsal clothes, he and his dancers bend, leap, spin and fall with abandon, combining what he thought were the best elements of classical ballet with the most interesting innovations in modern dance. One of the most memorable is a Rauschenberg-designed pointillist backdrop used for the original presentation of 'Summerspace', a 1958 collaboration. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol, the major figure of New York avant-garde film world, spent quite a bit of time in Merce’s studio. By the early 1970s, Merce began working with film and video himself primarily with filmmaker Charles Atlas. When Carolyn Brown, the last original member of his first company, left in 1972, that, the end of an era. Dance pioneer Merce Cunningham created some of the most iconic, influential work of his generation, incorporating the groundbreaking artistic ideals of mid-century visual arts and music, and redefining his art form. During a lifetime of artistic engagement with such diverse musicians as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, Cunningham created a new dance technique and celebrated movement as manifestation of being human and of being alive. After his death in 2009 at the age of 90, many felt uncertain about the future of his legacy and his fearless innovations. The new documentary "Cunningham" guarantees that his work will live on, in a stunning immersive experience that preserves some of his greatest works. Neither a straightforward biopic nor a traditional concert film, "Cunningham" was conceived as a 93-minute art piece that would tell the master’s story through his work. Combining Cunningham’s fascinating life experiences with his landmark artistic achievements, the film forges a delicate balance between facts and metaphors, exposition and poetry. A tribute to the visionary artist’s creative genius in a journey through the first 30 years of his career in New York City, the film traces the evolution of his thought and channels his spirit. Personal photographs, intimate letters, 16mm and 35mm footage, and home movies of performances, rehearsals, tours and gatherings offer the audience a glimpse of the choreographer’s visionary mind, while excerpts of iconic Cunningham works are performed by the last generation of his dancers and reimagined for '3-D' cinema. A '3D' movie about an avant-garde choreographer? We can make documentaries about choreographers or dancers as people, about life of a dance company and so on. But how to make a film that will allow the audience to experience choreographers work? "Cunningham" is based on an iconic photo of Merce’s dancers posing in the Robert Rauschenberg’s pointillist décor of his piece 'Summerspace', which was taken by Robert Rutledge in 1958. Merce staged this photograph himself by dropping Rauschenberg’s canvas on both the wall and the floor so it surrounded the dancers. It becomes that even back in the 1950s, before Merce developed the idea of an event, he had been longing to create immersive environments for his dances. The film is drawn to the genius of Merce Cunningham, the intricacies of his mind; his approaches that he invented making his dances; and his philosophies that he followed living his life and re-defining ideas about being human. His story is an incredible triumph of the human spirit. During the first 30 years of his career, between 1942-1972, he persevered, with great determination and stamina, to make dances against all odds. He was always ready to get outside himself, to place himself in unknown situations, and find new solutions. All this took place in a unique artistic climate, during the 1950s and 1960s in New York, when Cunningham and his collaborators were united by their poverty and ideas and art and life had virtually no separation. Merce’s dances evoke a sense of timelessness, a space in between rational and irrational, intellectual and emotional, immediate and eternal, that truly renews us. '3D' offers interesting opportunities as it articulates the relationship between the dancers in and to the space, awaking a kinesthetic response among the viewers. It also favors uncut choreographed shots, moving camera, and multiple layers of action in relation to the setting, everything that allows working with Merce’s choreography on screen in new ways. Merce and '3D' represent an idea fit, not only because of his use of space but also because of his interest in every technological advancement of his time, from 16mm film to motion capture, and his willingness to adapt and work in unconventional settings/locations, creating over 700 Cunningham Events, I.e. performances comprised of excerpts from different dances adapted for a specific location with the audience following the dancers. Today, '3D' allows for his dream to come true. The film is a 90-minute artwork in itself, which tells Merce’s story through his dances. It's a hybrid, rooted in both imaginary worlds and moving life experiences. A delicate balance between facts and metaphors, exposition and poetry. A single camera approach is used to choreograph the viewer’s eye, highlighting the dimensional relationships among performers and settings, uniquely enabled by '3D' technology. The aspiration has been to develop a unique language, integrating all the elements of the film in a subtle, distinct and poetic way, in Merce’s spirit. Seeing a dance through the lens of a camera changes everything. While viewing a dance on a stage you are free to look anywhere in the space, whereas the camera has to be carefully and strategically placed as it guides the eye within the limits of its perspective. The lens often skews a shape. For instance, it can make an arm look lifted when it should simply be horizontal or it can distort the spacing dramatically. With the true artistic collaboration that we developed, these small details could be worked out seamlessly and we developed a true understanding for one another’s point of view. Film is forever, so there's an enormous amount of pressure for the performers and an enormous responsibility in making the final choices on the takes. But beyond that trigger of emotion is the fact that he and his early collaborators and dancers tell the story, in their own voices, which gives a weight and power to this film that's undeniable. His willingness to break boundaries has been infectious and engendered courage in all of us. You've to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.