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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (3/2/2023)

(Reviews of EO; Husband; I Get Knocked Down; and Heading West: A Story About a Band Called Shooglenifty)


EO.


Currently awaiting its fate at BAFTA and the Oscars, Jerzy Skolimowski's EO has been labelled that rare beast in arthouse circles, a remake. There's no denying that it contains echoes of Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966), which Jean-Luc Godard declared contained `the world in an hour and a half'. The 84 year-old Polish auteur is clearly conscious of the similarities, especially when it comes to the themes of human cruelty and misplaced good intentions. But this stylised account of a donkey's search for lost contentment favours audacity over the austerity of Bresson's masterpiece to provide a mournful (if occasionally emotionally manipulative) snapshot of humanity on the road to nowhere.


EO is a circus donkey, who is first seen in a blur of red strobe light performing with Kasanadra (Sandra Drzymalska). As part of the act, EO lies on its back in the ring and clambers up to its hooves. The audience applauds and the doting Kasandra rewards the animal's efforts with a tasty treat and plenty of fussing. It responds by nuzzling her and seems to know she is defending him when the surly Wasyl (Maciej Stepniak) uses a whip to get EO to pull a cartload of rubbish to the tip, where a grabber crane hauls scrap metal.


On returning to the circus, Wasyl is confronted by animal rights activists, who accuse him of torturing the creatures in the show. Moreover, a bailiff presents him with a bankruptcy order that entitles him to confiscate EO and a couple of camels. Kasandra is devastated and. from the close-up of an eye, EO seems equally crestfallen, as the transporter lorry carries him (or her; it's never made clear) away.


Gazing out from the box being towed through the countryside, EO sees some horses running free in a field. But he is welcomed at a stable with a garland of carrots and munches away, while some local dignitaries preen their way through the ceremonial opening. While the horses are groomed for photo shoots and exercised in a spacious arena, EO pulls a hay cart and looks on with what appears to be a onetime performer's envy at being out of the spotlight.


One day, the lusty antics of two stablemates cause EO to upset the contents of his cart and he is shipped off to a donkey sanctuary. The owner's wife offers him a carrot, but he turns his head and pines for Kasandra in his stall. He is gentle with the special needs children who come to visit, pet the animals, and go for rides through the woods. But EO is unsettled when a drunken Kasandra (whose real name is Magda) arrives on a motorbike with her boyfriend to feed him a carrot muffin for his birthday.


Kicking away a bar from his pen, EO escapes into the woods, where he watches a frog skimming across river water by moonlight. He sees a spider meander up a slender thread and hears wolves howling and foxes scurrying. But EO stands his ground, even when lasers zigzag between the trees and the sound of gunfire rings out.


Arriving at an abandoned building, EO stops as the camera edges into the darkness and emerges in a well-lit tunnel. The donkey trots along the puddle-pocked path and seems oblivious to a colony of bats that screeches overhead. He finds himself in hilly terrain and feasts on such grass, as the red filter returns, the score becomes stridently dissonant, and the camera performs drone-loops over a wind turbine.


Emerging in a picturesque, but deserted town, EO whinnies at a tank full of goldfish before being cornered by a couple of firefighters, who tether him to the back of their red tender. As he feeds at the side of a road, however, he is untied by a football fan, who takes him to the game taking place at a nearby ground.


When a last-minute penalty is awarded to Zryw's opponents, a hush descends. But EO brays just as the kick is taken and the ball sails over the bar. A scuffle breaks out, as the visiting supporters protest. But EO is adopted as a hero by the victorious fans and is led through the streets with a blue-and-white scarf around his neck. The loud celebrations in the clubhouse prove too loud and he sidles away. But he is recognised by some vengeful thugs from the other team and is savagely beaten when they gatecrash the party.


Waking at a mink farm, EO longs for Kasandra's gentle touch. Instead, he is left to fend for himself by a disinterested vet. A dogsbody keeps an eye on him, though, and harnesses him up to another cart after he recovers. EO dislikes his new job, however, as he carries cages containing condemned minks to their fate. Sensing their distress he kicks the keeper in the head.


Rather than being put down, EO is sold with a consignment of horses destined for an Italian salami factory. The driver, Mateo (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz), protests at transporting a donkey, but he sets off regardless and heavy metal music blares out, as EO looks through the slats of the container to see factories belching smoke into the air.


Once off the motorway, the view improves and a bird soars over snow-dusted peaks. Mateo stops at a service station to wash and buy supplies. He notices a migrant woman (Gloria Iradukunda) following her and uses food to lure her to his cab. She eats hurriedly and accepts packages of pork and cheese, but flees the moment Mateo mentions sex. Cursing himself for being so bad at seduction, he slumps back in his seat, only for someone to reach in through his window and cut his throat.


EO is tied to a pole on a verge, as the police unload the horses. Having wandered into the services after his car breaks down, Vito (Lorenzo Zurzolo) happens upon him and is so moved by being nuzzled that he decides to liberate the donkey and take him home. As they ride in the back of a horse box, Vito wonders whether he's stolen EO and confesses to having eaten lots of salami. His guilt comes naturally, as he is a priest, and he is left to wait patiently at the offertory, while the Countess (Isabelle Huppert) takes a call about her misbehaving stepson.


While the countess smashes crockery in the kitchen and chides Vito about his gambling habit before revealing that she is selling up and returning to France, EO grazes on the lawn. He is secure and can feel the sun on his back, as he hee-haws loudly while wandering the villa grounds. But thoughts of Kasandra prompt him to pass through an open gate and he finds himself on a bridge beside a raging sluice dam.


Once again, determined to find the one person who had truly loved him, EO patters along a rustic road. He falls in behind a herd of cattle and allows himself to be swept along, as there is safety in numbers. A couple of drovers fail to notice him, as the animals shuffle through a penned maze towards a slaughterhouse. As the screen suddenly cuts to black, a zapping noise is heard and a caption assures us that no creatures were harmed in the making of a film that is intended to champion animal welfare.


While Bresson shows us Balthazar's last breath, Skolimowski leaves us with the faintest hope that the error will be rectified. After all, EO has had narrow escapes before. But most will be left forlorn by the crushing inevitability of the heartbroken donkey's fate. After all, that's the way the world works.


Skolimowski evidently despairs of modern society, as even those seeking to do good have an aggressive arrogance that prevents them from discerning details. The animal rights protesters are so wrapped up in their laudable cause that they don't bother to question whether EO needs delivering from what they perceive to be an exploitative hell. His affection for Kasandra is palpable and, while some of the reveries are a little unwieldy, his pining for her protection is deeply moving.


In many ways, EO is as single-minded as the activists, as his first two post-circus billets would have made acceptable homes. Indeed, his outrage at the treatment of the dogs drives him to violence after having been taught it at the hands of the football hooligans. But he remains a docile creature and his trusting nature leads him into the abattoir pens that bring back memories of the final scene of Bong Joon-ho's Okja (2017). Victor Kossakovsky's porcocentric Gunda (2020) and Andrea Arnold's Cow (2021) also come to mind.


While the obvious comparisons have been made to Au hasard Balthazar, EO actually follows the equine route established by Anna Sewell's Black Beauty (1877). Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska note that brutality is still meted out to animals 150 years later, while also commenting (almost didactically) on the damage caused to the natural world by pollution, deforestation, diverting waterways, the consumption of animal products, and sheer human greed. Their criticism of circuses is more muted, as we never discover how the camels were employed. But this is very much a reminder that humans are at the root of virtually all the planet's problems, whether they are social or ecological.


Even more than the nightmarish vision of the robotic quadruped, Isabelle Huppert's haughty cameo proves something of a distraction. Nevertheless, she amuses as the kitchen-wrecking countess being tempted by her prodigal stepson. But the cast is consistently upstaged by the assinine sextet of Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, and Mela. They don't `act', of course. But Skolimowski's camera placement and Agnieszka Glinska's deftly Kuleshovian editing allows them to convey reactions that assume emotional significance without resorting to anthropomorphism. Abetted by Pawel Edelman and Michal Englert, Michal Dymek's cinematography is remarkable throughout, whether framing EO, placing him within his environs, or capturing the beauty or the monstrosity of modern life. Pawel Mykietyn's agile score is equally effective, although it plays its part in Skolimowski's occasionally unequivocal attempts to influence the audience's response to the world contained in his hour and a half. This can be forgiven, for, while he might have gone about it in a less blatant way, Bresson similarly sought to coax empathy.


Donkeys are such placidly trusting and innocently accepting creatures that it's impossible to resist them. Try watching the Paul Gallico adaptations, Ralph Smart and Maurice Cloche's Never Take No For an Answer (1951) and Jeannot Szwarc's The Small Miracle (1973), without shedding a tear. But might the message have been clearer without all those red filters, drone swoops, and facile scene transitions?


HUSBAND.


Five minutes seems to have passed since reviewing The New Man (2016). But seven years have actually elapsed since Josh Appignanesi and Devorah Baum allowed us a teasingly realitified glimpse into their existence. Now, they afford us an opportunity to catch up with their four-strong family in the sequel autoficumentary, Husband.


Following a flashback to the fallout from The New Man, the opening credits depict images of husbands and wives from art and advertising to the accompaniment of a jazz tune that might have played at the start of an early film by Woody Allen (who released Husbands and Wives in 1992, just as his relationship with Mia Farrow turned toxic). The latter word has become synonymous with a certain brand of male behaviour in the midst of a wider debate about a supposed crisis of masculinity.


Three years have passed since Baum gave to her second son and she is about to go to New York for a series of stage events to promote her new publication, Feeling Jewish (A Book For Just About Anyone). She hopes Appignanesi is going to be supportive and help out with Manny and Isaiah. But he loses his passport and Baum has to fly out with niece Limor to take care of the boys.


Baum has addressed an exclusive gathering by the time Appignanesi arrives. He films himself to capture his bewilderment at being in the big city and quickly gets on Baum's nerves while they're eating in a diner by asking her to recap how her presentation went. She's more accommodating, as they discuss feelings like guilt, as they walk through the busy streets with their two-seater pushchair. But she would appreciate some assistance before a bookshop signing, as Appignanesi is fussing with the film when she needs him to entertain the kids while she de-stresses before her talk.


As evening falls, they watch breakdancers in Central Park and visit a comedy club. Appignanesi enthuses about the show, as they walk along, but feels deflated when Baum notes that the show had a superficial slickness that was designed to seduce affluent white tourists. She chides him for talking too loud (and too much) in public and curtly suggests cutting things short and heading home.


They dine with friends and Baum tries to define how feelings shape character and lives. Having joined friend Zadie Smith at a protest at Trump Tower, Baum gets nervous when friend Ruti Teitel offers to throw her a book party. She tells Appignanesi that she could do without having to film all the time, while she deals with things that are important to her reputation and career. Shot from behind, as they traipse through Central Park, Appignanesi promises that he is trying to be discreet and reassuring, but he is struggling to convince himself about the validity of their joint project and can't figure out whether he is enjoying himself or hating every second of the trip.


Baum jokes that `this is a wonderful place and you are a nightmare' and he sympathises with her because he'd hate being in New York with himself, too. He does admonish her for failing to enjoy being feted (which he would love) and teases her that she doesn't have the capacity to enjoy herself. She smiles when he cajoles her with the reassurance that no one is going to watch the film (that she is co-directing) anyway.


However, Baum's insecurity about promoting her first book is genuine and she elects to read a passage about guilt (while confessing to paranoia and self-loathing) at the book party. It is going down well when Appignanesi drops the microphone and we cut to them walking home with him trying to apologise for piling defeat upon defeat as though he was trying to convince her of his ineptitude.


Having been reassured by her hostess that the party went well, Baum gets into a flap about the UK publication date being brought forward. She worries the whole enterprise is impacting upon her mental health and grumbles that Appignanesi is making things worse by trying to play the understanding spouse.


A montage follows of a day out with the boys, who are on adorable form back in the hotel room over a plate of cheese. Baum is nervous ahead of her interview with Zadie Smith, but Appignanesi keeps popping in to check on her with the camera rolling. En route to the bookshop, he reveals how nervous he is and she has to ditch him to prevent his angst impinging upon herself. Once behind a microphone, however, Baum comes into her own, as she responds to Smith's grown-up questions with witty, self-deprecating, and intellectually acute answers that are lapped up by the audience.


Suddenly, Baum is the Associate Professor in English Literature at the University of Southampton. She signs books and poses for pictures under the proud gaze of her husband. But she doesn't want Appignanesi's praise as they walk home (holding hands, for once) and is embarrassed by his gushing declarations of love and attraction. The next day, they take the children to the zoo and each admit to missing home. Over lunch, writer Alissa Quart harangues Appignanesi for imposing on Baum by exploiting her brilliance for commercial gain. He promises her that there is nothing commercial about his films, but Baum nods in the background (even though the credits confirm she is an active conspirator in the entire ruseful process).


At a restaurant, Baum concedes that it has been a difficult trip trying to be a scholar, wife, and mother in a pressured situation. Appignanesi apologises for making things worse and she smiles indulgently as he explains that he loathes himself for being too needful to be nurturing. He poses to record a listening shot, but Baum isn't talking.


Exasperating, exhausting and entertaining in equal measure, this second dispatch from the Appignanesi-Baum household reinforces many of the impressions left by the original film. It also confirms that they have become so good at playing their on-camera roles that it's wiser to allow oneself to be swept along by their good-natured kvetching than it is to wonder what happened to the blurred lines that had made The New Man so intriguing. Josh and Devorah are now coming dangerously close to playing Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, albeit one without Annie Hall's la di da mannerisms.


Their pseudo-performances make them easier to watch, as viewers no longer feel that they are intruding upon private conversations. Despite the curbed enthusiasm of those reviewers who feel they aren't entitled to shape meta-actuality, it's clear that the emotions they explore are real, especially in light of Baum's book. Moreover, for all Appignanesi's yaddering, she does get the space to express herself, while also getting to sublimate the apprehension she feels about the tour.


It would be fascinating to know how much footage the pair amassed to edit down to just 71 minutes. The time flies by and one hopes they can share another significant event in the near future, as Baum and Appignanesi make a canny double act either side of the camera.


I GET KNOCKED DOWN.


Back in 2000, three years after Chumbawamba had topped the UK chart with `Tubthumping', Ben Uwin Hyde profiled the band in the documentary, Well Done, Now Sod Off. Two decades later, frontman Dunstan Bruce has joined forces with Emmy winner Sophie Robinson for I Get Knocked Down, which not only places the misunderstood anthem in its proper context, but also ponders whether this greying anarchist from Teeside sold his soul for a brief bleach-blond moment in the spotlight.


In his youth, Bruce wanted to change the world. Now 59, he curses the fact he's `a washed up, rinsed out retired radical'. Goaded by a stalker with a slowed-down northern drawl and a plastic baby head (resembling the one on the album cover), Bruce refuses to let the world go to hell in a handcart. After a round of phone calls fail to drum up interest in his new band, Interrobang, he grabs a megaphone and intones, from atop a white cliff, Howard Beale's mantra from Sidney Lumet's Network (1976) that he's as mad as hell and not going to take this any more.


He seeks out his old bandmates. Ironing a frock, Alice Nutter confides that she was an unlikely rocker, but being in Chumbawamba gave her the confidence to change her life. Drummer Harry Hamer equates the theatricality of the combo with appearing in the family musical, Don't Mess With the Nannas. At 48, he's still angry, but he admits he's not as politically extreme as he once was, as he is now a member of the Labour Party.


As Bruce parades along a Brighton street with a placard reading `Am I Invisible Yet?', he endures the taunts of Baby-Head and recalls footage of Chumbawamba in Berlin around the time they made the anti-Band Aid album, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records (1986). He also reflects on his conservative upbringing in Billingham and how punk had sent him scuttling to Leeds to chase his dream.


Moving into a squat at Southview House with Hamer, Nutter, and Lou Watts, Bruce challenged every convention, from becoming vegan and sharing domestic duties to confronting the establishment and embracing anarchism. Bandmate Boff Whalley remembers the sense of purpose they shared, as they opposed the Falklands War and supported the striking miners. Moreover, they sang for the cause, with titles like `Margaret Thatcher Is a Shit Stain in Norman Fowler's Underpants'.


Bruce and Hamer revisit their old haunt and reminisce about the police harassing them about planting bombs and stealing beagles. They leave behind a homemade blue plaque on the gatepost. Watts and Nutter discuss forming the band, even though they couldn't play any instruments, and how they sought to advocate class war through a combination of The Beatles and Crass. With each album, they veered off in a different direction, while sticking with their principles. However, as Jude Abbott reflects, tensions were starting to emerge, as band members were forced to take part-time jobs to make ends meet. That's when they decide to write a song that would reach a wider audience.


They admit that `Tubthumping' was an accidental hit and Bruce looks back with embarrassment at Chumbawamba's appearance on Top of the Pops. He is prouder of the guest slot on The Late Show With David Letterman, but worries in a video with his alter egos that Baby-Head is right to accuse them of selling out.


On an interview with Democracy Now, however, he notes that they used their platform to stir things up, whether protesting at Mumia Abu Jamal's death sentence or advocating the theft of CDs from the Virgin Megastore. Moreover, they used monies from licencing songs like `Pass It Along' to Ford Motors to fund political pressure groups. While in New York, he drops in to see Republic Records chief Avery Lipman to take a trip down memory lane. However, the cordiality cools when Lipman suggests that Chumbawamba's antics largely went over the heads of the American public and then weedles his way out of commenting on an Interrobang demo tape.


Baby-Head finds it hilarious when Lipman opines that the track would be fun live. He's no more impressed when Bruce tracks down old mucker Danbert Nobacon, who is still working, even though he's finding it harder to be heard in a culture dominated by youth. Reunited with his bandmates, he relives the moment he tipped an ice bucket over Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott at the 1998 Brit Awards as a protest about Labour's inaction over the Liverpool dock strike.


As Nigel Hunter, Nobacon had been raised in Burnley and parents Roy and Shirley tell Bruce about being doorstepped by the press the day after the drenching. Their scrapbook also contains some hate mail and we hear smarmy critics like David Quantick and Caitlin Moran, low-wattage comedian Richard Herring, and has-been Jonathan King decrying them. Once again, Baby-Head revels in the abuse, as he mocks a toy gorilla that gyrated to `Tubthumping' and demands to know what effect Chumbawamba actually had.


Bruce goes to see Crass frontman Penny Rimbaud, the godfather of anarcho-punk, who makes the distinction between street an the mainstream in assessing the sub-genre's legacy. He insists they got their message across without media backing and cites the Prescott incident to absolve Chumbawamba for moderating their lyrical stance. Blue-haired historian Lucy Robinson also commends the band for striving to politicise pop, while left-leaning film-maker Ken Loach echoes her insistence that Bruce shouldn't look on himself as a cop-out because he gave it a go.


Buoyed by hearing from young musicians in the punk protest tradition, Bruce goes on an anti-Trump demonstration in London and hits the road with Interrobang. They play the Rebellion Festival in Blackpool (to admittedly small crowds) and Bruce is touched when an audience member thanks them for the song about his relationship with the father who had disowned him when he dropped out of university.


Baby-Head wonders whether he can be proud of shouting at people in a half-empty room. But Bruce has rediscovered his mojo with Hamer and guitarist Stephen Griffin and he is glad to have something to say that's being heard. He binds and gags Baby-Head to banish his scepticism before ripping off his mask. But the screen goes black before his identity is revealed.


No prizes for guessing that it's Bruce himself in a kind of sideways tribute to Chris Sievey and his Frank Sidebottom persona. But while the device is slightly overused, it enables Bruce to address his demons without appearing to wallow in self-pity. He may have to endure the scorn of die-hard punks who disowned him the moment he left the margins. But one only has to listen to the crawl montage of Tubthumping' covers by indie groups, metal bands, online crooners, and choirs to realise that he has left an indelible mark. Even Homer Simpson had a go and it looks like the royalties have enabled him to buy a nice house.


Bringing to mind David Byrne in Spike Lee's American Utopia (2020), Bruce may have been knocked down, but he has retained the combative quirkiness that allowed Chumbawamba to sneak under the radar of the American networks and shock on Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher and The Rosie O'Donnell Show. Moreover, for all his self-effacement, he's still got enough of an ego to undertake what is essentially a vanity project. It says more about the media during the Cool Britannia era than the band's attitudes that they came to be sidelined as one-hit wonders. But, while it meanders at times and might have said more about the other members battling on for another eight years after Bruce's 2004 departure, this portrait of the anarchist as an old man goes some way to putting the record straight.


HEADING WEST: A STORY ABOUT A BAND CALLED SHOOGLENIFTY.


Don Coutts has had an impressively varied career. Starting out as an editor, he was one of the co-producers of the controversial Channel Four chat show, After Dark (1987-91). Turning to directing, he followed the 2003 romcom, American Cousins, with Katie Morag (2013-15), the BAFTA-winning BBC children's series based on the books by Mairi Hedderwick. However, it's his documentaries that most intrigue, as they cover topics ranging from investigations into child abuse, men crying, and training shoes to arts profiles of celebrated photographers, film-makers, and musicians.


Respectively centring on the Washingon go-go scene and jazz singer Suzanne Bonner, Welcome to the GoGo (1986) and Fly Me to Dunoon (1991) proved useful grounding for Coutts's feature study, Heading West: A Story About a Band Called Shooglenifty, which follows the `acid croft' band's bid to bounce back from the loss of its driving force.


Fiddler Angus R. Grant died of throat cancer at the age of 49 in 2016. In order to celebrate his legacy, a concert was held in Glasgow with the surviving members of Shooglenifty, as well as guests like his singer niece, Eva Corser. Over 2000 people attended and we hear from family members and bandmates about the contradictions that made this itinerant musician so charming and capricious.


The journey started in the Cowgate in Edinburgh, where Swamptrash were part of the lively music scene in the early 1990s. In addition to Grant, banjo player Garry Finlayson, drummer James MacIntosh, bassist Conrad Molleson, and mandolin player Malcolm Crosbie would migrate to Shooglenifty, who were completed by mandolin player Iain McLeod for an initial busking stint in Spain before taking up a residency at La Belle Angele, where their folk-inspired dance music slowly began to attract a following.


With footage of the heyday being in short supply, Coutts rather bolts through the next two decades to return to Grant's tragically early death, the memorial gig, and the decision to find a new fiddler and keep Shooglenifty (and Grant's legacy) going. He eavesdrops on a Galician recording session with female trio Tanxugueras providing back vocals for singer Kaela Rowan.


Much is made of the connection between the styles and this segues into a collaboration in India with Dhun Dhora in the Mehrangarh fortress in Jodhpur. Ewan MacPherson and Quee MacArthur have joined on mandolin and bass, while Laura Wilkie has come to guest on fiddle. In addition to recording, the band ventures out for a jam session in a hill village and plays a gig.


Back in Scotland, life without Grant must go on and Eilidh Shaw has assumed fiddling duties. She was taught by his father, Aonghas Grant (aka `The Left-Handed Fiddler of Lochaber'), and has fitted in perfectly, even though her integration coincided with the Coronavirus pandemic.


More on this transition might have been nice, as it marks an important step in the band's progress. But longing for a wee bit extra is a recurring experience while watching a documentary that presumes a fair amount of foreknowledge in taking the `what happened next' option rather than recapping the Shooglenifty story. This is fair enough, as existing fans will appreciate the catch-up, while newcomers will enjoy discovering past albums and online clips.


Adding to the frustration is the fact that the band members are so engaged and eloquent and this feels like a missed opportunity to press them further on the `acid croft' style and the impact that Shooglenifty had on music in Scotland, on the Celtic fringe, and beyond. A gush of reverence from the odd famous fan or the hushed awe of a respected music critic might also not have gone amiss. But this stands as a valuable introduction to music that sets toes tapping and spirits soaring.


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