May 2010

Arts & Letters

The music of time

By Luke Davies
Gillian Armstrong’s ‘Love, Lust & Lies’ and Radu Mihaileanu’s ‘The Concert’

In 1975 Gillian Armstrong made the short film Smokes and Lollies, which followed the lives of three 14-year-old girls Armstrong had found hanging around an inner-city youth centre in Adelaide. The 25-minute documentary captures something of the universal bewilderment of adolescence, as well as its protagonists’ awkwardness and self-consciousness at being filmed. The girls are spontaneous and very rough-and-tumble, but the surprise in watching Smokes and Lollies now is not the roughness, but rather how innocent much of it seems today from our vantage point of a world wearing its sluttiness on every computer screen. The internet may not have reduced teenagers’ fears and anxieties, but it has mustered and globalised their sense of being a tribe, an entity, with boundaries worth defining, defending or defying. Smokes and Lollies reminds those of us who are old enough that there was a time when our world was, literally, the neighbourhood.

The film brings to mind, too, that the strangeness of being a teenager may only be the strangeness of change occurring in its most compressed timeframe – but tell that to a teenager. Armstrong’s good fortune has been the girls’ willingness over the ensuing decades to allow themselves to continue to be filmed, at irregular intervals. The result – four further films over 35 years, of which the excellent Love, Lust & Lies (released nationally on 13 May) is the latest – shows it is life itself, and not just adolescence, which is gloriously strange. We also come to see that adolescence doesn’t have the monopoly on change; with time pushing everything relentlessly forwards, all things can be gone in an instant. This is the real frisson of Love, Lust & Lies. The women are close to 50 now. The film poignantly reveals that persistence and patience, though the less glamorous cousins of love, are often no less effective as navigational tools through life’s chaos.

Armstrong first revisited the girls at 18 for Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better (1980), then waited eight years for Bingo, Bridesmaids & Braces (1988). By the time of Not Fourteen Again (1996) Josie, Diana and Kerry, then in their early thirties, had teenage children of their own. Another 14 years on and it’s not always easy to keep track of who’s who among children and grandchildren in Love, Lust & Lies. The current film interweaves footage from the previous ones; the recapitulations are fascinating and the time-jumps sometimes startling.

Armstrong’s model is Seven Up!, Michael Apted’s series that revisits its British subjects every seven years and in 2005 clocked up its seventh instalment, 49 Up. The Up series deservedly feels epic, achieving what good novels can achieve: the detailed depiction of nuances and fluctuations of the psyche, while also representing grand sweeps of time. The difference is that while novelists might take two years (of physical writing) to “suggest” 50 or 100, Apted – and Armstrong – are operating in a kind of cinematic real time.

The Apted series overtly set out to investigate the class system in Britain, and the differences between the working-class and upper-class children in the early films are marked. Issues of class still run deeply through the films, but as they progressed we came to know their characters not as representatives of social categories but simply as humans, growing inexorably older, with flaws and hopes and complex responses to life as it presented itself. “Be kind,” said Philo of Alexandria, “for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Clearly Armstrong and Apted, as directors, are practising this kind of compassion and sensitivity. In 49 Up, despite many of the participants’ self-professed reservations about continuing to appear, there seems to be an understanding that what they’re doing will one day – one century, even – be of enduring cultural and historical value. It’s the first time in human history that we’ve been able to do this. When it works, it is powerful. And it’s worth noting it has nothing to do with reality television, which inadvertently or otherwise seeks to ritualise and then reduce experience to the digestible and the unchallenging. This, rather, is documentary-making at its finest.

Armstrong’s longitudinal study at first suffers by comparison with the Up series, perhaps because of its much narrower range of subjects and because their lives and worlds are all similar, which allows for less contrast. In the end, though, Love, Lust & Lies holds its own, perhaps for the simple reason that all similarity falls away once you start looking at people’s lives closely enough. Armstrong also set out to examine the lives of working-class kids, and a similar humanisation takes place over the 35 years of her antipodean version of the Up series. The film might show, on some incidental level, how much the working class has – between 1975 and 2009 – become the so-called “aspirational” class, but it’s not what Love, Lust & Lies ultimately says about class that matters; it’s the fact that in 90 short minutes the characters’ stories become so deeply engrossing.

Apted’s film series may be richer, but Armstrong’s is actually the less formulaic. The drama of the Up series is contained in the set-up; Armstrong has to fight harder to find where it lies. The result is that her film is continually surprising. Keith, who is married to teen bride Diana at the beginning of Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better, initially seems the guy least likely to make it through 30 years of shooting, but by the end we care about him as much as the women. Armstrong realises, too, that some of the children’s (the second generation in her films) stories have become more interesting than the originals; in Love, Lust & Lies she spreads sideways to investigate some of their lives. Apted, on the other hand, never strays far from his original protagonists as their lives gently leapfrog with each seven-year cycle.

At the beginning of Love, Lust & Lies, a title card informs us that the girls’ “pact to each other was to be totally honest”. There remains an honesty and freshness to the women, though they certainly choose their words more carefully as they get older. Of course, much of the film’s comic energy during the recapitulation of the early footage comes from the absence of that censorship filter. “What’s the use of being a virgin before you’re married,” asks Diana at 14, “because you’re not going to be a virgin after your marriage anyway.”

In fact, there are some fascinating forms of dishonesty – or rather, the withholding of information – in some of the earlier films that inform the current one, and there’s at least one brilliant ‘gasp moment’ in Love, Lust & Lies that, if it were scripted as fiction, might be rejected for its improbability. You find yourself continually second-guessing who’s more, or less, happy than they say they are. The film is not overtly sad but, in showing just how much of a battle life can be, sadness is never too far away.

Love, Lust & Lies shows the different ways in which people become more controlling as they grow older – or better at letting go. The movie tracks its own journey, as well as those of its characters: the series that started life 35 years ago as a quirky 25-minute sociological essay has delivered, four films later, an unassuming gem of a film about the passage of time. In one beautifully reflective moment, the three women sit watching footage of themselves from the previous films, commenting on what it brings up for them.

“It’s my time now,” says Diana.

“My time is coming,” says Josie.

“And you look at that,” says Kerry of the old footage, “and you think, ‘Where’s that time gone?’”

In Radu Mihaileanu’s breezy Russian–French farce The Concert (in national release), Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov) has a dead-end job as a cleaner for Moscow’s Bolshoi Orchestra. Thirty years ago he was its conductor, but he fell from grace for being “the man who dared say ‘Screw you!’ to Brezhnev” (part of a rather improbable backstory about Jewish musicians banished to the gulags). Andrei’s wife, Irina (Anna Kamenkova), runs a business organising extras to turn up at tycoons’ funerals and gangsters’ weddings. Russia seems split between its new capitalist brashness and its blinkered past.

Andrei’s boss, Vinichenko (Valentin Teodosiu), the director of the Bolshoi orchestra, is an overbearing tyrant. When Andrei intercepts a fax from the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris inviting the orchestra to play, he hides it from Vinichenko. With the help of his good friend Sacha (Dmitri Nazarov), he embarks on a plan to gather the old musicians – now a rather gone-to-seed group of taxi drivers, porn-movie soundtrack dubbers and assorted layabouts – and get them to Paris for their 30-year-delayed moment of glory.

In the middle of a long-remembered triumphant performance of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major’, party official and orchestra manager Ivan Gavrilov (Valeriy Barinov) had stopped the concert, inflicting maximum public humiliation on Andrei, who thereafter became an alcoholic. Andrei now has nothing to lose, but he needs to enlist this enemy Gavrilov, whose French will be invaluable to the plot. “He speaks French better than Molière,” explains Andrei to Sacha. In fact, Gavrilov’s French is so hilariously bad that it’s a comic vein of its own through the film, as he organises the tour and deals with French officials.

“We have to be demanding and temperamental. It looks strong,” says Gavrilov, whom Barinov plays wonderfully as a hysterically rigid nutcase. He is an old-school believer, putting on rallies (and secretly paying Irina for extras to boost the numbers) at which rabid speakers declaim, without irony, “We will build a society that is the fairest the world has ever seen. Communism!” The old guard are the comic foils and the objects of fun in The Concert. The heroes have long since fallen into the slough of despair, from which their farcical journey will surely wake them. The film bursts with boisterous energy. Once in France, the ragtag group of Russians are portrayed as out-of-touch bumpkins. The French are cosmopolitan sophisticates, but stress-heads too. It’s all a little obvious, but forgivable.

Andrei chooses French superstar violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent) as his soloist. Laurent wasn’t entirely comfortable in her role as the kick-ass resistance fighter Shosanna Dreyfus in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds; perhaps it was simply her first-time English, because she is very strong in The Concert. She’s also indirectly part of what’s wrong with the film, though: it veers so radically from the near-slapstick to the sombre that it becomes tonally patchy. Somewhere in the middle, when it is a very fluid, character-driven, slightly heightened comedy, lies its true strength. When it descends into caricature, it’s less successful; likewise, when it gets too serious about Andrei’s redemption or Anne-Marie’s quest for answers about her past, it veers offcourse.

The Concert pokes fun at its Russian characters, but there’s an affection behind the ridicule, something akin perhaps to the Aussie stereotypes so broadly, but lovingly, rendered in PJ Hogan’s 1994 Muriel’s Wedding. More questionable than its Russians, though, is the film’s portrayal of its Jewish and gypsy characters, whose main interest is making money. Everything seems to flow in the spirit of good-natured fun-poking; Milhaileanu is Romanian, so perhaps he felt the gypsy-ribbing was fine. But the Jewish orchestra members who turn up late for the concert because they’ve been busy hawking caviar and mobile phones on the streets of Paris? The comic bow may have been drawn so taut here that it snapped.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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