Saturday 6 October 2012

Clowning Around

Happy Ever BAFTA

82 Directed by Calum McDiarmid
Clowning Around Directed by Damien Cullen
The Tide Directed by Luke Rodgers
Out Of Order Directed by Mike Hill & Louis Fonseca

Playing at a special “invitation only” 
screening at BAFTA.

Okay... you’re probably going to ask what the heck someone like me is doing hob-knobbing with the hob-knobs at The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). Well, truth be told... I’m not quite sure why. Maybe to make up the numbers or something I expect? Anyway, I’m glad I went and now have the opportunity to write about the films on show.

The producer of a new short film, Leilani Holmes, who is also a great writer/director in her own right (see my reviews of a couple of her shorts here and here) asked me along to this “by invitation only” screening at BAFTA of four new short films which included one I’d been following the progress of avidly in my Twittter feed, the one produced by Leilani, called Clowning Around. The invite was a little short notice but, thankfully, I managed to move people out of the way and take an afternoon off work to ensure I was properly fed, bathed and “smartied up a bit” for the screenings.

BAFTA wasn’t what I was expecting, to be honest. Even though I was armed with both the address and a handy google map of the location in Piccadilly, I managed to walk past it about 6 times before I was able to find the place... since no passers by seemed to know it was there, even with the aid of street numbers, either. So unassuming was the headquarters for this legendary bastion of the arts. Luckily, I did find a massive Waterstones bookshop to explore while on my explorations, so wasn’t too worried about things at the time.

And then there was the lift.

I followed a girl with brilliant hair into the lift to go up to where I thought the screening was, according to the label at the bottom of the stairs, which was the Princess Anne Theatre on the 3rd floor. The young lady I shared this modern marvel of vertical conveyance with worried me when she swiped the lift with a card to go up. She left me at floor two (which was where I would eventually end up anyway) and assured me I wouldn’t get stuck in the lift without said card. Which was kinda false, actually, but when I got out on floor three it seemed to be what resembled the lobby of a caretakers office... perhaps a projection room unrelated to where I was supposed to be. So I got back in the lift and the doors shut and... it wouldn’t do anything when I wanted to go back down to floor two. Listening out for any feint Jerry Goldsmith cues in the unlikely instance I was actually trapped in one of The Omen movies, I eventually got it to respond by going all the way back to the ground floor without the aid of pressing the alarm button... which, of course, is exactly where I’d started out from.

So okay... this time I took the stairs and as I was looking for the next flight on the first floor, another young lady at a reception desk asked me if I was there for the shorts and told me I was already on the right floor and to make my way to the bar. So there I was, two floors down fro where I thought I was heading, and in a bar with a sea of strangers who were all talking to their friends... apart from one geezah who turned up a minute later and looked just as ill at ease as I felt and who was also alone. I also recognised him as one of the actors from the original, pre-movie, Clowning Around photoshoot and, sure enough, when the film aired later, he was playing the pub landlord in the film. Seeing that he looked just as “fish out of water” as I felt made me feel much better... so that was alright then.

After 10 minutes or so we were sent up a floor to the screening room (still not the third floor, so I don’t know what was going on with my sign and map reading skills that evening) and I sat and waited for the four films to start. After a little while I spotted Leilani Holmes, who seemed to be taking pictures of the audience and I also had a chance to look at the backs of the chairs in the little cinema. Each one was, and I quote from the little inscriptions, “endowed” by either a famous personage of stage, screen and music or, in one case that I saw, a money grabbing company who wanted to be seen doing the same. I was seated behind two chairs which were endowed by Blake Edwards and Mick Jagger and, I have to admit, that being in the vicinity of all this endowing going on around me made me cross my legs in a self-conscious gesture of possible lack of contributory endowment... I was, after all, sitting behind the huge endowment of one of The Rolling Stones.

After a short while, Damien Cullen (pictured above), the director of Clowning Around, which will be the main focus of this review, introduced the films and the people in the audience who were responsible for kick starting their existence. Then the lights dimmed and we were off...

Directed by Calum McDiarmid
One of the things I’ve come to realise about short films is that they can really only capture ideas and moments in their brief running times, but in doing so, the encapsulation of the basic story idea can actually become the story itself. An audience doesn’t need to see the whole thing to know the full tale and 82, like all of the films on show that night, demonstrated this more than aptly.

82 is about a not very nice, downright criminal in fact, postman who takes you on a mental journey, via the magic of voice over to substantiate his thoughts for the audience, down a street on his postal route... but he has a very specific agenda to his upcoming arrival at Number 82, and you won’t necessarily see it coming. Made with obvious skill and a certain sense of unobtrusive mise-en-scene, the film may at first make you give a little chuckle at the postman’s antics but, after a while, you get to realise the postman’s true colours and, when he gets to his final destination, the little twist which you may well not expect is something which a lot of people will applaud to a certain extent, is my guess. Without giving too much away, the final shot through a letter slot where the impact of a quite brutal and violent act is implied and rendered far worse in the imagination due to the swinging shut of the slot cover on the door, is a great way to end a movie.

Then came the short film I as waiting for...

Clowning Around 
Directed by Damien Cullen
Damien Cullen’s film tells the story of a down-on-his-luck clown, Bozo (played by David Schaal), who has been forced out of his business by a rival children’s party entertainer, Mr Fernelli (played by Matthew Jure) and who has hit the booze hard (and, yes, I do appreciate that the main protagonist’s name is a phonetic anagram of the main cause of his addictive malady). It’s not a plot or subject matter that instantly grabs me, to be honest, but I’d have to say that the movie was actually really great.

Using slightly dulled down colours, I suspect, to mute the obvious opulence of Bozo’s very colourful attire, and thus enhance the clown’s fall from grace, the film takes a little while to show you, in broad gestures, the state of affairs that Bozo has gotten himself into and it does this while simultaneously challenging itself by having Bozo as an entirely mute part. This, of course, practically forces the filmmaker (and the audience) into the realm of slapstick and “silent movie” style narrative in terms of the way Bozo gets himself through life... and the thin line this film walks between that kind of subtlety and the garish contrast of the lead character’s profession is deftly tackled like a tightrope walker at a circus... this film doesn’t stumble or fall.

Not enough praise can be heaped on David Schaal who really does give a great and, I hesitate to use the word subtle given the character he’s playing but that’s what it is, a subtle performance that really gifts the film. Also a big hooray to the supporting actors. There’s a sequence set in a supermarket, for example, when Bozo is trying to rustle up some change, which turns into a variation of the old “bottomless pockets of unusual stuff” routine, made famous to various generations of movie and television watchers by the likes of Harpo Marx, Tom Baker and Kevin Smith, over the decades. It’s just a joy to watch and the young lady (the talented Meddy Ford) playing the McJob cashier at the supermarket till while Bozo goes through this routine, is just so mind numbingly deadpan (in the face of “frantic comedy distraction”) that you really do have to applaud her performance here too. The editing involving the eventual “pop up” of a Jack-In-The-Box is also perfectly timed and her reaction, or lack of one, absolutely sells the ludicrous nature of the situation (Oh bugger me. What, am I analysing jokes now? Gotta stop that!).

The other, some would say “hidden”, contribution to this particular short is the really great score by Alexis Bennett, who uses a leitmotif approach to the scoring by composing friendly and chirpy, Nina Rotaesque “circus music” whenever the temptation of booze is at the forefront of Bozo’s mind. This is particularly well handled in a scene near the end of the movie when this “theme” is developed into something a little more sinister with a creeping, atonal layer which has been mixed in with the familiar circus orchestrations, giving them a little more edge and sense of doom.

One sequence I particularly liked was the “Clown Off” sequence where Bozo and Fernelli fight a duel, armed with custard pies. The movie takes a serious turn into a series of movie tributes, if I was picking up on the writer/director’s references correctly. First up, we have the set up to this sequence, the calm before the storm, so to speak, which is shot like a spaghetti western... and when I say spaghetti western I really mean, in this case, the broad stroke homage to the early Sergio Leone classics, which is the quickest way to do this I guess (not much time to get this stuff done in a short) and since the majority of these specific westerns were all copying Leone to a certain extent anyway, that really is a fairly all encompassing take on the original material I feel (and, if truth be told, if the director had gone for Sergio Corbucci or Sergio Sollima or some such, half the people in the audience wouldn’t pick up on the reference). Alexis Bennett’s score, again, perfectly matches this lead in, which impressed me by the use of percussion which dead-on nailed the “walking down a street into danger” kind of feel of a young Ennio Morricone scoring something like A Fistful Of Dollars. I guess the temptation here might have been to go all out and score something like The Ecstasy Of Gold, which might also have been right but may have changed the timing and impact of the scene too much, and so I was dead impressed with the scoring choices made here.

The “Clown Off” then goes into what modern audiences would call “bullet time” under the mistaken impression that The Matrix was the first movie to do this kind of scene (it wasn’t) but, which in Clowning Around, of course, becomes “pie time”. And I can’t tell you in words how brilliant the shot of a slow motion custard pie aimed directly at Bozo’s face works so well... but it does the job brilliantly. I won’t spoil the pay off in terms of physical prowess displayed by the main protagonist in this scene but I will say that this is followed by something which is almost (and probably is, I reckon) an homage to the cinematic legacy of Sam Peckinpah... so it’s all good as far as I’m concerned.

The ending, which plays out during the end credits, may be somewhat bitter-sweet to audiences but there’s nothing ordinary about this short film anyway... so this one gets a full-on recommendation from me... as does the next movie in the four films that were screened...

The Tide 
Directed by Luke Rodgers
If Damien Cullen’s Clowning Around was the wittiest and shiniest of the four shorts on show (and, for me, it was), then The Tide, directed by Luke Rodgers, was definitely the most moving. Focussing on an old man whose life consists of combing a beach with his metal detector, day in and day out, the film begins with a series of shots that focus on the beauty of nature, as the shoreline this man spends his time on is slowly captured by the camera, making me think of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky just a little. Don’t know if the director was influenced by him or not though.

The story which develops when the man is asked by someone he perceives as “a thug” for the loan of his precious metal detector, is deeply emotional and the two actors playing the main leads make you believe in this series of bonding moments so well that you can’t help but be swept along by them. The score is also very haunting and helps lend the film the poignant tinge it has going for it. Although it sounds nothing like his music, I’m willing to bet the composer for this one holds Bernard Herrmann close to the heart as one of his/her heroes, as this score also tends to use sweeping, repetitive, although a little more subtle, gestures that parralell Herrmann’s work.

Was very impressed with this film also. This was then followed by the last film of the screening...

Out Of Order 
Directed by Mike Hill & Louis Fonseca
This last film was less to my taste, if I’m quite honest with you, but that probably says more about me than it does anyone else because it got some great audience reaction. This one is an out and out comedy based on the unfortunate phenomenon of not being able to find a working loo. The main protagonist spends the entire film getting into trouble in the pursuit of her much needed relief, and it would be fair to say, I think, that this movie is one long demonstration of eccentrically British toilet humour (although I have no idea as to the nationality of the writers and directors).

But it’s not made without skill and, to quote the invitation to BAFTA (pictured above), it is very much a “high quality” short film. The absurdity of the young lady’s antics keeps getting less and less subtle and more into Hollywood “action comedy” territory as the running time progresses... even the scoring seems to take a distinctly "Johnny Williams does 1960s comedies" approach as part of it’s genetic make-up. There’s nothing exactly subtle about what is captured on screen on this one, but the skill and visual dexterity demonstrated by the film-makers in the accomplishment of their aims can only be applauded... which it was, loudly, by the watching audience.

And there you have it. A rare treat to see four films in pretty much the most ideal conditions I would ever have to watch them in... which is good because, if the sound hadn’t had been so good or if I was watching this over the internet, I might not have picked up on the more subtle elements of the scoring on Clowning Around methinks.

After this I tried to sneak off very swiftly (I’m the least sociable creature you are ever likely to meet) but this tricky manoeuvre was scuppered somewhat by finally meeting the whirlwind of bubbly energy that is the lovely “goddess/writer/director/producer” hybrid creature known as Leilani Holmes but who is, perhaps, whisperingly referred to respectfully in polite circles as “That Holmes Woman”. She seemed as nice as she was on Twitter and, frankly, I’ll not easily forget the sight of a woman dragging a cameraman through an extremely crowded bar space in the blink of an eye to head me off before I could get out of there and get a quick picture with me. This was really nice of her and I look forward to seeing the photo some day.

After that, when eyes were off me again, I managed to use my dextrous ninja-sneaking skills to secure my exit into the waiting night and begin my long trek home, back to the “slightly less right” side of the tracks. I do thank Leilani Holmes, Damien Cullen and Summit From Nuthin Productions for doing me the great honour of inviting me to this event. Please don’t cross me off any future guest lists if I said anything too cheeky in this review of the evening.

And that’s about it. I really enjoyed the screening, especially since I’ve never been to BAFTA before now, and I would say to any readers still with me at this point that any and all of the shorts on display here are well worth taking the short amount of time out of your day to see, if you ever get the opportunity. A really good evening out for me, too, it has to be said.

More info: 
Damien Cullen
Leilani Holmes


  1. Who Johnny Williams is?

    1. Johnny Williams is John Williams!

  2. Yeah, that's right.

    Back when he was doing cool scores like How To Steal A MIllion and John Goldfarb Won't You Please Come Home. Not to mention playing piano onscreen in the jazz club in episodes of Johnny Staccato.

    Thanks for reading.