It’s not often that I agree with Jeremy Clarkson. Actually, it’s absolutely never that I agree with Jeremy Clarkson. But he called the feature-length documentary Senna “unmissable” and his quote made all the posters, for self-evident reasons. It is unmissable. It’s one of two films I missed at the cinema that I’ve recently caught up with. The other is Anton Corbijn’s The American. (Both of these films came to my local Curzon – one at the end of last year, the other this summer – but I managed to miss them both.) Senna, first:
I couldn’t be less interested in Formula 1 motor racing. But a love for, or even knowledge of, the sport is not a prerequisite, it turns out. Director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey have memorialised Ayrton Senna the reckless Brazilian motor racing champ by assembling what would be the last ten years of his life from footage at various Grand Prix (is that plural of Grand Prix?), up to and including the one in which he was killed in 1994, San Marino, aged just 34. New interviews with key associates and friends paint a post mortem picture of the man, but it’s the way the film builds to its inevitable climax using existing material – coverage from various TV networks, plus in-car footage that may not have been seen before, which puts you right there on the track – that is its masterstroke. I knew he died in a crash, but I didn’t know which year it was, or which Grand Prix, so the tension for me ought to have been multiplied – but so persuasive is the dramatic momentum that you can smell his final crash approaching long before it happens. Even though it’s a true story – and seems to be a fair and accurate portrait of the man, his moods, his passions, his rebellious streak, his near-death wish and his childish and nihilistic rivalry with Alain Prost – it has all the elements of a fictional tragedy, not least the portents of doom that come with technical developments to the Williams car that made it a death-trap waiting to happen, or so it seemed to a novice like me. I was taught in O-Level English Literature that a tragedy always involved a protagonist who had a flaw; that certainly applies to Senna, if believing oneself to be immortal is a flaw in motor racing.
Documentaries are often bogged down with dramatic reconstruction, and facile melodrama underscored by music, but Senna does it all so organically, and that old phrase “found footage” takes on a new power. There’s no doubt that the retrospective testimony helps to shed light on the story from beyond the grave – not least that of the chief F1 medic, who clearly grew weary of having to treat Senna so regularly and at one point offered to retire with him and go fishing – but, thanks to the nature of the sport, the evidence is already on film.
Oh, and no, it didn’t make me want to watch Formula 1. Or Formula 2. Or any of the other Formulas.
The American is rock photographer’s Anton Cobihn’s follow-up to the widely and justifiably lauded Control, which was a personal project for him, and very much from within his comfort zone, to borrow a phrase from Masterchef. In it, he effectively animated his own black and white photographs of Joy Division, but proved himself an adept handler of actors and performances across a much wider canvas than the one he is used to: either the short form video, or the paper he lifts, dripping, from plastic trays in a dark room. Here, he takes a novel as his source, adapted for the screen in a very spare, often wordless way, by Rowan Joffe, and takes us to the stunning Abruzzo mountains of Italy, for what he has turned into his contemporary tribute to spaghetti Westerns. (I am not clever for spotting this: Once Upon A Time In The West plays on a TV in a cafe; the proprietor even identifies it as the work of Sergio Leone, in case we were in any doubt.)
George Clooney, looking all serious and grey (but still well buff for an old man, of course), is a gun for hire who is ordered to go and lay low in a remote Italian town and await instructions. He poses as a photographer, although an old priest he befriends (Paolo Bonacelli) quickly sees through that, and can’t stop himself falling in love with a local prostitute (Violante Placido), despite the danger such a break from cover might engender. There is a lot of stuff with guns – Clooney has to design and build a special rifle and is often seen sitting at his modest kitchen table polishing and filing and clicking bits of metal together (more of a mechanic than an artist, as the priest sagely observes) – but although it’s essentially a thriller, it’s far more of an existential piece. Paul Schrader was talking on the most recent episode of Mark C0usins’ Story Of Film about his interest in Camus and Sartre, and how they fed into Taxi Driver and American Gigolo, and I, for one, lamented the loss of this kind of creative impetus in English-speaking film. However, Joffe and Corbijn have dared to pull back from conventional action set-pieces – although there are plenty of these in Castel del Monte’s narrow streets and steps – and allow the drama to unfold inside the main character’s head. Clooney, a handsome man, let’s not deny it, looks great as he sits silently in cafes, and he smiles even less than he speaks, but in this setting, we are invited to imagine his internal dialogue. He seems haunted. We have seen him, in a epilogue, at work as a ruthless and cold killer, but we know there beats a heart inside his breast.
I must admit, I adored The American – and for once, it wasn’t just because of my boyfriend Clooney. Corbijn once again brings the beautiful composition and Hopper-like simplicity of his own bold and sweeping photographs alive, but aside from hints of his videos for U2 and Depeche Mode (especially in the red-lit brothel, in which I half expected to see Adam Clayton dressed as a woman with a big feather boa around his neck), this was a brand new set of prints. A surreal, fixed, bird’s-eye shot of a winding road and Clooney’s car going along it is especially effective. And some of the colour-coded lighting around the narrow streets and tunnels is brilliantly theatrical.
This is a film about individuals lost in the landscape, searching for meaning in a potentially meaningless world. Clooney has no God, and at one key juncture elicits a confession from the priest while vouchsafing his own secrets and sins. In Castel del Monte he is surrounded by the blood ritual and enduring smalltown faith of Catholicism, while his work is clinical and secular and violent, and leaves him with no base, no roots, no history. Schrader – brought up a strict Calvinist – injected Catholicism into much of his best work, and seems still to be wracked with existential doubt. This is where the interesting stories often arise.