59th London Film Festival Day 4

Very much a day of contrasts. In the morning I went to an Italian film, a documentary about an historic bronze foundry in Milan. The foundry itself is one hundred years old, the method – lost wax – dates back to the late bronze age.

10 HGHand Gestures is artisanal study.  In a workshop where the noise of machinery, mixers, beaters, sanders precludes conversation there is very little dialogue, so apart from the radio in the background just occasionally one or other of the workmen will ask another to help move a piece, or lift something. So this documentary film by Francesco Clerici simply shows the process, pretty much from start to finish, with no voice-over just the actions of the craftsmen.

This is, in fact, a perfect way to express the work in bronze using this method since nothing is written down, there are no manuals and one workman learns from another and has done for centuries. But the sad truth is, that two of the principal workers in this foundry are within a year of retirement, and they have been unable to find apprentices – so the method may also be lost.

The lost wax method of casting uses a technique that goes back at least to the 4th Century BC, the artist (or craftsman) makes a wax model (in this case a dog lying prone upon its stomach), this is then surrounded by a series of channels and then encased in plaster. This sounds incredibly simple, but it is not. Once the basic model is made, one man creates an interlocking “outer skeleton” of sealed tubes, each one measured carefully and sealed with a sort of putty.

All the time, the camera is focused on the hands: cutting the tubes, making the putty, measuring and checking all the time; then another man mixes a bucket of plaster or clay, which first he brushes on to the model, and then slaps on using one hand only, the other behind his back like a well trained waiter.

Once the lower portion of the model is completely covered and this has dried, it is tipped up on end and more plaster is slapped on, gradually encasing the whole thing until it is completely entombed. The sarcophagus is then fired.

Moved again and packed into a bed of sand surrounded with steel walls. All the time great care is taken to remove any air bubbles or pockets. Then the metal is heated and poured through the top. Once cooled, the steel barriers are removed, the clay tomb broken up and the bronze has set into the spaces where the wax was. Simple, but ingenious.

Interspersed with the film was some archive footage of the same method being used in 1967, and apart from a few modern materials it is safe to assume that Bronze Age craftsmen did much the same.

Then there is sanding, soldering and polishing, patinating and finishing and this creation goes to join its fellows. In this case, a installation representing “I am Red“.

I am Red, in case you didn’t know, is a novel by Orhan Pamuk in which a dog, a free town dog called Red speaks to other less free dogs, the ones on leashes, and persuades them to join him in a sort of doggy parcour. The dogs, who are all different breeds and none (ie: mongrels) run about in a pack, so that in a group the dogs can be one thing, with one ‘top’ dog, generally an alpha male and when they are on their own, they can be another sort of dog – a pet or domestic animal. The metaphorical message behind this is obviously that if dogs can do this, why cannot humans – since in the domestic situation they are the ‘top’ dog? Indeed, if they are not the ‘top’ dog in the domestic relationship to their pet, then they will not be able to control it.

This is an immensely simplified version of the novel, in Hand Gestures the prone dog was taken to the installation where there were many similar dogs in various poses, both standing, sitting and lying down – significantly each dog was blindfolded.

The film was quite simply a documentary about an ancient practice that is in very real danger of being lost. It is visually elegiac, silent poetry.  The craftsmen do their job, they know exactly what they are doing and many of them have been doing it for decades, unless, before it is too late, someone comes along to learn the method then the foundry will not continue, for each man’s skill is unique, the team work involved is intricate, specialised and irreplaceable. One skill lost, the whole will disappear.

The second film was one chosen right outside my comfort zone. I deliberately choose one film like this each year, as a challenge – Bone Tomahawk may have been a bit too far out!

10 BTThis is a debut film from S. Craig Zahler, it has an all-star cast with Kurt Russell in the lead as a grizzled sheriff in a backwoods town called Bright Hope. Part Western, part thriller this is a film of extreme violence, and though at the Q&A afterwards, SCZ mentioned the influence of several great directors, Cassavates and Peter Greenaway among them, one director he did not mention was Tarrantino. Bone Tomahawk was quite up there with some of his more famous blood-lettings.

It was a Western in the sense that there were white settlers pitted against the wilderness, and there was a mystery behind some of the things that were going on. Our opening scene was of some carpetbaggers cutting the throats of a group of men and rifling through their belongings, only to find a pile of books. Fearing exposure, they run into the hills and trespass unwittingly on a sacred burial ground. The survivor of that encounter runs to Bright Hope, but in an altercation with the sheriff gets shot in the leg.

The ‘doctor’ appears to be a woman, she comes to the jail to treat the patient but by the morning, she and one deputy sheriff and the prisoner have all vanished, together with a whole lot of valuable horses, leaving behind the eviscerated corpse of the groom who happens to be a Negro. At a conference later that morning, an Indian guide explains that this group of native Americans are not quite the same as usual, they are troglodytes. Since this simply means cave dwellers – our brave settlers go off together in search of their missing fellows, including the doctor’s husband who is crippled, having fallen from a roof…

To say that this is a violent film does not quite do it justice, the violence is truly imaginative – so eye-stretchingly ghoulish in fact, that at times the audience laughed. Plenty of them left before the end and did not return. There was little to laugh at though, except for another deputy sheriff called Chicory. Chicory (Richard Jenkins) was by way of being the Shakespearean comedy act, more Justice Shallow than Dogberry, but a bit of both. Along the trail he talks inconsequentially about this and that and in extremis, he remembers a travelling troupe with a flea circus…

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