When I first spoke with Michael Winterbottom 11 months ago in Park City, Utah, the British director said he had no illusions about where his latest film, 9 Songs (Tartan, $24.98), new on video this week, was headed. It was headed to video. It featured two types of scenes: a couple attending different concerts by hot rock acts like Franz Ferdinand and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and the same couple making love intimately, and absolutely for real.
The casting director, who I have worked with a lot, dropped out, he said. She didn t think it was a good idea. Lots of people didn t think it was a good idea. To be honest, I wasn t sure it was.
When I spoke with Winterbottom two months ago in Toronto, he had already moved on, and was showing his second film in 12 months, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a comic adaptation of a 19th-century novel that s often said to be utterly unfilmable; it stars Steve Coogan, opens later this month, and is one of the year s best pictures.
Winterbottom is no daredevil director, and not a flashy guy; his work includes as many wild and inventive contemporary movies like 24-Hour Party People and Welcome to Sarajevo as it does tasteful literary adaptations like Jude, his 1996 take on Thomas Hardy s Jude The Obscure, starring Kate Winslet.
He likes to keep moving; to an extent, he s the contemporary British answer to legendary British filmmaker Michael Powell, deeply humanist, and amazingly prolific; if Powell could veer from ballet (The Red Shoes) to horror (Peeping Tom), Winterbottom can flip from immigration tales (In This World) to science fiction (Code 46). When I mention Powell, however, Winterbottom flinches slightly.
You know what happened to him, of course, he says and yes, as soon as I mention Powell, I regret it.
Peeping Tom ruined Powell. A forerunner to the modern serial-killer movie, it was banned for being sadistic, and he never made another big picture again.
9 Songs if the film had received more than a shrug might have been Winterbottom s ruin. It s not that there haven t been non-pornos with real sex: Brown Bunny and Intimacy are two of the most recent examples. It s that Winterbottom didn t want a two-minute interlude in the middle that everyone talks about and seems unnecessary.
What happens in 9 Songs is, largely, sex and music, but as its brief, 69-minute running time plays out, you watch a relationship begin, fall apart, and get mourned but months, maybe years, later while the male half is on a long plane ride, staring out a window at the Antarctic below.
The idea was to catch what it feels like in a relationship. The shifts in mood, what it feels like when one is not there, and when it s over.
Those shifts, in real life, can be so subtle that to try and put them in a script and have people talk about it makes it more explicit and cruder than it gets handled in real life. So we went out of the way to avoid real content, in the hope that small things become more important.
Books do this all the time, so why can t cinema? Literature should have a harder time, actually, because it is one step removed from the actual thing. Lots of people think this is a rubbish idea, and maybe it is, but I wanted to try this and find out.
The couple were found through friends and casting calls: Kieran O Brien was in Band of Brothers and 24-Hour Party People. Margo Stilley never acted before; she s from America, and was found during an open casting session. When I go to interview Winterbottom the first time, they re there and I can barely look at them; it s just too weird. They shot over a period of a few months: first, apartment scenes, then the rock concerts.
When we started, Winterbottom said, there was almost no characterization at all. Just people making love. Then music became part of it. When you go into a crowd of people seeing the same band you have all these people emoting in their own separate worlds.
Together but alone. There seemed to be something nice about them alone in bed and then alone in this big crowd. The experience of being at a concert becomes as much of an experience as the music.
In the end, of course, a lot of people will just see these two people making love. That s all.
Does he think actual sex in mainstream films is inevitable?
I do. Not every time, of course. But like the way some movies are shot on location, and some are shot in a studio, some more artificial, other less artificial. My movies, I guess, aspire to a different engagement with the world than other films want. But sex society has become so engrossed in it, and treats it so crudely most of the time, it s a weird gap for cinema to pretend that everyday sex doesn t exist.
THE FORGOTTEN: Continuing our theme of good movies you may not have seen, the week also brings three of the most memorable yet ignored pictures of the year. Greg Araki s Mysterious Skin (Tartan, $24.99) follows the paths of two friends, both molested as boys; each story builds on the other, but what makes it special is how strangely light the film feels even as it gathers the impact of revelation.
Last Days (Warner, $27.95), which played in Toledo longer than it did in Detroit, is Gus Van Sant s moving consideration of the final gasps of Kurt Cobain, told in the shambling, discordant rhythms of a crumbling soul. And the documentary Rize (Paramount, $27.98) deserves a cult. Directed by fashion photographer David LaChapelle, it s a weird and exhilarating portrait of krumping, a freestyle type of dancing.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6117.