Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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RICHARD BILLINGHAM: RAY & LIZ (2018) (56th NYFF) - AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL AND ON-DEMAND APRIL 14, 2020

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ELLA SMITH, JUSTIN SALINGER AS THE YOUNGER RAY & LIZ IN RAY & LIZ

An eye for surfaces

"They will have a Costa coffee cup, or a pre-packed sandwich that someone has given them, and the digital camera can render those modern surfaces and plastics really well. But the film camera is much better for older surfaces." Billinmgham, whose snapshots of his alcoholic father and tatooed, bilious mother ("Ray's a Laugh") led him to a Turner Prize nomination and a career as an art photographer, said that in a Guardian interview about photographing homeless people, vs., say, the squalid Birmingham Tower flat he grew up in. This reflects his delicate eye, his sensitivity to visual media. The feature film that he made, going back to decades ago, is shot with film, 16mm. It's also pitched in boxy Academy ratio shot by dp Daniel Landin (Under the Skin, The Yellow Birds), which makes you the more appreciative of the sensitive framing of images in the film that sometimes look like old paintings, intimiste ones. All that tempers the squalor, perhaps, though Billingham extenuates nothing, and in doing so, thinks Matthieu Macheret of Le Monde, can be "at once tender and cruel, loving and ruthless," thus evading "miserabilism or watering down."

The film jumps around in time, visiting the filmmaker at two stages of his young life, and narrative is not always the strong point: one should appreciate that Billingham, however ruthless about the neglect and mess he was forced to grow up in, remains an intimist painter of small portraits. Several scenes are memorable. His mother goes out with him to shop for shoes, leaving the half-witted Uncle Lol (Tony Lay) to mind his baby brother, Jason. A mean teenager called Will (Sam Gittins) comes in and maliciously gets Lol dead drunk, handing little Jason a kitchen knife to play with. A longhaired neighbor, Sid (Richard Ashton) regularly brings in three pop bottles full of his home brew and tucks them tenderly beside Ray on the bed to begin his day. They talk of flies, which we view, intimately, a visual theme. They seem to swarm around. This is the older Ray, played by Patrick Romer, living on his own, and the first of a triptych of sections. The one with younger Ray shows him living with Liz in a rundown tenement house in a Midlands town near Birmingham.

Jason, the greatest victim of this uncaring, irresponsible childrearing, drops a toy soldier down on a walker below, and tips a tablespoon of chili pepper into sleeping Ray's mouth. He feeds himself, making a sandwich of white bread filled with a few pieces of pickled cabbage from a giant jar. Billingham has said Jason often tells him "Statistically, we should be in prison, dead or homeless." This moment is when Jason, played by Millard-Lloyd, is 7 or 8 and Richard (Sam Plant) is 15, and they're living in an equally trashed tower block flat. This in time is shortly before Jason was taken into foster care after being lost for days and turning up asleep in a shed without their parents even noticing.

Each abode has animals, dogs, a parakeet, a rabbit, snails Jason keeps under his bed, that seem to haunt and reproach the spaces and add to the sense of intimacy, coziness amid the squalor. Yes, squalor, which impinges on us, can be cozy. Books do furnish a room; so does trash.

Also memorable is the chubby young Liz (Ella Smith), with her special way of holding her constantly lit cigarettes, and her flowered dress, blending with the complicated texture of a big jigsaw puzzle perched in front of her ample bosom. I could not help amid this very English grunginess, thinking of Vuillard and Bonnard, so pleasing is the light in Landin's images. so delicate the color, so nicely arranged the objects in the square.

Billingham and Landin also provide escapes. A trip outside to watch fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day, another in daytime on a funicular to visit a zoo. Billingham has said he and Jason are alive due to luck plus a love of nature nurtured by David Attenborough documentaries and their annual childhood visits with Liz to Dudley Zoo, "the highlight of his year." Watch how the long neck of a giraffe are criss-corssed in the frame with the squat head of the boy seen from behind.

With this brilliantly original, stunningly visual, emotionally precise film Richard Billingham has made a debut feature that's an instant classic, and joins the likes of Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, and Shane Meadows, British filmmakers whose harsh realism achieves subtle, haunting life suffused with love.

Ray & Liz, 108 mins., debuted at Locarno Aug. 2028 and was included in 30 other international festivals, including Toronto, New York, and London. It was nominated for a BAFTA Outstanding Debut award, and won numerous others. Theatrical release Mar. 2019 in the UK, 10 Apr. in France (AlloCiné press rating 3.4). Metascore 81%. Out on Digital and On-Demand from KimStim/1091 Media on April 14, 2020.

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TONY WAY AS UNCLE LOL IN RAY & LIZ

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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