OPINION | NEW MOVIES: ACS’ Filmland 5 features a few standouts

Unlikely lovers Stephen (Michael Ward) and Hilary (Olivia Colman) watch the fireworks from the rooftop of their workplace in Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” which is opening next week’s Filmland 5.
Unlikely lovers Stephen (Michael Ward) and Hilary (Olivia Colman) watch the fireworks from the rooftop of their workplace in Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” which is opening next week’s Filmland 5.

The Arkansas Cinema Society's Filmland event (this year it's called "Filmland 5") returns next week.

Looking over their schedule, the film that I might be most anxious to see is Kristian R. Hill's documentary "God Said Give 'Em Drum Machines," which explores the roots of techno music in the inner-city Black communities of Detroit and Chicago and how that culture was "appropriated" and commercialized by European artists in the 1980s.

As regular readers of this column might know, I'm loathe to review films I haven't seen, and though "Drum Machines" was on the short list of movies I wanted to see at this year's Tribeca Festival, I didn't catch it. But I'm interested in its argument, because what we these days call cultural appropriation is just one of the ways art evolves organically. There's a moral difference between Pat Boone covering "race records" to cash in with a white audience denied access to the real thing, and Keith Richards wanting to be Elmore James.

In general, I'm not in favor of prescribing an artist's tools or medium. White people can play the blues. You don't have to listen to them.

And, admittedly, when I think of "techno" I immediately think of Kraftwerk, which was formed in 1970 in Dusseldorf. Kraftwerk started out as part of the "krautrock" scene -- which means they were pretty much a standard rock band blending psychedelic and art rock (think a Teutonic King Crimson) before completely embracing electronic noisemakers in the '70s. They had a very successful run of pop records from 1974 to 1981 -- "Autobahn," "Trans-Europe Express," "The Man-Machine" and "Computer World." In some circles, their sparse arrangements and hypnotic drum machines were seen as kind of a Apollonian antidote to the Dionysian punk rock scene.

But I guess Kraftwerk doesn't figure in this particular history of techno, which -- according to what I've read -- concentrates on the genre's "origins" in Detroit and the concurrent rise of house music in Chicago. The thesis of the film is that techno was largely invented by six Black artists from Detroit who revolutionized Black music in the 1980s. The style was then disseminated in Europe largely through the efforts of Richie Hawtin, an Englishman who grew up in Ontario near Detroit, who enjoyed a measure of success as a popularizer of techno in the early '90s.

Hawtin, I take it, is cast as a whitewasher in the film, and the film contends he was hated in Detroit for having profited off of pirated ideas.

While I'm not a techno expert, I'm interested in hearing this argument set forth. Most of the reviews I've read -- and most of the people who have written about "God Said Give 'Em Drum Machines" seem to have, or at least pretend to have, a certain expertise, and would probably roll their eyes at my naive allusion to Kraftwerk -- concede the usefulness of the film while noting that it mostly functions as a love letter to the Detroit scene. With some tasty beats.


I'm on much better ground with "Empire of Light," the Sam Mendes' film (opening wide in early December) that opens the festival on Wednesday. Because I've actually seen that film.

"Empire of Light" has among its virtues a stellar cast and terrific visuals and its prime setting -- a fading but still beautiful seaside movie house in Margate on the south coast of England in 1981 (one of the film's pivotal scenes takes place at a premiere of "Chariots of Fire" held at the theater). I haven't read much about it, but it is yet another film that, like Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma" (2018) and Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood" (2019), feels like a reiteration of the filmmaker's personal experience.

Which is to say that "Empire of Light," at least in its best moments, feels like a memory play. Mendes grew up in North London, but on Easter weekend in 1981, there were several "Seaside rampages" in which young people -- including punks and skinheads, some of a fascist or Nazi persuasion -- rioted in several coastal resort towns, including Margate, where 39 people were arrested. Mendes would have been 16 years old that spring and he'd have been well aware of both the Brixton riots which took place in South London and the seaside rampages. (Which were, by 1981, a bit of a spring break tradition in England, having started circa 1964, when the mods and the rockers began squaring off. See Franc Roddam's 1979 film version of the Who's "Quadrophenia.")

The chief problem with "Empire of Light" is that it never commits to being any particular type of movie. It is, by turns, a dark workplace comedy, a quirky May-October romance, a beautifully designed exercise in nostalgia, a platform from which Olivia Colman might launch another Best Actress campaign and a "Cinema Paradiso"-style appreciation of the practical magic of motion pictures. While any one of the movies would have been fine, just fine, the end result here is of an impatient cable watcher switching channels abruptly and too often. This is fine filmmaking, and cinematographer Roger Deakins provides his usual excellent images, but it is hardly the most satisfying or assured filmmaking.

Still, it ought to draw a good crowd and a few Academy Award nominations. I'm not good at this, but I'd guess Deakins and Colman are almost certain nominees; while Colin Firth has a chance at a Best Supporting Actor nod. (Though I'd prefer to see Toby Jones as the wise and battered old projectionist receive the bid.)


Also screening on the first night of Filmland 5 is In Nikyatu Jusu's debut film "Nanny," which stars Anna Diop as an undocumented Senegalese nanny working for a Manhattan couple (Morgan Spector and Michelle Monaghan) and who is preparing for the arrival of the son she left behind when a violent supernatural presence begins to infiltrate her dreams and waking life.

OK. The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and the critics have been kind to it -- Diop's performance and Jusu's efficient storytelling have been particularly praised.

Other films featured in this year's lineup include Neil LaBute's thriller "House of Darkness," which was largely shot on location in northwest Arkansas; "The Inspection," Elegance Bratton's drama about a young gay Black man who joins the Marines; the Farrelly Brothers' 1998 comedy "There's Something About Mary"; and "Turning Red," the well-received Pixar family film from earlier this year.

Among the announced guests who'll take part in after-film Q&A sessions are "House of Darkness" director LaBute and actor Gia Crovatin; "Something About Mary" cinematographer and director of photography, Mark Irwin; and "Drum Machines" director Kristian R. Hill and producer Jennifer Washington.

A number of workshops and panel discussions are also scheduled. For more information about the schedule and admission costs for events or to buy tickets, visit Filmland.org. ACS Members receive 50% off all events at Filmland.