Skip to main content

Astoria- a short fictional film by journalist Paul Mason- thoughts



Astoria is journalist Paul Mason’s fictional short film debut and it is as familiar as it is distinct. The most pertinent grabbing thing about this piece, which follows a Syrian female refugee’s quest to find her friend in a Budapest hotel, is its synthesis between its thematic preoccupations and whirlwind exploration of cinematic genre which seems to be a meditation upon how artists’ responses to global crises has changed over the decades.
The opening shot is news footage of the Hungarian police trying to hold back the refugees on its borders. It is recognisable for its modernist cinematic traits with its handheld, documentary style, capturing real time footage (a throw back to Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City may be). On screen the shot is manipulated to look like a domestic or semi professional camera, probably a Canon EOS 50D, most likely held by a journalist or journalist activist. It is clear then that we are in the post modernist film world, where the lines between observer, journalist, filmmaker and activist are blurred. But as the viewer goes with the woman who turns her back on her fellow refugees on the long road to Germany or Croatia and infiltrates Budapest instead, Mason flips the style: there’s a gradual descent, with blurred dreamy lights, and quick montage shots where concept now has the upper hand in editing, into a more romantic, sentimental aesthetic jarred by uncomfortable shots of memorials to the holocaust. I’m right off target when I mention I started thinking about the introduction to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris,famed for its nod to nostalgia with its opening montage sequence, yet am I? Midnight in Paris gives us a 21st Century city which also transports us back to the colourful and flamboyant 1920s era.  Astoria transports us to WW2, although we stay firmly in the now, and also has a voice over, only here its mystical quality, the essence of which defies explanation (a little bit like the film’s title which is also the name of the hotel) is anti nostalgic. 
As the woman meets various characters and penetrates the Astoria Hotel itself, Mason openly manipulates genre even more. The building is haunted by ghosts of WW2’s resistance fighters and German SS torture chambers and the inhabitants of these worlds make appearances in washed out grey, set against the bright colours of now, an inverse, one imagines, of the colour scheme in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Soon we are transported into the hotel’s ballroom and into film noir scenes set in steep stairwells and automatically and stylistically, the worlds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Eventually we arrive back to the present where the woman directly addresses the audience and we are left with an enduring, haunting last image.
This film is only seven minutes, but it packs so much in it feels a lot longer. There’s a clear message, even warning. But it makes references to other ideas: how new architecture can wipe out history or choose to preserve buildings as monuments and reminders.  We are asked to reframe Europe’s recent traumatic history within cinematic evolution. Mason begins with a style that is elusive, distanced and yet all too familiar, takes us through the more romanticised film noirs and  through to Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychologically illusive, slightly absurdist neorealist style that tries to capture the epistemological meaning of existence. Editing styles follow suit. At times shots are allowed to have their own momentum and internal rhythm (slightly siding with Andrei Tarkovsky, who post Stalin’s era, rejected Eisenstein’s view that concept and narrative drive should dictate shot length) and at times are driven by narrative needs.  The question is, what is this exploration of the film genres in conjunction with our responses to these kinds of crises trying to show us? That we need a more edifying artistic response that rejects the distant, faceless, silent observing camera that is now our generally accepted style as well as a new way to see and treat refugees? The answer might well be in the film, and the warnings about what could happen if we don’t effectively answer the latter question might also be there in the last shot.

Astoria is a Young Vic Theatre short film

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Collabo- Hip hop with a difference

There’s a buzz in the air at Stratford Circus Arts Centre. No wonder, this is the 10th anniversary of Collabo, Tony Adigun’s annual dance celebration founded in 2006 to promote new collaborations and hip-hop hybrids from dance groups. Friday’s program of short portfolios opens with 10 (UnTitled Dance Company) choreographed by Lukas McFarlane lasting fifteen minutes (no mean feat in the hip-hop world) and featuring 10 tracks and illustrating some super synchronised steps and gyros executed with military precision. The occasional, surprising rigidness of the choreography is broken by experimentation with spoken word. Liberation (What Is Written Dance Company) has the same exactness, but their more simple choreography is easier on the eye after the mass sprawl of 10. Kweku Aacht and Guest Dancers produce an interpretation of a track performed live onstage- the sometimes rowdy crowd shouting out and encouraging the performers on hold their breath as the troupe fluctuate between free style a…

Once in a Lifetime- theatre review: slightly revised to reflect the ambiguous ending

Once in a Lifetime is a show about the tenuous and complicated relationship between creativity and destruction. Re-adapted here by Chris Hart, son of one half of the original writing duo Moss Hart and George S Kaufman, the show may well be set in 1930s Hollywood just as the talkies are about to change cinema forever, but it might also be poking fun at an art form that is a little closer to home. Director Richard Jones always takes risks with little produced, marginalised or very well known works in a bid to uncover something new that might be a comment on our own times. Here, a story about hapless Vaudeville trio act George (John Marquez), Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and May (Claudie Blakley), who set out to conquer Hollywood with their mythic elocution school, is the perfect fit for the director to explore themes that seem to obsess him: national myth, parody, the tyranny of power, willed self-destruction, bureaucracy, global fantasy, etc. So far, the show has not gone down so well with the c…

Walking the Tightrope- Theatre Delicatessen

Site-specific set? Perhaps. In the old Guardian offices in Farringdon, Offstage Theatre and Theatre Uncut curate a cycle of 12 short plays exploring the tension[s] between art and politics, reactions to the budget cuts to the arts in the UK and debate freedom of expression controversies. Corruption, class divides, perception, blood money, gesture politics and culpability, it’s all there and recent topical events are given stage time, from The Tricycle’s controversial decision to withdraw their support for the UK Jewish Film Festival to the Barbican’s cancelled Exhibit B. The plays are entertaining- Sun City by April De Angelis, Re: Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan, Old Newland by Julie Pascal, Tickets are on Sale Now by Caryl Churchill and Exhibit A, by Neil LaBute, all deserve special mention for looking beyond the parameters of funding and freedom of expression in the UK arts- by which of course, I mean a theatrical London still surfing the very last trickling waves of Colonialism and it…