Civic Life Review

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, aka the Desperate Optimists, received deserved acclaim in 2009 for their feature debut, Helen. Prior to this award-winning film they had produced a series of shorts under the collective title of Civic Life during 2004 and 2005. Although available on disc since 2006, these films are once again entering cinemas as part of a nationwide touring programme, including one new addition in the form of Tiong Bahru, filmed in Singapore. What follows is my 2006 review of the DVD review (slightly re-jigged) and the current touring dates:

In part this review should be read as a corrective. I’ve had previous opportunity to discuss the work of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, creators of the Civic Life series, when their 2004 short Who Killed Brown Owl was included on the Best v Best Vol. One compilation. Covering that release for DVD Times (as the Digital Fix was then known) in January of this year I gave the film only a brief mention, noting its grandiosity and the fact that it unfolded in a single, virtuoso take. As such some of its other qualities were unfortunately overlooked: its deft use of Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; the darkness of its material; and the strange ambiguities at the heart of its narrative and thematic concerns – was this a cruel film, a sardonic one?

Who Killed Brown Owl opened with an intertitle describing the following nine minutes as a view of Britain – “civil, polite... and above all safe” – yet the images tell a different story. Over the unbroken take we witness self-interest, surrealism, strange accidents and unexplained death, all part of the same picture but told in their own fleeting little episodes. And now these episodes have into a whole series of self-proclaimed Civic Life shorts; in 2005 Molloy and Lawlor made another six films, each thematically similar and each told in a similar style, namely that single virtuoso take. Indeed, it’s hard not to admire the pair, and on a number of levels too. Firstly there’s the logistics of mounting these shorts to consider: five- to seventeen-minute pieces told with multiple, and often non-professional, performers but only one camera movement. Then there’s the fact that they’ve managed to be so prolific of late, especially as so many promising British filmmakers struggle so much to create any kind of body of work.

Any admiration is firmly backed up, however, by the quality of the shorts themselves. The sleeve describes them as “both theatrical and deeply cinematic, experimental and highly accessible” and it’s hard to disagree. Looking back at the history of the single take it’s those found in Touch of Evil, The Player or various De Palmas which the Civic Life resemble most, as opposed to the likes of Michael Snow’s Wavelength. In other words it’s entertainment that comes first: each film represents a dense, rewarding experience, the majority being a cornucopia of enticing, often unresolved details. Why is that man smugly hogging the paddling pool in Who Killed Brown Owl and where exactly did the gorillas in Revolution (not included in the touring programme) come from?

Yet Molloy and Lawlor are not in the habit of repeating themselves. Civic Life offers far more diversity than suggested thus far. Twilight is a quiet, moving vignette about a woman dying from cancer; Moore Street, on the other hand, offers a whispering voice to the UK’s immigrant community – a kind of 21st century update of Robert Vas’ Refuge England, if you will. Furthermore, both of these pieces perfectly encapsulate the focus on character and landscape. The former concern demonstrates a pleasing subcultural focus, at least in cinematic terms: the aged; the community at large; those unsung everyday folk who take their dogs for walks and attend town hall meetings. The latter, meanwhile, is encompassed via quintessentially British locales and activities: rivers, the park, a local fête. (There are also further references in this respect courtesy of various implicit asides. The use of Vaughn Williams mentioned earlier, for example, recalls his contributions to a number of British Transport Film efforts. Elsewhere, the bizarre, unexplained deaths which pepper some of the narratives bring to mind the quaint likes of Miss Marple, Midsomer Murders or those “accident” sequences which occupy the first acts of Casualty episodes.)

There’s also the growing confidence to be commented on. The films as presented in the touring programme are in order of production demonstrating a definite progression. Each short is seemingly more elaborate than the last, gaining in length and building in narrative focus. Outdoor locations switch to trickier indoor situations (as the titles occasionally suggest: Town Hall, Leisure Centre), scored soundtracks or those created in post-production give way to a greater dependence of live sound; in other words the potential for further logistical headaches only increases, yet still each short pulls through to fine results. If there is one caveat then it’s that these latter, more dialogue-dependent efforts demonstrate a theatricality that doesn’t quite gel with the more overt cinematic concerns. The speeches in these pieces feel like just that: too florid, too contrived to fit in with the realist elements in play elsewhere. And yet, perhaps this shouldn’t surprise too much given Molloy and Lawlor’s background in experimental theatre. Indeed, you could argue that the Civic Life series finds them coming full circle: from theatre to cinema and back again.

For the original DVD review and information on how to purchase please click here.

Civic Life will be screening at the following cinemas on the following dates:

Fri 11th February - Thu 17th February
Ritzy Cinema, London

Tue 1st March - Thu 31st March [exact dates to be confirmed*]
Barn Cinema, Totnes
Broadway Cinema, Nottingham
Filmhouse, Edinburgh
Showroom, Sheffield
Watershed, Bristol

Wed 2nd March
The Lexi Cinema Pinkham Lighthouse, London [with Q&A]

Wed 2nd March - Sun 6th March and Sat 19th March - Sun 20th March
ICA, London

Tue 22nd March
Chapter, Cardiff [with Q&A]

Fri 1st April - Sat 30th April [exact dates to be confirmed*]
Cornerhouse, Manchester

* Please keep an eye on the ICO’s website for confirmation of exact dates. I will also endeavour to keep this page up to date.



out of 10
Category Film Review

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