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Triumph of Will

by DAVID YEARSLEY

When a friend tells you he is going to make a feature film it’s rather like hearing him say he plans to climb Mt. Everest.  You immediately want to mention the obvious fact, already known to him, that many have gotten to the top and made it back down, but many have not. Yet you can see in his eyes that there’s no dissuading him from his chosen goal. All you can do is press a granola bar into his hand, and wish him well. If six months later he staggers back to civilization having lost only a couple of fingers and toes to frostbite, you’re happy simply that he’s alive.  It’s almost irrelevant if he made it to the top or not.

My old friend Zack Anderson set out on his expedition into the low-oxygen, high-casualty heights of big-time filmmaking some five years ago with an idea for a script that would display his unbounded imagination, his flair for character, and his fondness for the absurdities of human behavior. Buoying these talents was a canny notion to have the movie’s biggest star be a major sports franchise, thus building broad appeal into the product right from the start.

Having pressed the ejector button from his own San Francisco-based advertising firm a decade ago, Anderson pulled himself from the wreckage, rinsed the soap of the burst dot-com bubble from his face, and got busy on his own creative work. But he did not delete the lessons from the grinding years in the business of selling other people’s ideas and making them still other people’s dreams. With an international brand behind a brilliant idea, he reasoned, a film could be conceived, and, most importantly, financed. Mounting such expeditions of the imagination required a bankroll.

Renowned—if  not notorious—for the elegant, outrageous, and always unexpected prose of his columns that ran weekly in the Anderson Valley Advertiser for many years, Anderson strapped on his mountaineering boots and started out on the long slog of bringing a film to the screen.

Along the lowland path he met up with filmmaker Ellen Perry, a USC film school graduate, who had already made a daring PBS documentary in 2000 about China’s Three Gorges Dam project, called Great Wall Across the Yangtze, a work filled with haunting images of a river and its riparian culture about to be disappeared by state fiat. Disappearing—in this case of political opponents—is also central to her next documentary, co-written by Anderson. The award-winning Fall of Fujimori achieves its power not only through its examination of political developments in Peru during the Fujimori years, but even more for the uncannily intimate portrait it offers of the self-distortions and delusions wrought by power and expediency.  Perry’s shots of the deposed Fujimori looking at himself in his dressing room mirror in Japan and then standing on the beach staring out wistfully over the Pacific in the direction of his true South American homeland—to which, against the manifest logic of self-preservation, he would later return—are also unforgettable for their paradoxically unsettling poise.

Both documentaries demonstrated Perry’s fearlessness in tackling challenging and necessary subjects and, more importantly, her ability to make excellent films out of them—excellent because of the filmmaker’s eye for natural beauty; for the subtlety of her representation of human striving; and her ability to draw viewers along not only with the wider flow of the story, but also into unforeseen stretches of turbulent white water.

Unexpected perhaps for someone with such sharp cinematic vision is her finely-tuned ear, the tool she uses to harness the crucial power of the soundtrack to color the images—when called for, to reinforce their connection to one another, but also, at times, to foster unease, doubt, and dissonance. The duet of captured birdsong and mournful Chinese flute that accompanies Perry’s towering shots down the pale Yangtze palisades rising from the river’s turbid red water brings to the images a sense of present beauty and future loss; but the pictures also work in counterpoint to the music, which seems to suggest ways that humans and the natural world could harmoniously interact. Like one of her models, Stanley Kubrick, Perry is a deeply musical film director, one for whom the relation of sound to image is as important as the musical qualities to be projected through the phrasing by which the images themselves are grouped and paced.

After the critical success of the Fall of Fujimori, a finalist for best documentary at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the Perry-Anderson partnership turned from dams and dictators to the world’s most popular game: soccer, a potentially massive subject encompassing billions of people and even more billions of dollars. The filmmakers’ approach to a soccer movie was to make it personal, for the individual desires of a single fan to be played out against a sprawling backdrop.  Anderson and Perry came up with a script in which a young fan is orphaned, but is left tickets to a distant championship match by his deceased father: what follows is a jailbreak from an English boarding school and a picaresque road trip across the continent, in which humor enlivens human drama, and the gods of sport redeem an orphan’s loss. This is potentially deadly stuff, especially when one acknowledges the risk of making product placement (explicit in the worship of a winning team and all its marketed products) one of the initial selling points of the movie.  The good news for winning the affections of viewers not devoted to a given brand is that the script for the movie, which eventually was given the title Will after the eponymous orphan, is populated by nuanced characters and an appealing mixture of sentiment and fantasy.

Perry and Anderson went in search of a European soccer team on which to pin their hopes and those of their young fictional hero. After seemingly endless series of negotiations, cajolings, possibilities, and disappointments, they found their way into the welcoming arms of the Liverpool Football Club, one of the most successful, not to mention most globally recognized, sports franchises. The club’s miraculous come-from-behind victory against heavy favorite MilanAC in the 2005 Champions League Final provided the perfect destination for their runaway orphan. And given that the journey culminates in the triumphant cinematic scene in a packed Atatürk Stadium in Istanbul, it was only logical that that city’s Galatafilm group should provide the project’s major financing, though this band of savvy, cosmopolitan producers was won over more by the script than its geographical endpoint on their home turf.

The richness of the script attracted to the cast the likes of Bob Hoskins, who plays the bartending stand-in grandfather; Alice Krige as the sexy mother superior; Damien Lewis as the blustery, damaged and doomed father; and it turned up newcomer Perry Eggleton, whose performance, running from mischievous to angry to depleted of all hope, helps carry the film across the screen and the continent.

The young characters that Anderson wrote are especially convincing, especially orphanage’s bad-boy gourmand, Ritchie. Played with relish by Brandon Robinson, this gritty kid hilariously charts the orphan Will’s escape across Europe on a war room-style map, in terms of the culinary fare he can expect to find along the way.

The film celebrated a its hometown premiere two weeks ago in Liverpool. Among many other soccer and screen luminaries, the event was attended by England’s great striker and current LFC manager Kenny Dalglish — King Kenny (who makes an impeccably executed appearance in the film in the very last stretch of Will’s journey). From there Will went to Amsterdam, where it won the CineKids Lion, the audience prize at last month’s International Children’s Film Festival in Amsterdam. The most honest critics are the kids—only they could voted for the award—and they loved the movie, as I could plainly tell from my back-row seat and the lively question period that followed the screening.

Aside from the adept handling of young actors and the ability to make the most out of far-flung locations, Perry as director indulges, if sparingly, in moments of intense lyricism, as in the lingering, slow motion shots of the billowing red cassock of a street performer on stilts dressed in a cardinal’s outfit on a bridge leading to Notre Dame in Paris. (That litany of attributes should alone give a sense of the filmmaker’s penchant for fantasy, though it is one only occasionally indulged in the movie’s 100 minutes.) cinematic confrontation with the natural world also punctuate the narrative, as in the majestic oak that serves as the symbol of Will’s own lost family tree. Rocked by winds, the massive thing is buffeted but unbroken, its gracefulness under the pressure of the storm accompanied by Berlioz’s Lélio, a piece all about return from the brink of self-destruction to the joys of life. Chosen by Perry and tailored to this crucial scene about memory and absence, the piece’s reuse here takes nothing away from the vitality of the original score, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with crucial choral contributions from the Oxford Camerata. Composers Nigel Clarke and Michael Csányi-Wills adeptly draw both the epic and the intimate from these lavish performing forces.

After completing this most recent expedition, and having already made films touching on several continents, from Asia and South America to Europe, Perry and Anderson now embark on their next adventure. They’re not yet saying where.

“Will” opens in the U.K. November 4.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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