Despite its clear homage to slapstick silent film and the likes of Jacques Tati, Rumba (2008) is most strikingly an exercise in colour theory. Careful and detailed art direction focussing on wardrobe, framing and set design are used to heighten the contrast between the film’s alternate tonal directions: fortune and misfortune.

The plot is at once simple and convoluted; perfect for its simplicity, not in spite of it. Fiona and Dom are school teachers whose lives are somewhat banal and ordinary by day, but whose vibrancy and verve emerges en force when they rumba by night. Having entered and won a dance competition, the couple are temporarily on top of the world, but a case of wrong place, wrong time instantly and irreversibly changes the course of their lives.

Despite their newest ailments – Fiona is missing a leg and Dom his memory – the pair muddle on as best they can, determined to make the good a bad situation. In true slapstick style, even the smallest of mishaps sets in motion a sequence of cause and effect lunacy paralleled only by the likes of Buster Keaton and his contemporaries. The hint of pantomime is well matched to the quirky sensibility specific to French farce, which is naturally and seamlessly brought into the mix.

Immediately after the incident there is a turn in the film’s visual style marked by a stand out sequence whereby Fiona’s beautiful, bold red rumba dress literally unravels, revealing a stark, drained colour palette of neutral tones; white underwear and sallow skin. From this moment on what ensues is a series of images drained and faded from the saturated reds, blues, yellows and greens that came before.

Gradually, as events resolve themselves, the pair rediscover and rekindle their love in accordance with a slow and strong re-saturation of colours onscreen. No sooner have the pair reunited, the plot resolved itself, and another dance sequence ensues; prime colours coming together in a kaleidoscopic rainbow of promise and joy.

The wit is very dry and occasionally errs on the side of acerbic to great comedic effect. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon are unfalteringly straight-faced throughout the most absurd happenings which is a credit to their abilities not just as actors, but as writer/directors in equal measure. Well observed and well measured in every way Rumba is careful not to lose its audience and the film runs at a short but sweet seventy-seven minutes.

Not a film that will change your life, Rumba is like a perfect pudding or a holiday fling; the sensation of indulging in a guilty pleasure left to linger at the level of flirtation. Light hearted and removed from any sense of false sentimentality, Rumba is a vibrant interlude of visual entertainment.

Rumba is available on DVD from March 22nd through Network Releasing. Special features include deleted scenes, bloopers, trailer, Rumba: step by step and a Q&A with Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon at the ICA.

Slapdash 2010

February 24, 2010

It’s been a couple of weeks now (which is probably a good thing because sometimes a little distance can be a blessing) since the Desert Island Slapstick evening at Jesters (though recently renamed Metropolis the festival still listed the venue as Jesters). The Desert Island evening brought a timely end to the blink and you might miss it mini-festival that was Slapstick 2010.  Another local festival for the cultured middle classes who reside in Clifton, Redland, Cotham and even so far away as Bishopston, Slapstick 2010 was Bristol’s sixth silent comedy festival.

Advertised in the likes of Venue Magazine, The Evening Post and apparently over some local Bristol radio station, I was surprised to hear about the festival only through a chance discovery that my place of casual employment was one of its official sponsors. In lieu of our supposed support for the festival I thought it a good idea to go ahead and attend at least one of its events.

Consisting of a ‘panel’ (though I use the term lightly) of three British comedy heros, each of whom selected a silent film that they would in theory take with them to a desert island, the evening – slowly – revealed itself to be really rather more slapdash than slapstick. Though it had been advertised and printed materials crafted, the three Radio 4 ‘celebrities’, Graeme Garden, Time Brooke-Taylor and Barry Cryer all seemed to be suffering a bout of Alzheimer’s as they fuddled rather than talked their way through the films they had selected, Garden openly admitting that he’d chosen a film he’d never actually seen before. Pleasantly accompanied by live sound (albeit a keyboard rather than a piano) the venue itself was a fine choice, having originally (96 years ago) been Bristol’s first silent cinema.

Coney Island

The films themselves were for the most part very enjoyable, the selection including; Boobs in the Wood (1925) starring a less commonly known Harry Langdon, Coney Island (1917) with an overwhelmingly camp Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Neighbors (1920) exhibiting the charms of Buster Keaton on a simpering Virginia Fox. The content of these three films was, again, for the most part, very enjoyable: all except for one particularly squeamish sequence in Neighbors where Buster “blacks up”. Audacious and offensive as this act is there is always a possibility that an audience might make allowances for such content if the context of the film is accurately and carefully outlined prior to its unveiling. Beyond disturbing therefore is the way in which Brooke-Taylor contextualised the sequence in question, stating, “It’s fine. It was fine at the time and I think it’s fine now.” His latent racism, received without protest from a mirror audience is just one of the many unbearably obvious signs that the festival is in crisis and needs to make some drastic changes if it wishes to have any kind of longevity, let alone creditability or accolade.

Sadly I was amongst a minority in the audience (perhaps only a handful of us at an age before menopause) as I gasped with disdain at such remarks, the lady behind me chortling till her sides split at the sight of a ‘blacked up’ Buster. Clearly the organisers of Slapstick have a great challenge before them as they attempt to keep running a festival whose life span, if its audience is anything to go by, is all too near its use-by date. Perhaps if they were to market the festival through the guise of ‘silent film’ rather than ‘slapstick’ more youths would understand its content, though saying this, the success of its marketing is only so useful as the outlets through which it is advertised. Given that Bristol’s ‘arts hub’ consists of a small circle of individuals no larger than most people’s telephone directory (a circle I like to think I know of even if I sit judgementally outside of it) it is peculiar to me that they managed to get it so laughably wrong. But then again, slapstick or slapdash, as least something about it made me laugh.

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