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Life in Film: Joanna Hogg

The British screenwriter and director discusses the films that have influenced her practice

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Chantal Akerman, Golden Eighties, 1986. Courtesy: Paradise Films

Chantal Akerman, Golden Eighties, 1986. Courtesy: Paradise Films

I always draw a blank when I’m asked to name the important films in my life. So, this time, I thought I should consult my old diaries – I’ve always written down everything I go and see – except I didn’t realize how many memories it would unleash.

In 1979, when I was 19, I started to think seriously about making my own films, and I saw one that helped me realize it was possible – Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return (1979). I was fascinated by its dreamscape, and what I saw as the director’s comment on a society obsessed with cosmetic appearances and conformist rituals. Her shattering of dreams was something that my teenage self needed to witness. The tension Ottinger presented between outward appearances and self-awareness became a central motor for my ideas as I headed off to film school in London.

But in 1979 two other films also had a big influence on me: both were musicals, but entirely different from each other. What I took away from Martin Scorsese’s New York New York (1977) was a strikingly vivid expression of how two artists don’t necessarily make a good marriage. Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) isn’t just a musical, it’s an autobiographical film with music. I watched both films again recently and they inspire me more than ever. Soon after, a boyfriend introduced me to the miraculous films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It took me less than a millisecond to connect to their otherworldly visions; all of their films had an impact on me. Gone to Earth (1950) – the spellbinding foxhunting scene; A Canterbury Tale (1944) – the mysterious glue man and the beauty of Kent, where I grew up; Tales of Hoffmann (1951) – I loved the visual puns, the tails disappearing behind doors; and, of course, The Red Shoes (1948), which I realized had haunted me as a child.

As my 1980s diary bears witness, I was also seeing a psychiatrist and being prescribed Librium. After an appointment with Dr. Macdonald in the afternoon, I would then be found in the Paris Pullman cinema in Fulham or passively inhaling the cigar smoke drifting around The Minema in Knightsbridge. Were my formative cinema-going days experienced under the influence of psychoactive drugs?

Perhaps these sessions with Dr. Macdonald attracted me to Mitchell Leisen’s Lady in the Dark: I was obsessed by this 1944 Technicolor musical, which starred Ginger Rogers as a fashion magazine editor undergoing psychoanalysis. I watched it so many times in the early 1980s that, if it had been a book, it would have fallen apart from having so many corners turned down and notes written on it. I swallowed the dreams and the art direction and later re-imagined it as Caprice (1986), my own miniature homage to Hollywood musicals and fashion magazine culture, which became my graduation film.

It was either while I was making Caprice or shortly afterwards that I first saw Golden Eighties (1986) by Chantal Akerman. It had been destroyed by the press at the time, perhaps because Akerman went too rapidly from austerity to glorious Fujicolor exuberance. But why shouldn’t she? I loved its theatricality, its bright colours, its rhythms and catchy songs, its seemingly simple romantic story told with an ironic, knowing eye.

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Roberto Rossellini, Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy), 1954. Courtesy: British Film Institute

Roberto Rossellini, Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy), 1954. Courtesy: British Film Institute

So far, so many musicals! But if I had to single out one film that I keep coming back to, it would be Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1954). Why? Because it has an atmosphere that is palpable. I can smell it. I can feel the Italian heat on my skin. It is alive. It talks candidly about the breakdown of a marriage but there’s also something recognizable about the characters and the Neapolitan setting; a very British reaction to being abroad. It is mysterious and simple and concise. I strive to create this degree of aliveness. I need to see this film often to understand what it is I am trying to do. It’s never a question of mimicking somebody else’s work but of using that work as a spur to make better, more engaged films.

This process of looking back leads me to question how much we really change and, as artists, how the dynamic is set so early on in our lives but then we keep repeating it – churning up past memories in our work. The films we digest when young play out years later in different guises.

Curiously, since starting the film collective A Nos Amours, with Adam Roberts, I am experiencing cinema less as a way to transport and influence my new ideas and more as a refuge, a safe place away from my own filmmaking circus. We are currently running a complete but slow retrospective of Akerman’s films and I am enjoying not thinking about my own practice, but witnessing this artist’s phenomenal, innovative body of work instead, and wondering why she isn’t as lauded as Jean-Luc Godard.

There are more films being made now than ever, but – apart from A Nos Amours screenings – I’m watching far fewer than I used to. I only have to look in my diaries from the 1980s and early ’90s to see that almost every day, sometimes several times a day, I was in the cinema. I don’t have the stamina now. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in the dark. I’m less willing to be a consumer – I want to make stuff, I want to be active, to contribute something.

Film is, of course, only part of the story. Other influences – sculpture, literature, dreams or psychoanalysis – also inform the way I work, too. I am also reticent to share everything in case a spell is broken. Some mystery is a good thing.

is a film director and screenwriter who lives in London, UK. Her feature films have won numerous awards and include Unrelated (2007); Archipelago (2010); and Exhibition (2013), which starred the artist Liam Gillick and the musician Viv Albertine. Hogg co-founded the collective A Nos Amours with Adam Roberts. Its retrospective of the complete film works of Chantal Akerman runs until mid-2015. Hogg is currently working on a film about the 1980s.

Issue 166

First published in Issue 166

October 2014
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