Bled Film Festival
Noah has been recruited as "Selector of Feature Films" for the first annual Bled Film Festival, which will be held in Bled, Slovenia June 17-21. This new festival features high-profile stars among its founders, from Hollywood and the Balkans. Noah will be choosing eight films to be screened and contend for juried prizes, plus four films shown for free in an open air theater on the shores of Lake Bled, often called the most beautiful place on earth. For more information, visit www.bledff.com
Cultural Heritage Research Prize
Noah is one of a select number of jury members for a brand new prize, established by the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy and former Italian Minister of Culture, Francesco Rutelli. The Cultural Heritage Research Prize will be awarded annually to someone who distinguishes themselves in the field of cultural heritage protection and recovery. The prestigious prize includes a substantial cash award as well. Noah's fellow jurors include Rutelli, Mounir Bouchenaki, Bonnie Burnham, Jack Lang, Giovanni Nistri, Peter Watson, Hanna Pennock, Ismail Serageldin, and Stefano de Caro. More information is available here.
Noah's BBC and National Geographic Documentaries
Noah appears as a guest expert and presenter on two TV documentaries this winter. "The World's Most Expensive Stolen Paintings" appears on BBC2 on December 21, 2013 and "Hunting Hitler's Stolen Art Treasures" appears on Nat Geo Channel on February 5, 2014.
Noah's "The Secret History of Art" Blog
- The Art of the Heist: Interview with Matthew Quirk
The Secret History of Art loves a good heist, whether it comes in the form of a novel or a film. And the rest of the world seems to agree, as we’ve got a new best-seller from Daniel Silva called “The Heist,” and an art theft movie, “The Art of the Steal,” and those are just within the last week. In the shameless self-promotion department, you might also refer to the author’s own heist novel, “The Art Thief,” for his thoughts on the matter.
Few know how to script a heist plot as well as Matthew Quirk. The New York Times best-selling author of The 500 has a new book out, The Directive, which will surely hit the list as well. The Secret History of Art and Matthew Quirk talked heists, what makes for great ones, and the difference between filmic and literary heists.
1. What are three of your favorite heist books, and three of your favorite heist films? And what isconsistent about them that you particularly like and feel works well?
The list is always changing, but for books I’ll say Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton, and I just started The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and that’s a contender for a top spot. For films: Le Cercle Rouge, Heat, and Reservoir Dogs. I tend to like heist fictions at the extremes: realistic and gritty or smart and stylized. I’m always looking for stories that break out of the genre’s clichés with hard-won new details of how criminals really operate (like Hogan and Hamilton’s books) or a true sense of place. You can also do a great, sensational caper plot that riffs on the clichés. In my own books, I try to split the difference, and map out a fantastic plot that’s firmly rooted in reality, place, and character.
2. Why do you think we so often find bad guys, or flawed good guys, to be more interesting than your standard heroic protagonist? We tend to cheer for thieves in heist stories…
The villains have always been more compelling than heroes. William Blake claimed that John Milton was rooting for the devil without knowing it when he wrote Paradise Lost. We read thrillers to safely get a taste of danger and excitement. That’s the bad guy’s job, so he tends to steal the show. The standard advice when writing a book is that your villain and his or her designs are the most important part of your story. It seems like the big hits of the past decade or so have caught on to that and the cultural standard may have shifted from a troubled hero to a borderline villainous one (e.g. Tony Soprano and Walter White). I dug into that theme with my main character in The Directive: the temptations of returning to his criminal past, and the pleasures of breaking the rules.
Heist stories are a special case, because it is typically a much less bloody crime than others, so you can root for the crooks in a way you couldn’t with, say, a serial killer story (though Dexter put a great Robin Hood twist on that rule). It’s a tricky balance in fiction between the attractiveness of fictional outlaws and the real-life repulsiveness of crime. You want to be true to life, but actual crime is typically sad and seedy and violent and futile. I like to play with that tension and show both aspects of the criminal world.
3. How did you go about mapping the plot for your latest novel? The clockwork crime-procedural requires a great deal of preparation on the part of the author. And it always strikes me as necessary to come up with a plot that “works” without cheating—without a deus ex machina and with “honest” surprises, plot twists, and so on.
I was a reporter for a long time and research is the best way to procrastinate on writing. I approached The Directive as if I were actually robbing the New York Fed. I learned to pick locks, which has come in handy in real life. To plot the heist, I worked with lock-pickers, hackers, former and current Fed employees, and “penetration testers”—experts who are hired to break into secure facilities in order to find security weaknesses. The most interesting part was learning how different a real 21st-century heist is from the old Hollywood tropes. The modern break-in depends less on brute force and stealth and more on social engineering techniques—similar to con games—that use deception and the abuse of trust to get inside. That was a nice find, because con games are already deeply entwined in the books and my main character’s past. Armed with that research, I went to New York Fed and cased the place. I was very surprised by how easy it was when I sneaked off and accessed a high floor. At first I thought, “Cool, this stuff works,” and then I thought, “What the hell am I doing? I could get arrested. This isn’t a novel.”
I completely agree with you on cheating. Logic is more important than trickiness in a thriller. Look at Day of the Jackal. The suspense comes from watching it all unfold in plain sight with a growing sense of dread. I like to have a few surprises, but you can get into trouble when you hope a big reveal is the main payoff of your book. Then you are writing a thriller and a mystery. Tackling one genre is hard enough.
4. How important is plausibility for you, when reading or watching a movie? Do you prefer realism or are you happy with a plot twist that is a bit out there, but provides good spectacle.
I like both realism and a stylized spectacle, as long as the tone is consistent throughout a book or film. With a couple of exceptions, the Steven Soderbergh crime movies are terrific, over-the-top capers. But if a writer has something nonsensical happen because he’s showing off or needs to fix a plot hole, it often feels like laziness, or a lack of a respect for the reader who has given up very precious time and trust to believe in the world of this book or film. What kills me is when a jokey movie suddenly goes dark and ultra-violent, or a tense, realistic plot does something loopy to please the crowd at the end.
5. What has to happen for you on page one, and in chapter one, of a good thriller to make you want to read on, and convince you that this is a book you’ll really enjoy?
It’s hard to pull off, but those first pages have to make it impossible to put the book down without finding out not only what happens next, but also how the book ends. In a well-built thriller, the first pages will establish everything the reader needs to understand the sort of climax the book is racing toward. Not the specifics necessarily, but the main contours: this hero will face this killer by the end and justice will be served or denied. It helps if I have characters that I’m dying to learn more about and can stand to be around for five or six hours.
6. Does the advent of computing take anything away from heist plots? So much stealing goes on by computer hacking, and less by stealthy on-site burglars. Have we lost anything, in terms of entertainment value, because of this?
I have a friend who only writes historicals because he thinks cell phones have made suspense impossible. Computers make it harder to write a good heist, for sure. How many times have you seen the same scene, with a pale young hacker lit only by a bank of monitors as he listens to electronica, taps at the keyboard, and tries to make code sound exciting? How about the guy in the second season of House of Cards who kept stroking the pet gerbil like a Bond Villain? I love the show, but that was a real Fonz-over-the-shark moment for me.
For The Directive, I used a few tech elements, because it’s what real thieves would use, and it was more accurate than the usual hand-waving “and then we crack the system and can do anything” depictions of hacking. But the technological tricks in the book require Mike to be on-site and at-risk. I did track down the technical details of the Federal Reserve System’s secure document network, but I deviated from reality in the book in order to make for a big-time cinematic climax.
I don’t know if we’ve necessarily lost entertainment value because of new technologies. Hopefully we’ll come out ahead. It ups the ante for authors to do their research and rack their brains for even more crafty ways to create suspense in the world as we know it.
Learn more about Matthew Quirk by clicking here.
- “The Art of the Steal” Film Review
Many have asked for my take on the latest art heist movie, The Art of the Steal. Here you go, today in Film International magazine
- Bled Film Festival: Feature Film Selection
The first annual Bled Film Festival begins this week, running June 17-21, on the fairy-tale site of Lake Bled, in Slovenia. The Secret History of Art has the honor of being Selector of Feature Films, and is pleased to bring you the final film list for the eight films that will be screened as part of the juried prize competition. For more information about the festival, visit www.bledff.com.
Feature Film Program
Selector: Dr Noah Charney
Director: Prasanna Jayakody
Producer: Sky Entertainers
Script: Prasanna Jayakody
Lead Actors: Semini Iddamalgoda, Sarath Kothalawala, Rukmal Nirosh
Summary: Abasiri’s wife Suddhi abandoned him and the village a long time ago. Now, Abasiri and his young friend Mani are summoned to identify a woman who was raped and murdered in the city. Hiding his personal distress after the shocking discovery that it is his own wife, Abasiri embarks on a strange journey with her coffin, traveling through hauntingly beautiful hill stations towards the village where embarrassing rumors of Suddhi’s demise are already spreading. In the last part of this poetic travelogue, the dead Suddhi confronts the villagers with their own hypocrisy and shortcomings.
Selector Notes: made on a very low budget, nothing can stop this quiet, beautiful, haunting film which takes a simple premise (how to get a coffin from the city to a village) and makes of it a soulful think-piece. With echoes of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, due to the parallel stories (in both, a family must get a coffin and corpse from Point A to Point B, with many mishaps on the way), and an intentionally stilted tone that recalls Samuel Beckett.
Director: Emmanuel Naccache
Producer: Les Films Manuel Munz, Topia Communications
Script: Emmanuel Naccache
Lead Actors: Tomer Sisley, Lionel Abelanski, Kev Adams, Bar Rafaeli
Summary: a stylish spy comedy based on a true assassination that was the alleged work of Kidon, the Israeli Intelligence black ops department.
Selector Notes: plenty of pace and style, this spy caper borrows much from the Ocean’s movie series, and holds its own, combining gloss and glamor with a plot full of twists that keep you guessing to the end.
Scouting for Zebras
Director: Benoit Mariage
Producer: Formosa Productions, MG Productions, CAB Productions
Script: Stefan Liberski, Benoit Mariage
Lead Actors: Benoit Poelvoorde, Marc Zinga, Tatiana Rojo
Summary: Jose is a scout for a Belgian football team, recruiting players from the Ivory Coast. He finds a promising talent in the poor neighborhoods of Abidjan and brings him to Belgium, where he seems to be a star in the making.
Selector Notes: a striking performance from the male lead, this film is an apt choice for a World Cup year, and manages to be both charming and conveys a serious message. It also has a very big surprise midway through that was brave on the part of the film-makers.
Director: Raquel Almazan
Producer: Viviana Leo and Stuart Luth
Script: Vivana Leo
Lead Actors: Viviana Leo, Alexis Brandt, Alexis Suarez, Stuart Luth
Summary: a Puerto Rican television network awards a young actress with a reality show in which they follow her to New York City, as she attempts to make it big as an actress. Her only obstacle is that, while a Latina, her skin is white. She encounters a sort of reverse racism that she must combat, or change herself in order to overcome.
Guest Speakers: Viviana Leo and Stuart Luth
Selector Notes: A charming, intelligent comedy about the bizarre socio-dynamism of the film industry, type-casting, racial profiling, unintentional prejudice, and much more. Cleverly prepared on a slender budget by framing the narrative as a reality show about an actress sent to New York to make it big, which allows for the lead to speak to the camera, and lets the audience accept a hand-held digital style and finish, which works perfectly well with the material. You needn’t be Latina or a New Yorker to recognize that the prejudices and hurdles in White Alligator are universal, and may be applied to any nation and situation.
Director: Wojciech Smarzowski
Producer: Agora, Canal+ Polska, Film It
Script: Wojciech Smarzowski
Lead Actors: Bartlomiej Topa, Aradiusz Jakubik, Juli Kijowska
Summary: the traffic police of Warsaw keep a diary of their activities, professional, social, and illicit, via the video camera function on their smartphones. One of their members finds that his wife is cheating on him, goes on a drunken bender, blacks out, and learns that his wife’s lover has been murdered. He is the prime suspect, and he does not know if he is guilty or innocent.
Guest Speaker: Bartolomiej Topa
Selector Notes: This visually-striking film takes advantage of the fact that we are constantly on our smartphones, and therefore have video cameras with us at all times. The film is shot both from a standard professional camera’s viewpoint, but also intercut with footage from smartphone videos taken by the characters. This produces a wrangling, tactile, jittery view at the questionable side of traffic police, who are often overlooked as their line of work is considered less than glamorous. But from this start the film transforms into a classic chase thriller, with a hugely surprising (and very Polish) ending.
The Dark Valley
Director: Andreas Prochaska
Producer: Allegro Film, X-Filme Creative Pool
Script: Andreas Prochaska, Martin Ambrosch
Lead Actors: Sam Riley, Tobias Moretti,
Summary: A stranger from America rides into a lonely village in the 19th century Austrian Alps that is run by the strong-armed sons of a bed-ridden patriarch who rules the village like a feudal warlord. The stranger claims to be a photographer, but he seems to have an ulterior motive. When the sons of the patriarch start to disappear or die, he is suspected, and must confront the ruling family in order to seek revenge for a mysterious wrong done to his mother in the village, decades ago.
Guest Speaker: Andreas Prochaska
Selector Notes: With a strong flavor of the classic revenge Western (in the Clint Eastwood mold), this beautifully-shot, dark and haunting film features a stunning performance by the young British lead, Sam Riley, and maintains a bubbling nervousness of tone against the stark beauty of the Austrian Alps.
Fish & Cat
Director: Shahram Mokri
Producer: Kanoon Iran Novin
Script: Shahram Mokri
Lead Actors: Abed Abest, Mona Ahmadi, Ainaz Azarhoush
Summary: a group of students on the remote shore of a large lake gather for an annual kite-flying festival, unaware that three local cooks have something sinister in store for them
Guest Speaker: Shahram Mokri
Selector Notes: an astonishing feat of film-making, as this entire film consists of a single shot, Fish & Cat manages to combine a filmic sleight-of-hand with a beautiful, supremely creepy pseudo-horror film. Past attempts at a feature film in a single shot have either worked beautifully, thanks to incredible choreography (Russian Ark) or provided little beyond the gimmick (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope). Fish & Cat manages to be longer than either (a whopping 134 minutes) and succeeds at creeping out the viewers. Horror is much easier to do with quick-cuts and editing, jump-backs and things leaping out of closets. A single, long shot is much harder to pull off as scary or foreboding. The soundtrack helps tremendously, but this comes down to the genius of the director, who managed to conceive of, and coordinate, something truly remarkable.
Before My Eyes
Director: Rajat Kapoor
Producer: Mithya Talkies
Script: Rajat Kapoor
Lead Actors: Naresh Gosain, Rajat Kapoor, Sanjay Mishra, Maya Sarao
Summary: the story of Bauji, the patriarch of a middle-class Indian family who, after a dramatic incident in which he believes rumors over the word of his daughter, decides that he will only believe his own personal experience—nothing that anyone else tells him.
Selector Notes: the latest film from the critically-acclaimed director of Monsoon Wedding and Midnight’s Children is the story of a man who has a sort of secular, philosophical epiphany instead of a mid-life crisis. He becomes a logical positivist, meaning that he will only believe what has been proven by his own, personal experience—nothing that anyone else says or tells him will be acceptable: even something as mundane as a computer that assures him that a flight to Amsterdam will take eight hours. Turning his life upside down, he develops a cult following. The film takes a turn toward magic realism at the end, and packs many important ideas and thoughts in an otherwise realist gently comedic family drama.
- Guardian Masterclass: “How To Write About Art”
I’m pleased to be teaching a Guardian Masterclass (workshops taught by Guardian writers) on “How To Write About Art,” which will be held in London at the offices of The Guardian on 4 October. If any of you are in London and study, teach or write about art (from academic, trade, journalism or even fiction angles), you are most welcome. I’ll be joined by my editor of art books at Phaidon, Diane Fortenberry.
- Slovenia vs Croatia: Sausage Wars
My latest article is in Hemispheres magazine, and deals with the battle over protected status for a Slovenian sausage, Kranjska klobasa, that is about much more than the nomenclature of pork…