It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

1 Comment

Films you must see: About Elly

about-elly-dvdLast year, two Iranian films made my top five best of the year, The Circle and No One Knows about Persian Cats, and a further two I gave honourable mentions, A Separation and The Wind Will Carry Us. About Elly (2009) is an earlier film by the director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi. Three young middle-class couples from Tehran, with children, are spending the weekend on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Also along is Ahmad, visiting from Germany where he now lives, and recently divorced from his German wife; and Elly, the teacher of Sepideh’s young daughter, who Sepideh is hoping will make a good wife for Ahmad. Right from the start, it’s plain Sepideh is desperate for the weekend to work. When it turns out the villa they had originally booked is only available for one night – and Sepideh knew this – the group end up taking a near-derelict one on the beach. They clean it up and settle in, and so the weekend starts.

Elly, however, appears to be uncomfortable with being treated as a prospective wife for Ahmad. Though the two seem to like each other, Elly is stand-offish. When she tries to leave after the first night, Sepideh persuades her to stay, and even goes so far as to hide her bag.

The following day, the kids are playing on the beach. Nazy is making sure Arshad, the young son of Peyman and Shohreh, remains safe in the water. She goes inside to do some cleaning, and asks Elly to keep an eye out instead. But Sepideh’s daughter is having trouble with her kite, so Elly goes to help her…

Minutes later, Sepideh’s daughter runs up to the men, who are playing volleyball behind the house, screaming that Arshad is in the water. The men rush to rescue him. After some frantic searching they find the boy, floating face-down, but they manage to revive him. Then they notice that Elly is missing. Did she drown while trying to save Arshad? They hunt for her but find nothing. They call the police, but they too cannot find her. Or perhaps she left without saying anything? Was she the sort of woman who would do that?

It soon transpires that no one knows much about Elly, not even Sepideh. They contact her mother, but she didn’t even know Elly had gone to the seaside. From Elly’s mobile, they ring the number she last dialled, and get through to her brother. They tell him she has had an accident and is in hospital, and he immediately leaves Tehran for their villa.

But he’s not Elly’s brother, he’s her fiancé. As Sepideh reluctantly admits when she learns he is coming. For an affianced woman to go away to meet another prospective husband is not good. Elly’s honour is now at stake. If she did it without the knowledge of the party… While Sepideh’s husband, Amir, admits that he and his wife see nothing wrong with this behaviour, others in the party are less tolerant.

About Elly is not just a slow-burning thriller, it’s also a very clever character study of its cast. It begins innocently enough – a group of friends going away for the weekend, laughing and joking among themselves – then settles down to a friendly domestic drama… before taking an abrupt and horrifying turn. When Elly vanished, I will confess I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some additional twist to compound the tragedy. But About Elly is an Iranian film, and the turn it takes after Elly’s disappearance is entirely Iranian. It’s not about twisty turny plots, and how many times the director can wrongfoot the viewer, it’s about character and people and Iran. As a result, the ending is even more affecting.

The cast are uniformly excellent, with Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh especially good. The direction throughout is also excellent, with Farhadi managing to evoke the mood of each section of the story without using any incidental music whatsoever.

On balance, I think About Elly is a better film than A Separation, even though the latter did win an Oscar; but Farhadi is certainly a director worth watching. I think I shall be tracking down some of his other films…


Films you must see: Only Yesterday

onlyyesterday_54849I vaguely recall seeing Porco Rosso (1992) back in the early 1990s, but the first Studio Ghibli film I ever watched knowing it was a Studio Ghibli film was 2001′s Spirited Away. It was only a couple of years after its release. I’m not a huge fan of anime or animated films, though I’ve seen most of the big ones, so I only bothered adding later Studio Ghibli films to my DVD rental list if someone had recommended them. And that’s how I came to see Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Tales from Earthsea (2006) (though the latter wasn’t exactly “recommended”…).

But a couple of years ago, I decided to work my way through all of the Studio Ghibli films, so I stuck them on my DVD rental list in their order of release. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), which is not strictly speaking a Studio Ghibli film, I found an interesting, if slightly odd, sf film. Laputa – Castle in the Sky (1986) was also fun, especially some of the steampunkish bits. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) I described here on my blog last year as a “sad story spoiled by mawkishness”. My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) I thought were overly twee.

But then last weekend I watched Only Yesterday

Released in 1991, Only Yesterday is unlike the other Studio Ghibli films in that it is a realistic drama, and contains no genre elements at all. It was adapted from a manga of the same title by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, and written and directed by Isao Takahata. The plot is relatively straightforward. Taeko, a young woman resident in Tokyo, decides to get away from city life for a while and travels out into the country to help a relative with the safflower harvest. During the train journey to Yamagata, Taeko remembers incidents from her life when she was ten years old. The film then flips back and forth between Taeko’s present in 1982 and her childhood in 1966. The sections set in the past are drawn with backgrounds which resemble watercolours, while the 1982 sections are much more realistic – and in many cases, quite beautifully painted.

Given my previous experience with Studio Ghibli films, Only Yesterday was completely unexpected. It wasn’t just that the quality of artwork seemed to stand out more because it depicted the real world, but also that the characters were so well-written. Taeko is both an interesting and engaging heroine, at both ages, and the two narratives played off each other extremely well. Even the supporting cast were good – from the grandmother who’s perhaps a little too blunt, to Toshio, the love interest, whose understated matter-of-factness anchors one of the film’s best scenes. And the ending, where Taeko’s childhood self and her school friends appear and help her make a decision which changes her life, was beautifully judged. I’ll not be surprised if this film makes it onto my best of the year list.

Meanwhile, I still have eleven Studio Ghibli films to watch, though I suspect I’ve just watched the best of them…


Alien zero

Prometheus – for a film which is not a prequel to the Alien franchise no honest well okay maybe it is – appropriately asks a ton of questions. Sadly, it either ignores them or gives dumb answers that don’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. Having said that, as a film, it looks great. Pretty pictures, after all, trump everything.

The movie opens on a verdant planet beside a waterfall. There is a giant hairless humanoid standing on the shore, and a giant flying saucer hovering in the sky nearby. The giant opens a small container and eats its contents. It kills him. He falls into the water and his body dissolves down to its constituent DNA. This, we are supposed to believe, is an alien seeding human life on Earth.

But wait.

Did the giant humanoid mean to dissolve into primordial goop? Was it suicide? Or a really badly planned delivery method for planetary seeding, in which someone has to commit suicide? Maybe it was murder, maybe that was humankind’s original sin. But if we’re descended from them, why did we evolve to be so short and so hairy?

Cut to the Isle of Skye, later this century. Two palaeontologists have discovered 35,000-year-old cave paintings in a, er, cave. These paintings depict a giant pointing to a pattern of five circles. If it’s the same giants from the flying saucer, then they must have returned to Earth. Why? So they could prompt Upper Paleolithic humans to paint their picture? (We’ll ignore for the moment the fact that the oldest settlement so far discovered on Skye is younger than these cave paintings by about 30,000 years.)

This painting of a giant pointing the way to a pattern of five circles is apparently not unique to Skye. In fact, variations on it appear on artefacts from a wide variety of ancient civilisations, not all from the same time period – suggesting a number of visits, or a stay of a couple of millennia. This, apparently, is sufficient evidence for the two palaeontologists, Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), to persuade zillionaire Weyland to fund a mission to the “galactic configuration” represented by the five circles. “Galactic configuration”? What’s that then? A planetary system? Or a constellation of five stars? As seen from Earth? Thirty-five thousand years ago? Stars move, you know. Planets move too. Over time, their positions change – and so too does our viewpoint, as the Earth itself moves.

No matter. Movie logic says there’s something in the heavens which can lead our intrepid palaeontologists to a specific planet. Well, actually a moon of a gas giant. We’ll ignore the vast amounts of radiation the gas giant is likely producing, or its magnetosphere has trapped – this is a movie, after all. Weyland’s spaceship – called the Prometheus – lands on the moon, LV-223 (the first two Alien films took place on LV-426).

All this is handily explained in a briefing given by Shaw and Holloway to the members of the mission aboard Prometheus. However, rather than hire competent scientists for this trip, Weyland appears to have chosen to use rejects from Central Casting. It’s bad enough that the two leaders, Shaw and Holloway, believe in some von Däniken-type rubbish about gods from outer space creating humanity, but the rest of the team are no better. One tells another to fuck off when he introduces himself. Right. You’re zillions of kilometres from Earth – not “half a billion miles,” as one character later says; that would put you about twice as far from Earth as the Moon. Anyway, you’re light-years from Earth, in a spaceship with a small group of people, en route to an alien world. It is not a good time or place to act like an arsehole.

So there’s the scientific mission, the crew of Prometheus, the representative from Weyland, named Vickers, and an android, David. Vickers lives in a “lifeboat”, which is like a luxury flat stuck on the back of the spaceship. This lifeboat also contains a “medpod” – like the original Alien‘s “autodoc”, I imagine – but this one only works on human males. Er, right…

Prometheus lands on LV-223, and discovers a row of strange giant buildings. They’re like giant weathered pyramid-things, inside circular walls. Shaw and the others explore the nearest one. It contains lots of tunnels… and a room with a giant humanoid head. Also jars, lots of jars. Which start to ooze black gunk once the room is breached. Later, they determine the pyramid is a tomb.

Except most tombs don’t have spaceships buried under them. And these are the Giger boney boomerang spaceship from Alien… and the space jockey proves to be one of the giant hairless humanoids wearing a spacesuit. Which does make you wonder why they turned up to Earth in a giant flying saucer.

The boomerang spaceship also contains lots of jars, which the scientific team realise are a weapon. But a very strange weapon. It has different effects on different people. It made the giant at the beginning of the film turn into gunk, and so seeded the Earth. It makes the preserved head of a giant they find in the tomb explode. It turns one of scientific team into a super-strong diseased madman. It allows Holloway to impregnate Shaw with a tentacled monster. (She later uses the medpod to extract it – clearly it has been programmed to deal with pregnant males.)

When they find a surviving giant humanoid, and David manages to speak to him because he’s studied comparative linguistics and can somehow cobble together a working patois of the alien language from that… well, you don’t need that alien gunk to make your head explode. (Oh wait, maybe human languages are genetic too… Not.) But by this point in the film, the plot has already imploded into a black hole of illogic and nonsense and implausibility, so you only have yourself to blame. Prometheus is not a film to watch with your brain engaged. Just admire the pretty visuals. It makes for a much more entertaining 124 minutes.

Yes, Michael Fassbender pwns the film as the android David. Noomi Rapace’s character makes little sense, not least because religion has been fisted into a story it doesn’t fit. The rest of the cast might as well have worn red shirts. Vickers (Charlize Theron) tries to do a robot-or-not thing, but in the end proves she’s human the only way a woman in a movie possibly could: she fucks the captain (Idris Elba). At one point, Shaw is referred to as Holloway’s “zealot girlfriend”. Shaw and Vickers, incidentally, are the only two women in the film. So by 2093, we’ll have cool interstellar spaceships, but no gender equality. Plus ça change…

I saw Prometheus on IMAX 3D. It cost me £13. It was not worth it. I should have waited for the DVD and rented it. I also saw John Carter on IMAX 3D. That film was worth it. John Carter was a much better film. It also flopped. It’s unlikely Prometheus will flop – in fact, it’s probable the sequel implied by the ending will be made.

If you want to see a good sf film with giant spaceships and scary thrills, watch Cargo.


30 films in 30 words

Well, I used to do readings and watchings posts, and since I did 30 words on 30 books, I should do the same for the movies I’ve watched. It’s the usual eclectic mix, of course.

Bunny Lake Is Missing, Otto Preminger (1965)
American expats newly arrived in London misplace young daughter, but then it seems daughter might never have even existed. Police very confused. But all a cunning plot. Curiously low-key thriller.

Limitless, Neil Burger (2011)
Just think what you could if you had total mental focus. Why, you could make movies like this one. Smart drug leads to smarter than expected film. Actually worth seeing.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev (2009)
Swedish TV series original. Swedish Nazi back during WWII proves to be psycho killer. Big surprise. Journo and hacker chick investigate. Interesting thriller with good characters and sense of history.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Lisbeth Salander tracks down her evil dad, ex-KGB bigwig. He tries to kill her but she won’t be put down. Thriller series turns silly as Salander develops superpowers. Or something.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Salander’s evil dad was protected by secret group within Swedish spy services as Millennium trilogy jumps shark. Drawn-out courtroom drama stretches credulity way past breaking-point. Makes 007 look eminently plausible.

Red Psalm, Miklós Janscó (1972)
Hippie paean to 19th century Hungarian peasant revolts, with much socialist declaiming, folk songs, striding about and a complete lack of coherent plot. Brilliant. Loved it. More please. Review here.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Frank Capra (1936)
Simple but honest man inherits fortune and elects to do good with it. Establishment aren’t having it and try to have him declared mentally unfit. Heart worn blatantly on sleeve.

Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata (1988)
During WWII, kids run away from mean aunt and hide out in abandoned air-raid shelter. Of course, they’ve no idea how to cope on own. Sad story spoiled by mawkishness.

Claire’s Knee, Éric Rohmer (1970)
Fifth of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Educated French middle-class people pontificate on love while one of them fantasises about a teenage girl’s knee. Too many words, not enough insight. Meh.

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
A dubbed Richard Harris visiting Ravenna gets friendly with his friend’s wife, mentally-fragile Monica Vitti, in beautifully-shot industrial landscape. Incredibly painterly film. Slow but involving. Brilliant. Loved it. Review here.

Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)
Tarkovsky’s first feature film. Orphaned boy acts as scout behind enemy lines for Red Army in WWII. Many touches of Tarkovsky genius but much more straightforward than his other films.

Torment, Alf Sjöberg (1944)
Bergmans’ first film, though he only provided script. Moody student carries on with corner-shop girl, but she is murdered – and nasty teacher did it. Hitchcockian thriller seen through distorting mirror.

, Frederico Fellini (1962)
Saw La Dolce Vita years ago and not impressed, so surprised to discover I loved this. Marcello Mastroianni meditates on life and art while making sf film. Huge ending. Glorious.

Heaven Can Wait, Ernst Lubitsch (1943)
Technicolor New York in 19th century as dead self-effacing millionaire Don Ameche is sent to Hell and is forced to reveal he was actually a nice bloke. Not a classic.

Melancholia, Lars von Trier (2011)
Planet on collision course with Earth. Everyone panic. Except people with clinical depression, that is. Lovely photography, good acting, bollocks physics. Can’t honestly see why people rate this so highly.

My Night at Maud’s, Éric Rohmer (1969)
Third of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Catholic stalks young woman, then talks about religion, fidelity and love with friend and his girlfriend all night. Lessons to be learned. I think.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks (1953)
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell whoop it up among dirty old men on liner to Europe. It’s a cunning plot to force Monroe’s beau to declare. Goes wrong. Technicolor fun.

Summer With Monika, Ingmar Bergman (1953)
Young working-class lovers run away to Swedish islands. Monika gets pregnant, they return to the real world. But Monika’s not the home-making type. See, it was grim in Sweden too.

Santa Sangre, Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)
Boy grows up in circus, witnesses mother have her arms cut off by mad knife-thrower. Years later, she uses him to commit crimes. It’s by Jodorowsky. So it’s completely bonkers.

Les Enfants Du Paradis, Marcel Carne (1945)
The lives and loves of assorted theatre types in early 19th century Paris. Three hours long, and feels like it. A classic to many, I found it slow and dull.

Pocketful Of Miracles, Frank Capra (1961)
Homeless lady is lucky charm for gangster in 1920s New York in cross between Cinderella and Pygmalion. Played for laughs but not much is a laughing matter. Capra’s last film.

The Magician, Ingmar Bergman (1958)
Max von Sydow gurns in title role as three town worthies take the piss out him in 19th century Sweden. Science vs magic and the fight is fixed from start.

Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors, Sergei Parajanov (1965)
Earlier “poetic cinema” by director of The Colour of Pomegranates. Beautifully-shot, absolutely fascinating, makes no sense whatsoever. More please.

Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder (2011)
They’re mental patients. No, they’re prostitutes. No, they’re super agents in steampunkish fantasy world. In corsets and stockings. Kick-ass women as exceptional – and hot – tools of patriarchy. Wrong message.

Captain America, Joe Johnston (2011)
Possibly the best of the recent rash of superhero films. Retro-action during WWII as Cap sells war bonds across US and then tackles Red Skull in his lair. Almost fun.

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky (2010)
Ballet dancer driven to dance perfectly driven to madness. Well-played, though not the most original story ever. At least her shoes weren’t red. Have yet to figure out Aronofsky’s career.

Highlander 5: The Source, Brett Leonard (2007)
Worst film in a bad franchise, and possibly worst film ever made. Even the covers of Queen songs were terrible. There can only be one. Nope. Fear for your sanity.

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, Michael Bay (2011)
More coherent than earlier Transformers films, but just as offensive. Irritating, stupid, and wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s not big and it’s not clever – someone should tattoo that on Bay’s forehead.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam (2009)
Carnival-type caravan wanders London and there are wonders within. Famously whimsical director produces another piece of whimsy. Yawn. Heath Ledger died during film, but story was rescued. Still dull, though.

Szindbád, Zoltán Huszárik (1971)
A classic of the Hungarian New Wave, just like Red Psalm. Just shows how individual are responses to such films. Loved Red Psalm, but found this one a bit dull.


Some thoughts on John Carter

There’s always been something more appealing about the idea of John Carter than about the books in which he features. It’s pure wish-fulfillment, of course – being magically transported to an alien world, becoming a fearsome warrior, falling in love with a beautiful princess… John Carter was always the manliest of men, and deeply honourable to boot, and so formed the sort of ur-hero it was easy for impressionable boys to worship and wish to emulate.

And, it has to be said, there something exciting in the mix of savagery and sophistication which pertained on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars. Ancient cultures with flying ships and radium pistols, who still fought with swords from the backs of riding animals. The Barsoomian cultures had all the trappings of decadent cultures, yet were still vigorous and thrusting and more than able to put up a good fight. Which they did. Frequently.

But Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his eleven Barsoomian novels between 1912 and 1964, and they were never more than pulp fiction. Adapting them faithfully for the screen in the twenty-first century was always going to be problematical. Attitudes and sensibilities have changed – for the better, of course – and it’s no good pretending fidelity to the source material excuses sexism or racism (though Michael Bay has no such excuse for his Transformers films).

Harder, of course, to realise would be the world of Barsoom itself. Not just the landscapes of Mars, the vast canyon that is Valles Marineris, or the 21-kilometre high Mons Olympus; but also the various races and fauna, the flying ships, the cities… The Tharks are 4.5 metres tall, with four arms. Prosthetics and make-up are not going to produce convincing copies of that. But CGI can. Especially 2012 state-of-the-art CGI. After 2009′s Avatar, we know such things are possible.

As a result, the Barsoom in Andrew Stanton’s John Carter looks fantastic. Some of the long shots are breath-taking. Perhaps they didn’t get in a shot of Mons Olympus, but there was a canyon which could have been Valles Marineris. And perhaps in places the Martian landscape did resemble the Arizona desert a little too closely. But there’s no denying John Carter is a great-looking film. And that applies to the production design too. It feels as though it melds elements of all the various cover-arts that have graced Burroughs’ books through the decades.

It is in the story, however, that the film has suffered the majority of its attacks. I’m not sure I understand quite why John Carter has come under so much fire. It resembles a typical sf tentpole release inasmuch as it’s a spectacle film, full of awesome visuals and frantic action. No other film of this type seems to have been criticised so much – and mostly for not being what its detractors wanted it to be. True, the white man leads natives to victory is a problematical story, though John Carter is nothing like as offensive as Avatar in that regard. What Carter brings to Helium is an alliance with the Tharks, and that is solely because the Tharks were first to discover him on his arrival on Mars. Yes, he can jump higher and strike harder than any Barsoomian, but it’s his facility with a sword – learnt as a member of the US Cavalry – which makes him a good warrior. The jumping is useful, and moves the plot along in various places; but it doesn’t make Carter better than everyone else.

Perhaps the biggest change between the books – or rather, between peoples’ memories of the books – and the film is Dejah Thoris. In the film, she is a scientist – Helium’s chief scientist, in fact, and close to discovering the “ninth ray”. She is also an excellent swordswoman, as is amply demonstrated throughout John Carter. And Carter himself has no problem with this. It’s a welcome change.

The film does suffer from a couple of narrative longeurs. A long trip down the River Iss seems to serve little purpose, though it does give John Carter the magical phrase he needs to travel between worlds. When the chief Thern explains the presence of his race on Barsoom to Carter, it does seem a somewhat blunt way of getting the information across. There are long journeys across the Barsoomian desert in which little happens. Despite this, the film’s 132 minutes pass surprisingly quickly.

There are elements of the film worthy of praise. There is wit in the script. The cast – many of whom are British – are uniformly excellent; though Tardos Mors, the ruler of Helium, seemed a bit useless. The Tharks are especially good. The story wrapped within a story wrapped within a story structure I thought worked well, and primed the film for two endings, both emotional – the first heart-breaking, and then a proper upbeat one after. Initially, the decision to hold off on revealing that Carter had lost his wife and child years before seemed odd, but when it did appear, intercut with a battle scene, it had a great deal of impact.

It’s been too easy for people to criticise John Carter. “It’s not like the books.” Well, no. I should hope not. “If they were going to bring Barsoom to the cinema, why did they do it that way?” Because that’s the way the film-makers chose to do it. Since when has it become a valid criticism to complain that a film wasn’t made the way the critic wanted it to be made? The fact of that matter is that Hollywood has been praised for creating tentpole sf extravaganza films which are sexist, racist, and insultingly stupid. John Carter is none of those. It’s a surprisingly modern spin on an old-fashioned sf adventure film. And happily it’s been done with intelligence. So yes, I would pay to see a sequel.


Films you must see: Red Desert, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Red Desert (1964), Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film in colour, forms a loose quartet with L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962). I have seen the first and third of those – though I do own a copy of the eureka! edition of La Notte. In fact, it was L’Avventura which introduced me to Antonioni’s films, and persuaded me to seek out more by him.

Like the earlier three films, Red Desert stars Monica Vitti. She plays Giuliana, the wife of a director of an industrial plant in Ravenna, Italy. She has just come out of hospital following a car accident which, it is later suggested, was actually an attempt at suicide. Certainly, Giuliana is… fragile. A friend of the husband – Zeller, played by Richard Harris, with his dialogue dubbed into Italian – arrives in Ravenna, looking for engineers for a project in South America. He finds himself drawn to Giuliana, and something in her responds to him more honestly than with her husband.

Film is a visual medium, and yet it often seems that few directors take true advantage of that fact. They use visuals as a short-hand for world-building, or by using special effects to overload the spectacle. Red Desert, however, is an extremely painterly film. Though it is set in an industrial area, it boasts rich colours – which are themselves commentary on the world of the story: in the final scene, Giuliana’s young son asks his mother why a nearby factory’s smoke is yellow. And so it is: a vivid yellow against a grey sky. “Because it’s poisonous,” Giuliana replies. In another scene, Giuliana, her husband, Zeller, and some of their friends spend an afternoon in a decrepit hut on a quay. The “bedroom” of the hut is a tiny space filled with a mattress and with walls painted a bright red. The horseplay inside the bedroom turns distinctly sexual before being defused by the appearance of a ship at the quay. It is so close that it looms over the hut, entirely blocking the view from the window. Later, when they leave the hut, a fog has drawn in, turning the entire world white and shapeless.

Other scenes notable for their use of shape and colour include Zeller’s visit to Giuliana’s “shop”, an empty building in a monotone street, in which Giuliana plans to start a business. She has yet to decide what her shop will sell, however. Outside, the two stop to talk beside a barrow of fruit – and all of the produce has been painted varying shades of gray. Later, Giuliana and Zeller visit an offshore wellhead platform – for reasons not entirely clear, though it’s something to do with Zeller’s project in South America – and the two act out their lines against the bright colours of the equipment on the platform.

In some respects, Red Desert resembles “poetical cinema” – it is not a film with a three-act structure, or any form of narrative closure. However, it does have readily-identifiable characters, and they interact in a way that apes the real world. Red Desert is, I think, a better film than L’Avventura and L’Eclisse – it is certainly a more beautiful film than those two. Recommended.


Films you must see: Red Psalm, directed by Miklós Janscó

I bunged Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm (1972) onto an order of Christmas presents at the beginning of December, though I can’t for the life of me remember why. I’d seen Janscó’s The Red And The White before – in June 2010, and wrote then that it was “definitely worth seeing” – but what possessed me to buy a Jancsó DVD is something of a mystery. Perhaps it was a review in Sight & Sound. No matter. I bought it. And now I’ve watched it.

I think I was expecting a paean to socialism when I put the DVD in the player. The title, and Jancsó’s politics, certainly suggest as much. Even the film’s original Hungarian title, Még kér a nép (The People Still Demand), fosters this impression. Except Red Psalm, while certainly a socialist film, is no paean. It is based upon a number of peasant uprisings in Hungary between 1890 and 1910, and melds these into a single extended dramatic piece – though it has no plot, no characters, and no dialogue per se.

There are the workers, represented by a group of young people in peasant costumes. And there are the authorities, represented variously by the rural police, a bailiff, the army, the local count, and a priest. Most of the cast have 1970s haircuts, which does make it look all a bit hippie. The film takes place at a rural farming community and the countryside surrounding it, though no effort is made to give the story any real sense of place.

The workers walk around, either singing folk songs (often with socialist lyrics) or making small speechlets about socialism. The soldiers and policemen also walk around (or ride around on horseback), trying to either intimidate or charm the workers. No one stands still, everyone moves. This “balletic” movement is a feature of Jancsó’s style. One soldier defects to the workers but is shot. Later, he reappears, as if resurrected. A worker is shot through the hand, but her wound becomes a red rosette. Later, all the workers wear such rosettes.

The local count attempts to explain the benefits of capitalism to the workers – though it is an unconvincing argument – but seems to die of a heart attack when his words fall on deaf ears. His wife subsequently attacks the workers with a whip. A priest exhorts the workers to obey the authorities, claiming it is the godly thing to do, but is forced back into his church, which is then set on fire.

Throughout Red Psalm, there is a sense of a story in continual evolution. Characters exchange roles, dialogue is declamatory or explanatory, but does not progress anything as bourgeois as a plot. At the end, the workers and soldiers come together to celebrate but, at a signal, the soldiers then separate, form a cordon about the workers… and massacre them. Tellingly, the cordon is in the shape of a heart.

But even that death is not final, as the workers later re-appear. And one takes a soldier’s gun, and then kills all the soldiers.

Red Psalm is an argument, framed in song, movement, political oratory and the interactions between opposing groups. If its young and good-looking cast make it appear more of a hippie film than a socialist one, it’s an illusion that is quickly dispelled. It’s perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but I thought it excellent and have even bought The Miklós Jancsó Collection box set. And I think more of Jancsó’s films should be released on DVD.

Leave a comment

In the Zone

The Zone SF has recently posted up some of my reviews of genre films. There’s cult classic Damnation Alley, based on the Roger Zelazny novel – review here. And Black Heaven (AKA L’autre monde), a French thriller about MMORPGs – review here. And finally, 51, a really crap film set at Area 51 – review here. I can’t in all honesty recommend any of the three films, though Black Heaven wasn’t too bad.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,726 other followers