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Moving pictures, #27

Almost caught up with these. Although no doubt I’ll go and watch another half a dozen films one afternoon and end up behind again. Sigh. (Um, have just noticed: after my last Moving pictures post contained no US films, this one is entirely movies from the USA. Ah well. Must do better.)

deseretDeseret*, James Benning (1995, USA). Ever watched a film and loved it so much you go online and buy every other film by that director you can find? I knew nothing about Benning, only that Deseret was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list. I didn’t even know what the title meant. I couldn’t find a rental copy, so I ended up buying the film on DVD. And then I watched it one evening. The title actually refers to the name of a provisional state, proposed in 1849 by Mormon settlers but never accepted by the US government. Deseret-the-film is about Utah, which is one of the states in what would have been Deseret-the-territory. While a static 16mm camera records the Utah landscape, and later urban areas, in shots of no more than two or three minutes duration, a voice reads out stories about the state from the New York Times, starting in 1851 and through each year to 1994. Initially shot in black and white, when the voice-over reaches the 1990s the film becomes colour. The images show the changes wrought on the state by the presence of humanity; and some of the newspaper stories are quite critical of the people in Utah (although apparently the Mormon Church are happy with the film). I loved the use of imagery and voice-over, I found it mesmerising. It reminded me of Sokurov’s elegy films. I loved it so much I looked online, discovered the Österreiches Filmmuseum in Vienna has to date released five DVDS by Benning, including this one, featuring eleven of his films. So I bought the other four DVDs:  American Dreams (lost and found) / Landscape Suicide, casting a glance / RR, California Trilogy and natural history / Ruhr.

bigskyThe Big Sky, Howard Hawks (1952, USA). This film is not actually on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but it’s on the amalgamated list – meaning it either got added after 2013, or dropped in favour of a more recent film. But it’s a Howard Hawks film, which is why I rented it. Unfortunately, the copy I saw proved to be a terrible transfer, pretty much a VHS quality picture. It’s set in 1832, Kirk Douglas is a hunter who has run in with another hunter, the two become friends and travel together to New Orleans, where they sign up on a trip to travel 2000 miles up the Missouri River to trade with Blackfoot Indians. And they can do this because they have with them a Blackfoot princess rescued years before from an enemy nation. This is US history as told by whites for whites. The Native Americans are treated sympathetically – more so than you would expect for a Hollywood film – but this is still manifest destiny in action, the continent for its conquerors, etc. Douglas is at his smirking best, the nasty fur trading company is nasty, Arthur Hunnicutt does a good line in drunk hunters who have done it all and actually know quite a bit… A film worth seeing once but not a great film, and probably not really good enough to make any instantiation of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

swingtimeSwing Time*, George Stevens (1936, USA). You can’t go wrong with Fred and Ginger. They are, in fact, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Sunday afternoon when I bunged this disc in the player, but a Sunday afternoon film was what I was expecting. And so it seemed to be. Fred misses his wedding because the rest of his dance troupe conspire to delay him as his marriage would lead to the troupe disbanding. When Fred does make it, after the wedding has been called off, he promises his angry father-in-law-to-be that he will return to wed his fiancée when he has earned $25,000. So he heads off to New York, bumps into Ginger but gets off on the wrong foot with her, follows her to the dance studio where she works as a teacher, buys a lesson with her so he can apologise, but when he fumbles his dancing she is fired by the studio’s oleaginous owner, so Fred demonstrates she really has taught him astonishingly well in such a short lesson… leading to a quite brilliant Fred and Ginger dance routine… And from that point on, the film couldn’t put a foot wrong. Okay, so it went a bit all formula, but it had built up such a bank of charm it would have had to really fuck up to lose it. Fred and Ginger audition for a club to put on a dance routine, but there are obstacles to overcome, not least Fred’s love of gambling… But it all works out in the end, as it must. A fun film.

deseretFour Corners, James Benning (1997, USA). This is the second film on the DVD mentioned above (see cover art to the left). It follows a similar pattern to Deseret, although it’s not quite as successful. The film is based on the works of four artists – Claude Monet, Moses Tolliver,Native American wall-painter “Yukawa” and Jasper Johns – and opens each of its four sections with on-screen text about the artist’s life. It then shows a series of 16mm shots of landscape from one of the four states which make up the four corners region: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Mostly the voice-over focuses on the Native Americans who once lived in the region, the discovery and subsequent exploitation of their artefacts by local families, and the eventual disposition of the sites. Shots are often longer than in Deseret, which can test your patience, but the voice-over is always interesting. According to the DVD booklet, “I wanted to be entirely democratic, and so each section is exactly the same as all the others, down to the number of letters in the text biographies of the artists [total 1,214] and the number of words [1,186] in the voice-over stories”. I can’t wait to watch the other Benning films.

hitchcock1The Trouble with Harry, Alfred Hitchcock (1955, USA). A couple of months ago, Amazon had a “Prime Day” and offered a bunch of bargains to Prime members. On offer were Blu-ray editions of two Alfred Hitchcock collections for £15 each. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever bought, back in the 1990s – but I fancied upgrading. And so I’ve been rewatching them on Blu-ray at irregular intervals. I’ve always rated Hitchcock as one of the most consistently entertaining of directors, a master craftsman who made a lot of excellent movies, including a couple of stone cold classics. This one, sadly, is neither. But what I had forgotten about The Trouble with Harry is the gorgeous Technicolor. It’s shot in New England in autumn, just like a favourite film of mine, and it looks beautiful on the screen. Unfortunately, the story is thumpingly light-hearted – Hitchcock’s only outright comedy, apparently – and the male lead, John Forsyth, can’t manage the lightness of touch required by the script. As I’ve rewatched these Hitchcock films I’ve found myself re-evaluating them. He was remarkable in how little footage he discarded  – in other words, he shot precisely as much footage as he needed and no more, and planned each shot so thoroughly retakes and reshots were unnecessary. And his films are brilliantly framed – even when it doesn’t go right, he still stuck to his plan (in this film, the trees were apparently embarrassingly free of leaves when the crew arrived to shoot, so Hitchcock had leaves glued to them – er, the trees, that is). But some of the stories he chose to film are, frankly, not very interesting. This one is a case in point – it’s like he tried for a screwball comedy but instead shot it as a melodrama. The end result is identifiable as neither. Another male lead might have been able to pull it off, especially given that the supporting cast are so good, but I doubt it – Hitchcock’s hand lays a bit too heavy on the movie. Still, it is, as I said, a beautiful-looking film.

m_verdouxMonsieur Verdoux*, Charles Chaplin (1947, USA). Chaplin plays the title role, a bank clerk turned bigamist and serial killer of wealthy middle-aged women. I’m not sure where the humour comes from in this, although there are a number of nice slapstick routines – a fall out of a window, for example, surprised a laugh out of me – and Chaplin does play his role well. But. But. It all feels a bit like a traveller from a different era. I can see the film working as a silent movie in the 1920s, but by the late 1940s it’s inability to decide if it’s a drawing-room farce, a slapstick comedy, or just plain black humour results in far too many shifts in tone. And Martha Raye’s character is just plain weird. I’m glad I went to the trouble of seeing it, but I’ll not be dashing out to buy all of Chaplin’s DVDs…

project_almanacProject Almanac, Dean Israelite (2014, USA). Is it possible to put a new spin on the time travel story? And no, doing it as found footage doesn’t count. In fact, that’s a strike against it. Because found footage needs to be part of the story, not just a gimmick for telling it, and it’s been so over-done now it’s lost all currency. But never mind, because at least Dean Isrealite thinks it’s a smart way to tell his story. Which in this case involves a high schooler whose deceased father turns out to have built a time machine – or very nearly one. But inventor son completes it, and he and his friends start travelling back in time, initially for shits and giggles, then kicks and Groundhog Day style romance, then personal gain, then to fix the dreaded Hollywood father-son issue. Twenty years ago, perhaps, this would have been an interesting film, but time is a friend to no one (oh the irony), and instead we have something not quite original enough, nor derivative enough, to be interesting, which pretends to scientific credibility while making a sixteen-inch pizza with all the trimmings of its pseudo-science, and whose central scene is set back-stage at a Lollapalooza festival as if the film-makers don’t want anyone the slightest bit confused about their audience demographic. This is a film whose window of relevancy is about five seconds long, and even shorter for anyone not in their early twenties, and whoops one year later it’s gone. Shame, as it had its moments.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 643


Moving pictures, #20

Bit of an epic Moving pictures post this time as I try to get up to date with my recent viewing. The usual mixture of movies, of course, although perhaps a few too many American ones. Never mind.

nightwatchingNightwatching, Peter Greenaway (2007, UK). This is the first of Greenaway’s “Dutch masters” trilogy – I actually saw the second one first, Goltzius and the Pelican Company– and this time is about the life of Rembrandt van Rijn. Played by, of all people, Martin Freeman. This is very much the Greenway I remember from the 1980s and early 1990s, although it was the sets, rather than the staging and camera work, that made it feel more like a play than a film. I’d not really enjoyed Goltzius and the Pelican Company, and when I started watching Nightwatching I didn’t initially think Freeman was very convincing as Rembrandt, but he won me over and the movie definitely turned more interesting as it progressed. Not bad.

before_i_go_to_sleepBefore I Go To Sleep, Rowan Joffe (2014, UK). So I got my Fire TV Stick, and went looking on it for a movie to watch, and this looked like a recent thriller that might do the job and… oof. What a nasty film. I’m sorry, but when your plot is predicated on violence toward women, then perhaps you need to rethink your story. Nicole Kidman plays an amnesiac who wakes every day not knowing what has happened to her over the past decade. Her husband, Colin Firth, explains that she was in a car accident, and suffered brain damage. Except that’s not true. As she slowly discovers, partly as a result of documenting each day secretly, something therapist Mark Strong has suggested to her. The final twist is, to be honest, a bit obvious. Despite the cast and the polished production, this leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. Best avoided.

leviathanLeviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014, Russia). Perhaps Russian films such as Night Watch and Black Lightning might have got all the box office, but Russia has churned out some quality drama too (and not just by my beloved Aleksandr Sokurov). Kolya is a car mechanic, whose land has been compulsory-purchased by the town council, allegedly for a transmitter; but Kolya is pretty sure the corrupt mayer just wants to build himself a house there. He’s tried the local court, but they’re in the pocket of the mayor. As are the police. And the purchase price is far from what the land is worth. The more Kolya struggles, the worst his situation becomes. So he rants and raves and hits the vodka, but none of it helps. Beautifully-photographed, intensely and depressingly realistic. Definitely worth seeing.

natural_born_killersNatural Born Killers*, Oliver Stone (1994, USA). As indicated by the asterisk, this is one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and I very much doubt I would have otherwise watched it. Or re-watched it. Sort of. Back in the 1990s I bought the CD of the sountrack by Trent Reznor (I was a fan of Nine Inch Nails in those days) and listened to it quite a lot. Unlike other OSTs, the Natural Born Killers one featured dialogue from the film between songs. And there was enough of it to actually peice together the plot of the film. As I discovered when I watched it. Otherwise, the movie seemed to be trying too hard to become a cult film, failing dismally, but in its failure actually getting closer to that status than it did by design. If that makes sense.

A-Place-In-The-Sun-1951-Front-Cover-38596A Place in the Sun*, George Stevens (1951, USA). Hollywood churned out a lot of worthy but dull films during the 1950s and 1960s, usually based on highly-regarded novels – in this case, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy. This is definitely one of them. Montgomery Clift plays the scion of a poor branch of the family who visits his rich industrialist uncle and asks for a job. He’s given a lowly position, despite being a relative, and is supposed to work his way up the corporate ladder. Because hard work. Because American Dream. Unfortunately, there’s a nubile fly in the ointment in the shape of Elizabeth Taylor and… you know how it goes. Ambitions thwarted by actual situation – personified by women, of course – leading to foolish plan to get rise to top back on track, usually results in someone’s death, hero ends up in prison. The book should have been called An American Cliché. Not worth the effort. Meh.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Melvin Frank (1965, USA). This film is nothing to do with the sf anthology I recently read (see here). This is a Rock Hudson / Gina Lollobridigida vehicle, in which they play divorcees who temporarily get back together because he needs to show he’s happily married to land a job. The film is actually set in London, though clearly only the stock footage was shot there and neither of the stars actually visited the city. It gave the whole film a bit of a soap opera feel. The Technicolor wasn’t up to its usual gorgeousness, the banter felt a bit lacklustre (although Gig Young was excellent), and it all felt even more inconsequential that most movies of this type do. I enjoyed it, but there are better Rock Hudson rom coms / melodramas out there.

aileenAileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer / Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer*, Nick Broomfield (1992/2003, UK). I added the latter to my rental list (because asterisk), but the disc also included the former, so I watched both. Aileen Wuornos was the US’s first serial killer – or at least the first one ever caught. She killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, claiming self-defence after she’d been arrested. But over the course of her trial and her time on death row, she changed her story several times. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer documents how the media exploited Wuornos and her trial – some of the police officers involved were paid large sums by Hollywood producers for film rights, for example, and later were made to resign. In Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, Broomfield interviews Wuornos shortly before she is executed. If the first film painted her as the victim of a system determined to see her executed because she was a woman serial killer, ten years in prison had clearly unbalanced her. Definitely worth seeing.

the_swiss_conspiracyThe Swiss Conspiracy, Jack Arnold (1976, US/Germany). There’s probably a very good reason why I bought this DVD but I’m buggered if I can remember what it was. The film is a pretty run-of-the-mill thriller starring Ray Milland and David Janssen, and notable only for being shot entirely in Zürich. It’s about, of course, a Swiss bank. Senta Berger and Elke Sommer are watchable, but Janssen is a bit too gravelly for his allegedly louche character, and John Saxon hams it up like a slab of gammon as a mobster. There’s a passable chase scene, but this doesn’t really even pass muster as a Sunday afternoon film.

a_touch_of_zenA Touch Of Zen*, King Hu (1971, Taiwan). This is apparently an important early wu xia film, but I can certainly verify it is a long and dull one. A painter in a small town becomes embroiled with a fugitive from imperial justice, a young woman who’d tried to warn the emperor of his eunuch’s corruption. Although the film is about the woman, Yang, it’s the painter, Ku, who is the centre of the story. I remember that the film was so long it was pslit into two, and Ku seemed mostly a bumbling oaf. Some of the fight scenes looked a little clumsy given the current state of the wu xia art. But mostly I remember that it dragged on and on and on. But I’ve seen it now. Huh.

A-christmas-Story-DVDA Christmas Story*, Bob Clark (1983, USA). If this hadn’t been on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, I’d never have bothered renting it. Certainly there’s nothing in its description which would recommend it to me – a boy’s Christmas, loosely based on a series of nostalgic columns from a US newspaper. And having now seen it, I can thoroughly not recommend it. The writer of the column narrates the film, which is set in the mid-1940s – and bizarrely, there is no mention of WWII, it’s almost as if the US were not at war – and focuses chiefly on the narrator’s boyhood self and his determination to get an air rifle for Christmas – which, of course, no one thinks he should have. I really didn’t like this film. Cloying manufactured nostalgia, which works by elevating the absolutely trivial to emotional life-or-death. Avoid.

hitchcock2The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock (1963, USA). During the recent Prime day on Amazon, I spotted the two Hitchcock collections on Blu-ray going for less than half price. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever purchased – but at that price it was worth “upgrading”. And the first one I watched from my new Blu-ray collection was The Birds from Vol 2, probably because it was a Hitchcock film I’d not rewatched for a long time. As I soon discovered, because I’d completely forgotten the framing story, in which a socialite played by Tippi Hedren flirts with po-faced attorney Rod Taylor in a pet shop, and then drives up the coast to backend-of-nowhere town Bodega Bay where he’s gone to spend the weekend with his widowed mother and much younger sister. She ingratiates herself into the family, and even ends up spending the night Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, who is the local school teacher. And then the birds attack. It’s all a bit random. And the special effects show their age in a number of ways. But Hitch maintains an impressive level of creepiness throughout, and successfully ups the peril as the attacks progress. A bona fide classic.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 611

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First haul of the year

Though, strictly speaking, it’s not – some of the books below were brought to me by Santa. But this is certainly the first book haul post of the year. And it’s the usual mix of first edition hardbacks, charity shop finds, literary fiction, science fiction, and books on or about other things all together…

Some literary first editions. I read Ultramarine over Christmas and it is very good indeed. I will read more Lowry. Milkbottle-H was recommended by someone on LibraryThing and this was the only edition of the book I could find. Paul Scott is a favourite writer, and both The Towers Of Silence and Staying On are for the collection.
Some genre first editions. Apollo’s Outcasts I’ll be reviewing for Vector. I should know about this sort of stuff, right? Starship Spring is the final book in Eric Brown’s Starship quartet – I bet you can guess the titles of the other three. The Ice Owl is a novella by Carolyn Ives Gilman. I shall be reviewing it for Daughters of Prometheus. The Dragon Griaule is a beautiful-looking collection from Subterranean Press. I have all of its contents as separate novellas… except for the one original to this book. Which they clearly put in so that people like me would buy it.
Some genre paperbacks. Unbelievably, I have never read A Canticle For Leibowitz. Good job I found this copy in a charity shop, then. The Islanders was a Christmas present. Frankenstein joins the other SF Masterworks. And The Explorer was sent to me by James Smythe (I swapped it for a copy of Adrift on the Sea of Rains).
Non-genre paperbacks. Two more of the attractively-packaged Ballard paperbacks, The Unlimited Dream Company and The Day of Creation. That’s all of them now. I’ve been picking up Iain Sinclair novels – this one is Landor’s Tower – when I see them in charity shops, but have yet to actually, er, read them. Winter’s Bone I wanted to read after being very impressed by the film adaptation. Santa gave it to me.
I’ve always rated Hitchcock as a director, so I made an effort to watch The Girl, the TV movie about his relationship with Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds and Marnie. It was excellent. Spellbound by Beauty is the book it was based upon. John Jarmain is one of my favourite poets, and Flowers in the Minefields is a collection of his poems and letters, with commentary. It is, I think, the only book about him ever published.20130126f
During a visit to Louisiana, a modern art museum in Denmark, over Christmas I saw some photographs by Gillian Wearing, and was sufficiently intrigued to pick up a book about her work. Before The Incal is a prequel bandes dessinée and it is excellent.


Ten Greatest Film Directors

Time for a list. Lists are good. People like lists, even – or especially – contentious ones. This does not make me a blogposer (see here).

I could have titled this list Ten Favourite Film Directors, because that’s sort of what it is. Except they’re not just favourites, they’re also directors whose skill and artistry I greatly admire. Just because something is a favourite, that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s good. Like Frank Herbert’s Dune – it’s probably the one novel I’ve reread more than any other, but I don’t think it’s an especially well-written book.

Anyway, here is a list of film directors whose films I both like a great deal and admire a great deal; in no particular order:

  1. Alfred Hitchcock – the master of the thriller, whose films are the most consistently entertaining of all time. He has several absolute classics to his name, which is more than most directors can say: Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, North By Northwest, The Birds
  2. Douglas Sirk – was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller. All That Heaven Allows is one of the great films of the 1950s. His films were melodramatic, but also deeply subversive. And very, very cleverly made.
  3. Krzysztof Kieślowski – created some of the most exquisitely-made films, photography and script, in the history of cinema.
  4. Andrei Tarkovsky – his films were unlike any other film-maker’s. Beautifully-shot, for a start. And resolutely challenging, in a medium which privileges accessibility.
  5. Michael Haneke – because, of all the directors currently making films, he has the most interesting body of work – in the sense of his approach to telling stories using the medium.
  6. Ingmar Bergman – if most cinema can be equated to popular written fiction, then Bergman was an accomplished writer of prize-winning literary fiction.
  7. Terry Gilliam – because he has one of the most singular imaginations in the film-making world.
  8. Michangelo Antonioni – another director who experimented with the narrative techniques of the form, with great success. L’Avventura remains a classic piece of cinema.
  9. Aki Kaurismäki – Finnish cinema may be unfairly characterised as grim and depressing, but even the grimmest of Kaurismäki’s films display a sly and absurd sense of humour. He remade Hamlet, recasting the title character as the heir to an international rubber duck manufacturing concern, for example.
  10. The “Archers”: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger – made three of the best British films of all time: A Matter Of Life And Death, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, and The Red Shoes. And there are plenty more in their oeuvre.

A few who didn’t quite make the cut into the top ten: David Lynch, Fritz Lang, Werner Herzog, Frank Capra.

Feel free to add your own lists in the comments. No doubt there will be some disagreements…

Next up: ten greatest novelists.


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