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.)
Deseret*, 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.
The 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.
Swing 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.
Four 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.
The 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.
Monsieur 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 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