A few too many US films this time, although the Benning is actually only available on a DVD published by the Österreichisches Filmmuseum. But then the Satyajit Ray is a Criterion Collection DVD, and they’re only published in the US, so…
The Music Room (Jalsaghar)*, Satyajit Ray (1958, India). I’ve been trying to watch more Ray as he’s an important director and to date I’ve only watched two-thirds of his Apu trilogy. The asterisk indicates this film is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and while Ray is quite well-served in terms of UK DVD releases (thanks to the inestimable Artificial Eye), I decided to pick up the Criterion Collection DVD of The Music Room. The story is a common one, perhaps even common to Indian cinema (it’s certainly one shared with Mother India in part), in that it’s about the death of old ways and the rise of the new. The main character of The Music Room is a Bengali zamindar, wealthy and indolent, but good-hearted and more fond of music than he is looking after the lands and people he is responsible for. His decline is contrasted with the rise of a commoner who beocmes rich through business. The film cleverly shifts sympathy from the zamindar to the commoner, especially given whatever defence might be mounted of the zamindar system the example portrayed in The Music Room is far from a good advert. The film also makes a great deal of its music, and apparently it was the use of classical Indian music in The Music Room which contributed to its success in the West (it was intended to be a commercial success in India as Ray’s previous film had flopped). I’m reminded of a night I once spent in a Bengali nightclub in Abu Dhabi, when after listening to a fifteen-minute song I asked the person sitting at a nearby table to explain the lyrics. They were surprisingly banal. That’s not something which can be said of this film, which maintains an impressive elegiac tone throughout.
Prizzi’s Honour*, John Huston (1985, USA). There are a number of films whose presence on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is, quite frankly, baffling. This is one of them. It’s a fairly ordinary comedy-drama about Hollywood’s version of the Mob, notable only for Jack Nicholson’s gormless expression throughout and his tortured Brooklyn accent (at least, I think it’s Brooklyn, a native New Yorker would probably know what particular district it’s intended to portray). Nicholson’s character is an enforcer for a Mob don, and he falls in love at first sight with Kathleen Turner at a family wedding. But she’s from out of town (LA, in fact), so he never finds out who she is… Until some time later, when he’s out in LA and it turns out she’s involved in the hit he’s making. The two enter into a relationship, it transpires Turner is a contract killer, and later that she has ripped off the Mob and… well, it’s about as twisty-turny as the first two minutes of your average twenty-first century thriller movie. Turner plays a femme fatale, a role which has defined much of her career; I’m not sure if Nicholson was doing a comedy turn, it’s hard to tell. This is light entertainment, it’s not classic cinema, and you can happily live your life without having never seen it.
Around The World Under The Sea, Andrew Marton (1966, USA). The threat of increased, and more powerful, earthquakes, persuades the UN to back a plan to install earthquake sensors at strategic points around the globe on the ocean bottom. The plan is Lloyd Bridges’s, so he gets to lead the mission – which will involve a globe-spanning trip in a large submersible. Also aboard are five other scientists – Shirley Eaton, Brian Kelly (who doesn’t think a woman should be on board), David McCallum, Keenan Wynan and Marshall Thompson. This film is… tosh. Complete tosh. Wynan initially refuses Bridges’s invite, so Bridges goes to visit him… in his undersea home more than 700 feet below the surface of the sea. And Bridges dives to it on air. It’s also remarkably light down there, in fact the sea bottom is the sort of pale sand you’d find around, say, twenty feet below the surface. There are also other episodes where the crew go diving at depths of greater than 20,000 feet – and it’s unlikely the submersible itself would survive such a depth – on air and without bothering to either compress before or decompress afterwards. There are films which make a reluctant nod in the direction of scientific accuracy, and are those which don’t give a shit. This falls into the latter camp – and it’s not improved by it. The actual premise is complete bollocks, and the presentation of submersibles and diving is complete and utter nonsense. Best avoided.
The Awful Truth*, Leo McCarey (1937, USA). There are films in which Cary Grant seems to glide through the proceedings, sliding along on charm and his perfect delivery of one-liners. Not every film, or even necessarily good films – he is better, for example in Operation Petticoat than he is in North by Northwest. But The Awful Truth is an early film – actually his thirtieth, if the filmography on Wikipedia is any guide – and his first attempt at the debonair leading man in a comedy-drama, a role which later came to define him. In this, he often seems a bit too eager to deliver the punch-line, and it gives him an earnestness which sits at odds with his later on-screen persona (but that’s what you get for watching an actor’s oeuvre in non-chronological order, which is I suspect the way most people end up seeing films starring a particular actor). The plot of The Awful Truth is typical screwball romance fodder: Grant and Irene Dunn are due to divorce, but by parading unsuitable new partners in front of each other, they eventually realise they belong together. Again. The script is witty, Dunne more than holds her own, and if Grant does smirk and gurn a little too often, it doesn’t detract all that much from the film’s essential charm.
Landscape Suicide, James Benning (1986, USA). This is cinema as art installation, although Benning pushes the definition of that by including narrative. Yet his films are also documentaries – there is nothing fictional about the material he presents. Landscape Suicide is about two murder cases: one in Wisconsin, one in California; one in 1984, one in 1957. The earlier of the two is the capture of Ed Gein. Benning has an actor play Gein and act out his interrogation by the police. The second is Bernadotte Prott, who stabbed a high school friend to death, and is again portrayed by an actor who acts out her police interrogation. Landscape Suicide is built up from these static talking head shots and equally static shots of the areas in which the crimes were committed, in Wisconsin and California. Although there is nothing in this film which actually tells a story, Benning imposes narrative through his choice of images and his editing. I’ll admit he’s not to everyone’s taste: 90 minutes of static 16mm shots of three or so minutes duration, not always with narration or even people talking – both El Valley Centro and Los, for example, are images and ambient sound only – but it’s the actual procession of images which tells the story, and it’s very cleverly done. Quite meserising too.
Scarface*, Howard Hawks (1932, USA). I’ve seen about half of Hawks’s oeuvre to date, and some of them I’ve found very good – if very much of their time and very much a product of the Hollywood system (neither necessarily being a bad thing, of course). I will admit to not having high expectations of this movie, a thinly-disguised biopic of Al Capone, even down to re-staging the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Its opening ten or twenty minutes aren’t especially prepossessing, as Paul Muni moves in on deals other gangs have made with speakeasies for their supply of beer (not that the speakeasies had much choice). But then the violence escalates, and it’s all very realistic – so much so, it captures the attention and holds it. Admittedly, I missed the whole “X equals death” thing, although I did wonder why the camera lingered on the ceiling joists of the garage where the massacre took place. Muni seems a bit too much like his role in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to convince as a ruthless mobster, and Boris Karloff is far too lugubrious and, well, English, in a similar role. Despite that, the story speeds along at a breakneck, and accelerating, pace, and it’s not hard to understand why Scarface is considered a seminal film of its genre. Worth seeing.
No Man’s Land*, Danis Tanović (2001, Bosnia). The only film by Tanović I’d seen previously was Hell, his film of a screenplay by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the second of a new trilogy they were working on just prior to Kieślowski’s death (the first, Heaven, was filmed by Tom Tykwer after Kieślowski’s death; the third has never been made). All of which is completely irrelevant as that later film bears little or no resemblance to this one, which takes place mostly between the Bosniak and Bosnian Serb frontlines during the Bosnian War. After a patrol gets lost in a heavy fog, and another patrol is sent out to look for them, two soldiers, one from each side, end up trapped in an abandoned trench in no man’s land. Neither can leave, at risk of getting shot by the opposite side. Just to make matters worse, Bosnian Serbs have boobytrapped a dead Bosniak by putting a bouncing mine under his body. Except he’s not dead. A French sergeant in the UN Peacekeeping Force gets involved, but his superiors veto any resolution of the situation. But then the media arrives on the scene, especially a tenacious British reporter for a news channel. The decision to help gets bounced up the chain of command to Simon Callow’s colonel, but it seems the mine can’t be disarmed. The Bosniak and Bosnia Serb end up shooting each other, and the UN Peacekeepers lie to the media and tell everyone the third man has been rescued, even though he hasn’t. This humour isn’t black, it’s stygian. Like proper humour of this type, everything in it is completely inevitable, including the stupidity and dishonesty of the people involved. It is also completely convincing. Definitely worth seeing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 649