Your usual selection of classics and obscurities. I’m going to have to find something new to post about when I’ve finished these– oh wait, I’m supposed to be a science fiction writer, I can always post about that, you know, science fiction and writing and, er, books…
Camille*, George Cukor (1936, USA). This is the film in which Garbo apparently laughs– no, wait, that one was another one. This is the one in which she plays the consumptive mistress of a wealthy aristocrat, but falls in love with a younger, better-looking and poorer man, and so has to choose between love and security. Set in mid-nineteenth century France. She chooses the older man, but there’s that consumption, you see, so she dies. This is one of those films that proved entertaining enough, and despite its age made a good fist of its period, but it’s hard to see why it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Meh.
Two-Lane Blacktop*, Monte Hellman (1971, USA). I had low expectations for this – an alleged cult classic, starring musician James Taylor and the drummer from the Beach Boys, about a pair of beatniks who race across the US in their souped-up ’57 Chevy. But you know what? It was actually pretty damn good. The main characters’ taciturnity worked well, as did rival Warren Oates’ constant line in bullshit. Despite containing mostly footage of cars driving along empty roads, with the occasional moment of drama and/or action… and despite the characters being little more than ciphers, with no appreciable arcs… and despite being very much a film of its time (with a pretty good, and thankfully not intrusive, soundtrack)… I really enjoyed this. I’d even consider buying my own copy. Definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.
Angels with Dirty Faces*, Michael Curtiz (1938, USA). The title of this film may well be iconic but the movie itself was a big disappointment. Cagney plays a gangster (yawn), who returns to the old neighbourhood after a stretch and meets up with his old childhood friend, who is now the parish priest. There’s a gang of youths the priest is trying to keep on the straight and narrow, but Cagney gets them involved in all sorts of illegal shenanigans. There’s something to do with corrupt city officials, and a couple of shootouts, and then Cagney is on Death Row and his friend asks him to set an example to the youths and kick and scream on his way to the electric chair (so that the youths will no longer idolise him). So Cagney does just that. There are a lot of noir films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, far more, I think, than the genre merits. And there are way more Hollywood movies on the list than are warranted. It could stand to lose a few of both… and Angels with Dirty Faces would be a good candidate.
Ruhr / Natural History, James Benning (2009/2014, Germany/Austria). These are the last two Benning films available on DVD (at least until the Österreicheschen Filmmuseum release some more), and one of them was a special commissions by the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Ruhr is a series of six static shots of industrial landscape in the Ruhr district:a road tunnel, a steelworks, an airport, a mosque, a street, and the chimney from a coking plant. In fact, that last shot, the chimney, accounts for 60 minutes of the film’s 122 minutes running time. Apparently, Ruhr caused something of a stir – it was one of Benning’s first films using a digital camera, and he was accused of “digital manipulation”. All that actually happens is he gradually darkens the image of the chimney as the film progresses, so that by the end of the hour-long shot, it’s almost entirely black. That’s all. Natural History, on the other hand, is a series of static shots of rooms and corridors in Vienna’s Natural History Museum, mostly behind-the-scenes places. While the chimney shot in Ruhr is weirdly compelling (nothing actually happens, just steam billowing out of it at intervals), and although Natural History does feature the occasional person wandering past (and voices on the ambient sound soundtrack), the latter film is more a chore to watch. Benning has made some twenty-five feature-length films, but only eleven of them are currently available on DVD. I hope more appear soon.
Little Big Man*, Arthur Penn (1970, USA). This film is chiefly notable for Dustin Hoffman playing a centenarian under layers of prosthetic make-up (not especially convincing make-up either, by current standards) and apparently screaming for an hour before each take in order to speak with a hoarse voice like a really old person. Hoffman’s titular character starts out as a young boy adopted by the Cheyenne after the members of his wagon train are killed by Pawnee. Then when the Cheyenne are attacked by the US Cavalry, he reveals he’s really white and is taken in by the soldiers. He then bounces around among the settlers, along the way selling snake-oil, getting married, running a trading post… before signing on with Custer (who is portrayed as a moronic oaf) as a scout… only to end up living once again with the Cheyenne. Where he gets married again… only for Custer to attack the village and kill almost everyone. It all ends with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which Hoffman’s character witnesses. The novel on which the film is based was by Thomas Berger (whose Regiment of Women, by the way, is fucking dreadful), and if it’s anything like the movie I’ve no desire to read it. I have no idea why this film is considered suitable for the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list – when it wasn’t patronising, it was annoying; and when it was trying to be funny, it, well, it just wasn’t. Avoid.
The Blood of a Poet, Jean Cocteau (1932, France). It took me a while, but I tracked down a copy of the Crtierion DVD release of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, containing The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus (Orphée) and Testament of Orpheus. As is usually the case with these sorts of purchases, two weeks after I bought my copy, I saw another copy going for a fifth of the price I paid. Bah. Anyway, I really like Orpheus, and I wanted to see Testament of Orpheus, but I knew nothing about The Blood of a Poet and was not especially bothered about it. Nonetheless, I watched it and, oh dear, it’s another one of those 1930s French surrealist films. And I’m really not a fan of them. Mostly, it seems to be an excuse to display a bunch of cinema tricks, which ,to be fair, are actually pretty effective (one or two, I seem to recall, also make an appearance in Orpheus). Nevertheless, it’s worth tracking down a copy of the Criterion Orphic Trilogy set, although given it’s a) a US-only release, and b) deleted, it won’t be that easy to find (copies on Amazon marketplace start around £60). Don’t be fooled by the Studiocanal Jean Cocteau Collection, which contains only The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus, and not the best of the three, Orpheus.
Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966, USSR). In order to see Shepitko’s Ascent, which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I had to buy a two-film Criterion box set, which was the only DVD I could find of Ascent. The second film in the set was Wings. And having now seen both, I think Wings belongs on the list more than Ascent does. Nedezhda Petrukhina is a highly-decorated World War II (Great Patriotic War) fighter pilot, who now, twenty years later, is the principal of a school. While still something of a minor local celebrity for her wartime exploits, she is also seen as little more than her role at the school. She has to deal with unruly male students, apparatchiks, all the bureaucracy of her position, while dreaming of the freedom and excitement of her time during the war. There are perhaps elements of Wings which aren’t exactly subtle – contrasting a (mostly) domestic character study with aerial shots of Petrukhina flying through clouds, for example – but I think I much prefer the ordinariness, and its violence-free nature, of this film to Ascent.
I must admit, I thought I knew my taste in films before I started watching the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I like science fiction films, I even liked bad science fiction films. And I sort of liked superhero films. And I liked some world cinema. While the list I’ve been using is not especially diverse – more than half of the films on it are from the USA – it has introduced me to a much wider variety of movies, and I’ve found I much prefer films on the edge rather than typical mainstream cinema. In fact, I’ve purged my DVD collection several times since starting the list, dumping a lot of the recent Hollywood titles (I still like the old classics from the 1950s and 1960s) at local charity shops, but then also hunting around online for copies of DVDs by some of the more obscure directors I’ve been introduced to.
1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 674