Odd how these films fall out. Most of the ones I watch are rentals, so it depends on what gets sent to me – and sometimes they just happen to send me US films. Although, to be fair, Fellini’s Casanova was a rental. But Beware of the Holy Whore was from the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I bought last September.
High Plains Drifter*, Clint Eastwood (1973, USA). As I’ve said before, some films you like the idea of more than you like the actual implementation. But perhaps that’s unfair to High Plains Drifter – I sort of like the central conceit, and how it’s realised – mostly – but it’s a Western, a genre I’m not overly fond of, and it suffers somewhat because it’s a Western. A sheriff is whipped to death by bandits while the people of the town look on and do nothing. Some time later, a stranger arrives in town, violently takes it over, and then promises to defend it against the aforementioned bandits. But he’s really the spirit of the dead sheriff and he’s having his revenge on all parties. So he makes the townsfolk do odd things, like paint all the buildings bloody red, set up a feast in the town’s one street… and then it all turns, well, violent. The film was shot in a purpose-built town on the shores of a lake, which perversely made it seem more like a film set, further adding it to the movie’s general air of strangeness. I can’t decide if its failure to convince works for or against it, but I think on balance I prefer other Westerns directed by Eastwood.
Fellini’s Casanova, Federico Fellini (1976, Italy). After the way Fellini’s Satyricon (an earlier film) had slowly won me over as I watched it, I was sort of hoping Fellini’s Casanova would do the same. And early scenes certainly intrigued… if not so much because of what was going on but because the production design looked like an obvious inspiration for David Lynch’s Dune. It wasn’t just the set or costumes, or the fact Casanova’s forehead was shaved much like those of Lynch’s Bene Gesserit; but even the mechanical owl seemed like a piece of set dressing that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paul Atreides’s bedroom. The plot, thankfully, is entirely different… although “plot” might be too strong a word. The film opens in Venice during Carnival. After one of the weirdest PG-rated sex scenes ever filmed, Casanova is arrested and imprisoned. He later escapes, and then travels about Europe having various debauched adventures. The title role is played by Donald Sutherland, who is dubbed into Italian (Fellini did this quite a bit, using Hollywood stars and dubbing them into Italian; seems an odd practice). Fellini’s Satyricon was wildly self-indulgent but, in a very bonkers way, sort of appealed; Fellini’s Casanova may actually be EVEN MOAR self-indulgent, but while I was watching I didn’t find myself taking to it to the extent I had the earlier film… But thinking about it now, as I write about it, I do wonder if another watch is needed in order to fully experience its self-indulgent weirdness.
Beware of a Holy Whore, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1971, Germany). That’s the last of the Fassbinders now watched, from both of the commemorative box sets; and with this first set it’s been a more variable experience than the second. But of the films included in volume 1, Beware of a Holy Whore, despite the unwieldy, and I’m-not-entirely-sure-what-it’s-referencing, title, this is one of the better ones. It’s set almost entirely in the foyer and bar of a hotel in Spain, where the cast and crew of a movie are waiting for a production to restart because the financing has run dry. Fassbinder plays the producer, and spends a lot of the film shouting at people. Various members engage in sexual pairings, others wander around pontificating. Then the director arrives in a helicopter, is less than impressed with the hotel as a location, but the shooting goes ahead anyway… And then the same old arguments as before take place. It feels very much like a play, and reminds me a little of Chinese Roulette, in which the guests at a country house party play truth or dare. Apparently, the film is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by Fassbinder’s filming of Whity in Spain earlier that year.
Holiday Inn, Mark Sandrich (1942, USA). This is such a famous film – well, it’s the origin of the song ‘White Christmas’ – that I felt sure it must be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. But it isn’t. And I don’t remember why I put it on my rental list. It’s not like I’m a big fan of Bing Crosby, or Fred Astaire, or Irving Berlin (there are no big star female leads in the film, which is a shame – it probably needed Ginger Rogers, or someone like her; have I said how great Ginger Rogers is?). Anyway, Crosby and Astaire are a singing and dancing act with Virginia Dale, Crosby thinks he’s going to marry her and retire to a farm he’s bought, but Astaire marries her instead. Crosby retires to his farm, it does not go well. He decides to re-invent his farm as a hotel open only on public holidays, with full-on musical entertainment. Marjorie Reynolds gets sort of accidentally hired as a star turn. Astaire turns up, decides Reynolds should be his next partner as she’s a complete star (Dale ran off with someone else), but by this point Crosby has decided he wants to marry her. In most respects, this is a fairly typical 1940s musical with a pair of big-name draws. But… one musical number is done entirely in blackface, and that had never been not offensive. Perhaps that’s why it’s not on the list.
Philadelphia*, Jonathan Demme (1993, USA). A few days after watching this, I was browsing through my spreadsheet of films watched (yes, I track them on a spreadsheet; stop sniggering at the back) and learnt I’d seen this film back in July 2003. My memory is usually quite good for remembering the plots of stories – either literary or cinematic – but I had zero memory of my previous watch of Philadelphia. It obviously made that much of an impression. And having now rewatched it, I can understand why. Writing this a week or so after watching it, and I’m having trouble recalling much of what happened in the movie. High-flying lawyer Tom Hanks has AIDS but doesn’t tell his employer. One of the partners spots a lesion on his face and correctly guesses Hanks’s condition. So they manufacture an incident and fire him for incompetence. Hanks decides to take them to court, and eventually ends up hiring ambulance-chaser Denzel Washington. Despite most of the cast of Philadelphia being homophobic, the word itself is never mentioned. And it’s a level of overt and constant homophobia that actually works against the point the film is trying to make, as if it’s Hanks’s lifestyle which led to his situation, not his disease. Watching the film is also like having a conversation with your grandad where you abruptly realise that his views and opinions haven’t changed with the times. Of course, a movie can’t evolve (well, it could be “rebooted”), so Philadelphia is a snapshot of attitudes in early-nineties USA. And whatever qualities that existed then which led to Hanks winning the Oscar, and the screenplay being nominated for an Oscar, it no longer feels like a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.
The Ice Storm*, Ang Lee (1997, USA). There is a type of domestic drama which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list a number of times and whose appeal I cannot fathom. Perhaps it speaks to the experience of being white, affluent and American. I am not American. I am not affluent. So it usually means zilch to me. The Ice Storm is based on a novel by Rick Moody; I have never read anything by Rick Moody. It takes place over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, in a well-off Connecticut suburb. There’s a wife-swapping party, which some husbands seem to enjoy, and some wives are very much set against. There are some weird and kooky college-age kids, who do weird and kooky things. Kevin Kline looks like he’s wearing parodies of 1970s clothes throughout, and Sigourney Weaver appears far too intense to be a bored housewife. And I really didn’t care about any of the characters, or any of their antics. Apparently, the film won best screenplay at Cannes, and Weaver won a BAFTA for best supporting actress. Meh.
1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 756