Half of this post’s films are American, so I seem to be slipping a little. Having said that, movies from countries other than the US (or UK) are surprisingly difficult to find on DVD or as rentals – especially old films. For example, I’d really like to see Vidas Secas, an early Brazilian Cinema Novo movie, by Nelson Pereiros dos Santos… but I can’t find a copy. There are also a number of directors whose oeuvres I’d like to explore, even ones that are really well-known (albeit not Anglophone), but not all of their films are available – Godard, for instance… Ah well. I guess I should have more mainstream tastes… Or learn some more languages…
The Twilight Samurai, Yoji Yamada (2002, Japan). I am not a huge fan of Japanese historical dramas; I’ve seen several of Kurosawa’s films, for example, but I like Dersu Uzala – which is set in, er, Russia – best. And while Ozu’s are historical in that they’re set in the past, they’re set in the twentieth century, so, er, not really historical then. (Slight digression here on what defines “historical”. The general consensus is that historical fiction is fiction set before the liftetime of the author and written from research not personal experience. So just because a novel, or film, is set in the 1970s, forty years ago, that doesn’t make it historical (unless the author is in their twenties, but, seriously, why would they try writing a novel set four decades ago knowing there are people still alive who remember the decade quite well?).) Anyway, The Twilight Samurai is set a few years before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. A widower samurai spends his money on ensuring his daughters are fed and clothed, and so gains a reputation for being unkempt and a bit smelly. Then a childhood friend turns up after a quick divorce from her abusive husband, and begins spending time with the samurai and his two daughters. The ex-husband appears, very drunk, and challenges the woman’s brother, Twilight’s friend, and so Twilight jumps in and accepts the challenge. He surprises everyone by beating the ex-husband, even though armed only with a stick… Although slow to start, this film began to pick up as the title character became less the butt of jokes and more the protagonist of the story. Turned out better than I thought it would. Worth seeing.
Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). I’m surprised this didn’t make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Perhaps the makers didn’t think its topic as worthy as that of… Senna, or a film about a female serial killer. But then Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing didn’t make the list either, so perhaps the list-makers aren’t interested in films on state-run massacres. It might remind them of their own nation’s complicity in several such… (Not that the UK is innocent – and Margaret Thatcher was very chummy with Pinochet, and for that, among many other things, deserves our deepest contempt.) Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the search for stars by the astronomers of the Atacama Desert with the search for the bodies of the Disappeared by a group of Chilean women who sift the sand for the remains of their husbands and sons and brothers… The film features Guzmán in voice-over describing how the events shown relate to Chile’s history and character. There’s a telling moment when Guzmán says of one old couple, survivors of Pincohet’s regime, that they represent Chile for him: the man cannot forget anything that happened to him, the woman has dementia and cannot remember anything. A fascinating, but heart-breaking, documentary that both destroys your faith in humanity but also reaffirms (okay, it destroys any faith you might have had in the rich and powerful – but then you’d have to be daft as a brush to have any faith in them in the first place). I’d put this on my own 1001 Movies list.
A Gathering of Eagles, Delbert Mann (1963, USA). My mother told me there was a Rock Hudson film on Drama one afternoon, and when I learnt it was A Gathering of Eagles, I had two reasons for wanting to catch it: Rock Hudson and SAC. (The actual conversation went like this: Mother: “There’s a Rock Hudson film on Drama this afternoon. Gathering something…” Me: “A Gathering of Eagles?” Mother: “That’s it.” Me: “I keep on thinking today is Saturday.” Mother: “That film is on tomorrow afternoon.”) I like Hudson’s films, he was an excellent leading man during a period whose films I enjoy; and I’m fascinated by the military hardware, especially aerospace hardware, built and used by the US – especially the USAF’s Strategic Air Command – during the Cold War. Rock Hudson and B-52 bombers. Cool. I wasn’t expecting great cinema, but as long as there was some good aerial photography and lots of interior shots of the B-52s, then I’d be happy. I love stuff like that. Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart, some B-36s and some B-47s, is one of my favourite films; but it’s a fairly routine drama. And Toward the Unknown showcases the XB-51, which makes it quite interesting. A Gathering of Eagles has plenty of aerial photography of B-52s refueling from KC-135 tankers, but is mostly concerned with Hudson pissing off everyone in the wing he’s been given command of. The movie has its moments, but if you want to see B-52s on-screen you’d be better off watching Bombers B-52.
The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper, (2015, UK). This film has taken quite a bit of stick for taking liberties with a novel which itself takes liberties with the real life of its subject: Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. For a start, her name wasn’t Lili Elbe – that was invented by a journalist. Her name was actually Lili Ilse Elvenes. Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener/Lili Elvenes, and while the film tries to show Wegener coming to the realisation she is the wrong gender, Redmayne spoils the effect somewhat with his smirking. The movie never manages to convince, despite showing a reasonably good depiction of 1920s Copenhagen – possibly because it squeezes the events of nearly two decades into what feels like a handful of years. There are plenty of other inaccuracies too – so many, you have to wonder at the point of making a film about a real person that seems happy to ignore what actually happened. Of course, Hollywood has never let facts get in the way of a good story (although this is a British film), and actually has a well-known history of rewriting, er, history… But then the UK film industry does that too – like The Imitation Game turning Alan Turing into a spy-catcher… I don’t know; The Danish Girl felt like a ham-fisted attempt to tell a story that served its subject badly… and its viewers too. Meh.
The Martian, Ridley Scott (2015, USA). But you didn’t like the book, I hear you cry, so why watch the film? Well, it’s not unknown for bad books to make good films – in fact, I can think of several off the top of my head. And, to be fair, The Martian may have been badly-written but its story read as though it lent itself quite well to a cinematic treatment. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, while Scott’s The Martian looks very pretty – and at times, even resembles the Martian surface – the adaptation only highlights the flaws in Weir’s story. The storm looks very effective, but is complete nonsense – given Mar’s extremely low surface pressure, a hurricane would feel as powerful as a faint breeze. Also, Watney appears to have plenty of food, but still spends all that time and effort growing potatoes. And the final rescue scene is risible – the NASA spacecraft deliberately slows itself down while on a free-return trajectory about Mars… thus ensuring it will never get back to Earth. I was also amused they’d completely toned down the swearing from the book. The script demonstrated how pointless were the scenes set on Earth (badly-inserted in the novel for its publication by a publishing house), especially since they did little more than obfuscate the science. The success of the book was baffling, but the Hollywood marketing machine was there to ensure the movie adaptation was no flop – especially with marquee names like Ridley Scott and Matt Damon attached. So it seems churlish to complain about the quality of the film – since no one seems to give a shit. I mean, this is commercial fiction, and a commercial movie adaption thereof, actual quality is not relevant… but I do object to a story being sold on its science credentials when those credentials are paper-thin (Weir is now being invited to talk to Congress about space exploration!). The Martian is an entertaining, but not especially convincing, film about a man marooned on Mars. I still think Apollo 18 – rock monsters aside – is one of the most realistic sf films ever made.
The Jazz Singer*, Alan Crosland (1927, USA). This film is famously the first “talkie”, and its commercial (albeit not critical) success pretty much killed silent films – although not entirely: Dreyer’s mostly-silent Vampyr was released in 1932, and Murnau released two silent films after The Jazz Singer, City Girl in 1930 and Tabu and 1931; not to mention a silent film, The Artist, winning the Oscar in 2012… But clearly the moment The Jazz Singer appeared, silent films were obsolete, so it sort of doesn’t really matter what The Jazz Singer was like as a film per se, except… Jolson plays the son of a cantor who would rather sing in music halls, and so is disowned by his orthodox Jewish father. Eventually, of course, they reconcile… but that’s after a good sixty or so minutes of each posturing to defend their own point of view. The film is not without its problems – chief among which is that Jolson’s career was based upon performing in blackface, and so he does several times in the movie. By all accounts, when singing live he was accomplished at creating an emotional connection with the audience, but this doesn’t really transfer to film. In other words, he doesn’t much look like a leading man, and the various songs he performs don’t really explain it either. There’s no denying the historical impact of The Jazz Singer, but being first at something doesn’t automatically confer quality. Dreyer’s Vampyr, mentioned earlier, would have been a much better “first talkie”… but The Jazz Singer is what we have. I’m tempted to include it on my own 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list because it was the first kind, but reluctant to do so because it’s not a very good film…
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 774
June 12, 2016 at 9:48 am
You know, I still haven’t seen The Jazz Singer. One of these days I will, because it’s there.
Another director who made silent films post-1930 was Charles Chaplin, with City Lights (fully silent, apart from music and some sound effects) and Modern Times (likewise, though it does have some dialogue and Chaplin singing a nonsense song). You could also make a case for parts of The Great Dictator with the Jewish barber being more or less silent – as opposed to the dialogue-heavy Adenoid Hynkel parts of the film.