More viewing, only one from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list this time, and it’s an American film… although, once again, half of the films below are from the US. I need to increase the number of non-Anglophone films I watch.
My Own Private Idaho*, Gus Van Sant (1991, USA). The only thing I knew about Gus Van Sant prior to deciding to work my way through the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list was that he’d made a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Which sounds like an interesting exercise, except, well, that’s pretty much what a play is, the same story with a different cast. And since I’d seen Hitchock’s film a number of times and was familiar with it, Van Sant’s experiment proved even more disappointing. Van Sant’s most-famous film, however, is My Own Private Idaho, which, okay, I may have heard of before, but knew nothing about. And it turns it’s about a pair of street hustlers, played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, except Phoenix has narcolepsy, and Reeves’s father is rich and the mayor of Portland. Oh, and the story is roughly based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays… which is fine as far as it goes, but when Van Sant starts using Shakespeare’s dialogue it really doesn’t work. Having Reeves call the Falstaff figure, Bob Pigeon, “a horseback-breaker, a mountainous tub of lard”, just sounds really silly in 1990s Oregon. In fact, it’s the Shakespeare-isms which spoil My Own Private Idaho. Okay, so Reeves’s character is not entirely believable (make him actual royalty, though, as Shakespeare did, and it weirdly seems okay), although it does make for an effective ending. But it’s that mix of Rechy’s City of Night and old Bill’s Henry IV Part 1, etc, which doesn’t gel. It’s like oil and water, or even a lava lamp. It’s just too obvious when Reeves et al start spouting the Bard’s couplets, and it upsets the balance of the film. I can see how My Own Private Idaho might appeal to some, but it wasn’t a movie I rated highly.
Holiday, George Cukor (1938, USA). An early screwball romance starring Cary Grant and “box-office poison” (as she was at the time) Katharine Hepburn? What’s not to like? Quite a bit, according to audiences when it was released. Grant plays a man who plans to quit his job as soon as he can afford to and do nothing, and Hepburn plays the sister of his fiancée, who is stinking rich. This was during the Great Depression. Hollywood: super-sensitive, as usual. Grant meets Doris Nolan while on holiday in Lake Placid, and the two get engaged. He doesn’t realise she is filthy rich and the youngest daughter of an eminent New York banker. He turns up to the family home, learns the truth, but manages to charm the father and so get permission to marry. But it seems Nolan is a bit of a stuffed shirt, and it’s her libertine sister, Hepburn, who’s a better match for Grant. This one is early in Grant’s career, so he hasn’t got the polished urbanity of later films. If anything, he’s a bit of a galumpher, more of a tail-wagging puppy. Hepburn is Hepburn – did she ever change? – and it’s hard to believe she was ever box-office poison. By all accounts, this film did much to rehabilitate her. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon provide excellent comic relief as Grant’s best friends, a pair of cycnical academics. Both stars, and director, made much better films, but Holiday has its moments. It’s not great, but if you’re into films from the era, it’s probably worth seeing. But I can understand why it flopped at the box office.
Merry-Go-Round, Jacques Rivette (1983, France). I watched Rivette’s La belle noiseuse, because it was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it very good; and then Arrow Academy released a limited edition Blu-ray collection of some of Rivette’s films, none of which I knew anything about… but the collection was a limited edition, and I’ve learnt to my cost previously it’s best to buy things like this straight away because when you finally come to realise you want a copy they’re either not available or cost silly money. So I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection. On the basis of having seen a single film by the director. So it goes. And yet there’s nothing in Rivette’s movies that immediately appeals to me. They’re well-crafted, certainly; and very French. And, er, very long. Especially the centre-piece of this collection Out 1 – 12 hours and forty minutes! fucking hell – which I admit I have yet to watch. In fact, I’m working my way through the the collection in installments, beginning with Merry-Go-Round, which clocks in at a mere 2 hrs and 40 mins. And I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. A woman sends a telegram to her sister in Rome, Léo, and an ex-boyfriend in New York, Ben, asking them to meet her at a hotel in Paris. But when they turn up, she’s not there. They follow a series of clues and end up at her old home, where she tells them that her father, who died two years previously after embezzling $4 million, isn’t dead. And then she’s kidnapped and taken away in an ambulance. There then follows an almost dream-like quest, in which Ben and Léo try to track down the not-dead father and his millions. Much of this involves running through woods. Including being chased by a knight on horseback. Or exploring empty houses, particularly ones where doors give onto different landscapes – breaking that compact between director and viewer in which the spaces depicted on screen connect in a logical and plausible manner. (Sokurov does something similar in Faust, by having characters enter the frame from parts of the space the camera has already shown do not have entrances.) So the world of Merry-Go-Round doesn’t quite follow the “rules”, but then neither does the quest narrative. There are long extended scenes which do nothing to advance the plot. There are also plot-holes. And interludes in which two odd-looking blokes play noodley jazz on double bass and bassoon. In parts, Merry-Go-Round feels like an early-1980s L’Avventura – or rather, it sets up an expectation of being a 1980s L’Avventura, perhaps on little more than its lack of plot momentum. I am, on balance, glad I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection (it’s still in stock! Get it now while you can! Only 3,000 copies!), and I think they’re films which will bear rewatching, if not demand it; but I’ve a way to go yet before I call myself a Rivette fan.
The Lady, Luc Besson (2011, France). Of all the subjects about which Luc Besson might make a film, I must admit a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi is not one I’d ever have guessed. But then, in many respects, The Lady doesn’t feel much like a Besson film. There’s a moment of almost cartoon-like violence when paramilitaries of the former prime minister assassinate the Executive Council (ie, the government-in-waiting for when the British withdraw), including Suu Kyi’s father. But in most other respects, The Lady is pretty restrained. Michelle Yeoh is especially good in the title role, and if David Thewlis was a bit too thespian as her husband, it didn’t detract overly much from the film. I will admit to knowing only the broadest details about Suu Kyi and Myanmar, and so films such as The Lady are eye-openers. Seriously, military juntas are not governments. The UN could surely make a legal, ethical and moral case for overthrowing such governments. But, of course, military juntas are excellent customers for arms dealers, and selling weapons is what it’s all about in the twenty-first century. The UK is now second only to the US as a seller of armaments. Mostly to the same countries we bomb or which have created the current refugee crisis. If you truly did reap what you sow, this country would neck-deep in salt.
Streets of Fire, Walter Hill (1984, USA). I had vaguely fond memories of this, after seeing it back in the 1980s, so despite its somewhat negative reputation I thought it might be worth watching. And having now seen it… I think my memories were a little imprecise. It looks great, mostly, no doubt about that; and the music, while of its time, is quite listenable. But that script. It’s fucking awful. It’s totally misogynistic, and it puts words in the mouths of its cast – Rick Moranis, especially – they should have been embarrassed, if not fucking offended, to speak. Diane Lane plays a rock star who is kidnapped by a bike gang led by Willem Dafoe. A young woman persuades her ex-soldier brother, Michael Paré, an ex-boyfriend of Lane’s, to come home and rescue the rock star. And it pretty much goes as you’d expect. I’d hoped time had been kind to Streets of Fire, that it’s 1980s macho posturing might seem more like kitsch thirty years later. It hasn’t. Rick Moranis snarling misogynistic comments at the camera is still a horrible thing to see. Paré does his best with a bad part, Dafoe does even better with a worse part, but Lane does nothing with a nothing part. Visually, the film still scores, and its influence on later films is easy to see. But the reasons why it flopped it 1984 are also obvious, and not even thirty years is going to make it a cult hit.
Mr & Mrs 55, Guru Dutt (1955, India). The more of Dutt’s films I watch, the more I appreciate them. Admittedly, this was not a good transfer – BFI, why are you not all over Dutt’s films? – and the plot was pretty much a Hollywood staple (never mind a Bollywood staple), but even so… Rich playgirl Anita is living the high life but then discovers she has to marry before the age of 21 in order to inherit seven million rupees. And she only has a month to do it. She approaches her friend, tennis pro Ramesh, but he’s off to Wimbledon. In desperation, her mother pays cartoonist Dutt Rs 10,000 to marry Anita, with the promise of a quickie divorce soon after. Of course, the two fall in love after the ceremony. But then careful lying by the mother ensures each thinks the other doesn’t really love them, so the divorce goes through… But they get together and realise they do actually love each other after all. It’s all keyed off American signifiers of success – not just Anita hanging around a posh tennis club and worshipping pro Ramesh at the beginning – but also the trappings of wealth enjoyed by Anita’s family are familiar to Western audiences. And yet, there’s also something indefinably Indian about it – and I don’t mean the fact it breaks into song at assorted moments. It feels like an Indian film based on a Hollywood template, by someone who was quite aware of, and more than capable of using, the story patterns of both Indian and Hollywood cinema. Dutt makes good films. He really needs transfers worthy of his work.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 795