Continuing on with the movies posts in a world in which superheroes, should they start to appear, would actually look like the good guys…
Housekeeping, Bill Forsythe (1987, USA). I’m a big fan of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction and have all of her novels, so I was naturally interested to see how she translated to the silver screen because, er, well, I’m not sure. And the answer is, er, I’m still not sure. I enjoyed the film Housekeeping, but not as much as I enjoyed the novel. But one of the joys of Robinson’s novels is her prose, and so a cinematic adaptation has to provide an equivalent – and I don’t think that Forsyth’s Housekeeping does. But, would I have read the book having seen the film? Probably not. It’s a perfect example of how the two media interact. It’s usually said the book is better than the film, although there are a few examples where the reverse is true – Marnie, The Commitments… – and it’s certainly true for Housekeeping, even though the film is not all that bad without knowledge of the book. Christine Lahti is good as the flaky aunt who takes over the upbringing of the two girls (one of whom narrates). However, the landscape as shown in the film never quite fit my mental map from reading the book. Mostly it was too big. Now, the US is big, so I suspect the film was a better representation than what I had imagined, but it still felt weird watching it. Intellectually, I guessed I was wrong, which then felt like accusing myself of a failure of imagination… But then voicover is a poor substitute for interiority, if only because using it to the same extent feels like over-using it. Post-facto narration is one way of presenting interiority via voiceover, but it’s tricky to write in such a way that the lack of hindsight doesn’t seem odd. Mostly Housekeeping succceeds, and on reflection its charm probably carries it further than someone with knowledge of the book would expect. Worth seeing, but I much prefer the novel.
Hitchcock / Truffaut, Kent Jones (2015, France). I’m a big fan of Hitchcock’s films – in fact, he was the first director whose movies I collected on DVD because he was the director, rather than buying DVDs based on story or stars or genre, and I buillt up a collection of pretty much everything he had made. A recent rewatch of his two main collections, after upgrading them to Blu-ray, only confirmed by admiration of the movies. Truffaut, on the other hand… I love his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 – in fact I love the film but hate the book – but nothing else by him has ever really appealed to me. I’ve always much preferred Godard. But Truffaut was a big fan of Hitchcock and, as a writer for Cahiers du Cinema, was instrumental in rehabilitating Hitchocock as an auteur. This documentary includes footage of the original interview which led to Truffaut’s book (I really do need to get myself a copy), as well as present-day talking heads discussing Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Truffaut’s interview of Hitchcock. It’s fascinating stuff, more so because of what it reveals of Hitchcock than because of its commentary – there’s a telling moment where Hitchcock directs Truffaut during a photo shoot, and it’s clear from his comments that Hitch knows exactly what looks best. Recommended.
Zéro de conduite*, Jean Vigo (1933, France). I know Vigo from L’atalante, which I bought many years ago from, I think, a sale at HMV. It turns out he only made four films, and both L’atalante and Zéro de conduite make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list, which I calculate at 50% of his oeuvre, and that has to be considered a pretty impressive achievement. Except… well, I didn’t think that much of Zéro de conduite. In fact, of the three films included on the disc I rented – it also included À propos de Nice and Le natation par Jean Taris – I thought À propos de Nice more interesting a movie than Zéro de conduite. Anyway, Zéro de conduite – it’s set at a boys’ school in, I suppose, the 1910s. The school is harsh and the pupils eventually rebel. None of it seems entirely real – there’s a teacher who steals food from the pupils, there’s a lack of discipline that seems more wish-fulfilment from the pupils than the teachers… and while it’s all entertaining enough, nothing seemed to really stand out. Le natation par Jean Taris was a straightforward documentary on a swimmer and his technique, and while Vigo’s film-making techniques may have been every bit as innovative as Taris’s swimming technique in 1931, all that remains now is a mildly interesting documentary on swimming which clearly prototypes techniques now commonplace. À propos de Nice, however, is much more interesting proposition. The result of a desire to make a film about Nice, Vigo was determined to avoid common narratives, and so chose to contrast the rich with the poor. The film opens with aerial shots of the city, a surprising enough thing to see on the screen in 1930, before showing the great and good wandering up and down the Corniche. It then moves to the poorer sections of the city, and the contrast is every bit as effective as Vego might have imagined. À propos de Nice did more to persuade me that Vigo was an important early director than Zéro de conduite ever did, and I suspect it rightly belongs on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list.
Nayak, Satyajit Ray (1966, India). The third and final film in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 1, and while I thought Charulata the best of the three, I’d be hard-pressed to choose whether this one or Mahanagar the next best. The “hero” of the title is a Bengali movie star, Arindam Mukherjee, who has to travel by train to Mumbai to pick up an award. Also on the train is a young editor from a women’s magazine who persuades Mukherjee to allow her to interview him. As he answers her questions, it triggers flashbacks which dramatise some of the incidents which led to his current success. Like Charulata, there are also some dream sequences – so I’m starting to wonder if this is a Ray thing – and they’re both disturbing and effectively staged. One in particular has Mukherjee drowning in a sea of money when he spots a mentor from earlier in his career – except the mentor looks like a statue. Anyway, it’s weird and yet very effective. Nayak is a character study of its protagonist, but it’s also a study of what a character study is. Mukherjee’s present-day actions are explained through flashback vignettes, which also help illustrate why he reacts as he does in later scenes. There’s a running argument throughout the film between Mukherjee and his mentor, the former sees himself as part of a new generation of actors, the latter as a defender of the old tradition. Although I’ve only seen a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I already have him pegged as an urban director, compared to Ghatak’s often rural settings. (But then I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s films, and I suspect he saw himself as more of a Marxist than a defender of the rural way of life.) Certainly the three movies in this box set by Ray are urban, and it makes an interesting change to Ghatak’s films.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht*, Werner Herzog (1979, Germany). I prefer the German title to this film, although the version of it I watched this time around was the English-language version. It’s a pretty straightforward remake of Murnau’s film, with Kinski in the Schreck role, and while he doesn’t quite manage to present the same level of menace, Herzog’s film does have some lovely cinematography and use of incidental music. Particularly in the scenes where Bruno Ganz (as Jonathan Harker) approaches Dracula’s castle, which are beautifully shot with impressively evocative background music. Whitby is transposed into Wismar, a small town on Germany’s coast on the Baltic; but the story pretty much follows Bram Stoker’s story. When you have so many cinematic adaptations of a single novel – or of that novel’s eponymous villain – then fidelity to the source text seems pretty irrelevant. By 1979, of course, Dracula had been pretty much set in the public’s mind as a saturnine but urbane aristocrat in dinner jacket and cape. Herzog’s Dracula is a welcome return to Murnau’s frankly quite odd presentration of the vampire, but in that form he at least seems to embody a real sense of menace. Having said all that, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht does seem a little, well, tame for Herzog. Nonetheless, it’s easily one of the better Dracula films made – and yes, it does belong on 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list; and yes, Murnau’s Nosferatu is also on the list, as is Dreyer’s Vampyr…
Stella Dallas*, King Vidor (1937, USA). This didn’t appear to be available on DVD in either the UK or US, and the copy I finally ended up with was a Spanish release. And it was pretty much a waste of time – the film was a potboiler, with little to recommend it and its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character, the daughter of a millworker, who has social ambitions. She engineers an introduction to mill manager John Boles, callously gets him to marry her on the rebound, and then uses her new-found position to explore society, much to her husband’s disapproval. But after giving birth to a girl, she sublimates all her ambition into giving her daughter the best start in life. Husband meanwhile has been transferred to New York, but mother and child stay back home, mother hanging out with unsavoury types while daughter grows up like some sort of changeling. But then husband bumps into an old flame, now widowed and with three boys, and they rekindle their relationship. Daughter goes to visit, is a great hit, and… well, you can see where this is going. It’s pure melodrama from start to finish, but has none of the subversiveness of Sirk. I’ve no idea why it was on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list – it may have been nominated for two Oscars, and the AFI nominated the title character as one of its 100 Heroes & Villains… But it was all a bit meh.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 820