These posts are starting to back up, so I’m going to have to get a few of them out. But hey, you like reading about films, right? It can’t be science fiction all the time, after all. Er, not that it has been this year. Anyway, movies… The US keeps on creeping back in – although in this case it’s two classic Hollywood movies. I’d like to keep my viewing on a 2:1 basis – ie, two non-Hollywood for every one Hollywood… but it doesn’t always work out that way. Oh well.
Rome, Open City*, Roberto Rossellini (1945, Italy). I thought I’d seen several of Rossellini’s films, but it seems this is only the second – the first was Journey to Italy, back in 2014. Rome, Open City was apparently financed by a wealthy old lady, as the war had pretty much destroyed the Italian film industry. She wanted Rossellini to make a documentary about a Roman Catholic priest who’d helped the partisans against the Nazi occupiers. Rossellini then persuaded her to fund another documentary about Italian children who had planted bombs and fought against the Germans. Fellini’s screenwriter suggested combining the two documentaries into a single feature film, and work began on that two months after the Allies had driven the Nazis from Rome. Rome, Open City pretty much tells the stories of those two documentaries in Neorealist style, and it does it quite effectively. A lot of the cast were non-professionals, and that, and the black white photography, actually gives the film a documentary feel. I’m still not a big fan of Italian neorealism, at least not of the films under that label I’ve seen so far, although I like them enough to want to continue to explore the genre; but Rome, Open City was pretty good. Interestingly, some of the stock Rossellini used was supplied by a US Army private called Geiger stationed in Rome. Geiger claimed to have contacts in the US film industry and some have credited him with the global success of post-war Italian cinema. Fellini, however, called him a “half-drunk nobody” who claimed to be a producer. Geiger sued Fellini for defamation in 1983 but lost the case.
Nostalgia, Andrei Tarkovsky (1983, Russia). And so the Tarkovsky rewatch continues, with this, his next to last film, made in Italy but starring a cast from various countries. A Russian writer is travelling about Italy, researching the life of an eighteenth-century Russian who lived in Italy but committed suicide after returning to Russia. The writer is accompanied by an Italian interpreter; and during their travels about Tuscany, they hear of a man who repeatedly tries to cross a mineral pool while carry a lit candle, and his story fascinates the writer. The old man (played by Swede Erland Josephson) had been in an asylum, but was released when the state closed them all. He’d been committed because he had imprisoned his family inside his house for seven years. (There’s more than an echo, and not just from the casting, with Tarkovsky’s next film, The Sacrifice.) I love Tarkovsky’s films, but I think Nostalgia might be the least satisfying. It looks lovely, of course; and the glacial pacing is pure Tarkovsky from the first frame. But it suffers because it has two male centres of attraction. Tarkovsky’s films are typically told from a single male viewpoint (he didn’t do female characters, more’s the pity). Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev are about the title character, Solaris is about Kris Kelvin, Mirror is about the director, The Sacrifice is about Erland Josephson’s character… the nearest he gets to more than one is in Stalker, but it’s still the title character who provides the real focus. But in Nostalgia, you have the focus bouncing from the Russian writer to Josephson’s character, and it makes the movie feel unbalanced. The final scene, in which Josephson lectures a crowd and then self-immolates, also comes across as a weird change in tone, and though it feeds back into the emotional and narrative closure of the Russian writer’s story, it results in an ending that provides only a limited resolution. I think every self-respecting film fan should have Tarkovsky’s movies in their collection, but that doesn’t mean all Tarkovsky films are equal. Or indeed that I will feel the same way about each and everyone of them if I rewatch them all five years from now.
Gunga Din*, George Stevens (1939, USA). Despite the title, the film is not just based on Kipling’s poem but also some of the stories from his collection Soldiers Three. In the film, the three are Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, and they’re NCOs in the Royal Engineers on the Northwest Frontier of India in the 1880s. In the first half of the movie, the three are sent with a company of sepoys to a British outpost which had ceased transmitting on the telegraph mid-message. They find the outpost deserted, but are then set upon by Thuggee bandits. They manage to fight them off, and return to their garrison. Fairbanks is all set to leave the army, marry Joan Fontaine and become a tea planter. But his old buddies still need him, especially when they learn the Thuggee guru is holed up in a gold temple. Their plan to capture him (and steal the gold) goes wrong, and they’re taken prisoner… but they turn the tables and capture the guru. But they can’t escape. And when the British army comes marching toward the temple, the guru reveals the whole thing is a trap and he has an army of his own hidden in the hills. He gives an angry speech about British imperialism and Indian self-rule, but it means nothing because the title character, a humble water carrier played by a US actor in blackface, manages to warn the British army. The poem’s race relations are pretty shit to start with, and the film only amplifies them. And yet there’s that bizarre speech by the Thuggee guru – an Italian actor in blackface, incidentally – which riffs on some pretty unpleasant truths about the British empire, and you have to wonder about sentiments more common now in the twenty-first century (except perhaps among Trump voters and Leave voters) appearing in a seventy-seven-year-old American film…
The Grapes of Wrath*, John Ford (1940, USA). Hollywood has a long history of churning out worthy adaptations of classic American novels, much like the BBC does for dramatising English nineteenth-century literary classics, although by the 1980s I suspect Hollywood had managed to cover all the major works. The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about Oklahoma migrant workers in California during the Great Depression. To be honest, I’d not expected much of this film, and I’d probably taken onboard a few too many stereotypes about the story, and the period of history it covers, over the years; and I’m fairly sure I read a Steinbeck novel back in my early teens but I can’t recall whether it was The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men… Anyway, I had relatively low expectations for The Grapes of the Wrath movie, and so the selfishness of US society it depicted came as little surprise… but the story also showed a side to the Okies – intentionally, obviously – in which they displayed a lot more human kindness and fellow feeling than those most at that time, and certainly more than those who were exploiting them. There’s even a government camp which looks after the migrant workers, provides them with shelter, hygiene and safety. Of course, all the local growers try to close down the government camp, because they want the Okies as desperate as possible so they will accept their rock-bottom wages. Despite a long history of films like this which show the dirty underbelly of capitalism (actually, more like the unvarnished reality of capitalism), US audiences still seem to revere the sociopaths who succeed materially in their flawed system – hell, they even make them president. Trump is not fit material for a folk hero. Tom Joad, the character played by Henry Fonda in this film, who is an ex-con returning home when the film opens, after being sent down for killing a man in a bar fight… well, Tom Joad would make a much better folk hero. And probably a better president too.
Hijack, Kunal Shivdasani (2008, India). Until watching this, I’d forgotten how shamelessly entertaining Bollywood movies are. I’ve been watching a lot of art house/world cinema this year, more so than in previous years certainly, and though I like such films as much because they show other parts of the world, as well as telling stories I find more appealing, it had slipped my mind how brain-switched-off entertaining some films can be. Hollywood does it well. But Bollywood does it better. With songs. Seriously, there’s no comparison. I can’t even remember what Hijack was about – a plane hijack, I guess – but I do remember starting to grin at the ludicrously cheesy opening credits, and the lyrics to the song played over the credits, and not stopping until the film had finished. I don’t even remember the song and dance numbers, and you’d think they at least would be memorable. But I don’t think it matters all that much – in the same way it doesn’t matter when you see a tentpole blockbuster: you’re there for the two to three hours of experience, and why should it matter if you can remember nothing five minutes after leaving the auditorium? Except, well, cinema – or at least film – is an artform, and it succeeds as an artform when it is memorable. Nothing happens in James Benning’s movies but they are memorable, they are art. Hijack punches all the buttons for mindless entertainment, but will probably be ignored by those most likely to enjoy it because it’s in Hindi. And has songs. But it was fun, it was dumb, and it was entertaining. And if that’s all you’re looking for then Bollywood is as valid a source as Hollywood.
Bande à part, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I’m slowly working my way through Godard’s oeuvre, and while I have a lot of time for what he tried to achieve I do tend to find his films a bit hit and miss. This one, despite being highly regarded, I found a miss. The plot is nominally based on that of an American noir novel. Two men and a woman, all in their twenties, decide to rob the woman’s aunt, who has a large stash of cash. But one of the men’s uncle finds out, so they bring the robbery forward a day. It goes wrong – they kill the aunt and cannot find the money. So they leave. One of the men goes back, as he thinks he knows where the cash might be hidden. His uncle follows him. They find the money and kill each other. The aunt reappears, not dead after all. She, and her lodger, take the money. The young woman and the surviving young man ride off in disgust. It’s all filmed in black-and-white, and very Godard-seque – he was married to the film’s star, Anna Karenina, at the time, and I find his films suffer when he’s more interested in his stars than in his movie – although Bande à part is not as consciously Nouvelle Vague as, say, Truffaut’s Tirez le pianiste (which I suspect is going to be my yardstick for New Wave-ness from now on). Worth seeing, but only middling Nouvelle Vague and slightly-above-middle Godard.
1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 829