The last Moving pictures post of 2016 (although it’s appearing in 2017), and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact I wrote 69 of these bloody things in twelve months. While I didn’t write about every film I watched, at 6 films on average per post, that’s still a big whole pile of movies. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, and some of them became favourites. Most of them I’m at least glad I watched. Let’s hope the same can be said during 2017.
Last Tango in Paris*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1972, France). I’m still convinced Bertolucci is just a gifted copyist, and Last Tango in Paris is just Bertolucci doing Nouvelle Vague, but with some very dodgy sex scenes. Okay, so the first clue is Marlon Brando as the male lead, an actor whose appeal continues to mystify me and whose adoption by Hollywood is quite baffling. The only thing to be said in his favour is he has shown a little more critical acumen than his colleagues in choosing the projects he worked on… But Last Tango in Paris is a blot on his copybook. It’s an “erotic drama”, which means there’s lots of simulated sex – and all involved have repeatedly insisted it was simulated – but lots of dodgy sexual politics. Even for 1972. Brando plays an American in Paris who owns a run-down hotel and whose wife has just committed suicide. He falls in with Maria Schneider, a carefree twentysomething Parisian. They have hot sex. Brando sets the rules and gets unreasonably angry when Schneider breaks them – sexual politics, 1972-style. There are lots of intense close-ups, New Wave style, and even that bit where Brando taps Schneider on one shoulder then pops around the other, doesn’t Azanvour do that in Tirez sur le pianiste or am I misremembering? The film sparked controversy on its release, but was a critical and commercial success. I’ve always known of it, of course, it’s like the first big mainstream “dirty” film that everyone of my generation knows about; the second is 9½ Weeks, which I saw back in the 1980s and I’m sure would be a major disappointment if I ever rewatched it. Of course, whatever reputation might have attached to Last Tango in Paris as far as a callow youth was concerned, that no longer holds true for me, and I took the film as I found it. And having seen it, and read up on the actual controversy regarding its making – it pretty much destroyed Schneider, those simulated sex scenes were as near as dammit to rape… it’s hard to consider it worthy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. To be honest, Andrzej Żuławski does it much better with l’amour fou as a theme, and at least manages such stories in a style all his own… Bertolucci, on the other hand, is a bit of chameleon, and while he certainly has an excellent eye – I’m thinking of both The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, but there are many good shots in Last Tango in Paris – I’m not convinced the sum of Last Tango in Paris‘s good bits outweigh the extensive and less than salubrious baggage it carries.
Flowers of Shanghai, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1998, Taiwan). So I bought this “box set” – it was five DVDs in a cardboard box – because I wanted to see two of the films in it. But having now watched four of them, I’ve become a bit of a Hou fan, because he really is very good. Flowers of Shanghai is the most gorgeous-looking for Hou films I’ve seen so far, with perhaps the exception of The Assassin. The film takes place in four late nineteenth century brothels in Shanghai, and is divided into four sections, each named for the central courtesan of that section: Crimson, Pearl, Jasmine and Jade. The film chiefly consists of a static camera focusing on a group of people, courtesans and their most frequent patrons, and so telling the story of their lives and the realtionships between them, some of which are defined by those patrons. Plot-wise, it’s perhaps not the most gripping of stories, but if there’s one thing my travels in Hou territory have taught me it’s that he prefers to lay out his story in the incidentals. The dialogue defines the relationships between the characters, the mide en scène defines the setting, and the story comes out of the interplay between the two. So it’s just as well that Hou scores so highly on presenting his mise en scène, it is in fact one of his strengths as a director. He frames gorgeous shots because he has set up gorgeous shots – and Flowers of Shanghai shows that off to an impressive extent. I’m still not entirely sure why I bought the Hou “boxed set”, given that I’d only seen one of Hou’s films before, but it was a wise purchase. I now count myself a fan of his work and plan to purchase everything else he made – because, of course, only two or three are actually available for rental in the UK…
The Past, Asghar Farhadi (2013, France). And from a new director I now admire to… well, Farhadi’s About Elly is a brilliant film, a clever drama/thriller and wholly Iranian. I loved it the moment I saw it back in 2013. His Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation were also very good. But The Past is, well, it’s not an Iranian film. It’s a French film. And it suffers as a result. It’s about Iranian immigrants in France, but their concerns, the plot, is all the sort of stuff that would drive a French film. I know the immigrant experience is important, and that documenting it is not only worthwhile but important… But, to a non-native eye I freely admit, The Past did seem to resemble more the experiences of non-immigrants than immigrants. If that makes sense. Perhaps it was a sense that the, er, sensibility seemed suited to the language and setting, when the nationality of the director and cast suggested it should have been otherwise. I firmly believe cinema is a powerful tool for documenting life across the planet, in all its manifest forms, in all its various societies and communities. That’s why I treasure world cinema. It provides an insider’s view. I’m not interested in a French-style drama that just happens to be made by an Iranian director and happens to feature a cast of Iranian extraction, because I’m more interested in seeing life as experienced by Iranians, yes, even Iranians living in France. Perhaps I’m doing The Past a great disservice, perhaps I’m completely missing a huge part of this film, but I’ve seen a number of Iranian films and I’ve seen a number of French films and to my eye this smelt like a French film. Which is not to it was a bad film – Farhadi is bloody good, after all – but I do prefer Iranian cinema to French cinema, and would rather this film had tended to the former than the latter…
Meshes of the Afternoon*, Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid (1943, USA). Most discussions of avant garde cinema often focus on US avant garde cinema, possibly because most European avante garde film-makers went on to become commercially successful, such as Luis Buñuel. And of those US avant garde films, Meshes of the Afternoon from 1943 is generally noted as one of the most seminal. While on the one hand the experimental films of Bruce Baillie and Stan Brakhage might fit into the commonly-held view of the history of cinema – it was the 1960s! everyone experimented! – but no one really expects the same of two decades earlier. Common sense dictates there must have been people experimenting with film in the 1940s just as much as there were in the 1960s (for the all the latter decades reputation for experimentation, etc.), but popular history tends to elide such experiments. Meshes of the Afternoon, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is one such experiment whose reputation has withstood the test of time. I found a decent copy of Youtube and watched it there. And watching it, well, there’s a lot of Lynch in there, or rather, Lynch was clearly influenced by this film, if not others by Deren. A woman dreams about a hooded figure with a mirror for a face. She follows it along a path, but loses it. She returns home and finds a key. The key morphs into a knife. There are several versions of her sitting at a table. She sees the hooded figure in her bedroom. Some of this is a dream, some of this seems to be a re-enactment of something she dreamed. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about avant garde cinema, and its history, in order to understand why Meshes of the Afternoon is considered so important. It’s good, certainly; but I’ve no way of judging its historical importance. Given the year… although Buñuel’s Un chien Andalou was released in 1929… there’s clearly some early importance there, and Deren went on to make more films and lecture extensively in film-making. Some of Deren’s other films are available on Youtube – I’ve watched one, At Land, already – and I think she has an oeuvre worth exploring… But with Benning, Bailie, Brakhage and now Deren & Hammid, this is obviously an area of cinema I need to spend a bit more time on…
Good Men, Good Women, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1995, Taiwan). That’s the last of the “box set”, so now I’ll have to get me some more Hou DVDs. This is the third film in Hou’s Taiwanese History trilogy, which also includes A City of Sadness (not seen) and The Puppetmaster (see here). Like the second, and possibly the first, it’s a biopic, this time about Chiang Bi-Yu, who left Taiwan in the 1940s to fight the Japanese in mainland China, and after WWII returns to Taiwan, becomes a communist and so comes into conflict with the Kuomintang regime. The film depicts Chiang’s life in black-and-white, but is interspersed with sections in colour documenting the life of the actress who plays Chiang in the film that is Good Men, Good Women… And I have to wonder if this is where Stanley Kwan got the idea for the structure of Center Stage (see here). Both are great films, of course; and it’s no surprise that China, and other areas speaking languages of the Chinese family, should produce movies that are more than kung fu actioners or gorgeous wu xia spectacles, but we rarely get to learn that over here in the UK… So mark both those films down on your list as superior films – even if, er, they’re not actually available in the UK or US.
Ride Lonesome*, Budd Boeticher (1959, USA). I couldn’t find a copy of this in the UK or US, so ended up buying a rip from someone on eBay because the film had passed out of copyright. Fortunately, it proved to be a good transfer – to be fair, most these days for sale on eBay are pretty good transfers. And as I started watching Ride Lonesome I sort of understood why it had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but then the further into the film I got the less I understood why it had earned its place on the list. Partly that was down to Randolph Scott, the star, who seems a pretty solid centre around which to plot a Western story, but he does, well, have an unfeasibly big head, in fact, he looks a bit like a puppet. Some actors make great Western heroes – Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart… Randolph Scott just seems proportioned wrong. As for the story… He plays a bounty hunter, taking a killer to Santa Cruz, Arizona, to be hung. They stop off en route at a desert rest-stop – and the scenes set in and around that are lovely to look at and well played – and pick up a pair of freebooters, and the rest-stop’s widowed female owner, as companions. All of which leads to complications later. The story is not much, but this is a Western. The desert scene cinematography is very good, and I’d love to have seen it in full-on restored Technicolor. Later scenes, in landscape more familiar from Western television series, were less impressive. And the story’s final twist was not quite as unexpected as the story had suggested it might be. A good Western, I suspect, although I’m not so sure it deserves a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 842
January 9, 2017 at 6:42 pm
Ian, I keep being tempted by your posts to take up the same journey, though I suspect I’d soon spend all of my money on Criterion collection sets. My Dad was a big western fan, I’m now going to ask him about Randolph Scott’s head!