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Moving pictures 2017, #1

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The first film post of 2017. I’m not planning on watching as many films this year as last, since I’m hoping Ill be spending that time doing other things, like writing. I’m also going to try and watch two non-US films for every US one. I sort of managed it in this post – two US films, although admittedly one was a short, and the rest from the UK, Sweden, Italy and Russia.

meet_john_doeMeet John Doe, Frank Capra (1941, USA). The world was not a nicer place when Capra was making his films, but the solutions to its problems did seem so much easier to implement. And, of course, the same obstacles to those solutions existed then as now – greed, and the need for the rich to keep the poor in a place where they can control them and keep them poor. Meet John Doe is typical in that regard, so typical its story pretty much iterates that entire philosophy. A newspaper reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is fired when a new owner takes over her newspaper. She retaliates by publishing a suicide letter in her last column, in which a “John Doe” promises to leap from the newspaper building because of man’s greed and inhumanity to man. The new owner likes the letter, so much so it prompts a hunt for a real John Doe. And Garry Cooper, a homeless ex-baseball player, is cast in the part. Cooper’s homespun neighbourliness strikes a chord, and people form John Doe clubs… and next thing you know there’s an entire political movement wrapped around it. Except the John Doe Clubs refuse to allow politicians as members. But then the newspaper owner who backed the campaign reveals he had planned to use it all along to create a third political party under his control. And when Cooper objects, they monster him in front of  his followers at a rally in a stadium – because, well, they’re scumbags, because that’s what rich people do when they don’t get their way. The whole grassroots movement then falls apart, and Cooper is driven into hiding. But the sheep-like people eventually see the error of their ways and the John Doe clubs start reforming… There’s a lot in Meet John Doe that maps onto twenty-first politics, proving only, I guess, that twenty-first century politics is not all that much different to twentieth-century politics. The homespun neighbourliness Cooper sells doesn’t play in the present day, what with assorted demagogues whipping up xenophobic and racist hate for their own ends – stand up, Mr Farage, Mr Trump.  Of course, this is a Capra movie, and he was a master at leaving the viewer feeling good about life. Which is where, I suppose, his films differ from real life…

masters_of_venusMasters of Venus (1962, UK). I remember the Children’s Film Foundation films you used to see at the cinema before the main feature, although this one predates me by quite a bit and was apparently shown on telly anyway. But it sounded worth a punt, so I stuck it on my rental list… and so it arrived and… it was pretty much completely as expected: the sort of science fiction film and television churned out until the late 1960s, and which never really convinced but then no one ever expected it to. A teenage boy and girl often visit their father’s work – he’s a rocket scientist, in charge of the first flight to Venus. On one particular visit, two sinister agents of an unknown power – they have six fingers on their hands, so it’s clearly not the Soviets – try to sabotage the rocket. They succeed in sabotaging the control centre, but the rocket – with two of its crew and the two teenagers – launches prematurely and sends the four off to Venus. Once they reach Venus, something seizes control of the rocket and prevents them from returning to Earth. The two astronauts investigate, and are captured by Venusians. So it’s up to the two kids to rescue them. Venus was apparently colonised by people from Atlantis and they’re afraid of conquest by Earth. There are two factions, Men of Action and Men of Science, and the former plan to destroy Earth to safeguard Venus. The latter would sooner reach an accommodation. Once on Venus, the story pretty much runs along well-established rails – captured, escape, captured again, find allies among Venusians, escape, turn tables, save the day, etc, etc. It’s fun, in a very dated sort of way, and does sort of make you pine for the simpler days of science fiction and story-telling. I mean, watching it fifty-plus years later as an adult, you’re going to get a different experience, and nostalgia is going to be ninety-nine parts of it. Which sounds a little like damning with faint praise as, like most of the Children’s Film Foundation’s output, Masters of Venus is well-made, pacey, and ticks (for the time) most of the right boxes. It’s an historical document, no denying that, but given that perspective it’s worth seeing.

maya_derenAt Land, Maya Deren (1944, USA). After watching Meshes of the Afternoon by Deren and Alexander Hammid, I had a look round on Youtube and it seems most of Deren’s output is on there. There’s been some controversy over who exactly contributed the most to Meshes of the Afternoon, with it generally being seen as chiefly Deren’s work, but Stan Brakhage claiming that Hammid was mostly responsible for it. But given that Deren went on to make nearly a dozen further films, and Hammid only made two more, and she spent decades lecturing on film-making, she’s clearly the more important figure of the two in American avant-garde cinema. And At Land, which has only her name attached, is not dissimilar to Meshes of the Afternoon in approach. It opens with reversed film of Deren emerging from the sea, but then she finds herself at a dinner party. There’s a chess game between two women on the beach, and lots of rolling around in the sand. It’s all completely silent – as was, in fact, Meshes of the Afternoon, until a soundtrack by Teiji Ito, who was married to Deren at the time, was added in 1959. I’m enjoying my delves into avant-garde cinema, although, to be honest, I’m not big on symbolic story-telling in the medium. I guess in that respect it’s little different to my taste for plain prose – prose claire, if you will – inasmuch as I’m all for evoking strangeness, but through the use of clear imagery. And, while Deren’s films are striking, I’m not sure I agree with obfuscation of story by telling it through symbolic imagery. It should be a value-add, not the be-all and end-all. Nonetheless, I plan to watch more of Deren’s films. If I can find them…

classic_bergmanSawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman (1953, Sweden). The title is a bit of a clue – and the DVD cover art would be even more of one, but my copy was part of the box set depicted – but this movie is set in a circus. But it’s not a happy movie. Well, it is a Bergman movie. Yes, yes, I know, he made some light-hearted comedies as well as his usual dour Nordic tragedies, but Sawdust and Tinsel falls firmly into the latter camp. A circus arrives in town, and the owner tries to patch things up with his ex-wife who lives in the town. But it goes badly, resulting in the man his current lover is having a fling with challenging the circus-owner and subsequently getting badly beaten up by him. There’s a certain flavour to Bergman’s films, no matter where they are set – a circus, a maternity ward, a holiday home – that tends to overpower any story he might tell. It’s not just the stark black and white cinematography, which is only true for about two-thirds of his oeuvre; or the “staginess” of many of his films, which give them the feel of theatre plays or literary short stories (although in a different fashion to, say, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story). I’m not sure I’m a fan of Bergman’s work, although I’ve managed to collect quite a bit of it. Some of his films are blindingly good, and he amassed a hugely impressive body of work… but I’m not sure yet how much value I put on many of his works. I think I need to know him better, I need to rewatch some of the films I’ve watched, perhaps with some sort of structure or purpose. I think he deserves it, and I think it would be rewarding doing so. And, to be fair, there are not that many directors you could say that about.

saloSalò, or the 120 Days of Sodom*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975, Italy). I didn’t go into this film completely ignorant of what it would be like, which was just as well, as it’s a brutal and horrible film, and while it certainly makes some important points, it nonetheless makes for very uncomfortable viewing. During World War II, Salò, a town on Lake Garda, became the centre of Mussolini’s last fascist state, from 1943 to 1945. Then there’s the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, which the title references, although the film takes place over three days. It all seems relatively innocuous at first. Four men, referred to only by their titles, take a group of teenagers, and then pretty much treat them and all those about them with a complete lack of morals. During a meal, for example, one of the soldiers starts to rape a waitress. There are repeated scenes of a woman telling stories of her past to an audience of the teenagers; sometimes she sings. It’s the end of the film which is most brutal. I’m squeamish, I freely admit it, and I dislike watching horrific scenes in films – in fact, I deal with them best when they’re obviously special effects (ie, pre-CGI). But even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom tested by tolerance for squeam, particularly toward the end when many of the teenagers are physically tortured. Having now seen Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, I’m in two minds about the film. It’s a horrible film to watch, but it makes important points. Pasolini was an important director, and his work should be treated accordingly. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is also on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, amongst many others, so it’s clearly a film regarded highly by many… I’m glad I watched it, but I’m not so sure I could watch it again. And yet I find myself conflicted over buying the shiny new BFI Blu-ray release…

banishmentThe Banishment, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2007, Russia). This is the third Zvyagintsev film I’ve seen, after the earlier The Return and the later Leviathan. So I knew what to expect: glacial pacing, long static takes, close-ups on actors who barely change expression… And I like that sort of stuff, I really do. But for some reason The Banishment seemed like more of a watching ordeal than the other two films by Zvyagintsev I’ve seen. A family travel out into the country to spend time at his childhood home. The wife reveals she is pregnant, but the husband does not believe the baby is his. He forces his wife to have an abortion, but she deliberately overdoses on pain medication afterwards and dies. A flashback reveals that the baby was the husband’s, after all. There’s a subplot involving the husband’s brother, who is a gangster of some sort, and who turns up and then promptly has a heart attack – but there’s not much to it. The cinematography is gorgeous, with some beautiful shots of the Russian countryside (actually, not entirely Russian – The Banishment was filmed in France, Belgium, Moldova and Russia; in fact, the countryside home was built from scratch in Moldova. But never mind: we all know movie geography does not map onto the real world, and that an exterior shot of a building in movieland is not necessarily the location of the following interior shots…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843

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One thought on “Moving pictures 2017, #1

  1. Pingback: Moving pictures 2017, #40 | It Doesn't Have To Be Right...

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