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Moving pictures 2017, #16

What was that about Hollywood films? I seem to have been ignoring them quite successfully of late…

Rosetta, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne (1999, Belgium). I think in retrospect I like the idea of the films of the Dardennes Brothers more than I like their actual films. They make very personal movies and I agree totally with that, ones that often use handheld cameras and a lot of improvisation by the cast… But the stories they tell often seem stretched beyond their natural length. Rosetta is a case in point. The title refers to a young woman in a Belgian town, who loses her job, and reacts violently. She is, in fact, desperate for work, because she lives in a trailer park and has an alcoholic mother. She lands a job at a waffle – gauffre – baker, but loses that when a profligate son decides he needs a job. So she shops her one friend, a waffle seller who had been making some money on the side with his own waffles, so she can have his job. This is an unpleasant film populated with unpleasant characters, and the title character’s blindness to the moral expediency of her own actions is treated so flatly it’s hard to tell what lesson the Dardenne brothers expect the viewers to take. To a European audience, it’s clearly a condemnation, but I wonder if it plays the same in other parts of the world? And I wonder if such subtlety serves any useful purpose…  Except, belabour the point so unsympathetic audiences will get it and you risk alienating your natural audience. Having said that, I suspect I fall firmly within the demographic the Dardennes expect to appeal to, but I’ve yet to see one of their films I can really take to heart. Rosetta is a good film, but not one to love.

Mississippi Mermaid, François Truffaut (1969, France). I’d not expected like this. Although Truffaut was one of the mainstays of the Nouvelle Vague, I’ve never really had all that much time for him as a director – despite loving his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. But then I watched his Tirez le pianiste and revised my opinion… Even so, Mississippi Mermaid was a surprise: a commercial film that actually really wasn’t that commercial. Truffaut may not have been as interesting a director as Godard, but when he was in love with his cast – as he plainly is with Deneuve, and possibly also Belmondo, in this movie – at least he only shows them to advantage rather than allowing them to completely derail his story. Having said that, the story of Mississippi Mermaid isn’t all that plausible. A rich plantation owner on Réunion Island has arrange a marriage whom he only knows from her letters. They agree to marry, and the woman takes ship to the island. Except she doesn’t arrive. Instead, Deneuve claims to be the blushing bride-to-be, explaining that she’d sent a photo of a friend in order to better assess Belmondo’s intentions. They marry, they’re very much in love, but she often seems to contradict information she gave in her letters. Then she cleans out his bank accounts. She was a fake. He sets a private investigator on her trail, but some time later inadvertently bumps into her. They rekindle their relationship. But then the PI turns up, and refuses to let it lie as Deneuve was responsible for several crimes. So Belmondo kills him. The scenery is quite impressive – parts of the movie were actually filmed on Réunion Island. But the two leads shine in their roles, and Deneuve is on particularly fine form. It’s a dumb story that should not convince, but Deneuve and Belmondo carry it effortlessly. It’s no surprise’the film was a box office hit in France. And yet, for all its commercial cinema credentials, it refuses to obey the form – it’s over-long (123 minutes!), it can’t decided if it’s protagonists are heroes or anti-heroes, and it’s not sure if it’s a thriller or a warped romance. I really liked it.

The Hourglass Sanatorium, Wojciech Has (1973, Poland). I watched Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript last year and thought it astonishingly good, but I’m also sure few directors manage more than one such film. The Saragossa Manuscript – which I’m now glad I didn’t buy, despite wanting to, as it’s included in one of these Martin Scorceses Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – is a series of very cleverly nested stories, and The Hourglass Sanatorium uses a similar structure while also tying it to the ravings of a mad protagonist, so it’s not really clear what is what or what it means throughout the film’s 119 minutes. I tweeted while watching it that it was a film to generate nightmares, and while it may not have done it that particular night, it’s very definitely a film filled with nightmarigh imagery. A man visits his dying father in a sanatorium, but nothing is as it seems – not the country he travels through, nor the sanatorium itself. The fears of his childhood are made manifest, and yet none of it is really explained. The film is apparently an adaptation of a 1937 short story collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz, and the fact it’s based on a collection likely explains the somewhat episodic nature of the film. None of which actually detracts from it. The Hourglass Sanatorium is definitely a film that’s going to need repeated rewatchings. I’d also like to see more by Has.

Killer of Sheep*, Charles Burnett (1978, USA). I’m happy to admit I’d never have watched this film if it had not been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’m equally happy to confess I’d have missed out otherwise. I am, in fact, surprised the film is not better known. It was shot in the late 1970s in the Watts district of Los Angeles, but wasn’t actually released until 2007. Because the film-makers didn’t have enough money to secure the rights to music used in the film. Those music rights cost $150,000. The film was shot for $10,000 (around $38,000 in 2016 dollars). It is, it must be said, an excellent soundtrack, but it does help illustrate the strangehold the big media companies have on creative content. Killer of Sheep has no plot as such, it’s just a series of short vignettes set in and around Watts, with an amateur cast. It’s not a documentary because it tries to make its point – the life of working-class blacks in LA – through dramatised incidents, which often works better than a documentary. In order to persuade the viewer of its argument, a documentary needs a narrative – and some documentary makers are excellent at creating narrative, like Adam Curtis or Patrick Keiller. Another methiod is to present a sympathetic vierwpoint character, or more than one, a technique used by Joshua Oppenheimer in The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. Old style, of course, was to present facts as if building an argument – cf Hotel Terminus, The Thin Blue Line… Patricio Guzmán, on the other hand, presents two arguments, and it is the parallels between them which make his point. But making a drama of a situation has the benefit of allowing the director to control their narrative to an extent not possible with archive footage  (well, unless you’re Aleksandr Sokurov…). Killer of Sheep makes its point emphatically, and it does it with actors and staged stories. Definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

To Kill This Love, Janusz Morgenstern (1972, Poland).Morgenstern is pretty much unknown outside Poland. His Wikipedia page is smaller than my own, and there’s not even a link to his oeuvre on imdb.com. As far as I can determine, he directed a lot of television work, which no doubt accounts for the televisual look and feel of this film (although it is something I have noted previously about several Polish films of the 1970s). A young couple seem suited for each other, but their relationship runs far from smoothly – she is a nurse but too squeamish for some of the tasks she must perform, and he ends up in a relationship with an older woman. To be honest, not much in this film sticks in memory. It felt like a kitchen-sink drama, Polish style, and although the film justifiably made a star of female lead Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak, it’s a thin takeaway from a film that incorporates so much human drama – perhaps too much in places. It’s a movie that’s going to require a rewatch, so I’m especially glad it’s part of the box set I bought.

East Palace, West Palace, Zhang Yuan (1996, China). Amazon started taking the piss a bit for a few weeks, and sent me a Chinese film every week, It’s almost like they were reading my tweets… It’s true the Sixth Generation of Chinese directors, and later, have produced some of the consistently best films of the last few decades, and I’m more than happy to explore their output… But I also treasure variety in my viewing, and a constant diet of Chinese films, no matter how good, can get as wearying as a constant diet of films from any other nation (wait, most people watch US films all the time… what am I saying?). East Palace, West Palace refers to a park in Beijing frequented by gay men, who go there to pick up sexual partners. A police raid results in several of them being taken prisoner. One particular police officer takes one to his office and tries to get him to admit to his “behaviour” – homosexuality was apparently not a crime at the time the film is set, although that didn’t stop the police rounding them up every now and again. And, although it feels like a cliché – the gay man tells his the police officer his life story and so the police officer falls for the gay man – it never feels like one as the film progresses. Partly it’s because the flashback sequences are so well-staged, and partly it’s because the way the film drops into fantasy at the end, with the gay man dressing in drag and so seducing the police officer, with it all feeling like a metaphorical treatment without undermining the emotional content. I’ve watched a lot of contemporary Chinese films recently, but I can’t begrudge that because they’ve all been excellent films. True, I’ve become a fan of Jia Zhangke and Zhao Liang, but it’s not that much of a stretch to say that China’s Sixth Generation, and later, of film directors has resulted in the strongest national cinema so far of the twenty-first century.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 857


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Moving pictures 2017, #15

More of the usual – China, Poland. France and Russia. I’m still trying to expand the nations whose films I watch, but I do have my favourite directors…

The World, Jian Zhangke (2004, China). I’ve been a fan of Jia’s films since first seeing A Touch of Sin, and if the films in Jia’s Hometown trilogy seemed a little disappointing – see here and here and here – something in the description of The World persuaded me it was closer to 24 City and A Touch of Sin and so more likely to appeal. I bought the eureka! dual edition. And so it was – much more like 24 City and A Touch of Sin, I mean. In fact, I think it might be my favourite of Jia’s films. The main character of The World, although any such description is a hostage to fortune in this film, works as “talent” at a Beijing amusement park. The movies opens with her walking along a corridor, demanding loudly if any of her fellow co-workers have a band-aid (plaster). We then see her on stage, as part of some sort of dance routine, with other women in variations on national costume from assorted nations. And Jia mantains that sort of documentary feel to the rest of the movie, as he follows the young woman through the days that follow. There’s no plot as such, just men and women interacting in a weird artificial environment – which is only enhanced by the beautifully sharp cinematography and the strange, but natural, if slightly washed-out, colour palette. It feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot during the making of a film, but it’s never entirely clear what the story of that film is. There’s the central character, and her relations with her colleagues; and then a friend from her province turns up and she has to look after him. We also see women being abused by a system set up to exploit them – the theme park hires some Russian dancers, for example, and their handler takes their passports, and so traps them in China (a not uncommon practice in many parts of the world). Over it all is a layer of strangeness imparted by the easily recognisable, but small-scale, landmarks which populate the theme park – the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Manhattan skyline, etc.. And several parts of the film that are animated. I really liked A Touch of Sin on first seeing it, and liked it a great deal more on rewatching it several months later. But The World I loved the first time I watched it, and I’ve seen a couple of times since and still love it. I think this film has jumped into my top ten, but I’ve yet to figure out what to displace. Recommended.

Constant Factor, Krzysztof Zanussi (1980, Poland). I’m not entirely sure precisely what the factor the title refers to, although the plot of the film seems relatively straightforward. A young man joins a firm and discovers that his honesty is a handicap rather than an advantage. He dreams of climbing Mount Everest, an ambition which killed his father. For some reason, his employer sends him on overseas jobs even though he’s done nothing to “earn” the privilege. But when he turns down routine opportunities for corruption, and then refuses to back down and so jeopardises a lucrative contract, his ability to travel is taken from him. And that includes his planned trip to the Himalayas. He gets to the airport and they won’t let him leave the country. The film works because the protagonist is sympathetic, despite his pigheaded honesty – or perhaps because of his pigheaded honesty – after all, it’s not as if his co-workers are depicted as venal and corrupt… They’re just trying to make ends meet in a system that rewards corruption better than it rewards honesty. So, just like Western society then. There is, like some of the other films in this box set, a sort of televisual drama drama – kitchen-sink drama, even – feel to the film, so much so it’s starting to feel like a Polish speciality (Kieślowski, after all, started out in television). The three Martin Scorcese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets are proving to be an excellent purchase, despite the cost.

Little Red Flowers, Zhang Yuan (2006, China). I think Zhang was one of a number Chinese directors I stuck on my rental list in an effort to explore the country’s recent cinema, but I don’t recall where I came across Zhang’s name – and LoveFilm has recently got into the habit of sending me films from a particular country one after the other. So after a run of Romanian films, it’s now a run of Chinese films. This is no real hardship – of all the countries’ cinemas I’ve been watching over the past couple of years, China’s since the late 1990s has to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest. Particularly the Sixth Generation directors and later… Little Red Flowers is a not very sympathetic film, but extremely well put-together. It follows a four-year-old boy – based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Wang Shuo – at a… boarding school? orphanage? The title refers to the school’s equivalent of “gold stars”, awarded for good work. The regime is pretty brutal for young kids, and the facilities primitive at best. I don’t recall Little Red Flowers being an especially comfortable film to watch, and I was unsure if its message was one of accommodation or staying true in a regime that saw your values as subversive. There’s a greater lesson there, of course, but I’m not sure this film is the best vehicle for it. A good film, and worth seeing – but more, I think, because it’s a good example of what China’s Sixth Generation of directors can offer than because the films offers more than its story.

Promised Land, Andrzej Wajda (1975, Poland). I know Wajda’s name as one of Polish cinemas big names, and I’ve seen several of his more celebrated films, but this was, I’d believed, one of his less celebrated, albeit still highly regarded, movies. And besides, I’ve not yet found cause to fault the choices made by these Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – okay, where’s the Szulkin, eh? I’ll forgive the lack of Żuławski given that Mondo Vision are doing special edition rereleases of his oeuvre, and they’re pretty hard to beat –  but the films I’ve seen before which appear in these box sets I’d already categorised as excellent films… and those I’ve not seen are proving to be every bit as good. So a wise purchase all round, then. Anyway, Promised Land is an historical piece, set at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. Three men – a Pole, a German and a Jew (interesting that his nationality seems irrelevant) – all invest in a new textile factory. Their backgrounds prove important, especially when the Pole has an affair with the wife of a Jewish financier. The factory they financed is burnt to the ground. They lose everything. But the Pole bounces back by marrying an heiress. It’s very much a story of three ambitious young men from different backgrounds pooling their resources, only to find their success treats them differently. The historical aspect wasn’t entirely convincing at times – the eixigencies of filming in 1970s Poland, no doubt – and ssome of the characters were a little larger than life… But this was good stuff. I do like Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron a great deal, possibly because they feel like teleplays, and was not that taken with his Ashes and Diamonds… but Promised Land occupies that uneasy middle ground. A quality film, certainly, but I still need to see more of Wajda’s oeuvre.

Taurus, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). After describing Francofonia (see here) as an archetypal Sokurov film – as if there were such a thing! – I watched Taurus, the second of Sokurov’s Power trilogy… and this was almost pure Sokurov cinema. For reasons I do not understand, the first and third films of the trilogy, Moloch and The Sun, were given US/UK releases on DVD (the fourth too, if you include Faust, which some do), but Taurus never was. And having now watched it I can see no good reason why it should have been ignored. The BFI have done excellent jobs on the oeuvres of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, but if they’re looking for other directors to cover then Aleksandr Sokurov should be top of their list. Whatever. I managed to get hold of a copy of Taurus, and I watched it. And it’s pure Sokurov. It depicts the last days of Lenin, who, surprisingly, died at the age of 54 after only a year in power. In the film he is recuperating from his first stroke, and after his recovery meets with Stalin – who pretended to a favouritism by Lenin that never existed – but later succumbs to another stroke. The palette is subdued blues and very painterly, and if there’s one sour note it’s that Lenin has a younger body than his face suggests – he supposed to be early fifties, but has the physique of someone two decades younger. Much of the film takes place in Lenin’s bechamber, which has all sorts of echoes with other films by Sokurov… but later, he goes for walk in the woods surrounding the dacha, and that’s another bunch of Sokurov’s films it’s referencing…Ãnd yet, the Power trilogy is, as the name suggests, about the nature of power, and by choosing three powerful figures whose powers were fading fast – Hitler toward the end of his reign, Hirohito after Japan had surrended, and Lenin on his death bed – Sokurov is in danger of belabouring his point. Except he makes each film a character study and a metaphysical treatise. This is a director who is head-and-shoulders above everyone else at the top of his game. Ten years from now, people will be comparing Tarkovsky to Sokurov, not trying to find reasons why Sokurov should be seen as of similar stature to Tarkovsky because the latter once praised him.

Éloge de l’amour, Jean-Luc Godard (2001, France). In theory, I have a lot of time for Godard; in practice, less so. I think he’s perhaps the most experimental director of commerical cinema – without being full-on avant-garde – France has produced, and I think he has not only deliberately built that reputation but also capitalised on it. Some of his early experimental as part of the Nouvelle Vague is blindingly good, but I suspect more by accident than by design. Whenever Godard was more interested in his stars than his story, the film suffered – the two contrary examples perhaps being Bande á part and Une femme est une femme – but when his focus was on the narrative, he produced some truly excellent films. And in later years, he appears to have been more concerned with cinema as an art form, which means his films became more interesting narratively without having to rely on the charismatic stars of earlier decades. So, an improvement in some respects. As many a director has discovered, you can tell any old story given a star with sufficient screen presence – as indeed Godard himself has taken advantage of in the past. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Éloge de l’amour is a film that succeeds on its own terms, but its terms are somewhat narrower than most viewers would accept. It starts out as black and white, and never quite convinces as noir, which somewhat renders the choice of of palette dubious. But then it switches to saturated colour, but never quite explains the reason for the change. Godard’sfilms usually require several viewings to fully appreciate, but this was a rental and I only gave it the one viewing. The more Godard I watch, the more Godard I want to watch. But his oevure has only been released patchily in the UK…

1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 856


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Moving pictures 2017, #14

I’ve done it again – not a single US film in this half-dozen, well, seven, to be precise. In fact, not a single Anglophone movie. Instead, we have Romanian, Schweizerdeutsch, Polish, Russian, Mandarin/Taiwanese, and Kurdish.

californiaCalifornia Dreamin’, Cristian Nemescu (2007, Romania). When I asked some Romanian friends for films from their country to watch, this was one of the titles they suggested (unlike Nemuritorii – see here). And having now seen it, I can see it reflects well on the Romanian film industry but perhaps not so well on the Romanian people. I’ve visited the country and can think of nothing bad to say about the people I met there… but this film is not entirely flattering. Of course, there’s no requirement a film should be. Although US films do tend to show US culture in a flattering light, even while a US character is committing genocide. But US films are notoriously mendacious, and will promote the “American Dream” even in situations where it has plainly failed – which is, in part, germane to the plot of this film, as it is the riches of the US, and its treatment of other places, which leads to the situation the film depicts. A NATO detachment of US soldiers is accompanying a radar unit to Kosovo, and it travels by train through Romania. But when it reaches a small village in the middle of nowhere, the station master, who is corrupt as they come, decides to play the bastard and halts the trains because it lacks the necessary papers. This is all based on a true story, incidentally. The presence of the American soldiers understandably disrupts the village, so much so that the US commander eventually persuades the villagers to riot against the corrupt station master and police chief. The riot turns violent, and the Americans sneak away during the fighting. There’s a running joke throughout about a Romanian soldier seconded to the US company, and so wears their uniform, who pretends to be American to a pretty village girl who does not speak English. But if some of the Romanians come across as venal and corrupt, the majority are just ordinary people struggling to survive in a failing system. The Americans are worse – arrogant, ignorant, and unwilling to make the effort to understand another culture. The US commander is played by Armand Assante, an odd piece of casting, but it turns out he does a “officer with a stick up his ass” quite well. As an advert for Romania, California Dreamin’ fails; as a film, it succeeds really well. Fortunately, films should not be adverts or tourist brochures.

aloysAloys, Tobias Nölle (2016, Switzerland). This was a freebie, thrown in by the seller when I bought half a dozen other DVDs – most of which have appeared in previous Moving picture posts. So I knew nothing about it, but since the seller has chucked in a freebie on previous orders and they’ve proved to be good, interesting films, I had no doubts Aloys would prove the same. And so it did. The title refers to a young man who works as a private detective. He had been the junior partner in the firm with his father, and the film opens with his father’s funeral. Aloys is a loner, preferring to avoid people, and perform his assignments by filming his targets from a distance. He films other people too. After his father’s cremation, he gets drunk, falls asleep on the bus, and wakes up in the depot to discover his video camera and tapes have been stolen. There is one videotape in his pocket. On it, a woman’s voice admits she took the tapes and camera and that she disagrees with what he does. The two of them begin “phone walking”: one describes a place, imaginary or real, over the phone in such a way that the listener can imagine themselves there. When one of Aloys’s neighbours tries to commit suicide, he realises she was the thief and telephone caller. They continue their relationship, she from her hospital bed, leading to a quite wonderful party scene in which the pair play a duet on an electric organ to an audience of their neighbours – but it’s all in his imagination. The realisation of his imaginary walks and meetings is really well done – it makes the film, in fact. Worth seeing.

masterpieces_1Jump (Salto), Tadeusz Konwicki (1965, Poland). While watching this, I couldn’t help be reminded of Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, and it’s for the slimmest of reasons: in both films the protagonist continuously wears sunglasses. A man – in sunglasses – jumps from a train as it passes through the countryside, and makes his way to a nearby village. Once there, he claims to know people from having spent time there during WW2, but he tells a different story to everyone he speaks to. And eventually they figure out these contradictory stories cast everything he said in doubt, and so they turn on him. It’s never entirely clear if he’s a total con man, or just a chancer imposing on past acquaintance… and in a country like Poland, with its troubled history during World War 2 and immediately afterward (as documented in films such as, er, Ashes and Diamonds), treading such a fine line is sure to eventually end in disaster. As it does. The townspeople run the man out of town  – a dog even chases after him and tries to bite him as he flees down the road – and then the film presents a nice circularity in having the man run through a field and catch a passing train in a sort of reverse of the sequence which opened the film. This wasn’t one of the best films in this box set, although the restoration and transfer were excellent. I’m glad I bought the box set, despite the price, and even more pleased I chose to shell out for all three box sets. Expect lots of Polish films to appear in these posts over the next few months.

man_movie_cameraThree Songs for Lenin & Kino Pravda #21, Dziga Vertov (1934/1925, Russia). There are two types of utopian vision – those that include everyone, and those that include only those people like the person having the vision. Which is as good a description of left-wing and right-wing as any. And while the USSR turned increasingly totalitarian in the decades after the October Revolution, so much so that I suspect any utopian revolution’s ideals are unlikely to last longer than a generation, Vertov was there at the beginning of the USSR and he filmed it. So while there’s actual footage here of Lenin giving speeches, or meeting and greeting fellow Russians, all silent, of course, given the time, there is also footage of citizens of the USSR celebrating Lenin’s achievement… and it’s mostly from the south, from places like Azerbaijan, with women in burkas and men in dashikis. No one bats an eye at this – they are all comrades. True, this is early Soviet propaganda, although I think Vertov was more guilty of seeing the good cinema could do than of consciously using it as a government tool. But when we live in a world in which Daily Mail readers actually regret the Nazis not winning World War 2, I can only point to these films and say despite all the reasons the USSR was a bad thing, what they show is a good thing. When Soviet art was optimistic, it was a great and wonderful thing; when it was pessimistic, it was a sharp-edged tool. And what do we in the UK, or even the US, have to set against that? An industry which produces commercial product which has perpetuated the greed-is-good narrative so successfully that people would sooner have slavery than multiculturalism! How is that acceptable? There’s no point in being generous about it: if you voted Leave, you are either a racist or ignorant, or both. Likewise if you voted for Trump. You have fucked up the future. And watching Three Songs for Lenin and Kino Pravda #21, I envy the optimism of the people in the films. They had built a new world order and it was a fair one. They couldn’t know it wouldn’t last, but that failure in no way invalidates the attempt to set it up. Perhaps it’s time for a new revolution.

yi_yiA One and a Two (Yi Yi)*, Edward Yang (2000, Taiwan). This is a family saga, covering three generations, although not the entire length of those generations. And while it’s a well-observed drama, I could see no good reason why it made the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list. A good film, yes – but a great film? The film opens with a woman infiltrating the preparations for a wedding banquet and making a scene with the bride’s mother. And then it sort of follows around members of the family… and I honestly can’t remember if there was a plot or not. I seem to recall that at times it felt like a documentary and at other times like a family drama, but that none of it really quite gelled for me. And it was long, too: 173 minutes. I think I should have given it a second go, but it was a rental DVD and I sent it back before I could rewatch it. Having said that, I seem to have made a habit of buying films I’d previously watched on rental, although this one does appear to have been deleted, or at least I’m sure I saw an Artificial Eye edition at some point but can no longer find it online. I think I’d like to see it again, because I remember it being good even if I can’t remember the details of the story.

blackboardsBlackboards, Samira Makhmalbaf (2000, Iran). Samira Makhmalbaf is Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s daughter, but if this film is any indication she has a singular vision all her own. A group of men carry blackboards on their backs across the mountains to teach literacy to the children of the valleys. But there is a war on, and they must avoid being shot at or strafed by jet fighters. And when they do meet up with a bunch of boys from the valley villages, none of them are interested in learning to write. One of the men perseveres, and follows the boys along mountain tracks, trying to persuade them of the benefits of reading and writing. There’s not much in the way of plot here, just the presentation of people in a deplorable situation. The film’s cast appear to be mostly non-professional, but as I’ve learnt over the past year or two that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Makhmalbaf captures their plight well, and keeps sympathy with both those who carry the blackboards on their backs and those into whose lives they intrude. Iran has produced a number of excellent directors of the past few decades, and has a cinema better than many other nations of equivalent size. Some of its directors seem to have their films released in the UK (and US) more often than others – Asghar Farhadi, for example; or Abbas Kiarostami – but then not all of Kiarostami’s films have seen UK DVD releases, and others such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf are woefully under-represented. Nonetheless, Iran has one of the strongest cinemas of any non-Anglophone nation, and it’s always worth watching one of its films.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 856


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Reading diary, #46

I try to plan my reading, but usually end up not following the plan at all… other than in its broadest intentions, ie, alternating male/female writers, for example… Which I only just managed to do here. Ah well.

river_titashA River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). Good books don’t always made good films, and great films are not always made from great books. Nonetheless, A River Called Titas by Ritwik Ghatak is one of my favourite films, so I had high hopes of the novel from which it was adapted. From what I’d read the novel was held in high regard, which is always a good start, although apparently not enough to be still in print in English in the twenty-first century. And since I couldn’t find a copy of its original 1950s Penguin release, I ended up with a university press edition… which actually proved a bonus as it included footnotes and appendices that added to the reading experience. A River Called Titash is mostly autobiographical – Mallabarman, who died in 1950, the novel was published posthumously six years later – was born and grew up in a Malo village on the River Titash, which is an offshoot of the Meghna River in the Chittagong District of Bangladesh, which is basically just one giant flood plain pouring into the Bay of Bengal. Obviously, I read A River Called Titash as the source text for A River Called Titas… and the most obvious difference seems to be that the film confused the Titash and Meghna. True, some of the story takes place on the latter river, but the film implies it all does – although it does follow, in broad stroke, the same story. A fisherman from a Titash village defends a young woman – actually only fifteen years old in the novel – during an attack on her village by pirates. So she is given to him by her family in marriage, they consummate their union, and and the next day set off in his boat for the trip home where the actual marriage ceremony will take place. En route, while anchored at night, pirates sneak aboard and kidnap her. But she escapes and ends up at a third village. She doesn’t know her husband’s name, or the name of his village. (Nor did the husband learn his bride’s name – in fact, she’s never named in the novel, and referred to only as “Ananta’s mother” – and saw her face only on a handful of occasions.) She has a son, Ananta. Some time later – in the novel Ananta is four, in the film he’s considerably older – mother and son have finally learnt the origin of the lost husband and make their way to his village. But the husband had lost his mind shortly after his bride was stolen. So the “widow”, as she has to pretend to be, ekes out an existence while trying to reconnect with her insane husband. I absolutely adore Ghatak’s movie, and this novel is equally fascinating. It provides more detail, indeed, it’s been described as just as much an ethnographical text as it is a novel – it is set, after all, in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, and documents a way of life long since lost (although I think some remnant of it was still around when the film was made in the 1970s).  In one respect, reading the novel was especially helpful as it put some of the events in the film in context, and explained why the characters behaved as they did. A fascinating read, and likely to make my top five of the year.

snowdriftSnowdrift and Other Stories, Georgette Heyer (2016, UK). I do love me some Heyer, so I was a bit excited when I discovered a new collection of her short stories had been published. In the event, Snowdrift turned out to be a retitled Pistols for Two, which I already own and have read, but with the addition of three previously uncollected stories. On the one hand, these stories are lots of fun and Heyer was a dab hand with the prose. On the other… well, it’s all about entitled nitwits, and bears as much likeness to real history as, well, the Bible. It’s fun reading about Corinthians and Nonpareils and headstrong mistresses who Adventure, but they’re all aristocracy and there’s only one story in this collection, and new to it too, in which any one from the working class has any agency. Heyer is frothy and witty and fun, but the tribulations and concerns she invariably writes about no sensible person cpuld honestly give a shit about in this day and age. In one story, for example, an impressionable young woman (sixteen or so, I think) has learnt that her irresponsible brother has been challenged to a duel by a regular Man in Grey (lots of Heyer’s story follow the plot of The Man in Grey). So she tries prevent this but accidentally stumbles into the orbit of a supercilious noble (in his thirties) who promises to see her brother comes to no harm. He is, of course, the challenger, and only a complete idiot would fail to spot it. And it is only the fact he has the hots for the hothead’s teenage sister that saves the day. The problem with most Heyer stories is that you can change the words a little, without being inaccurate, and the plots would sound really skeevy. “Jaded thirtysomething chats up teenager in pub on way to arranged marriage… only to discover teenager is his proposed partner.” “Eloping teenagers mistake thirtysomething roué for irate brother hot on their heels, but when they realise their mistake teenage girl goes off with roué instead.” I had thought when reading A River Called Titash I could overlook the young ages at which girls were married off as a cultural thing from more than 100 years ago, only to realise that Heyer valourised something similar happening in the UK a hundred years before the events of Mallabarman’s novel. A River Called Titash at least has the advantage of being an historically correct ethnographical novel by a member of that culture, whereas Heyer wrote about a tiny sector of Regency England society more than 100 years afterwards. Still, they are fun, and I’m not about to give up my Heyer collection any day soon.

speed_of_lightAt the Speed of Light, Simon Morden (2017, UK). This is the second of the four novellas published recently by NewCon Press. It opens with a man waking up on board a spaceship, ignorant of his surroundings or his purpose. And, it is eventually revealed, not entirely human. I admit it, I sighed. This is a cliché. But I know Simon – although I don’t know his writing – and I should not have been so quick in jumping to conclusions. Because when the situation is finally revealed, in the third of the novella’s three sections, that opening section makes perfect sense and is actually quite clever. A spacecraft which can travel at a substantial percentage of the speed of light has accelerated out of control until it is now travelling fractions of a percentage less than c. Then the AI which controls the spacecraft notices a second one travelling in formation with it. And it realises this new spacecraft was sent by a planetary system the AI had travelled through, but since the AI had been in a fugue state at the time it had not noticed the communication attempts by the system’s inhabited world. The plot develops logically from there. It’s not Mundane SF by any means, although it initially pretends to be (an FTL drive pops up toward the end). The physical effects of travelling at very close to the speed of light are handled especially well, and although the novella is structured as an opening puzzle followed by a long extended info-dump as the narrator works out what’s going on, it’s a very good example of its type.

ghosthuntGhosthunt, Jo Clayton (1983, USA). I picked up the first seven books of this nine-book series at a Swecon because Clayton was not a name known to me at the time and I thought they’d make suitable review material for SF Mistressworks. This series was apparently very popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s but has since been forgotten, and having now read them I’m mostly happy with that state of affairs. When you read forgotten or obscure sf, there’s always the hope you’ll stumble across a lost masterpiece; and it’s certainly true I’ve found some forgotten female writers of sf, or books by female sf writers, from past decades who deserve far more of a reputation than they currently have – anything by Marta Randall, for example, and Judgement Night by CL Moore should rightly be considered one of the classic space operas. But a lot of books vanish into obscurity for very good reason. The Diadem series has its high points and its low points, but its lows are pretty damn low, and even when it manages to be inventive progressive space opera it only just clears the bar. The series improved as it progressed, but not by a great deal. Still, there are the last two books to go – copies of which I will have to track down. My review of Ghosthunt will appear shortly on SF Mistressworks.

conspiracyThe Conspiracy & Other Stories, Jaan Kross (1991, Estonia). In an effort to widen the geographical spread of my reading, I picked a bunch of writers from random countries to try. One of them was Jaan Kross from Estonia. I’ll admit to knowing nothing about Kross, or indeed Estonian literature, when buying the book; and, to be honest, I’m not a great deal wiser now. Kross apparently specialised in historical fiction set in Estonia’s past, and his best-known work is the Between Three Plagues trilogy set in the sixteenth century. The stories in The Conspiracy, however, are set shortly before, and during World War 2, in German-occupied Estonia, and are told in the first person by Peeter Mirk, a stand-in for Kross himself. The stories are rich in period and place detail (so much so, each stories has end-notes… even though some of the glossed terms are later explained in the narrative). In one story, Mirk persuades an old university friend to desert the German not-so-voluntary Hilfswilliger levy corps, only for Mirk’s plans to see his friend off to Finland fall apart, but so putting his friend in his debt that the friend takes a stupidly risky route of his own choosing and dies in the attempt. In another, Mirk is attempting his own escape from Nazi-occupied Estonia, but the boat he is aboard is caught by a German patrol boat. Mirk has with him the manuscript of his first novel, which is highly critical of the Nazis. He throws his suitcase overboard, but the Germans manage to retrieve it. But there’s nothing in the suitcase to identify the owner (not even a name on the manuscript), except for… a collectible book given to him by a friend in lieu of payment for a debt moments before they boarded the boat to Finland which has an ex libris sticker giving that friend’s name. If Mirk says nothing, then his friend will be executed… There are half a dozen stories in the collection, and they’re well-written and interesting. I doubt I’ll dash out and buy something else by Kross to read – have you seen the size of my TBR? – but at some later date I might give something else by him a go.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Moving pictures 2017, #13

The New Year’s resolution is still working. I seem to be averaging one US film per Moving pictures blog post. The films in this post were half-rented and half-owned, and two were rewatches (albeit one of them not since many years).

herzogHeart of Glass, Werner Herzog (1976, Germany). I first saw this many years ago, after buying a Herzog DVD box set in a sale. And of that initial watch, all I  could really remember was the fact the cast were hypnotised before shooting began, and the really weird way they performed on-screen as a result. Which pretty much meant I’d categorised the film as “weird Herzog that’s probably pretty good but still weird”. What I’d forgotten were the parts of the film where the camera focuses on some part of the landscape, like some Caspar David Friedrich painting, lacking only the figure of a man, while some strange German prog rock plays… for ten minutes. I love stuff like that. When the actual story kicks off – a master glass blower at a factory in an eighteenth-century town and takes the secret of the glassworks’s unique ruby glass with him – it feels a bit like the film has landed badly in the proasic after some flight of fancy. The local baron is desperate to find the secret, so much so failure drives him mad. And the rest of the town go made too. While I’d remembered how odd the casts’ performances were, since they’d been hypnotised, they actually proved considerably stranger than I’d thought. In many cases, it was like they weren’t there, their faces seemed completely blank. At other times, they over-reacted as if whatever they saw or felt just got stuck. It was… very weird. And I really did like the musical interludes. Bits of Heart of Glass are among my favourite bits of Herzog.

my_brilliant_careerMy Brilliant Career*, Gillian Armstrong (1979, Australia). I was perhaps unfair in dismissing this as a “dull Australian historical drama”, as I did on Facebook shortly after watching it, yet I really did find it over-long and uninteresting. The title refers to the boast uttered by an independent young woman in late nineteenth-century Australia. She is convinced she will become a much-lauded writer – and given that the film is based on an important Australian novel, it might well be said she did just that. A young woman is sent from the family farm to live with her grandmother in order to calm her down and teach her how to behave like a proper young woman. She meets two men, and she falls for the one with the money. She spends time at his estate. He proposes. She rejects him. His fortune then collapses. She takes a job as a governess in order to support herself, but is sent home because the family mistakenly think she is seducing the oldest son. Her boyfriend proposes again. She rejects him again. And says she wants to become a writer. (Not that writing and marriage are incompatible, as a great many female writers can attest – even in the late nineteenth century… although perhaps not so much in Australia.) My Brilliant Career pretty much stands or falls on how you take to the lead character, Sybylla, the Miles Franklin stand-in. While the film was put together well, and the two leads, Judy Davis and Sam Neill, put in excellent performances, I really didn’t take to Sybylla, which is why I didn’t take to the film. Some films like that, I might decide a second chance is warranted, and so watch them again. But this was a rental and I didn’t get a chance before sending the disc back. So it’ll have stay as a “meh” from me.

astronautAstronaut: The Last Push, Eric Hayden (2012, USA). I have a great idea for a film, it’s it like the plot of my 2011 story, ‘Barker’, about the first man in space, who dies; but in this version it’s a British space programme, because we nearly had one, you know (actually, no, we didn’t, that’s implausible make-believe). Anyway, someone made that film, it was called Capsule, and it was very dull. Astronaut: The Last Push takes that idea one step further. Two US astronauts are being set to Europa, but the most efficient course is a slingshot by Venus, and then a second by Earth. Since this will take several years, the crew of two are put into hibernation. But then the spacecraft is hit by a micrometeoroid en route to Venus, which wakes up one astronaut and kills the other. So the surviving astronaut has to stay awake, and sane, during the remaining weeks of the trip from Venus back to Earth. As does the viewer. Because once the accident is over, the only drama remaining centres on the continued sanity of the surviving astronaut. And his coping mechanisms. And that’s neither dramatic not interesting enough to fill 85 minutes. I’m a sucker for space movies, but so many of them look better on paper than they do realised on the silver screen. Usually because the story isn’t really fit for 90 minutes. But I’ll keep on watching them, in the hope I find a good one.

far_pavilionsThe Far Pavilions (1984, UK). As far as I remember, I read MM Kaye’s novel The Far Pavilions one Christmas or Easter holiday while staying in the Middle East with my parents because there was nothing else to read. It was not my usual choice of book. But I really liked it – so much so, I went on to read Kaye’s other historical novels and, years later, tracked down copies of her crime novels. A later reread of The Far Pavilions reminded me why I had loved it so much the first time I read it. So I was keen to see the television adaptation… and so I did, within a year of two of its release. But I also remember being disappointed with the adaptation, but despite that I was pleased when I stumbled across a DVD of The Far Pavilions in a charity shop for 99p (as indeed were the rest of the family, who’ll be borrowing it from me). The story is simple enough. An English boy, Ash, survives the Indian Mutiny and successfully masquerades as the son of his Indian nurse until the age of eleven. At which age, he makes himself known at the Corp of Guides garrison in Mardan in North-West India. He is sent off to England to be educated, and to grow up, as a proper Englishman, and then returns to India on his majority to take up a place as an officer in the Corps of Guides. The book makes much of Ash’s childhood as Ashok, but the TV series leaves it as off-screen back-history. Which means that Ash’s ability to pass as a “native” (Urdu-speaker? Pushtu-speaker?) has to be taken as dramatic licence in the TV series – especially since all the dialogue is in English and there are no indicators the characters have changed language. (Actually speaking, say,  Urdu, and having English subtitles would be unacceptable on UK and US television in 1984, more’s the pity.) Ash was best friends with a young princess when a kid, but now he’s a pukka sahib he ends up meeting her, only she’s being married off to a nasty piece of work and he has to escort her to her wedding. They reconnect, are horrified by her future, but both have roles to play. There’s some fine landscape in The Far Pavilions, and some good dramatic moments, but the casting is iffy at best. Ben Cross never really convinces as Ashok, a blacked-up Amy Irving makes a poor Anjuli, and Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee as Pathans is just taking the piss. The storming of the Residence in Kabul is effectively staged, and the pomp and circumstance during the princesses’ trip south, and subsequent marriage, looks good. But the miniseries never matches up to the book – which I really must reread one of these days – and, thirty-two years later, feels like a too-thin adaptation that traded on a low-grade celebrity cast and Indian scenery. True, it was the first miniseries HBO were ever involved in, so early days for the format (and kudos to them for actually going to India to film it), but I’d really liked the novel and had hoped to like this just as much.

vagabondVagabond*, Agnès Varda (1985, France). The film opens with the discovery by a vineyard worker of a young woman dead in a ditch, from what appears to be exposure. From the voiceover, it appears this might be a documentary, and a series of interviews with those involved in finding the body, and the authorities and emergency services who turn up, only increases the documentary feel. But then Vagabond abruptly shifts back in time to the earliest appearance of the young woman the narrator admits she has uncovered… and the moves forward with a combination of dramatisation of the young woman’s life – she is a drop-out, travelling about France with a tent on her back and picking up casual jobs to pay for food – and interviews with those she interacted with along the way. Vagabond doesn’t blend fiction and fact as it’s entirely fctional, but it does blend the typical modes of presentation of fiction and fact. In itself, the story isn’t all that interesting – in attempting to track back the young woman’s life and discover who she was, the narrator, and so the viewer, discovers she was perfectly ordinary. She admits at one point to having been a well-paid secretary in Paris, but decided she had had enough of that life and so took to the road. The people she meets are perfectly ordinary, lending yet more of a documentary feel to the film. The only other Varda film films I’d seen prior to this were Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, which I thought okay, and Cleo from 5 to 7, which I loved. Vagabond I thought good. So I really should add me some more Varda to my rental list. Happily, there are two box sets of four of her films each available in the UK.

masterpieces_1Camouflage, Krzysztof Zanussi (1977, Poland). I had a moment of weirdness when watching this when I realised that one of the characters had an English accent when speaking Polish. I don’t speak Polish… but I’ve apparently heard enough of it in films to to recognise some Polish words being pronounced with an English accent. Weird. It turned out the actress was bi-lingual, but brought up in the UK, and in this film was playing a Polish-speaking Brit. She is one of several students at a university summer camp. She is also having an affair with one of the lecturers. And that lecturer is one of the young ones, who has different ideas to how students should be treated than the older lecturers. This comes to a head over the summer camp’s competition, in which each student stands up before the class and gives a a talk on a topic. (The summer camp is specifically for students studying linguistics, incidentally.) The young lecturer favours one student to take the prize, one of the older lecturers disagrees. It causes problems. To be honest, I thought the talk the young lecturer felt deserved the price, or at least what little of it appeared in the film, based on a fallacy and not especially good. But never mind. Camouflage is another one of those television dramas writ large that the Poles did so well in the 1970s. It doesn’t feel like a feature film but an entire series edited together and, in hindsight, I have to wonder if this is because these films take the time to build their characters. They don’t create ones that fall neatly into well-known types. The Polish-speaking English actress mentioned earlier is a good example. Why have someone like her in the film? Her background doesn’t impact the story, is not relevant to the resolution. But the fact she exists makes every character in the film feel more rounded. And when the story revolves around the conflict between two lecturers, of different generations and sensibilities, then well-drawn characters are a must. Camouflage also looks wonderfully 1970s. Not the horribly over-egged 1970s of twenty-first-century attempts at recreating the 1970s, like American Hustle, but the real 1970s, with daft pointy collars, tank tops, and shirts and ties and jackets in different unaplatable shades of brown. A good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 855


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Moving pictures 2017, #12

More movies from around the world. Two were from the first of the three Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets I bought (I can’t find these box sets for sale anywhere online, so I’ve linked the title to website promoting the original Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema‘s tour of, er, cinemas.)

beijing_bikeBeijing Bicycle, Wang Xiaoshuai (2001, China). As a fan of both Jia Zhangke and Zhao Liang, I was keen to see more films by modern Chinese directors, and Wang Xiaoshuai’s name cropped up as another of the “Sixth Generation”, which includes Jia. So I stuck one of his films on my rental list… Having cottoned onto Wang through Jia and Zhao, the director this film most reminds me of is Hou Hsiao Hsien, who is Taiwanese, although it does have the documentary feel Jia manages to give his films. Four teenagers from the provinces land a job at a bicycle courier company. They are each given a new mountain bike, the cost of which is taken out of their wages for the first six months. One of them is a week or two away from paying for his bike when it is stolen. So he fails to deliver the package that had been given to him – there’s an excellent sequence in which he turns up to a posh spa and gives the name of his contact, only for the brainless receptionist to assume he means a guest of the same name, and so he has to have a shower to enter the spa and afterwards is told he must pay for the shower – and is subsequently fired. He vows to find his stolen bike, and the company manager tells him that if he does, then he can have his job back. And he finds it. It had been sold to a schoolboy who fancies a girl in his class and has been accompanying her on her ride to school (but he stole the money from his parents to buy the bike). Unfortunately, the rest of the story rests on a fallacy – that the purchaser of stolen property owns the stolen property because they bought it in good faith. The moment the courier turned up and identified his bike, the schoolboy should have handed it over and demanded his 500 yuan back from the person who’d sold him the bike. But these are schoolkids, I suppose, and allowed to get it wrong – so wrong, in fact, that the courier and the schoolboy end up agreeing to use the bike on alternate days, the one so he can keep his job, the other so he can get closer to the girl he fancies. Who has already started going out with someone else anyway. This is not a cheerful film. (Does China even make cheerful films these days?) But it is a good one.

gods_egyptGods of Egypt, Alex Proyas (2016, USA). I knew this was going to be complete nonsense – I remember when the film was released last year, and what people were saying about it. But it was a Saturday night, I had a bottle of wine, and it couldn’t be that bad, could it, surely? Um, yes. Worse, in fact. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the whitecasting (especially since it’s equally troubling in the film following, although that at least has a more understandable excuse). So, skipping over the fact the film has a pretty much uniformly white cast playing the actual gods of Ancient Egypt from, er, Egypt, in North Africa… Even ignoring such a colossal failure, Gods of Egypt fails in so many other ways. For a start, it takes that mythology and turns it into a fantasy film. True, there is, as far as I know, no organised church of Isis, Horus, etc, to take religious offence at this appropriation; and Hollywood has done pretty much the same for Greek mythology since someone hand-cranked a camera in California for the first time. But neither past custom nor lack of a lobby group makes it acceptable in this day and age. And, as well as all that, Gods of Egypt is just, well, a shit film. The acting is terrible, the plot is nonsense, the production design looks wholly generic, and who really gives a shit about a bunch of super-powerful over-entitled people and their abuse of the population they rule? It might have flown forty years ago, but not now. Okay, so the way they made the gods all bigger than actual people was sort of cool… for about five minutes. But, to be honest, the entire film you just wanted them to put themselves out of your misery. Not only did Gods of Egypt make any random MCU movie look good, it also made it look positively left-wing. Avoid.

masterpieces_1Pharaoh, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1966, Poland). And from the ridiculous to the sublime. Well, not quite. But it was obviously perversity which made me put on another film about Ancient Egypt immediately after sitting through Gods of Egypt. Pharaoh, however, is an earnest historical drama, shot in the Uzbekistani desert with a blacked-up cast. A cast – and that’s pretty much all the speaking parts – in dark skin make-up so they resemble Ancient Egyptians is never going to be acceptable… although this movie was made fifty years ago and is Polish-language. Suitable Polish-speaking actors were likely impossible to find (in which case, the best answer: make a different film), but we have what we have. Fifty years ago, Kawalerowicz went ahead and made Pharaoh. And, to be fair to him, he made more of an effort at verisimilitude under much more constrained circumstances, than Hollywood ever did. As it is, Pharaoh is pure historical epic but, despite opening with a huge battle sequence, still feels somehow small-scale. Perhaps it’s because the two main exterior locations, the palace and the temple, appear to exist in an empty desert wasteland. I don’t recall seeing a city, or even a camp for the slaves working on the various monuments. The story centres on the power struggle between a pharaoh and his priests, with lots of intense scenes set in darkened chambers in either building. I’m not entirely sure what to make of Pharaoh – it’s well-made, although its sensibilities are no longer acceptable, but in many ways it’s a good old-fashioned Sunday afternoon movie. It’s worth noting, however, that DI Factory have done a lovely job with this Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box set. The packaging looks great, and the restored film’s transfer looks excellent. Happily, I have seven films in this box set yet to watch, and another two box sets in the series as well.

francofoniaFrancofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). There is a Curzon cinema here in Sheffield but, for reasons best known to themselves, Curzon chose to screen Francofonia only at their Bloomsbury and Soho cinemas, and not in a city which has an annual documentary film festival. Bastards. So I had to wait for the Blu-ray. I’d first heard about Francofonia some three years ago, and had expected it to appear in 2015. I had also been expecting something in a similar vein to Russian Ark, only this time about French history and the Louvre, albeit mostly focusing on the Nazi occupation of Paris. But I should have known better. Because Francofonia is actually closer to Sokurov’s “elegy” documentaries, especially Elegy of a Voyage, as well as bafflingly meta-fictional, like Mournful Unconcern (which was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House and features documentary footage of Shaw himself), not to mention Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, in which Sokurov discusses the writer’s oeuvre and then interviews him on several occasions (including during a walk through some woods near Solzhenitsyn’s home). It’s not that Francofonia distils Sokurov’s career, more that it feels like a film that makes use of more of the techniques he has employed in other films than any other. Part of Francofonia is a dramatic reconstruction of the Germans taking over the Louvre, part is a history of the Louvre and of its director at that time. Another part is Sokurov himself trying to hold a video conversation with an agent aboard a ship in mid-Atlantic, during a severe storm, about a container of items destined for the museum and which might be lost. Every now and again, Luftwaffe planes fly over Paris. There is also archive footage of Hitler arriving in Paris. Sokurov is, in many respects, a product of his career. Early documentaries stitched together from archive footage led to his ability to build narratives from snippets of historical film, as well as provide a philosophical voiceover to pin it all together; his early problems with the authorities rejecting his films led to a more elliptical way of making his points; and his often precarious funding resulted in him having to edit a finished product together out of an unfinished project, so much so the enigmatic narratives were often more pragmatic than deliberate. Add to that a tendency to lard his films with references to literature and art – such as Dostoevsky in Whispering Pages, Caspar David Friedrich in Moloch – to an extent that sometimes the reference overwhelms its role in the narrative. This is, after all, the director whose first episode of a five-episode series about soldiers in Afghanistan consists entirely of a filmed snowscape while a voiceover discusses the life and career of Mozart. Francofonia, more than any other film I’ve seen by Sokurov, including Russian Ark, shows the advantages of modern film-making technology. It is a gorgeous piece of work and seamlessly assembled. It probably looked fantastic on a cinema screen. (Bastards.) But it also showcases Sokurov’s genius to an extent I’d not previously witnessed – the things I love his work for? They’re all in here. I’d always thought it a crime Sokurov was best-known for the technical achievement of Russian Ark, ie, a single take of 99 minutes; but with Francofonia I think his genius might become more widely known for what it truly is. I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s work for many years and have most – but not quite all – of the feature films and documentaries he has made. I consider him the most interesting film-maker currently alive, and I’m hugely glad that not only is Francofonia seemingly doing well but also that is so much more emblematic of his work than I’d expected. It is an astonishing piece of work, go see it.

eleneaElena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia). I’ve now seen all four of Zvyagintsev’s films (a fifth is due for release this year), and I think I rate Elena second-best after The Return. The title refers to the working-class wife of a rich Muscovite. They met when he was in hospital and she was a nurse. The husband has a daughter by his dead first wife, Elena has an unemployed brother with a growing family. Elena wants to provide for here relatives, who live in a tiny flat in a block in a Moscow suburb, but her husband refuses to fund her brother’s indolence. Then the husband has a heart attack while swimming, and is once again in hospital. When he returns to their penthouse flat, Elena nurses him… but when he reveals he is going to write a will in which his daughter gets everything and Elena only an annual allowance, she poisons him. Since he died intestate, she gets half of everything. Zvyagintsev typically takes his tme over telling his stories, and Elena is no exception. The first five or so minutes of the film are a silent tracking shot through the penthouse. And then, the introduction of the couple”s domestic life takes another thirty or so minutes before the dramatic tension which is at the heart of the story is revealed. If you like your 5-second jump-cuts, this is not the film for you – indeed, Zvyagintsev’s oeuvre is not for you. But well-drawn character studies with an eye for detail and insight? Then he mostly definitely is. All of Zvyagintsev’s films are worth seeing.

masterpieces_1Provincial Actors, Agnieska Holland (1979, Poland). I’ve seen Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), and thought it very good, so I was not expecting to be disappointed by Provincial Actors (AKA Aktorzy prowincjonalni), an earlier film. The title is an apt description of its story. A provincial theatre is putting on an important play, but the director is “modern” and some of his artistic decisions don’t sit well with the cast, especially the older members who have been in productions of the play before. I will admit I know nothing about the play – ‘Liberation‘ by Stanisław Wyspiański from 1903 (he appears to have been an impressively accomplished Renaissance man) – but it is clear it’s an important play in Polish theatre. I think where Provincial Actors really works is that it’s not entirely about the play and the young director’s re-interpretation of it – this is no Peter Pan Goes Wrong – but that the lives of the actors, and the history they have together, is just as important. There’s an astonishing moment set in the apartment of one member of the cast, who is ironing a dress when a body plummets past the window behind her. It is another member of the cast. There are external factors to the play which explain, and determine, how the various members of the cast behave, and their attitude to the play and its direction. It’s an accomplished piece of ensemble acting, shot with that sort of television docudrama conviction that Polish films of the 1970s and 1980s seem to do so well. I’d like to see more films by Holland. Happily, she has made a lot; not so happily, I don’t think all that many of her early works are available in the UK…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 853