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.
California 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.
Aloys, 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.
Jump (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.
Three 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.
A 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.
Blackboards, 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