A few more US films than usual in this post, although one was a Disney, one an independent film, and the last a silent movie from the 1920s.
Peter Pan, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1953, USA). Look at that face on the DVD cover – doesn’t he look, well, a bit evil? I thought all the way through this Disney adaptation that Peter Pan looked impish, but more in the sense of a small devil than a prankster kid. I get that he’s completely immature and thoughtless – it’s there in every word he says and everything he does – but I’d never thought of him as a villain, or even an antihero. And yet, that’s how he’s characterised in Disney’s adaptation – not as a boy who didn’t grow up, though I suspect that’s a characterisation beyond Disney’s writers, and I say that as a boy who never grew up in some senses myself – hey, I read science fiction! – but Peter Pan as an evil force is a complete misrepresentation of the character. Although not altogether uninteresting, and the fact the Darlings are so ordinary and drawn so much like other ordinary families in Disney – comical dad, doting mother, responsible older sister – the whole thing feels like a bad mishmash of two or more movies. Peter Pan is, like many Disney classics, also a pantomime, with the title character played by a woman. As too is Tinkerbell (I forget who the dames are in pantomime Peter Pan), and who has become something of a Disney icon herself, with people cosplaying her just as much as they do all the Disney princess characters and, I think (although I’m not about to investigate), a whole line of Tinkerbell straight-to-DVD animated adventures. And yet Wendy Darling is clearly the most important, and best-drawn, character in the film, and probably the source text too – her invented name did, after all, become popular enough to be considered an ordinary name these days – but then Pan and Tinkerbell are all about the fantasy and Wendy is about making sense of it and who would be interested in that? I’d expected more of Disney’s Peter Pan. I certainly hadn’t expected to take against Pan himself because he looked so bloody evil. I don’t think this one will make my top ten of Disney films…
Springtime in a Small Town, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2002, China). This is a remake of the 1948 classic by Mu Fei, which is a film I very much like. And it’s always odd watching a remake of a film you admire because it makes you wonder why you admire the original film. And in this case… I’ve no idea. This remake is pretty close to the original, but what I like about Mu Fei’s version doesn’t really seem to exist here. I think the reason the original works is because it’s an historical film, made and set during the 1940s, whereas Springtime in a Small Town is set during an historical period but is a contemporary film. The story is the same – a woman’s old boyfriend, now a doctor, comes to visit and to succour to the woman’s ailing husband, and their old love is rekindled, but never quite requited. The mannered nature of Mu Fei’s version fits brilliantly with the material – not for nothing is it considered one of China’s greatest films – but the same approach feels somewhat artificial in Tian’s remake. It’s a valiant effort, and certainly should have been attempted – it’s only when we attempt to recreate great works of the past that we come to truly appreciate them – but I suspect Springtime in a Small Town was always going to be an also-ran. That’s not always the case, of course: there have been remakes which eclipsed the original, such as Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. Mu Fei’s original is a bona fide classic of Chinese cinema, but Tian’s remake is a bold attempt at recapturing it, which doesn’t quite make the grade. It’s a good film despite that, and had I seen it first I might well hold it in higher esteem. Worth seeing, but watch the original first.
David Holzman’s Diary*, Jim McBride (1967, USA). After making this film, McBride went on to make a raft of commercially-successful films for studios. In other words, he totally sold out. You have to wonder why. Because while David Holzman’s Diary has its faults – it’s pretty boring, for a start – it also has a great deal of originality. A young New Yorker decides to film his life, and is very forthright about how, and with what equipment, he plans to do so. But his girlfriend is none too happy with his decision, and throughout the film their relationship deteriorates quite badly. For most of its length, David Holzman’s Diary manages to convince with its premise, but there are times when its staged nature is a little too obvious – and it is, perversely, when it’s at its most cinema verité that it feels most fake. There’s a scene with a “goddess of the street” that feels both very real and also really staged, more because it feels like “Holzman” is forcing an encounter for the sake of his film where none would normally exist. I can see why David Holzman’s Diary made it onto the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I suspect history has been less than kind to it, and will continue to be less kind to it as the years pass, than the list has supposed.
It’s All About Love, Thomas Vinterberg (2003, Denmark). Vinterberg’s Festen is the first official Dogme film and it is a bona fide classic. Which makes It’s All About Love, with its incredibly bland and uninteresting title, even more of a mystery. It has huge ambition, and I admire it for that. But it fails at pretty much everything, which is not totally a deal-breaker… but its interesting bits don’t quite add up to an interesting whole, which is a deal-breaker. Joaquin Phoenux and Claire Danes play a pair of Poles – she is a world-famous figure skater, he is married to her but their relationship has long since soured and now he’s stopping off in New York on the way to a new job in Canada in order to get her to sign divorce papers. But Danes is surrounded by a group of frankly creepy hangers-on and managers… Phoenix is given the run-around, but he’s not sure why – and it doesn’t help when his elder brother, played by Sean Penn, phones in randomly from several other scenes. It transpires Danes’s managers have hired four Russian ice skaters, and had them surgically altered to resemble Danes so they can take over her career, allowing her to retire, with, it’s proposed, Phoenix, as their relationship seems to have rekindled. But then there’s a slaughter on the ice, but the real Danes escapes, and she and Phoenix fly off to Russia and end up somewhere really cold where she dies of exposure. As I said before, It’s All About Love is all about ambition. The world is not our own, and there are thunking great clues dropped throughout the film – the resolution, in part, depends on the world Vinterberg has created. Sadly, none of it really convinces. The small details ought to, but the whole edifice teeters so much on the edge of disbelief that none of it helps. Festen is a great film, and I wanted to like It’s All About Love but, to be honest, it doesn’t even qualify as a noble failure, it’s just a failure.
El Desenlace, Juan Pinzás (2005, Spain). The Spanish do erotic thrillers really well, but I’m not convinced this falls into that description, despite being pretty much exclusively about sex. A director of a film, his producer (who is also his mistress), and the writer of the source novel, along with a prying journalist, all meet in Galicia to discuss the upcoming adaptation. El Desenlace has been promoted as a Dogme film, and it’s certainly shot on digital video with unflattering lighting, although it’s no Festen. Much of the film consists of the director character winding up the writer character over his choice of sexual partner – specifically a transgender cabaret artist who appears at a local nightclub. Which is where things get complicated – because the director’s producer promises the cabaret artist a major career, while the cabaret artist has also decided it’s time to drop the writer sugar daddy. I can certainly understand why El Desenlace is touted as a Dogme film, but it’s also a very talky film – the entire plot is carried in dialogue – and for all its arguments, and its reliance of a central cast of four – five, including the cabaret artist – it doesn’t do a great deal with the material it has. Disappointing.
The Big Parade*, King Vidor (1925, USA). There’s always something slighlt risible about US films set during WWI. It was called the Great War, and The War to End All Wars, at the time, and World War 1 later, but the US calls it the 1917-18 War and likes to pretend it contributed – when it was only there for the last year and suffered only a tiny fraction of the damage suffered by European nations. So a film about the 1917-18 War from a major Hollywood studio, less than a decade after the war finished, is just adding fucking insult to injury. John Gilbert plays the playboy son a of a mill owner who signs up and discovers the horrors of war for himself. There is so much that is wrong with this film – it glorifies the US’s piss-poor contribution ot WW1, and it legitimises the existence of over-privileged nitwits like Gilbert’s character. Yet it all makes for top-notch Hollywood drama of its time. Vidor was no amateur, he knew his stuff. This is a silent film, and it had the full resources of Hollywood behind it. Some of the long shots, with the casts of hundreds, if not thousands, are impressive. But, please, stop valourising the rich, stop pretending the US won all the world wars, and stop fucking pretending you’re anything but a socially backward nation with access to relatively high technology. The Big Parade‘s position on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is dubious at best, although on balance I’m currently tempted to let it remain.
1001 Movies You Musrt See Before You Die count: 862