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Moving pictures 2017, #42

More hop-skip-and-jumping about the world through movies, including my first Mongolian one.  Only a single film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, however, and it’s a Hollywood one, albeit from the 1940s. Noir, too.

Three Strange Loves, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). This is the second of a batch of Bergman DVDs I bought recently. It is, like many, perhaps most, of Bergman’s films, about marriage. In this one, Rut and Bertil are heading back to Sweden by train after visiting Italy. There are lots of flashbacks, recalling Rut’s affair with an army officer, who is probably the only character in a Bergman film to boast a moustache, and Bertil’s affair with a widow. The army officer forces Rut to have an abortion; the widow is in thrall to a sadistic psychiatrist, and then commits suicide. Perhaps Bermgan should have titled this one To Joy as well. Eventually, Bertil kills Rut during a fight… but it was only a dream. Scared by the dream, the two decide to try and save their marriage. I don’t actually remember much from this film – it was over a week ago I watched it – except one scene where Bertil and Rut’s train pulls into a station, and the train in the next track is travelling from Sweden, and the couple in the compartment alongside theirs is… the military officer and his wife. Which is just a little too coincidental to be believable. The film’s original title is Törst, which means “thirst”. Three Strange Loves, on the other hand, is a weirdly literal title, something for which Bergman’s films are, frankly, not known.

Joy, Chinguun Balkhjav (2016, Mongolia). I found this on Amazon Prime, which has, to be fair, on rare occasions thrown up some excellent new films from out-of-the-way places. Despite having found Ingmar Bergman’s To Joy (see here) far from joyful, I thought it worth chancing a movie with “joy” in the title – as the title, in fact – because I wanted to watch a film from Mongolia… And, what a surprise, it proved to be a complete downer as well. The film opens in the present, with a young woman called Az deciding it is time to return to her home village to lay some ghosts. The film slips in and out of the present and Az’s childhood, as it tells her story. Her father and mother were very happy, but then her mother died giving birth to her younger sister. Her father goes into business with a friend, selling local dairy products in the nearest town (which is several hours away from the village). But then he’s killed in an accident on a return trip. The family helping to look after the two young daughters delay telling Az, so she runs away to the town with her sister, to look for her father. While wandering around, they’re taken in by a man, who feeds them and puts them up – but Az leaves her sister in his care, while she continues to search. When she returns days later, the man has gone, and Az’s sister with him… (There’s nothing iffy here, he was simply being kind-hearted but knew nothing about the kids, as Az had not given her, or her sister’s, name.) Joy somehow manages to claw back a happy ending, which is quite an achievement given the litany of woe preceding it. Nevertheless, worth seeing.

The Postman Always Rings Twice*, Tay Garnett (1946, USA). This is another of the classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it more deserving of its place than the last one I watched, Kiss Me Deadly (see here). John Garfield plays a drifter who ends up at a diner on the outskirts of LA, working as a short-order cook – not because he wants to settle down, or because the job is especially well-paid, but because the owner’s much younger wife is Lana Turner. It doesn’t take long before the two are doing the rumpy-pumpy behind the husband’s back. Garfield persuades Turner to run away with him, but they don’t get very far. So they plot to kill the husband – which becomes urgent when the husband reveals he is going to sell the diner, and move to northern Canada to look after his paralysed sister. Unfortunately, the lovers’ first attempt – knocking the husband out when he’s having a shower, fails after a cat jumps on exposed wiring and shorts the electricity (probably the least plausible bit of the entire film). A later attempt, faking a car accident by pushing the car over a cliff, does the trick. The local DA suspects the two of murder, but cannot prove it. Shortly afterwards, Garfield and Turner are in  a car accident (not a staged one). Garfield survives; Turner doesn’t. And he’s promptly charged, and found guilty, of her murder. The film ends with him on Death Row, which is where the title comes in – and it’s a pretty tenuous justification for it, but never mind. I quite liked this one. The two leads were good, the plot did not rely on people behaving weirdly or unbelievable coincidences, and the whole was told with an economy that many films would do well to emulate.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach (2006, Ireland). It’s a toss-up which was more entertaining: this film, or the reviews of it I looked at afterwards. Because The Wind that Shakes the Barley is about the the Irish War of Independence, and the English behaved like monsters during it. And it’s a Ken Loach film, and only an idiot would watch a Loach film not expecting it to take a political position. Which led to a lot of complaints the film was “anti-Brit”. Which means, what exactly? “My country, right or wrong”? Because that’s pernicious bullshit. Especially given the current foolishness about the British Empire – no, it was not a good thing, it pillaged and subjugated sovereign nations and that is never defensible; and no, it won’t suddenly spring into being in some woke form post-Brexit, not that those who think the empire was a good thing even fucking know what “woke” means, or even how to be progessive… But that’s a rant for another day. The Wind that Shakes the Barley follows two brothers, but mainly the one played by Cilian Murphy, who join the Irish Republican Army and end up fighting the Black and Tans and the Auxies, both of which groups, composed of WWI veterans desperate for work recruited in mainland UK, committed a series of atrocities against Irish civilians throughout the war. None of this is defensible – not their actions, nor their aim. So if the film comes across as anti-Brit, it’s perfectly justified. True, the film shows the war from the point of view of those who fought it, and suffered most during it, and the politicians behind the scenes were trying to desperately hard to reach a peaceful solution that kept most people happy. Well, except perhaps for Winston Churchill, who is such a hero in the UK he’s on the new £5 note, and yet he invented the Black and Tans, and many of his decisions throughout his career would have branded him a war criminal had they taken place in later decades of the twentieth century. Plus, he was establishment through and through. But, The Wind that Shakes the Barley… not the best Loach film I’ve seen so far – I thought Land and Freedom better, to be honest – but still worth seeing. Especially by people who think the British Empire was a good thing.

The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel (2008, Argentina). And here’s another film that many critics apparently had trouble with. The plot is relatively straightforward. A woman driving home from a friend’s hits something with her car. She stops, but doesn’t go and see what it was, seemingly in shock. Instead, she drives to hospital and has herself X-rayed. She spends a night in a nearby hotel. Then she carries on with her life as if nothing had happened. Her husband tries to persuade she must have run over a dog, but she suspects it may have been a child. Later, she visits the hospital, but they have no record of her being X-rayed. Nor does the hotel have her name down as a guest. There is no link between her and whatever happened on the road. However, what makes this film interesting, and which apparently turned off some critics, is that Martel chose not to film it as a fast-paced thriller, but as a slow, mostly plotless, drama, focusing chiefly on the main character’s daily life, with a small mystery wrapped around it. I actually think this approach made it a better movie. It made the opening incident more of a mystery, and the fact it was left unresolved only made it more interesting. The resolutely domestic focus of the film also made its mystery more intriguing. A good film, worth seeing.

Mai Mai Miracle, Sunao Katabuchi (2009, Japan). I pulled this out of the rental envelope, took one look at it, and immediately texted David Tallerman to ask if he’d stuck it on my rental list the last time we were at the pub. Because, while I like anime, I prefer the more realistic style, and the cartoon-ish-looking kids on the cover art of this DVD would not have prompted me to add it to my list myself. And then the film opened with a young girl in a field trying to imagine what the countryside looked like a thousand years before as her grandfather describes it to her, with that sort of over-compensating US schoolkid voice-over that cheerily and breezily explains the girl’s situation anf family… Oh, and the music on the soundtrack was really irritating… So I wasn’t all that impressed. But as I watched it, I found it growing on me. The central conceit – the little girl, Shinko, can see the past, ie, the area as it was 1000 years before, when it was the site of the capital of the province of Suō – didn’t really appeal, but once the film began to focus on Shinko’s friends, and her adventures with them, such as Kiiko, the new girl who’d just moved from the city, or the pond Shinko and her friends build for a goldfish… well, then, things started to really improve. David later admitted he’d thought I might enjoy the film because it resembled Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday, which is probably my favourite Ghibli… And yes, there are resemblances. But the things I like about Only Yesterday aren’t in Mai Mai Miracle, so it’s no surprise it took me a while to get into the film. There’s an earnestness to it that I find a bit off-putting, a sort of pushiness to the childhood it depicts… but that disappears within the first half hour and, if anything, the film gets pretty grim toward the end. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 877

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Moving pictures 2017, #41

It has occurred to me I should perhaps start a separate blogs for films, but then this blog would be be tumbleweeds all the time, so I don’t think I will. For the time-being, it’s likely to be mostly movies, but as the year progresses I’m hoping that will change. Meanwhile, more, er, films…

Gimme Shelter*, Albert & David Maylses (1970, USA). There’s that meme, back before the days of internet memes, and it asks: Asterix or Tintin? Dogs or cats? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? As if it’s a handy way to categorise people… For the record, I prefer Tintin to Asterix, cats to dogs… and I’m not really a fan of either The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But Gimme Shelter is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so watch it I must… The Maylses’s schtick was that they just filmed stuff, edited it, and then presented it without commentary (totally disingenuously, of course, as the editing itself created narrative out of the raw footage and so implied commentary). Gimme Shelter plays at fly-on-the-wall, and was originally intended to be simply a documentary in the putting together of a free concert. But the murder at Altamont during the Stones’ set obviously bent that out of shape, and so Gimme Shelter becomes a documentary about that, created from footage shot for other reasons. The end result is a powerful and interesting documentary, but also a somewhat disingenuous one, so much so it makes you wonder about the “truth” of all documentaries. To be fair, documentaries suffer from having to impose narrative on topics that have no natural narrative (narrative is an instrument of bias, by definition; a story teller chooses the story they tell), but in this particular case, the post-facto narrative proved more compelling than that which had prompted the project in the first place. Which is not to say that Gimme Shelter is a bad film, it’s a good one, but it does misrepresent itself… and indeed misrepresents the event it ostensibly documents. There is truth, there are documentaries that strive for truth, and there are documentaries that, well, appear on lists like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die… I enjoyed Gimme Shelter, despite not liking the music of the Rolling Stones, but it’s more an entertaining film than it is a valid witness to the events of the time it depicts.

A Short Film About Killing, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1988, Poland). Kieślowski is an excellent entry point to cinephilia. There, I said it. But he’s also the “director’s director” most cinephiles have moved on from, and his work, to them, to us, seems in hindsight somewhat middle-brow. He was undoubtedly an excellent film-maker, and his notorious perfectionism is evident in every frame of every work that bears his name. But his mix of stark realism and whimsical fantasy has not aged especially well, and for all the beauty of his framing, and the excellence of the performances he elicited from his casts, it all these days seems a bit past-it. Which is doubly unfair, when applied to A Short Film About Killing, which is entirely realist, but also shot entirely in a way that emphasises its realism. And which, sadly, ultimately undoes its intent. The story is simple: a listless drifter brutally murders a taxi-cab driver, is caught, tried, sentenced to death and hanged. That’s it. Kieślowski dwells on the murder, showing it as a brutal, drawn-out affair, as if it bolster the credentials of his villain – and it’s true that an argument against capital punishment needs to show an acceptable victim because it would otherwise be compromised… But to then display the moral scaffolding put in place to justify capital punishment by those who execute it does undermine the argument. True, it would be cowardice to have someone whose crime, or circumstance, might mitigate, or who might even be innocent – something most anti-capital punishment films seem to do. Kieślowski’s films is all the more powerful because the crime committed is so heinous. But he also shows that the system is fixed, reprieve is impossible, and the flat, affectless way the story unfolds fails to reinforce the logic of the film’s message because Kieślowski invests too much in the circumstances of his three main characters – the murderer, his victim, and the advocate who defends the murderer. He connects them. And that makes it personal – but the film’s argument against capital punishment remains impersonal. Kieślowski was once among my top ten directors, but he has since fallen from that list. I will almost certainly watch his films again some day, so I’m glad I own good copies. Speaking of which, the three Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema have proven an excellent purchase, and I’m really glad I took the plunge, even if they were quite expensive…

Sleep, My Love, Douglas Sirk (1948, USA). I can’t find UK DVD cover art for this, because it’s never been released on DVD here. The copy I watched was a legal out-of-copyright rip bought on eBay, of pretty good quality, way better than VHS, but by no means official. And, to be fair, it’s not a film that deserves all that much to be remembered. Sirk was one of several German, or Teutonophone, directors who had successful careers in Hollywood during the 1940s to 1960s, and his All That Heaven Allows is my all-time favourite film (and the so-called women’s melodramas he made during the late 1950s are among Hollywood’s best films), but for much of his career he churned out Hollywood potboilers… and this is one of them. It’s pretty much Gaslight by another name and with a slightly different plot. Claudette Colbert is an heiress married to a wastrel, Don Amerche, and Ameche has been using drugs and hypnosis to try and set her up to murder someone and so be sent to prison, allowing him, and his mistress, to abscond with her money. So he gaslights her, and when the murder plot fails, he tries to hypnotise her into jumping from her bedroom window. But that fails too… thanks to the lucky appearance of a China-based US businessman, Robert Cummings, on leave back home, whom befriends Colbert, and then becomes the love interest. Ameche and his co-conspirators are pretty inept, and only really get as far as they do because Colbert can’t see what’s going on (despite the gaslighting). Even then, it’s only because the conspirators fall out that their plot eventually falls apart. Not one of Sirk’s best; not even a good noir film, to be honest.

Two English Girls, François Truffaut (1971, France). I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I’m not really sure what to make of him. Some of his films I think are brilliant and I love them. Others, it’s hard to believe the same guy made them. True, no one loves all the films a particular director has made – I mean, no director is that good. Although one or two might come close. I love Sirk’s melodramas, for example, but his other films I find eminently forgettable. So, liking and admiring some of Truffaut films but not others, well, I’m unlikely to be alone in that. But to go from pretty much complete indifference to multiple watches of some of his movies, that’s not so common. Although I wonder if Two English Girls, AKA Anna & Muriel, a title that appears only on the Blu-ray packaging, which is a bit random, will be one of the latter. It’s a very Truffaut film, inasmuch as it’s seamlessly put together. But it’s also slightly odd in some respects. There are, for instance, a lot of long shots, and landscape shots, neither of which Truffaut normally uses. And there are the anachronisms. Two English Girls is a period piece set at the start of the twentieth-century and yet in one shot, quite deliberately, the two sisters are on the beach and plain on the horizon are – oil platforms? electricity pylons? I’m not sure. But whatever they are, they definitely didn’t exist in 1902. And in the opening scene, one of the young girls on the swing has quite visible orthodontic braces. And yet… the eponymous characters are well-drawn, and if Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the young Frenchman who becomes a de facto brother, and then lover of one, seems to act his role somewhat stiffly and with little visible emotion, his voice-over – text from the novel from which the film was adapted? – helps chart his character. It all felt very DH Lawrentian, which is no bad thing to my mind, but with an undercurrent of stiffness that is entirely foreign to Lawrence’s stories and prose… You know, I think Two English Girls might be one of the Truffauts I watch several times…

Endless Poetry, Alejandro Jodorowsky (2016, Chile). This film follows on directly from The Dance of Reality (see here), as it covers Jodorowsky’s early twenties, when he moved to Santiago and became part of a group of artists and poets. Jodorowsky is played one of his sons. Another son plays his father, as he did in the previous film,, which no doubt says all sorts of Freudian things, especially given that Jodorowsky himself makes several appearances, as himself, to give his young self advice– but what am I saying? Any Freudian who read any of Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées would probably wet themselves at the stuff he puts in them. Endless Poetry is, like the earlier film, a succession of incidents in Jodorowsky’s life, centred as it was at that time on poetry. But after his parents’ shop burns down, and they lose everything, Jodorowsky consults Nicanor Parra (an important Latin American poet, now 102 years old!), but dissatisfied with his advice, Jodorowosky decides to leave Chile for France, in order to “save surrealism”. Leading to one of the film’s most powerful scenes, where Jodorowsky’s father confronts him on the jetty, the two argue, and separate unreconciled… only for Jodorowsky himself to appear and have the two play out how, in hindsight, he wished the encounter had gone… which involves twentysomething Jodorowsky shaving his father’s beard and head, so he resembles one of the male/female characters which appear in several of his comics. Jodorowsky then steps onto a boat, which backs out to sea – although it’s obviously heading towards the camera but the film is running in reverse, and which seems an entirely fitting end to a pair of movies which have charted Jodorowsky’s beginnings, as a child and as a poet, while also recapitulating his entire career. I’ll admit I had previously considered Jodorowsky a director notable more for the weirdness of his vision than as a maker of good films. (And I’m a fan of his sf bandes dessinées too.) But The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry really are very good films, and it’s a shame Jodorowsky had to resort ot crowdfunding to finance them. Hopefully, he won’t need to for his next one. Perhaps he might even try making a sf film…

The Lesson, Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov (2014, Bulgaria). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental, and it looked worth watching. Which, happily, proved to be the case. A teacher in a town in Bulgaria translates documents on the side to make ends meet. Her husband has a camper van he is trying to sell, but he can’t get it working. One day, someone in her class steals some money, but no one will admit to the deed, or return the money when given the opportunity to do so anonymously. Then a repossession agent turns up at the teacher’s home and tells her they’re in arrears and the bank will auction off the house in three days – because the husband spent the mortgage payment money on a gearbox for his crappy caravanette. Then the translation company, which owes the teacher money, starts dragging its feet on paying her… and so she’s forced to go to a loan shark for the money to pay off the bank. (And then, after she’s made payment and returned to the school, the repossession agent rings to tell her he miscalculated and she owes a further 1.37 lev… which she has to borrow from a bus conductor on her way to the bank… but even that’s not enough because there’s a bank fee on top for the additional payment… and so she’s forced to scoop out coins from a good luck fountain.) At which point, the translation company declares bankruptcy, and the owner runs off with the money, so now the teacher can’t pay off the loan shark… The ending comes as no real surprise, but the build-up is cleverly done. Nor is the behaviour of the bankers and the loan shark all that much of a surprise, although they are disappointingly too much bastards. In fact, the teacher’s situation is pretty much created by the actions of total bastards – her husband, the owner of the translation company, the bank, the loan shark… Nevertheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 876


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Moving pictures 2017, #40

It’s odd how films drop into my viewing schedule – although “schedule” is far too strong a word – but… I watch a lot of rentals and, of course, I have a limited time to watch them (the longer it takes, the less rental discs I can get through in a month), whereas other films I own so I can watch them at any time… And yet only two of the below movies are actually rentals; the rest are films I’ve purchased. Also, we have the first Pasolini from the collection I bought… which makes him the second director, after Truffaut, who I’d seen previously (Truffaut in 2006, Pasolini in 2009) but had not been much bothered about, but in 2017 changed my mind sufficiently about their films to invest in a Blu-ray box set…

Kiss Me Deadly*, Robert Aldrich (1955, USA). This is one of a handful of classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’d always assumed I’d seen it before at some point, probably because the title is so iconic. But nothing in it seemed familiar as I watched it, so I guess not. Actually, that’s not strictly true, as the maguffin in Kiss Me Deadly inspired the plot of Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Ralph Meeker plays two-fisted gumshoe Mike Hammer (a character I know best from the Stacy Keach incarnation of the 1980s), who is out driving on a lonely country road one night when he gives a lift to a young woman wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. Thugs then force his car off the road, take the two prisoner, knock out Hammer, torture the woman, then stage a car crash. Hammer survives. Determined to uncover who the woman was, and why she was murdered, he follows a series of clues, which eventually lead him to a beach house owned by a mysterious scientist, and a suitcase containing some radioactive material… which results in the film’s infamous ending – the beach house going up in a nuclear explosion. To be honest, it was all a bit ridiculous. Hammer has always been paper-thin as a character, and though Meeker made him more of a brutal thug than the white knight he’s usually protrayed, it wasn’t enough to make him interesting. The Wikipedia page points out many of the Bunker Hill locations used in the film have since disappeared, but that seems a pretty thin reason for inclusion on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I suppose a certain notoriety has attached to the film, despite its daft premise and incomprehensible plotting, and I did enjoy it… But I’m not convinced it should be on the list.

Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). After watching the slog that was Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) – all 345 minutes of it! (see here) – I wasn’t expecting all that much of Privilege, and the fact it’s a late sixties docudrama and a musical…, well, that didn’t bode too well either. But I was surprised to discover I loved it. Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann at the time, plays Steven Shorter, the UK’s most popular celebrity. The film opens, with documentary-style voiceover narration, as Shorter is welcomed back to the UK with a ticker tape parade. The film uses the same semi-documentary format, with occasional songs, as it follows Shorter’s career as a political tool to appease the masses and, later, a messianic figure to encourage church attendance and obedience. It’s all set in a 1970s dystopian UK, and Watkins is not afraid to use the completely absurd to make his point – the filming of the apple commercial, for example, is absolutely bonkers. I was reminded, while watching Privilege, of V for Vendetta, which covers similar territory, but uses fascist iconography as its dystopian credentials. Privilege, however, looks like it’s set in the same world as that inhabited by its contemporary viewers. Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek, although played beautifully straight – but it does make its point far more bitingly and effectively than V for Vendetta. I want my own copy of Privilege now.

Colossus: The Forbin Project, Joseph Sargent (1970, USA). I hadn’t planned to buy this. I knew of the film, but had never seen it before, and when a brand new edition – the first since VHS, I think – appeared, I fancied seeing it and so put it on my rental list. But then it appeared in a recent Prime Day at a price of great cheapness, and so I sort of found myself sort of clicking on the buy button… A Blu-ray too. And… it’s sort of fun in that early 1970s earnest science fiction B-list sort of way – ie, a serious film the studios never expected anyone to take seriously, although it was made with serious intent. Much like Planet of the Apes. The title refers to a massive computer, supposedly heuristic, and probably more like an AI as sf understands the term, which is put in charge the US’s nuclear deterrent. with no human oversight, or possibility of human intervention. What could possibly go wrong? The film – based on a novel by forgotten Brit sf author DF Jones – avoids the obvious consequences of such hubristic foolishness. It transpires the USSR has only gone and done exactly the same thing. And Colossus and the Soviet AI, called Guardian, begin “talking” to each other – in the film’s most technologically cringe-inducing scene – then form a gestalt and, well, take over the world, ushering in a new age of computer-led fascism. In actual fact, Colossus: The Forbin Project feels like a better-made film than it probably deserves. I can’t quite figure out why. There are no A-listers in the cast, what few special effects the film possesses are adequate and very much of their time (although the Colossus CCTV reticule is quite prescient), and the multiple scenes with the president of the US feel a little soap-opera-ish… I think it’s because the film takes itself seriously and doesn’t talk down to its audience. Yes, there’s plenty of expository dialogue, but it’s well-anchored in the story, and it’s only really its datedness that embarrasses (the aforementioned scene aside). I felt kinder toward Colossus: The Forbin Project after it had finished than I did while watching it, and while I love the aesthetics of early 1970s near-future movies, I don’t think this one is ever going to be a favourite…

Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten, Miklós Jancsó (1999, Hungary). This is the first of six low-budget semi-improvised comedy films written and directed by Jancsó after a long break from film-making. The films star a pair of gravediggers called Pepe and Kapa, played by Péter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi. And, I admit, I’m not entirely sure what I watched. This is not an unknown consequence of watching a Miklós Jancsó film and, to be fair, it’s one of the reasons I like them so much. This movie (the title is a bit of a slog to type) opens with a group of men haring up in 4WDs, jumping out of them and then shooting some women and a man in a house. The action cuts to a cemetery, where Kapa and Pepe appear. They start chatting to two old men, Jancsó himself and Gyula Hernádi, the writer of many of Jancsó’s earlier films.  Kapa and Pepe, who wear insignialess blue uniforms, seem to spend most of the time arguing and insulting each other, in quite coarse language, often involving passers by in their disputes. Then there’s a funeral, followed by a wedding and… a new section starts, and now Kapa is a yuppie and Pepe is a policeman, but then he turns into a yuppie too, except Kapa can remember him being a cop and so is confused (he’s not the only one). The two gravediggers are not the only characters to re-appear, or change roles, as the victims of the opening shooting also turn up as Kapa’s family, but this time shot by his niece. Not that he seems overly bothered. And Jancsó and Hernádi turn up too, despite being killed earlier… And then Pepi is walking up the cable of a suspension bridge to the top of the tower, with nothing but a narrow handrail to either side (and it looks massively dangerous). Kapa joins him, and the two start to argue, and I had to look away as I suffer from vertigo and… well, I was lost. I don’t even know what the title – it translates as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest – means or refers to (Kapa, in the guise of a corporate raider, calls himself “the Lord’s Lantern” after being shot in the head and coming back to life). The style is very different to the other Jancsó films I’ve seen, with cuts and close-ups and zooms and pull-backs, rather than long tracking shots and dolly shots. The acting is also much more natural, far less stylised – in fact, it’s pretty much what you would expect of a contemporary film. It’s all sort of bewildering, but in a completely different way to a film such as Electra, My Love, since the two main characters are not fixed – indeed in that earlier film, the characters are more or less concretized in mythology – but drift through a series of stories, maintaining their own identity even though there’s no narrative link from one story to the next. Despite being baffled by it, I’m glad I bought it. I’ll be watching this again, I think. And I’m looking forward to watching the five sequels…

The Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1972, Italy). Pasolini was one of those directors whose name I ticked off after watching the films of theirs which had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But then earlier this year I watched his Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (see here), which proved far less gruesome than I’d expected (I’m extremely squeamish) and intriguing enough to persuade me Pasolini’s oeuvre was worth exploring further. So I stuck his Arabian Nights on my rental list, and a few weeks ago it duly arrived, I watched it (see here), and was much impressed. Enough to shell out for Six Films 1968 – 1975, a Blue-ray collection of, er, six films by Pasolini. And the first one, which I’d not seen, that I pulled from the box, was The Canterbury Tales. Annoyingly, I didn’t realise there was an English-language version of the film on the disc, so I ended up watching a film starring British actors dubbed into Italian with English subtitles. (Pasolini famously dubbed all his films into several languages.) And… I know of the source text, but I don’t know it, I’ve never read Chaucer. I don’t even know enough about it to judge Pasolini’s film as an adaptation. But I can judge it as a film and as a Pasolini film (based on the handful I’ve seen so far). In that respect, it clearly does everything Pasolini does, and it does them well. Perhaps the Chaplin pastiche/homage in ‘The Cook’s Tale’ is a bit too overt, and ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ does feel a bit too much like a 1970s British sex-comedy, although somewhat… earthier. I’ve also no idea where the film was shot – in the UK, certainly, judging by the cast, but all the locations certainly look the part.

You, the Living, Roy Andersson (2007, Sweden). This is a sequel to Songs from the Second Storey, which I watched just before travelling to Sweden because it was, well, Swedish, although all things considered that might not have been too smart as it was  weird as shit… But I sort of enjoyed Songs from the Second Storey (see here) and I sort of enjoyed this sequel. Although perhaps “enjoyed” is too strong a word. As is “sequel”. Neither film is easy to describe. They have no plot, but are basically a series of vignettes, strung together with occasional linking material. The comedy is blacker than that really black thing they made earlier this year – or was it last year? – that’s the blackest thing ever, and Andersson shoots everything in sombre hues, and puts his cast in pale face make-up, which makes everything look even more miserable. You, the Living is worth seeing, although it’s unlikely to raise a chuckle, but make sure you’re in a good mood when you sit down to watch it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 875


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Reading diary, #51

With a TBR in the low four figures, it’s reached the stage where I’ve owned books for decades without having got around to reading them. This is, quite obviously, pretty dumb. So for several years now I’ve been trying to plan my reading, making a list of the books I intend to tackle in the coming month… But then, of course, the new shiny drops through the letterbox, and sometimes its lure is a little too strong and so it supplants one, or more, of the books on the TBR… Which is certainly what happened twice in the half a dozen books below.

Her Pilgrim Soul, Alan Brennert (1990, USA). I picked this up at Kontur in Uppsala last month, and ended up reading it on the train from Manchester Airport after stupidly leaving the book I had been reading on the plane. To be honest, I’d not been enjoying that book – it was The Music of the Spheres, and the writing was pretty bad – so it was no great loss. I was annoyed, however, about losing the 100 Yugoslavian dinar note I’d been using as a bookmark. (Um, I see there’s one for sale on eBay, from a seller located not all that far from Manchester Airport – they’re asking £1.40, although the market price appears to be 99p…) To be honest, I thought I might have read Her Pilgrim Soul before, but on reflection I think I’ve read some of its contents before – likely in one or another of Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best SF anthologies, which I used to buy for many years. It’s a collection of well-crafted stories, a mix of science fiction and fantasy, most on the light side of either genre (but not the lighter side), and most not especially memorable. It’s been more than a month since Kontur, and I can remember very little about the contents of Her Pilgrim Soul. A good collection, I suppose, but in a way that has no lasting impact and leaves only a vague impression. Fiction, of course, should do more than that; but most manages much less.

The First Circle*, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1968, Russia). I suspect I like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer more than I like actually reading his writing. If that makes sense. I’d no real desire to read Solzhenitsyn until seeing Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (see here), and when I saw a copy of The First Circle, and immediately linked it to Sokurov’s The Second Circle, a favourite film, then I was suddenly keen to read Solzhenitsyn. And now I have read him – this book, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year (see here) – I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. True, I’m not reading him in the original Russian, so any infelicities in prose and style are more likely the fault of the translator, but… Well, the two books by Solzhenitsyn I’ve read so far are blackly comic works about the inhuman excesses of Stalin’s regime. And, well, I knew that, I knew Stalin was, and still is, the worst despot this planet has ever seen, responsible for a vast number of deaths, more perhaps than many historical epidemics. He killed more Russians in WWII, for example, than the Germans did. The First Circle, which is quite a hefty novel, covers three days among the inmates, and others linked to them, of Mavrino Prison, which is actually a secret penal laboratory staffed by politicial prisoners and others pulled from gulags and labour camps. Compared to others in the Soviet prison system, they have it cushy. But not as cushy as the family of the prison head, which includes his son-in-law, a young and upcoming diplomat, who foolishly telephones a doctor about to leave for Paris and warns him not to hand over some medical data to the West as he had threatened. The authorities were, of course, listening in… but they can’t identify the caller. Fortunately, some of the Mavrino inmates, and some of the equipment they’ve built, could help the MGB… The contrast with the lot of the prisoners and the diplomat’s family is stark, as is the contrast between those in Mavrino and their previous experiences in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn manages to find the nobility, and venality, in his prisoners, and paints them vividly as people. But the endless reiteration of bureaucratic cruelty – epitomised, if not literalised, by the treatment of the diplomat in the Lubyanka after his arrest – does pall on occasion. The First Circle, despite its short narrative timeframe, is surprisingly rambunctious, but less philosophical than I had expected – although, to be fair, most, if not all, of the references to Russian literature were lost on me. I still like the idea of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, and I still have another of his novels on the TBR, but I’ve yet to make up my mind about his actual writing.

Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks, Paul Kincaid (2017, UK). A housemate lent me a copy of The Wasp Factory back in 1987, and while it was certainly a memorable book, it wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t until I joined the British Science Fiction Association a year or two later that I discovered Banks also wrote science fiction – and I can remember finding a hardback copy of Consider Phlebas in WH Smith soon after, but at the time I would never have considered buying a book in hardback. Later, Banks was GoH at Prefab Trout, the second convention I ever attended, in September 1989, and I can remember a review of Canal Dreams in the programme booklet which described the novel as “a taunt thriller”. I think by that point I’d read Banks’s earlier novels – probably borrowed from Coventry City Library – the mainstream ones at least, but possibly also Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. I’m pretty damn sure, however, that the first Culture novel I actually bought was Use of Weapons, which was launched at Eastcon, the 1990 Eastercon, in Liverpool. I bought the hardback and Banks signed it for me. I stil have it, of course. From that point on, I purchased all of his books in hardback as soon as they were published. (However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I managed to track down first edition copies of the books before Use of Weapons.) So I guess you could say I am/was something of a fan. And yet, all those decades of reading him, but so few of his books seemed to manage the quality I expected of them – I enjoyed them, I appreciated them… but it always felt to me like he could do much better. I knew I was being unfair, but I could never help myself. And yet…. after reading Paul’s book on Banks’s novels, it occurs to me that my problem with Banks is that he rewarded careful reading but his prose was so effortlessly readable that I likely never gave his fiction the depth of reading which generated the most reward. And I reached this conclusion because Paul, a friend of many years, writes about Banks’s novels so well, so readably, that I want to go back to Banks’s books immediately and reread them and discover in them all the depth and goodness identified by Paul which I plainly missed… and knowing full well that I will also hugely enjoy the novels because they were always were, above all, hugely enjoyable. So, Paul, job done. (Although I’ll need more convincing about Transition, I think…)

The Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm (1967, USA). Okay, I admit I bought this novel – at this year’s Eastercon – because of the dreadful cover art. Comparisons with, and references to, The Martian proved inevitable, although the book itself is set on some random alien desert world. Humanity has spread out among the stars and pretty much conquered everyone it meets, most of whom also happen to be human, but nice and fluffy and progressive compared to Earth’s bigoted, racist and sexist conquerors. On one such world, the protagonist of The Killing Thing, Tracey, visits an open-cast mine and sees an experimental mining robot. It kills its inventor, and is taken by Earth’s military establishment for study. On Venus. Where it escapes. And now Tracey is the sole survivor of a ship that tracked the killer robot to the random alien desert world, and he’s stuck on its surface in a lifeboat with limited fuel and supplies, and must hold out until rescue arrives, while the robot hunts him down and tries to kill him. If it weren’t for the background material – most of which is, quite frankly, offensive – The Killing Thing would be padded out beyond boredom. As it is, it still reads like a short story bloated beyond its natural length. I’d had a quite high opinion of Wilhelm’s fiction based on previous stuff by her I’d read, but that opinion took a bit of a beating reading The Killing Thing. When I restart SF Mistressworks – soon, I hope – then I’ll bung a more comprehensive review of this book up there. For now: not a good work from a usually good writer.

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (2016, Israel). Once upon a time fix-up novels were pretty common in science fiction. Authors would take a bunch of stories, lash them together with a crude framing narrative, and then the whole thing would be presented as a novel. Some were more successful than others… but the fix-up is still an ugly, lumpy and lop-sided beast of a narrative form. Central Station, although presented as a fix-up novel, and on plenty of novel award shortlists, strikes me more as a collection of linked stories, although there is a story arc which progresses throughout it. I remember one or two of the stories appearing in Interzone and, at the time, I wasn’t especially taken with them. But given the success of this “novel”, and because several people have told me the stories work better together than they did in isolation, I decided to give it a go. And… it still doesn’t really read like a novel. But the individual stories do benefit from being in a collection. Alone, they felt incomplete, unresolved, whereas the novel shows that the resolution is merely cumulative and deferred. The title refers to space port in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and the stories are focused on a handful of families who live in the environs. There’s no date – it’s the future of a century or two hence – which occasionally leads to weird inconsistences in the setting, a feeling that tropes are deployed when needed rather than being integral, or natural, to the background. The prose, happily, is uniformly good, which means the stories are a pleasure to read. But if each individual story feels slightly unresolved, the novel, as a novel qua novel, manages not to feel that way. I don’t think Central Station is as adventurous, or as challenging, as some commentators have claimed, and it probably says more about the way we now view awards, than it does the book itself, that it’s appeared on so many shortlists – I mean, Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, those were genuinely challenging sf novels. But, on the other hand, Central Station is a well-crafted piece of science fiction, with visible writing chops in evidence, and such books seem all too rare in the genre these days…

The Spanish Bride, Georgette Heyer (1940, UK). I’ve no record of when and where I bought this paperback, but I remember buying half a dozen or so secondhand Heyer paperbacks when I was in Great Malvern for a Novacon. That was back in 1997… So, um, two decades ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read The Spanish Bride, or if that was indeed when I bought the book, given that I’ve read all the other Heyer books I own – all thirty of them –  and some I’ve even read multiple times. I suspect it is because it’s a war novel, rather than a frothy Regency romance or eighteenth-century adventure. If the cover doesn’t make it plain, the first chapter certainly does, as it describes the Siege of Badajoz in quite gruesome detail. In fact, as a novel of the Peninsular War, The Spanish Bride does a pretty good job. Its hero, Brigade-Major Harry Smith of the Light Division, is perhaps a bit too much of a paragon – if not in his intent or actions, certainly in his ability to avoid harm – and its eponymous heroine is also far too chirpy and accepting and… well, only fourteen when she marries to Smith… and it’s hard to read the book without that fact floating about in the back of your mind. Heyer makes an excellent fist of describing the Spanish landscape, and while the blow-by-blow accounts of the various battles seem both accurately- and carefully-phrased, I often had trouble picturing the progress of the fighting. I wanted to see maps, or wargaming tableaux, or something that indicated how the oft-professed tactical genius of the various English officers actually manifested. I know Heyer for her Regency romance novels and, skeevy sexual politics of the time (or of her depiction of the time) aside, I had expected that element of The Spanish Bride‘s plot to be uppermost. But it isn’t. It is, as I wrote earlier, a war novel. If anything, “English officer marries underage Spanish hidalgo heiress” is merely subplot. And yet, having said that, Heyer’s prose has a clarity and wit few these days can match, and it’s readily evident here. The Spanish Bride is not a fun book, but then I don’t think it was intended to be. It’s almost cefrtainly going to be the Heyer novel I reread the least number of times – assuming I ever do reread it, which is unlikely – but I’m nonetheless glad I did read it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 130


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Moving pictures 2017, #39

It pleases me when the six films I write about in these Moving picture posts are from six different countries. I mean, I make an effort to watch movies from nations other than the US and UK, but I don’t plan my viewing so meticulously that I hit six countries every six films. And it’s an odd bunch of films too. Half by directors I’ve seen films by before, and half that I knew nothing about when I slid the disc into the player…

Moonfleet, Fritz Lang (1955, USA). I’m pretty sure I read J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet when I was a kid, so sure, in fact, I always get it confused with every book written by Wilkie Collins, even though the only Collins book which comes close, and that’s only in the title, is The Moonstone, which has nothing to do with Cornwall or smugglers and isn’t even set in the 1700s. Um, I see Wikipedia says of Moonfleet, “The book was extremely popular among children worldwide up until the 1970s”, which probably explains why I read it (I was a child in the 1970s). But this was Lang’s adaptation of the novel, a film that star Stewart Granger described as “a bloody awful film”, and it certainly isn’t a children’s film but more of a Hollywood swashbuckler. Sad to say, it’s easy to see why this film and Clash by Night (see here) aren’t actually readily available on DVD, despite being made by a director of Lang’s stature. A young boy is sent to Cornwall by his late mother into the care of an old flame. Unfortunately, said old flame, the local squire, is the head of the local smuggling ring. And the local magistrate is out to get him. The rest, despite the English source text, despite the German director, despite the mostly British cast (although it was shot on the MGM backlot)… is pure Hollywood historical. It has its moments, but Moonfleet is a Sunday afternooon film, and quickly forgotten.

Mughal-e-Azam, K Asif (1960, India). The cover art claims this film is in colour, but it was the only decent cover art for the film I could find. In actual fact, when released in 1960, Mughal-e-Azam was black and white. But in 2009, an extensive, and expensive, digital colourisation of the entire film was done. However, the edition I saw – a rental – was black and white, but for a ten-minute colour section in the middle, and another ten-minute colour section at the end. And, to be honest, given the sets and costumes and the abundant use of jewels and bright colours, I suspect 197 minutes of colourised Mughal-e-Azam would have burnt out my eyes. The film is considered a classic of Bollywood cinema, and it’s easy to see why. It’s set in the late sixteenth century. Emperor Akbar is desperate for a male heir, and walks barefoot to a shrine to pray for a son. Which he soon has. The son grows up to be spoilt and cruel, so Akbar sends him away to become a man. Fourteen years later, Prince Salim returns as a victorious soldier. Meanwhile, Akbar has got himself a new slave girl dancer, Nadira. Salim falls in love with her, and asks his father for her hand in marriage, but Akbar refuses. So Salim rebels, raises an army, there’s a big battle and Salim loses. He is sentenced to death, but if Nadira gives herself up, he’ll be spared. So she does and is entombed alive. But way back at the start of the film Nadira’s mother was granted a boon by Akbar, and she uses it now to save her daughter’s life – but the two must leave the country and spend the rest of their days in exile. This is a proper epic movie – the plot, the characters, the sets, the costumes, the cast of thousands (or at least what seems like one)… As a black and white film, it’s pretty good, but on reflection, despite my earlier comment, I think I probably would like to watch the colourised version. Mughal-e-Azam is a different type of film to Pakeezah, same basic Bollywood plot, of course, but more historical drama than romantic drama, and, despite also being filmed chiefly on massive sets, it doesn’t have that same slightly theatrical look of the other film (which was, to be fair, one of the chief attractions of Pakeezah). I’ve watched around two dozen Bollywood films by now, I think, and while I’ve enjoyed most of them, it’s the historical ones I’ve been tempted to buy my own copies – the Guru Dutt movies, for example, Pakeezah, and now perhaps Mughal-e-Azam

Tasuma, Daniel Sanou Kollo (2004, Burkina Faso). Sogo Sanou is an ex-soldier who fought in Algeria and Indochina for the French, and every month bicycles from his village into the nearest town to collect his military pension. Except it never arrives. Most Burkinabé ex-soldiers, it transpires, left the French army unaware they were eligible for a pension, so someone formed a Burkinabé organisation to apply for those pensions. But Sogo’s application has been delayed because bureaucracy. But he’s convinced that every time he bikes into town, it’ll be waiting for him. So much so, that on one trip he buys a much-needed motorised milling machine for his village from a local trader on credit. But his pension doesn’t arrive, the trader complains to the authorities and tries to re-possess the milling machine. Sogo is so pissed off with all this, he takes the local prefect hostage in his office, and demands he write a letter to General de Gaulle. “But he’s dead!” protests the prefect. “I know that,” says Sogo, “now start writing.” He’s easily taken by the police and thrown into jail. The women of the village then descend on the jail and, thanks to them, and the help of a friendly army lieutenant, Sogo is released. All of which leads to Sogo’s pension being expedited, relations with the trader mended, and there’s a celebration with music and dance at the village for all concerned. I’ve seen the film criticised in a review online as bucolic and a little too slavishly tied to a supposed “African formula”, which seems grossly unfair, if not a bit racist. Tasuma is certainly a product of its setting, and of the concerns which occupy the people in the village and town depicted. But that doesn’t make it formulaic. Anyway, Tasuma is a good film, perhaps not brilliantly directed or acted, but a lot of fun, makes a serious point, and has bags of charm. Worth seeing.

The Dance of Reality, Alejandro Jodorowsky (2013, Chile). Jodorowsky’s last film was 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, which was embarrassingly bad. He then spent two decades trying to interest investors in a sequel to El Topo, and various other projects, but failed. But in 2009, he turned to crowdfunding to finance a film based on his own childhood in northern Chile. That film is The Dance of Reality and… it’s actually pretty damn good. It’s also pretty much a recapitulation of all the ideas and symbolism Jodorowsky has used throughout his career. Jodorowsky’s grandson plays himself – Jodorowsky, that is – at age eleven, the son of a staunch communist and admirer of Stalin, who owns a lingerie shop in the Chilean port of Tocopilla. Convinced Alejandro is not manly enough, the father arranges various tests of his masculinity, which culminates in the boy becoming the mascot of the local fire brigade, accompanying them on a call-out to the local slums, and then breaking down at the funeral of a fire-fighter killed during that fire. In amongst that, you have a variety of life lessons taught to Alejandro by both real and symbolic characters. But it’s not so much the symbolism and imagery, these are things Jodorowsky has used both in his films and his bandes dessinées, and to anyone familiar with his work, they’re clear and obvious and play unambiguous roles in the story. But, more than that, The Dance of Reality actually looks pretty damn good too. The colours are vibrant, the tracking seamless, and the editing unobtrusive. The Dance of Reality is technically expert – and it’s an odd realisation to have while watching it because a) Jodorowsky’s films are better known for being bonkers, b) he hasn’t made a film for two decades, and c) the film is very nepotistic, with Jodorowsky’s three sons playing major roles and his grandson playing the lead. But it’s a good film. It’s a weird film, of course – but you expect that. And though I’ve seen all of Jodorowsky’s feature-length films (er, except the sequel to The Dance of Reality, titled Endless Poetry, which I have on the TBR (see here)), I was surprised at how well made The Dance of Reality proved to be. I’m now looking forward to watching Endless Poetry.

The Man from the Future, Cláudio Torres (2011, Brazil). I’ve no idea where I stunbled across this, but you can’t go wrong with a time-travel movie – even if they do all use the same damn plot – so I bunged it on my rental list. It was kinda fun, without ringing any fresh changes on the genre. I enjoyed it, but if you want to see a time-travel film there are better examples out there. Zero is a genius physicist who teaches at a university, much to his disgust, but is also experimenting on the side with a project to develop a new energy source. He is bitter and twisted, having never recovered, emotionally or mentally, from being humiliated at a university party twenty years before by his girlfriend of the time, Helena, now a world-famous model. It turns out Zero’s invention sends him back in time to the night of his humiliation, which he obviously tries to prevent by telling his past self what’s about to go down. But that changes the future and Zero wakes up in a new – to him – present, in which he is a multi-billionaire, has lost all his friends, and the love of his life, Helena, is in prison for drugs offences. So he has to go back in time again to correct his interference… You can see where this is going. It’s actually quite cleverly done, although the multiple iterations of the same short section of time, the aforementioned university party, do pall a bit. And Zero isn’t a great hero. But there’s a happy ending, so all’s well that ends well, so to speak.

To Joy, Ingmar Bergman (1950, Sweden). When I put this in the DVD player, I tweeted “am about to watch a Bergman film called To Joy and I think that title is probably a lie”… And within five minutes, the movie’s dialogue went something like “The paraffin stove exploded” and “Your wife died on the way to the infirmary”. So I guess I was right. Not joyful at all. Except, it sort of, well, is. Because the film immediately jumps back in time to when the two leads – the lead violinist and a violinist in an orchestra – first begin seeing each other. They had met at the academy but it’s only when he joins the orchestra that they fall in love and eventually get married. And the film follows their marriage, through its up and downs, and through the career ups and downs of the lead violinist, up to the point where they reconcile after a bad split and she takes the kids off to a holiday cottage with a paraffin stove… The film is set in Helsingborg, and the town features quite heavily, which gives the film less of a stagey aspect than many of Bergman’s films. The same is also true of the scenes where the orchestra rehearses, five minutes of just orchestral music, with no dialogue or narrative impetus. It’s not one of Bergman’s best, but it’s an interesting piece.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 874


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From silver screen to silver disc

I’ll continue to post these DVD hauls posts, I think, since I seem to be spending as much time on this blog writing about movies as I do books. Er, actually probably more about movies, this past twelve months or so. And so here are the latest batch to join the collection…

I decided it was about time I completed my collection of Bergman DVDs, so I went hunting on eBay… and found myself cheap copies of The Virgin Spring, Port of Call, Three Strange Loves, To Joy and Music in Darkness. Some of them are currently deleted. And I’m still missing about a dozen or so titles. I’ve only watched To Joy so far. It was not very joyful.

A pair of sf Blu-rays picked up in the recent Amazon Prime Day. Colossus: The Forbin Project, a classic giant-computer-starts-WWIII movie, was on my rental list. Mars, a National Geographic docudrama about the first mission to Mars, clearly designed to cash in on the success of The Martian, was already on my wishlist.

After watching Arabian Nights (see here), I wanted to see more Pasolini, although I’d been tempted back in January when I’d watched Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom… But I’d managed to resist temptation then. Except, well, you know how it goes… relaxing of an evening in front of the telly, laptop on your knees, bottle of wine… and oops I’ve gone and bought Six Films 1968 – 1975 by Pasolini on Blu-ray. But I don’t begrudge buying films on a whim that I know I’ll watch several times. Having saidthat, I’m not sure why I bought Orson Welles’s Macbeth – well, I put a bid on it, and actually won it – but I do like Welles’s films.

A pair of out-of-copyright Fritz Lang movies, bought on eBay for a couple of quid. Neither are especially good. I wrote about Clash by Night here and Moonfleet will be in the next Moving pictures post.

This set was a lucky find on eBay. Second Run have released several films by Miklós Jancsó, but these six Pepe and Kapa movies are from the end of his career and are unlikely to ever be released in the UK (these are Hungarian editions, with subtitles in a variety of languages, including English). The titles translate, approximately, as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest, Mother! The Mosquitos, Last Supper at the Arabian Grey Horse, Wake Up, Mate, Don’t You Sleep, The Modhács Evil and Eddie Has Eaten My Lunch.0


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Moving pictures 2017, #38

I had a Reading diary post lined up next after my last Moving pictures post, but it takes me longer to write about books – chiefly because books take longer to read than films to watch, so I need to remind myself of the earlier ones in a post, and, also, a lot more happens in a book than in a film. I’m also working on a post about the Clarke Award, perhaps even the current state of awards, but I’m not even sure I’ll bother publishing that one. These days, no one gives a shit about honest criticism, reviews are indistinguishable from marketing hype, and fans are more concerned with protecting the ego of their creator friends than they are in any sort of real conversation about the genre. But who knows, perhaps I’ll end up in a ranty mood one evening… and publish and be damned…

But, until then, it’s…. the return of the film post! Only a couple of days after the last one! And the one before that! And it’s only the thirty-eighth I’ve written so far this year alone! (Out of probably about forty-two actual blog posts. Oh well.) The movies in this batch were all a bit random, chosen chiefly because I wasn’t in the mood to think too hard about what to watch.

The Woman Next Door, François Truffaut (1981, France). So I went and bought the François Truffaut Collection Blu-ray box set, because it was going cheap and I’d found myself increasingly drawn to his films, and of the eight films in the set I’d only seen four, so it was pretty much a bargain. And the first disc I pulled from the box was The Woman Next Door, a film about which I knew nothing. Although from the cover art, it clearly starred Fanny Ardant, whom I’d watched only the week before in, er, Truffaut’s Finally, Sunday, also in this collection (see here). The male lead is Gerard Depardieu, and while I’ve always thought him a good actor, in this film he seemed to shift between blank-faced and hyper-emotive, with nothing in between. He and his wife and small boy live in a house in a village near Grenoble. The empty next-door house is rented by a couple around the same age… and the wife, Ardant, turns out to be a woman Depardieu had had a turbulent relationship with before getting married. Their affair rekindles, but it doesn’t go well. He kicks off at a barbecue with the neighbours, she has an incident at the local tennis club… Much as I enjoyed The Woman Next Door, it felt like many of its narrative hooks were left unexplored or unresolved. Ardant was good, as indeed were the supporting cast, but I wasn’t convinced by Depardieu… And the end result was a film that promised more than it delivered. Even the final shock twist felt a bit meh, given what had gone on before. I still admire Truffaut for his films, but this isn’t one of his best ones; and though its slick performances might convince some that is the case, he’s made much better.

The Lavender Hill Mob*, Charles Crichton (1951, UK). I had a feeling I’d seen this before, but I couldn’t remember the details… and when I came to watch it, pretty much everything in it was immediately familiar. Alec Guiness plays a mild-mannered bank clerk whose job entails fetching gold bullion from a foundry, and accompanying it in an armoured lorry to the bank. He’s completely trusted, but he’s planning to steal a shipment of gold just before he retires. His only problem is how transport the stolen gold out of the country. When the owner of Gewgaws Ltd, a company that makes tourist trinkets, moves into the boarding-house in which Guiness lives, he has his answer. Among the souveniers Gewgaws manufactures are gold-painted lead miniatures of the Eiffel Tower, sold in Paris. By making a consignment out of real gold, they can send them to France undetected. To help them in the robbery, the two recruit a pair of criminals, using the Gewgaws premises as a honeypot by talking loudly about a broken safe there, full of wages, on the Tube. The robbery goes more or less according to plan – there are a few hiccoughs, but the police are clueless, so it all comes right in the end. Until they get to France… and discover their Parisian contact has sold six of the real gold Eiffel Towers… to a party of British schoolgirls. And it’s the robbers’ attempts to get back those missing Eiffel Towers that proves their undoing. Ealing Studios have always been well-branded, and it’s easy to see why – their films are very distinctive. There’s a breeziness to the comedy in them, despite their obvious Britishness, that no other studio of the time managed. It’s almost a a sketch-show type of humour, but grounded in quickly- but effectively-drawn characters that carry over from one set-piece to the next. It is, in other words, jolly good fun. And if it all seems a bit implausible in places, that’s the part of the charm. But I’m not entirely sure why it rates a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Blow Out, Brian De Palma (1981, USA). I’ve never really known what to make of De Palma. He’s pretty much a straight-to-video director who manages to get theatrical releases, a sub-B-lister who is treated like a low-level A-lister. It’s not as if he makes bad films, although his use of split-screen is an affectation too far, but his movies mostly seem massively unoriginal. Blow Out is, apparently, De Palma’s homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, but if it is then De Palma has either never seen Blow-Up or has completely misunderstood it. Travolta plays a sound technician who is out one night recording ambient sound for the latest straight-to-video schlock horror movie he is working on, when he witnesses a car plummetting into a river. He dives in and rescues one of the passengers, a young woman. The other, who dies, proves to be a politician tipped to be the next president. Travolta analyses the recordings he made on the night, and realises there is a gunshot before the car lost control – someone shot out a tyre. The rest of the movie is Travolta trying to figure out what’s going on, while a hired assassin runs round trying to clean up the mess he has inadvertently made, and it’s all pretty much by-the-numbers thriller material. Lithgow is creepy, but not especially plausible, as the assassin, the parts about the film industry feel more like in-jokes than character development or background, and the dimwittedness of some of the characters contradicts their ability to avoid the noose the conspiracy is drawing about them. I have no idea why I stuck this on the rental list.

Clash by Night, Fritz Lang (1952, USA). I mentioned several Moving pictures posts ago that I’d been making an effort over the last few years to see every film directed by Otto Preminger. The same is true for Fritz Lang. Their shared nationality is a coincidence. As are their Hollywood careers as chiefly directors of well-regarded noir films. With Lang, you have those early silent classics, not to mention the Mabuse trilogy, or even the frankly bizarre India-set pulp adventure movies on which he finished his career. But, like Preminger, during his Hollywood years Lang made a wide variety of films – yes, including a couple of Westerns… and melodramas… like Clash by Night. Which is, er, not very good. Barbara Stanwyck plays the wild girl who returns to her fishing port home after years living it up away. She falls in with simple trawler captain Jerry, who introduces her to his wise-cracking mate, Earl, the projectionist. Earl is clearly more Stanwyck’s type, but she marries Jerry. But then Earl is a nasty piece of work, so it’s easy enough to understand why she rejects him. Although only for a few years… and then the marriage begins to fracture when Stanwyck does indeed take up with Earl… This is one of those gritty urban melodramas the US churned out by the yard back in the first half of the twentieth century, in which middle-class problems were ascribed to working-class families, but with added domestic violence. There is a horribly offensive thread running throughout this film in which men claim the only way to control their spouses is through violence. The relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes (Stanwyck’s “brother”) basically consists of him controlling her through threats of violence. It’s nasty stuff. There are some classic US melodramas from the 1950s. This is not one of them. Despite its director. Best avoided.

In Bloom, Nana Ekvtimishvili (2013, Georgia). I can’t remember where I came across mention of this Georgian film, but I suspect it was a trailer on another DVD. The directors are actually given as Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, but given that the former has a Wikipedia page and the latter does not, and the latter is also credited as a producer, I’m tempted to cast Groß as more of a facilitator… except it turns out the two are a couple, so perhaps it’s even more complicated. Still, this is a film set in Georgia, about Georgian people, and Ekvtimishvili is given preference as director, and she is actually Georgian, so I will do the same and credit her with the lion’s share. (And kudos to Groß, he seems content to let his partner represent the two of them.) Two fourteen-year-old girls get into trouble when one of them gets hold of a gun and uses it to rescue a younger kid from a bullying. Except it’s not about that, it’s about growing up during the Georgian Civil War, and about being a teenage girl during those turbulent times, and this is by no means a cheerful film, and certainly not one likely to re-affirm your confidence in humanity’s good nature – these days, the only films which do that are superhero ones, and they only do it for superheroes, so how fucked up is that? But there’s a rawness to Ekvtimishvili’s vision that lends her story a verisimilitude Hollywood could only dream of (this is not something unique to In Bloom, but it is something Hollywood strives for and fails to achieve). A depressing story, but worth seeing.

Two for the Road, Stanley Donen (1967, UK). Apparently eureka! have released a dual edition of this film, but the rental copy I watched was a terrible transfer, no better than VHS quality in places. And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why it deserves the treatment eureka! have given it. It’s pretty much a couple bickering, in cars, over a decade. Okay, so the chronology jumps back and forth quite cleverly, and the way the film signals at which stage of the relationship/marriage it is set works really well (er, it’s the model of car). But it’s still two people bickering. And it’s not helped by the choice of leads. I’ve never really taken to Albert Finney – he plays everything flat and snide, and it makes him unlikeable. When he tries for charm, as he often does here, it often falls flat, especially when he’s doing his terrible Bogart impression. Finney does some things really well, but romantic lead isn’t one of them. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand, should be a natural romantic lead – and indeed has been in many films. But here she’s playing a woman from callow teenager to jaded housewife, and it’s beyond her range. She does either end of the spectrum well, but she can’t manage the transition – or rather, the transition doesn’t seem convincing when it happens to her. Of course, it doesn’t help that the version I saw was a terrible transfer. Perhaps there were subtleties I missed. Certainly, the film’s structure was cleverly done, and there were some good lines of dialogue (and an amusing running joke about Finney and his passport), but the couple also went from young and hapless to privileged and insulated with a speed and lack of commentary that is almost breathtaking (although not altogether surprising given the time the film was made). I wanted to like Two for the Road, either as fluff or as something a bit more serious… but it failed on both counts. One for Audrey Hepburn fans only.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 874