Trying to maintain a varied diet of films to watch often means you find yourself watching something that doesn’t actually appeal. We all have our favourites, and we often stick to them, but I enjoy trying new things, discovering new favourites… even if you find some things you’ll know better to avoid in the future. Of the six films below, none I thought especially good. I prefer other films by Pasolini, I still have no idea what the Jancsó Kapa and Pepe films are about, and even the Herzog was far from one of his best…
The Decameron, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971, Italy). This was the first Pasolini I ever saw. According to my records, I rented it in 2009, although I don’t recall why. It wasn’t until I watched the Pasolini segment of RoGoPaG (see here) late last year that I thought his oeuvre might be worth exploring. And then The Gospel According to St Matthew, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, appeared free to watch on Amazon Prime, and then I rented his other film on the list, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom… And while I’ve sort of become a bit of a Pasolini fan, The Decameron is not among my favourites of his. Like his The Canterbury Tales, it’s an adaptation of some of the stories from a mediaeval story cycle, but Italian in this case rather than English. But in look and feel, it’s very similar (or rather, the other film is, as this one preceded it) and the humour is similarly scatological and earthy. So much so, in fact, that the film opens with a “tempo” in which Ninetto Davoli visits his long-lost sister (he thinks) only to be dropped into a latrine and is covered in shit, just so she can steal his money. Later, he finds himself imprisoned in the sarcophagus of a richly-dressed bishop in a cathedral. And so it goes. Another episode sees a man pretending to be deaf-mute in order to enjoy the sexual attentions of the nuns at a convent. The humour is broad, so are the points being made. And while the 14th-century source novel clearly influences the various tales, Pasolini’s own sensibilities, even back in the 1970s, are also on display. The stories are often crude, with a sense of humour even Talbot Rothwell would have shied from, but a celebration of the human condition still shines through. It’s hard to reach the end of a Pasolini film without feeling entertained or a little better about humanity in general. I don’t know that he was especially good at documenting humanity’s failings – to be honest, this box set has me totally confused as to what Pasolini was trying to achieve – but it’s difficult to finish one of his films without a smile. So props for that.
Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan (2011, USA). I’m not sure what persuaded me to add this to my rental list, but I wish I hadn’t. It was the first film I’ve seen by Lonergan, and likely to be the last. Anna Paquin plays a New York student, who one day distracts a bus driver as he’s pulling away, causing him to run a red light and run over a woman crossing the street. But Paquin is so self-centred, she has to make the accident about herself, and though she recognises she did cause the accident she doesn’t actually admit it until near the end of this over-long, overly narcissistic, very dull, three-hour film. When she learns the bus driver has not been fired, she badgers the woman’s estranged relatives into sueing the MTA for damages, insisting as one of the conditions they sack him. There is not a single likeable character in this film – even Lonergan himself, who plays Paquin’s divorced father, is needy and neurotic and snide. Jean Reno plays a South American businessman who is in a relationship with Paquin’s mother, and while he seems the most pleasant character of the lot, he’s portrayed as a bit of a simpleton, and the anti-semitic remarks that eventually see him pushed out of the family are totally manufactured. At 90 minutes, Margaret would likely have outstayed its welcome; at three hours, it was torture. Perhaps you have to be American to appreciate this film; I am not American; I thought it was awful. Avoid.
Anyádi s szúnyogok, Miklós Jancsó (2000, Hungary). I’ve still no idea what these films are about, although a theme common to both this and the first film in the series, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), appears to be suicide. This film – whose title apparently translates as “Mother! The mosquitos!”, although the subtitles definitely said, “Fuck the mosquitoes!” at one point – initially appears to be set in in a train museum, with Kapa and Pepe playing train drivers or train engineers. But like the first film, the story quickly changes, and though the two main characters continue to play themselves, they’re now in different roles. There’s also a band who apear at intervals and play rock, with help of assorted pieces of defunct industrial equipment and, I seem to remember, a drill. They’re not unlike Norway’s Hurra Torpedo. And there’s another scene which is apparently set really high up on something, a statue I think, as if Jancsó were trying to prove a point by including some vertiginous scenes – although perhaps it’s only me, someone who suffers from vertigo, who would even think to mention them. There’s a review on imdb.com which is less than helpful. It says, for example, “The comedy jacket of the story gives a cool atmosphere”, and does very little to actually explain what is going on. I feel their pain – because I have no idea either. Nonetheless, I’m glad I bought these six films and I hope one day to understand them.
Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog (2011, USA). Herzog is one of the most interesting directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and his documentaries are typically every bit as good as his feature films. But this one was a bit of a mis-step, I think. The topic is one that’s been over-subscribed in documentary films for decades, and Herzog’s straightforward yet off-kilter approach fails to make it interesting. Some of the questions he asks are a bit off-the-wall, and it’s clear the interviewees think so too, but… The subject is people on Death Row, two people, in fact, one of whom still maintains his innocence. Seriously, are there any people with more than two brain cells on this planet who need persuading that capital punishment is a bad thing? State-sanctioned murder is still murder. You can throw up as many examples of miscarriages of justice, or even bona fide monsters, but even that giant fairy in the sky so many people seem to think really exists, even he thinks it’s wrong. Into the Abyss is a series of interviews with two inmates on Death Row in Texas, and with those who know the inmates or were involved with their crimes, or their bringing to justice. But I don’t see the point of it all – granted, he’s preaching to the choir. But since the only argument that’s going to work on the pro-capital punishment crown is a nail-studded cluebat, I don’t see the point of documentaries like Into the Abyss, no mater how balanced, or how off-centre, the approach they take.
The Space Between Us, Peter Chelsom (2017, USA). The space between the two principals, the figures on the DVD cover art, is, well, space itself, ie, the space between Earth and Mars. Did you see what they did there? Clever, that. Asa Butterfield was born on Mars – his mother was the commander of the first mission to Mars, but happened to be pregnant at the time. NASA decided to keep Butterfield’s existence a secret. Sixteen years later, he is finally allowed to visit Earth. Which he thinks is great because he’s made a friend online, Britt Robertson, a spiky and clever, but good-hearted, foster kid, and because it also allows him to go looking for his father, whose identity he only knows from an old photo. Of course, NASA would sooner he stayed in seclusion at one of their facilities. But he escapes, goes and finds Robertson, and the two head across country looking for dear old dad. What is it with Hollywood films and their daddy issues? Can they please move past Misogynistic Pop Psych 101? Robertson is sparky, which is probably the new feisty; Butterfield is earnest and gauche. Gary Oldman phones in it. It’s a nice story, and they made a halfway decent fist of presenting a near-future which could send a mission to Mars and start a colony there. But it’s all too easy. Okay, I admit I watched this after seeing National Geographics miniseries Mars, but you might as well have changed Butterfield’s skin colour and you could have told pretty much the same story. Except, of course, white US audiences are more likely to sympathise with a star-crossed Martian than a star-crossed African-American. Oh, and the growing up on Mars so he has an enlarged heart is the sort of metaphor they beat out of you in the cheap writing workshops, the ones given by people better known for writing how-to books than actual books. Or screenplays, in this instance.
Secuestro Express, Jonathan Jakubowicz (2005, Venezuela). My first film from Venezuela. And despite being released in 2005, it was all a bit 1990s, to be honest. A young and well-off couple are kidnapped by three gang-bangers – this is a common thing in Caracas, it seems – who demand a ransom from the woman’s father. The young man escapes, leaving his girlfriend to the kidnappers’ mercy, but is later recaptured and killed. The father pays the ransom, the young woman is released. The film is shot in a very MTV-ish style, lots of cross-cuts, jittery cam, blurring and Dutch angles. The characters are introduced with stylised on-screen text bios. The acting is not all that good, although the female victim, played by Argentine actress Mia Maestro, is pretty good. If I’d seen this twenty years ago, I’d have been more impressed, and not just because, er, that was a decade before it was actually made.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878