It happened again. I watched a film by a director, knowing nothing about him or his work when I put the disc in the player, and afterward went and bought everything by him I could find. The last time that happened, it was James Benning, an experimental film-maker (and very little of his extensive oeuvre is actually available on DVD). This time, it was Ben Rivers, an experimental film-maker… and he’s made only a handful of films.
Fatherland, Ken Loach (1986, UK). This is not an adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel of the same title, which was anyway published in 1992, and when that was adapted for the screen by HBO, they did a terrible job of it (see here). Not that I can really see Ken Loach adapting Harris’s novel in the first place. This Fatherland is about an East German singer/songwriter who escapes to the West and tries to forge out a career on the other side of the Wall. It’s been called Loach’s “least-popular film” according to Wikipedia, and part of the blame has been laid at the fact much of the dialogue is spoken in German. To be honest, I thought its biggest fault was that it was dull, and the central character was not especially interesting. Some of his music, particularly towards the end, wasn’t too bad, a very German style of rock, which reminded me a bit of my time spent studying in Germany back in the early 1990s. You could never describe Loach’s movies as films in search of a point to make, if anything they’re more likely to be obvious points somewhat bluntly encoded in the form of narrative cinema. In this one, it’s the lack of artistic freedom in East Berlin brought about by political constraints versus the lack of artistic freedom in West Berlin created by capitalist constraints. It’s a tired argument, and a little ironic coming from a committed socialist iconoclast like Loach – after all, clearly neither politics nor capitalism has prevented him from making films like Fatherland. It is nonetheless a point worth making: capitalism does not equal freedom. And it’s even more true today, thirty years later. Sadly, lowering the cost of entry to content creation to next to nothing has not resulted in a great flowering of iconoclastic art but a near endless deluge of identikit extruded commercial product of low quality. No one wants acclaim, they want dollars. The first mistake these creators are making is in assuming art is not political. Art is politics. Their second mistake is in assuming that what the world needs is another piece of derivative shit put together badly by an amateur. Most professionals may produce derivative shit, but they know exactly how to package it. The sound of jackboots echoing from MCU and tentpole sf blockbuster franchises has drowned out the voices of political film-makers like Loach. A right-wing press which seeks to trivialise him hasn’t helped either. Loach is by no means perfect, but his consistency is certainly admirable.
The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). All I knew about this film when I stuck it on my rental list was the unwieldy title, and that it was about a film-maker and a little bit meta. It sounded intriguing, although I didn’t have especially high expectations – that title, for one thing, it sounds like something you might find on one of those straight-to-streaming genre films you find buried deep down in Amazon Prime’s free movies… But it turns out the title is from a short story by Paul Bowles, author of the excellent The Sheltering Sky – and I really must read more Bowles, I have his The Spider’s House on the TBR – and indeed five minutes into this film, the protagonist, a film-maker, reads out the relevant section of Bowles’s story. The film then shifts to a (mostly) context-free documentary about the film-maker filming in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains with a cast of locals. As he becomes increasingly outrageous in his demands… Well, this is not a film in which things are explained, it’s almost as if plot is treated as an emergent phenomenon (um, I like that idea; it might be worth exploring…). In one sequence, the film-maker drives his Landrover through several villages while post-metal plays. There is no dialogue, there is no explanation. The sequence is several minutes long. It’s a narrative film which plays like a documentary for much of its length, in parts reminding me Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Pasolini’s Arabian Nights and Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky. But it’s also a movie about the film-making process, and how the film-making process changes the people involved, particularly those co-opted from the location. The cinematograhpy is mostly excellent , with occasional shots that approach the beauty of Pasolini’s aforementioned film, and a few that drop into cliché. But there’s a distance to the whole, an almost clinical eye on the proceedings, which signals this is not narrative cinema designed to make money from ticket sales. I’ve said before on this blog that I really like video installations, and though their quality is wildly variable, I find something fascinating in the way they’re so defiantly unlike commercial narrative cinema, despite being the same medium, using the same tools, and making use of many of the same narrative techniques… The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is much closer to narrative cinema than it is to video installation, but it manages to suggest it is something much closer to the latter. That’s one of the reasons why, after watching it, I bought everything by Rivers that was available on a certain humungous online retailer’s website.
Se Eu Fosse Você and Se Eu Foss Você 2, Daniel Filho (2006 and 2009, Brazil). The body-swap comedy is almost a subgenre in its own right, there have been that many films made with the premise. There are two main variations – husband/wife and parent/child. Se Eu Fosse Você – the title means “If I was you” – is a pretty straightforward Brazilian attempt at the former. Claudio and Helena are a happily-married and comfortably well-off couple, with a teenage daughter. He runs a small but critically successful, but now in danger of commercially failing, ad agency, she teaches a choir. A series of unlikely planetological events line up, lightning strikes, and the following morning the two have apparently exchanged bodies. Cue effeminate-acting man and butch-acting woman. Not to mention total confusion over their respective careers. Which, of course, all comes good in the end: he (ie, Helena) lands a major contract for a difficult lingerie client because “he” can put together a campaign that will appeal to women; she (ie, Claudio), on the other hand, finds the chosen choral music boring and livens it up a bit, to great success. Naturally, their rocky marriage is steadied, and Claudio’s business is saved. The sequel is set a couple of years later, and the marriage is once again wobbling, especially when Claudio decides a second honeymoon to Italy is out of the question as his business needs him. She throws him out, and he goes to stay with a friend, who is single and has less than progressive ideas about women. Which eventually results in one of those situations so beloved of marital drama films – he is standinging outside a nightclub, perfectly innocently, with a drunken female friend of his mate, when his wife spots him and assumes the worst. And then their daughter tells them she is pregnant. The father-to-be is a good catch, a millionaire’s son, but the family are very Catholic… so a wedding must be arranged quickly. And lo, the planets align once again, and bodies are swapped. She (ie, Claudio) is against the marriage, she (ie, Helena) is for it… The first film wasn’t great, and this one is much weaker. There is apparently a third film in the series. I won’t be bothering with it.
Dr Strange, Scott Derrickson (2016, USA). I don’t know why I continue to subject myself to MCU films. I think they’re awful, badly-made populist trash, and even the high-powered cast they hire can do little redeem them. Not that Benchmark Cummerbund is a good actor. But Tilda Swinton normally does better work than this. So, for that matter, does Mads Mikkelson. An arrogant womanising surgeon has his brilliant career cut short when he badly damages his hands in a crash in his supercar. In desperation, he turns to– I don’t know, for some reason, against all sense, he ends up in an invented Himalayan nation, where he’s taken under the wing of an Eastern mystic played by a white woman, and so becomes an occult agent of her organisation, but based in New York. There are some scenes that were ripped straight from Inception, there’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo that’s hard to swallow even in a MCU film, and Strange’s journey from arrogant shit to good person is actually closer to a journey from arrogant shit who is a neurosurgeon to arrogant shit who is a magician. There are also some effective special effects – see earlier mention of Inception – but it would be a poor MCU film that didn’t have zillions spent on its sfx (and yet, the one MCU film I think is halfway okay, Captain America, has probably the least overt sfx on screen of them all; perhaps that means something). Now that Amazon are closing down LoveFilm, I’ll no longer have access to as many rental films, and I used to bung populist crap on there to watch on a weekend night with a glass of wine or two… But since I never really liked them, I’m not entirely sure why I bothered. Now at least I won’t have to. (Incidentally, I see Amazon have listed this movie as “Marvel’s Dr Strange“, which is obvs to distinguish it from, er, Marvel’s other Dr Strange…)
Utolsó vacsora az Arabs Szürkénél, Miklós Jancsó (2001, Hungary). And so the third of Jancsó’s Kapa & Pepe films, and I’m even more confused than I was before. The film opens with the two characters waking up on a statue on top of the Millennium Monument in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square after a heavy night of drinking. There are some scenes set in an abandoned half-built building, including several shoot-outs between the two main characters and various gangsters. There’s a punk band in silly costumes, and a woman being pleasured by several young men. There’s a troupe of dancers who perform a traditional Hungarian folk dance (judging by the costumes). And then Kapa and Pepe are in the USA, visiting Niagara Falls, where they bump into… Miklós Jancsó. And they’re surprised to see him because they thought he was dead – although I seem to remember he did re-appear in the first film, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), after he had died in that film… And I have no fucking clue what is going on in these films. There’s definitely an argument against the trappings of capitalist society, and its attendant ruthlessness and fascination with symbols of success, not to mention several discussions about death. The dialogue is thick with swearwords and the musical interludes bonkers. Lots of scenes are also set on high places – Jancsó obviously liked his crane shots – and some are just a little too high for my comfort. The second time I came to watch this film, the transfer seemed much lower quality than I remembered it. It’s definitely lower quality than the previous two films. Weird. I’m going to have to watch it again some time, though, that’s for sure. Um, in a previous Moving pictures post I wondered about doing a themed post… I usually write about six films per post; there are six films in the Kapa & Pepe series… There’s an idea. Although I may end up a gibbering wreck afterwards.
Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK). Part of Rivers’s creative process is developing his 16mm film himself, in less than laboratory-like conditions. It makes the medium of his movies an artefact of the narrative, in much the same way that Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director, often distorts the picture of his movies, as in Mother and Son (see here) or Whispering Pages (see here). But while Sokurov deliberately distorts the image to produce a specific effect, Rivers allows the development process which turns the images captured by the camera into a record which can be viewed by anyone, to apply its own distortions. They are not, it has to be said, as overt – a graininess to the picture, the odd blink-and-miss-it flaw in the film… But the way Rivers shoots, or has shot certainly in this film, which is entirely black and white, also results in a slight flattening of the image, giving Two Years at Sea a look close to that of a photograph from the first half of the twentieth century. He also lets his camera linger for long moments on static scenes – although not to the extent James Benning does – which also reminds me of several Sokurov films (but I don’t think it’s a direct reference, more a commonality of approach). As for the plot… well, there isn’t one. Two Years at Sea documents a period in the life of Jake Williams, who lives in a beat-up house in the countryside in Scotland. The film makes much of his surroundings, watching clouds drift across hills, steam rise from forests, without telling us anything about Williams or his life. It is art, not narrative cinema. But, at 127 minutes, it’s too long to be a video installation. And besides, it’s partly fictional anyway, because it’s not an actual documentary of Williams and his life, never mind the sequence where his caravan floats up into the air… Which makes you wonder what Two Years at Sea is intended to be – for a video installation endlessly looped, well, 20 minutes is probably long enough, although I’ve a feeling Richard Mosse’s ‘Infra’ may be much longer… But over two hours is too long for a video installation, that’s cinema. But not cinema as it is commonly understood. I love this sort of stuff, so buying all of Rivers’s available output was a totally good call for me – and Two Years at Sea totally justified it. I will be following Rivers’s career from now on. And I thnk I might dig a bit deeper into video installations, instead of just relying on random visits to contemporary art museums during random visits to Nordic capital cities…
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 879