I’m still not sure what to make of Ken Russell and his oeuvre – as a film-maker that is; his sf novel, Mike & Gaby’s Space Gospel, was fucking dreadful. Valentino was, at least, a very Russell film, but in good Russell ways rather than bad Russell ways. Welles, I am becoming something of a fan of (and there’s a construction us writers just love), and Puenzo too is proving a name to watch. Guzmán, on the other hand, just makes brilliant documentaries.
Valentino, Ken Russell (1977, USA). The title is the plot – it’s the life of Rudolph Valentino, silent movie star, played by Rudolf Nureyev. But it’s also a Ken Russell film. So it opens with Velentino’s funeral, and the invasion of the funeral parlour by the hordes of fans waiting outside. There’s a artificiality to the staging which spoils it a little, but when the mourners manage to barricade themselves in the parlour, and each tells their story about Valentino, it starts to make sense. Valentino started out as a dancer at a dance-hall, then toured the country in a dance act, before catching the eye of an actress out carousing with Fatty Arbuckle, and so being introduced to Hollywood. Valentino’s sexuality is addressed in the film – by all accounts, he was straight, but his dandiness (is that a word?) led people to suppose he was gay – in as much as Russell has others characterise Valentino as gay despite presenting ample evidence he wasn’t. Those who loomed large in Valentino’s life loom large in the film, especially his original Hollywood patron, over-played by Leslie Caron, and both the staging and acting give much of the film a sort of fevered intensity that makes the subject seem, well, pure fiction. Having read the Wikipedia article on Rudolph Valentino, he seems to have had a more interesting life and career than is laid out in Russell’s film, but I suspect Russell had other concerns. Of the films Valentino actually made, I’ve only seen The Eagle… and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. As for Valentino the movie… I’d put it in Russell’s top ten, but then he only made twenty-one feature films…
Macbeth, Orson Welles (1948, USA). After my comments on Welles’s Othello (see here), I feel a little embarrassed because his Macbeth is pretty much a rehearsal for Othello. This is how Welles did Shakespeare and, it seems, Othello, rather than being a unique perspective on the play, is actually just a follow on from Macbeth. It has the same stark black and white cinematography, the same brutal scenery, the same use of intense close-ups… but it doesn’t do it quite as well as Othello, for all that Macbeth is, arguably, the more powerful play. Unfortunately, Macbeth does suffer from a cast putting on bad Scottish accents, and that’s a major distraction. (Welles blacking up as Othello is offensive, but not distracting per se.) I’ve never been a fan of “the Scottish play”, and I much prefer Shakespeare’s ludicrous comedies (and the occasional romance). But Macbeth has a presence in popular culture that Shakespeare’s other plays cannot match, and I can understand why Welles might have staged it. (But, let’s face it, Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, a film whose narrative is a combination of Falstaff’s appearances in Shakespeare’s plays is a much more interesting idea. It’s also a great film (see here).) Welles’s Macbeth, crap accents aside, is a pretty good staging of the play. Although, to be honest, I’ve only seen it twice before – the BBC adaptation, and a school trip to the Crucible back in the late 1970s, about which the only things I remember are: everyone in the cast wore Edwardian uniforms. the sets consisted of giant grey sheets of metal with holes in them, it starred Cally (Jan Chappell) from Blake’s 7, and our headmaster fell asleep during the play and snored loudly.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosoda (2006, Japan). Since I couldn’t find a copy of the original movie adaptation of the novel, I put the anime remake on my rental list and, in the way that sometimes you’re convinced rental firms like Cinema Paradiso take the piss, they sent it out the week after I’d watched the sequel (see here). And, after all, that it seems the anime film takes a few liberties with the source novel and isn’t much of a prequel to Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, despite their shared origin. For a start, the leaping through time bit here seems mostly accidental and unconscious. It starts when a teenage girl loses control of her bicycle and and is pitched in front of a train at a level crossing. Once she learns how to do it consciously, she uses it for small trivial things. It’s all down to a small device she found at school, and which prioves to be a time-travelling device from the future… which she is abusing. I really like Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, it was a fun poke at 1970s youth culture in Japan, but The Girl Who Leapt Through Time seemed more like bland anime fodder for the international market. The animation was high quality, but nothing stood out. And the story is hardly memorable. From the cover alone, comparisons with Studio Ghibli’s output are inevitable, but if you’ve seen all the Ghibli films you’d be better off checking out Makoto Shinkai than The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán (2015, Chile). If you’ve not seen a Guzmán documentary, then you really should. And The Pearl Button is as good a place as any to start. In the UK, we know Chile chiefly because Maggie Thatcher was chummy with its dictator, Pinochet, and we knew Pinochet was a Bad Sort. But then, that’s the sort of fingers-in-ears la-la-la we’re so very good at in the so-called Western world. Pinochet was a monster and his regime was appalling. And yet he was not unique in the history of Chile. Guzmán riffs on water, its ubiquity, its presence in the universe, its uses on Earth, to tell a story about Pinochet’s regime, what happened to supporters of Salvador Allende, and Chile’s shameful history when it comes to the indigenous peoples of Patagonia. The Disappeared, the politicial prisoners who were tortured to death and their bodies dropped in the ocean from helicopters… these are horrible but not entirely unexpected given Pinochet’s regime. But the way the Chilean government of the nineteenth century treated the peoples of Patagonia… They “Christianised” them and gave them disease-ridden clothing… and if that didn’t kill them, they put a bounty on their heads: so much for a man’s genitals, a woman’s breast, a child’s scalp… Of the four peoples mentioned in the film, only one survives, and that only in a handful of old people in a reservation. And yet the photographs of all four from the eighteenth century, before they were killed off, show vibrant and fascinating peoples, with abilities, in navigation especially, that merited study. The Pearl Button is a fascinating meditation on Chile and its history and a horrific condemnation of certain aspects of the country’s past. There are, I suppose, two types of documentary: those which make you a fan of the human race, with good reason; and those which make you wish for an asteroid strike, with good reason. The Pearl Button definitely falls in the latter category, but it is nonentheless required viewing.
The Fish Child, Lucía Puenzo (2009, Argentina). I first came across Puenzo several years ago when I watched XXY, but it wasn’t until I watched Wakolda (see here) and thought it very good that I decided to explore her oeuvre… And now I’ve seen The Fish Child, which means I’ve seen all of her feature films, and which I didn’t enjoy as much as the other two. A young woman from a well-off family in Argentina is having a love affair with the young woman who has worked as a maid for the family since her early teens. The two plan to run away to the maid’s home in Paraguay. So they steal some jewellery, but the maid is caught and imprisoned. The other woman goes to Paraguay, and meets the maid’s father, a television star, and learns of the legend of the Fish Child in the lake near their home. The climax of the film is a prison-break, but there’s plenty going on in and around that. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time – using that old trick of signalling different time periods through hairstyles – and it takes a bit of getting used to. It felt a bit cnbfused in places, which undermined its thrillerish plot. But Puenzo is definitely a director worth watching, and I hope she has something new out soon.
The Idealist, Christina Rosendahl (2015, Denmark). My mother lent me this one; she found it in a charity shop – and she’s keen on anything Danish as we have family there. The Idealist is dramatisation of a true story, about a journalist who investigated the high incidences of cancer among men who had worked at the Thule USAF base during the 1960s… and ended up uncovering an abuse of government power by the then prime minister. In the late 1950s, the Danes had voted to refuse nuclear weapons on their territory, and HC Hansen’s government had been voted into power on that platform. In 1968, a USAF B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed. The US and Denmark instituted a clean-up operation, and it is cancer among the Danish men involved in this that journalist Poul Brink investigates. The Danish government refuses to acknowledge the crash site was contaminated enough to cause the cancer, despite evidence to the contrary. But while looking into the events of 1968, including clues that one of the bombs did not break apart on impact but fell through the ice and still lies on the ocean floor, Brink learns that Hansen secretly allowed the US to store nuclear weapons on Danish territory in Greenland. When the Danish government threatens him with jail if he reports what he has learned, he goes ahead and reports it – and spends several months in prison. It’s an interesting story, but when you consider what journalism was like then – the film is set in the 1980s – compared to what it is now… Newspapers stopped being fit for purpose several years ago – and the term “investigative journalism” is now starting to sound like an oxymoron. Worth seeing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885