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Moving pictures 2018, #5

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I swore I’d wouldn’t be posting just reviews of films all this year, but I had bad flu for a week, which meant I watched a lot of films and did very little blogging. So I’ve a backlog to clear. One more of these and I’ll up to date, and hopefully after that, their frequency will decrease… and lots of other content will start appearing instead. Hopefully.

Princess from the Moon, Kon Ichikawa, (1987, Japan). The only other Ichikawa film I’d seen before watching this was The Burmese Harp, which is excellent. So I expected good things of Princess from the Moon, despite the awful title and cover art. Sadly, the latter were indicative of the contents. As the title suggests, a baby arrives myteriously – well, in a meteorite – in Japan, and a family adopt the baby and bring her up as their own. It’s the Superman origin story without the superpowers. Okay, with the superpowers. Because the young woman does have strange powers. However, unlike Superman, she is eventually reunited with her people when a UFO, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or is it ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, comes to Earth and she departs on it. Meanwhile, she proves so popular among the local menfolk, and indeed further afield, that she has to set them tasks in order to manage their advances. The film aparently did not do well and, despite the presence of Toshiro Mifune as the man who discovers the “princess”, it’s not easy to see why. The tone is all over the place, and Ichikawa adds nothing to a well-used story. Apparently, the dragon was originally going to double as the Loch Ness Monster in a Hammer film but the project fell through.

Viva, Anna Biller (2007, USA). I’d rented Biller’s The Love Witch on a whim, and been impressed enough by it to add her first feature film, Viva, to my rental list. It’s nowhere near as polished a piece, and in many respects a much less subtle pastiche. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – Biller is certianly a singular talent, devoted to pastiching 1970s aesthetics and B-movies, but with feminists sensibilities. It can make for an uneasy mix. While her sensibilities are unimpeachable, her dedication to the look and feel of the films she’s spoofing does tend to place them closer to their inspirations than the twenty-first century. Biller plays a Los Angeles housewife in the early 1970s who, with a friend, is persuaded to expand her sexual horizons by moonlighting as an escort (using the name “Viva”). There are a lot of very stilted conversations between the characters, and everything is colourised to an eye-bruising degree. Later, Viva ends up at an orgy, and it’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a Russ Meyer, although without the focus on women’s chests. The end result is far less clever than The Love Witch, and embarrassingly gauche in places, but certainly shows what Biller is about and attempting to do. Seen before The Love Witch, I suspect it might misinform viewers as to Biller’s intentions; seen after it, the films feels like a work in progress. She will go on to amazing things, I’m sure of it. Viva is part of the process.

A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). My previous experience of Imamura, The Ballad of Narayama (see here), I really did not like, but I suspect I added A Man Vanishes to my rental list based on the description rather than the name of the director. And I’m glad I did. The film starts out as a straightforward documentary on the case of a Japanese salaryman who simply disappeared. Bu then the documentary begins to question its own remit, and in a scene toward the end, the set is demolished around the filmmakers as they discuss what they have filmed, revealing the documentary itself to have been a fictional construct. It is astonishingly meta, and astonishingly informed about its own nature. I’m not sure what to make of it – it deconstructs itself from the inside in a way that I had frankly not thought within the vocabulary of 1960s film-makers. It’s clever in a way that far too few films are, and even fewer documentaries are. I thought it excellent.

Die Puppe, Ernst Lubitsch (1919, Germany). I think it was this film, of all the ones in this box set, which persuaded me to add it to my shopping basket during Eureka’s Boxing Day Sale. Ossi Oswalda plays the daughter of a toymaker who takes the place of a life-size doll bought by the local baron’s son who needs to marry but is not interested in doing so. So he marries the doll. Which is not a doll. He only married her because he had fallen under the spell on a local friary who hoped to use the dowry to fund their gluttony. So of course they’re a bit upset when it transpires the doll is a real woman. And he falls for her, so they’ll be keeping the dowry, thank you very much. Like the previous film in this set, Ich möchte kein Mann sein (see here), Die Puppe is played strictly for laughs, and Oswalda in the title role makes the film. It’s a thin premise, and not especially plausible, but the movie totally commits to it. It’s a more stagey film than the earlier one, with the action taking place on what are clearly stage-sets – and that includes the town square which features in the opening. Fun, but one for fans of silent movies, I suspect.

Dekalog*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1989, Poland). In terms of Polish cinema’s exposure to the English-speaking world, Kieślowski is a giant. Poland had a huge film industry, and has produced a great number of world-class directors, many of which have been released in Anglophone markets. So quite why Kieślowski has come to be seen as the quintessential Polish director is something of a mystery, especially given the paucity of his oeuvre compared to others such as Andrzej Wajda or Agnieska Holland. The same, I suppose, might also be said of Satyajit Ray and Bengali cinema – Ray is comprehensively released on DVD on the UK, but none of Mrinal Sen’s movies are available in UK releases. But then Ray had Ismail Merchant proselytising for him in the West, probably because Ray was helpful toward Merchant and Ivory during the early days of their career. I don’t know that Kieślowski did the same for an Anglophone director, but I’ve seen no evidence he did. Which does make his selection as the face of Polish cinema somewhat inexplicable. He’s good, there’s no doubt about that. But, I’ve come to feel, middle-brow and you’d expect a director with such a high profile to be more, well, cerebral. But then perhaps Kieślowski’s reputation was formed by his TV work, which this box set has shown is superior to his feature film work. The Dekalog itself, ten one-hour long episodes, each of which illustrates one of the Ten Commandments, and all of which are set in the same block of apartments in Warsaw. Some are better than others; some are even somewhat opaque, with a far from obvious link to the Commandment they are intended to illustrate. Two of the episodes, five and six, were later remade as feature films, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. They’re probably the two strongest episodes. This box set was definitely worth getting, just as much for the TV films and special features as for the Dekalog series itself.

Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi (2016, USA). The US is very good at making films that show racist it once was but which reveal how racist it still is. On the surface, Hidden Figures cannot be faulted – women of colour were involved in the US space programme and they have a story worth telling, if only to show people they were involved. But in an effort to create drama, Hidden Figures creates situations which undo the achievements of the people it is trying to celebrate. It’s not as blindingly obvious as Kevin Costner ripping down the “Whites Only” sign on the women’s toilet, an entirely invented scene since the NASA facilities were not segregated so there was no need of a white saviour… but also the fact the film’s event are implied to take place during the late 1950s when Katherine Johnson is promoted to the Mercury Task Group, but she had been made a supervisor over a decade before in 1948. There’s no doubt the contribution of women of colour, or indeed women, to the Space Race has been forgotten, if not outright written from history; but the real histories of these people are dramatic enough without having to make changes. The fact the US practiced segregation some fifty years ago is frightening, and yet not all that much has changed – hence the need for films such as this. Black people have been so written out of history – US especially – they cannot see themselves in it, despite their many and varied and important contributions to it. They are there, doing their bit, and only a racist or a fool would say otherwise. On the one hand, I think Hidden Figures‘s purpose is admirable and I welcome the film’s existence; on the other, I rue that it has to exist in the first place, and that it has to warp history to provide a narrative acceptable to the public. But it’s not a great film, and I suspect you’d get more from the book on which it was based.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895

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3 thoughts on “Moving pictures 2018, #5

  1. A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love aren’t remakes of Dekalog 5 and 6, but alternate versions made simultaneously. Kieślowski approached the Polish Ministry of Culture for financing for Dekalog. They declined to finance a TV series but did agree to back two feature films based on two of the episodes. Kieślowski wanted to do A Short Film About Killing and gave them the choice of the other episodes for the other film and they chose A Short Film About Love. Dekalog 9 was the other likely contender – if that had become a feature, it would have been called A Short Film About Jealousy.

    Before Dekalog, Kieślowski had had two of his previous four cinema features released in the then usual pattern of arthouse cinema run and a TV showing, and Camera Buff and No End were well received critically at least. Blind Chance had been banned by the Polish authorities in the wake of the imposition of martial law in 1981. He certainly wasn’t a pre-eminent Polish director at the time – if there was one then, it was Wajda, who was of an earlier generation (fifteen years older) and had made his name in the West in the 1950s with Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds especially. When I first started watching Polish films, in 1981/2, quite a few of Wajda’s films turned up on TV. I vividly remember watching Man of Marble on BBC2 on New Year’s Day 1982, followed by Man of Iron a few days later when it was still playing in cinemas. However, in the UK, Wajda’s films mostly stopped getting cinema showings after Korczak (1996) – not sure why they weren’t mostly picked up for distribution, but they weren’t. Maybe he went out of fashion somewhat.

    Agnieszka Holland is younger still (born 1948) and had only made three features by the mid 80s, one of which (A Woman Alone) had been banned, none of which had had British releases. She had emigrated to France, so really made her name outside her native country.

    I wouldn’t say Kieślowski’s filmography is that sparse, especially if you add in his TV and documentary work, though in his case he died relatively young. What really made his reputation in the West were the two Short Films premiering at festivals in 1988 (Killing won two prizes at Cannes) and the whole of Dekalog premiering at Venice in 1989. So his reputation was sky-high after that, and continued to be so until his death and beyond. I wouldn’t call him *the* pre-eminent Polish filmmaker, but certainly a great one in my opinion – but there are others (older and younger) who are rather less visible. It’s also a factor that many new Polish films nowadays don’t get picked up for British arthouse releases, but have short cinema runs in multiplexes, usually in areas with established Polish communities. Some of them do very well (Botoks, which I saw, ended up in the box office top 5 in its opening weekend) but they don’t then come out on DVD here, presumably because its intended audience can just as easily get them on disc from Poland, for a lower price than a British DVD would sell for.

    • I suppose I’d have known some of this if I’d watched all the special features on the box set 🙂 It was my understanding that a lot of Kieślowski’s documentary work isn’t available. The box set includes five of his TV films, which is I think most of them. I have all of his feature films on DVD or Blu-ray. But there are so many Polish directors of roughly the same generation as Kieślowski who could have ended up with a similar reputation – and I may be a generation out to either side, but – such as Has, Szulkin, Zanussi, Ford, Skolimowski, Królikiewicz… not to mention Wajda. I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, that Kieślowski’s reputation came from Dekalog.

  2. Zamussi’s films did get cinema releases in the 1980s – and I first saw The Constant Factor when Channel 4 showed it. (Incidentally, Mubi have a six-film Zanussi retrospective in progress at the moment.) Skolimowski was best known and most visible for the films he made outside Poland. As for the others, many of their films had had cinema releases but by the early 80s, unless they turned up at somewhere like the National Film Theatre or a repertory house, they’d more or less vanished. In Has’s case the version of The Saragossa Manuscript released overseas was shortened from the full three hours – and it’s a hard enough film to follow first time round in its complete version. BBC2 and Channel 4 did show more foreign-language films then than they do now, but it was usually recent stuff getting their one or maybe two showings, and older foreign films, especially black and white ones, turned up much more rarely. So lack of visibility affecting reputation.

    There was a two-disc Polish DVD set of Kieslowski’s documentary work last year, though I don’t have it. Many of his documentaries have turned up as DVD extras over here. Apparently only four of them are currently not available on at least one English-friendly disc and two of the four are on Youtube – without English subtitles though.

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