Sometimes, when I come to write these Moving pictures post, I wonder why the hell I chose to watch the films I did. True, some are rentals, and so it pretty much depends on what Cinema Paradiso happen to send me (and, of course, what was going through my head when I put them on my rental list). Which is certainly true of two of the films in this batch. But some of the others… It’s not so much that I choose to watch these films, just the weird variety of them within the half dozen. And this lot are a little stranger in that regard than most of my Moving pictures posts…
Skidoo, Otto Preminger (1968, USA). Preminger is not generally known for his comedies, and there’s a reason for that. At least, there is if Skidoo is any indication. Jackie Gleason plays a retired mobster, married to Carol Channing. He’s asked to perform one last hit for mob boss Groucho Marx, on his old pal Mickey Rooney, currently in Alcatraz. Gleason is also worried about his daughter, who has dropped out, turned on and tuned in with John Philip Law amd his tribe of hippies. Meanwhile , a pair of Marx’s enforcers put pressure on Gleason, and Channing tries to lift this by seducing one of them, Frankie Avalon. While in Alcatraz, Gleason uses the high tech provided by an imprisoned hippy to contact Rooney, but then decides he can’t kill him. There’s a particular type of comedy film which sets up completely implausible situations – a mobster in prison to kill a confederate – and then fails to deliver on them due to a change of heart by the principle. It’s almost a law of comedy. Which does not necessarily make it funny. And if there’s one thing Skidoo is, that’s… not very funny. I mean, Preminger knew his stuff, he’d been making films since the 1930s, and he had a star-studded cast in Skidoo – not just those already mentioned, but also Frank Gorshin, George Raft, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero and Slim Pickens (but no female stars, other than Channing, which is disappointing, especially for 1968). The whole thing is so horribly dated – in its targets, its sensibilities, its comedy… I’m frankly not surprised Skidoo is not readily available on sell-through in the US or UK. Eminently missable.
I am not Madame Bovary, Feng Xiaogang (2016, China). A husband and wife in China divorce so that they can purchase a second property – as couples can only own a single property – but instead of remarrying as planned, the husband marries another woman. Incensed, the ex-wife reports him to the authorities and demands they nullify the divorce so she can properly divorce. Um, yes. They point out she is already divorced. The ex-husband meanwhile has been spreading lies about her sexual history. The ex-wife keeps after the authorites over the years, being bounced from one official to another, gradually working her way up the ladder. Her campaign is fruitless, and sees her briefly sent to a “re-education camp”. After her husband dies, she settles in Beijing and opens a noodle shop. Eventually, she reveals the divorce had been concocted to get around the one-child policy and had nothing to do with buying property. But during the divorce proceedings, she miscarried. This is a long film, 137 minutes, and bizarrely presented in a variety of formats, most often a circular aperture in the centre of the screen. I’ve no idea why Feng chose to present his film like that, it doesn’t add anything to it. I’m a big fan of contemporary Chinese cinema – although perhaps not so much the CGI-heavy historical epics they’ve been churning out for the past dozen years, but certainly the scaled-back, often documentary-like, dramas of the Sixth Generation directors. Feng is not Sixth Generation, but has been making films since the mid-1990s, and very successfully. I am not Madame Bovary is a film made by a film-maker who knows his craft – I’ve seen his earlier The Banquet (see here) and thought it good – so despite being slightly disappointed with this one, I think I’ll stick some of his other films on my rental list.
Film, Alan Schneider (1965, USA) / Film, David Rayner Clark (1979, UK) / Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). Film is Samuel Beckett’s first and only foray into cinema. It’s 24 minutes long, shot in black and white, has little or no dialogue, and stars Buster Keaton. It opens with a shot of a wall somewhere in New York. A figure, keeping its face from the camera, scurries alongside the wall, eventually entering a tenement and then a sparsely-furnished room. He performs a series of actions, then sits down in a chair, looks at some photographs, tears up the photographs, and then reveals his face to the camera. I’m not actually familiar with Beckett’s oeuvre – I know of Waiting for Godot, but I’ve never seen it – or of his career, to be honest. I know he wrote several novels, and I’ve been meaning to try one for years, but I came to Film completely cold. And… I like experimental/avant garde cinema. I’ve seen works by Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie, Ernie Gehr; I’m love the films of James Benning and Ben Rivers; I’m currently exploring the oeuvre of Pere Portabella; and the modern artform which appeals to me most is the video installation, and I’m a fan of works by Ed Atkins, Richard Mosse, Cécile B Evans and Tuomas A Laitinen… But Film does come across more as a laboured exercise in re-inventing the wheel. Beckett had no experience at film-making, nor was he that well-versed in the medium. He was a playwright, who later adopted television as his preferred medium. The core of Film is the relationship between O (the object, Keaton) and E (the eye; ie, the camera), and it’s all about what they can see. So Keaton spends his time in his room covering items which might “see” him, such as a painting, or the window. And when the screen projects what O sees, it does it through a gauze filter so it looks different to E. It’s hardly sophisticated stuff, and Beckett’s plodding working through of the concept is slightly painful to watch. But. As Beckett’s first and only attempt at cinema, it’s a fascinating experiment. Even more so when watching the BFI’s 1979 version, which was based on Beckett’s original script (and not the heavily-revised one used for the 1965 original), and starred Max Wall, a well-known comedic figure in the UK at the time… Having said that, Ross Lipman’s two-hour documentary on Beckett and his Film, Notfilm, is worth the price of admission alone. Lipman digs into Beckett’s career, the origin of Film, and Beckett’s production of it. It’s fascinating stuff, especially since Film is so unsuccessful a work from so successful a creator. I’m tempted to pick up a copy of this for myself.
The Millionairess, Anthony Asquith (1960, UK). My mother found this in a charity shop, and passed it onto me after she’d watched it. A comedy with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, directed by Anthony Asquith. Sounded like solid entertainment from the sixties. But… oh dear. If I said the song ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ was spun out of this film – the two stars performed it, in character, although it doesn’t appear in the actual film – then that should tell you all you need to know. Sellers plays an Indian doctor, and it’s the sort of offensive caricature that was once considered amusing and that Benny Hill more or less built a career upon. But Benny Hill was considered passé and offensive back in the late 1980s – one of the UK’s biggest comedy exports at that time and no one would show him on British TV. And rightly so. Loren plays a wealthy widow, who cannot remarry unless her prospective husband can turn £500 into £15,000 in three months, which I would have thought in 1960 ruled out pretty much everything except crime. But never mind. After various unsuitable suitors, she happens upon Sellers, a selfless Indian doctor. She decides he’s the one for her. But he tries to get ot of it by claiming his mother set a challenge that his bride-to-be must survive for three months on 35 shillings (that’s 420p, or 7 crowns or £1 and 15 shillings, or 1 and two-thirds guineas… all of which is about £37 in 2017 money). Loren bullies a pasta factory owner into letting her take over, modernises it and turns it highly profitable by replacing all the staff with machines. Sellers, meanwhile, can’t even give away his £500. But never mind, they get together in the end. The Millionairess was a massive hit on its release, but it really doesn’t play well today. To a twenty-first century viewer, it’s tasteless and not at all funny. And, to be honest, I never really understood Sellers’s appeal. Missable.
Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho (2013, South Korea). People raved about this when it was released five years ago, but since it’s never had a UK release on sell-through I’d never managed to see it. Until now. And I can’t honestly see what the fuss was all about. Some fifteen years in the future, the earth is uninhabitable, frozen solid from pole to pole after failed climate engineering to combat global warming (huh, I had a story published in 2010 based on that premise). The remnants of humanity live aboard a train which circles the globe, although I’m not sure how they cross the oceans – I assume they’re completely frozen over and so safe to lay a track upon. Anyway, the train’s society is a microcosm of the sort of neoliberal libertarian capitalist bullshit societies so beloved of science fiction. At the front end of the train are the elite, who live in comfort with all their needs met. And at the rear of the train are the “scum”, the proletarians, who are treated worse than slaves, fed on protein blocks made from insects, and brutally punished for the most minor of offences. When Chris Evans realises that the elite’s guards ran out of bullets years before, he leads a rebellion, and he and his fellow scum fight their way toward the front of the train, eventually confronting the train’s designer and leader of its society, Wilford, played by Ed Harris. Who reveals that the rebellion was engineered in order to cull the scum population as resources aboard the train are limited. Wilford asks Evans to replace him as leader, but Evans then discovers that scum kids are being used as replacement trains parts, so he kills Wilford. Oh, and it turns out the earth is thawing, so the train won’t even be needed soon. Snowpiercer looks very impressive, and the performances throughout are very good. But the tired old bollocks story just completely turned me off. In a closed environment like the train, survival is so precarious that any set-up which might lead to the environment being damaged, as in, for example, a rebellion, is just dumb. So wildyl unjust stories are just disasters waiting to happen. They’re clearly unsustainable. And only an idiot, or a sf writer, would consider building one. If Snowpiercer was trying to make a point about capitalism and capitalist societies, I didn’t care. I live in an unjust society, and while I’m no means near the bottom of it, I don’t need heavy-handed fables like Snowpiercer to tell me it’s unjust. By all means use fiction – written or cinematic – to depict such societies, but violent overthrow, followed by a deus ex machina, make for boring, and pointless, stories. Snowpiercer looked very nice – as well it might, given the amount spent on it – but I really wasn’t interested in its story.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896