I promised 2018 wouldn’t be all film posts, but we’re less than four months into the year and I’m on my twenty-first film post. That’s like three a week. And not much else, except posts on the books I’ve bought and the books I’ve read. While I’ve started reviewing again for Interzone, and SF Mistressworks is back up and running, I still need to start writing criticism again. I suspect I’m better at ranting than sustained arguments, and since the “reviews” in these film posts have a tendency to turn into mini-rants, I’m letting it out in dribs and drabs instead of holding it back for one long piece on science fiction… On the other hand, I’ve found it harder to engage with online sf fandom this last year or so, chiefly because I’m usually not interested in the books and authors under discussion.
Speaking of mini-rants… We have an Oscar-winner in this post. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it won the Hugo this year. I hated it.
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro (2017, USA). I’m not really sure how to write about this film. Del Toro has been widely praised over many years, and not just in genre circles, and of course The Shape of Water won the Oscar. Now I’m not so foolish as to believe the Oscar is any real indication of quality, and often as not the Academy’s choice of winner is baffling to everyone (as is their choice of shortlist). But that’s awards for you. The Shape of Water, in which a captured amphibian human, an experimental subject in a secret government research programme, enters into a relationship with a mute woman (mute, but not deaf), has been seen by many as a sensitive treatment of the disability. I can’t speak to that, it’s not my experience to discuss. But I can certainly discuss the film I watched. Which opened with an acknowledgement to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and then proved to be a complete rip-off in mise en scène and lighting and the whole look of the film to the oeuvre of Jeunet and Caro, so much so it went beyond homage. Then there’s the fact the amphibian human is basically Abe Sapiens from the Hellboy films, and even played by the same actor, Doug Jones, under the prosthetics. Meanwhile, one of the scientists in the lab is a Soviet mole, and he fancies the mute woman, but his KGB handler is after him to kill the creature. The mute woman helps the amphibian human to escape and hides him out in her apartment. The two start having sex. But the chief US scientist is after them, as is the KGB handler, and it all comes to a violent end. The film is set in the 1950s, and I thought it horribly misogynistic. Yes, the times were misogynistic – and I’ve seen a lot of 1950s films; my favourite film was released in 1955 – but del Toro’s depiction of it felt excessive. It made a film, which felt like a rip-off of better films, quite horrible to watch. Why it won the Oscar is a mystery. I thought it was rubbish. Plus, at one point the amphibian bites the head off a cat, which is not going to endear a film to me at all…
Z*, Costa-Gavras (1969, Algeria). I didn’t bother to look this one up before watching – I mean, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list, so I was going to watch it whatever. Which meant I cam to it completely cold… and, unlike some of the films from the list I’ve come to cold, I was actually pleasantly surprised and, by the end, very much impressed. The title refers indirectly to the military junta which seized power in Greece in the early 1960s. Among the many things the right-wing military dictatorship outlawed was the letter “Z”. The film is thinly-disguised retelling of events surrounding the assassination in 1963 of the Opposition Deputy after he had given a speech on nuclear disarmament to an audience opposed to the right-wing government in power. The government try to cover up the assassination, but put no real effort into making it plausible. And the investigating magistrate put on the case soon develops a case against senior military officers linked to the government. But this is not the result the government want. After various failed attempts to make it go away, they eventually let the investigation and court case run its course. Several senior military officers are charged and found guilty. A few months later, the army seizes power, the sentences from the court case are quietly forgotten, and the military dictatorship bans, among other things, the Opposition, demonstrations and the letter “Z”, zeta, because it was used by the Opposition to mean “he lives”, in reference to the assassinated Deputy. The story is told in an economical style, which feels very French – and it’s a French language film – for all that it’s set in Greece. There’s a refreshing lack of clutter to the story, which moves through its plot like it’s on rails – and even attempts to, er, derail it, such as the alternative theories to the assassination given by the authorities, which are shown in flashback as if they were true, fail to shift the story from its intended ending. So fake news doesn’t always win. A lot of the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list have been new to me. Some of them have proven not very good at all; others have surprised me, and I’ve been greatly impressed, despite them not being ones I’d expected to like or enjoy. This one definitely falls into the latter category.
Same Old Song, Alain Resnais (1997, France). This film opens with an acknowledgement to Dennis Potter, and as well it should as it borrows a conceit from Potter’s Pennies from Heaven: the characters break into song at intervals, but they actually lipsynch to the original versions of tracks. I don’t remember much of the Potter TV series, or the later Hollywood adaptation for that matter, although I do vaguely remember seeing the series back in the 1980s. Same Old Song is an ensemble piece. Camille bumps into Nicolas, a man her sister Odile was once close to but who has been away from Paris for many years. Odile is now married to Claude. She is also looking for a bigger apartment, using estate agent Marc. Camille runs historical walking tours of Paris. A regular on these tours is Simon, who fancies Camille but only irritates her by expanding on her lecturettes to the others in each group. He claims to write radio plays, but he actually works for Marc – and he is useless at is job and only kept on out of loyalty to Marc’s father. Camille meanwhile fancies Marc, and enters into an affair with him. Nicolas is also looking for an apartment, so he can bring his family back to Paris. Later, he admits he is estranged from his wife and child. At points throughout the film, members of the cast begin singing– well, no, they don’t, they lipsynch. To popular songs performed by the original artist. In several cases, they lipsynch to songs performed by artists of a different gender. I didn’t at first think the gimmick added anything to what was essentially a fairly common type of French relationship drama, but it actually started to grow on me. It helped that the cast were uniformly very good. I liked the film. On the other hand, it all felt a bit lightweight for the director of Muriel or Hiroshima Mon Amour…
WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia). I joked on Twitter while watching this that I had persistently misread “Mysteries of the Organism” as “Mysteries of the Orgasm” only to discover that my misread was closer to the truth. Which is not entirely fair. But, to be honest, I have no idea what this film was about. Well, I know what it was about, but I don’t… It’s about Wilhelm Reich and his theory of orgone energy, and is partly a documentary about Reich and his “Orgonon”, his lab in Maine, USA, but it also includes shots of Jackie Curtis eating an ice cream on Broadway, a story about a woman in Communist Yugoslavia who is forced out of her flat because her room-mate is having sex and so lectures on sex and politics to the rest of her apartment block and later enters into a relationship with a People’s Artist ice skater, an interview with a woman who paints people while they masturbate, a man who dresses like a homeless soldier and stalks well-off New Yorkers with a plastic rifle, and several others bits of found footage, interviews and drama… It’s pretty much impossible to summarise the plot, or the various sections. It’s also completely mad. But in a good way. I loved the bits set in Yugoslavia – it was that sort of declamatory film-making I really like. The documentary bits were less interesting, perhaps because Reich’s theories are so off-the-wall they’re hard to take seriously. It’s an odd choice for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I can see how it might have become a cult favourite, but it does several things that other films do perhaps better – bits and pieces, for example, from the oeuvres of Miklós Jancsó or Sergei Parajanov – although they don’t use the collage (if that’s the right word) technique used here. It’s an interesting film, but I’m not sure if WR: Mysteries of the Organism belongs on the list. If the list includes this, it might as well include Anthony Balch’s Secrets of Sex…
Pina, Wim Wenders (2011, Germany). I have watched many films by Wenders, and some of them I have liked a great deal. I have a box set of his works somewhere. Though at one time Wenders may have had the same stature internationally, I suspect Herzog has since outstripped him. Possibly because Herzog has made a couple of movies for Hollywood. It can’t be because Wenders makes documentaries on obscure subjects as well as feature films, because Herzog does that too. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d classify Pina Bausch and Tanztheater as an obscure subject. The weird thing is, there are several films in which a completely off-the-wall dance routine bumps the movie from very good to borderline genius – and one of them is even by Herzog – and yet I’m not a fan of dancing. (Watching, or doing.) Or Tanztheater. So much of this documentary was wasted on me. It was interesting, inasmuch as it was something I’d not seen before. And the footage shot in Wuppertal, especially of the city’s unique Schwebebahn, was fascinating. But Tanztheater didn’t strike me as an artform I feel inspired to explore further. Apparently, Bausch died during the filming of Pina, and Wenders planned to abandon the project. But all those who knew Bausch persuaded him to continue, and the film became a memorial to her. In that respect, I think it succeeds extremely well.
The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA). This is the second film this year I’ve watched with this title. The first was a good thriller from Iceland (see here). This one is a documentary about two men who were involved with al-Qa’eda during the 1990s. And, like any documentary about the War on Terror, the US comes out of it looking like the biggest villains. At one point, a military lawyer representing the US in a case against one of the two guys mentions “crimes against humanity” – and this from a state which has imprisoned people without due process, without a trial, has secretly abducted them from sovereign nations and smuggled them to their illegal prison, breaking no end of international law, tortured them (in direct defiance of international law and a treaty to which the USA was a signatory), and, in this case, even manufactured a crime they could find the defendant guilty of because he plainly wasn’t guilty of the one for which he was arrested. Anyway, Abu Jandal was a bodyguard for bin Laden but left al-Qa’eda shortly before 9/11 after a difference of opinion over the organisation’s tactics. When he saw 9/11 on the news, he was so disgusted he gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities. And after a couple of years in prison was rehabilitated via the National Dialogue Conference. He then fed intelligence to the US regarding al-Qa’eda, and now talks regularly to young Yemeni men – and has been interviewed on Arabic television – about his history, about what al-Qa’eda means, and about how best to fight US hegemony in the Arab world. Abu Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was bin Laden’s driver. He was not a combatant, he was not privy to tactical or strategic information. But the US arrested him, renditioned him to Guantanamo, tortured him, and then put him in front of a military court. But Hamdan’s lawyer challenged the verdict as unconstitutional (now there’s a joke!) and it went to the Supreme Court. So the US government quickly invented a crime – “giving material aid and support to terrorists” – that they knew they could make a case for, and he was duly found innocent of all charges except for two of the five charges of giving material aid. This is a fascinating documentary, and tells you more about how the US has prosecuted the War on Terror – like a bunch of war criminals, basically – than it does on the War on Terror itself. When those who fight terrorists employ even more immoral and illegal tactics than the terrorists, then they need to be brought down too. Once, history may have been written by the winners, as they say; but now, with the internet, so many narratives spring up around every event it’s no wonder the authorities have to resort to accusations of “fake news!” in order to get their version of events accepted…
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 904
April 23, 2018 at 5:00 pm
Huge huge huge dan of Z. I also enjoy Costa-Gavras’ other films — Missing, State of Siege, and I seem to remember Amen wasn’t that bad….
April 24, 2018 at 11:30 am
Will have to track down copies to watch.
April 24, 2018 at 9:58 am
I liked the derivative and the fairy tale in The Shape of Water… and I disliked some of the things you disliked. The reason I’m disappointed by so many people adoring it, however, is that it rings hollow. A little more care in the writing, in the shape of the narrative and a less casual approach to in violence and exploitation, and it could have been a perfect borrowed fairy tale.
April 24, 2018 at 11:33 am
I don’t think the Hollywood system is capable of making films with “a little more care in the writing”. And they’re certainly won’t dial back the violence, when US, and UK, culture in general – not just movies, but also sf novels – seems happy to push the violence as far as it will go. We have allowed our culture to normalise the fascist crap appearing in the news on a daily basis.
April 24, 2018 at 12:51 pm
Yes – and I have a problem with this on so many levels. Some of them show in the movie where making violence a casual, normative occurrence meant that emotions were coarsened. It could’ve been an amazing film of its kind. In the end, it was amazing to look at, but it felt so far short of its potential.
I kept thinking “I know that setting” for the theatre, which didn’t help.
April 24, 2018 at 7:43 pm
The setting pretty much rips off The City of Lost Children by Jeunet and Caro.
April 25, 2018 at 4:57 am
It could be rip-off or it could be tribute: either way, it’s the best thing in the film.