It’s been a while now, but I’m at the stage where I’m not so much wondering why films appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as I am watching films and wondering why they do not appear on it. One of the films below is from the list, and I’m not entirely sure why it made the grade – early Chinese cinema, and for the 1930s a good piece of drama, but it’s basically just a retread of The Phantom of the Opera. Bambi, on the other hand, was a surprise – not the over-sentimental Disney blockbuster I expected, but an animated film with some lovely design work in it…
The Debut, Gleb Panfilov (1970, Russia). I started watching this film thinking it was a more recent piece of work than it was. The Amazon Prime blurb suggested it was some sort of Russian art house black and white film, and while it was certainly black and white and Russian, it was actually nearly fifty years old and a mainstream USSR release. None of which makes it likely to be a bad film. Which it certainly wasn’t. Panfilov made a bunch of films, and usually cast his wife, Inna Churikova, in the lead. This is one of them. She plays an amateur actress who is cast as Joan of Arc in a professional production filming in her town. It’s her dream role. She is also in a relationship with a married man. I like Soviet films – they may present a somewhat rose-tinted view of life in the country, but I expect they’re a damn sight closer to the reality than anything Hollywood has produced set in the USSR, or indeed the USA. I especially like the fact that equality – both gender and race – seems pretty much baked into Soviet society. Yes, Churikova is seeing a married man, but in terms of her acting career she’s not expected to accept less pay even though she’s playing the title role. It’s hard not to consider Western society a step backwards in some respects. As a movie, The Debut (AKA Начало AKA Nachalo AKA The Beginning) has its moments and Churikova is generally good in the title role. It feels like a solid film of its type, with nothing that stands out. I’d watch more by Panfilov, and The Debut is definitely worth a punt if you’re interested in Soviet cinema.
The Man with the Iron Heart, Cédric Jimenez (2017, France). The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is certainly one of the more dramatic stories of WWII which might be considered worthy of film adaptation, especially since it comprises plucky underdogs killing an evil Nazi monster (and how long before that is considered offensive by the right-wing commentariat?). But of all the books to use as a source for the story, Lauren Binet’s HHhH is the last one I’d have chosen. Chiefly because it’s about Binet researching his subject – ie, Operation Anthropoid – and the impact of his project, and what he discovers, on his life. It’s an excellent book, neither fiction nor autobiography but something of both. Which is all very good, as Binet is an excellent writer. But the film adaptation turns it into, basically, a biopic of Heydrich. And we do not need biopics of evil Nazi monsters. When a film is about the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi officer, then the assassins are the heroes. The Man with the Iron Heart either does not understand that or has chosen to ignore it – and neither position is defensible. To be fair, the film covers the major elements of the assassination. But it also spends far too long establishing Heydrich as a sympathetic character. We’re told he’s a monster, and we witness some of his monstrosities, but the film is invested in him as the protagonist to the extent it feels like we’re supposed to be upset when he’s attacked and dies. Disappointing. Read the book, it’s way better.
The Arch, Tang Shu Shuen (1968, China). I found this on Amazon Prime. There’s a shitload of really quite good stuff hidden away on Amazon Prime… but, of course, most viewers are only interested in the Hollywood crap. The Arch is an early Hong Kong historical drama and is generally recognised to be one of the first Hong Kong “art house” films. Fifty years later, it’s hard to determine what might back then have been considered art house, especially with Hong Kong cinema, which during the 1960s was dominated by rom coms and wuxia films made by the Shaw Brothers (at least to Western observers). And while the time it was made is important when considering a film, from half a century away The Arch doesn’t seem substantially different to other art house movies of its time. But Hong Kong had no such tradition then, nor any female directors (Tang also graduated in film studies from the University of California), and it may well be that Tang’s gender is a major reason why The Arch exists. This is a good thing, of course. The film is set in a small village during the 1900s. The chief pillar of the community is a widow, who is so revered an arch in her honour has been erected on the lane leading into the village. But then a troop of soldiers arrive and the widow finds herself drawn to the troop’s captain… The Arch is also in Mandarin, not Cantonese, which is another difference to commercial Hong King cinema of the 1960s. Tang made only four feature films – The Arch was her first – but she definitely seems like a director whose oeuvre is worth exploring.
A Jester’s Tale, Karel Zeman (1964, Czechia). I know of Zeman from his excellent adaptation of the adventures of the Baron Munchausen, which has a singularly Czechian mix of live action and animation, in a way that is so obviously an inspiration for Anglophone animators like Terry Gilliam (who does cheerfully cite Zeman as an influence). Anyway, Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (see here) was great, but I forget why I added his A Jester’s Tale to my rental list. But I’m glad I did. In fact, I like both films so much I think there should be a collection of Zeman’s movies. He made only six features films, plus a whole bunch of shorts, so he’s an excellent candidate. I’d certainly buy it. A Jester’s Tale is based on the work of seventeenth-century Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian and is about two warring nations, and the principality located between them, during the Thirty Years’ War. A peasant masquerades as a duke, his girlfriend as a jester, and they’re accompanied by a man-at-arms. After stealing a coach full of silver and gold, they find themselves in the principality’s castle. But every time the wind changes direction – shown graphically by a face in the clouds blowing – the principality swaps allegiance… and the “duke” is either a prisoner or a welcome guest. There’s lots of clever animation, plenty of broad comedy, and a clever use of matte paintings to create the sets. I found A Jester’s Tale a more entertaining film than The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, although both have similar plots (A Jester’s Tale was made after The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). I now want to see the rest of Zeman’s films.
Song at Midnight*, Ma-Xu Weibang (1937, China). This film is pretty much a Chinese version of The Phantom of the Opera. I had a ripped copy for a while (it’s public domain, don’t worry), and then a copy appeared on Amazon Prime… and it was close call as to which had the most… creative subtitles. I have seen nearly a hundred Chinese films and the quality of the subtitles varies immensely. I can’t actually vouch for the quality of the translations as I don’t speak either Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other Chinese language. But I can certainly vouch for the quality of the English used in the subtitles and “The fish can make a wave” and “You are the water in the pond, and I am that duckweed aquatically” don’t, er, make much sense. But then interpreting the subtitles is part of the experiencing of watching non-Anglophone movies (although it’s more fun when you do understand the language being spoken and can spot the differences). Anyway… the Chinese film industry is huge, and has been around since the medium’s early days. Certainly the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list should include some early Chinese classics – and it does – but I’m not convinced this warmed-over take on The Phantom of the Opera is a good candidate, especially since the earlier adaptation by Rupert Julian is so good. There must have been other films that could have been chosen – although many early Chinese films may have been lost. Neither copy of Song at Midnight I had access to was especially good, and I have to wonder if a remastered copy might have led to me being more impressed. But if you want to see an early Chinese film, then The Goddess (see here) or Spring in a Small Town (see here) are much better examples.
Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA). I have a very clear memory of seeing The Jungle Book for the first time on a screen in the main hall of the Doha English Speaking School, which would make it somewhere between 1972 and 1973. I can also remember bits and pieces of Pinocchio and 101 Dalmations from my childhood. But, while I’ve convinced myself I must have seen Bambi at some point while I was a child, I can’t call up any corroborating memories. And having now actually seen the film, none of it, I must admit, seemed especially familiar. I suspect I knew of it, and that was it. But I have now seen it… and it was not at all what I was expecting. Or rather, my expectations were quite low and the film exceeded them. I shouldn’t have to describe the story, but… Bambi is a deer, the “prince of the forest”, hunters turn up, his mother dies, he grows up, there’s a forest fire, then more hunters, but all the animals live happily ever after… Which sort of implies the message of the film is that it’s okay to kill animals. After all the hunting and forest fires, the film ends with a repeat of the opening scene – except Bambi is the father and not the newborn – as if the film is trying to point out that Nature carries on. Kill all the deer, but more will be born. Yet for much of its length, Bambi feels like a paean to the simplicity and noble savagery of the animal world and its right to be left undisturbed by humankind. Okay, so the animals are characterised as, first, American kids, and then as American teenagers – but that’s the nature of Disney films and they’ve even characterised alien creatures as American kids… And yet… I’d put Bambi in the top five Disney film for beautiful animation and design. I’d still rate Sleeping Beauty top, and Cinderella second, but it would be a toss-up between Bambi and 101 Dalmations for third place. Bambi doesn’t have 101 Dalmations‘ charm but it does have these abrupt shifts to almost abstract art – which was one of the things Disney used to do back in the day and which really did add to the movie. When the forest fire takes hold, the art on screen is really quite striking, not in an especially realistic way, but it looks lovely. It’s not much – the use of silhouettes, an abstract representation of the threat… But it’s hugely effective. It’s when animation turns into animated art. When Bambi is at its most, well, mainstream it’s less appealing, although the character design is excellent and the animation has that clarity of line I wish Disney had not later dropped… I was surprised, as mentioned earlier, to discover after watching Bambi that I’d rate it in the top five of the Disney animated films I’ve so far seen.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933