It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Watching diary 2021, #3

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I’ve no idea what’s been happening to my movie watching of late. It seems a bit all over the place. Likewise, the TV series. First up, there was UK six-part TV series Apparitions, starring Martin Shaw as a Catholic priest who ends up in a personal battle with a demon bent on recruiting him for Satan. An interesting treatment of demons and the Catholic Church – and I’m no fan of religion. I tried the first season of the much-lauded Stranger Things, but didn’t like it at all. Derivative, the kids were annoying, RPGs were presented as something only twelve-year-olds played, the uncritical depiction of bullying, the fact a modern-day Mengele was experimenting away in middle America and no one seemed to have a problem with that… Not impressed. I doubt I’ll bother with seasons 2 and 3. And then there’s The Flight Attendant, about a, well, a flight attendant. Who wakes up in a Bangkok hotel room, next to the bloody corpse of the man she’d met the previous night and gone to bed with. It’s all to do with a big finance conspiracy – fucking one-percenters, they’re a blight on global society – but what lifted this series above other thriller series was the flight attendant hallucinating commentary sessions with the murder victim, and her general cluelessness. I enjoyed it.

The Message, Moustapha Akkad, (1995, Lebanon). Another film about Islam, but this one at least mentions the religion. The Prophet, of course, is not mentioned by name, nor seen on the screen. While his presence is not there, enough of Islam is there for the story to make sense. However, there’s a problem here – Muslim viewers will see what they already know, non-Muslim viewers will not see anything that provides any kind of commentary on the history or origin of Islam. True, The Message is no different to the vast number of straight-to-DVD movies churned out by the “Christian” film industry – and I’ve inadvertently seen some of them – but it at least has the integrity not to hide the fact it’s religious propaganda. I would much sooner watch The Message, a movie about Islam, than some fantasy film with “Christian values”. But, to be honest, I don’t think I benefit from either. Cinema may be a powerful medium for propaganda, as Goebbels no doubt said at least once, but it does often seem the most partisan cinema is often aimed at those who share the same values as the film-makers. There’s no changing minds here, only validating worldviews.

The Twenty Questions Murder Mystery, Paul L Stein (1950, UK). The title refers to a popular radio programme back in the day – from 1947 to 1976, apparently. And while I know of the concept, I was not aware of the radio show. The stars of that show appear in this film, in which a person writes in with a phrase for the panel to guess, only for someone to be murdered a day or two later in a fashion relating to the phrase. And that’s only the first of several murders. It’s all to do with a man who was imprisoned while serving in India during WWII, and his revenge on those who put him in prison. There simply aren’t enough clues initially to guess the murderer – plenty of red herrings, however – but then two-thirds of the way in, it’s obvious who the killer is, and it’s then annoying how slow on the uptake the cast are. This is very much a film of its time – the cast are all terribly terribly, and terribly enthusiastic and energetic, and not a little dim with it, and the use of actual real life celebrities of the day is treated like some sort of jolly jape. And if there’s a deeper message in there about the behaviour of British troops in India post-war, it’s… No, WTF am I thinking? Of course there’s no such thing. English culture is nothing if not resolutely non-self-critical. Self-deprecating, yes. Self-critical, never.

Accumulator 1, Jan Svěrák (1994, Czechia). If there is one cinematic tradition in Europe that could plausibly be from another planet, it’s Czech films. Well, maybe except for Hungarian films – or at least movies by Miklós Jancsó. Or Armenian ones – or at least movies by Sergei Parajanaov. I don’t know. Maybe the two directors were descended from Czechs… Having said that, there could be a perfectly normal and resolutely commercial domestic Czech cinema industry, whose output is considered too low-brow, too banal, and too unoriginal to be released outside the country. But I suspect none of that is true. Accumulator 1, however, is a Czech film and I have no fucking idea what it is about. I am, I hasten to add, a huge admirer of Czech cinema, which has both been technically innovative and used cinematic narratives to comment entertainingly, and not always obviously, on its various regimes. In Accumulator 1, surveyor mysteriously collapses and while in hospital meets a man who can draw energy form his surroundings. The surveyor develops this, so much so he becomes more or less the battery of the title. Meanwhile, he’s met this girl and he fancies her, but his Lothario colleague is making things difficult, and then the surveyor’s energy problems begin to affect those about him so he has to come up with some plan to dispel that energy… It all feels like a clever analogy that isn’t quite clear enough. Much of the film plays like an off-centre rom com – in other words, a Czech rom com –  but the final act is all pyrotechnics, and  all I could think of was there were Polish films that did something similar but better. Although, to be fair, Accumulator 1 was likely better than any Hollywood attempt at the same material.

Hollywood Boulevard, Allan Arkush & Joe Dante (1976, USA). And  speaking of Hollywood… When a film was made because of a bet, it’s a fair guess the film is shit. When the bet was whether the directors could make the cheapest film ever for a studio, New World Pictures, which was not exactly known for the lavishness of its budgets… Well, “shit” is perhaps over-estimating the film’s quality. Hollywood Boulevard won the bet by making extensive use of stock footage. It’s likely that’s where the bulk of its budget went. The story follows three women who, via an agent, sign on as contract players at Miracle Pictures, a studio even cheaper than New World. Except someone is killing off female Miracle Pictures stars, and basically figuring out who the villain is simply a matter of seeing who’s still standing by the start of the third act. Hollywood Boulevard is not just cheap, it aspires to being cheap. It may have won the bet, but it actually detracted from the sum of culture produced by Hollywood. If you know someone who watched this film, feel for them. Do not be them.

The Last King, Nils Gaup (2016, Norway). It’s sometimes easy to forget that pretty much every European’s nation’s history is as fucked up as that of England. Until moving to Sweden, my knowledge of Scandinavian history was pretty much non-existent, which is hardly surprising, and if I’d imagined it to be the usual run of  invaders and dynastic struggles and shifting borders, I would not have been entirely wrong, if not entirely close to the truth. In Norway, for example, in the 1200s, there was a dynastic struggle between supporters of a family from the south, the Baglers, and the incumbents, from the north, the Birkebeiners. Which at one point resulted in the Birkebeiner heir, while a baby, being spirited north to save him from death at the hands of the Baglers. The Baglers had the support of the (Roman) Church, but the Birkebeiners had history, and the general populace, behind them. There is a happy ending – the baby eventually assumed the throne and proved one of the best kings of Norway of the period. But this is is a movie, and chiefly about the Birkebeiners keeping the baby Håkon Håkonsson, later King Håkon IV, out of the hands of the nasties. Infotaining stuff, with a lot of snow and beards and faces familiar from pretty much every other Norwegian film I’ve watched. You could do much worse.

A Song is Born, Howard Hawks (1948, USA). Many directors have remade one of their own films. Hitchcock did it with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Capra did it with Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961). There’s Haneke and his Funny Games (1997 and 2007), although the latter was an English-language remake… And many other directors have made English-language remakes of their non-Anglophone movies. A Song is Born is Hawks remaking Ball of Fire, in which a nightclub singer on the lam hides out in an institute where a group of professors are putting together a comprehensive encyclopaedia of music, and have been doing so for the past decade. In the original film, it’s Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, and the sparks are visible on the screen. In A Song is Born, it’s Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo and… oh dear. Reputedly put together to cash in on the craze for jazz, the film certainly features a number of impressive performances by a lot of well-known names. But Kaye had just split from his wife and refused to sing (she was his lyricist), and was also apparently disappearing off to therapy every day – and it’s almost like he’s phoning in his performance. Mayo vamps as best she can, but she can’t match Stanwyck. The end result is a Technicolor remake that feels colourless compared to the original. One for fans.

Almost Human, Umberto Lenzi (1974, Italy). Grateful as I am to Shameless for dumping all these gialli and poliziotteschi films on Amazon Prime, I suspect I’ve heard Italian spoken more than Swedish over the last twelve months, and they do not speak Italian here. Most gialli/poliziotteschi are, of course, complete trash, but quite a few are weirdly good, even if mostly it comes down to sheer style, something the Italians do so effortlessly. But other such films are clumsily “European”, which often adds a charm all its own. They may have their faults in  plotting and story, but they there’s still something weirdly compelling about them. Almost Human, sadly, is not one of them. It’s the life of a minor criminal who finds himself committing ever more heinous crimes simply in order to stay ahead of the law. And when he’s finally caught, and released on a technicality, the cop who had pursued him kills him. Some of these Shameless releases are, as I have said worth a go. This one is entirely missable.

Come and Get It, Howard Hawks (1936, USA). Another controversial Hawks picture. Controversial chiefly because he was fired, and the film was finished and recut by William Wyler. Who then refused to have his name on it. The story is adapted from a multi-generational novel about loggers in late nineteenth-century Wisconsin. The source novel is a paean to North America’s natural resources and a criticism of their pillaging by “robber barons”. The Silver Fox turned it into a romantic triangle. Sigh. Hawks could cheapen anything, and often did, but he could also make damn a good film out of it. Unfortunately, in this case, his interpretation of the story drew the wrath of the studio, ie Samuel Goldwyn, and Hawks was sacked. Wyler was bought in to “fix” the film, but could do little to rescue it. And, other than reshooting it all from scratch, it’s hard to see how he could have rescued it. There’s some good cinematography here, but the story is trite and banal, and the larger themes implied to exist in the novel are hastily pushed to one side here as the hero of the story lusts after the daughter of an old flame but she’s already fallen in love with his son. It’s pure soap opera – and that’s soap opera at its least imaginative. One for fans.

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