It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


5 Comments

Moving pictures 2017, #41

It has occurred to me I should perhaps start a separate blogs for films, but then this blog would be be tumbleweeds all the time, so I don’t think I will. For the time-being, it’s likely to be mostly movies, but as the year progresses I’m hoping that will change. Meanwhile, more, er, films…

Gimme Shelter*, Albert & David Maylses (1970, USA). There’s that meme, back before the days of internet memes, and it asks: Asterix or Tintin? Dogs or cats? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? As if it’s a handy way to categorise people… For the record, I prefer Tintin to Asterix, cats to dogs… and I’m not really a fan of either The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But Gimme Shelter is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so watch it I must… The Maylses’s schtick was that they just filmed stuff, edited it, and then presented it without commentary (totally disingenuously, of course, as the editing itself created narrative out of the raw footage and so implied commentary). Gimme Shelter plays at fly-on-the-wall, and was originally intended to be simply a documentary in the putting together of a free concert. But the murder at Altamont during the Stones’ set obviously bent that out of shape, and so Gimme Shelter becomes a documentary about that, created from footage shot for other reasons. The end result is a powerful and interesting documentary, but also a somewhat disingenuous one, so much so it makes you wonder about the “truth” of all documentaries. To be fair, documentaries suffer from having to impose narrative on topics that have no natural narrative (narrative is an instrument of bias, by definition; a story teller chooses the story they tell), but in this particular case, the post-facto narrative proved more compelling than that which had prompted the project in the first place. Which is not to say that Gimme Shelter is a bad film, it’s a good one, but it does misrepresent itself… and indeed misrepresents the event it ostensibly documents. There is truth, there are documentaries that strive for truth, and there are documentaries that, well, appear on lists like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die… I enjoyed Gimme Shelter, despite not liking the music of the Rolling Stones, but it’s more an entertaining film than it is a valid witness to the events of the time it depicts.

A Short Film About Killing, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1988, Poland). Kieślowski is an excellent entry point to cinephilia. There, I said it. But he’s also the “director’s director” most cinephiles have moved on from, and his work, to them, to us, seems in hindsight somewhat middle-brow. He was undoubtedly an excellent film-maker, and his notorious perfectionism is evident in every frame of every work that bears his name. But his mix of stark realism and whimsical fantasy has not aged especially well, and for all the beauty of his framing, and the excellence of the performances he elicited from his casts, it all these days seems a bit past-it. Which is doubly unfair, when applied to A Short Film About Killing, which is entirely realist, but also shot entirely in a way that emphasises its realism. And which, sadly, ultimately undoes its intent. The story is simple: a listless drifter brutally murders a taxi-cab driver, is caught, tried, sentenced to death and hanged. That’s it. Kieślowski dwells on the murder, showing it as a brutal, drawn-out affair, as if it bolster the credentials of his villain – and it’s true that an argument against capital punishment needs to show an acceptable victim because it would otherwise be compromised… But to then display the moral scaffolding put in place to justify capital punishment by those who execute it does undermine the argument. True, it would be cowardice to have someone whose crime, or circumstance, might mitigate, or who might even be innocent – something most anti-capital punishment films seem to do. Kieślowski’s films is all the more powerful because the crime committed is so heinous. But he also shows that the system is fixed, reprieve is impossible, and the flat, affectless way the story unfolds fails to reinforce the logic of the film’s message because Kieślowski invests too much in the circumstances of his three main characters – the murderer, his victim, and the advocate who defends the murderer. He connects them. And that makes it personal – but the film’s argument against capital punishment remains impersonal. Kieślowski was once among my top ten directors, but he has since fallen from that list. I will almost certainly watch his films again some day, so I’m glad I own good copies. Speaking of which, the three Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema have proven an excellent purchase, and I’m really glad I took the plunge, even if they were quite expensive…

Sleep, My Love, Douglas Sirk (1948, USA). I can’t find UK DVD cover art for this, because it’s never been released on DVD here. The copy I watched was a legal out-of-copyright rip bought on eBay, of pretty good quality, way better than VHS, but by no means official. And, to be fair, it’s not a film that deserves all that much to be remembered. Sirk was one of several German, or Teutonophone, directors who had successful careers in Hollywood during the 1940s to 1960s, and his All That Heaven Allows is my all-time favourite film (and the so-called women’s melodramas he made during the late 1950s are among Hollywood’s best films), but for much of his career he churned out Hollywood potboilers… and this is one of them. It’s pretty much Gaslight by another name and with a slightly different plot. Claudette Colbert is an heiress married to a wastrel, Don Amerche, and Ameche has been using drugs and hypnosis to try and set her up to murder someone and so be sent to prison, allowing him, and his mistress, to abscond with her money. So he gaslights her, and when the murder plot fails, he tries to hypnotise her into jumping from her bedroom window. But that fails too… thanks to the lucky appearance of a China-based US businessman, Robert Cummings, on leave back home, whom befriends Colbert, and then becomes the love interest. Ameche and his co-conspirators are pretty inept, and only really get as far as they do because Colbert can’t see what’s going on (despite the gaslighting). Even then, it’s only because the conspirators fall out that their plot eventually falls apart. Not one of Sirk’s best; not even a good noir film, to be honest.

Two English Girls, François Truffaut (1971, France). I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I’m not really sure what to make of him. Some of his films I think are brilliant and I love them. Others, it’s hard to believe the same guy made them. True, no one loves all the films a particular director has made – I mean, no director is that good. Although one or two might come close. I love Sirk’s melodramas, for example, but his other films I find eminently forgettable. So, liking and admiring some of Truffaut films but not others, well, I’m unlikely to be alone in that. But to go from pretty much complete indifference to multiple watches of some of his movies, that’s not so common. Although I wonder if Two English Girls, AKA Anna & Muriel, a title that appears only on the Blu-ray packaging, which is a bit random, will be one of the latter. It’s a very Truffaut film, inasmuch as it’s seamlessly put together. But it’s also slightly odd in some respects. There are, for instance, a lot of long shots, and landscape shots, neither of which Truffaut normally uses. And there are the anachronisms. Two English Girls is a period piece set at the start of the twentieth-century and yet in one shot, quite deliberately, the two sisters are on the beach and plain on the horizon are – oil platforms? electricity pylons? I’m not sure. But whatever they are, they definitely didn’t exist in 1902. And in the opening scene, one of the young girls on the swing has quite visible orthodontic braces. And yet… the eponymous characters are well-drawn, and if Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the young Frenchman who becomes a de facto brother, and then lover of one, seems to act his role somewhat stiffly and with little visible emotion, his voice-over – text from the novel from which the film was adapted? – helps chart his character. It all felt very DH Lawrentian, which is no bad thing to my mind, but with an undercurrent of stiffness that is entirely foreign to Lawrence’s stories and prose… You know, I think Two English Girls might be one of the Truffauts I watch several times…

Endless Poetry, Alejandro Jodorowsky (2016, Chile). This film follows on directly from The Dance of Reality (see here), as it covers Jodorowsky’s early twenties, when he moved to Santiago and became part of a group of artists and poets. Jodorowsky is played one of his sons. Another son plays his father, as he did in the previous film,, which no doubt says all sorts of Freudian things, especially given that Jodorowsky himself makes several appearances, as himself, to give his young self advice– but what am I saying? Any Freudian who read any of Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées would probably wet themselves at the stuff he puts in them. Endless Poetry is, like the earlier film, a succession of incidents in Jodorowsky’s life, centred as it was at that time on poetry. But after his parents’ shop burns down, and they lose everything, Jodorowsky consults Nicanor Parra (an important Latin American poet, now 102 years old!), but dissatisfied with his advice, Jodorowosky decides to leave Chile for France, in order to “save surrealism”. Leading to one of the film’s most powerful scenes, where Jodorowsky’s father confronts him on the jetty, the two argue, and separate unreconciled… only for Jodorowsky himself to appear and have the two play out how, in hindsight, he wished the encounter had gone… which involves twentysomething Jodorowsky shaving his father’s beard and head, so he resembles one of the male/female characters which appear in several of his comics. Jodorowsky then steps onto a boat, which backs out to sea – although it’s obviously heading towards the camera but the film is running in reverse, and which seems an entirely fitting end to a pair of movies which have charted Jodorowsky’s beginnings, as a child and as a poet, while also recapitulating his entire career. I’ll admit I had previously considered Jodorowsky a director notable more for the weirdness of his vision than as a maker of good films. (And I’m a fan of his sf bandes dessinées too.) But The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry really are very good films, and it’s a shame Jodorowsky had to resort ot crowdfunding to finance them. Hopefully, he won’t need to for his next one. Perhaps he might even try making a sf film…

The Lesson, Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov (2014, Bulgaria). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental, and it looked worth watching. Which, happily, proved to be the case. A teacher in a town in Bulgaria translates documents on the side to make ends meet. Her husband has a camper van he is trying to sell, but he can’t get it working. One day, someone in her class steals some money, but no one will admit to the deed, or return the money when given the opportunity to do so anonymously. Then a repossession agent turns up at the teacher’s home and tells her they’re in arrears and the bank will auction off the house in three days – because the husband spent the mortgage payment money on a gearbox for his crappy caravanette. Then the translation company, which owes the teacher money, starts dragging its feet on paying her… and so she’s forced to go to a loan shark for the money to pay off the bank. (And then, after she’s made payment and returned to the school, the repossession agent rings to tell her he miscalculated and she owes a further 1.37 lev… which she has to borrow from a bus conductor on her way to the bank… but even that’s not enough because there’s a bank fee on top for the additional payment… and so she’s forced to scoop out coins from a good luck fountain.) At which point, the translation company declares bankruptcy, and the owner runs off with the money, so now the teacher can’t pay off the loan shark… The ending comes as no real surprise, but the build-up is cleverly done. Nor is the behaviour of the bankers and the loan shark all that much of a surprise, although they are disappointingly too much bastards. In fact, the teacher’s situation is pretty much created by the actions of total bastards – her husband, the owner of the translation company, the bank, the loan shark… Nevertheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 876

Advertisements


3 Comments

Moving pictures 2017, #34

I think I might start posting DVD haul posts as well as book haul ones. Admittedly, many of the films I watch are rental DVDs, but those I can’t find at either LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso, and are not recent releases, I generally have to hunt down, so perhaps it’s worthwhile recording that. Except, well, of the six movies below, only the first and last are from my collection. Nazar is the third of three films from the box set, and the other two have appeared in previous Moving pictures posts; while The Bad and the Beautiful is a Korean release I bought on eBay as the film is apparently not available in either the UK or the US. Go figure.

Anyway, time to start doing the bap-bap-baa bap-bap-baa bap-bap-baa from the Pearl & Dean theme tune as the main feature is about to begin…

Nazar, Mani Kaul (1991, India). After three movies by Kaul, I still have no idea what to make of him. Nazar, a later film than the other two, and apparently based on a Dostoevsky short story, as was the movie he made following this one, is, well, is pretty much Kaul channelling Godard. I like many of the Godard films I’ve seen – not that I’ve watched anywhere close to half of his total output – but he is pretty much a mixed bag. Some of his films, for me, work much better than others – and not for obviously discernible reasons: I love, for example, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, but was mostly left cold by Made in USA (I have the Criterion editions of both), and yet Godard shot both films simultaneously, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon, during the same month. However, one thing that is true of all of Godard’s films is that they bear, and sometimes demand, repeated watchings. I get that same sense from the three films in this Mani Kaul box set, but Nazar still strikes me as much more consciously Godard-esque than Uski Roti or Duvidha. And for that reason… it also seemed to me less successful. The well-off owner of an antiques shop in Mumbai marries a seventeen-year-old orphan. The film opens with her suicide, then flashes back to describe the events that may or may not have prompted the suicide. There are a lot of close-ups and pullbacks, with voiceover by the male lead Shekhar Kapur, but also some dialogue too. Much of the film consists of slowly moving shots with only music and sound effects. Kaul also does something interesting where he sits the camera in one spot, has the actors approach it, perhaps by crossing a room, and although the camera follows them it does not always pull back, and so an actor, or a part of them, fills the frame. Another Godard-esque aspect is that the dialogue sometimes feels like a series of non sequiturs. Certainly real-life conversations skip about, but the staginess of Nazar‘s dialogue, and the long silences in between, break the continuity. This box set was a good buy, and I’ll certainly watch the three films in it again, indeed I’d like to see more by Kaul… but I’m still not entirely sure what I’m watching.

Behave Yourself!, George Beck (1951, USA). My mother gave me a bunch of DVDs recently to watch, mostly classic Hollywood movies and recent UK TV mini-series. This was the first one I watched and, well, the cover art does over-sell it somewhat. There’s no Shelley Winters reclining lasciviously in lingerie in it, for one thing. According to Wikipedia, the script was written in four days, and they’ve not done a bad job given the time they took. Winters and Granger are happily married, but it’s their wedding anniversary and he’s forgotten it – until Winters drops heavy hints, at which point he does the usual and claims to have arranged a surprise… Meanwhile, two groups of villains are attempting to exchange, I think, counterfeiting plates, for cash, and are using a trained dog to do it. One group has trained the dog to lead the other group to the wanted goods. Except the dog takes a liking to Granger, screws up his attempt to buy his wife some lingerie by trashing the store, follows him home… and is immediately assumed by Winters to be the surprise present Granger had hinted at. Except now one gang of villains wants the dog back, another have figured out the dog’s role and want it for themselves, and the other gang think whoever has the dog is their contact from the first gang… The one-liners come thick and fast, there’s plentiful slapstick, and the plot manages not to collapse into a heap. But. It’s all a bit, well, corny, the characters are stereotyped, and Granger is far too smiley and amiable for his role (it was apparently written for Cary Grant). It’s an entertaining 81 minutes, but it’s no surprise it was quickly forgotten.

Grey Gardens, Albert and David Maylses (1975, USA). This movie is on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or perhaps another best of list, but it’s not on the list I’ve been using. But I watched it anyway. The title refers to a mansion in East Hampton, New York, USA, a property owned by members of the Bouvier family, relatives of Jackie Kennedy (as was). By the time the film was made, the mansion and its garden had fallen into disrepair, and the two women who lived there, the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy, both called Edith – Little Edie and Big Edie – were living in squalour. They were also quite eccentric. Grey Gardens is pretty much pure fly-on-the-wall, with some prompting by an off-screen interviewer. There’s an extensive look at the two Bouviers’ past, especially Little Edie’s career as a model and socialite in 1920s and 1930s New York. However, the problem with Grey Gardens, especially given its direct cinema approach, is that its worth depends entirely on its subjects. It handles the two women well, but I honestly don’t think they’re interesting enough in and of themselves, or because of how they’ve let the house fall into wrack and ruin, to justify the reputation this film has. Little Edie and Big Edie are not particularly interesting people. Odd, certainly. But not fascinating or admirable or important or even representational. Their only real claim to fame – because there are plenty of women, and men, who have let their homes fall into total disrepair – is the family connection to Jackie Kennedy and JFK. But, and I’m sorry I have to break the news to the US, the Kennedy family were not royalty and, more than that, actual royalty is not all that fucking interesting anyway. I suppose in some ways it’s the antithesis of the American Dream, ie, riches to rags, but in a world where, as Noam Chomsky has said, debt is little more than slavery (but hardly equivalent to it, because slavery is an abomination), and poverty is increasing massively thanks to the actions of the one-percenters, the two Edies’ downward trajectory is neither entertaining nor edifying. In other words, I don’t pity the Bouviers, I pity the people who pity the Bouviers. And that includes the Maysles.

52 Tuesdays, Sophie Hyde (2014, Australia). No idea how this one ended up on my rental list – I don’t think it’s the sort of film David Tallerman would have recommended, so perhaps I saw a trailer or something. Billie is sixteen, her parents are divorced, and her mother is now transitioning from Jane to James. Because of this, Billie goes to live with her father, and visits James every Tuesday after school. For a year. Hence, 52 Tuesdays. Unfortunately, James’s body rejects the male hormones, so his treatment stalls. Meanwhile, Billie has hooked up with Josh and Jasmine, two older kids from her school, and while the three experiment sexually, so Billie films them… leading to her sending a nude photograph of herself to Jasmine, which the school learns about and goes mental because it’s technically paedophilia as Billie is under the age of consent or something… I remember taking this out of the LoveFilm envelope, reading the précis on the DVD sleeve and thinking it didn’t sound too bad, but getting pulled into the story as I watched it… because Tilda Cobham-Hervey is really good in the role of Billie, the film iss played as a low-key drama, and it touched enough points out of the ordinary, in a nicely sensitive fashion, to give the story added interest. I’m guessing that adding it to my rental list was pure whim, but I really enjoyed 52 Tuesdays. A well-played uplifting drama about something personal, and a perfect antidote to Grey Gardens. Worth seeing.

Tropical Malady, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2004, Thailand). Weerasethakul’s name is not unknown to me, although this was the first film by him I’ve watched. I seem to recall seeing a trailer of it on another rental DVD. But it was released by Second Run, and their catalogue is generally pretty damn good. So, despite not really knowing what to expect, I had reasonably high hopes when I slid Tropical Malady into the DVD player… And it both met them and failed them. The film tells two stories. In the first, a soldier is assigned to a provincial village, falls in love with a local villager, and the two spend time together. In the second, a soldier – not necessarily the one from the first story, but played by the same actor – follows a lost villager into the jungle and meets a tiger spirit – played by the love-interest of the soldier from the first story – who haunts and taunts him. Unfortunately, the links between the two stories – despite the shared cast, despite the shared setting – aren’t strong enough, although the individual stories themselves are very good. Had it been two separate films, I’ve have thought them much better – but as a conjoined work, and this despite my own experiments in literary structure – it didn’t to me seem as if it quite hung together. Despite that, I want to watch more Weeraserthakul, and perhaps I may later have cause to re-evaluate Tropical Malady. It’s nonetheless worth seeing – I enjoyed it, but it never quite gelled for me.

The Bad and the Beautiful*, Vincente Minnelli (1952, USA). As the asterisk indicates, this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, while Minnelli has made some classic Hollywood films, I think putting six of them on the 1001 list is over-doing it. By quite a bit. Particularly with this one. The Bad and the Beautiful opens with a person telephoning a famous director, a famous actress and a famous writer, all of whom refuse to talk to the caller. They’re then called to the office of a top Hollywood producer, who explains they have good reason to refuse to speak to the caller, ex-producer Jonathan Shields but… The film flashes back to each of the three’s history, explaining how they came to know Shields (played by Kirk Douglas) and how he shafted them, before returning to the producer’s office… It’s a clumsy-as-hell narrative structure, the characters are all archetypes, and Minnelli was never more than ordinary in his framing… but it’s a Hollywood film about Hollywood and… yawn. Seriously, this is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? It’s a clichéd melodrama, in which the prize goes to who chews the most scenery. And yet… it was nominated for six Oscars and won five of them – and still holds the record for the most Oscars for a film not nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. For the, er, record, it won Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Costume Design (Black and White), Best Adapted Screenplay… but lost Best Actor. Incidentally, awards for black and white films were dropped in 1967, and both colour and B&W films competed in the same categories thereafter. It’s possible 1952 was a bad year, Oscar-wise, to prompt so many nominations – and wins – for this ordinary melodrama… Um, I see Best Picture went to The Greatest Show on Earth, Best Director to John Ford for The Quiet Man, Best Actor to Gary Cooper for High Noon and Best Actress to Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba… So, yes, a shit year. Seriously, this film does not belong on  the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I seriously doubt Minnelli deserves so many places on it either.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 871