Perhaps, at a time when it’s easy to turn to things that comfort, we should be looking outside our comfort zone. They say the sales of “bucket list” books are up. So… for films, turn off that Hollywood blockbuster. For TV, put down from that box-set you’ve binged on half a dozen times before already. Try something new.
The following films are not new to me, and one or two may not be new to many people. They are, as of the end of March 2020, my ten favourite films. (The list changes often, but this is what is is now.) The movies appeal to me for a number of different reasons, but the one thing they all have in common is that I can watch them – and have watched them – many times. I love every frame of them, in some cases with a passion that borders on mania. Those that are adapted from books, I have hunted down copies of the books and read them. Those that have been novelised, I have read the novelisation. Neither diminished the appeal of the films.
The films are…
All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA). This one should come as no surprise to people who know me. A 1950s melodrama by a master of the form, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, and based on a novel by mother and son Edna and Harry Lee. The film looks absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, but is also a razor-sharp skewering of US social classes.
A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). Based on a novel, which is actually more of a collection, by Adwaita Mallabarman, which documents the lives of the villagers who live on the banks of the titular river, and its tributaries, and from which background Mallabarman came. Ghatak was a singular talent and made a handful of remarkable films, but this one is world-class, a harrowing tale about a man who loses his wife, as well as a perfect ethnographic documentary of a lost way of life.
Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). The amount of money spent on this is legendary – the set was so large it was dubbed “Tativille”. But every centime spent is visible there on-screen. The humour is pure Tati, although perhaps less inventive than in other films, but the commitment to the world Tati built for the movie is astonishing.
Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). Cuba has one of the great forgotten cinemas. It has produced a number of world-class movies for more than half a century, and among those films Solás is a name to be reckoned. Lucía, like many Cuban films, is an exploration of the country’s history, through the lives of three women living in three different periods. It is its treatment of its material that is especially impressive. But watch more Cuban cinema, it is excellent.
The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia). If I have a favourite director, which I do, it is Aleksandr Sokurov. He makes both documentaries and narrative films, and the rigour of his work is astonishing. He is also not afraid to experiment with cinematic techniques, and many of his films use the presentation of the story as commentary on the story. I would be hard-pressed to pick a favourite Sokurov film, but the simplicity of this one has always appealed to me.
Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films post-L’Avventura and his new approach to cinema. But it is only in Red Desert that it really comes into its own. This is motion picture as art. It’s too long to be a video installation, but my love of this film is one of the reasons I love video installations. It is not just a new form ofe cinematic narrative, it is a new cinematic narrative language.
Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK). I was too young to see this film in the cinema when it was released, but I had already fallen in love with it because of its production design. And I still love it for that reason. It also has one of the most basic plots on the planet, and manages to present it flawlessly. If it has faults, they are a result of the state of the cinematic art in 1979. Alien kept its story simple and succeeded precisely because of that. None of its sequels have matched it.
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I’m not a huge fan of Nolan’s films. Interstellar struck me as two movies badly welded together, neither of which made much sense. Inception felt like it thought it was cleverer than it actually was. So when I first watched Dunkirk, I was surprised by how much it appealed to me. It’s totally immersive, and yet entirely plotless. It’s far too emotional to be a documentary, yet it has a documentary’s authenticity.
Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). As mentioned earlier, this list has changed many times over the years, and Dunkirk and these last two films are all recent additions, watched for the first time in 2018. In Girls Lost – Pojkarna, The Boys, in Swedish – three teenage girls who are being bullied at school drink a potion and turn temporarily into boys of the same age. There are numerous Disney films with a similar precis, but Girls Lost certainly does not play its conceit for laughs. Despite that precis, its story feels completely believable.
War and Peace, parts 1 to 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, USSR). There is no good version of these four films in existence, despite its stature, its technical accomplishments, its expense, its sheer sweep and grandeur. The original 70 mm prints were left to rot, and only a 35 mm print, filmed in parallel and adapted for television broadcast, survives. Which makes watching it an odd experience, due to weird flips between dubbing and subtitling, not to mention French and German not being translated at all. But the film series truly is epic and deserves all its accolades. There is supposedly a fully-restored version from a recently-found print released by Criterion, but the only one currently available from them is a previous version.
A couple of years ago, I thought it might be a good idea to try and watch all the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (the 2013 edition). This year I also decided to try and watch a film from as many countries as I could. Both challenges have been going quite well: I’ve watched 897 of the 1001 so far, 56 of them seen for the first time this year; and I’ve watched movies from 53 countries… although only Thailand, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Venezuela, Mongolia, Georgia, Vietnam, Peru, Singapore, Jordan, Jamaica, Estonia, Cuba and Romania were new to me in 2017.
It also occurred to me in 2017 that most of the films I watched were directed by men. So I started to track the genders of the directors whose films I watch in an effort to see more films by female directors. Unfortunately, female directors are hugely outnumbered by men, especially in Hollywood, and I managed only 43 films by women during the year. Having said that, a couple of those female directors became names I plan to keep an eye on, such as Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo.
I watched 602 films in 2017, although only 532 were new to me this year. I also decided in 2017 to watch more documentaries, and ended up watching so many that I thought it best to split my film best of the year lists into two, one for documentaries and one for “fictional” films… except I’m not sure what to call the latter, but I think “narrative cinema” is the preferred term.
documentary 1I am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba) . I loved Humberto Solás’s Lucía after watching it, and I wanted to see Tomáz Guttiérez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment a second time, and there was this box set from Mr Bongo that included both, as well as I am Cuba and Strawberry and Chocolate. So I bought the box set… and was blown away when I watched I am Cuba, a documentary commissioned by the Soviets to promote Cuba, but which was so innovative it was never actually released. Kalatozov reportedly strung cameras on wires, but even knowing that it’s hard to work out how he achieved some of his shots. And this was in 1964, when there was no CGI. I am Cuba also presents the island as a near-utopia, and while the USSR and its satellite nations were never that, they at least aspired to it – which is more than can be said of the West. The American Dream isn’t utopia, it’s a deeply mendacious justification for the success of the few at the expense of the many. Even now, 53 years after I am Cuba was made, Cuba remains poor, but has one of the best free healthcare systems on the planet, and the US is rich and its healthcare system is unaffordable by the bulk of its population. Some things are more important than giving a handful of people the wherewithal to buy their own Caribbean island.
2The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán (2015, Chile). If you’ve not watched a film by Guzmán, why not? The Pearl Button is a meditation on the universe, water, the history of Chile, especially the Pinochet dictatorship, and the genocide of the country’s indigenous people. It’s a mix of stock footage and gorgeously-shot film, all tied together by the calm voice of Guzmán. He describes how Pinochet’s goons would torture people and then dump their bodies offshore from helicopters. He interviews supporters of Salazar, president before Pinochet’s coup, who were put in concentration camps. He speaks to the handful of survivors of the Alacalufe and Yaghan tribes of Patagonia, which in the late 1880s were infected with Western diseases, and the survivors hunted for bounty, by settlers. He discusses Jeremy Button, a a Yaghan tribesman taken back to Britain on the HMS Beagle in 1830 (it was when returning Jeremy Button to Patagonia a year later that Darwin first travelled aboard the HMS Beagle). The Pearl Button is not only an important film because of what it covers, but a beautifully-shot one too. You should watch it.
3Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China) . This year I went on something of a China/Taiwan cinema kick. I forget what started it off, but I discovered lots of new names to watch and lots of excellent films. Zhao Liang I had, I think, put on my rental list because his films sounded like Jia Zhangke’s , who was already a favourite. But Zhao makes documentaries, and Behemoth is about coal in China, the mines and those who live on their periphery and survive by gleaning. Zhao’s earlier work has been very critical of the Chinese authorities – meaning his films are not wholly official – but they are also beautifully framed. And in Behemoth, he goes one further and uses split-screen, but also arranging his screens in such a way they’re not initially obvious as split-screen and then suddenly turn kaleidoscopic. It’s not a technique I’ve seen before, and it probably wouldn’t work in most situations, but it’s absolutely brilliant here. Zhao Liang is a name to watch.
4Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France) . I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s films for many years and own copies of much of what he’s directed during his long career. I’d heard about Francofonia some time in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 it appeared, and not until 2017 it was released in the UK – and only at Curzon cinemas, but, annoyingly, only the Curzon cinemas in London. FFS. I’d liked to have seen it on a big screen. But I had to console myself with the Blu-ray. Which was pretty much as I expected – a typical Sokurovian mix of documentary, meditation, narrative cinema and autobiography – although the production values were a distinct cut above his previous work. It’s a good entry in Sokurov’s oeuvre, if not one of his best ones, but even merely good Sokurov is still so much better than most film-makers can manage. It’s also been heartening seeing how well it has been received… because that means we might see more films from Sokurov. Because I want more, lots more.
5Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). I loved Koyaanisqatsi when I watched it last year, and I later learned that its director of photography, Ron Fricke, had made a pair of similar non-narrative films himself: Baraka and Samsara. They’re basically footage of various parts of the planet, with only the most tenuous of links and no over-arching story. The emphasis is entirely on the imagery, which is uniformly gorgeous. Of the two, I thought the second, Samsara, much the better one.The footage is beautiful, the parts of the world it covers fascinating, and it’s one of the few films out there which gives you faith in humanity. I quite fancy having my own copy of this.
Honourable mentions:The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK) astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Baraka, Ron Fricke (1992, USA) gorgeous non-narrative cinema from around the world; Festival Express, Bob Smeaton (2003, UK) 1970 tour across Canada aboard a train featuring Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others; Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA) Johnson’s life stitched together from outtakes from her documentaries and privately-shot footage; Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev (2012, Bulgaria) affecting fly-on-the-wall film of an ambulance crew in Sofia’s beleagured healthcare system; Petition: The Court of Appeals, Zhao Liang (2009, China) filmed in the shanty town outside Beijing where petitioners lived while waiting the years it took for their appeals to be heard, if ever.
narrative 1The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). I loved this film – it’s perhaps a stretch to call it narrative cinema as it’s also partly a documentary. Anyway, I loved this film… so much I went and bought everything by Ben Rivers that was available (no surprise, then, that his two other feature-length films get honourable mentions below). The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers – the title is taken from a Paul Bowles story, which partly inspires it – opens as a documentary of Olivier Laxe filming Mimosas. But then Bowles’s story intrudes, and Laxe, a real person, and his film is indeed real and has been released… Laxe’s story morphs into the plot of Bowles’s short story. This is brilliant cinema, an unholy mix of documentary, fiction, literary reference, art installation and narrative cinema.
2Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). I knew Watkins from The War Game and Punishment Park, both mock documentaries about very real horrors; so when I watched Privilege it came as something of a surprise. True, it’s similar, in as much as it’s a mock documentary, set a few years ahead of when it was made; but it also seems a more tongue-in-cheek film, and plays up the ridiculousness of its premise. The segment where the star is filming a government commercial for apples, for example, is hilarious. In the movie, Watkins posits a fascist UK in which a pop star is used as a symbol to make unpleasant government policies more palatable. We’ve yet to see that happen here, if only because politicians foolishly believe they have media presence. They don’t. They’re as personable as a block of rancid butter. And often as intelligent (BoJo, I’m looking at you; but also Gove, Hammond, Davies, Rudd…) We should be thankful, I suppose, because if they ever did decide to use a media star with actual charisma, we’d be totally lost. On the other hand, satire apparently died sometime around 2015, so perhaps Watkins may prove more prophetic than he knew…
3Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia) . I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and stuck it on my watch list. It was later recommended to me, so I sat down and watched it, and… it was excellent. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematography is often amazing. I wrote about it here.
4Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). 2017 was a bit of a Pasolini year for me. I bought a boxed set of his films on Blu-ray, and worked my way through them – although a number I’d seen before. Arabian Nights feels like an ur-Pasolini film, in that it does so well some of the things some of his films were notable for – a non-professional cast acting out elements of a story cycle in remote locations. The title gives the source material, but the look of the movie is pure Pasolini – although much of it comes down to his choice of locations in North Africa. Of all the Pasolini films I’ve seen, this is by far the prettiest; and if its treatment of its material is somewhat idiosyncratic, 1001 Nights is far too complex a source for honest adaptation.
5The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China) . I “discovered” Jia in 2016, but it was obvious he was a director to keep on eye on, and so I sought out his other works. Including this one. Which I thought worked especially well – not that this other films are bad, on the contrary they’re excellent. But something about this one especially appealed to me. It’s set at a theme park containing famous buildings from around the world. The movie follows two workers there, one a dancer and the other a security guard. The film is a sort of laid-back thriller, in which the cast move around the artificial world of the theme park, trying to make ends meet, and trying to keep their relationship together. The World has a documentary feel to it, and often seems more fly-on-the-wall than narrative drama. But I think it’s its literalisation of the term “microcosm” that really makes the film.
Honourable mentions:Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic) grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia) languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India) more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China) grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China) cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru) affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan) a lovely piece of Japanese animation; Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France) a thinly-veiled retelling of the Virgin Mary Godard turns into a compelling drama; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand) the best of Weerasethakul’s atypical fractured-narrative films I’ve seen so far, mysterious and beautifully shot; O Pagador de Promessas, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil) the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’or, an excellent piece of Cinema Novo; Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963, France) enigmatic meditation on memory presented as a laid-back domestic drama; The Love Witch, Anna Biller (2016, USA) pitch-perfect spoof of a 1970s B-movie supernatural thriller that also manages to be feminist; Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK) and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK) see above.
It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.
The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…
books 1Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayerhere.
2A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.
3Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Illhere.
5Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winterhere.
films 1I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.
2Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.
3Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.
4Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofoniahere.
5The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The Worldhere.
Honourable mentionsThe Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…
More of the usual – China, Poland. France and Russia. I’m still trying to expand the nations whose films I watch, but I do have my favourite directors…
The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). I’ve been a fan of Jia’s films since first seeing A Touch of Sin, and if the films in Jia’s Hometown trilogy seemed a little disappointing – see here and here and here – something in the description of The World persuaded me it was closer to 24 City and A Touch of Sin and so more likely to appeal. I bought the eureka! dual edition. And so it was – much more like 24 City and A Touch of Sin, I mean. In fact, I think it might be my favourite of Jia’s films. The main character of The World, although any such description is a hostage to fortune in this film, works as “talent” at a Beijing amusement park. The movies opens with her walking along a corridor, demanding loudly if any of her fellow co-workers have a band-aid (plaster). We then see her on stage, as part of some sort of dance routine, with other women in variations on national costume from assorted nations. And Jia mantains that sort of documentary feel to the rest of the movie, as he follows the young woman through the days that follow. There’s no plot as such, just men and women interacting in a weird artificial environment – which is only enhanced by the beautifully sharp cinematography and the strange, but natural, if slightly washed-out, colour palette. It feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot during the making of a film, but it’s never entirely clear what the story of that film is. There’s the central character, and her relations with her colleagues; and then a friend from her province turns up and she has to look after him. We also see women being abused by a system set up to exploit them – the theme park hires some Russian dancers, for example, and their handler takes their passports, and so traps them in China (a not uncommon practice in many parts of the world). Over it all is a layer of strangeness imparted by the easily recognisable, but small-scale, landmarks which populate the theme park – the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Manhattan skyline, etc.. And several parts of the film that are animated. I really liked A Touch of Sin on first seeing it, and liked it a great deal more on rewatching it several months later. But The World I loved the first time I watched it, and I’ve seen a couple of times since and still love it. I think this film has jumped into my top ten, but I’ve yet to figure out what to displace. Recommended.
Constant Factor, Krzysztof Zanussi (1980, Poland). I’m not entirely sure precisely what the factor the title refers to, although the plot of the film seems relatively straightforward. A young man joins a firm and discovers that his honesty is a handicap rather than an advantage. He dreams of climbing Mount Everest, an ambition which killed his father. For some reason, his employer sends him on overseas jobs even though he’s done nothing to “earn” the privilege. But when he turns down routine opportunities for corruption, and then refuses to back down and so jeopardises a lucrative contract, his ability to travel is taken from him. And that includes his planned trip to the Himalayas. He gets to the airport and they won’t let him leave the country. The film works because the protagonist is sympathetic, despite his pigheaded honesty – or perhaps because of his pigheaded honesty – after all, it’s not as if his co-workers are depicted as venal and corrupt… They’re just trying to make ends meet in a system that rewards corruption better than it rewards honesty. So, just like Western society then. There is, like some of the other films in this box set, a sort of televisual drama drama – kitchen-sink drama, even – feel to the film, so much so it’s starting to feel like a Polish speciality (Kieślowski, after all, started out in television). The three Martin Scorcese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets are proving to be an excellent purchase, despite the cost.
Little Red Flowers, Zhang Yuan (2006, China). I think Zhang was one of a number Chinese directors I stuck on my rental list in an effort to explore the country’s recent cinema, but I don’t recall where I came across Zhang’s name – and LoveFilm has recently got into the habit of sending me films from a particular country one after the other. So after a run of Romanian films, it’s now a run of Chinese films. This is no real hardship – of all the countries’ cinemas I’ve been watching over the past couple of years, China’s since the late 1990s has to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest. Particularly the Sixth Generation directors and later… Little Red Flowers is a not very sympathetic film, but extremely well put-together. It follows a four-year-old boy – based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Wang Shuo – at a… boarding school? orphanage? The title refers to the school’s equivalent of “gold stars”, awarded for good work. The regime is pretty brutal for young kids, and the facilities primitive at best. I don’t recall Little Red Flowers being an especially comfortable film to watch, and I was unsure if its message was one of accommodation or staying true in a regime that saw your values as subversive. There’s a greater lesson there, of course, but I’m not sure this film is the best vehicle for it. A good film, and worth seeing – but more, I think, because it’s a good example of what China’s Sixth Generation of directors can offer than because the films offers more than its story.
Promised Land, Andrzej Wajda (1975, Poland). I know Wajda’s name as one of Polish cinemas big names, and I’ve seen several of his more celebrated films, but this was, I’d believed, one of his less celebrated, albeit still highly regarded, movies. And besides, I’ve not yet found cause to fault the choices made by these Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – okay, where’s the Szulkin, eh? I’ll forgive the lack of Żuławski given that Mondo Vision are doing special edition rereleases of his oeuvre, and they’re pretty hard to beat – but the films I’ve seen before which appear in these box sets I’d already categorised as excellent films… and those I’ve not seen are proving to be every bit as good. So a wise purchase all round, then. Anyway, Promised Land is an historical piece, set at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. Three men – a Pole, a German and a Jew (interesting that his nationality seems irrelevant) – all invest in a new textile factory. Their backgrounds prove important, especially when the Pole has an affair with the wife of a Jewish financier. The factory they financed is burnt to the ground. They lose everything. But the Pole bounces back by marrying an heiress. It’s very much a story of three ambitious young men from different backgrounds pooling their resources, only to find their success treats them differently. The historical aspect wasn’t entirely convincing at times – the eixigencies of filming in 1970s Poland, no doubt – and ssome of the characters were a little larger than life… But this was good stuff. I do like Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron a great deal, possibly because they feel like teleplays, and was not that taken with his Ashes and Diamonds… but Promised Land occupies that uneasy middle ground. A quality film, certainly, but I still need to see more of Wajda’s oeuvre.
Taurus, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). After describing Francofonia (see here) as an archetypal Sokurov film – as if there were such a thing! – I watched Taurus, the second of Sokurov’s Power trilogy… and this was almost pure Sokurov cinema. For reasons I do not understand, the first and third films of the trilogy, Moloch and The Sun, were given US/UK releases on DVD (the fourth too, if you include Faust, which some do), but Taurus never was. And having now watched it I can see no good reason why it should have been ignored. The BFI have done excellent jobs on the oeuvres of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, but if they’re looking for other directors to cover then Aleksandr Sokurov should be top of their list. Whatever. I managed to get hold of a copy of Taurus, and I watched it. And it’s pure Sokurov. It depicts the last days of Lenin, who, surprisingly, died at the age of 54 after only a year in power. In the film he is recuperating from his first stroke, and after his recovery meets with Stalin – who pretended to a favouritism by Lenin that never existed – but later succumbs to another stroke. The palette is subdued blues and very painterly, and if there’s one sour note it’s that Lenin has a younger body than his face suggests – he supposed to be early fifties, but has the physique of someone two decades younger. Much of the film takes place in Lenin’s bechamber, which has all sorts of echoes with other films by Sokurov… but later, he goes for walk in the woods surrounding the dacha, and that’s another bunch of Sokurov’s films it’s referencing…Ãnd yet, the Power trilogy is, as the name suggests, about the nature of power, and by choosing three powerful figures whose powers were fading fast – Hitler toward the end of his reign, Hirohito after Japan had surrended, and Lenin on his death bed – Sokurov is in danger of belabouring his point. Except he makes each film a character study and a metaphysical treatise. This is a director who is head-and-shoulders above everyone else at the top of his game. Ten years from now, people will be comparing Tarkovsky to Sokurov, not trying to find reasons why Sokurov should be seen as of similar stature to Tarkovsky because the latter once praised him.
Éloge de l’amour, Jean-Luc Godard (2001, France). In theory, I have a lot of time for Godard; in practice, less so. I think he’s perhaps the most experimental director of commerical cinema – without being full-on avant-garde – France has produced, and I think he has not only deliberately built that reputation but also capitalised on it. Some of his early experimental as part of the Nouvelle Vague is blindingly good, but I suspect more by accident than by design. Whenever Godard was more interested in his stars than his story, the film suffered – the two contrary examples perhaps being Bande á part and Une femme est une femme – but when his focus was on the narrative, he produced some truly excellent films. And in later years, he appears to have been more concerned with cinema as an art form, which means his films became more interesting narratively without having to rely on the charismatic stars of earlier decades. So, an improvement in some respects. As many a director has discovered, you can tell any old story given a star with sufficient screen presence – as indeed Godard himself has taken advantage of in the past. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Éloge de l’amour is a film that succeeds on its own terms, but its terms are somewhat narrower than most viewers would accept. It starts out as black and white, and never quite convinces as noir, which somewhat renders the choice of of palette dubious. But then it switches to saturated colour, but never quite explains the reason for the change. Godard’sfilms usually require several viewings to fully appreciate, but this was a rental and I only gave it the one viewing. The more Godard I watch, the more Godard I want to watch. But his oevure has only been released patchily in the UK…
1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 856
More movies from around the world. Two were from the first of the three Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets I bought (I can’t find these box sets for sale anywhere online, so I’ve linked the title to website promoting the original Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema‘s tour of, er, cinemas.)
Beijing Bicycle, Wang Xiaoshuai (2001, China). As a fan of both Jia Zhangke and Zhao Liang, I was keen to see more films by modern Chinese directors, and Wang Xiaoshuai’s name cropped up as another of the “Sixth Generation”, which includes Jia. So I stuck one of his films on my rental list… Having cottoned onto Wang through Jia and Zhao, the director this film most reminds me of is Hou Hsiao Hsien, who is Taiwanese, although it does have the documentary feel Jia manages to give his films. Four teenagers from the provinces land a job at a bicycle courier company. They are each given a new mountain bike, the cost of which is taken out of their wages for the first six months. One of them is a week or two away from paying for his bike when it is stolen. So he fails to deliver the package that had been given to him – there’s an excellent sequence in which he turns up to a posh spa and gives the name of his contact, only for the brainless receptionist to assume he means a guest of the same name, and so he has to have a shower to enter the spa and afterwards is told he must pay for the shower – and is subsequently fired. He vows to find his stolen bike, and the company manager tells him that if he does, then he can have his job back. And he finds it. It had been sold to a schoolboy who fancies a girl in his class and has been accompanying her on her ride to school (but he stole the money from his parents to buy the bike). Unfortunately, the rest of the story rests on a fallacy – that the purchaser of stolen property owns the stolen property because they bought it in good faith. The moment the courier turned up and identified his bike, the schoolboy should have handed it over and demanded his 500 yuan back from the person who’d sold him the bike. But these are schoolkids, I suppose, and allowed to get it wrong – so wrong, in fact, that the courier and the schoolboy end up agreeing to use the bike on alternate days, the one so he can keep his job, the other so he can get closer to the girl he fancies. Who has already started going out with someone else anyway. This is not a cheerful film. (Does China even make cheerful films these days?) But it is a good one.
Gods of Egypt, Alex Proyas (2016, USA). I knew this was going to be complete nonsense – I remember when the film was released last year, and what people were saying about it. But it was a Saturday night, I had a bottle of wine, and it couldn’t be that bad, could it, surely? Um, yes. Worse, in fact. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the whitecasting (especially since it’s equally troubling in the film following, although that at least has a more understandable excuse). So, skipping over the fact the film has a pretty much uniformly white cast playing the actual gods of Ancient Egypt from, er, Egypt, in North Africa… Even ignoring such a colossal failure, Gods of Egypt fails in so many other ways. For a start, it takes that mythology and turns it into a fantasy film. True, there is, as far as I know, no organised church of Isis, Horus, etc, to take religious offence at this appropriation; and Hollywood has done pretty much the same for Greek mythology since someone hand-cranked a camera in California for the first time. But neither past custom nor lack of a lobby group makes it acceptable in this day and age. And, as well as all that, Gods of Egypt is just, well, a shit film. The acting is terrible, the plot is nonsense, the production design looks wholly generic, and who really gives a shit about a bunch of super-powerful over-entitled people and their abuse of the population they rule? It might have flown forty years ago, but not now. Okay, so the way they made the gods all bigger than actual people was sort of cool… for about five minutes. But, to be honest, the entire film you just wanted them to put themselves out of your misery. Not only did Gods of Egypt make any random MCU movie look good, it also made it look positively left-wing. Avoid.
Pharaoh, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1966, Poland). And from the ridiculous to the sublime. Well, not quite. But it was obviously perversity which made me put on another film about Ancient Egypt immediately after sitting through Gods of Egypt. Pharaoh, however, is an earnest historical drama, shot in the Uzbekistani desert with a blacked-up cast. A cast – and that’s pretty much all the speaking parts – in dark skin make-up so they resemble Ancient Egyptians is never going to be acceptable… although this movie was made fifty years ago and is Polish-language. Suitable Polish-speaking actors were likely impossible to find (in which case, the best answer: make a different film), but we have what we have. Fifty years ago, Kawalerowicz went ahead and made Pharaoh. And, to be fair to him, he made more of an effort at verisimilitude under much more constrained circumstances, than Hollywood ever did. As it is, Pharaoh is pure historical epic but, despite opening with a huge battle sequence, still feels somehow small-scale. Perhaps it’s because the two main exterior locations, the palace and the temple, appear to exist in an empty desert wasteland. I don’t recall seeing a city, or even a camp for the slaves working on the various monuments. The story centres on the power struggle between a pharaoh and his priests, with lots of intense scenes set in darkened chambers in either building. I’m not entirely sure what to make of Pharaoh – it’s well-made, although its sensibilities are no longer acceptable, but in many ways it’s a good old-fashioned Sunday afternoon movie. It’s worth noting, however, that DI Factory have done a lovely job with this Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box set. The packaging looks great, and the restored film’s transfer looks excellent. Happily, I have seven films in this box set yet to watch, and another two box sets in the series as well.
Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). There is a Curzon cinema here in Sheffield but, for reasons best known to themselves, Curzon chose to screen Francofoniaonly at their Bloomsbury and Soho cinemas, and not in a city which has an annual documentary film festival. Bastards. So I had to wait for the Blu-ray. I’d first heard about Francofonia some three years ago, and had expected it to appear in 2015. I had also been expecting something in a similar vein to Russian Ark, only this time about French history and the Louvre, albeit mostly focusing on the Nazi occupation of Paris. But I should have known better. Because Francofonia is actually closer to Sokurov’s “elegy” documentaries, especially Elegy of a Voyage, as well as bafflingly meta-fictional, like Mournful Unconcern (which was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House and features documentary footage of Shaw himself), not to mention Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, in which Sokurov discusses the writer’s oeuvre and then interviews him on several occasions (including during a walk through some woods near Solzhenitsyn’s home). It’s not that Francofonia distils Sokurov’s career, more that it feels like a film that makes use of more of the techniques he has employed in other films than any other. Part of Francofonia is a dramatic reconstruction of the Germans taking over the Louvre, part is a history of the Louvre and of its director at that time. Another part is Sokurov himself trying to hold a video conversation with an agent aboard a ship in mid-Atlantic, during a severe storm, about a container of items destined for the museum and which might be lost. Every now and again, Luftwaffe planes fly over Paris. There is also archive footage of Hitler arriving in Paris. Sokurov is, in many respects, a product of his career. Early documentaries stitched together from archive footage led to his ability to build narratives from snippets of historical film, as well as provide a philosophical voiceover to pin it all together; his early problems with the authorities rejecting his films led to a more elliptical way of making his points; and his often precarious funding resulted in him having to edit a finished product together out of an unfinished project, so much so the enigmatic narratives were often more pragmatic than deliberate. Add to that a tendency to lard his films with references to literature and art – such as Dostoevsky in Whispering Pages, Caspar David Friedrich in Moloch – to an extent that sometimes the reference overwhelms its role in the narrative. This is, after all, the director whose first episode of a five-episode series about soldiers in Afghanistan consists entirely of a filmed snowscape while a voiceover discusses the life and career of Mozart. Francofonia, more than any other film I’ve seen by Sokurov, including Russian Ark, shows the advantages of modern film-making technology. It is a gorgeous piece of work and seamlessly assembled. It probably looked fantastic on a cinema screen. (Bastards.) But it also showcases Sokurov’s genius to an extent I’d not previously witnessed – the things I love his work for? They’re all in here. I’d always thought it a crime Sokurov was best-known for the technical achievement of Russian Ark, ie, a single take of 99 minutes; but with Francofonia I think his genius might become more widely known for what it truly is. I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s work for many years and have most – but not quite all – of the feature films and documentaries he has made. I consider him the most interesting film-maker currently alive, and I’m hugely glad that not only is Francofonia seemingly doing well but also that is so much more emblematic of his work than I’d expected. It is an astonishing piece of work, go see it.
Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia). I’ve now seen all four of Zvyagintsev’s films (a fifth is due for release this year), and I think I rate Elena second-best after The Return. The title refers to the working-class wife of a rich Muscovite. They met when he was in hospital and she was a nurse. The husband has a daughter by his dead first wife, Elena has an unemployed brother with a growing family. Elena wants to provide for here relatives, who live in a tiny flat in a block in a Moscow suburb, but her husband refuses to fund her brother’s indolence. Then the husband has a heart attack while swimming, and is once again in hospital. When he returns to their penthouse flat, Elena nurses him… but when he reveals he is going to write a will in which his daughter gets everything and Elena only an annual allowance, she poisons him. Since he died intestate, she gets half of everything. Zvyagintsev typically takes his tme over telling his stories, and Elena is no exception. The first five or so minutes of the film are a silent tracking shot through the penthouse. And then, the introduction of the couple”s domestic life takes another thirty or so minutes before the dramatic tension which is at the heart of the story is revealed. If you like your 5-second jump-cuts, this is not the film for you – indeed, Zvyagintsev’s oeuvre is not for you. But well-drawn character studies with an eye for detail and insight? Then he mostly definitely is. All of Zvyagintsev’s films are worth seeing.
Provincial Actors, Agnieska Holland (1979, Poland). I’ve seen Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), and thought it very good, so I was not expecting to be disappointed by Provincial Actors (AKA Aktorzy prowincjonalni), an earlier film. The title is an apt description of its story. A provincial theatre is putting on an important play, but the director is “modern” and some of his artistic decisions don’t sit well with the cast, especially the older members who have been in productions of the play before. I will admit I know nothing about the play – ‘Liberation‘ by Stanisław Wyspiański from 1903 (he appears to have been an impressively accomplished Renaissance man) – but it is clear it’s an important play in Polish theatre. I think where Provincial Actors really works is that it’s not entirely about the play and the young director’s re-interpretation of it – this is no Peter Pan Goes Wrong – but that the lives of the actors, and the history they have together, is just as important. There’s an astonishing moment set in the apartment of one member of the cast, who is ironing a dress when a body plummets past the window behind her. It is another member of the cast. There are external factors to the play which explain, and determine, how the various members of the cast behave, and their attitude to the play and its direction. It’s an accomplished piece of ensemble acting, shot with that sort of television docudrama conviction that Polish films of the 1970s and 1980s seem to do so well. I’d like to see more films by Holland. Happily, she has made a lot; not so happily, I don’t think all that many of her early works are available in the UK…
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 853
Only two out of the six are US movies this time, so I’m definitely getting better at this… Although a recent check through which countries’ cinema I’ve watched revealed there are a number of gaps in my viewing. Which I plan to rectify. For now, it’s two French, two Russian and two American. Two were also rewatches.
Live and Become, Radu Mihǎleanu (2005, France). I found this on an alternative 1001 Movies list and it looked interesting enough to add to my rental list. And I’m glad I did. In 1984, some 12,000 Ethiopian Jews walked to refugee camps in Sudan, where the 8,000 who had survived the march were airlifted to Israel. Live and Become follows a Christian Ethiopian boy whose mother persuades him to pretend to be a Jewish woman’s son so that he might have a chance at a new life. His new mother dies soon after arrival in Israel, and the boy proves too difficult for the orphanage to manage. He’s a adopted by a French Jewish family who have settled in Israel, and the film then follows him through his teen years into his early twenties, as he masquerades as Jewish, tries to find out what happened to his birth mother, and becomes a victim of a racial backlash against the Ethiopian Jews. Although the film implies the 1984 airlift – Operation Moses – was a one-off and well-planned coup by the Israelis, it was actually one of several attempts to patriate African Jews to Israel, beginning in 1961 and culminating with Operation Solomon in 1991. But that’s a minor quibble – it’s a heart-breaking piece of history and deserves to be better-known. Mihǎleanu uses different actors for his lead character at different stages of his life but keeps the continuity strong between them. I had not expected to find Live and Become as gripping as I did. Recommended.
Faust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia). Sokurov’s films are hardly easy viewing, but I find this one among the more difficult of his – possibly because it seems at first to be relatively straightforward. Faust, a doctor in a mediaeval town in what is now Germany, is studying human anatomy, trying to find the seat of the “soul”; but his clandestine researches means he has little or no money. While trying to pawn something, he meets a moneylender called Mauricius, who seems not quite human. They spend time together and, in a large bathhouse/laundry, Faust spots a young woman and begins to obsess about her. She refuses his blandishments, a situation not helped when Faust accidentally kills her brother in a pub brawl. This is when Mauricius offers Faust a, er, Faustian bargain – his soul for a night with the young woman. Faust signs. However, he fails to act on his desires, and so Mauricius leads him to a strange land of stone and geysers where, in a rage, Faust kills Mauricius by burying him under rocks. But now Faust cannot find his way home. For a Sokurov film, Faust is played almost straight – there are occasional moments of distorted picture, much like he does in Mother and Son, but if there was a logic to them I didn’t spot it. The colours are pale and washed out, but that only gives the setting a more mediaeval feel. Even the occasional oddness – Faust’s assistant drops a bottle containing a foetus in formaldehyde and it proves to still be alive, for instance – only seem to amplify quite how strange Mauricius is… And he is odd – in the bathhouse scene, when he strips to bathe, all the women remark he “has nothing in front” and yet he appears to have something at his rear… which is far stranger than the earlier scene where he drinks a vial of poison and appears to enjoy it. I’ve seen Faust described as a German story told with Russian sensibilities, and there’s certainly a Sokurovian feel to the story – I’m tempted to describe it as having a certain identifiable philosophy, but then isn’t the Faust story itself a philosophical story? I’m unsure where I’d place Faust in Sokurov’s oeuvre. It has considerably higher production values than much of his output, and it’s evident in every frame… And the story is less elliptical than many of his other films… But it’s also less personal – the relationship between Faust and Mauricius, or Faust and Gretchen, is in no way as close as that between mother and son or father and son or grandmother and grandson… But then the relationship between body and soul is either the closest relationship of all, or no relationship at all… and that’s what Faust opens the film exploring…
Diary of a Country Priest*, Robert Bresson (1951, France). There are five films by Robert Bresson on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’ve now seen them all… and everyone one of them has left me cold. The huge regard in which he’s held, I just can’t see it. And this one, Diary of a Country Priest, apparently Claude Laydu’s performance in the title role is, according to Wikipedia, considered “one of the greatest in the history of cinema”. Um, right. Now, I like that Bresson treats his material with a straight face – even a stone-face, perhaps – and the deadpan delivery is presented with remarkable clarity and economy. But I still don’t get why Bresson is so revered – and I say that knowing that my favourite director, Aleksandr Sokurov, is a fan of Bresson’s films. Furthermore, I cannot for the life of me see why Laydu’s performance in this film should attract such accolades. He plays a priest whose performance of his duties draws the criticism of his parishioners, and who also happens to be quite ill. There’s no thematic link between his illness and his actions – although not being a Catholic – or, indeed, the slightest bit religious – perhaps that’s a distinction lost on me. I have mentioned in the past that one of my apparent blindspots is French cinema prior to the Nouvelle Vague (bar the odd exception, such as Renoir’s films), and if so then Bresson sits squarely in it. I’m loath to say that Diary of a Country Priest does not belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain why it does belong on the list.
Mirror*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1975, Russia). If you’d asked me a year ago what my favourite Tarkovsky film was, I’d probably have said Mirror. Having now watched it one more time – on Blu-ray this time – I found myself…conflicted. It frequently looks gorgeous – there’s a lambent quality to the cinematography in the scenes set on the farm that is absolutely stunning. And the black-and-white sections have that sort of concreteness which makes the space station in Solaris looks so much like a real place. But despite having watched the film several times, I’m still no clearer as to its actual story, and at times it seems like little more than fantastic moving wallpaper. It feels like a hot mess, but one that hovers on the edge of understanding. Tarkovsky’s genius was, in part, that he could make something feel like a coherent whole despite the lack of overt links between sections – as in Andrei Rublev. Mirror is supposed to present the memories of a dying poet, and indeed it has a stream-of-consciousness look and feel (the slow motion bath falling through the ceiling? WTF?), but while there’s a plain sense of thematic unity I’m not convinced the narrative hangs together in any real meaningful sense. But the genius of Tarkovsky is also that his films are eminently rewatchable, and each rewatch will reveal something new to appreciate and admire. There are films I admire hugely, and directors I admire hugely although none of their films make the first list… but Tarkovsky plainly belongs on both. I don’t know that anyone has ever equalled him, and much as I love Sokurov’s films it’s as much for his contradictions, whereas Tarkovsky is a director with remarkably few contradictions. If that makes sense. I opened this “review” wondering which of Tarkovsky’s film I liked best… At the moment, I’m tending toward The Sacrifice… but I have yet to rewatch it as the Blu-ray version has not yet been released. However, there’s still Ivan’s Childhood, Stalker and Nostalgia to rewatch; and probably further rewatches of Andrei Rublev, Solaris and Mirror… and the fact I can even consider watching these films again and again is one reason why I consider Tarkovsky a hugely important and favourite director.
The Wolf Man*, George Waggner (1941, USA). An American, Lon Chaney Jr, learns of the death of his brother and so returns to the ancestral home in, er, Wales, to patch it up with his father, Claude Rains. The people in the Welsh village speak with English or American accents – among the former is the young woman who runs a local antiqiue shop, and among the latter is the local chief constable. While out walking in a swampy wood with the young lady, Chaney saves a woman being attacked by a wolf, but the wolf manages to bite him. Later, the police find a dead man, but no wolf’s corpse. Then there are the gypsies, who all dress like flamenco dancers or something, not to mention Chaney as a werewolf looks more like Puppyman, about to advertise Andrex, than he does a fearsome creatures from horror’s bag of fearsome tropes… and it all feels a bit risible. It’s an early Hollywood horror movie, and while it may have done something new, seventy-five years later it’s hard to spot exactly what. It feels like one of those films that are only on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list because the listmaker has fond memories of it from late-night showings on obscure cable channels or in seedy fleapit cinemas. I don’t see that appeal myself. Meh.
To the Wonder, Terrence Malick (2012, USA). I’ve no idea why I rented this. Perhaps it was in the vain hope that Malick might at some point produce a great film instead of ones that bounce between occasional moments of great beauty and the much longer moments of pretentious self-indulgent twaddle. The first third of this film, for example, resembles nothing so much as perfume commercial. And the stream-of-consciousness voice-over, which in The New World felt like an idea that could have worked really well, here only heightens the likeness to that sort of bullshit world in which perfume adverts make sense and are legitimate tools for selling a product. Ben Affleck plays an American in Paris who falls in love with Ukrainian divorcée Olga Kurylenko (who has a young daughter), marries her and takes her back to Oklahoma. But she doesn’t fit in there, and returns to Paris. Malick reportedly told his cast to keep on moving while he was shooting them, and their endlessly spinning and jumping about wears thin very quickly (and heightens the likeness to the aforementioned commercials). I have now watched most of Malick’s oeuvre and can happily admit I don’t get him. I don’t understand why he is so admired. His cinematography is frequently absolutely gorgeous, this is true; but there is more to movie-making than a stunning sunset caught just right. He also has a well-documented tendency to basically recreate his films in editing, such that half the cast end up on the cutting-room floor. In To the Wonder, that means Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen all had their parts cut completely from the film. (Why would you work with someone who did that to you? For the money? Is there some sort of weird Hollywood prestige in ending up on the floor of Malick’s editing suite?) Malick feels like a director with a lot of interesting ideas but whose slightest whim is happily indulged by Hollywood. Some people need reining in, some people only produce good work when limited. I’m increasingly starting to think Malick is one such person.
1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 804
Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008). Erpenbeck’s The End of Days was the best book I read during the first half of this year, and is likely set to take the top spot come December… which I guess implies that I didn’t think Visitation as good. And, well, fair enough, it’s not as good as The End of Days… but it’s still an excellent novel. It’s written in a similar distanced sort of present tense without direct speech or speech tags. It’s also similarly episodic, although rather than the episodes being based around a person they’re based around a place. Which, in this case, is a patch of land beside a lake in what became East Germany. The story opens in the late nineteenth century (and it really does have a The White Ribbon atmosphere), when the land was covered by a wood. But the owner is forced to sell it after the First World War, and a succession of holiday homes are built on it. There’s some continuity in the form of the “Gardener”, a man who lived in the wood and who never speaks in the novel. At one point, the holiday home is owned by a Jewish family, but is then seized by the Nazis. It comes into the hands of a professional couple from East Berlin, and an old woman who has returned home after several decades living and working in Moscow… The land endures; the people, and the systems they create, do not. Erpenbeck is definitely my discovery of the year, and if Visitation doesn’t quite have the breadth or audacity of The End of Days, it’s likely only because it’s a much thinner book, little more than novella length. But in its approach to its material, it certainly presages The End of Days, although it runs as serial history rather than parallel or alternate history. I can’t recommend Erpenbeck enough. She has one more book available in English. I will be buying it and reading it before the year is out.
Tor double 21: Home is the Hangman / We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, Roger Zelazny / Samuel R Delany (1968/1975). A bunch of these Tor doubles appeared in the Isam Bookshop in Abu Dhabi back in the 1990s when I lived in the city. They’d obviously been remaindered as that was all the shop sold: remaindered books from the US and UK. (A colleague I ran into once in the shop told me in all seriousness that the books had been “rejected because they contain spelling mistakes”.) Every now and again, when I can find copies, I add to my collection. Tor published 36 doubles in total between 1989 and 1991; some, like this one, are a pair of older reprints, some an older work and a newer one (which was often a sequel or prequel by another hand to the earlier work). The two stories in this double, however, are completely unrelated – if there’s a thematic link, I missed it. According to the cover of Home is the Hangman, “He’s back from the stars – and he isn’t happy”, which tells you two things about the title character and manages to get both wrong. A nine-word blurb that is 100% wrong. Quite an achievement. The novella is narrated by a private investigator / security specialist type, who manages to live under the radar because he was a programmer on a project to computerise everyone’s personal details and ensured his own data was not recorded (this may have seemed like a plausible idea in 1968, but in 2016 it makes no sense). This, however, adds almost nothing to the story… which is about an AI which had been built to explore the moons of the outer planets, and has now returned to Earth for reasons unknown. Four people had been involved in “training” the AI and now, a couple of decades later, one runs a store, one is a psychiatrist, one is an engineer and one is a wealthy industrialist. The store-owner is brutally killed and the industrialist thinks the AI was responsible because of something horrible that happened in the past. Think Original Sin. This novella won the Hugo and Nebula and came second in the Locus Award. Zelazny is a well-known name, and a famous genre prose stylist… so I was surprised at how rubbish this was. The prose was bland, the plot obvious, and time had has not been kind to the world-building… But turn the book upside down and flip it about and you get… We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, which is a pure hit of the pure Delany… and yes, it’s dated quite a bit but it doesn’t matter because with Delany it’s always the late 1960s/early 1970s… and yes, the central premise – giant crawler factories which lay electricity cable, free of charge, to every household on the globe – is bizarrely old-fashioned and weird for 1975… But but but. There are Hells Angels living in an abandoned house in the mountains, and they ride flying bikes. And when one of the crawling factories offers to lay cable to the house (what was wrong with the original utilities infrastructure? Delany never tells us), it breaks apart the biker gang. It’s pretty much nonsense from start to finish but it’s also what a real prose stylist looks like. Reading these two novellas is a bit like reading some sort of writing match between a pair of big names from the late 1960s. Delany wins hands-down, no doubt there; especially since Delany’s novella reads like a product of its time but the Zelazny reads like a story that could have been written at any time but does a piss-poor job of its world-building. So, Delany 1 – Zelazny 0.
Agent of the Imperium, Marc Miller (2015). The Traveller RPG was first published in 1977, and has been through several incarnations in the decades since. And during those years, there have been a handful of tie-in novels published – two by the game’s original publishers, GDW; one by a major imprint; but most by fans. Miller was the inventor of the game, and has been seen as its authority ever since – much as Gary Gygax was for Dungeons & Dragons – but until Agent of the Imperium, Miller had never published fiction (unlike Gygax). Agent of the Imperium was published by Miller’s company, Far Future Enterprises, but was financed via Kickstarter. Despite not think highly of other Traveller novels I’ve read, I decided it might be worth reading Miller’s go at one. And… there’s some interesting ideas in the novel, and the way it covers so much of the Third Imperium’s history is cleverly done… But it reads like a series of unconnected episodes, which eventually lead up to the seizing of the Iriridum Throne by Arbellatra, the founder of the Alkhalikoi dynasty (which was still in power five hundred or so years later, at the time the setting of Traveller “began”). The narrator of the novel is the agent of the title, and he works for the Imperial Quarantine Agency, which is charged with preventing epidemics on individual worlds from spreading across the Imperium. Of course, it takes something especially virulent to put the Imperium in danger, and the opening incident describes a world where a species of parasite has taken mental control of the population. The Agent, however, is not a real person. He was a high-level bureaucrat during the early years of the Imperium, but his personality was encoded on a wafer (a fatal process), and now, in certain circumstances, the commanders of Imperial Navy vessels or fleets are instructed to insert a copy of the wafer into a suitable officer equipped with a jack, and so invoke the Agent, who can then advise on the situation. These situations usually result in the Agent advising the fleet to destroy the world. After several such incidents, the Agent (there is a system in place to keep his memories updated and in synch) assists Arbellatra onto the Iridium Throne. I’m a big fan of Traveller and the universe its designers have created and yes, it’s a good playground for fiction… But most of the fiction set in the universe has never quite managed to grasp the flavour of it. Unsurprisingly, Miller manages that really well – despite throwing in virtual personalities and wafers and jacks, none of which, as far as I remember, appeared in any of the incarnations of the RPG. However… Miller is no prose stylist; in fact, he makes Asimov look like a prose stylist. This is commercial sf prose stripped down to its most basic, and the best that can be said of it is that it’s serviceable (although an editor should have spotted that “flang” is not the past tense of “fling”). The story is also far too episodic, and the links between the episodes too minor, to give the whole a feeling of a plot. Fans of the RPG will enjoy it – because it’s by Miller, because it’s set in the RPG’s universe – but if it had been a non-Traveller work it would be a poor one.
Vendetta, MS Murdock (1987). I stumbled across this at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm, looked it up online and decided it was eligible for review on SF Mistressworks. Which I have now done. It wasn’t… very good. See here.
Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939). George Bowling is in his forties, fat, works as in insurance inspector for the Flying Salamander, and ives in the suburbs with a wife and two kids. He is, in pretty much every respect, an ordinary lower-middle-class Londoner of the thirties. He wasn’t always, of course. He was born and grew up in a small Thames Valley village, the son of a seed merchant whose business is failing. He leaves school early and goes to work for a local grocer. And then war is declared, and George signs up. He finishes the war as a commissioned officer, which is enough to lift his ambitions above a grocer’s shop. He is, he admits, one of many men who survived the Great War and whose experiences were enough to lift them from working class to the lower rungs of middle class. All this is told to the reader by George in evocative and surprisingly chatty prose – his childhood in Lower Binfield, his aspirations, his current mid-life crisis… And it’s the latter which persuades him to return to Lower Binfield for a visit after twenty-five years away. Naturally, what he finds is not the bucolic village of the turn of the century that he remembers. I took this book with me to Bloodstock, something to read when I needed an occasional time-out from the metal and the beer, and when I started it I wondered if I’d picked a wrong ‘un. The only Orwell I’d read previously was Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, his two most famous works – and Coming Up for Air‘s chatty first-person narrative is nothing like those. But the more I read, the more I found myself fascinated by George Bowling and his life. Orwell paints a picture of a life that is as foreign to me because of the time it’s set as it is because Bowling grew up in a small agricultural village in southern England (ie, not the industrial north). I enjoyed Coming Up for Air a lot more than I’d expected to, and found it a much better book than I’d anticipated. Worth reading.
The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szaniawski (2014). Though I’ve been subscribing to Sight & Sound for nearly two decades, I’ve never read any actual academic film criticism. Until now. But I’m a huge a fan of Sokurov’s films, and I felt I needed a little help to parse some of them. And Figures of Paradox has been very useful in that regard, but… The language used throughout is that sort of obfuscatory academic bollocks that gives academic criticism a bad name. Having said that, Szaniawski knows his subject well, and there is plenty of information about the production of Sokurov’s films which I found both fascinating and helpful in deciphering them. However, the more I read the book, the more it becamse clear that Szaniawski had A Theory, and he was determined to prove it. There is, it cannot be denied, a certain amount of homoeroticism in Sokurov’s films, and Sokurov himself is famously celibate. Although Sokurov has denied being gay, Szaniawski is convinced he is, and the evidence for it is there in his films. I can see in part what Szaniawski claims, but there’s as much evidence in Sokurov’s filmography to “prove” he is gay as there was in Ken Russell’s – and Russell wasn’t gay. Not, of course, that it makes the slight bit of difference. It just seems a peculiar drum to bang. Reading the book, I put it down to an academic’s need to add some new angle to justify their research. (Szaniawski’s book is not the only critical work on Sokurov, but the others are all spread across a variety of magazines.) In all, I found Figures of Paradox something of a curate’s egg – a useful work in helping to parse Sokurov’s films, and better appreciate them; but it also displayed some of the worst aspects of academic film criticism. But Sokurov is still an amazing director, though.
This is the second Moving pictures post in which I’ve not watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Oh well. I have, on the other hand, now watched all of the Sokurov films I now own. But there are still a couple more I’m after before I have everything he has made. And two US films out of six isn’t bad, I can live with that.
Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Sokurov (1998, Russia). I was dead chuffed at getting hold of this. The only copy I’d seen available was priced around £180, which was way too much for me (it’s now £220, I see). But then I realised Sokurov was spelt Sokourov by the French, so I googled that… and found a copy of Dialogues avec Soljenitsyne for €30 on Amazon.fr – and all the packaging was French/English, and the DVD included English subtitles. Result. I tried watching it earlier this year, but decided to leave it until I’d read some Solzhenitsyn… and having now read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, I can quite categorically say it made bugger-all difference. The DVD contains two made-for-TV short films – ‘The Knot’ and ‘Dialogues’, both of which involve Sokurov interviewing Solzhenitsyn. ‘The Knot’ opens as a documentary about the writer, using archive footage and voice-over – typically Sokurovian in other words. But then it becomes Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn talking as they walk through a wood near the writer’s home – also typically Sokurovian. To be honest, there’s not much in either film which suggests why Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel laureate author – of course, the proof of that lies in his written works. As mentioned earlier, I’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and I thought it interesting but not world-shattering literature. While Solzhenitsyn comes across as a very clever bloke, and well-informed on the history and literature of Russia, at times his position as an icon of contemporary Russian culture doesn’t seem entirely clear. This may well be because only a fraction of his works have made it out of Russian – despite his much-publicised flight to the West and subsequent career at US universities (I was horribly reminded of Nabokov’s Pale Fire while watching this part of the documentary about Solzhenitsyn’s past). Having said that, watching the two films did make me want to read Solzhnetisyn’s Red Wheel series… but only two of the books, August 1914 and November 1916, have so far been published in English; and it doesn’t look like the rest will ever be translated. Bah. But I think I’ll try some more Solzhenitsyn.
Moonwalkers, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet (2015, France). What I knew: a comedy about an attempt to fake the Apollo 11 Moon landing in case it failed. What I didn’t know: a French comedy set in Swinging Sixties UK, with Ron Perlman as some sort of CIA über-agent and the ginger guy from Harry Potter as the star. What I found out: it’s not very funny. Perlman is tasked with persuading Stanley Kubrick to film a fake Moon landing just in case Apollo 11 doesn’t make it. But his paperwork gets damaged en route to the UK, so he has no way of identifying Kubrick. Which proves less than helpful after bumping into prog rock group manager Rupert Grint, who promises him he can hire Kubrick. Of course, it’s not Kubrick, it’s his whacked-out mate. End result: random German Warhol-ish director is tasked with making Moon landing footage, prog rock band (especially egotistical lead singer) think it’s a promo video for their music, falsetto gangster is after Grint because he owes him money, and Perlman is slowly unravelling from a combination of Vietnam PTSD and accidental weed and acid intake. So much laughs. You’d think. But this film seems to be more interested in slo-mo violence and gore. It doesn’t help that Grint acts like he’s in a school play and Perlman does his Perlman thing. The supporting cast at least manage their bits well. But the whole is definitely not better than the sum of its parts. An entirely forgettable comedy, which struggles for humour.
El Dorado, Howard Hawks (1966, USA). Hawks made a lot of Westerns – unlike Preminger, who only made one – and they do have a tendency to blur into one, possibly because he kept on remaking the same bloody story. After all, Rio Lobo is pretty much Rio Bravo (much as I love the latter); and even this one, El Dorado, follows the same story beats as those two. John Wayne: check. Drunken sheriff: check. Who sobers up for the showdown: check. Evil cattle baron: check. Feisty female character: check. Hawks does ring a few changes on his formula in El Dorado, however. Wayne plays a gun-for-hire who turns down an offer of work from cattle baron Ed Asner after learning of his true plans from local sheriff and old friend Robert Mitchum. An unfortunate encounter results in Wayne receiving a rifle bullet which lodges by his spine and occasionally paralyses him. Later, in a saloon, Wayne steps in when James Caan avenges his mentor’s death – so introducing McLeod, another gunslinger, who has signed up with Asner. When Wayne learns that Mitchum has turned into a useless drunk, thanks to a woman running out on him, Wayne and Caan decide to prevent Asner and McLeod from succeeding. The rest pretty much works itself out as this sort of story does. I have probably seen more Westerns than I ever wanted, or expected to, and some of them have been actually quite impressive. This one wasn’t. Even for fans of Hawks or Wayne, or both, it’s still probably considered a by-the-numbers entry. Entirely forgettable.
Too Late Blues, John Cassavetes (1961, USA). A Cassavetes film I actually quite liked! That must be cause for celebration. And yet the music which forms the heart of this film – instrumental jazz – is so bland and inoffensive, it might as well be elevator music. Getting Stella Stevens to croon wordlessly over the top of it – which is pretty much the film’s plot – doesn’t improve it one jot. Bobby Darin plays a jazz musician and composer, who is happy to play bland lite instrumental jazz, although his band are hungry for success. He meets Stevens and decides to add her to the act. They try to cut a record. In a bar, Darin refuses to defend himself when a drunk tries it on with Stevens… and so the two split. He plays lite jazz for hire, she becomes a prostitute. It’s not a pretty picture. The film works because Cassavetes manages to get the viewer invested in the characters. Darin was inspired casting – he looks so innocuous, and yet he dresses and acts like he’s some kind of stud (I don’t know if that’s Darin being a star when the film was made, or just acting – hard to tell with a lot of US “actors”). Stevens, who always had more acting chops than most of her roles required, shows what she’s capable of, although in the singing department she’s hardly memorable. But the two stand-outs are Everett Chambers as Darin’s oleaginous agent and Cliff Carnell as the band’s bluff saxophonist. I’m a long way from becoming a fan of Cassavetes’s films – although I seem to have watched enough of them – but I thought this one more impressive than the others.
L’amour braque, Andrzej Żuławski (1985, France). This may well be the most 1980s film ever made. And it’s not like there isn’t strong competition – like, er, Bruce Willis’s entire career pre-The Sixth Sense. True, it’s a French film, and that’s not something that immediately comes to mind when you think of 1980s films. But the over-acting Żuławski appears to demand of his cast, when married to a 1980s soundtrack and lots of shoulderpads, seems so 1980s it’s almost painful. The story, on the other hand, is the usual Żuławski tosh. Tchéky Karyo leads a gang of bank-robbers, and after the successful heist which opens the film, they stumble across Frances Huster, the somewhat bland lead of Jacques Demy’s Parking, and sort of adopt him. Huster then falls for Karyo’s girlfriend, Sophie Marceau… and there you have the romantic triangle Żuławski loves to structure his movies around. Like most Żuławski films, it’s all very intense, and the cast clearly give it their all, although the story is not quite as interesting as his other films. In fact, it all feels very much like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Żuławski treatment, much like Subway felt like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Besson treatment… back when “the Besson treatment” meant something. Having said all that, Mondo Vision have been doing an amazing job on these Żuławski re-releases. I missed the first two – L’important c’est d’aimer and Possession – but I’m definitely keeping track of them from now on…
3-Iron, Kim Ki-duk (2004, Korea). I was somewhat puzzled when the rental service sent this as I knew nothing about the film and couldn’t think why I’d added to my list. But it turned out to be one recommended by David Tallerman, and his suggestions have generally proven quite good – although this was definitely the best to date. A homeless drifter tapes take-away menus over the keyholes of houses and flats, so he can tell if the places are occupied. Once he has ascertained they are empty, he breaks in and stays there – and while he’s there, he fixes broken appliances and does the residents’ laundry. But one such property proves to be still occupied: by the wife of an abusive husband. The wife leaves the husband and joins the drifter, but when they occupy an apartment owned by an old man who has died of lung cancer, the drifter is charged with his murder. While in prison, the drifter hones his skill at “invisibility”. Reviews have apparently focused on the fact that neither of the two leads actually speak during the film, but the true genius of 3-Iron is that it makes the drifter’s invisibility entirely plausible. It’s not authorial fiat, as in Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, but a carefully-practiced skill, with a narrative history… and that’s what makes it work. It helps that the film looks pretty good too, and the cast do an excellent job with a script that has no lines for them to speak. I really liked this. An excellent film that took an interesting approach to interesting material. Recommended.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 792
Well, slightly less than half of this post are US films, although I’d prefer it to be no more than one or two per post. But we’re getting there, as our national railway famously once said only to be privatised and then completely fail to get anywhere…
You Only Live Once, Fritz Lang (1937, USA). This was a cheerful movie. Henry Fonda plays a habitual criminal who decides to go straight – mostly thanks to the love of a good woman, in this case Sylvia Sidney, the secretary of the local public defender. But not everyone is so forgiving. Although the public defender (who is secretly in love with his secretary) gets Fonda a job at a delivery company, he’s fired when he takes time out to look over a new house with his new wife. And no one else will employ him because he’s an ex-con. Absolutely no one. And then someone robs an armoured car, and a hat is left at the scene which points to Fonda as the culprit. He’s found guilty (the trial is off-screen, probably because it sounds so much a travesty of justice Lang was too embarrassed to show it), and Fonda ends up on Death Row. But an opportunity for escape presents itself, he takes it, but accidentally kills the prison priest… seconds after the warden has received news that Fonda is innocent and has been pardoned. Too late! Fonda collects his wife, and the two go on the lam. To be honest, I’d expected more from Lang. I’ve seen a fair number of his noir movies, and I expected this to be as good as they were. And certainly the scene where Fonda escapes from prison is very atmospherically staged and shot. But everyone is so horrible to Fonda, and the odds are stacked against him so strongly, the set-up to justify Fonda’s abrupt shift from optimism to desperation feels forced and completely implausible. So, not one of Lang’s better films.
Zabriskie Point*, Michelangelo Antonioni (1970, USA). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films, and his Red Desert is one of my all-time favourite movies; but I also like late 1960s/early 1970s hippy films – or, at least, ones that comment on the hippy condition. It’s not just the direct rebellion, nor the questioning of society, but also that so many of these types of films throw in an additional dimension – which might well be typical hippy occult bullshit, but at least adds something a little more interesting to the story. And so to Zabriskie Point, which opens with semi-documentary footage of a protest at a California university. But when the police turn up, the protest takes a violent approach and several people are killed. Including a policeman. The film then abruptly switches to two characters: a young woman who is looking for a man in the Mojave Desert who works with emotionally disturbed children. Meanwhile, a young male student from the university protest, and a prime suspect in the death of the cop, steals a plane and flies off to Arizona… where he meets the young woman. And they go to Zabriskie Point, a real place just east of Death Valley, Nevada, where they have sex – well, actually, a full-blown orgy kicks off… and this isn’t really a film where you can describe the plot, or where such a précis would do the film any favours. But it is by Antonioni so it looks absolute fantastic and, to be fair, he makes just as good a fist of depicting the culture he’s filming as Demy does in Model Shop – they’re neither part of the culture, but their outsider status allows them see more than might be visible from inside. Antonioni made several excellent movies – I’d put Zabriskie Point in the top five of those; in fact I think I’d call it my third favourite after Red Desert and Blow-Up.
The Hired Hand*, Peter Fonda (1971, USA). Sigh. Another 1970s Western on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But… well, this is a surprise. I’m not a fan of the Western, and have only three in my DVD collection – and I’ve probably seen more than I ever really wanted to because they’re on the 1001 Movies list… Certainly I’d never have considered watching this one: an early seventies Western, directed by Peter Fonda… (Even though I liked Easy Rider a lot.) But in fact it turned out to be pretty damn good. For exactly the same reasons why it flopped on release back in 1970. It’s slow, its cinematography is poetic, and it has a great soundtrack. Its story, to be fair, is not very interesting, and its characters are not very strong… but the whole works because the pictures and story go together exceedingly well. Fonda plays a drifter who decides to return to the wife who kicked him out years before, and asks only that he be taken on as a “hired hand” in order to prove he has changed. But a stop-off en route had made enemies of some nasty sorts and they track him down, and your typical Wild West showdown ensues. Where The Hired Hand really scores, however, is in its opening third: the cinematograhpy goes mad for dissolves and montages, and it works wonderfully well. The bluegrass score by Bruce Langhorne is also really well done – and I’m not a person who really notices incidental music (I have, like, three original soundtracks in my music collection… er, except for all those ones by Andrzej Korzyñski). Altogether, this is good stuff, and I’m tempted to pick up a copy for myself.
24 City, Jia Zhangke (2008, China). I had been seriously impressed by Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, so of course I added the rest of Zhangke’s oeuvre to my rental list… and this was the first sent to me. And, I’m happy to report, I did not choose wrong. Zhangke is a name to watch and a new director to join my favourites. The title refers to a new suburb built on the site of an aircraft factory. The film covers several decades in a semi-documentary style, first interviewing workers in the aircraft factory (whose location and purpose is a state secret because the aircraft are military). The film is divided into three sections: one during the days of the plant’s operations, another after it has closed and the plant has been mothballed, and one after the site has been redeveloped and a dormitory suburb now occupies the location. The mix of staged interviews, informal interviews (one scene consists entirely of a man at a bar reminiscing about his career at the factory), and small family dramas which illustrate the personal histories affected by the history of the factory and the town which springs up in its place, is extremely effective; and I especially like the factualness of it. 24 City is, apparently, a real place, and the story of the film is no doubt based upon, or inspired by, real events; but the mix of fact and fiction I find quite compelling – much as I did in A Touch of Sin. Excellent stuff.
Mournful Unconcern, Aleksandr Sokurov (1983, Russia). This was another work by Sokurov that remained underground for many years – it was banned by the Soviet authorities – before finally being publicly screened after glasnost… and was promptly nominated for a Golden Bear. It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, but is intercut with documentary footage. The cinematography is, surprisingly, straightforward, but the whole thing feels ike an unholy mix of David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, albeit put together in an entirely Sokurovian way. That documentary footage, for example – it’s contemporary with the setting, the 1920s, and features Shaw himself, a zeppelin, World War I, an Antarctic expedition, the River Ganges, and various places in Africa. The choices of incidental music is also typically Sokurovian, and often anachronistic. Heartbreak House, subtitled “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes”, which is apparently a reference to Chekhov, whose plays inspired Shaw’s, is set in the home of Captain Shotover – played by Ramaz Chkhikvadze as half Falstaff and half Lear – and is partly a drawing-room farce and partly an Edwardian sex comedy. Gunfire and explosions can be heard on the soundtrack throughout the entire film, which ends with a zeppelin dropping a bomb and blowing up the house. It’s… an odd beast. The story seems well-suited to Sokurov’s feelings about the Soviet Union. The use of documentary stock footage is perhaps more intrusive than in the other films in which Sokurov uses it, but it works really well (some of the inserts provide clever and amusing commentary on the main story). I’m not so sure about the story itself, however – I don’t know what changes Sokurov made to Shaw’s play, though the setting seems to be as described. Still, like all of Sokurov’s films, it’s one that will require repeated viewings.
Brooklyn, John Crowley (2015, Ireland). This was one of those films of the last year or so which received lots of positive buzz and reviews, and didn’t involve superheroes, so I thought might be worth watching. It’s also an adaptation of a novel (winner of the Costa Novel Award, but only longlisted for the Man Booker) by Colm Tóibin, who, I admit, I’ve never read. The story is relatively simple – a fact stressed by several of the reviews: young Irish woman in the 1950s travels to New York in order to build a new life. She lives in a boarding-house and works in a department store, but she is shy and unassuming and very homesick. Then she meets a young man, of American-Italian extraction, and the two enter into a relationship. She is is now much happier and more settled. But then her sister in Ireland dies unexpectedly, so she returns to succour her mother. And now life back in Ireland seems much more attractive than it did when she left for New York. That is until the town gossip reveals something the young woman had been sort of trying to forget… and so she returns to New York. It’s a very pretty film, the cinematography is quite lovely, and the cast are uniformly good. Julie Walters as the landlady of the Brooklyn boarding-house, however, is a scream. But the story all feels a bit drab and low-key and devoid of any real insight, which makes the movie feel more like well-shot wallpaper than actual drama. I enjoyed it, but I think it was over-praised.
Land and Freedom, Ken Loach (1995, UK). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but not apparently the edition of it I’m using. Still it’s by Ken Loach and the subject matter – the Spanish Civil War – made it seem worth renting. And so it proved. An old working-class man in Liverpool collapses in his council flat, the ambulance comes, but he dies en route. Later, going through his things, his granddaughter discovers he had sailed to Spain in the 1930s to fight for the Republicans against the fascists. She reads his letters… and these are dramatised, with Ian Hart playing the young Scouser. On arrival on Spain, it all seems a bit haphazard, but Hart joins POUM’s milita and is soon out fighting (which basically seems to involve taking potshots from the POUM trenches at fascist soldiers in their trenches). At one point, the militia oust a troop of fascist troops from a village, and the villagers then conduct a fierce discussion on private ownership and collectivisation. After Hart is injured training new recruits – a rifle explodes when he fires it – things take a turn for the worse as the various left factions begin fighting amongst themselves, and even start killing those whose idealogies are not approved. It hardly comes as a surprise the fascists win (even for those who don’t know their history). The right always will… because the left seems happier fighting among itself than showing a united front to the enemy – just look what’s happing in the UK now. You look at Trump, and it’s 1930s Germany all over again; you look at the UK, and it’s 1930s Spain. Neither, of course, bode well… I’ve watched the occasional Ken Loach film over the years and enjoyed them, but have never really made an effort to seek them out. However, I find myself appreciating social realism in movies much more these days than I used to (and consequently despising fascistic sfx-heavy tentpole movies). I see there are three box sets of Loach’s films available – Volume 1, Volume 2 and At the BBC. I might well avail myself of them…
1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 792
Wa-hey, I did it! An entire Moving pictures post without a single US film. Which is not say I watched zero US films during the period, just that they were so shit they weren’t worth documenting (and, to be honest, there were only one or two of them). But still, it’s an achievement. And one I hope to repeat.
The Lonely Voice of Man, Aleksandr Sokurov (1978, Russia). This was Sokurov’s first feature-length film, created as his thesis at the prestigious VGIK film school – but the school authorities wouldn’t accept it, and despite requests to do so by a number of big names, Sokurov had to submit something else in order to graduate. The Lonely Voice of Man, meanwhile, became an underground film; and it wasn’t until glasnost that it finally saw official release – although Sokurov took the opportunity to “reconstruct” it first. It had already built up a reputation from its underground showings, but post-glasnost it picked up several awards, and much critical acclaim, at numerous festival showings. It’s roughly based on the writings of Platonov, in much the same way, I guess, that Whispering Pages is based on the writings of Gogol or Save and Protect is based on Madame Bovary. Sokurov takes a very loose approach to “adaptation”. To be honest, I know nothing about Platonov – had not even heard of him until watching this film – but I don’t doubt that familiarity with his oeuvre would add more to the viewing experience, much as it would for the aforementioned films (which, to be honest, is not something I’ve tested – although I did drunkenly buy a collection of Chekhov’s stories while watching Stone; and when I found a copy of Gogol’s collected short stories in a charity shop, I bought it…). Anyway, The Lonely Voice of Man opens with the historical footage depicted on the poster I’ve used on this post, before moving onto the plot of Platonov’s novella ‘The River Potudan’, in which a young man returns home after fighting for the revolution. His girlfriend has since qualified as a doctor, and their two changed circumstances affect their relationship. So he runs away and becomes a manual labourer in a nearby town. The cast are non-professionals, and the picture is distorted – although to a much lighter extent than Sokurov uses in later films. The cinematography is dark, with a muted palette, and a camera that focuses on objects as often as it does the characters, not to mention a non-chronological narrative. While not everything in the film is immediately parseable, the sudden switches between seasons seem, to me, to signal, changes from one narrative to another – ie, boyfriend and girlfriend getting married, and after the husband has left. In Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szianawski considers The Lonely Voice of Man a masterwork, but it seems to me more of an apprentice piece, a working-out of the themes and techniques Sokurov goes on to make extensive use of in his career (although both Szianawski and myself agree that The Second Circleis a masterpiece). There’s no doubt in my mind that Sokurov is one of the most interesting directors currently making films – and that’s as much a result of his contradictions as it is of the idiosyncratic approach he has taken to film-making.
Subarnarekha*, Ritwik Ghatak (1965, India). Although this film appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (one of two Ghatak movies to do so; the other is The Cloud-Capped Star), it has apparently never been released on DVD with English subtitles. Which is a shame. Having now seen it, I think it’s a better film than The Cloud-Capped Star, but not as good as A River Called Titas (which is not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; go figure). But I own all three films now, so I can watch them again at leisure. Ghatak directed eight films in total, and is highly-regarded – if not of the same stature as Satyajit Ray, he’s not far from it – so it’s weird that only The Cloud-Capped Star and A River Called Titas are available on DVD (and the first is not that easy to find – Amazon third-party sellers have it at £80 (but you can get it direct from the BFI for £20)). Anyway, Subarnarekha, AKA The Golden Thread, opens with a woman being taken away from a refugee camp, but her son is left behind. A young man takes the boy in hand, and takes him with him, and his daughter, when they leave and settle in West Bengal. Jump ahead a few years and the orphan boy and the daughter are now in love, but the father is told his career at the factory, amd his rise to manager, could be threatened if his daughter marries someone from a lower caste (ie, the orphan). Then it gets sort of complicated – but that difference in caste, and how it impacts the father’s career, is the axle on which the story revolves. It might well be heresy, but I think I prefer Ghatak’s films to Ray’s. To date, I’ve seen three by Ghatak and four by Ray – but Ray was both much more prolific and is more readily available on DVD in the UK, so perhaps I’ll change my mind once I’ve seen more of Ray’s films. I do wish more by Ghatak were available, however.
Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas (2014, France). I’ve followed Assayas’s career on and off since first seeing Irma Vep back in 2000, although, annoyingly, the film of his that has sounded most interesting to me was 2002’s Demonlover, which was never released on DVD in the UK. He’s a film festival favourite, and his last film, Personal Shopper, won him the Best Director Award at Cannes this year (a joint win with Cristian Mingiu). Clouds of Sils Maria is an English-language film despite being set in Switzerland and with a French actress, Juliette Binoche, in the lead role. Binoche plays an actress who has been asked to accept an award in Zurich on behalf of a reclusive Swiss playwright. Her own career began when she played one of the two lead roles in the stage and screen versions of the playwright’s most famous play, which is about the relationship between a young woman and an older woman. Binoche is travelling with her assistant, Kristen Stewart, an American, and the mirroring of their relationship with that of the two women in the play is, er, well, a bit obvious. Fortunately, both actresses are good in their roles – Stewart is especially good – and if the shape of the story unfolds all too predictably, the script provides more than enough material for the cast to get their teeth into so they put on a good show. But, for all that, the film comes across as a somewhat dull story that just happens to be especially well-made. Perhaps it’s the milieu in which it’s set – the European great and good, swanning about in swanky hotels, and arguing over a past, and career histories, that don’t feel especially well-seated in the plot. Assayas strikes me as a more consistent director than François Ozon – although it may be unfair to compare the two as Ozon belongs to a later generation of French film-makers – but I think Ozon’s oeuvre is the more varied and interesting of the two, and Ozon’s best films are better than Assayas’s.
The Days When I Do Not Exist, Jean-Charles Fitoussi (2002, France). This film was sent as a “bonus” with a purchase made on eBay, so I had no idea what to expect. And the internet was no real help – there’s no Wikipedia page for Fitoussi, and the imdb page for Les jours où je n’existe pas is surprisingly free of information. Whch is a shame, as it proved to be an excellent movie. It opens with a funeral, and an actor discussing the life of the person interred in the grave. The conversation – well, monologue – continues in the car as they drive away from the cemetery. And it’s only then that the main narrative begins: a man meets a woman in a park, and the two begin a relationship. But he only exists on alternate days. To him, it’s an unbroken succession of days, but for her – she’s alone every other day, and it begins to pall. So much so that she asks a friend to help try and prevent her husband (I think they’re married by this point) from appearing. But it doesn’t work. The story is told chiefly through voice-over narration (framing narrative aside), and there are occasional breaks away from the characters when the camera shoots landscape (although there’s something Benning-like about these scenes, the camera is not static but slowly pans and zooms). The whole effect feels a little like Patrick Keiller and a little like Godard (when he’s being experimental, but not too off-the-wall), but it works really well. Definitely a pleasant surprise. According to imdb, Fitoussi has made almost a dozen films, although only three or four are feature-length. I’ll definitely keep an eye open should any of them appear in editions with English subtitles.
The Double Life of Veronique*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1991, France). On its release, a film critic said of The Double Life of Veronique that it made “little or no sense on paper”, and she was pretty much spot-on. It doesn’t. The story is complete tosh. And yet it’s a beautifully-shot and beautifully-played piece of cinema. It not only works, it works exceedingly well – so well, in fact, it won both the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. (Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or that year, and La belle noiseuse the Grand Prize of the Jury.) The film’s title refers to young women, both played by Irène Jacob. The first is Weronika, who travels to Kraków to stay with her sick aunt, auditions for a conductor and is chosen by him as lead soprano for a planned concert. On the way home from the audition, during a violent protest, she spots a young woman who looks exactly like her. This second woman takes some photographs and then gets on a coach and drives away. This is Veronique, who teaches music at a school in Paris. Twenty minutes into the film, during the concert, Weronika collapses and dies on stage. The focus shifts to Veronique, who is suddenly overcome with sadness. A series of strange events seem to link her to the dead Weronika but transpire to be a “test” by a puppeteer and writer of children’s books Veronique has met. His last such test is sending her a cassette of ambient sounds. The postmark on the envelope leads her to a Paris railway station, where she finds the puppeteer in a café. He has been waiting there for her for two days. Angry, she leaves him – but he follows her to her hotel and the two become involved… The Double Life of Veronique is, quite frankly, made by Irène Jacob in the title role. Though the cinematography is pure Kieślowski, as is the ultra-careful timing of the story, the plot feels thinner than Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s usual material. None of which is to say The Double Life of Veronique is a bad film, or even disappointing for Kieślowski, because I thought it a better film than Three Colours: Blue, even if it did feel like the story was forever about to topple into nonsense. I need to watch Kieślowski’s other films to see if they’re also as good as I remember them – especially No End, which I seem to recall liking a great deal – although it seems not all of them have been released on Blu-ray… although Arrow Academy are going to release Dekalog in a dual edition box set later this year – it’s on my wishlist.
Equinox Flower, Yasujiro Ozu (1958, Japan). I must be getting into Ozu’s films – I recognised the characters in this movie as the same ones from Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon. And because the plot was about marrying off daughters, a subject shared with those other two films, I initially thought it followed on from them. But it was actually made two years before one and four years before the other. (Although, just to confuse matters, the main character has the family name Hirayama in each film, but is played by a different actor… each of which plays a differently-named character in the other two films.) In Equinox Flower, Hirayama must deal with his own two daughters, neither of which want arranged marriages – and the boyfriend of one, in fact, approaches Hirayama to ask for the hand of his daughter – as well as trying to reconcile an old friend with his estranged daughter and also help a female acquaintance find a husband for her daughter… The film is set mostly in Hirayama’s office, home and a Ginza bar called Luna, where the estranged daughter works. There is also a scene in the same inn which appears in the later two films (with the same landlady too). I’ve said before that Ozu’s films are very domestic – and it’s not just that they’re chiefly uchi, but more that the stories are driven by the interlinkage between several families who seem to be undergoing the same trials and tribulations. And yet there’s a telling moment in Equinox Flower, toward the end, which admits the outside world, when Hirayama and his wife are at seaside, sitting side-by-side on a bench (it’s the cover image of the DVD), and she tells him that WWII was a wonderful time for her, and he replies that he hated it. And this is after differences of opinion over their daughters’ futures and the one’s impending marriage. It’s in the small things that Ozu excels – it is, in fact, where he finds his stories. And I’m not entirely sure if the fact they’re Japanese makes them more domestic than they would be had they been set in another nation. I think it might well. Good stuff.
Summer Interlude, Ingmar Bergman (1951, Sweden). Bergman is a Swedish institution – at least from the outside – perhaps so much so that he overshadows everything else produced on film or television in the country (twenty-first century Nordic crime TV series notwithstanding). And, despite the size of his output, Bergman’s oeuvre isn’t all that varied. His many films are usually three- or four-hander plays, typically about relationships or families, played out with a bit more scenic freedom than a theatre offers. Summer Interlude, considered among his best by some, is a case in point. The lead character is a ballerina, who goes to stay with relatives in the country for a holiday, and subsequently has a holiday romance. But the unsophisticated boyfriend doesn’t understand the dancer’s sophisticated world – especially her relationship with her urbane “uncle” – and it all ends badly. It’s all very, well, play-ish, a story driven by relationships which are laid out in dialogue rather than through visual clues – although Bergman certainly uses his scenery to good effect (and I have to wonder if the scene involving wild strawberries inspired the later film of that title). Criticising Bergman would be like criticising Shakespeare, but nothing should be sacred – and, like Shakespeare, some of Bergman’s output works better, or at least appeals to me more, than others. Summer Interlude has its moments, but I think I’d place it in middle-tier Bergman – neither a stand-out nor one of the forgettable ones.
1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 791