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Moving pictures, #48

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_becomeLive 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.

faustFaust, 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…

diaryDiary 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.

mirrorMirror*, 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.

wolf_manThe 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.

wonderTo 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


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Moving pictures, #46

Yet more movies… All but one are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but two of them I’d seen previously.

solarisSolaris*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1972, Russia). I first saw Solaris back in the early 1980s when I was at school. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was on, I think, BBC2, and the junior common room had a single television set but I somehow managed to persuade a half a dozen of my fourteen-year-old peers to sit and watch three hours of Russian sf film. Whatever leadership qualities I had then which allowed me to manage that have long since gone. But I’ve treasured Solaris ever since. In fact, it was one of a handful of films I was determined to own once DVDs appeared on the market (I never liked VHS, and refused to buy videocassettes). I’ve watched it few times since buying it on DVD back in 2002, but this most recent rewatch was triggered by upgrading my copy to Blu-ray. And I still love the film, although it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky. Despite the odd moment which is wildly implausible – such as when Kelvin’s launches Hari in an escape rocket from the station, and Kelvin survives being in the same chamber as the launch – the entire film looks astonishingly believable. There’s something about the production design (rocket launch notwithstanding) that makes the space station look like a real place. The story is loosely based on Lem’s novel of the same title, so loosely Lem was apparently unhappy with the adaptation; but, to be frank, when having someone of the calibre of Tarkovsky adapting a work it seems churlish to complain it’s not especially faithful. And it’s true the film does mostly ignore the Solaris organism, which is the focus of the book, and instead spends its time documenting the effects of the organisms on the scientists aboard the space station. But it looks gorgeous, and even the moments of black and white – Tarkovsky ran out of colour film stock – seem to fit in with the overall look and feel of the movie. Solaris works so well because it doesn’t do the science-ficiton thing and focus on the novum, the Solaris organism, as the book does, but focuses instead on Kelvin’s relationship with Hari. In the book, the Solaris organism manifests fantastical cathedral-like islands; in the film, it manifests a single enigmatic woman from Kelvin’s past. I know which story I prefer.

deer_hunterThe Deer Hunter*, Michael Cimino (1978, USA). I’d seen this many years ago, but other than it being about Vietnam and involving a scene featuring Russian roulette remembered pretty much nothing of it. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Because, to be honest, I thought The Deer Hunter merely okay. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken are two of a group of steel workers who regularly go hunting in the mountains and generally behaving like swaggering macho working-class Americans. And then they sign up to fight in Vietnam and, well, there are a million films about that, in fact until 9/11 it pretty much defined a big part of the US psyche… But things don’t go well in Vietnam and they’re captured together – in one of those coincidences that plots require – and tortured by the Viet Cong… before escaping. But all of them have been damaged by their Vietnam experiences. Well, all except De Niro. Although perhaps he is as he can no longer no shoot defenceless deers when hunting. Christopher Walken forgets who he is and begins playing Russian roulette for money… and winning. John Savage loses both legs and the use of an arm, and ends up in a VA hospital. I can see how at the time this movie took a number of chances, and they paid off. But from forty years later, there’s little in it to impress all that much. It concerns a topic which is the concern of a nation that is not my own and a generation which is not my own. I have to judge it as a film and only that. There is no baggage. And in that respect, it has its moments – Cimino’s ambition is plain, and it mostly works; but the characters are thinly-drawn and there’s too much reliance on the cast to bring them to life (some, notoriously, weren’t even scripted but had to improvise). It’s a good cast, of course, and they mostly went on to greater things, but this is early in their careers. The Vietnam scenes do not compare well with those in other films (my only comparison, of course), and there’s little subtlety in the war’s effects on the characters. I’m in two minds whether this belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. There are better Vietnam films, there are better war films… but it captures something – even if it’s only its director’s ambition – that might be worth preserving.

all_quietAll Quiet on the Western Front*, Lewis Milestone (1930, USA). The most surprising thing about this film, I guess, is that it’s a US film with US actors who play Germans fighting for Germany during World War I. Has Hollywood ever made a movie about Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS soldiers? I don’t think so – at least not where they’re playing the heroes (and we’ll nip the “good Nazi” discussion in the bud right now, thank you very much). All Quiet on the Western Front is essentially a “war is hell” story, and it happens to be written by a German and set during WWI. Which clearly wasn’t seen as a commercial obstacle by Hollywood – although, to be fair, Hitler didn’t seize control of Germany until 1931, but surely it was obvious what was going on in Germany at the time (for a start, half of Britain’s aristocracy were supporting Hitler by then). Despite all that, All Quiet on the Western Front is a fairly unexciting war film, if that doesn’t sound odd. What I mean is, it doesn’t offer any astonishing insights – perhaps it did in 1930, although I find it hard to believe; perhaps it did in 1928 when Remarque’s novel was first published in the Vossische Zeitung, although given the effects of WWI on the German population away from the Front (especially given the blockade by the British Grand Fleet), so maybe not… True, it humanises the enemy of WWI, and that may have been something new to US audiences, which I guess makes it anti-propaganda and not something which Hollywood normally does. And, after all that, the trench warfare it depicts seems a little sanitised compared to the reality as documented, or indeed in later films set during the war.

rivetteDuelle, Jacques Rivette (1976, France). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still no clearer as to what it’s about. There are apparently two women, the Queen of the Night and the Queen of the Sun, and they fight a magical battle in mid-1970s Paris over a magical diamond. I tweeted while watching this that in most films there’s always a sense the director is playing to the gallery, but that sense was completely absent from Duelle (as indeed it was in Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round too). You feel like a Peeping Tom, watching something without knowing the context. I was, I admit, beguiled by the “limited edition” status of the collection in which this appears, and having been impressed by La belle noiseuse, but two films in and I’m beginning to question my purchase. It’s not that Duelle is a bad film – it’s not, at all, it’s well-shot and well-acted… but, well, it’s a bit like watching someone’s home movie (with extremely high production values, that is). If the synopsis give on Wikipedia is the story Rivette thought he was telling, the film is a little too confused for it to stand as a description of its plot. I quite liked Merry-Go-Round‘s inability to resolve itself – it was very L’Avventura, and I admire Antonioni’s film, and indeed his oeuvre. But Duelle often feels like assorted episodes from an incomplete series. I’m going to have to watch it again, I think; but I’m still convinced I’ll never make real sense of it.

gospelThe Gospel According to Matthew*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964, Italy). I was looking for something on Amazon Prime to watch on a Sunday afternoon, and stumbled across this, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It wasn’t quite the easy watching I was hoping for, but never mind. It’s a pretty much straight-up telling of the eponymous gospel, its southern Italy locations making a good fist of standing in for Biblical Palestine. I’m not entirely sure why the film exists, to be honest. It’s not a new spin on the gospel, and as commentary it’s remarkably thin. The neo-realist style works well with the material, but we’re still talking about a 2000-year-old fantasy that a substantial portion of the world’s population think is historical fact. Here are a few facts: Jesus was a Jewish; he spoke Aramaic; Jesus is not an Aramaic name, so he can’t have been called that; he probably wasn’t born in Nazareth either, because there’s no archaeological evidence the town existed until the third century CE. But then Pasolini’s film tells it as it’s presented in Matthew’s gospel, which was written at least two generations after the Crucifixion, and have undoubtedly been rewritten many times since. But that’s the source material, this is the film. And it, well, it tells a story, and it does well. But the source material is always going to overshadow it, and while I salute Pasolini’s bravery in tackling it, and I admire the understated way he told the story, it does all feel a bit unnecessary. Does it belong on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list? I honestly don’t know.

haxanHäxan*, Benjamin Christensen (1922, Sweden). Um, I could perhaps have better planned my viewing… to go from saying I have no interest in a movie about Christ straight into one about Satan and witchcraft… Especially when Häxan proved well-made and fascinating. I’ve no idea what prompted Christensen to make it – surely Sweden in the 1920s wasn’t that bad a place? Häxan opens with a history of witchcraft, before then illustrating that history with a series of re-enactments illustrating parts of the history. One part iunvolves the trial of an old woman for witchcraft, and the final part of the film attempts to give modern explanations to behaviour classed in less enlightened times as witchcraft. And this is in a film ade in the 1920s. Though it may be difficult for osme to believe, I was not around at the beginnings of cinema. In fact, silent movies were very much a thing of the past when I was born. And I suppose I inherited the general response to them that my generation had – sound was better, so why bother watching silent films? Of course, I’ve seen quite a number of them since then. Indeed, I’ve become a fan of Murnau’s films, and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a bona fide classic, as is Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia, not to mention Ponting’s The Great White Silence, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Dovzhenko’s Zemlya. Okay, I’m not a big fan of the Keystone Cops, and while I’ll happily watch Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or early Laurel & Hardy, they’re pretty much watch once and enjoy experiences; and that’s even true of early Hitchcock… but there are silent films – and I don’t just mean Metropolis – that every cinephile should have in their collection… and yes, Häxan is probably one of them. Happily, there’s a good edition from Tartan readily available in the UK.


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Behind the Iron Screen

It all started quite innocently enough. Shaun Duke posted a list of something or other on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag. I pointed out he was wrongheaded. He challenged me to produce a rival list, which I did. I challenged him to produce a list… and by this point I’ve forgotten whether we were originally discussing books or films. I’ve a feeling we started off with books but somehow drifted onto films. Anyway, he responded to my challenge and issued one of his one own, which I met. And then I challenged him to produce – and I think this is the point we’re at now – a list of five Cold War-related genre films that most people would not have heard of. Which he did. And now he has demanded that I do the same, but from the other side of the Iron Curtain. So, five Warsaw Pact Cold War-related genre films, of which at least three must be from the USSR/Russia…

Happily, I immediately thought of several possible movies. The only question was whether they qualified as Cold War-related. Or as genre. And having to choose three of the five from the Soviet Union did somewhat limit my choices. So it was more a matter of picking which five to put on my list than it was actually finding five. And here they are, in no particular order…

Sacrifice_Offret (The Sacrifice), Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). The absolutely obvious choice. It’s about a nuclear war, so you can’t get more Cold War than that. Okay, it was filmed in Sweden with a Swedish cast, but Tarkovsky is arguably the most famous film director to have come out of Russia, so in my mind it counts as a Russian film. So there. An ex-actor, played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson, lives in a nice house on a remote Swedish island with his wife. After admitting he no longer believes in God, news reaches Josephson of all-out nuclear war. He vows to sacrifice all he owns and loves if God will undo the nuclear holocaust. Unsurprisingly, this is quite a harrowing film, but it is also Tarkovsky… and you cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Tarkovsky’s movies.

starsbyhardwaysЧерез тернии к звёздам (To the Stars by Hard Ways), Richard Viktorov (1981, USSR). The Cold War link is less obvious in this famous Russian sf film, but given that it concerns an ecological war between two groups on an alien world – and in which humans become involved after rescuing the bizarre-looking Yelena Metyolkina – there’s clearly a parallel. Admittedly, the rescue mission is multi-national, but then socialist films liked to show the world’s nations working together, even if the West has always been resistant to the idea (US films, for example, always show the US doing everything) . Ruscico currently sell a copy of this on DVD. It’s completely bonkers but worth getting. I’ve heard the director’s son has released a director’s cut of the film, but to my knowledge it’s only available in Russian and my knowledge of that language is limited to a handful of pleasantries and swear words.

testpilotpirxДознание пилота Пиркса (Inquest of Pilot Pirx), Marek Piestrak (1978, USSR/Poland). Pirx was created by Polish sf writer Stanisław Lem, so there’s no doubting this film’s genre credentials; and while it’s a joint production between studios in Poland, Ukraine and Estonia, the latter two were in the USSR when the movie was made, so it counts. It’s another socialist film which presents an international crew, but there are still two sides engaged in a form of Cold War: humans and androids. Pirx must captain a ship on a space flight Saturn. One of his crew is an android, but he doesn’t know which one – and once at their destination, it tries to seize control. A weird mix of Cold War thriller, with an amazing seventies aesthetic, and hard sf, this is another DVD worth getting. Again, it’s available from Ruscico.

noendBez końca (No End), Krzysztof Kieślowski (1985, Poland). This is in no way science fiction, and it’s only Cold War-related inasmuch as its story takes place during the years of martial law in Poland after Solidarność was banned. A translator, whose lawyer husband died recently, struggles to make ends meet and bring up her son, while the ghost of her dead husband watches over her. But it’s Kieślowski, that’s all you need to know. You cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Kieślowski’s movies.

in_the_dust_of_the_starsIm Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of the Stars), Gottfried Kolditz (1976, East Germany). During the 1960s and 1970s, East Germany’s Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, DEFA, made four big budget science fiction films: Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970), Der Schweigende Stern (1960), Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea (1972). The last three are available in an English-language DVD box set, but I’ve yet to find the first in an English edition (and my German is a bit rusty – I struggled when watching Raumpatrouille Orion). In Im Staub der Sterne, a spaceship lands on a rescue mission on the world of TEM 4, only for the inhabitants to deny sending a distress call. Except there are two groups on TEM 4 in a sort of Eloi / Morlock relationship, as the crew discover, and it’s not hard to read it as an Eastern Bloc versus decadent West sort of thing. The film is also astonishingly kitsch, with some of the most bonkers seventies production design ever consigned to celluloid. Hunt down that DEFA collection box set, it’s totally worth it.

szulkinO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji (O-Bi, O-Ba. The End of Civilisation), Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland). Just because I can, I’m going to make my list six films. Mostly because this movie is so on point, it didn’t deserve to be an also ran – and yet I also wanted to include the ones I’d already chosen. O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji is set entirely in an underground fallout shelter after some sort of nuclear holocaust – except there’s more going on than there initially seems. The shelter is not the shiny clean antiseptic complex you’d expect of a US Cold War movie, but a dirty ill-lit dungeon, a sort of confined post-apocalyptic wasteland in its own right. There’s a very black joke about the currency used in the shelter (Szulkin’s films all possess an amazingly dark humour). Telewizja Kinopolska have released a DVD box set containing O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji, Wojna światów – następne stulecie (War of the Worlds – The Next Century, 1981), and Ga, Ga. Chwała bohaterom (Ga, Ga. Glory to Heroes, 1984), as well one of my favourite films, a 1993 short titled Mięso (Ironica), about the political history of Poland during the twentieth century and, er, meat products.

The also-rans? There’s Béla Tarr’s 2000 movie Werckmeister Harmonies from Hungary, which is about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, but the film might have been a little hard to justify on genre grounds. Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, 1988) is definitely science fiction, but given that it’s adapted from a 1903 novel its Cold War credentials are a little harder to see – but Żuławski adapted the story so it read as a criticism of the Polish authorities… which they managed to spot and so shut down the production (the film was eventually completed ten years later, using stock footage and voice-over narration). Кин-дза-дза! (Kin-dza-dza!, 1986) by Georgiy Daneliya is a 1986 sf film in which a pair of Soviet innocents are dumped on a desert world in which two societies, the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, exist in near-conflict (which seems to be a common trope in Soviet sf cinema). And finally, there’s Pane, vy jste vdova! (You are a Widow, Sir!, 1971) by Czech director Václav Vorlíček, which is a sort of madcap and very silly sf comedy, involving assassins and brain transplants in an invented country, but it might be stretching the point to call it a Cold War film.


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Moving pictures, #6

I’m not entirely sure what happened to June. It seemed to pass really quickly, without me getting much done. And July is looking like it might go the same way. But I have watched a lot of films – if only because of that damned f**tball. So while I scramble to catch up with various ongoing projects – including something a little more intelligent to post on this blog than just lists of books and films – here is a, er, list of films wot I have watched recently.

Sherlock Jr, Buster Keaton (1924, USA) Keaton is a cinema projectionist and dreams himself the hero of the film he’s showing, a murder-mystery among the wealthy, and, of course, there’s a nubile daughter, who Keaton wants to impress. There are some good gags in this, but none that matched the train journey in Our Hospitality (see here).

Wages Of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1953, France) The oil well is on fire, and the only way to put it out is using lots of nitroglycerine, but that’s stored a couple of hundred miles away at the company HQ, and the only way to get it to the wellhead is by truck. Which is, of course, really really dangerous – if not suicidal. But that’s okay because there’s loads of desperate men trapped in the nearby town, who have no jobs and not enough money to leave… The film takes a while to get going, but the drive over the mountains with two trucks full of explosives is pretty good.

Faust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia) If Tarkovsky’s film often seem glacially-paced, then Sokurov’s are geological. But, like Tarkovsky’s, they’re also beautifully shot and observed. The title pretty much tells you all you need to know about the story of this film. The mise en scène looks fantastic, and the moneylender (ie, the devil) is horrible and creepy… a film to savour.

faust

Moscow Elegy, Aleksandr Sokurov (1987, Russia) Sokurov and Tarkovsky had been friends since film school, and this documentary was put together – from footage by Chris Marker, Tarkovsky himself (behind the scenes footage from both Nostalgia and The Sacrifice), and excerpts from Tarkovsky’s films – to be shown on Tarkovsky’s birthday in 1982. Interference by the Soviet authorities led to delays and, sadly, Tarkovsky died before the film premiered. Despite all the Tarkovsky footage in this, there’s no mistaking it for a Sokurov film. This is one of three documentaries on The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion, which I bought when it was released… and I see it now goes for around £88.

Lincoln, Steven Spielberg (2012, USA) I know only what most non-USians know about Lincoln, and this film pretty much covers all those – Civil War, emancipation, assassinated in a theatre, peculiar beard. It’s a dull film for the first half, but Lincoln proves a surprisingly pragmatic president – ie, openly buying votes to push his amendment through Congress. Things pick up a little in the second half, and despite it being an historical conclusion, Spielberg manages to wring some tension from the final vote scene. Having said all that, this is very much by the numbers American History 101. Day-Lewis plays a good part, but all those historical forces feel of the moment rather than the endgame of a long political struggle. Meh.

Make Way for Tomorrow, Leo McCarey (1937, USA) Old retired couple’s house is repossessed by the bank, leaving them homeless, and the grown-up kids are pretty adamant they don’t want the old folks dumped on them – though, in the end, one takes the father and another takes the mother. And they really are an unpleasant family. While this film may be 84 years old, not a fat lot appears to have changed since then. But when you have a welfare state with state pensions and council houses, old people don’t get left on the street to die as they are in some allegedly civilised countries…

Black Moon Rising, Harley Cokliss (1986, USA) A straight-to-DVD thriller notable only for the astonishing mullet worn by Linda Hamilton during the first half-hour (happily, it proves to be a wig). Tommy Lee Jones is a top thief, working for the government, but a job goes wrong, and he has to hide the stolen computer tape in an experimental 300 mph supercar invented by Richard Jaeckel. But then Hamilton’s gang of car thieves, run by shady billionaire Robert Vaughn, steals the supercar, and Jones must get it back.

blackmoon

Tristana, Luis Buñuel (1970, Spain/France) Catherine Deneuve plays an orphan who is adopted by a wealthy don in 1960s Toledo, who treats her like a daughter, but the moment she turns nineteen, he decides she’s his mistress. Meanwhile, she falls in love with a man nearer her own age, runs off to live with him, is taken ill, which results in her losing a leg, and she eventually ends up back with her don. An odd film, it played like an historical melodrama, but didn’t look like one.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany) This is probably my favourite Haneke film, and it’s beautifully put together. A series of mysterious incidents in a German village just prior to World War I cause the villagers to turn on each other, but Haneke refuses to explain who is responsible or why. Beautifully photographed and really quite unsettling.

Golem, Piotr Szulkin (1979, Poland) That Szulkin box set was definitely a good buy. There isn’t a duff film in it, although this is perhaps the least interesting. In a future much like the ones Szulkin has depicted in his other films – ie, grim and dystopian – clones are used to fill out the workforce, and are treated very badly. But one clone may actually be a man – he’s not sure as he can’t remember, and the scientists are too clear on the matter either, as they may have got confused between the clone and the original human.

Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland) I suspect this film is going to make my best of the year – which is a little perverse as it’s a 26-minute television short included as an extra feature in the Piotr Szulkin box set I bought earlier this year – and the actual films in the box set are all very good and worth seeing. But Mięso (Ironica) is in a class of its own. It’s a lecture on the history of Poland under Communism, using the availability of meat and meat products as illustration. It’s filmed in an outdoor meat market, by a cast who are clearly not actors, and in many cases are holding the script in their hand, or need prompting by others. There are also a number of dance routines, including one in which half a dozen riot police dance off against half a dozen Roman Catholic clergy in full regalia. In one scene, a woman in a wheelchair tries to position herself before the camera, but the cobbles are so slippery that by the time she’s in place she’s too knackered to speak.

Mięso (Ironica) (1993) 4 - 007

The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke (1989, Austria) Another favourite by Haneke, and allegedly inspired by true events. A middle-class Austrian family, after spending much of the film going about their lives, suddenly tell everyone they are emigrating to Australia. They then eat a large feast, smash everything they own, and then commit suicide. Like The White Ribbon, it’s deeply unsettling, but this time the lack of explanation plays off against the prosaic nature of what has gone before.

Lola Montès, Max Ophüls (1955, France) This has one of the strangest framing narratives I’ve come across in a mainstream film. Lola Montès is a circus performer, enacting scenes from her life, with the help of the other circus performers and narrated by ringmaster Peter Ustinov. As each new chapter in her life begins, the view fades from the circus ring to a flashback of the actual events. It’s all very colourful, sumptuous even, but Montès is not a sympathetic protagonist and not even the well over-the-top staging prevents interest from flagging. Apparently, this flopped on release, and was butchered by the studio in an attempt to save it. I saw the restored version, and it clearly should have been left alone – but I think I understand why it did so badly back in 1955…

lola-montes--max-ophuls


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30 films in 30 words

Well, I used to do readings and watchings posts, and since I did 30 words on 30 books, I should do the same for the movies I’ve watched. It’s the usual eclectic mix, of course.

Bunny Lake Is Missing, Otto Preminger (1965)
American expats newly arrived in London misplace young daughter, but then it seems daughter might never have even existed. Police very confused. But all a cunning plot. Curiously low-key thriller.

Limitless, Neil Burger (2011)
Just think what you could if you had total mental focus. Why, you could make movies like this one. Smart drug leads to smarter than expected film. Actually worth seeing.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev (2009)
Swedish TV series original. Swedish Nazi back during WWII proves to be psycho killer. Big surprise. Journo and hacker chick investigate. Interesting thriller with good characters and sense of history.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Lisbeth Salander tracks down her evil dad, ex-KGB bigwig. He tries to kill her but she won’t be put down. Thriller series turns silly as Salander develops superpowers. Or something.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Salander’s evil dad was protected by secret group within Swedish spy services as Millennium trilogy jumps shark. Drawn-out courtroom drama stretches credulity way past breaking-point. Makes 007 look eminently plausible.

Red Psalm, Miklós Janscó (1972)
Hippie paean to 19th century Hungarian peasant revolts, with much socialist declaiming, folk songs, striding about and a complete lack of coherent plot. Brilliant. Loved it. More please. Review here.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Frank Capra (1936)
Simple but honest man inherits fortune and elects to do good with it. Establishment aren’t having it and try to have him declared mentally unfit. Heart worn blatantly on sleeve.

Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata (1988)
During WWII, kids run away from mean aunt and hide out in abandoned air-raid shelter. Of course, they’ve no idea how to cope on own. Sad story spoiled by mawkishness.

Claire’s Knee, Éric Rohmer (1970)
Fifth of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Educated French middle-class people pontificate on love while one of them fantasises about a teenage girl’s knee. Too many words, not enough insight. Meh.

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
A dubbed Richard Harris visiting Ravenna gets friendly with his friend’s wife, mentally-fragile Monica Vitti, in beautifully-shot industrial landscape. Incredibly painterly film. Slow but involving. Brilliant. Loved it. Review here.

Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)
Tarkovsky’s first feature film. Orphaned boy acts as scout behind enemy lines for Red Army in WWII. Many touches of Tarkovsky genius but much more straightforward than his other films.

Torment, Alf Sjöberg (1944)
Bergmans’ first film, though he only provided script. Moody student carries on with corner-shop girl, but she is murdered – and nasty teacher did it. Hitchcockian thriller seen through distorting mirror.

, Frederico Fellini (1962)
Saw La Dolce Vita years ago and not impressed, so surprised to discover I loved this. Marcello Mastroianni meditates on life and art while making sf film. Huge ending. Glorious.

Heaven Can Wait, Ernst Lubitsch (1943)
Technicolor New York in 19th century as dead self-effacing millionaire Don Ameche is sent to Hell and is forced to reveal he was actually a nice bloke. Not a classic.

Melancholia, Lars von Trier (2011)
Planet on collision course with Earth. Everyone panic. Except people with clinical depression, that is. Lovely photography, good acting, bollocks physics. Can’t honestly see why people rate this so highly.

My Night at Maud’s, Éric Rohmer (1969)
Third of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Catholic stalks young woman, then talks about religion, fidelity and love with friend and his girlfriend all night. Lessons to be learned. I think.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks (1953)
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell whoop it up among dirty old men on liner to Europe. It’s a cunning plot to force Monroe’s beau to declare. Goes wrong. Technicolor fun.

Summer With Monika, Ingmar Bergman (1953)
Young working-class lovers run away to Swedish islands. Monika gets pregnant, they return to the real world. But Monika’s not the home-making type. See, it was grim in Sweden too.

Santa Sangre, Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)
Boy grows up in circus, witnesses mother have her arms cut off by mad knife-thrower. Years later, she uses him to commit crimes. It’s by Jodorowsky. So it’s completely bonkers.

Les Enfants Du Paradis, Marcel Carne (1945)
The lives and loves of assorted theatre types in early 19th century Paris. Three hours long, and feels like it. A classic to many, I found it slow and dull.

Pocketful Of Miracles, Frank Capra (1961)
Homeless lady is lucky charm for gangster in 1920s New York in cross between Cinderella and Pygmalion. Played for laughs but not much is a laughing matter. Capra’s last film.

The Magician, Ingmar Bergman (1958)
Max von Sydow gurns in title role as three town worthies take the piss out him in 19th century Sweden. Science vs magic and the fight is fixed from start.

Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors, Sergei Parajanov (1965)
Earlier “poetic cinema” by director of The Colour of Pomegranates. Beautifully-shot, absolutely fascinating, makes no sense whatsoever. More please.

Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder (2011)
They’re mental patients. No, they’re prostitutes. No, they’re super agents in steampunkish fantasy world. In corsets and stockings. Kick-ass women as exceptional – and hot – tools of patriarchy. Wrong message.

Captain America, Joe Johnston (2011)
Possibly the best of the recent rash of superhero films. Retro-action during WWII as Cap sells war bonds across US and then tackles Red Skull in his lair. Almost fun.

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky (2010)
Ballet dancer driven to dance perfectly driven to madness. Well-played, though not the most original story ever. At least her shoes weren’t red. Have yet to figure out Aronofsky’s career.

Highlander 5: The Source, Brett Leonard (2007)
Worst film in a bad franchise, and possibly worst film ever made. Even the covers of Queen songs were terrible. There can only be one. Nope. Fear for your sanity.

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, Michael Bay (2011)
More coherent than earlier Transformers films, but just as offensive. Irritating, stupid, and wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s not big and it’s not clever – someone should tattoo that on Bay’s forehead.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam (2009)
Carnival-type caravan wanders London and there are wonders within. Famously whimsical director produces another piece of whimsy. Yawn. Heath Ledger died during film, but story was rescued. Still dull, though.

Szindbád, Zoltán Huszárik (1971)
A classic of the Hungarian New Wave, just like Red Psalm. Just shows how individual are responses to such films. Loved Red Psalm, but found this one a bit dull.


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Ten Greatest Film Directors

Time for a list. Lists are good. People like lists, even – or especially – contentious ones. This does not make me a blogposer (see here).

I could have titled this list Ten Favourite Film Directors, because that’s sort of what it is. Except they’re not just favourites, they’re also directors whose skill and artistry I greatly admire. Just because something is a favourite, that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s good. Like Frank Herbert’s Dune – it’s probably the one novel I’ve reread more than any other, but I don’t think it’s an especially well-written book.

Anyway, here is a list of film directors whose films I both like a great deal and admire a great deal; in no particular order:

  1. Alfred Hitchcock – the master of the thriller, whose films are the most consistently entertaining of all time. He has several absolute classics to his name, which is more than most directors can say: Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, North By Northwest, The Birds
  2. Douglas Sirk – was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller. All That Heaven Allows is one of the great films of the 1950s. His films were melodramatic, but also deeply subversive. And very, very cleverly made.
  3. Krzysztof Kieślowski – created some of the most exquisitely-made films, photography and script, in the history of cinema.
  4. Andrei Tarkovsky – his films were unlike any other film-maker’s. Beautifully-shot, for a start. And resolutely challenging, in a medium which privileges accessibility.
  5. Michael Haneke – because, of all the directors currently making films, he has the most interesting body of work – in the sense of his approach to telling stories using the medium.
  6. Ingmar Bergman – if most cinema can be equated to popular written fiction, then Bergman was an accomplished writer of prize-winning literary fiction.
  7. Terry Gilliam – because he has one of the most singular imaginations in the film-making world.
  8. Michangelo Antonioni – another director who experimented with the narrative techniques of the form, with great success. L’Avventura remains a classic piece of cinema.
  9. Aki Kaurismäki – Finnish cinema may be unfairly characterised as grim and depressing, but even the grimmest of Kaurismäki’s films display a sly and absurd sense of humour. He remade Hamlet, recasting the title character as the heir to an international rubber duck manufacturing concern, for example.
  10. The “Archers”: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger – made three of the best British films of all time: A Matter Of Life And Death, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, and The Red Shoes. And there are plenty more in their oeuvre.

A few who didn’t quite make the cut into the top ten: David Lynch, Fritz Lang, Werner Herzog, Frank Capra.

Feel free to add your own lists in the comments. No doubt there will be some disagreements…

Next up: ten greatest novelists.