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1001 progress

I’ve been using the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (2013 edition) to direct my film-viewing for a couple of years now, and I thought it might be worth having a look at how it’s been going… Before starting to use the list, I’d watched some 407 of the movies. My total is currently standing at 823 films seen, so I’ve watched slightly more as a result of following the list than I had before I even knew of it. What I find especially interesting, however, is the number of films I’ve subsequently bought on DVD or Blu-ray after watching them on rental only because they were on the list. Of course, there were films – by, for instance, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kieślowski, Kubrick, the Archers – I already owned as I’ve been a fan of their work for many years…

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After watching Lola and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, I bought a Jaques Demy collection, which also included The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. On the other hand, much as I enjoyed Les vacances de M Hulot, it wasn’t until I’d seen Playtime, and loved it, that I decided to invest in a collection of Jacques Tati’s films. Carl Theodor Dreyer is another such director – I’d seen Ordet, I forget why I rented it, but not been especially taken with it; but after watching Gertrud I purchased everything by Dreyer currently available on DVD – which was, fortunately, pretty much his entire oeuvre (thank you, BFI). He became a favourite director. After buying a copy of James Benning’s Deseret – because it was on the list but wasn’t available for rental – I became a huge fan of his work, and bought every other DVD of his films released by Österechisches Filmmuseum. I am eagerly awaiting more being released. It also turned me into a fan of video installations, as I discovered recently when I visited the Hafnarhús branch of the Reykjavik Art Museum and saw Richard Mosse’s ‘The Enclave’ (I did like Örn Alexander Amundáson’s ‘A New Work’ too, although it’s not video, because it reminded me of my own approach to writing fiction).

There were also a number of movies I watched on rental because they were on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and then promptly bought copies of my own, like Le mépris, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, F for FakeShane, Spring in a Small Town, Shock Corridor, Häxan and Lucía. I liked Cocteau’s Orphée so much, I tracked down a copy of the Criterion collection which included it, The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus (not to be confused with the Studiocanal box set, which only has the latter two films in it). I loved Glauber Rocha’s Earth Entranced so much, I bought it, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes, the only films by Rocha available on DVD in the UK. And since the I couldn’t rent the third part of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, I bought the trilogy – although I still think the first film, Koyaanisqatsi, is easily the best.

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There are also a number of films I’ve added to my wishlist because I might at some point buy them… or I might not. Such as Henry V, The Hired Hand, Easy Rider, Man with a Movie Camera, The Great Silence, Babette’s Feast… not to mention further films by directors who appear on the list… which is why I have picked up films by Guru Dutt,  Yasujiro Ozu, Ken Loach and Satyajit Ray…

There are also a number of films I only got to watch because I bought a DVD copy of my own – they just weren’t available for rental. Not all have been especially good. Stella Dallas is on the list, but is not available for rental, or indeed for purchase on DVD, in the UK. I ended up buying Spanish release… and the film proved to be entirely forgettable. There’s also streaming TV these days, and I found a few, surprisingly, streamed for free on Amazon Prime – like The Gospel According to St Matthew and Salt of the Earth. However, Amazon Prime has not been an especially good source of films from the list – either free, as previously mentioned, or for “rental”, such as Sergeant York and Housekeeping, both of which cost me £3.49 for 48 hours.

One very real consequence of using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list has been that my film collection has become much more varied. Not only have I bought films previously unknown to me by Brazilian directors (Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos), Cuban directors (Humberto Solás), Indian directors (Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt), but I’ve also been encouraged to further explore the oeuvres of directors I had previously tried, such as Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini or Jean-Luc Godard… and have since bought films by all three.

I don’t think the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is perfect. Far from it. It includes way too many US films, and some nations’ cinemas are almost totally ignored. Albania, for example, apparently has a thriving film industry but, to be fair, I can’t find any films from the country readily available on DVD with English subtitles. And yet Greenland, with almost no film industry to speak of… there are DVDs of Greenlandic films with multiple-language subtitles, like Nuummioq, which is very good.

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Having said that using the list has resulted in me owning a much more varied collection of films – most of the Hollywood blockbusters went to local charity shops, and I no longer buy them – it has also shown me that some particular cinemas, not just present-day Hollywood, don’t work for me. I’m not especially taken with French films, although I like some of them a great deal. Godard, mentioned earlier, is a good example – some of his films I like a lot, some of them I just can’t understand the appeal. I like the movies of Renoir and Vigo, but not Bresson or Carné or Malle or Chabron. And Buñuel I find a bit hit and miss.

When it comes to movie genres… Well, there are remarkably few classic sf films. Given the number of sf films produced since the beginning of cinema – and one of the earliest classics, La voyage dans le lune, is an actual sf movie based on an actual sf novel – the genre’s hit-rate has been pretty low. There are a lot of westerns on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I will admit that I don’t see the appeal of the genre. It’s a peculiarly American mythology, I get that, but too many of the westerns on the list seemed ordinary, and it was only the ones which broke the mould, or bent the formula, like The Hired Hand, which for me stood out. Speaking of US films, there are a number of movies by American indie directors also on the list, and those too I failed to see why they should make the list.

Part of the problem, of course, has to do with whether a film can be considered seminal or germinal in some way. It’s evident enough with a silent movie. Watch Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, and you can’t help but understand how historically important it is. And some silent movies, which normally I’d never bother to seek out, and I’ve seen solely because they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, they’ve proven to be excellent entertainment – not just Storm Over Asia from Russia, but even early Hollywood works like The Phantom of the Opera.

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The 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is a deeply-flawed list, but it has still enriched my film-watching. I don’t agree with many of the choices made for the list, but it has at least prompted me to watch those films. And then seek out other films similar to those I liked. My DVD collection is, I like to think, much more diverse as a result. I’ve still some way to go before I complete the list – in fact, some of the movies are so hard to find I may never get to see everything on it. And, of course, the list is updated each year, although I’m more likely to have seen recent additions. But there is still the cinematic traditions of a huge number of nations, USA not included, to explore…

 


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Moving pictures, #55

An odd selection this time round – some old, some new, some good, some bad, some Hollywood, some world cinema, some television…

childhoods_endChildhood’s End (2015, USA). Yes, this is an adaptation of the Arthur C Clarke novel, which, I think, I read back in the late 1970s. I have the SF Masterwork edition of it somewhere (the one I read all those years ago was likely a library book, or perhaps a Pan paperback I have since lost). As it is, all I can remember is the big reveal about the Overlords, not what the actual plot of the novel was. Which pretty much ruins the big reveal at the end of the first episode of this three-part mini-series. It starts intriguingly enough, with a man on a deserted Earth, explaining that he is the only human being left. And then it’s straight into flashback, with the Overlords’ ships appearing in the sky over cities across the globe (although very Americo-centric, as US television and films always tend to be, Childhood’s End does make more of a nod to the rest of the world than usual). One man – an American, of course – is chosen by the Overlords to be Earth’s ambassador. He’s a humble farmer, with one of those farms which consists of a small house in the middle of a vast acreage of maize, and which you only see in films. And it never seems to get harvested either. Even though years pass during the series, the corn is always high and green. Colm Meaney plays a press baron who doesn’t believe the Overlords’ – well, Overlord’s, as only one appears for much of the series, Karellen, the Supervisor for Earth – stated objective of ushering in a new utopian age. So, like Rupert Murdoch, he works to make things shit for everyone except himself. Fortunately, his “resistance movement” is quickly shown to be a selfish bunch of lies. There’s also another narrative thread about a devoutly Christian woman who thinks the Overlords are agents of Satan – so she gets a bit of a shock when they reveal themselves. And there’s a young black boy in a wheelchair, who is shot by a gangbanger, resurrected by the Overlords, and grows up to become an astrophysicist and the first human to visit the Overlords’ home world – and the person in the progolue. In hindsight, it all sounds a bit hokey and simplistic, not unlike a 1950s science fiction novel, in fact. But the production values were pretty good, the cast were likeable, and it entertained throughout its 246 minutes. I’m still not how the Overlords managed to invent giant spaceships, interstellar travel and all sorts of super-advanced technological gizmos, but not clothes.

signsSigns & Wonders, Jonathan Nossiter (2000, France). This is not on the 2013 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but I’ve seen it on another version of the list – which is why I added it to my rental list. And despite being a French film, Signs & Wonders is an English-language movie, starring Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling and Deborah Kara Unger, and is set mostly in Greece. Skarsgård plays a US businessman, who has been having an affair with Unger. He decides to break it off after becoming worried by “signs” he has seen in everyday things. He tells his wife, Rampling, and their marriage suffers. Six months later, while on a family skiing trip, he bumps into Unger, and convinces himself their relationship was fated. so he divorces his wife and moves to the US with Unger. But when she admits she manufactured their meeting at the ski resort, he realises his mistake and returns to his wife in Greece. Except she is now in a relationship with a Greek journalist, who is documenting US complicity in the Greek military dictatorship’s brutal regime. And she doesn’t want Skarsgård back. Accidents, near-fatal ones, then start to happen to the journalist… and… Meh. I couldn’t get invested much in this film, and I couldn’t see why it had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or at least one iteration of it.

stalkerStalker*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1979, Russia). Ask people who have a favourite Tarkovsky film which one it is, and most will say Stalker. It’s certainly the film that looks and feels the most Tarkovskian. Famously, it’s adapted from Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, although it’s ny no means a faithful adaptation. (I’ve yet to understand the appeal of the novel – I read the original SF Masterworks edition, and the translation had couched everything in US vernacular, which ruined it for me; a more recent translation is apparently much better.) Tarkovsky’s film opens in sepia, with a colour palette that immediately signifies how miserable and shit the world is – an impression only deepened by the opening argument between Stalker and his wife. Outside, the light is yellow and everywhere is shrouded in fog. Stalker meets up with Professor and Writer, the two people he is taking into the Zone, in a nearby bar. After a sequence in which the three of them drive around a post-apocalyptic industrial landscape, being chased by a man on a motorbike, and being shot at by him, they eventually take a tiny diesel train into the Zone… where the movie abruptly shifts to colour. The route through the  Zone, however, is far from straightforward – routes double-back on themselves, time passes strangely. When they lose the Professor, they find him waiting at their destination, even though he didn’t overtake them – and they then realise they are back where they started. It’s hard not to draw conclusions from the depiction of the “real” world compared to that of the Zone, and when you consider the lambent cinematography of the scenes set at the farm during the narrator’s childhood in Mirror, it seems to suggest Tarkovsky was romanticising the pre-industrial past – either his own or history’s (indeed, his next film was titled Nostalgia). Having said that, the Zone is also littered with industrial debris, indicating nature has reclaimed what was once the province of science and industry. The centre of the Zone is the Room, which apparently makes wishes come true. But the three experience a number of strange things before they reach it. Stalker in a long film – 161 minutes – and comprises a number of very long takes in which very little happens. It’s a great-looking film, but one in which the normal rules of cinema narrative do not apply – and that makes parsing it difficult, and also makes it hard to place in Tarkovsky’s oeuvre. It’s definitely not my favourite of his films, but I’m also not sure if it’s his best.

phantomThe Phantom of the Opera*, Rupert Julian (1925, USA). One of the joys of following the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list has been watching films I would not normally have seen. And that’s especially true of silent films – because few of them are available on DVD, and because people are much less likely to watch silent films these days (recent Oscar winner notwithstanding). True, as is evident from the DVD cover art, The Phantom of the Opera is very much available, and even in a dual-format edition from the BFI. But it is also true that Gaston Leroux’s story has been adapted many times, and is perhaps best-known these days for a musical version. The version here is from 1925, and is not even the first film adaptation – that honour goes to a 1916 German silent film, Das Phantom der Oper, now lost. In this one, Lon Chaney plays the title role, and his depiction is famous. The scene where he is unmasked apparently caused cinema audiences to scream and faint, and actually is quite shocking, even to jaded modern eyes. The film also boasts enormous sets, almost Expressionist in design, which are the basements beneath the opera house. The story itself is completely melodramatic, and some of the silent-era gurning looks weird to a modern viewer – but even ninety years after it was made this is still an entertaining movie. Worth seeing.

batmanvsupermanBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder (2016, USA). What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Pretty much the same as when Zack Snyder meets a superhero property. For some reason, he recasts it as an alien invasion story. So, if superheroes are supposed to be defenders of the righteous, but actually turn out to be pretty much fascists in tights, but Snyder prefers to think of them as alien invaders… Just where exactly is this going? I admit it, I quite liked Snyder’s Watchmen – I felt it overdid the violence, they weren’t meant to be super-powered after all, but I felt the movie’s ending was an improvement on the original. However, the less said about Snyder’s Man of Steel, the better. Unfortunately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a sequel to Man of Steel, in which Henry Cavill reprises his role as the alien with godlike powers and the occasional urge to perform good deeds and snatched-from-death rescues. (Superman doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in much the same way as Santa Claus – there’s no way Santa could deliver presents to every kid on one day, so there’s no way Superman can save every person in danger every minute of every day. But then plausibility left the building when superheroes walked in nearly a century ago.) Anyway, Batman, played by Ben Affleck, has decided for Batman reasons that Superman is a foreigner and so a threat to Metropolis (where Batman doesn’t even live, FFS), and so he builds a supersuit so he can go mano a mano with the Kryptonite boy scout. There’s also some plot about Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, who wants to weaponize some green kryptonite but isn’t allowed to, so he weaponizes General Zod’s DNA instead and creates a super-powered monster that Superman and Batman have to fight. Oh, and Wonder Woman randomly turns up, and we know who she is because of a single photo showing her with some Tommies during WWI when she had never even been mentioned in any DC film before. I have, in short, absolutely no idea what this film was supposed to be about. It felt like someone glommed together a dozen random superhero vignettes and expected the big fight between Batman and Superman to make sense of it all. It doesn’t. None of it makes sense.

timbuktuTimbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania). I’d seen only one Sissako film prior to this – Bamako – and was not overly taken with it, but given how good Timbuktu was I may have to track down a copy and rewatch it. On the other hand, Timbuktu features quite a bit of West African music – such as Tuareg assouf (I’ve been a fan of Tinariwen for many years) – which I don’t remember from the other film, as well as being a biting satire of jihadism. The main story is about a Tuareg herder, who sits about in a tent, playing the guitar, while his kids care for his meagre herd, and his strong-willed wife keeps him company. At the river, one of his cows panics and trashes a fisherman’s net. So the fisherman kills the cow. So the Tuareg goes to see the fisherman, they fight, and in the struggle the Tuareg accidentally shoots the fisherman. He is immediately arrested by the local jihadist militia, and sentenced to pay blood money of 40 cattle. But he only has seven cows. So he is sentenced to death. As this story unfolds, the camera breaks away at intervals to record life in Timbuktu under jihadists. There are a bunch of kids playing football with an imaginary ball as sports are banned. A couple are stoned for adultery (a brutal and disgusting custom). A group of French jihadists argue about their favourite football teams. A Bambara woman scares the jihadists with her witchcraft. And a local imam patiently explains why the jihadists must follow the teachings of Islam and not their own extremist views. There was nothing that was bad about this film. It looked gorgeous, the non-professional actors were impressively convincing (especially the Tuareg herdsman), and the music was excellent. Highly recommended.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 810


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Moving pictures, #54

Another varied batch of films. I think I might well end up having watched more movies this year than last year… and I watched 544 in 2015. Oh well.

stagecoachStagecoach*, John Ford (1939, USA). Do westerns belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? If they do something unexpected and original with the form, or if they’re seminal, then yes, I suppose they do. But I can’t see that Stagecoach does any of those. It’s best-known as John Wayne’s breakthrough movie. He’d made lots of Poverty Row westerns, and his one previous appearance in a big-budget western was a box office flop. But Ford, who had not made a talky western before, wanted Wayne and fought the studio to get him. The film was a hit. But why does that make it one of the 1001 best movies ever made? The story is pretty stereotypical: a handful of people with back-stories leave town on the stagecoach, they pick up Wayne en route, who has just broken out of prison, and then chase the US Cavalry across the state, pursued by Apache. According to Wikipedia, Stagecoach “has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made”. But given that Wayne had been in about eighty Poverty Row Westerns during the 1930s, I find it hard to believe everything in Stagecoach was seminal – some western at some point must have introduced whatever tropes exist in Stagecoach. Of course, a Poverty Row film might not have had the release of a major studio movie… Perhaps it’s just that Stagecoach has been overtaken by westerns that came after it. I mean, some of the westerns from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve seen have been pretty damn good, albeit for a variety of reasons. But I can’t say Stagecoach was one of them.

fantasia_2kFantasia 2000, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas & Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi (1999, USA). I watched a much earlier Disney anthology film a few weeks ago, one that was put together to keep the studio in work during World War II. Fantasia 2000 has no such excuse. It claims to be a celebration of the original Fantasia, but comes across more like an excuse for its animators to show off – and, to be fair, some of the animation is very impressive. Unfortunately, each of the film’s eight segments is introduced by Hollywood stars at their most smirkingly oleaginous. Instead of a celebration of the original Fantasia, it gives the whole project the feel of a self-congratulatory Hollywood/Disney celebration. Of the segments, the abstract shapes of the opener were cleverly done, the space whales in the second were also good, the Al Hirschfeld-style animation in the third segment was clever but soon wore thin… and then it all started to go downhill, with one of the remaining segments a repeat from Fantasia. One for Disney fans, I suspect.

sacrificeThe Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). I’ve now replaced all my Tarkovsky DVDs with the new Blu-ray releases – well, all except The Tarkovsky Companion, which I don’t think is getting a Blu-ray release – and since I now own shiny new copies in a much better format, I’ve been rewatching them… And it’s been sort of weird sitting through these films, given the high opinion of them I held. Take The Sacrifice. I would have counted it among my favourite of his films, perhaps second to Mirror… And yet, having now rewatched it, it sort of feels like a Bergman film played at slow speed. Of course, this is chiefly because the dialogue is in Swedish (with some English), the star is Erland Josephson, and it was filmed on Gotland. But even then, the concerns of the film feel quite Bergman-esque…. up to the point where the nuclear holocaust takes place. That isn’t Bergman at all. And the wife’s subsequent breakdown, which is harrowing to watch, is not something you’d expect to see in a Bergman film. But would you expect to see it in a Tarkovsky film? And yet… I still think The Sacrifice is one of Tarkovsky’s best films, not because it least resembles the others but because so much of its emotion is there on the screen to see. Kelvin in Solaris was a bit of an enigma, Mirror was too patchy to have a real emotional payload… but The Sacrifice is all about emotion – not just Adelaide’s hysterics, but Alexander’s response to the holocaust. It’s a film that, like a densely-written literary story, rewards attention and rewatching, and even when you’ve given it neither, it still tells you that you should have done. And certainly more so than Solaris or Mirror. It’s as if the cinematic tricks used to tell the non-linear story of Mirror were used in service to a superficially uncomplicated linear narrative. There are films you rewatch because you enjoyed them; but there are films where every time you rewatch it you feel like you’re digging a little deeper into its meaning. Tarkovsky’s films definitely fall into the latter category, and I’m particularly glad buying the Blu-rays has prompted me into rewatching them. Which I will be doing a few more times before the year is out, I think.

ray_1Mahanagar, Satyajit Ray (1963, India). Ray is considerably better-known outside India than Ritwik Ghatak, but he also has a considerably larger body of work. And most of it seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (I wonder if it’s because Ray was championed by Merchant & Ivory…). Like Ghatak, Ray was Bengali, and Mahanagar is set in his native Kolkata. A young couple in Kolkata are having trouble meeting their bills, so the wife takes a job as a door-to-door saleswoman. She proves to be good at it. But when her husband realises this means he’s not being looked after to the degree to which he is customed, he asks her to quit. But then he loses his job, and she becomes the only breadwinner in the family. And the whole experience has given her the confidence and independence to carry the family over her husband’s objections. So much so, in fact, that when a colleague of hers, an Anglo-Indian, is fired because the manager believed she had thrown a sickie, she confronts the manager but ends up resigning in protest. A comparison with Ghatak’s films is, for me, inevitable. And while I’ve seen only a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I have seen more films by him than by Ghatak… I do like the urban character of Mahanagar – it doesn’t have those great shots of the river and countryside you see in Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, and its narrative is much more traditional in structure; but it’s an engaging drama and it’s played completely straight, with no frills. The end result is a movie which doesn’t have the scope of  A River Called Titas but handles its constrained domestic drama, and the social changes it documents, in a nicely low-key way. Recommended. And yes, once I’ve watched the three films in this box set, I’ll be buying volume 2 and then volume 3, and then the Apu trilogy if I can find a copy (as it’s been deleted already, I think).

youthYouth, Paolo Sorrentino (2015, Italy). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since I’d seen and been impressed by Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty in previous years, it was an easy decision to watch it. Unlike those other two films, however, Youth is English-language – in fact, it stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in the two main roles, supported by, among others, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda and Paloma Faith. Caine and Keitel are old friends, currently staying at a Swiss health resort. Caine is a famous composer, Keitel a famous director. A “queen’s emissary” (wouldn’t that be an equerry?) visits Caine and asks him to conduct one of his pieces at a special concert for Queen Elizabeth II. He refuses. Keitel, meanwhile, is trying to write the screenplay – with the help of half a dozen screenwriters – for his last movie, his “testament”. As you’d expect from Sorrentino, the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are extended moments when the story is put to one side and the viewer is allowed to just revel in the atmosphere while suitable music plays (it’s part of the narrative, not something imposed by the medium). But the rest of the story… there are a couple of good cinematic tricks, and the dialogue is never actively bad, but it all feels a bit banal and perhaps even a bit stereotyped in places (especially Jane Fonda’s part).  I don’t know; Sorrentino is a master director, but I’ve seen three of his films now and each has left me slightly dissatisfied in some way – and the nearest I can come to articulating why, is that the way he structures his stories seems to flatten their dramatic beats and makes them feel a bit, well, hollow. But his films do look beautiful. So I’ll continue to watch them.

herzogThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog (1974, Germany). I picked up a copy of this Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection a few weeks ago, and have been working my way through it. I already had many of the films on DVD – in a pair of box sets I bought years ago – but Herzog is definitely worth upgrading. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is not as bonkers as Herzog gets, but it is pretty bonkers. It’s also based on a “true” story. In 1828, a young man was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg. He claimed to have been kept imprisoned in a cellar for his entire life up until that point. It was rumoured he might be related to a royal house, although he denied it. It is now considered more likely he was a con artist, and made it all up in order to blag his way to notoriety and riches. Herzog goes with the mystery – but casts Bruno S, a completely bonkers Berlin musician, in the title role, despite Bruno S being in his forties and the historical Hauser being in his late teens. But it works because Bruno S is such a mad actor. Imagine someone had sucked Brad Dourif’s brains out of his ears, and the memory having had brains still remained, and you might get some idea of what Bruno S’s acting is like. And if that wasn’t enough, Herzog has Hauser bark his new-found learning throughout the film in a series of pedagogical conversations and interviews. It is completely unconvincing, and yet totally believable – a quality a lot of Herzog’s films possess. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is by no means Herzog’s best film, although it remains one of his more interesting ones – but this collection is definitely worth getting, and not just for the feature films but also for the special features, such as How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, a 1976 German TV documentary on the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in the US.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 809


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Moving pictures, #49

How about that? A single Hollywood movie… and it was a rewatch (although, to be honest, I couldn’t tell you when I last watched Westworld – sometime during the early 1980s, I suspect). Meanwhile, we have just one film on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list too, and that was a rewatch as well (another Tarkovsky on Blu-ray, in fact). But, on the whole, it’s a pretty good half-dozen movies – and some of them are very good indeed.

kandaharKandahar, Mohsen Makhalbaf (2001, Iran). Although one of the first Iranian directors to come to international prominence, I know Makhalbaf best from his appearance in Kiarostami’s Close-Up. So Kandahar was sort of but not quite new territory for me in more ways than one, as it’s also set in Afghanistan (although I’ve seen Osama, also set in Afghanistan). I certainly had very little idea what to expect since it’s not a film that seems to be discussed, or mentioned, much in reference to “best of” lists. Which is a shame. It’s very well-made, has an appealing streak of black humour a mile wide, and makes a series of important points about the world in which it’s set. An Afghani expat now resident in Canada returns to Afghanistan to see her sister. She’s smuggled over the border in a Red Cross helicopter, but has to travel by foot to the titular city to find her sibling. En route she runs into Red Cross workers who deal with Afghanis injured by mines and who need prosthetic limbs… leading to a scene in which a horde of one-legged Afghanis chase after false legs dropped by parachute from Red Cross helicopters. There’s a simplicity to Makhalbaf’s direction that’s a refreshing change to Kiarostami’s films, although the black humour is of a different order too. (To be fair, I’m not sure why I’m comparing the two directors as their shared nationality is not enough to do so.) Kandahar is also noted for featuring Dawud Salahuddin, an American who converted to Islam and then murdered an Iranian dissident. I can’t quite figure how that it supposed to affect my viewing of this film, because I thought it very good, and I thought it him effective in his role. Recommended.

victoriaVictoria, Sebastian Schipper (2015, Germany). Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first – Victoria was shot as a single take. The other famous single-take movie is Sokurov’s Russian Ark, and I am a huge fan of Sokurov’s films. In both, that single-take is a gimmick (and, it must be admitted, was considerably harder to accomplish in 2002 than in 2015), but… To be honest, it’s not actually all that noticeable in Victoria. I remember the first time I watched Russian Ark back in 2004 and I felt almost light-headed watching it, almost as if I could only breathe when there were cuts (of which, of course, there were none). And this despite having seen, several times, Hitchcock’s Rope, which famously he tried to film with as few cuts as possible. But I had none of that watching Victoria. Perhaps it was because the story flowed more organically than Russian Ark‘s – whatever the cause, Victoria‘s gimmick seemed much less of an issue. The title refers to a young woman from Spain who is working as a waitress in Berlin. At a Berlin night-club, she falls in with a quartet of young male Berliners and so is sucked into their plot to rob a bank to appease a ganglord who protected one of their number during a recent stint in prison. It’s a very good film and there are some blinding moments – such as when Berliner Sonne mucks about on the piano at the café where Victoria works and she responds by playing ten or so minutes of hideously difficult classical music (one of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes, apparently). Recommended.

pepePépé le Moko*, Julien Duvivier (1937, France). The title character is a gangster who lives in the Casbah in Algiers, and is wanted by the French police, who have sent an inspecteur from France to arrest him. But first, they have to entice him out of the Casbah. Which they do using his attraction for socialite Mireille Balin. I’ve said before I have a blind spot for early French cinema (actually, I think it spreads across quite a few decades…), and while I can see that Pépé le Moko presages noir film in many respects, I enjoyed it most for its depiction of the Casbah, a part of the world I know only from The Battle of Algiers. I can understand why the film was regarded so highly in its time, and perhaps for a decade or two afterwards, but there’s little enough there to wow a twenty-first century viewer. On the one hand, it feels like an historical document; on the other, its notability as a historical document is not immediately obvious. It’s a fun thriller, in French, set in Algiers. But it’s hard to see it as more than that because whatever importance it may have once had is no longer true. Worth seeing at least once, I suppose, but I’m not sure why it belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list as its appeal doesn’t seem abiding.

aprilApril and the Extraordinary World, Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci (2015, France). I know Tardi’s work, in fact I have all of the English translations of his bandes dessinées as published by Fantagraphics, and I’m keen to get more when they eventually appear. But I didn’t know about this film – although I did know about, and have watched (twice), Besson’s adaptation of Tardi’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec… So stumbling across this on Amazon Prime one weekend was a happy moment. And the film did not disappoint. The DVD’s cover art says it all: a pair of Eiffel Towers, serving as the main Paris station for a monorail to Berlin. Science-fiction-wise, the film is crude: a voice-over describes the world and how it came to be. In this case, WWI never happened, steam power was not replaced by internal combustion, and April grows up in a world denuded of trees. Her grandfather was trying to create an invincibility forum, and her parents continued the hunt – in a hidden laboratory, because scientists had been disappearing, and those remaining were being co-opted by the government. When the cops raid their lab, April manages to escape, and goes into hiding in Paris, where she continues parents’ researches. Years later, a street urchin hired by a disgraced police inspector tracks down April and so kicks off an adventure that sees her eventually reunited with her parents at a secret installation run by… well, that would be giving it away. Bits of the film, despite the Tardi graphics, reminded me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film I really like, but April and the Extraordinary World had the advantage of a bande dessinée narrative rather than a pulp one. I shouldn’t have been suprised how good this was, but then even French cinema can screw up a property when adapting it for the screen sometimes (tries hard to think of an example; fails). Definitely worth seeing.

westworldWestworld, Michael Crichton (1973, USA). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before, but it was clearly so long ago that I’d long forgotten details and what I did remember may well have been from what I’d read about the film. In other words, I might actually have never seen it before and only known of it from writings about it. It’s possible. It may also be true of other sf films. But now I have a date against my viewing of the film, a date when I actually watched it from start to finish. Of course, I already knew what to expect: expensive and sophisticated theme-park with mostly android staff, one goes rogue and shoots all the guests. The same scenario was used in the sequel, Futureworld, which I’d seen a few weeks before. But Westworld was the first and, more than that, the first film directed by Michael Crichton. Many might not see the relevance of that, but Crichton was an odd figure – a right-wing anti-science polemicist who created a series of pro-science properties that continue to resonate, and a man who abused his privilege to convince political figures of complete bollocks. Obviously, there’s an anti-science message to Westworld – robots bad! – although, to be fair, the “capitalism will make money out of absolutely anything” message comes across a lot louder. I was surprised at the quality of the print Amazon Prime streamed, and although the reference to an ekranoplan as a “hovercraft” (seriously, how can anyone make mistake like that?) did not bode too well, it was all looking quite good… But it didn’t take long to fall apart. Okay, so Mediaeval World bore more resemblance to The Adventures of Robin Hood (a great film) than it did actual history, and even the dumbest ass knows the Romans did more than eat to excess and have orgies… And yet, perversely, the Hollywood version of the Wild West seemed perfectly acceptable (perhaps because it’s that version you’d expect tourists to want to visit). I actually enjoyed Westworld more than I thought I would, and it’s certainly a better film than Futureworld, but it was still no classic. I’ve seen it now, so no need to ever watch it again.

andrei_rublevAndrei Rublev*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Andrei Rublev is a series of excellent short films that are, ostensibly, episodes from the life of a famous painter of ikons strung into one 205-minute movie. Except a lot if it is invented because little is actually known about Rublev’s life. So what we have is, essentially, a drama anthology, comprising a series of high-quality vignettes – and high-quality not only in terms of cinematography, such as, for example, the balloon ride prologue, which does something pretty clever with a camera pointing down from the gondola. Then there’s the sequence about bell-making, which actually ends the film, and has nothing to do with Rublev’s life but is still astonishing. In fact, all things considered, Andrei Rublev is a hard film to write about, because it consists of multiple episodes. I’ve said before that part of Tarkovsky’s genius was the ability to lend coherence to disparate incidents – and while the life of the title character is about as concrete a link as you can get, Tarkovsky takes it more as a guideline than a plot in Andrei Rublev. There are eight chapters, not all of which feature Rublev, each of which illustrates some characteristic Tarkovsky has chosen to apply to Rublev. Some are amusing, such as when the Tatars mock the Christian paintings in a chruch; some are horrible, like when the Grand Prince has his men waylay the masons who worked on his palace and has them blinded. (This is one thing about history I’ve never understood – given how easy it was to kill people, why did such brutal rulers ever last more than five minutes?). Watching Andrei Rublev is an ordeal – it’s three hours long and your brain is fully engaged for the entire length (okay, yes, I have fallen asleep watching it on at least one occasion), and while it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky film I certainly consider a film that belongs in any self-respecting cineaste’s collection.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805


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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 containing 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 behave 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 hangup 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 pays off; 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 War 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, 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 given 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 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 neorealist 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 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 before 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 has 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 it 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. One part involves 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 made in the 1920s. Though it may be difficult for some to believe, I was not around at the beginnings of cinema. 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.