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Movie roundup 2020, #15

I’ve been bingeing recently on The Professionals, a TV series I remember from my school days. I don’t have any particular memories of an opinion on the programme – violent 1970s cop show with a striking theme tune and lots of action. That’s about it. Watching it now… well, it’s very fascist, explicitly so in the opening episode. Which doesn’t, of course, stop CI5 – motto: “by any means necessary” – taking down the chief constable who has kept his Midlands city crime-free “by any means necessary”. But what stands out more than the terrible scripts – Bodie and Doyle have their Pye PF8 UHF radios with them all the time, except when the story “forgets” about them – and more than the sexist dialogue (although it’s surprisingly not racist for the time and even, on occasion, anti-racist; and equally surprisingly not homophobic, although more by omission, and one episode even features a “Gay Youth Association” treated sympathetically)… what stands out the most is how cheap it all is. A squash court standing in for the visiting room of a high security prison. A hotel room re-furnished as an executive’s office. The fact Bodie’s home is never shown, but Doyle seems to live somewhere different every episode. The Professionals is not a good series. The 1970s aesthetics are sort of fun, but the 1970s politics and sexism are not, and the scripts – particularly in the first series – are really, really bad.

But now for some movies…

Un film comme les autres / British Sounds (See You at Mao), Jean-Luc Godard (1968 / 1969, France / UK). In the late 1960s, Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others, formed the Dziga Vertov Group, named for the 1920s director of Man with a Movie Camera (an excellent film, and an important early director), with the aim of making Marxist films. And certainly Un film comme les autres fits that description, as it comprises a group of young people sitting around in a park (I think) discussing politics and the proletariat and revolution, interspersed with archival footage of strikes and revolutionary violence. A review on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “the first of Jean-Luc Godard’s absurdly unwatchable films”, which is, I think, doing it a disservice, but I suspect the reviewer is American and anything anti-capitalist is guaranteed to annoy and upset Americans. They actually believe their own propaganda. Which makes British Sounds (See You at Mao) doubly amusing. It was commissioned by London Weekend Television – according to imdb.com: “With LWT (in 1968) facing growing criticism for making too many arty TV shows, something from Jean-Luc Godard was thought bound to be a winner”. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? In the event, LWT refused to screen the film Godard made. Which is, more or less, a UK take on Un film comme les autres. No doubt that US pundit would describe it as “absurdly unwatchable”, but I’m fixed in my opinion that Godard is probably the most important director to have come out of France.

Winter’s Child, Olivier Assayas (1989, France). And I would probably also label Assayas as an important French director, certainly amongst the current crop, but the two early films by him made available on The Early Films of Olivier AssayasDisorder and Winter’s Child – are poor indication of the films he would later make. They are, in fact, somewhat ordinary French movies of their time. And Winter’s Child more so than Disorder. The French film industry has made movies about the romantic triangle banal, and Winter’s Child is a case in point. A man leaves his pregnant wife to take up with another woman, but she loves someone else. So I guess that’s more of a romantic quadrilateral – but then that’s to French cinema what stories of adulterous academics are to literary fiction. Meh.

The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran). Until watching this film, I will admit I was barely aware of the Baha’i faith, and now, after watching, I am surprised the Baha’i faith even exists. Unlike Scientology or the Moonies, it seems to have come about as a genuine religion – a prophet, a group who followed his teachings, and were subsequently persecuted by all and sundry, and, tellingly, a creed that does not demand signing over all your wealth and influence. My contempt for Scientologists is only marginally less than that for fundamentalists of any religion, but I at least grant that fundamentalists follow actual religions. I do not know what to think about the Baha’i faith. This film, a study of a man who has adopted the religion and now cares for a Baha’i garden in Israel, seems to be chiefly notable because it’s the first time an Iranian film-maker has filmed in Israel. But as I watched The Gardener, and listened to its well-meaning interviewees – most of whom seemed to be American – it occurred to me that what I was seeing was someone documenting a movement to be nice to other people that had been couched as new religion. For whatever reason, simple human compassion is apparently impossible unless couched in religious terms. Which is absolute bollocks. If you need a god, or commandments, to tell you what is moral behaviour, then there is something seriously wrong with you. Killing people is bad, it doesn’t need an edict from a giant sky fairy to tell you that – and the Christian church can’t even decide how important that particular commandment is, as different sects number it from five to seven. Let that sink in. At best, Christianity thinks “thou shalt not murder” is the fifth worst thing you can do. Fifth! I’m not agnostic, I’m an atheist – because I am not willing to hand off my morality to an invented being. Which is all somewhat unfortunately tangential to The Gardener, which is an extremely good-looking film – Makhmalbaf has an excellent eye – and while I cannot sympathise with its subject, I can certainly appreciate how it is presented. Makhmalbaf is a director worth collecting. It is good that more of his oeuvre is becoming available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Statue, Rod Amateau (1971, UK). At some point, one imagines, all culture will be available online, if not for free then for a fee, and currently English-language culture (and I use the term “culture” loosely) has been prioritised, and even then some of the films that pop up from total obscurity for free on Amazon Prime are… unexpected. The Statue is a British comedy, written by Alec Coppel, based on an earlier play by him, and Denis Norden, who is best known in the UK for presenting It’ll be Alright on the Night for many many years. David Niven invents a new lingua franca, Unispeak, which takes the world by storm. His wife, a famous sculptor, is commissioned to sculpt a piece celebrating his achievement, to be displayed in Grosvenor Square. But the statue proves to be an 18-foot nude of Niven. And Niven is pretty sure the statue’s dangly bits are not modelled on his own. So he sets off on a mission to discover the model for the statue’s genitals. Yes, that’s right – the plot of the film is David Niven travelling around the world trying to look at men’s tackle. It’s a plot that could be resolved today simply by asking, or by creating a female sock puppet account on social media, but in 1971 it’s apparently fertile ground for 84 minutes of nudge-nudge wink-wink. I mean, I’m sort of onboard with the idea of a high profile film whose plot requires a straight man to go around looking at other men’s willies – but it all feels very schoolboyish, and not even the presence of half of Monty Python and two-thirds of the Goodies can turn a joke told to a bunch of thirteen year olds after lights-out in the dorm into an entertaining major motion picture.

The Touch, Ingmar Bergman (1971, Sweden). Bergman did a deal with the American Broadcasting Corporation to make some films for the US market, and The Touch was the first of these. It was Bergman’s first English-language film (although not entirely, as it’s set mostly in Sweden and there is a lot of Swedish dialogue, and I was surprised to find Max von Sydow’s Swedish was not as clear as I’d expected). Elliott Gould plays an American archaeologist researching a church in a village on Gotland, when he make makes friends with a local surgeon (von Sydow) and his wife (Bibi Andersson). The story of The Touch is the affair between Gould and Andersson. And it’s violent and abusive, and even though the story is told from Andersson’s perspective – it is, essentially, her story – it’s still misogynistic. Gould’s character is… well, I can see why he considered the role damaging, even though he was working with Bergman. I wanted to like this film – I generally like Bergman’s films, and if I don’t like them I at least appreciate them – and the 1970s aesthetic and Sweden and the cast… and there’s much to want to like in it… But I really found it hard to watch and very easy to dislike. Gould, at first, is not very good, still figuring out how to act under Bergman’s direction – and it stands out, because the rest of the cast have worked with Bergman numerous times before. But then Gould starts harassing Andersson, and subsequently turns abusive… and I don’t care if this is 1971 it’s still unacceptable. And for all that Andersson controls the narrative, it still seems like the same point could have been made without the abuse. The Touch is not considered a major Bergman film, and was hard to find until released in a nice dual edition by the BFI. It does his legacy few favours.

Ladies Who Do, CM Pennington-Richards (1963, UK). British comedy films from the 1950s and 1960s, unless they were made by Ealing Studios, are often forgotten, but there were some bloody good comedies made back then. Just think of The Early Bird, or indeed anything starring Norman Wisdom. Ladies Who Do has its moments, and a fine conceit underlying its story, not to mention an excellent cast, but it all feels a bit lacklustre. Peggy Mount is a char who rescues an expensive cigar from the bin of an office she cleans and gives it one of her gentlemen, Robert Morley. Who realises that the piece of paper she wrapped the cigar in is insider information. Which he uses to make £5,000 on the stock market (equivalent to about £90,000 these days). Morley and Mount come up with a plan – they form a company of cleaning ladies who hunt for inside information in the offices they clean. Meanwhile, developer Harry H Corbett is trying to demolish the slum street where Mount lives in order to build a block of flats and offices, but she blocks him at every turn. Talk about mixed messages. British – well, English – culture was good at valourising the status quo but had no idea what elements to promote as “progress”. Great Britain: consistently failing since the Romans left. A mildly entertaining comedy that seems to say that success is good, except when it profits the working class.