I need to get these out of the way. I have three Moving pictures posts, including this one, to finish off 2018’s viewing. Posts #68 and #69 to follow soon…
Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino (1980, USA). This film is probably best known for breaking New Hollywood and ending the US’s willingness to give carte blanche to directors and instead returning to Extruded Studio Product. Which, given the fact most of Hollywood’s best films are director films, seems a step backwards. Except Hollywood is all about profit, not about making good films. Which is not to say that Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It looks fantastic. But it is overlong, massively distorts the story it tells, and was reputedly a terrible production. Legend has it Jonathan Hurt went off and made The Elephant Man in between shoots on Heaven’s Gate. It’s easy to believe, because the whole film reeks of out-of-control personal project. The story, as it goes, is yet another take on the cattle barons versus homesteaders conflict in late nineteenth-century USA. The film opens with two friends graduating from Harvard. It then jumps forward twenty years, and one of the men is a marshal while the other represents the cattle barons. In the film, the homesteaders are all European immigrants, which was not the historical case. Nor did they kill cattle because they were starving. But Cimino is making a point beyond the history he used as inspiration, so he ups the stakes all round, and has the cattlemen respond with brutal violence. And this is in a 219 minute film, so it goes on and on and on… The fact the production was so bad, and Cimino a total prima donna – he apparently wanted the street widening for one of the towns he’d had built, and instead of moving one side out six feet he demanded both sides were moved out three feet each – well, it’s easy to see why Heaven’s Gate flopped so badly on release. It’s been reassessed since – but a lot of it still doesn’t work: the layered-on xenophobia, the excessive violence, the rambling plot, multitude of characters… If Heaven’s Gate is seen more favourably now, it’s probably because auteurs have been back in favour for a few decades and the success of sell-through, in whatever format, has opened up a market for auteur movies. Which Heaven’s Gate isn’t really. But as the last gasp of New Hollywood it’s worth seeing at least once.
Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell (2018, USA). It is possible to accurately describe a film in such a way that it sounds like it’s worth watching but the 139 minutes spent watching it could still prove a total waste of time. Which is as good a description of Under the Silver Lake as any plot summary. Slacker Andrew Garfield is having trouble paying his bills and is threatened with eviction. He spots a young woman at the apartment building’s pool and is smitten. But then she goes missing. Meanwhile, he’s intrigued by an underground comic which shares the film’s name, and which suggest there is some secret history underlying pretty much everything. After a series of encounters, Garfield bounces from one clue to the other in his hunt for the young woman, before ending up at the mansion of some mega-wealthy recluse who claims to have written every single pop song ever heard. So Garfield brutally murders him. He eventually tracks down the missing woman, and it’s all to do with secret hermetically-sealed fallout shelters beneath the Californian desert, where members of the ultra-rich seal themselves off until they die because only by doing that can they achieve immortality, or some such bollocks. Under the Silver Lake tries really hard to be Eyes Wide Shut but pretty much fails at every point. The plot didn’t seem to go anywhere, except round in ever-pointless circles. It looked pretty, though; and the cast were quite good. But definitely not worth seeing.
Blind Shaft, Li Yang (2003, China). This is the film for which Li made his name, and the first of his loose trilogy of “Blind” films. A pair of con men work in China’s poorly-regulated, and often illegal, coal mines. They pick some more schmuck desperate for a job, and persuade him to pretend to be their brother, and the three of them will sign up at a coal mine. They then murder the third man and claim it was an accident. And the mine owners pay them off because they don’t want the authorities investigating the mine. The films opens with a murder, and then follows the two miners as they return to the city to look for a new victim. But the naive teenager they eventually persuade to join them… one of the miners likes him too much to murder him. For all that we’re told China is a communist country, and communist countries have free healthcare and education, and the booming Chinese economy has seen giant cities grew up out of nothing, not to mention vast industrial zones… but the films made by Sixth Generation directors tell a slightly different story. Sch as this one, and Li’s later Blind Mountain. People far from the shiny new cities live in poverty, and have to pay for medical treatment and education. There’s a scene in Blind Shaft, in which the two miners, flush with the spoils of their last crime, are in the city and spot a youth holding up a sign which says he has won a place at college but needs money to pay for it. The miners are so impressed he has passed the entrance exams, they give him some money. It’s a different picture to the one painted by glossy trans-Pacific blockbusters, which likely explains why they tend not to get theatrical releases (or indeed approval from the Chinese authorities in some cases). Definitely worth seeing.
Love in a Fallen City, Ann Hui (1984, China). There’s some good stuff on Amazon Prime. you just have to look for it. And it’s probably tempting to stick to the high profile stuff, even for foreign films, as the movies we see made in other countries depend on what’s made available to us – either by dubbing or subtitles – and often isn’t all that indicative of that nation’s cinema. This is certainly true of China, Western views of whose cinema have no doubt been chiefly shaped by first of all Hong Kong action movies, plus Shaw Brothers’ wu xia, then later wu xia films kicked off by the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon… Plus, of course, there are the films by Fifth Generation and Sixth Generation directors, and the entirely different aesthetic, and choice of subject matter, they bring to Chinese cinema… But there are yet other films, which were either never released in the West, or had such limited releases they were all but invisible, and for whatever reason, although I’m not going to complain, some of them seem to have been made available on Amazon Prime. This is not to say all such movies are undiscovered gems. One or two of them are actually quite good, but most are pretty unforgettable – and some of the more successful ones are actually pretty bad. Love in a Fallen City is an adaptation of a novella of the same title by Eileen Chang, originally published in 1943, set before and during the Japanese invasion of China in WWII. It’s a boy meets girl, girl is not sure about boy, boy and girl realise they truly love each other as disaster strikes sort of story. It’s all very well-meaning, but I suspect the source material makes a more interesting job of it than the film did. It’s been several weeks since I watched it, and pretty much nothing has stuck. Oh well.
The Legend of Tarzan, David Yates ( 2016, Australia). Tarzan must be up there with Sherlock Holmes as the white male fictional character who has had the most film adaptations and, like Holmes, each adaptation has brought contemporary concerns to the adaptation. Perhaps Tarzan movies have not been quite so “contemporary” as Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis in the 1940s, but each take on the character, even if set in its correct period, has been of its time. Which is probably a good point to document my own relationship with the character of Tarzan, which is entirely overshadowed by a Tarzan annual I read in a hotel in the mid-1970s the night before an orthodontist’s appointment. It was one of the those hotels with a bathroom shared by several rooms. And one story in the Tarzan annual affected me powerfully. That, and the pain of having a brace fitted, have burned it into my memory. Other than that, it was regular showings of the 1960s Tarzan television series (that’s the one with the chimpanzee called Cheeta) on Dubai television when I was a kid, and memories of the Johnny Weismuller movies, although I can’t remember when and where I saw them. Of course, of Edgar Rice Burrough’s properties I’ve always much preferred John Carter, and I don’t recall even reading a Tarzan novel – although one of my favourite books as a kid was Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan of the Apes (I had the Pan UK reprint paperback, which apparently doesn’t even exist on Amazon). Anyway, he’s a familiar character to me, and it’s been interesting seeing how he’s been re-interpreted over the years. The Legend of Tarzan opens with Tarzan, as Greystoke, settled in England, but asked to return to the Congo to investigate slavery there – and so becomes embroiled in a plot by the Belgian envoy to deliver Tarzan to an tribal leader in return for the fabled diamonds of Opar. It’s all very twenty-first century, with lots of CGI apes, and near-superpowered protagonists, but it makes an excellent point about the slavery. It smells quite a lot like a Victorian superhero movie, and the story beats are more from that template than the source material, but it’s certainly an improvement on the last few Tarzan movies and better than the reviews it received.
Big Shot’s Funeral, Feng Xiaogang (20011, China). Donald Sutherland plays a big name Hollywood auteur in China to remake Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. The production company has hired a Chinese cameraman to follow Sutherland and record everything he says and does as material for a “making of” documentary. Unfortunately, Sutherland’s character doesn’t seem to have much clue what he’s supposed to be making – or rather, he has an entirely different film in mind to the one the producers are expecting or that he signed up for. This often results in incomprehensible instructions to the cast and extras, which his translator translates as something more understandable. Meanwhile, Sutherland forms a friendship with his documentary cameraman, despite the cameraman’s rudimentary English. But as the shoot progresses, so Sutherland’s character becomes disenchanted with the project. He doesn’t want to make some commercial crowd-pleaser, but that’s what the producers want and that’s how the production is being steered. Before shooting is finished, the director falls into a coma. The cameraman is asked to arrange his funeral, and told to use sponsors to pay for it. Which is where it all turns into farce, as the cameraman’s friend, a businessman, gets sponsorship deals for everything. I’ve found Feng’s films a bit hit and miss, but this one was good. It went from laid-back self-deprecating humour to quite biting satire. Good.
1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933