I think I maintain a good spread of films in my viewing – current movies, classic movies and art house movies. Working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to some good films I might otherwise have never seen, as well as some right crap I’d have been better off avoiding. Either way, I recommend using the list to supplement your own viewing. However, one thing has been readily apparent over the past few years, and it’s that I find current Hollywood product less and less appealing. I used to watch US films, as most people do, it was pretty much all I knew. But movies from other countries do exist, other nations do have cinematic traditions… and many of them are, well, actually much better than Hollywood. You can’t call yourself a film fan if you only watch Hollywood films. That’s like describing yourself as a gourmet despite only eating burgers.
So here is some haute cuisine (with a little fastfood thrown in):
Vampyr*, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1932, Germany). Subtitled “The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray”. This eureka! edition is actually the German print, although, as was common at the time, multiple language versions were filmed – in this case, German, French and English. Gray is a somewhat saturnine-looking young man, who visits the village of Courtempierre and rents a room at the local inn. Vampyr uses both intertitles and spoken dialogue to tell its story – which in terms of vampire mythology is relatively straightforward. The lord of the manor’s oldest daughter is ill, and it transpires it’s from the bite of a vampire. Gray tries to help, gets sucked into events as they unfold… but it all ends well. Dreyer is especially good on atmosphere in this, and even though the pace is somewhat slow he manages to lay it on thick. The ending, in which the vampire’s servant is drowned in flour, is also pretty effective. On balance, I much prefer Dreyer’s later work – his three Danish films are superb – but this one, on the cusp of his early German silent work and later Danish films with sound, is still very good.
Boudu Saved From Drowning*, Jean Renoir (1932, France). There are films which clearly belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but there are also other movies on there, by directors of films which deservedly belong on the list, whose presence is, quite frankly, a bit of a puzzle. La Règle du jeu and La Grande illusion are stone-cold classic movies… but Boudu Saved From Drowning? Really? It’s mildly amusing, and even though the social commentary is biting, it’s still somewhat obvious. Technically, it’s clearly ahead of its time – at no point while watching it does it seem like a film made in 1932. But its story of a tramp rescued from, er, drowning, who his saviours then try to turn into a useful member of society, is a little too broadly comical to be pointed – if that’s not a contradiction. It didn’t help that Boudu with a beard bore an uncanny resemblance to Stephen Fry. Whatever – a diverting film even if not one that clearly belonged on the list.
The Cat’s Meow, Peter Bogdanovich (2001, USA). This is apparently based on a true story. In 1924, a group of people spent the weekend aboard William Randolph Hearst’s luxury yacht, ostensibly to celebrate the birthday of Thomas H Ince, a cinema pioneer who owned one of the first movie studios. Other guests included Charlie Chaplin, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, writer Elinor Glyn, and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies. Allegedly, Ince died of a heart attack but rumour has it he was shot by Hearst over Marion Davies. The film suggests his death was an accident – Hearst thought he was firing at Chaplin, who had been trying to persuade Davies to leave Hearst and marry him. The film is a well-played period piece, although Eddie Izzard as Chaplin is actually pretty bad. The story is the sort of ultra-rich privileged crap that all too often gets accepted as the natural order of things, which is just offensive bollocks. Entertaining but forgettable.
Chinese Roulette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1976, Germany). Fassbinder, I think – and I say this having only seen eight of his films – did better when the plots of his films were more tightly constrained, either by their literary origin, as in Effi Briest, or the need to present an historical period, as in The Marriage Of Maria Braun, or by, as in this case, the tight focus of the story. An affluent husband and wife make arrangements for separate trips away, only to turn up together with their lovers at the family holiday home in a piece of really bad planning. But never mind, they all get along fine, and so behave as two couples – even if they’re not quite coupled as their marriage certificate defines it. At which point the crippled young daughter and her mute nanny arrive, and events take an odd turn… culminating in a parlour game among them all, in which each asks a speculative question demanding an honest answer from everyone. It’s a living-room drama, with some externally-filmed scene-setting, but it does a beautifully-paced job of setting up its situation and characters, and as a piece of writing probably betters the two Fassbinder films mentioned earlier. If the final frame of the truth or dare game feels a bit seventies television drama, with the cast walking about too much while speaking their lines, Chinese Roulette is certainly a masterclass in defining a dramatic situation. Definitely one of the good ones in the box set.
In Which We Serve, Noël Coward and David Lean (1942, UK). Allegedly, this was based on the wartime exploits of Lord Mountbatten. Noël Coward plays the captain of a RN destroyer during the first two years of WWII. It’s careful to show life both for the ratings and the officers of the ship – the film was made with the assistance of the Ministry of Information. The model-work is a bit naff – the UK film industry never did quite manage to make model warships look like the real thing – and Coward is far too fruity to be a steadfast navy officer, no matter how plummy his background. The film is at its best when it’s belowdecks, and John Mills puts in a good turn as an ordinary seaman. But, to be honest, In Which We Serve is not even a wartime curiosity, just one in a long line of not very good war films the UK churned out during the 1940s, mostly for propaganda purposes. Not even Lean directing the “action scenes” is a saving grace (although, to be fair, I can never make up my mind about Lean – he made a handful of excellent films, but a number of very ordinary ones too). If you’re interested in UK wartime cinema, you’re probably better off checking out a few “quota quickies”.
From Up On Poppy Hill, Goro Miyazaki (2011, Japan). I’ve enjoyed the Ghibli films the most when they are not genre – such as this one is. Er, isn’t. I mean, it’s not genre. It’s a relatively straightforward – and genre-free – story about a pair of students in early 1960s Yokohama, who are attracted to one another and then learn they may in fact be brother and sister. Wrapped around this is a student protest to prevent a building used by the various student clubs, called the Latin Quarter, from being demolished by a Tokyo businessman. From Up On Poppy Hill is at its best when it’s about the relationship between the two leads, Umi and Shun, but the comedy antics as the students clean and refurbish the Latin Quarter feel like they detract from the real story. Enjoyable, but I don’t think anyone will be calling this their favourite from Studio Ghibli.
Edge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman (2014, USA). Confused. I saw this film advertised on theatrical release as Edge of Tomorrow, but it seems to have been retitled Live Die Repeat for the sell-through (which is the name of the Japanese source text), so obviously it’s such a good film it can’t even decide what its title is. And, okay, perhaps it was a little facile to describe it as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers, but that’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell. Nasty aliens invade Earth, obviously the only way to defeat them is to throw human cannon fodder at them, although strangely enough this strategy doesn’t appear to be working. As Tom Cruise repeatedly discovers because he keeps on waking up back on his first day of basic training (although no training actually takes place) and all because he was covered in a particular type of alien’s blood on the battlefield. But that’s okay, since it allows him to figure out there is a hidden mega-alien thing somewhere running the whole show and if he kills that then humanity wins – stop me if you’ve heard this before. Oh, you have? Lots of times? Seriously, if Edge of Tomorrow is being held up as a good sf film, then that says a lot about the piss-poor state of sf cinema – oh, wait, Interstellar was supposed to be the best sf film of last year, so yes, it looks like sf cinema is in a piss-poor state…
Damnation, Béla Tarr (1988, Hungary). I think I’m going to have to withhold judgement on Tarr’s films for now. I’ve now seen all three in the pictured box set – and while Tarr is noted for the glacial pace of his movies, and I actually like films that take time to tell their stories, I’ve not yet plugged into Tarr’s languorous way of movie-making. Damnation is, I suppose, the most straightforward of the three films, but there are long stretches where no one speaks, there is only music… And then characters speak dialogue that feels more like it should be… declaimed, like in a Jancsó film. Their naturalistic speech is… odd, perhaps even a little off-putting. Having grown up reading science fiction, I’m all too familiar with mouthpiece characters – but where Jancsó’s are overt, Tarr appears to sneak his into the story in the guise of ordinary people engaged in ordinary activities. Tarr’s films will not only bear rewatching, I strongly suspect they demand it. Meanwhile, I shall sort of hover on the edge of liking and admiring them.
Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy (2014, USA). Watching this film prompted an interesting discussion on Twitter. Since thrillers depend upon violence and fear to drive their plots and maintain viewer interest, I suggested they were morally bankrupt, if not morally corrupt. In order to generate “story”, they over-state the incidence of violence and harm in the real world. And while the protagonist of Nightcrawler – played by a frankly creepy Jake Gyllenhall – does cover road traffic accidents, it’s his relationship with violent crime which comprises the plot of the film. He’s a freelance cameraman – or rather, he starts on a career as one after witnessing Bill Paxton at work – who forms a business, and increasingly poisonous and misogynistic, relationship with news channel producer Rene Russo. When Gyllenhall gets too close to his subjects, and starts crossing the line between reportage and incitement… it all goes horribly wrong. Yawn. This sort of moral conundrum is completely banal, and has been covered repeatedly in both books and films. Perhaps Nightcrawler‘s take on it rings a few trivial changes, but all we’ve really got here is a creepy update of His Girl Friday. Without the wit.
Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1995, Russia). I have no idea how to write about this. I was lucky enough to find a copy on eBay going for a reasonable price – it typically goes for $95 or more, but at 327 minutes split over five episodes, I suppose that’s not bad value for money (I paid less than half that). Spiritual Voices is a documentary filmed at a Russian army dugout in northern Afghanistan – but its opening episode consists of forty minutes of time-lapse photography of a village in Siberia, as night falls and dawn breaks, while Sokurov talks about Mozart and then Beethoven. The second, and following, episodes are hand-held documentary footage of Russian soldiers going about their duties night and day, sometimes interacting with the camera, but usually ignoring its presence. The soldiers, of course, are conscripts; they are also young men. And though they wear the uniform, and spend their days following orders, there is something not quite real about their situation. Sokurov also films the landscape surrounding them, and he’s extremely good at using landscape to paint a moral picture of the story he’s telling. Spiritual Voices is a long film, a very long film, and after a single viewing I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. That first episode is an amazing work of art – I’ve now watched it three times – but I’ve yet to determine how it fits in with the piece as a whole… This is just one of the reasons why I find Sokurov one of the most fascinating directors currently working, and why I’ve tracked down as much of his oeuvre on DVD I can find.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 584