Not so much of a geographical spread this time, with two films from the US. One of the US films is especially timely, despite being more than seventy years old.
Keeper of the Flame, George Cukor (1943, USA). An American hero, Robert Forrest, is killed in a car crash, and the nation mourns. Journalist Spencer Tracy is intrigued by the response of the family, especially widow Katherine Hepburn, and decides to dig deeper… only to discover the dead man had been using his wealth to build a fascist organisation bent on seizing control of the country. Sound familiar? This is not a great film: Tracey is coasting, Hepburn was desperate after a couple of duds, and the final act is muddled and relies too much on a massive infodump. But the idea of a populist leader courting fascists to gain power – I’m talking about Trump, just in case you’re too dim to spot the resemblance – is certainly something that resonates now. Forrest’s death is initially presented as an accident – he died when a bridge on his estate gave way during a fierce storm… but was the bridge sabotaged? The focus on the truth behind Forrest’s death pretty much dictates the plot for much of the film’s length, but it’s a red herring – he was killed because of his plans, and that’s where the film’s focus should have been. Disappointing.
Kurotokage, Kinji Fukasaku (1968, Japan). When I saw this film was based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, I thought the name was a Japanisation of Edgar Allen Poe. But it turns out there really was a Japanese writer called Edogawa Rampo, although, yes, it was a pen name and it is indeed a rendering of Poe’s name. Rampo was a seminal writer in Japan’s mystery genre, and the story of Kurotokage (AKA Black Lizard) is one of his. The title refers to the head of a criminal organisation, played in the film by female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama, who kidnaps a jeweler’s daughter as part of a plan to steal the jeweler’s most famous piece. It’s the sort of 1960s thriller tosh the Italians churned out by the yard and the Americans managed to avoid because New Hollywood got in the way – none of which means it’s not entertaining. Isao Kimura as the detective Akechi is smooth and perhaps too much of a stereotype, but Maruyama plays a good villain; and the improbable convolutions of the plot manage to stay just the right side of sense. And it all looks very 1960s, Japanese-style, which is a plus. Wikipedia claims the film is not available on DVD, and it certainly took me several years before I found a copy – but yes, there is a DVD release, Japanese but with English subtitles, it just takes a bit of searching to find. Not a great film, but one worth seeing.
Melody Time, Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson (1948, USA). During WWII, Disney trotted out a series of anthology films designed chiefly to keep its studio of animators in work. Which is not to say that every segment in this particular film feels like makework. It’s all very dated and of its time, true, and some of the animation is not as good as other works from Disney’s heyday. But a lot of it is very good, even if it’s sometimes unsure of what register it should be in – so the story about the two lovers who go ice-skating can’t decide on melodrama or comedy; and it’s not the only one. The animation is mostly of the same sort of design as that of Sleeping Beauty, probably my favourite Disney film… but the last segment of Melody Time‘s seven sequences is a mix of live action and animation, featuring Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. It comes across like the sort of kids’ programme you’d expect 1040s American television to have produced – albeit in colour – with an earnest adult celebrity earnestly patronising a group of credulous kids that were clearly cast for their looks and their ability to look and sound credulous. I actually enjoyed the film, and took it for what it was, an historical document,
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK). So, after watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, I went and bought everything else Rivers had done that was available on DVD. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is actually a collaboration with American film-maker Ben Russell – and the DVD includes Russell’s 2013 short, Let Us Persevere in What We Have Resolved Before We Forget. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness follows musician Lichens on an island off the Estonian coast, in a forest in northern Finland, and as vocalist at a gig in Norway for a black metal band created for the film. The print is crisper than Rivers’s earlier Two Years at Sea – I’m guessing he didn’t use the same production technique and develop it at home – although there’s a similar love of static shots of steaming forests. This is another film where the landscape plays an important role, and I am a big fan of films that make effective use of landscape. I said in an earlier Moving pictures post that in a Rivers film plot was treated as an “emergent phenomenon”, and while A Spell to Ward off the Darkness was clearly and consciously constructed to tell a story – it has three parts! – it displays that same plotlessness. So there’s that dichotomy between a deliberately-designed narrative and the appearance of no narrative – and I like that narrative design can include the possiblility of no narrative, that some people actively seek to tell stories in ways that seem to disobey most rules of narrative. With someone like Rivers, I find I value his work for its cinematography – often excellent, but occasionally clichéd – and for its refusal to follow cinematic narratives. I’m interested in narrative structures, both in film and fiction, which probably explains why I find Godard so fascinating and commercial fiction so dull. Rivers is that odd beast, an artist working in narrative cinema – which presents its own set of problems and its own reasons for appeal. I shall certainly be following his career from now on.
Splendid Float, Zero Chou (2004, Taiwan). Not sure where I came across mention of this film, but I had to buy a Chinese DVD from eBay in order to see it. And… yes, it was worth it. A young man spends his days as a Taoist priest and his nights as a drag queen on a travelling float. One night, he meets a fisherman and the two fall in love. He later learns the fisherman has died in mysterious circumstances, and determines to discover the truth of his death. But this isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more a study of the priest’s grief. It would feel like a Taiwanese version of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – an over-rated film, I think – if it focused chiefly on the eponymous, er, float. But it doesn’t. While it presents a mystery regarding the fisherman’s death, it doesn’t make a serious attempt to resolve it. As a Taoist priest, the young man is asked to officiate at a ceremony to pacify the young man’s spirit – and it’s there where the heart of the film lies. For the ceremony to be effective, it needs an article of clothing worn by the deceased. The mother and grandmother have forgotten to bring something; the priest happens to be wearing a T-shirt given to him by the fisherman when last he saw him. There’s a slight weirdness in that the Taoist priest is presented a bit like an ambulance chaser, ie, occupying an office, with a manager, and having to chase up business in order to ensure everyone’s wages are paid. Chou is highly-regarded as a documentary film-maker, although she has also made nine feature films. There’s a joy to Splendid Float, despite its subject, which many films of its like fail to achieve. I might start looking for more of Chou’s films…
Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). After damning Godard with faint praise in a previous Moving pictures post, I found the cinematography in Je vous salue, Marie really very fetching. In fact, I think it might be one of my favourite Godard films – after Le mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (and no, I don’t know why I keep on using the translated title for the latter). The story is a pretty blunt retelling of the Virgin Birth, with college dropout boyfriend Joseph and Uncle Gabriel, a rich uncle who jets in and tells Marie she will become pregnant. The film was unpopular with the religious lobby, chiefly because of full-frontal nudity in such an obvious Biblical retelling. One irate viewer at Cannes apparently threw a shaving cream pie at Godard. There’s some lovely nature photography in the film, much more noticeably than in any other Godard film I’ve seen, and although it’s a terrible cliché to use nature’s variety as illustrative of God’s purpose, Godard frames the epiphany entirely from the title character’s viewpoint. I’ve now watched Je vous salue, Marie several times and I’m still trying to work out if it’s Godard’s masterpiece. Le mépris is an obviously excellent piece of film-making, and it’s plain from the first frame. Two or Three Things I Know About Her I admire because it breaks so many of the rules of narrative cinema. But Je vous salue, Marie… I tweeted while watching it that Godard had done more to expand the language of cinema than any other director, and, okay, the comment was prompted by watching this film after a glass or two of wine… But, ignoring those directors from the very early days of film-making who basically wrote the language of narrative cinema, then, yes, I think Godard has done more to expand narrative cinema than any other director of narrative cinema. US experimental and avant-garde cinema, such as that by Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren or Bruce Baillie, doesn’t seem to have impacted commercial cinema much, if at all; European avant-garde directors tended to get subsumed into the mainstream. Of course, these days, there are also artists who use video, or video installations (the distinction is important), as their medium, such as Richard Mosse, Ed Atkins or Cécile B Evans, all of whose work I’ve recently found fascinating. Je vous salue, Marie is Godard doing commercial narrative cinema after many years away from it, and I’m still not sure what to make of it – its use of the female experience, its Biblical story-line, its nudity, its nature photography, its classical music soundtrack, its topic… There’s too much in there I’ve seen explored by other directors I admire, and while I don’t believe one or the other is an homage to one or the other, or a reference, or even a straight borrowing, it intrigues me they’ve all pulled the same tools out of the toolbox to tell different stories. Je vous salue, Marie is not one of Godard’s best-regarded films: I think that might be wrong.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 880