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Moving pictures, #18

More of a geographic spread this time around, with only two of the six from Hollywood – and both of those I only watched because they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Some of you may have noticed that I had a go at putting together my own version of the list, but so far only managed about 300 films. It’s a work in progress, of course; and will undoubtedly change as I watch more films, or change my minds about films I’ve already listed. It has so far proven difficult not to put too many films on my list by directors I rate highly – such as Dreyer below – but even then I seem to have included half a dozen by one favourite director but only two by another. So it’s not like I’ve been all that consistent. Ah well. We’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, more films from the actual 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a few others, what I have viewed recently…

once_uponOnce Upon a Time, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1922, Denmark). As is no doubt obvious from the title, this is a fairy tale. It’s adapted from a play of the same title by Holger Drachmann, first performed in 1885. The film isn’t complete, however, as about half has been lost – but the Danske Filminstitut have managed to salvage a narrative using still photos and new intertitles based on original sources. It’s a less engaging film than Dreyer’s The Bride of Glomdal, although the staging is often impressive – as can be seen from the still on the DVD cover. I seem to recall the story dragging somewhat – and that there were a lot of intertitles, although whether that was a result of the fact half the footage has been lost, I’m not sure. I seem to recall other films by Dreyer from the same period featuring more intertitles than I’d expected. On the other hand, you’d expect a silent movie adaptation of a stage play to be quite talky… I do like Dreyer’s films – I’d certainly put him in my top ten directors list… (For the record, they would be, at this particular time, in no particular order, Sokurov, Tarkovsky, Suleiman, Antonioni, Haneke, Hitchcock, Dreyer, Benning, Kieślowski and Kaurismäki.)

goodbyeGoodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard (2014, France). Some things I like the idea of more than I like the actual thing. One of those things is experimental cinema. I like that some film-makers explore how the medium can be used to tell stories, film-makers like James Benning, for example. But not every experiment film works for me. I remember watching and not liking Lukas Moodysson’s Container, although I do like Moodysson’s other movies. Godard was a director who certainly experimented, and one or two of his experiments I do indeed like – such as Two or Three Things I Know About Her or Weekend. Goodbye to Language experiments with both 3D filming techniques – entirely lost on me as I watched a 2D version – and cinematic narrative… and it’s not an easy film to watch. There are scenes which look and feel more like documentary footage, there are scenes in which characters lecture at each other (not unusual in a Godard film), there are strange camera tricks and photographic effects. The story has to be puzzled out from what’s shown on the screen, and it’s not at all obvious. Watching Goodbye to Language was a bit of a chore, but, as mentioned earlier, I like the idea of the movie – and might well give it another go sometime. Sometimes it happens you don’t take to something immediately, but leave it a while, return to it, give it another go… and it becomes a favourite. I suspect that won’t happen here, but perhaps I might decide I do actually like it…

A_Simple_DeathA Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia). Kaidanovsky is perhaps better known as an actor – he played the lead in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and one of Pirx’s crew in Test Pilota Pirxa – but he also directed three feature films: Гость (an adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges story), Жена Керосинщика, and Простая смерть. The last, A Simple Death, is an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, and pretty faithfully follows its plot: a magistrate who has led a mostly good and successful life falls while hanging curtains one day and hurts his side, the pain grows each day until he is bedridden and his codition is terminal, where he reflects on his mortality, his life and the injustice of his current predicament. Although made in 1985, A Simple Death is black and white, and parts of the film reminded me strongly of Sokurov’s Stone, in which Chekhov returns to the present day and surprises the young man who is caretaker of his house. There’s a similar aesthetic at work, although Kaidanovsky’s film and camera work is not as experimental as Sokurov’s. Good stuff.

winchesterWinchester ’73*, Anthony Mann (1950, USA). The title refers to a model of rifle, the Winchester 1873, which was a superior repeating rifle and much prized. Even more prized, however, was the “one in a thousand”, which was is a particular instance of the Winchester ’73 which was so well-made – more by accident than by design – that it shot so much truer than the other 999 rifles made in that batch. Winchester ’73 opens with a crowd gathering in Dodge City to either witness or take part in a shooting competition, the prize for which is a “one in a thousand”. The contestants are whittled down to two: Jimmy Stewart and Stephen McNally. And there’s plainly bad blood between the two. Stewart wins, but McNally later ambushes him, steals the prize rifle, and gets the hell out of Dodge. Stewart and buddy chase after him. Meanwhile McNally has lost the rifle in card game with a gunrunner, who then sells it to a Native American chief (Rock Hudson) on the warpath. Who then attacks a cavalry detachment, but Stewart and buddy turn up and help them cavalry win the day. Hudson is killed and a young Tony Curtis finds the prize rifle. The sergeant gives it Charkes Drake, as Stewart has already left. Drake, and fiancée Shelley Winters (who had met Stewart back in Dodge), continue with their journey, but come a cropper with a member of McNally’s gang, and so the rifle ends up back in McNally’s hands. At which point Stewart turns up and the two shoot at each other for the gun. Throughout the film, they’ve been depicted as superlative shots, but this last scene has them repeatedly missing each other. Guess they weren’t so good, after all. As mid-centiury Westerns go, Winchester ’73 isn’t a bad one – and it’s certainly refreshing to see Stewart acting tougher than he usually does. But I’m not really sure why it needs to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

strictlyStrictly Ballroom*, Baz Luhrmann (1992, Australia). I should think most of the populations of Australia and the UK, amd a goodly-sized proportion of the US, have already seen this film, but somehow or other I’d never managed to do so. Of course, I only watched it because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And now I have. It was… okay. It’s a spoof set around a regional ballroom dancing championship in Australia. The son of a dancing school instructor is the local star, and tipped to do well in the competition. But his partner leaves him for another dancer since he has a tendency to stray from “proper dance steps” – and, against his parents wishes, and with some persuasion, he decides to take as his partner a young woman who hangs around the dancing school but is not a dancer. They practice secretly, she develops into an excellent dancer, and he even learns some useful life lessons – and how to dance the pasodoble correctly – from her immigrant parents. Apparently, the film was adapted from an earlier play written by Luhrmann when he was  a student. It’s also one of the most successful Australian films of all time. It has now been made into a stage musical, which I guess means it’s now as mainstream as you could possibly get.

grafittiAmerican Graffiti*, George Lucas (1973, USA). After THX-1138, Lucas decided to make something more commercial, and so chose a story based on his own memories of growing up in Modesto, California. Although audience response to the film was good, and he had a number of big names batting for him, the studio first wanted their own re-edit of it and then to release it as a TV movie. However, saner heads prevailed, and the film was given a theatrical release, and went on to make a pretty good profit. All of which may be interesting, but is of no consequence when considering American Graffiti as a film. And it’s a Californian coming-of-age movie, a duller subject I can’t imagine. Obnoxious teenagers with over-inflated senses of self-worth driving around small town USA and getting up to drunken antics. Richard Dreyfus spends much of the movie chasing after a young woman he saw fleetingly in a car. Paul Le Mat cruises around with a teenybopper, before ending up in a road race against Harrison Ford. Charles Martin Smith chats up a young woman, mostly by telling lies, and then cruises around with her. And so on… Yawn. I have no idea why this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 753

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Recenter Reading Roundup

I think I’m going to start doing this sort of thing regularly – a fortnightly run-down on the books I’ve read and the films I’ve watched. It’s sort of the blog equivalent of reality television, without having to resort to pimpage or thieving content from elsewhere.

Books:
Stickleback, Ian Edginton & D’Israeli (2007), first appeared in the comic 2000AD. The title character is a Victorian crime lord, initially presented as a mystery to be investigated by half-Turkish Scotland Yard detective Inspector Valentine Bey. But it’s all a plot because Stickleback is trying to defeat the City Fathers, a druidic brotherhood which has secretly controlled London since the Dark Ages. In the second story in this volume, Stickleback is the hero – well, antihero – as he prevents some eldritch horrors from taking over the earth after they’ve stolen the last dragon’s egg. Some mysteries are left unexplained – Stickleback’s real identity, for example. Excellent stuff.

Rocketman, Nancy Conrad (2005). See here.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004), I liked less than I had expected to. It was shortlisted for the Booker, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke Awards, and won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award, so I had high hopes of it. Unfortunately, I thought the sf elements were clumsily done – a post-apocalypse story written in debased English… yawn. And the transcript of an interview with an uplifted clone in a corporate near-future Korea – hardly a ground-breaking idea – which is spoiled because the clone actually speaks in purple prose. Having said that, the book’s structure of six nested stories was a neat idea, and the writing was generally very good. Unfortunately, the whole didn’t quite add up to the sum of the parts, and the links between the stories often came across as forced. A noble failure, I think.

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan (2007), I was unsure about reading. I hadn’t really enjoyed his previous book, Saturday, so I wasn’t going to shell out money for his latest. But I managed to blag a copy of On Chesil Beach for nothing on bookmoch.com. And I’m glad I got it for nothing. It’s typical McEwan – well-written (and excellent in parts) – but his formula has long since lost its shine: ie, a leisurely build-up to a decision, the wrong choice is made, and the rest of the book shows the consequences of that choice. A new plot would be nice.

The Tar-Aiym Krang, Alan Dean Foster (1972). See here.

The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980), is, I think, better than The Balkan Trilogy. Admittedly, I’m interested in the period it covers – World War II in Egypt – because of the Salamander and Personal Landscape groups, two groups of poets and writers active during that time, which included Manning herself, Lawrence Durrell, Terence Tiller, Bernard Spencer, John Jarmain and Keith Douglas, among others. In this book, Guy Pringle remains mostly unsympathetic and Harriet Pringle still incapable of recognising what the people around her are really like. Sadly, the television adaptation Fortunes Of War didn’t handle this half of the story as well as it did The Balkan Trilogy – too much was missed out. The fact that the books are better should come as no real surprise. And this might well be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865), is a book I’d never actually read as a child, although I’d picked up the story through cultural osmosis. Unfortunately, it seems to be a book you should read as a child. As an adult, I found it patronising and simplistic. Ah well. At least I can cross it off the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books list.

The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury (1975), is another of the books on the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books. Which is why I mooched a copy and read it. It took me two goes to start, and the second time I was on a coach heading for London, so I couldn’t really put it down and pick up another book… And I’m glad I forced myself to read it. It takes a while to get going, but once you’ve clicked into the narrative, it’s an excellent read. The committee meeting alone is worth the price of admission. Now I want to see the 1980 BBC television adaptation…

The Custodians, Richard Cowper (1976), is a collection of four short stories by the author of the excellent White Bird of Kinship trilogy. In fact, The Custodians includes the prequel short story, ‘Pipers at the Gates of Dawn’, for that trilogy. The other three stories are very much of their time and place – very considered British science fiction of the 1970s, with some good writing, some creaky ideas, and a mostly slow narrative pace.

Films:
Show Me Love, Together, Lilja 4-Ever and A Hole in my Heart, dir. Lukas Moodysson (1998 – 2004), are all in the Lukas Moodysson Presents DVD boxed set which I bought when it was on sale. Show Me Love, a sort of Swedish Skins – misbehaving teenagers – in which the most popular girl in the year first victimises the class lesbian then falls in love with her, is good. Together – battered wife takes her kids to join her brother in his leftie peacenik vegetarian commune – is less gripping, although a more gently affectionate film. Lilja 4-Ever is the best of the four – fifteen year-old Lilja is left behind in Russia when her mother emigrates to the US. Abandoned and in desperate need of cash, she becomes a prostitute… and finds herself a new boyfriend who promises to take her to live in Sweden. When she gets there, she’s kept locked up in a flat, and escorted by a brutal minder to have sex with other men. Oksana Akinshina is superb as Lilja, and Artyom Bogucharsky is very good as her friend Volodya. A hard film to watch. A Hole in my Heart is also difficult to watch, but for different reasons. It takes place entirely in a single apartment, in which a man is making amateur porn films while his teenage son hides in his bedroom and listens to music. It’s one of those films where the director’s intentions are clear, but he’s not been entirely successful in presenting them.

City Lights, dir, Charlie Chaplin (1931), should be familiar to everyone. Chaplin’s cheeky tramp saves the life of a rich businessman, who rewards him by showing him the high life. But he does so when he’s drunk. When he sobers up, he forgets who Chaplin is. It might be eighty years old, but it’s still very funny.

Walk On Water, dir. Eytan Fox (2004), proved a surprise. A Mossad agent returns to Israel after assassinating a Hamas leader to discover his wife has committed suicide. His boss gives him an “easy” assignment while he comes to terms with his loss: he is to act as guide to a German who is visiting his kibbutzim sister. Their grandfather is a Nazi war criminal who was in South America but has recently disappeared. The Mossad agent is tasked with discovering if they know the grandfather’s location. The story doesn’t quite progress the way it seems as though it might, but never mind. A good film. And apparently inspired by a true story.

Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon (2005), was a rewatch. I was never in to Buffy, and I thought Firefly was too much “Cowboys in space” – not to mention ripping off the Traveller role-playing game – to really appeal. Even on re-watch, Serenity seems too dependent on Firefly, and while its story does explain some things about Firefly‘s universe, it still feels too much like a sequence of set scenes. Oh, and the bit where River kills all the Reavers is just silly.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, dir, Bille August (1997), was another rewatch. One of these days I’ll have to reread the novel by Peter Høeg on which it was based. Julia Ormond manages to make the prickly Smilla a sympathetic protagonist, but the opening mystery surrounding the young boy’s fatal fall from the roof of the apartment block feels mishandled – as if something else were driving the plot, and it was just being carried along for the ride. I still like the film, though.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) – the only thing I can say about this is, “Oh dear”. George Lucas must have decided that since his fanbase is greying, he needs to drag in the kiddies. Which explains some of the gloriously ill-considered mis-steps in this mess of a film. Anakin Skywalker is given a wise-cracking teenage girl as a sidekick, who manages to spend the entire film irritating the audience. The plot doesn’t make sense – rescue the (disgustingly cute) baby son of Jabba the Hutt, because the Republic needs access to the Hutt’s trade routes. Eh? A minor gangster on a backwater world suddenly controls half the galaxy? And so the Republic decides to send a single Jedi, plus teenage girl, to effect a rescue? It’s not so much that Lucas jumps the shark in this, as if he’s running the 400 metres hurdles over sharks. Definitely a film to avoid.