Another good spread of films. The sole US one is actually a documentary about the making of a German film, and is included in the Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection.
Burden of Dreams, Les Blank (1982, USA). There are several famously difficult pieces of film-making, and perhaps the two best-known are Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Coppola’s film was documented in Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola (see here), so it should come as no surprise to learn there’s an equivalent documentary made during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. A comparison between the two documentaries in inevitable – both films were made in remote locations, with productions that spiralled out of control, a difficult marquee name, and a director with a far from firm grip on the production. Yet in Burden of Dreams Herzog comes across as jolly and mostly sanguine. There’s none of the expected despair. Kinski’s antics also don’t figure largely in the documentary, despite stories that the film crew offered to murder the star because of his outrageous demands and behaviour. Much of Burden of Dreams focuses on the logistics of the shoot, and the difficulties of dragging the riverboat up over the hill (they actually had three copies of the boat, by the way). Of course, there were also other problems – Fitzcarraldo originally starred Jason Robards in the title role, but he took ill and had to pull out. Watching him in the part, it’s clear it was better-suited to Kinski. Mick Jagger also played a supporting role, but when the shoot was delayed as they recast the title role, Jagger had to leave due to other commitments. They didn’t bother to recast, just wrote his part out of the film. Which was just as well as he was terrible. Of the two documentaries, I think Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is better, but that may simply be because Apocalypse Now is a more epic movie than Fitzcarraldo.
Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, Gottfried Koldtiz (1970, Germany). Back in the 1960s and 1970s, DEFA, the East German national film studio, made four big budget science fiction films. Three were made available in the US in a DVD box set around a decade ago – Der Schweigende Stern, Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea. I think the box set is deleted now, so it’s hard to find. But if you see a copy, snap it up. However, one of those four films, Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer, often described as East Germany’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has never been released on DVD (except perhaps in Germany… but the copy I watched was actually from a German television broadcast, so perhaps not). Anyway, a friend came round one Saturday evening – a German, as it happens – to watch some films, and I put Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer on. I’d been expecting good things of the film, as I like the other DEFA sf films, especially Eolomea, although I’d been told Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer wasn’t that good… And, er, it wasn’t. The spacecraft Ikaros is exploring near Jupiter when it’s hit by meteorites and suffers catastrophic damage. The crew survive, but they have no radio. A search for their wreck is unsuccessful, and they are presumed dead. But Commander Veikko is convinced they’re still alive and wants to try using his spacecraft, Laika. But he’s forbidden from doing so, and so uses a routine mission to service some satellites or space probes (it wasn’t clear which) to surreptitiously hunt for the lost spacecraft. Which he finds. And they rescue the stranded crew in the nick of time. What little plot there is in the film occurs in the last thirty minutes, the rest of it is just over-extended set-up. Including several scenes on a beach. I think there must have been a rule in East German sf film-making that required at least one beach-scene. And if the cast were riding horses, that was even better. A future party scene is also mandatory – although the one aboard Laika, to celebrate a crewmember’s anniversary, is cut short and seems entirely pointless. Also, confusingly, during the party the blonde wears a brunette wig and the brunette wears a blonde wig. Oh, and also apparently de rigeur in Warsaw Pact sf movies is a crap robot. And the one in Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer is only beaten by the one in Через тернии к звёздам. Despite all that, I’m glad I found a copy of Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, and I’m glad I watched it. I might even rewatch it one day.
Небо зовет, Mikhail Karyukov & Aleksandr Kozry (1959, Russia). And after Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, we settled down to watch Небо зовет, a Soviet sf film I’d been wanting to see for ages, but had never managed to find a copy on DVD. And… It turned out to have an almost identical plot to Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer: one spacecraft has to rescue another. Even worse than that, I have a copy of Battle Beyond the Sun, which is pretty much an edit of Небо зовет dubbed into Engish and with additional monsters. So it made for an odd viewing experience. Небо зовет opens with a journalist being shown around an office where Soviet scientists are designing rockets and spacecraft. Inspired by the models he is shown in a museum at the office, he dreams of a future in which the USSR has an extensive space presence. And the screen goes all fuzzy… and we’re in that very future. The Soviets are about to send a spacecraft to Mars, but the Americans are determined to beat them (the US mission seems to be a private enterprise). The Americans steal a march on the Soviets, but come a cropper when their rocket encounters a meteorite storm. So the Soviets divert to rescue them, but this ends up with both crews being stranded on an asteroid, Icarus. An automated rescue mission is sent but spectacularly blows up. A second, crewed, is successful, but the crew die. However, the crew of the Soviet and the US rockets both survive, and are given a hero’s welcome when they return to Earth. The model work and production design in Небо зовет is excellent, and while the space station design, which resembles an aircraft carrier, seems a bit odd (their spacesuits have magnetic boots, so they won’t just float away), as do the giant clamps with which the rockets dock. But this is a 1959 film, and the Soviet space programme was very secretive (they didn’t even admit Korolyev’s existence until after glasnost). Небо зовет is fun in a dated sort of way, and certainly a great deal better than its butchered US edit, Battle Beyond the Stars.
The Brood, David Cronenberg (1979, Canada). I’m not sure why I stuck this on my rental list. It’s not like I’m a big fan of Cronenberg’s work, although I’ve liked many of his films. But he does horror, mostly, and I don’t like horror films. I’m okay with older ones, before CGI, when the special effects are obviously special effects. As is the case with The Brood. The story in this film, on the other hand, is completely bonkers, and despite a good cast – Ollie Reed! – never really rises above the completely silly. Reed plays a psychiatrist whose treatment causes patients to physically manifest their mental pathologies. Yes, actually physically manifest them. Meanwhile, a husband suspects his ex-wife, who is a patient, of abusing their young daughter and he’s trying to win custody as a result. At which point, a weird child in a snowsuit appears and starts beating people to death with hammers. When the husband stumbles across the weird child hiding in his mother’s house and it attacks him, he kills it in self-defence. At the autopsy, the police discover the child has no belly button, no genitals, no teeth, and is not entirely human. It turns out there are lots of these weird children – a group of them later appear and beat a teacher to death with hammers in front of her class of young kids (yes, seriously – how on earth was Cronenberg allowed to film that?) – and they are all parthogenically generated by the ex-wife in response to her anger, and they go out and attack the objects of her anger. It doesn’t… really work. It’s all played with a straight face, and is pretty convincing in parts, but as it progesses the dafter it gets… until the whole edifice is moments way from collapsing into a heap… Which it doesn’t quite managed to do. Not a good film, but a better one than its plot suggests.
Petition: The Court of Complainants, Zhao Liang (2009, China). In China, those who feel they have been abused by local government and the local justice system can petition the government in Beijing. But it’s a long drawn-out process and riddled with corruption. The petitioners live in a shanty town outside the city, and can spend years, even decades, there. Starting in 1996, Zhao filmed some of these petitioners as they tried to get justice from a government that plainly didn’t care about them. Some of the stories, you wonder why the government has not stepped in – a tax collector who demands more grain from some farmers, and less from others. One petitioner is killed by a train after running from “retrievers”, goons hired to force the petitioners to return home, and the camera shows the bits of her body strewn along the track. In the end, everything is razed – “Petition City” is completely demolished, as is the local train station, in order to make room for facilities for the 2008 Olympics. I’ll admit to being surprised Zhao has been able to make his films – although by all accounts it was far from easy – and if they’re not overtly critical of the current Chinese regime, they certainly are by implication. It is horrifying what the people in the film have had to put up with in order to redress injustices, and even scarier that by the time the Olympics opened – and there is a deeply corrupt institution, if ever there was one – any trace of Petition City and the people who lived there had vanished. Zhao’s Crime and Punishment is set in a provincial town and the authorities it depicts seem more incompetent than anything else – or, at least, corrupt in small and human ways. But Petition is set in Beijing, the seat of government, and the people interviewed by Zhao in the film are all from the provinces, showing just how little the government cares about its people. This is, of course, not unique to China. Every capital gets the lion’s share of finance and resources. And as wealth gravitates to the capital to take advantage of that fact, so the equity gap widens and those in the provinces find them increasingly poorer and increasingly powerless… Until they end up in a similar situation to those depicted in this film. There is apparently a five-hour director’s cut of Petition: The Court of Complainants, but I’m not sure I could have sat through it. The box set I bought includes the 120 minute cut. If I’ve not said it before, Zhao Liang is definitely a name to add to your list of directors to watch – Behemoth first, then this one.
Ek Din Achanak, Mrinal Sen (1989, India). Three names usually crop up in articles on Bengali cinema: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. I’ve seen a number of films by the first and plan to watch more, I’m already a fan of the second, but I’ve never seen anything by the third. Until now. And Sen’s movies are even harder to find than Ghatak’s. In fact, Ek Din Achanak is the only one available from a large online retailer of books and films and other stuff. There’s another one, Antareen, I’ve managed to track down… Both were released by NFDC Cinemas of India, who have also released two 20-DVD box sets of restored films from various parts of India. WANT WANT WANT. They’re bloody expensive, though, and I’ve yet to find a UK-based seller. Anyway, Ek Din Achanak was a well-played drama about a family whose father, a university professor, disappears one day. They try to carry on without him, and eventually become so accepting of their situation that they blame their present troubles of their own making on him. Despite the plot, and the focus on the family, Ek Din Achanak doesn’t feel as theatrical as Ray’s films. It feels like a movie. Which does sort of feed into my glib description of Ray as India’s “Ingmar Bergman”, although I haven’t quite figured who that makes Mrinal Sen… as if I could do that anyway after watching a single Sen film… But in Ek Din Achanak I found a well-played drama about a situation that felt real, but also unreal enough to be the sort of story you would expect in a literary-style drama. I’d like to see more by Mrinal Sen; I suspect I might have trouble finding more to do so.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850