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Moving pictures, #27

If I’ve been posting overmuch on movies, it’s because the day job has not left me much time of late for reading and thinking about science fiction…

film_socialismaFilm Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard (2010, France). There are some things you like the idea of more than you like the actuality. And, for me, that’s sort of true of Godard’s films. I admire his approach to cinema, his willingness to experiment and push at the boundaries of the medium, I admire what he’s made and what he’s done with his career… but I don’t necessarily like every film he’s made. Film Socialisme is a case in point. It’s a film whose concept I find more appealing than its execution. And yet I’m not so daft not to realise that its intent is likely to result in a film that wouldn’t be especially enjoyable. If that makes sense. It’s sort of like Koyaanisqatsi, which on paper should be dull and uninteresting but is actually a fascinating piece of cinema; Film Socialisme, on the other hand, sounds intriguing on paper, but is actually somewhat dull to watch. Partly, I suspect, that’s from Godard’s choices at presenting his material. The film is split into three “movements”. The first is set aboard a cruise ship, and is presented much like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with no plot and no discernible characters; and it occasionally it drops into low-resolution video. The second movement is a somewhat absurd family drama at a petrol station, in which a pair of children put their parents on trial. And the third movement is cinematography of several well-known cities around the world. Bits of it work really well. But it feels mostly like an early draft, like someone working out a theory they haven’t quite thought through. I suspect it needs another viewing.

wutheringWuthering Heights*, William Wyler (1939, USA). I may be getting my early nineteenth-century classics confused, but wasn’t there a mad woman confined to an attic and a house on fire and lots of running across the moors in Wuthering Heights? I don’t know; I’ve never read the book. I watched Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of it back in 2013, but I don’t remember much from it. This version from 1939, however, seems to be the one most people know of – hence it’s appearance on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, no doubt. Merle Oberon is Cathy, the girl from the big house who loves uplifted street urchin Heathcliff, played as an adult by Olivier. (And no, I’ve no idea what “wuthering” means.) There is a particular style of historical movie Hollywood did in the 1930s – I’m thinking of Queen Christina (see here) as well as this one – filmed in stark black-and-white, with only a token nod in the direction of authenticity or fidelity to the source material, and usually positioned as vehicles for their star or stars. Wuthering Heights sits firmly in that tradition. Like other films of its type, it relies heavily on its source material for its emotional content, but restructures and simplifies the plot and characters to meet the needs of the medium, often to the point where the original story is unrecognisable. The result is rarely satisfactory, except perhaps to those who don’t know the source. Not that I did – but I still found this film undeserving of its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

le_jourLe jour se lève*, Marcel Carné (1939, France). It seems I might have a bit of a blindspot when it comes to French cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, because so much of it appears on best of lists and 1001 Movies You Must See lists, and yet I’ve only really liked a small handful. Which, sadly, does not include Le jour se lève… despite its appearance on the latter list. In précis, Le jour se lève sounds like an interesting film: a man shoots another visiting his flat, then barricades himself inside, while the police gather outside the building to arrest him at the break of day. Meanwhile, the man’s story is told in flashbacks, leading up to the motive behind the shooting. It’s cleverly done, and so well-structured you never lose sight of either the framing narrative or the flashback chronology… But when all’s said and done, the story is somewhat banal – yes, he was involved with two women, and the prior lover of one of them is the victim. It’s a film that’s easy to admire for its technical skill, if not for its plot. The characters are not exactly sympathetic, and the jump-about chronology hardly gives the viewer ample reason to sympthasise with them anyway. It’s a film that feels cold, and about which it is easier to feel cold rather than get excited. A borderline case for the 1001 Movies you Must See list.

autumn_avoAn Autumn Afternoon*, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan). I am not technically a convert to Ozu… although I watched Tokyo Story a couple of years ago and was not especially taken with it… but then earlier this year I watched Floating Weeds and liked it a lot, and then went on to watch Late Autumn, which I liked even more… And now An Autumn Afternoon, which feels like a satirical retake of Late Autumn, and which I find myself liking a great deal. Which I guess actually does make me a convert to Ozu. Like Late Autumn, An Autumn Afternoon concerns men trying to marry off young women. Five men, friends since middle school, meet regularly. One would like to find a husband for his daughter, another thinks his secretary should get married. They invite an old school teacher to one of their meetings, and then learn that he now runs a noodle-shop in a working-class area. While visiting the noodle-shop, one of the men, Hirayama, the ostensible central character of the film, runs into a petty officer from the ship he commanded during the war. Meanwhile, Hirayama’s son-in-law borrows money to buy a refrigerator… and a set of golf clubs. An Autumn Afternoon is a very “inside” film, a very uchi film. Not only is the outside framed as if it is indoors, with walls to either side mimicking the many shots of corridors which appear in the movie, but the plot itself revolves around people of the outside group who have relationships with those in the inside group, ie, the central cast. It is also a beautifully-shot film, and the framing of much of it reminded me of Douglas Sirk’s work. As too did the slightly mocking and subversive tone it took to to the society it depicted. I liked Floating Weeds and Late Autumn a lot, but I loved An Autumn Afternoon. Highly recommended.

haoldHarold and Maude*, Hal Ashby (1971, USA). This was apparently a critical and commercial failure on its release, although it has subsequently picked up a cult following. I cannot honestly see the appeal. Harold is the son of a wealthy socialite, but he is glum and mordant and stages fake suicides for his mother. She brushes them off as bad jokes. Maude is an old woman Harold meets at a funeral (he is in the habit of attending the funerals of strangers; as is Maude). She’s a bit of a character – she steal cars, she believes in living for the day, she’s pretty much a mad grandma. The two hang out together, Harold falls in love with Maude, they plan to get married. But on her eightieth birthday, shortly before the wedding, she commits suicide as she feels eighty years is long enough. The film pretty much hangs from Maude’s characterisation and she is not, to put it bluntly, an especially believable character. The ease with which she steals cars is, for a start, highly implausible. No one says it’s meant to be, but there are some things in a story you can appropriately slide over, and some things you can’t. Harold’s joke suicides, for example, its easy to accept them, no matter how horrible or improbable (and at least one is physically impossible as presented), but there’s a limit to what’s plausible – and some elements of Maude’s character don’t pass the test. Another US film whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is somewhat baffling.

made_in_usaMade in U.S.A., Jean-Luc Godard (1966, France). This was shot back-to-back with 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which is one of my favourite Godard films. Of course, that’s no reason for this film to be equally good. Which, sadly, is the case. I’ll admit I’ve never understood the obsession some European directors had with US noir films – Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his The American Soldier (and others), Godard and Made in U.S.A. (and others)… Perhaps it was envy of the glamour and romance of the Hollywood system… except – noir? Perhaps it was the stark morality of noir, something European culture had given up centuries before. Perhaps it was… I don’t know, the use of archetypes as characters, the use of stereotypes and cliché as cinematic shorthand… Not that either Fassbinder or Godard could ever have made a straight noir film à l’américaine, as is amply demonstrated by Made in U.S.A. It is allegedly set in Atlantic City, but no effort was made to use locations, or to dress sets, in order to give the impression of a US setting. Anna Karenina travels to the city to meet her boyfriend, learns he is dead, and decides to investigate his death. Karenina then bounces from one group of characters to another, being lectured at by, and lecturing to, these people. She finds a strange man in her hotel room, knocks him out… and he later turns up dead in the flat of a writer. Made in U.S.A. has certainly blown my Godard theory out of the water – well, mostly. I mean, I’ve also recently watched Goodbye to Language and Film Socialisme, and I thought they were interesting, if not entirely successful, experiments, and certainly worth rewatching. Made in U.S.A., despite being a colour film, reminds me more of Masculin féminin and Une femme mariée than it does 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her or Week End. Still, I bought the DVD, so I’ll be able to watch it again, and perhaps I’ll revise my opinion.


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Moving pictures, #33

It seems to be mostly US films in this post, but that’s just the way the rental DVDs came. And all but one film are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list too.

thin_blue_lineThe Thin Blue Line*, Errol Morris (1988, USA). There are a number of documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while I can understand why they were chosen I’m not entirely convinced they still hold up today. The Thin Blue Line is a case in point. It’s a study of a cop killing in the US in 1976, for which an innocent man was sentenced to death (although his death sentence was actually commuted to life imprisonment). If every miscarriage of justice in the US prompted a documentary, we wouldn’t be able to move for the damn things. There’s not much in this one that makes it especially interesting – the man found was found guilty thanks to perjured testimony and a determination by the district attorney to make a case, despite all the evidence suggesting another perpetrator. That the actual killer came from a community with a strong KKK presence may have had something to do with it, but The Thin Blue Line shies away from outright accusations. Apparently, this documentary was one of the first to make use of re-enactments of the crime although, interestingly, the re-enactments shown are as per the various witnesses and not the actual suggested series of events. It was mildly interesting.

being_thereBeing There*, Hal Ashby (1979, USA). Although I’ve been aware of this film for several decades, I’d never actually seen it. Back in the late 1970s, Peter Sellers was a huge star, so anything he did was news. And Being There, a film in which he plays a mentally disabled man who is forced out into the world when his guardian dies, was a film I remember getting quite a bit of press. And time has apparently been generous to it, seeing that it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which is, of course, why I stuck it on my rental list, and watched it when it arrived. And… It’s a movie with a single mildly amusing joke – that the complete lack of understanding of Sellers’s character is taken for great wisdom – which it relentlessly flogs to death. It is perhaps overly charitable to describe Being There as a one-joke movie, because it tries desperately hard to find the humour in its premise… and the obvious location is: among the rich and powerful. Humbling those in power – in a non-threatening way that doesn’t actually, er, threaten their power – is a Hollywood speciality, and Being There pokes fun at the US rich and the US presidency with all the subtlety and effectiveness of a sword made of cooked spaghetti. I have no idea why this film was considered worthy of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

asphalt_jungleThe Asphalt Jungle*, John Huston (1950, USA). Although the DVD cover to the left doesn’t feature her, this film is often noted for being one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest roles. Which is at least notable, as there’s little in this film to actually suggest it might be a superior example of a noir movie. While I recognise it’s hard for old films to demonstrate their reason for inclusion on a list of film classics since techniques they may have originated have become industry standards… And to take a slight swerve sideways, it’s a bit like why John Carter failed so badly – because the tropes it made use of had been used so frequently by science fiction and science fiction cinemas in the century since A Princess of Mars was published, that the movie felt like it was re-using old material when it was actually the origin of that material. And perhaps that’s also true of The Asphalt Jungle – not, of course, that that should be the chief reason for inclusion on such a list – but I suspect Monroe has more to do with its reputation than any inherent quality in the film. A criminal mastermind fresh out of prison arranges a jewellery store heist, but their middleman has secretly decided he’s going to fence the goods himself. Actually, he’s decided he’s going to do a runner with them. Unfortunately, the police are sniffing around the gang for a number of different reasons and then… well, honour among thieves and all that. Noir fans will probably get more out of this film than I did.

last_metroThe Last Metro*, François Truffaut (1980, France). I think Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is a wonderful film, but I’ve not really taken to anything else he has directed. Which now includes this one. Set during the occupation of France by the Nazis, Catherine Deneuve plays the owner of a small theatre which continues to operate – apparently, people would go to the theatre to keep warm as fuel was severely rationed. Her husband, a Jew, has allegedly fled France, but is actually holed up in the theatre’s basement. Meanwhile, Gerard Depardieu has joined the cast as the new male lead… and it all went on a bit and no doubt made a bunch of important points – especially in regard to the collaborationist theatre critic – but it was also dull. The cast were uniformly excellent, and the  mise en scène mostly convincing, but there didn’t seem to be anything there to hold the viewer’s attention. I don’t doubt that Truffaut is an important director, and he certainly belongs on a list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but I’ve not seen enough of his oeuvre to determine if The Last Metro is the best choice… And yet, the reasons I love his Fahrenheit 451 are purely personal and I don’t know if that makes it worthier of inclusion on such a list.

shaftShaft*, Gordon Parks (1971, USA). Most people would recognise the theme tune to this film within a few bars, but how many could tell you the plot of the movie? The title character is a private detective who gets involved in a Mafia attempt to move into Harlem and displace black gangsters. It is, pretty much, a bog standard PI film of the 1970s. But it also makes a point of its title character’s race, and asks some important questions along the way. Richard Roundtree is actually surprisingly bad in the title role, although none of the cast actually shine. But the 1970s ambience works well, the pacing is just about right, and the gangster plot resolves itself in a satisfying way. There were many Blaxploitation films released during the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s hard to believe Shaft was among the best of them. As a thriller, it’s an inferior example of the genre, but, bad acting aside, what makes it stand out is its commentary on black culture and society. Roundtree gets to say things that needed saying. And yet, forty-five years later, “black lives matter” is still a thing, and videos of US police beating up, or even killing, black people are uploaded almost daily to Facebook…

she_done_him_wrongShe Done Him Wrong*, Lowell Sherman (1933, USA). I think this is the first Mae West film I’ve ever seen, but she was just like I’d imagined she would be. On the other hand, I hadn’t realised Cary Grant was in it – not until he appeared on the screen, that is. West plays a singer in a Bowery saloon, who has many jewels and a lifestlye that doesn’t quite match her occupation. Grant plays a Sally Army captain based in a building next door. But he’s not really, he’s a G-man. And West’s boss and beau has been involved in naughty business. So Grant keeps on popping into the saloon, while West does her thing – which includes taking in a young woman who her boss would, unbeknownst to West, send to San Francisco to be a prostitute or a pickpocket. But West is a surprisingly benevolent figure, despite her image – as, apparently, was West herself, who insisted on having a WOC play against in her in her films and stage shows, and did much to battle racial discrimination in Hollywood. Despite all that, She Done Him Wrong is only mildly entertaining. It all feels a bit melodramatic, and while West sails through the proceedings with all the presence and aplomb of the biggest battleship in the fleet, Grant lacking his later (and customary) sheen isn’t especially watchable, and the the rest of the cast are a bit pantomime. This might well have been an early box office success and Oscar nominee, but I’m not sure that a footnote in the history of US cinema is a good enough reason to qualify as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

shaneShane*, George Stevens (1953, USA). I am not a big fan of Westerns, athough I do love me some Technicolor. And Shane, a seminal Western, opens with some gorgeous Technicolor footage of Wyoming. In fact, those first twenty or so minutes are absolutely lovely. But in a genre in which Clint Eastwood has become the defining hero (and anti-hero), Alan Ladd no longer really convinces. The plot too suffers from the raft of similarly-plotted Westerns which have followed, including some by, er, Clint Eastwood. Cattle barons are trying to force the homesteaders to leave so they can take over their land. Into this drifts lone gunman Shane, who stays to help one particular homesteader family. And, well, the story then runs along well-polished rails. A bit too well-polished. There’s some night footage, which is not very effective, and, in keeping with the time, several scenes in which a studio is tricked out to look like the outdoors – which are equally ineffective. The fight scenes also seem a bit… gentlemanly, and not quite violent enough. Interestingly, it was Shane which introduced the effect of using wires to pull back actors when they’d been shot. It’s now an industry-standard effect. I really wanted to like Shane more than I did. The opening footage promised more than the rest of the film delivered, and even the scenes set in town couldn’t manage the charm of my favourite Western, Rio Bravo from 1959. I’m tempted to give Shane another go – there have been several films I’ve not liked much on first viewing, but then come to really like – so I think I’ll keep an eye open for a cheap copy…

wild_blue_yonderThe Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog (2005, Germany). The elevator pitch for this movie alone was enough to get me interested: Brad Dourif portrays an alien who tells how his race tried to form a community on Earth, shown over re-purposed footage of Space Shuttle astronauts in orbit and divers beneath the ice in the Antarctica. And yet, watching it… Much as I enjoy watching Dourif, it felt like the film would have been better served by having Herzog himself narrate it. The footage is fascinating, and has that sort of documentary artistic feel that Benning does so beautifully in his films, but the narration – the plot itself, in fact – treads a narrow line between silliness and well, not profundity, but certainly a gravitas appropriate to the imagery. In other hands, or indeed without Dourif’s barking mad staring eyes, I don’t doubt it would have been silly from the moment the opening credits rolled. But Herzog is a genius, and even his maddest projects are clearly the products of genius, no matter how unhinged. The Wild Blue Yonder works, and even though I found this is in a charity shop, it’s a keeper.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 665