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1001 progress

I’ve been using the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (2013 edition) to direct my film-viewing for a couple of years now, and I thought it might be worth having a look at how it’s been going… Before starting to use the list, I’d watched some 407 of the movies. My total is currently standing at 823 films seen, so I’ve watched slightly more as a result of following the list than I had before I even knew of it. What I find especially interesting, however, is the number of films I’ve subsequently bought on DVD or Blu-ray after watching them on rental only because they were on the list. Of course, there were films – by, for instance, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kieślowski, Kubrick, the Archers – I already owned as I’ve been a fan of their work for many years…

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After watching Lola and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, I bought a Jaques Demy collection, which also included The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. On the other hand, much as I enjoyed Les vacances de M Hulot, it wasn’t until I’d seen Playtime, and loved it, that I decided to invest in a collection of Jacques Tati’s films. Carl Theodor Dreyer is another such director – I’d seen Ordet, I forget why I rented it, but not been especially taken with it; but after watching Gertrud I purchased everything by Dreyer currently available on DVD – which was, fortunately, pretty much his entire oeuvre (thank you, BFI). He became a favourite director. After buying a copy of James Benning’s Deseret – because it was on the list but wasn’t available for rental – I became a huge fan of his work, and bought every other DVD of his films released by Österechisches Filmmuseum. I am eagerly awaiting more being released. It also turned me into a fan of video installations, as I discovered recently when I visited the Hafnarhús branch of the Reykjavik Art Museum and saw Richard Mosse’s ‘The Enclave’ (I did like Örn Alexander Amundáson’s ‘A New Work’ too, although it’s not video, because it reminded me of my own approach to writing fiction).

There were also a number of movies I watched on rental because they were on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and then promptly bought copies of my own, like Le mépris, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, F for FakeShane, Spring in a Small Town, Shock Corridor, Häxan and Lucía. I liked Cocteau’s Orphée so much, I tracked down a copy of the Criterion collection which included it, The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus (not to be confused with the Studiocanal box set, which only has the latter two films in it). I loved Glauber Rocha’s Earth Entranced so much, I bought it, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes, the only films by Rocha available on DVD in the UK. And since the I couldn’t rent the third part of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, I bought the trilogy – although I still think the first film, Koyaanisqatsi, is easily the best.

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There are also a number of films I’ve added to my wishlist because I might at some point buy them… or I might not. Such as Henry V, The Hired Hand, Easy Rider, Man with a Movie Camera, The Great Silence, Babette’s Feast… not to mention further films by directors who appear on the list… which is why I have picked up films by Guru Dutt,  Yasujiro Ozu, Ken Loach and Satyajit Ray…

There are also a number of films I only got to watch because I bought a DVD copy of my own – they just weren’t available for rental. Not all have been especially good. Stella Dallas is on the list, but is not available for rental, or indeed for purchase on DVD, in the UK. I ended up buying Spanish release… and the film proved to be entirely forgettable. There’s also streaming TV these days, and I found a few, surprisingly, streamed for free on Amazon Prime – like The Gospel According to St Matthew and Salt of the Earth. However, Amazon Prime has not been an especially good source of films from the list – either free, as previously mentioned, or for “rental”, such as Sergeant York and Housekeeping, both of which cost me £3.49 for 48 hours.

One very real consequence of using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list has been that my film collection has become much more varied. Not only have I bought films previously unknown to me by Brazilian directors (Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos), Cuban directors (Humberto Solás), Indian directors (Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt), but I’ve also been encouraged to further explore the oeuvres of directors I had previously tried, such as Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini or Jean-Luc Godard… and have since bought films by all three.

I don’t think the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is perfect. Far from it. It includes way too many US films, and some nations’ cinemas are almost totally ignored. Albania, for example, apparently has a thriving film industry but, to be fair, I can’t find any films from the country readily available on DVD with English subtitles. And yet Greenland, with almost no film industry to speak of… there are DVDs of Greenlandic films with multiple-language subtitles, like Nuummioq, which is very good.

nuummioq

Having said that using the list has resulted in me owning a much more varied collection of films – most of the Hollywood blockbusters went to local charity shops, and I no longer buy them – it has also shown me that some particular cinemas, not just present-day Hollywood, don’t work for me. I’m not especially taken with French films, although I like some of them a great deal. Godard, mentioned earlier, is a good example – some of his films I like a lot, some of them I just can’t understand the appeal. I like the movies of Renoir and Vigo, but not Bresson or Carné or Malle or Chabron. And Buñuel I find a bit hit and miss.

When it comes to movie genres… Well, there are remarkably few classic sf films. Given the number of sf films produced since the beginning of cinema – and one of the earliest classics, La voyage dans le lune, is an actual sf movie based on an actual sf novel – the genre’s hit-rate has been pretty low. There are a lot of westerns on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I will admit that I don’t see the appeal of the genre. It’s a peculiarly American mythology, I get that, but too many of the westerns on the list seemed ordinary, and it was only the ones which broke the mould, or bent the formula, like The Hired Hand, which for me stood out. Speaking of US films, there are a number of movies by American indie directors also on the list, and those too I failed to see why they should make the list.

Part of the problem, of course, has to do with whether a film can be considered seminal or germinal in some way. It’s evident enough with a silent movie. Watch Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, and you can’t help but understand how historically important it is. And some silent movies, which normally I’d never bother to seek out, and I’ve seen solely because they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, they’ve proven to be excellent entertainment – not just Storm Over Asia from Russia, but even early Hollywood works like The Phantom of the Opera.

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The 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is a deeply-flawed list, but it has still enriched my film-watching. I don’t agree with many of the choices made for the list, but it has at least prompted me to watch those films. And then seek out other films similar to those I liked. My DVD collection is, I like to think, much more diverse as a result. I’ve still some way to go before I complete the list – in fact, some of the movies are so hard to find I may never get to see everything on it. And, of course, the list is updated each year, although I’m more likely to have seen recent additions. But there is still the cinematic traditions of a huge number of nations, USA not included, to explore…

 

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The year in moving pictures

In 2015, I decided to try and watch as many films as I could on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, started subscribing to a second DVD rental library, and bought myself an Amazon Fire TV Stick. As a result, I watched 571 films during the year, of which 115 were rewatches (some more than once). In among those were 170 from the aforementioned list.

The bulk of the movies I watched were DVDs or Blu-rays I’d purchased myself. (I bought a multi-region Blu-ray player so I could watch Region A Blu-rays.) But I also watched quite a number from Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. See below.

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Kinopalæst is the cinema in Denmark where I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Light is the cinema in Leeds where I saw SPECTRE. Yes, they were the only two films I saw at the cinema. I did quite well on my Amazon Fire TV Stick – 48 movies, all of which were included free with Amazon Prime.

In terms of genre, drama seems to have done especially well, although admittedly it’s a broad term and perhaps some of the films I’ve categorised as drama might better be labelled something else. Anyway, see below.

2015_films_by_genre

The two Bollywood films were from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – or rather, one of them was: the other, Deewaar, proved to be a 2004 film of that title and not the 1975 one on the list (although both starred Amitabh Bachchan). Although last year I rented several of the plays from the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection from the late 1970s/early 1980s, the one Shakespeare movie this year was Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which I thought very good.

By decade, the films I watched pretty much follows the same graph for books read: the current decade is the most popular (surprisingly), and there’s a steady increase through the decades which peaks at the 1960s. See below.

2015_films_by_decade

The late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century were a result of watching some early Dreyer silent movies and a DVD collection, Early Cinema – Primitives and Pioneers, because one of the films on it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

By nation makes for an interesting graph. Although I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which includes movies from many different nations (but over half are from the US, sadly), I’ve been a fan of world cinema for years and many of my favourite directors work in non-Anglophone cinema. See below.

films_by_country

The high number from Russia is no doubt due mostly to Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director; for Denmark because of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and for Germany it’s probably Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Only two from Sweden – I obviously need to watch more Bergman…

Speaking of favourite directors, Sokurov comes out top for 2015 with 33 (most, it has to be said, were rewatches). Second is Jacques Tati, a 2015 “discovery”, at 15, then James Benning, another 2015 “discovery”, at 13. The remaining top ten goes as follows: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (12), Alfred Hitchcock (11), Carl Theodor Dreyer (10), Lars von Trier (8), Sergei Eisenstein (6), and lastly George Stevens, Michael Curtiz, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean-Luc Goddard and Jean Cocteau (5).

I finished the year having seen 703 movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a quite large pile of DVDs and Blu-rays on my To Be Watched list. I plan to keep on with the list in 2015, although I think I’ll take it a bit slower, perhaps spend some evenings each week reading rather than film-watching. Plus, it’s getting to the stage now where I have to purchase titles in order to watch them as they’re not available for rental. We’ll see how it goes.


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Moving pictures, #36

Of the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die, 533 are from the US. That’s not an exact figure, of course – these days, with film production companies from different nations often doing deals to back a movie, it makes it difficult to say a movie is categorically from one nation or another. Even so, for over half of the list – which, admittedly, is clearly aimed at Anglophone film-goers – to be from a single country is a bit much. And, as I’ve discovered, a lot of the US movies just aren’t really that good.

For the record, France scores next highest, with 102 movies; then it’s the UK at 82; then Italy at 42; Germany at 33; Japan 26; USSR/Russia 19; Australia and Sweden 13 each; Hong Kong 12; and Spain and India with 10 apiece. The countries of the rest of the world have less than ten films each on the list.

Think about that: India, which Wikipedia describes as “the largest producer of films in the world”, provides only 1% of the list – and of those ten movies, four are by Satyajit Ray and two by Ritwik Ghatak (both of whom have been critically lauded in the West), one is a silent (and actually by German director Franz Osten), and only three are Bollywood. There is also a single film from Egypt – the largest film producer of the Arabic-speaking world (three-quarters of all Arabic-language films were made in Egypt). While I will admit the only Bollywood films I have seen are two of the three on the list – and I really liked Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge – but I have seen a number of Arabic films – I’m a big fan of Palestinian director Elia Sulieman – though not very many from Egypt.

But then the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list seems to be a weird mix of populist movies and popular auteur films. Some directors appear far too often, some not often enough. There are some films which are historically important, and some which display innovative cinematic techniques. But a good many of the movies on the list really don’t deserve to be on it, and there are far better, and more important, choices the list-makers could have chosen…

And as if in illustration, this post features four US movies from the list, none of which rightly belongs on it.

phantom_carriageThe Phantom Carriage*, Victor Sjöström (1921, Sweden). I can appreciate films that are clearly important in the development of cinema, and while they may prove difficult viewing to present-day audiences, it does not usually take too much of a leap of imagination to realise how the film might have played to a contemporary audience. And so to The Phantom Carriage. I suspect “Pepper’s ghost” was an illusion not unfamiliar to audiences in the 1920s, but to see the cinematic equivalent – double exposure – no doubt impressed because of the newness of the medium. And it’s certainly used to good effect in this film. The story itself is a typical piece of Gothic hokum, although it makes extensive use of flashbacks – which is certainly daring in a silent film. I suspect this is a movie which will need a couple of watches to fully appreciate. Worth seeing.

orphicTestament of Orpheus, Jean Cocteau (1960, France). I really like Cocteau’s Orpheus, the middle film of his Orphic Trilogy, although I wonder how coherent a trilogy the three films make. Testament of Orpheus, for example, is actually Cocteau revisiting the themes and motifs of Orpheus, but without actually bothering with plot, characters or anything else so bourgeois. None of which is especially a bad thing. But Orpheus has the advantage of subtext – one that the film actually makes text at certain points – which is the German Occupation of France. And Testament of Orpheus often turns to the surrealist imagery of The Blood of a Poet, and fails to make good use of it in the context of its story. Cocteau has been travelling through time, but materialises in 1959 and persuades a scientist to kill him with a special gun so that he can remain permanently in that time. But it doesn’t go as planned, and Cocteau finds himself halfway between the real world and a fantasy world in which elements of Orpheus appear – including its characters. There’s plenty of dream-logic at work, which is heightened by the use of camera tricks such as filming in reverse. The use of a sound-stage and assorted ruins as sets only adds to the meta-fictional nature of the film. It’s a talky movie, more concerned with philosophy than drama, which makes for slow viewing. But it’s also a clever film, and makes some witty points about the medium of film and even poetry. I still prefer Orpheus, but this one comes a close second.

glenn_gouldThirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould*, François Girard (1993, Canada). I knew nothing about this film or its subject before watching it. I don’t listen to classical music, and wouldn’t know one eighteenth century composer’s works from another’s. But good documentaries make you care for their subject irrespective of any actual interest you might have had previously. And in that respect Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould succeeds admirably. It is helped by two factors: one, its subject is actually an interesting person, and two, it has chosen to document its topic in an unusual mannner. Glenn Gould was a renowned concert pianist from Canada, but also an insightful and prolific commentator on a number of topics. The film is structured, as its title suggests, as a series of short movies about Gould, ranging from fly-on-the-wall to talking heads to weird animation. And it totally works. Hunt down a copy and watch it.

ballad_narayamThe Ballad of Narayama*, Shohei Imamura (1983, Japan). There are some films that are clearly well-made, admirable even, but something about the story prevents you from liking them. Such is the case with The Ballad of Narayama. It is a nasty, horrible film. Albeit a well-made one. It’s set in a small village in nineteenth century Japan. It is the practice in the village for old people when they reach the age of seventy to walk to a nearby mountain and remain there until they starve to death. And if they won’t go voluntarily… One old woman is approaching her seventieth birthday, and much of the film is about her family as they scrabble to survive in poverty. She has decided she will go with dignity, and so spends her last year arranging her affairs. The various characters are mostly mean and despicable. One smells so bad, no one will have anything to do with him. A young woman with a burn scar on her face will happily sleep with any man, and is treated badly them by all as a result. One man has already tried starving his old father, in an effort to encourage him to head for the mountain. I really didn’t like this film, and I have no desire to ever watch it again.

short_cutsShort Cuts*, Robert Altman (1993, USA). Altman appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list six times – as well as Short Cuts, there’s The Player, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe And Mrs Miller and M*A*S*H. There’s perhaps one that actually belongs there – I’d vote for McCabe And Mrs Miller. Short Cuts, however, is one of those films were a number of intersecting stories sort of, er, intersect and er, prove, well, nothing really. The cast list is impressive, as is indeed the case for most Altman films. The plot, such as it is, involves a series of small stories which cross and intersect , which seems to be an Altman thing, but I can’t barely remember the details – and I suspect some of them I’ve confused with The Player. The problem is that all the stories seem little more than scenes in a larger story, when in fact there is no larger story. So you’ve no real idea what the point of the film is, or what happened to beginning, middle and end. I am all for non-traditional narrative structures, but a braided narrative is hardly non-traditional and for it  to be effective it really needs to be put to good use. Meh.

how_greenHow Green Was My Valley*, John Ford (1941, USA). Because of a little thing called World War II, this movie about a small mining village in Wales was actually filmed in California. And in black and white – so the difference wouldn’t be too obvious. Hollywood apparently also had a problem casting actors who could manage a Welsh accent, as most of the cast sound more Irish than Welsh. Except for male lead Walter Pidgeon. He didn’t even try, he just sounds American. Unbelievably, How Green Was My Valley swept the Oscars in its year of release, beating out Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and Suspicion to Best Picture, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks to Best Director, and also taking home Best Supporting Actor, Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Black-and-White Art Direction. And yet it’s sentimental tosh. It reminded me in many ways of The Quiet Man – another John Ford film starring Maureen O’Hara – whose high regard I find mystifying. I’ve no idea what How Green Was My Valley‘s source novel is like – I imagine it has plenty of social commentary, which Hollywood has buried beneath layers of schmaltz. And yes, there’s lots of singing…

Artists___ModelsArtists and Models*, Frank Tashlin (1955, USA). I don’t believe this is actually available on DVD – I ended up buying a ripped version of it on eBay for a couple of quid (the seller sent me You’re Never Too Young, another Martin & Lewis film, by mistake, then told me to keep it and sent the right movie). There are many films – and this is becoming an all too common refrain – whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. It’s possible to make a case for Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man – it’s an awful comedy, but the way the camera pulls back and reveals the set as a giant doll’s house is innovative. But I can see nothing in Artists and Models which makes the film in any way interesting or important. Martin plays an out-of-work artist, and Lewis is his comicbook-fan friend. It turns out the artist responsible for Lewis’s favourite character, Bat Lady, lives in their apartment building (her friend, Shirley MacLaine, is the model for Bat Lady). When the artist resigns, Martin applies for the job, using a character invented by Lewis – who dreams the stories, and describes them aloud while sleeping. I find Lewis’s OTT gurning hard to take at the best of times, and he’s in full flow in this movie. Martin is much more watchable – but stick to the Matt Helm films if you want to see him in action. Not a good film.

cabaretCabaret*, Bob Fosse (1972, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz had taken me by surprise – I had not expected to like it as much as I did. Cabaret, I thought I knew more about. I am fairly sure, for one thing, that I have seen the film before, although most likely only in snippets over the past few decades. Sadly, despite my familiarity with bits of it I didn’t take to Cabaret very much. Possibly because Liza Minelli’s character I found annoying, and because it’s impossible to take Michael York seriously as an actor. The musical scenes at the Kit Kat Club were well-staged, although Joel Grey’s emcee was creepily over-the-top. One of All That Jazz‘s strengths was its meta-fictionality, the fact it was a film about making a film, based quite heavily on Fosse’s own experiences – and the final extended dance sequence was the perfect capstone to the high-intensity story which had preceded it. Cabaret, on the other hand, is a straightforward drama enlivened by musical numbers, and not even Minelli, the movie’s setting or its score lifted it for me above other films of its ilk. All That Jazz rightly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’m less convinced Cabaret does.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 681


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Moving pictures, #35

Your usual selection of classics and obscurities. I’m going to have to find something new to post about when I’ve finished these– oh wait, I’m supposed to be a science fiction writer, I can always post about that, you know, science fiction and writing and, er, books…

camilleCamille*, George Cukor (1936, USA). This is the film in which Garbo apparently laughs– no, wait, that one was another one. This is the one in which she plays the consumptive mistress of a wealthy aristocrat, but falls in love with a younger, better-looking and poorer man, and so has to choose between love and security. Set in mid-nineteenth century France. She chooses the older man, but there’s that consumption, you see, so she dies. This is one of those films that proved entertaining enough, and despite its age made a good fist of its period, but it’s hard to see why it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Meh.

two_laneTwo-Lane Blacktop*, Monte Hellman (1971, USA). I had low expectations for this – an alleged cult classic, starring musician James Taylor and the drummer from the Beach Boys, about a pair of beatniks who race across the US in their souped-up ’57 Chevy. But you know what? It was actually pretty damn good. The main characters’ taciturnity worked well, as did rival Warren Oates’ constant line in bullshit. Despite containing mostly footage of cars driving along empty roads, with the occasional moment of drama and/or action… and despite the characters being little more than ciphers, with no appreciable arcs… and despite being very much a film of its time (with a pretty good, and thankfully not intrusive, soundtrack)… I really enjoyed this. I’d even consider buying my own copy. Definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

angels_dirtyAngels with Dirty Faces*, Michael Curtiz (1938, USA). The title of this film may well be iconic but the movie itself was a big disappointment. Cagney plays a gangster (yawn), who returns to the old neighbourhood after a stretch and meets up with his old childhood friend, who is now the parish priest. There’s a gang of youths the priest is trying to keep on the straight and narrow, but Cagney gets them involved in all sorts of illegal shenanigans. There’s something to do with corrupt city officials, and a couple of shootouts, and then Cagney is on Death Row and his friend asks him to set an example to the youths and kick and scream on his way to the electric chair (so that the youths will no longer idolise him). So Cagney does just that. There are a lot of noir films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, far more, I think, than the genre merits. And there are way more Hollywood movies on the list than are warranted. It could stand to lose a few of both… and Angels with Dirty Faces would be a good candidate.

ruhrRuhr / Natural History, James Benning (2009/2014, Germany/Austria). These are the last two Benning films available on DVD (at least until the Österreicheschen Filmmuseum release some more), and one of them was a special commissions by the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Ruhr is a series of six static shots of industrial landscape in the Ruhr district:a road tunnel, a steelworks, an airport, a mosque, a street, and the chimney from a coking plant. In fact, that last shot, the chimney, accounts for 60 minutes of the film’s 122 minutes running time. Apparently, Ruhr caused something of a stir – it was one of Benning’s first films using a digital camera, and he was accused of “digital manipulation”. All that actually happens is he gradually darkens the image of the chimney as the film progresses, so that by the end of the hour-long shot, it’s almost entirely black. That’s all. Natural History, on the other hand, is a series of static shots of rooms and corridors in Vienna’s Natural History Museum, mostly behind-the-scenes places. While the chimney shot in Ruhr is weirdly compelling (nothing actually happens, just steam billowing out of it at intervals), and although Natural History does feature the occasional person wandering past (and voices on the ambient sound soundtrack), the latter film is more a chore to watch. Benning has made some twenty-five feature-length films, but only eleven of them are currently available on DVD. I hope more appear soon.

little_bigLittle Big Man*, Arthur Penn (1970, USA). This film is chiefly notable for Dustin Hoffman playing a centenarian under layers of prosthetic make-up (not especially convincing make-up either, by current standards) and apparently screaming for an hour before each take in order to speak with a hoarse voice like a really old person. Hoffman’s titular character starts out as a young boy adopted by the Cheyenne after the members of his wagon train are killed by Pawnee. Then when the Cheyenne are attacked by the US Cavalry, he reveals he’s really white and is taken in by the soldiers. He then bounces around among the settlers, along the way selling snake-oil, getting married, running a trading post… before signing on with Custer (who is portrayed as a moronic oaf) as a scout… only to end up living once again with the Cheyenne. Where he gets married again… only for Custer to attack the village and kill almost everyone. It all ends with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which Hoffman’s character witnesses. The novel on which the film is based was by Thomas Berger (whose Regiment of Women, by the way, is fucking dreadful), and if it’s anything like the movie I’ve no desire to read it. I have no idea why this film is considered suitable for the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list – when it wasn’t patronising, it was annoying; and when it was trying to be funny, it, well, it just wasn’t. Avoid.

orphicThe Blood of a Poet, Jean Cocteau (1932, France). It took me a while, but I tracked down a copy of the Crtierion DVD release of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, containing The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus (Orphée) and Testament of Orpheus. As is usually the case with these sorts of purchases, two weeks after I bought my copy, I saw another copy going for a fifth of the price I paid. Bah. Anyway, I really like Orpheus, and I wanted to see Testament of Orpheus, but I knew nothing about The Blood of a Poet and was not especially bothered about it. Nonetheless, I watched it and, oh dear, it’s another one of those 1930s French surrealist films. And I’m really not a fan of them. Mostly, it seems to be an excuse to display a bunch of cinema tricks, which ,to be fair, are actually pretty effective (one or two, I seem to recall, also make an appearance in Orpheus). Nevertheless, it’s worth tracking down a copy of the Criterion Orphic Trilogy set, although given it’s a) a US-only release, and b) deleted, it won’t be that easy to find (copies on Amazon marketplace start around £60). Don’t be fooled by the Studiocanal Jean Cocteau Collection, which contains only The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus, and not the best of the three, Orpheus.

shepitkoWings, Larisa Shepitko (1966, USSR). In order to see Shepitko’s Ascent, which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I had to buy a two-film Criterion box set, which was the only DVD I could find of Ascent. The second film in the set was Wings. And having now seen both, I think Wings belongs on the list more than Ascent does. Nedezhda Petrukhina is a highly-decorated World War II (Great Patriotic War) fighter pilot, who now, twenty years later, is the principal of a school. While still something of a minor local celebrity for her wartime exploits, she is also seen as little more than her role at the school. She has to deal with unruly male students, apparatchiks, all the bureaucracy of her position, while dreaming of the freedom and excitement of her time during the war. There are perhaps elements of Wings which aren’t exactly subtle – contrasting a (mostly) domestic character study with aerial shots of Petrukhina flying through clouds, for example – but I think I much prefer the ordinariness, and its violence-free nature, of this film to Ascent.

I must admit, I thought I knew my taste in films before I started watching the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I like science fiction films, I even liked bad science fiction films. And I sort of liked superhero films. And I liked some world cinema. While the list I’ve been using is not especially diverse – more than half of the films on it are from the USA – it has introduced me to a much wider variety of movies, and I’ve found I much prefer films on the edge rather than typical mainstream cinema. In fact, I’ve purged my DVD collection several times since starting the list, dumping a lot of the recent Hollywood titles (I still like the old classics from the 1950s and 1960s) at local charity shops, but then also hunting around online for copies of DVDs by some of the more obscure directors I’ve been introduced to.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 674


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Moving pictures, #5

And now it seems the Blu-ray player is starting to act up. Bugger. Annoyingly, I recently discovered it’s also region-locked for DVDs, although I was sure it was region-free when I bought it. I definitely need to get myself a new one – region-free for both formats. Sigh.

allthatjazzAll That Jazz*, Bob Fosse (1979, USA). There are some movies I’d never have come to watch if they hadn’t been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and not just because I’d otherwise never have known about them. On first pass, All That Jazz doesn’t really seem to be my sort of film. It’s a semi-autobiographical musical, based on Fosse’s own experiences staging a big Broadway musical and editing a feature film, a work-load which led to health problems and hospitalisation. I am not much of a musicals-type person – in fact, there’s only one I actually rate, High Society – and if I were I think I’d prefer ones from the 1950s… But All That Jazz is also one of those films in which an unexpected dance sequence makes something very interesting of it. And “unexpected” is not a word associated with dance sequences you’d think would apply to All That Jazz. But there it is. As Roy Scheider lies in his hospital death, he hallucinates a big dance production number featuring the Angel of Death, and it’s cleverly and affectingly done. I found myself really liking All That Jazz, and I hadn’t expected to.

onthewaterfrontOn the Waterfront*, Elia Kazan (1954, USA). Marlon Brando is apparently one of the great actors, but I’ve seen him now in two of his most famous roles – in A Streetcar Named Desire and this one – and, well, he’s just annoying. That stupid voice. I guess that must be Method Acting. Brando plays a dim-witted ex-boxer whom circumstances force into going up against his chapter of the longshoremen union and its corrupt chief. It’s the sort of story which is, I guess, meant to celebrate a good man, but all it does to me is demonstrate that the capitalist model is corrupt, open to abuse and a piss-poor end-result after ten thousand years of civilisation. Seriously, we’re meant to just accept the injustice and violent coercion which was apparently standard operating procedure on the docks of New York some sixty years ago? We shouldn’t be cheering on Terry Malloy as he battles the union, we should be asking why the US government is apparently so inept, corrupt or just plain evil to have allowed the situation to arise in the first place. Either way, this doesn’t really meet my criteria for a good movie.

paradeParade, Jacques Tati (1974, France). I’ve almost finished the Tati box set, and it was definitely one of my better purchases – even if this isn’t one of Tati’s better films. It’s a made-for-TV piece, set in a circus, in which Tati himself occasionally appears as a clown. It is also a film chock-a-block with dungarees. I’ve never seen so many pairs in a single movie before. There are some amusing set-pieces, but if this weren’t Tati it would be just another fly-on-the-ringside documentary, albeit a very 1970s one. Worth seeing, but buy the Tati box set for the other films.

motherkustersMother Küsters Goes To Heaven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). And I’m about halfway through the Fassbinder box set. I like box sets. (I received a Bergman one for my birthday, only a week or so ago, incidentally). One thing I’m coming to realise from watching these Fassbinder films is that he definitely made use of a stable of actors. Brigitte Mira, who played the female lead in Fear Eats the Soul, plays the title character, a working-class widow who loses everything when her husband kills his supervisor and commits suicide at the factory. She and her family are interviewed by the press, who then libellously paint the dead man as a drunk who was violent toward his wife and a bully to his children. A pair of middle-class communists offer to help Mother Küsters clear her husband’s name, although her family are suspicious of the communists’ motives. But they prove too slow for Mother Küsters and she falls in instead with some anarchists… who invade the local office of the newspaper which published the libellous article. This isn’t exactly the most subtle Fassbinder film I’ve watched so far – he sets out to show the perfidy of the press and the way they monster people, and does precisely that. Interestingly, the film has two endings. One is represented by stills, while a voice-over reads the script, but the other was actually filmed. The latter apparently was written especially for the US market (it’s the happier ending), but I do wonder why the first ending was never actually put on film.

White_HeatWhite Heat*, Raoul Walsh (1949, USA). “Look at me, ma! I’m on top of the world!” Yup, this is where that line comes from. It’s a classic gangster film, in which Cagney plays a complete psychopath – albeit a somewhat tame one by today’s standards, in fact superheroes in twenty-first century films show about as much remorse as Cagney’s character does after killing someone. That’s progress for you. Anyway, Cagney gives himself up for a crime he didn’t commit because it provides an alibi for one he did, a particularly brutal train robbery. A cop goes undercover in the prison, breaks out with Cagney and joins his gang. The film ends with an attempt to rob the payroll from a refinery, and Cagney ends up stuck on the top of a storage tank, starts of a gun battle… which causes the storage tank to blow. KABOOM. A good bit of classic noir.

lesmisLes Misérables*, Tom Hooper (2012, USA/UK). Here’s another film that I’d have otherwise assiduously avoided if it hadn’t been for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but unlike All That Jazz I can’t really say I’m glad I watched it. I knew going in it wasn’t going to be the sort of film I like and, lo and behold, I really didn’t like it. The singing was terrible, the songs were awful – even that brain-burning one popularised by Susan Boyle – the characters were unredeemable, and the CGI was so over the top it might as well have taken place in some fantasy world. Rubbish.

labelleLa Belle et la Bête*, Jean Cocteau (1946, France). I thought Cocteau’s Orphée really good, but this retelling of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ fairy tale was a bit dull. While the staging was cleverly done, particularly for the time, the production design did resemble some amateur dramatic pantomime production (although the Beast’s make-up was good). Perhaps it deserves a second watch – but it was a rental disc and it’s gone back. On the other hand, I’m only just over halfway through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… although I would like to see more films by Cocteau.

mother-and-sonMother And Son, Aleksandr Sokurov (1997, Russia). I’ve watched this a couple of times now, and I continue to find it completely mesmerising. A young man cares for his mother as she lies on her death-bed. He reads to her, he carries her outside and shows her the surrounding countryside, he feeds her and nurses her. There is a dream-like quality to the visuals, so much so that some of the landscape shots actually resemble oil paintings. This is a beautiful film, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever watched. I’d place it a close second after The Second Circle as my favourite Sokurov, and while it doesn’t quite make my top ten it certainly makes my top twenty. But I also suspect that more often I watch it, the more my opinion of it will rise. I’ve been watching a lot of Sokurov recently, and have even tracked down copies of some of his hard-to-find DVDs. I think he’s one of the most interesting directors currently making films. There’s something very… literary about his movies. Watching them is like reading a beautifully-written short story.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 567


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Moving pictures, #9

Yet more moving pictures watched by Yours Truly. The plan to watch those 1001 films before I die continues apace, although perhaps if the title of the list is to be believed I should slow down a bit… Nah. Once I’m done, I’ll just set about making a list of my own, or find another list – 1001 East European Films To See Before You Die, or something… (Incidentally, I’ve marked films from the 1001 films list with an asterisk.)

Silk Stockings, Rouben Mamoulian (1957, USA) Another Fred Astaire / Cyd Charisse musical, with a plot taken from an earlier film starring Greta Garbo, Ninotchka (1939) – yes, the “Garbo laughs!” film – about a Soviet envoy sent to Paris to bring back three missing attachés, only to be seduced by the decadent West herself – not its political freedoms, I hasten to add, but its lingerie. It’s all very silly, Charisse’s accent is not even remotely convincing, and most of the songs are forgettable. The three attachés are mildly amusing – especially Peter Lorre – but then they are played as clowns. Even as a Charisse/Astaire vehicle, this film fails on many levels. It’s as fluffy as candy floss and that’s what it’ll turn your brain into when you watch it.

Orphée*, Jean Cocteau (1950, France) Cocteau’s re-working of the Orpheus myth works amazingly well, although it starts off somewhat dubiously, with rive gauche types in the Café des Poètes being all beatnik and full of themselves. But once the viewpoint settles on Orphée and follows him, with the princess, to the ruined chateau, and then the following morning back to his home and wife, Eurydice, the film starts to pick up… and pretty soon it turns fascinating. Some of Cocteau’s optical tricks are a bit feeble, even for 1950, but they’re effective all the same. I’d like to watch the other two films in the trilogy now, please.

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Starship Troopers: Invasion, Shinji Aramaki (2012, Japan) I still think Verhoeven’s film was a superb treatment of Heinlein’s novel, and while the second Starship Troopers film was dull, the third at least made an effort at satire – it was, admittedly, cheesy as hell, and pretty ham-fisted, but in a good way. However, most people it seems only care about power armour and killing bugs, and think life is like the Vietnam War which was of course cool. They are stupid people, and this is a film made for them. It’s an all-CGI follow-on that uses the same characters and production design as Verhoeven’s masterpiece but has all the subtlety and intelligence of a FPS. It even includes a gratuitous female nude scene. In a CGI film. This is Starship Troopers for spotty oicks who really need to get out of their basements every once in a while.

Meet Me In St Louis*, Vincente Minnelli (1944, USA) Given that this film is set in St Louis, and all the characters are resident in the city, you have to wonder about the title. Teenager Judy Garland’s family is set to move to New York, but she fancies the boy next-door… so they sing a bit, the other kids get into a few scrapes, and eventually papa sees the errors of his ways and they all stay in St Louis. Yawn.

Funny Games, Michael Haneke (1997, Austria) I’ve had this for a while, and had tried watching it last year but had given up halfway through. Not because it was bad, but because it was too uncomfortable. I finally got around to giving it another go and managed to make it all the way through to the end – and it was still really uncomfortable. Mostly it’s the motive-less violence. The two young men who invade the family home are creepy, and their smug condescension only makes their violence even more unsettling. On the other hand, the moments when the film breaks the fourth wall are genius – although I remain ambivalent about the remote control rewind bit, as it seems a bit too much. Finally, if you’ve not watched any Haneke, why not?

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47 Ronin, Carl Rinsch (2013, USA) Keanu Reeves in a CGI-heavy treatment of a story that’s so popular in Japan it is its own genre, Chūshingura. Reeves plays a half-Japanese, half-English man, who is treated like a lowly servant, but secretly happens to be a master swordsman. Or something. Apparently the film lost $152 million, making it second only to The 13th Warrior as the most expensive box office bomb ever. That takes real talent with such a well-known story, but I suspect Reeves’ presence helped.

Cat People*, Jacques Tourneur (1942, USA) I have no idea how this film ever got made – I mean, with an elevator pitch that goes “a woman thinks she’s descended from a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused”, it’s hard to imagine any producer, even back in 1942, greenlighting the movie. But then things were different back then – Cat People was written and produced by Val Lewton, who ran RKO’s horror unit, and he was given free rein providing the films did not exceed $150,000 each to make, and didn’t run longer than 75 minutes. Lewton’s supervisors, however, provided the films’ titles. I can’t actually remember much of the plot of the movie, although it’s considered a classic of its type.

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams*, Werner Herzog (2010, Canada/UK) Herzog’s documentaries are as odd as his fictional movies, but he has a real talent for picking fascinating topics. And so he does here: Chauvet Cave in France, site of the oldest cave-paintings so far discovered, some of them dating back 32,000 years. Admittedly, the film was doubly fascinating as I’d just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman, which was itself inspired by the paintings in Chauvet Cave. And now that I’ve seen it, I want to get the Blu-Ray version.

The Colour of Pomegranates, Sergei Parajanov (1968, USSR) This was a rewatch, and while the film is an astonishing spectacle, I still have no idea what it’s about. I’m also surprised it’s not on the list of 1001 films. Nominally about the life of eighteenth-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, the film comprises a series of tableaux intended to represent episodes from his life (although Sayat Nova is actually played by a woman, Sofiko Chiaureli, who played a further five parts in the film). The Colour of Pomegranates is impossible to describe, you really have to watch it. After watching it for the first time, I bought the other three films by Parajanov available on DVD in the UK – Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors, Ashik Kerib and The Legend of the Surami Fortress – but he made several more and they really ought to be made available too.

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Nashville*, Robert Altman (1975, USA) I’ve never much of an Altman fan, perhaps because I came to cinema after the elements which made his films stand out had become commonplace, such as over-lapping dialogue, semi-improvisation and multiple narratives. The film follows the lives of various musicians in the titular town, most of which have somewhat clichéd story-arcs. Apparently, the actors all wrote their own songs, which probably explains why they’re so bloody terrible. I mean, I’m not a fan of country and western, but the music throughout Nashville is really bad. I’m puzzled why this film should make the 1001 films list but The Colour of Pomegranates doesn’t – in fact, Nashville is one of six Altman films on the list, so I guess the list-maker was a fan… although they don’t appear to be that much of a cineaste…