It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Moving pictures 2017, #20

Another good mix of films, and no Hollywood shitbusters to spoil it either.

Pauline at the Beach, Éric Rohmer (1983, France). I think the first Rohmer I ever watched was Triple Agent, and I forget why I’d added it to my rental list. But as I learnt more about his career, so I wanted to watch more of his films. I’ve been steadily working my way through them and have seen a dozen to date – rentals… although I’ve been tempted on occasion to pick up a box set of his various series… but never quite tempted enough. Rohmer’s shtick is to present moral dilemmas as well-observed drama, and then let the viewer make their own call on what went down. It’s a curiously cowardly way of presenting a story, as if Rohmer doesn’t have the courage to comment on the situations he dramatises. But I don’t think that’s actually the case – indeed, it takes courage to present a scenario that is not plainly black or white. Pauline at the Beach, the third of Rohmer’s “Comedies & Proverbs” sextet, is a good example, although I’ve no idea what proverb it’s intended to illustrate. The titular character, a young teenager, is staying with an older cousin at a beach resort. She is present as her cousin bumps into a male friend from a previous summer, and a repeat holiday romance is mooted… but the cousin instead ends up sleeping with an older man who befriends them. Meanwhile, Pauline finds a boyfriend of her own. But one day, while the cousin has had to return to Paris on business, the older man beds a young woman who sells sweets on the beach; and when the cousin returns unexpectedly early, he makes out it was Pauline’s boyfriend who was shagging the sweet-seller. So Pauline falls out with her boyfriend. Later, she learns the truth, but her cousin refuses to believe it, preferring to accept her lover’s version of events. It’s a story that’s told in a deceptively simple way. It’s likely the most emblematic of Rohmer’s oeuvre I’ve seen. As in all his films, the direction is straightforward but effective, but it’s the cast who shine. I plan to eventually work my way through all of Rohmer’s films, and Pauline at the Beach only encouraged me to do so.

Veer Zaara, Yash Chopra (2004, India). To be honest, I’m starting to wonder why Bollywood films are not a routine part of most people’s film-viewing. Especially Brits. Our links with the country go back to Elizabethan times, when we first started exploiting it… and we’ve never really stopped. Exploiting it, that is. But the only people with whom I have conversations about Bollywood films are Indians (although pretty much all of them seem unaware of Bengal’s “parallel cinema”, which I personally have much more time for…). Veer Zaara was a Bollywood film I’d stuck on my rental list because I’d seen it on another list somewhere and… it was fun. It rang a few changes on the story – this time, it was: boy meets girl, boy is imprisoned on trumped-up charge for 22 years, human rights lawyer brings boy and girl back together again… So, not your average rom com plot. A young Pakistani woman takes her grandmother’s ashes back to India to scatter them in the village of her birth, but is involved in a bus accident en route… where she is resuced by an Indian air force helicopter pilot. They fall in love. He goes back with her to Pakistan to meet her family. But her marriage has already been arranged, and her impending husband has powerful contacts in the Paskistani establishment. He arranges for the Indian pilot to be arrested as a spy… Twenty-two years later, a human rights lawyer takes on the pilot’s case. Since he had originally refused to name the woman he loves back then, and still refuses to do so, it makes things difficult. But the lawyer figures it out, and discovers the woman called off the wedding on being told the pilot was dead, and has since devoted her life to running an orphange in his home village back in India. Obviously, this is not the most cheerful of stories, but this is Bollywood so there is singing and dancing. More than that, Veer Zaara is a very nice-looking film, with some excellent, if somewhat enhanced, photography. The plot is pure cheese from start to finish, but that’s hardly unexpected. I can see why it’s counted a classic Bollywood movie. Worth seeing.

The Night of the Shooting Stars*, Paolo & Vittorio Taviani (1982, Italy). So confusing. Although the only UK DVD art I could find calls this The Night of San Lorenzo, it’s best known as The Night of the Shooting Stars, except when it’s known as just Night of the Shooting Stars. And it’s under that last title that it’s mentioned on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s because it’s on the list that I watched it. And… In WWII, a village in Italy is on the retreating Germans’ route, and since they have stated they will destroy everything, the villagers hide in the church. Except some don’t. Instead, they go looking for the liberating US army… I’m not entirely sure what The Night of the Shooting Stars was intended to convey. Bertolucci’s 1900 did a better job of showing the war’s impact on Italian society, Pasolini’s Sálo did a better job of expressing the Germans’ impact on Italian society, and there are no end of war films which show how it all happened, including really bad ones starring Rock Hudson in a 1970s haircut… Taken on its own, The Night of the Shooting Stars is a good film and perfectly watchable. I couldn’t get invested in it, possibly because it seemed to cover well-trod ground – it was not Neorealist, but it was about WWII, for example – and nothing in it seemed to stand out especially. There is a good scene in which one of the characters is killed by a mythical figure, but it was too few and too little to rescue the film. I can understand why some people rate it highly, but for me it didn’t quite make the grade to justify its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d sooner put another Fellini in its place.

Hélas pour moi, Jean-Luc Godard (1993, France). The more Godard I see, the more Godard I want to own. Truffaut was, I think, a better director, but Godard was the better film-maker. If that makes sense. I mean, I love both Fahrenheit 451 and Mississippi Mermaid, both of which use the language of commercial cinema to present non-commercial films (and neither of which are in collections of his work; bloody typical). And then there’s Tirez le pianiste, which is likely the most definitively New Wave of all the New Wave films… And those are just Truffaut’s films. (Without even mentioning the excellent interview he did with Hitchcock, a director I greatly admire.) But then you look at Godard’s oeuvre and, quite frankly, it’s a mess… Of his films I’ve seen, some are works of genius – Le mépris, 2 or 3 things I know About Her – while others push the boundaries of cinema in interesting new directions – Week End, Détective, Hélas pour moi, Film Socialisme, Goodbye to Language… But he could be enormously self-indulgent – sometimes it worked, as in Film Socialisme – but other times he seemed to let his stars get in the way of his film: both 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in USA were filmed at the same time (one in the morning, the other in the afternoon), yet I find the former much more successful than the latter. Sadly, as is always the case, little of Godard’s oeuvre is available on DVD in the UK. Hélas pour moi is late Godard, like Film Socialisme, and so is about cinema as much as it is about its story. Which, to be honest, I have no clue what it was. Gerard Depardieu and Laurence Masliah play a married couple, who are involved in some sort of incident in a Swiss village, but other than that, no idea… And yet, I enjoyed this film. It was clearly meta-cinema, something Godard has played with to varying degrees,  but not only was Godard playing with the conventions of cinema but also with the narrative conventions of the story he was telling. I want to watch this again… The only problem is finding a Godard box set that has more films I don’t own than ones I do own… and I don’t own that many. His entire oeuvre should be available, to be honest. Bfi, do your thing, please.

Walkover, Jerzy Skolimowski (1965, Poland). The Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets have proven somewhat variable. Some of the films are bona fide classics, and I’m hugely glad I now own decent copies of them. Others I wouldn’t describe as classics but I’m glad I have well-restored copies to rewatch. Some, however, have proven unremarkable and you have to wonder why they were selected for inclusion. Walkover is… a borderline case. It’s a solid drama of the type the Polish do so well, told against a backdrop of socialist industry – another thing the Poles were very good at: presenting socialism in a positive light while also highlighting its failings… The USSR’s version of socialism, that is of course. An unreasoning fear of communism can be blamed for a huge number of really bad, and very damaging, political decisions made between 1950 and 1990… although JFK’s decision to put a human being on the moon by 1969 was not obviously not one of them. Ahem. In Walkover, a young man joins the staff of an industrial plant. and finds himself dragged back into boxing, a sport at which he excelled but which he no longer participates, and this is contrasted with the rise of a female engineer within the plant’s staff. It’s… solid drama. The shiftlessness of the boxer’s life, a result of his academic failures, is contrasted with that of the female engineer. This is socialist propaganda as feature film, and I see nothing wrong with it as it takes the facts of a socialist society and sets a drama in them, unlike Hollywood, which continues to push the American Dream like it weas real thing and actually acheivable. FFS.

Morgan, Luke Scott (2016, UK). I saw mention of this somewhere and stuck it on my rental list, and lo, it arrived, so I watched it one weekend with a bottle of wine at hand. Dynastic film-making at its, er, best: Luke is the son of Ridley. The title refers to a genetically-engineered person – played by a woman but implied to be neuter – who had viciously attacked one of her handlers. A risk assessment consultant is brought in to decide if the project should be canned. There are many references to an earlier project in Stockholm, which resulted in the deaths of several researchers. Morgan tries to keep its cards close to its chest, but the hand it holds is so bloody obvious the effort is totally wasted. Morgan is a genetically-engineered soldier. They built a sociopath and seem surprised when it acts like one. The consultant brought in proves to have expert unarmed combat skills… because it too is a genetically-engineered soldier. That’s like the most obvious reveal ever in sf film. Morgan looks good, and its cast do quite well with a script that clearly recognises it’s one long string of clichés and tries to disguise what it’s actually about. Like Ex Machina, Morgan is Hollywood’s idea of a clever treatment of a difficult sf topic, in which nice visuals can’t hide an entirely trope-bound exploration that illustrates nothing. I seriously do not understand the point in doing that.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 858


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Moving pictures 2017, #16

What was that about Hollywood films? I seem to have been ignoring them quite successfully of late…

Rosetta, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne (1999, Belgium). I think in retrospect I like the idea of the films of the Dardennes Brothers more than I like their actual films. They make very personal movies and I agree totally with that, ones that often use handheld cameras and a lot of improvisation by the cast… But the stories they tell often seem stretched beyond their natural length. Rosetta is a case in point. The title refers to a young woman in a Belgian town, who loses her job, and reacts violently. She is, in fact, desperate for work, because she lives in a trailer park and has an alcoholic mother. She lands a job at a waffle – gauffre – baker, but loses that when a profligate son decides he needs a job. So she shops her one friend, a waffle seller who had been making some money on the side with his own waffles, so she can have his job. This is an unpleasant film populated with unpleasant characters, and the title character’s blindness to the moral expediency of her own actions is treated so flatly it’s hard to tell what lesson the Dardenne brothers expect the viewers to take. To a European audience, it’s clearly a condemnation, but I wonder if it plays the same in other parts of the world? And I wonder if such subtlety serves any useful purpose…  Except, belabour the point so unsympathetic audiences will get it and you risk alienating your natural audience. Having said that, I suspect I fall firmly within the demographic the Dardennes expect to appeal to, but I’ve yet to see one of their films I can really take to heart. Rosetta is a good film, but not one to love.

Mississippi Mermaid, François Truffaut (1969, France). I’d not expected like this. Although Truffaut was one of the mainstays of the Nouvelle Vague, I’ve never really had all that much time for him as a director – despite loving his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. But then I watched his Tirez le pianiste and revised my opinion… Even so, Mississippi Mermaid was a surprise: a commercial film that actually really wasn’t that commercial. Truffaut may not have been as interesting a director as Godard, but when he was in love with his cast – as he plainly is with Deneuve, and possibly also Belmondo, in this movie – at least he only shows them to advantage rather than allowing them to completely derail his story. Having said that, the story of Mississippi Mermaid isn’t all that plausible. A rich plantation owner on Réunion Island has arranged a marriage with a woman whom he knows only from her letters. The woman takes a ship to the island. Except she doesn’t arrive. Instead, Deneuve claims to be the blushing bride-to-be, explaining that she’d sent a photo of a friend in order to better assess Belmondo’s intentions. They marry, they’re very much in love, but she often seems to contradict information she gave in her letters. Then she cleans out his bank accounts. She was a fake. He sets a private investigator on her trail, but some time later inadvertently bumps into her. They rekindle their relationship. But then the PI turns up, and refuses to let it lie as Deneuve was responsible for several crimes. So Belmondo kills him. The scenery is quite impressive – parts of the movie were actually filmed on Réunion Island. But the two leads shine in their roles, and Deneuve is on particularly fine form. It’s a dumb story that should not convince, but Deneuve and Belmondo carry it effortlessly. It’s no surprise’the film was a box office hit in France. And yet, for all its commercial cinema credentials, it refuses to obey the form – it’s over-long (123 minutes!), it can’t decided if its protagonists are heroes or anti-heroes, and it’s not sure if it’s a thriller or a warped romance. I really liked it.

The Hourglass Sanatorium, Wojciech Has (1973, Poland). I watched Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript last year and thought it astonishingly good, but I’m also sure few directors manage more than one such film. The Saragossa Manuscript – which I’m now glad I didn’t buy, despite wanting to, as it’s included in one of the Martin Scorceses Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – is a series of very cleverly nested stories, and The Hourglass Sanatorium uses a similar structure while also tying it to the ravings of a mad protagonist, so it’s not really clear what is what or what it means throughout the film’s 119 minutes. I tweeted while watching it that it was a film to generate nightmares, and while it may not have done it that particular night, it’s very definitely a film filled with nightmarigh imagery. A man visits his dying father in a sanatorium, but nothing is as it seems – not the country he travels through, nor the sanatorium itself. The fears of his childhood are made manifest, and yet none of it is really explained. The film is apparently an adaptation of a 1937 short story collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz, and the fact it’s based on a collection likely explains the somewhat episodic nature of the film. None of which actually detracts from it. The Hourglass Sanatorium is definitely a film that’s going to need repeated rewatchings. I’d also like to see more by Has.

Killer of Sheep*, Charles Burnett (1978, USA). I’m happy to admit I’d never have watched this film if it had not been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’m equally happy to confess I’d have missed out otherwise. I am, in fact, surprised the film is not better known. It was shot in the late 1970s in the Watts district of Los Angeles, but wasn’t actually released until 2007. Because the film-makers didn’t have enough money to secure the rights to music used in the film. Those music rights cost $150,000. The film was shot for $10,000 (around $38,000 in 2016 dollars). It is, it must be said, an excellent soundtrack, but it does help illustrate the strangehold the big media companies have on creative content. Killer of Sheep has no plot as such, it’s just a series of short vignettes set in and around Watts, with an amateur cast. It’s not a documentary because it tries to make its point – the life of working-class blacks in LA – through dramatised incidents, which often works better than a documentary. In order to persuade the viewer of its argument, a documentary needs a narrative – and some documentary makers are excellent at creating narrative, like Adam Curtis or Patrick Keiller. Another methiod is to present a sympathetic vierwpoint character, or more than one, a technique used by Joshua Oppenheimer in The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. Old style, of course, was to present facts as if building an argument – cf Hotel Terminus, The Thin Blue Line… Patricio Guzmán, on the other hand, presents two arguments, and it is the parallels between them which make his point. But making a drama of a situation has the benefit of allowing the director to control their narrative to an extent not possible with archive footage  (well, unless you’re Aleksandr Sokurov…). Killer of Sheep makes its point emphatically, and it does it with actors and staged stories. Definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

To Kill This Love, Janusz Morgenstern (1972, Poland).Morgenstern is pretty much unknown outside Poland. His Wikipedia page is smaller than my own, and there’s not even a link to his oeuvre on imdb.com. As far as I can determine, he directed a lot of television work, which no doubt accounts for the televisual look and feel of this film (although it is something I have noted previously about several Polish films of the 1970s). A young couple seem suited for each other, but their relationship runs far from smoothly – she is a nurse but too squeamish for some of the tasks she must perform, and he ends up in a relationship with an older woman. To be honest, not much in this film sticks in memory. It felt like a kitchen-sink drama, Polish style, and although the film justifiably made a star of female lead Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak, it’s a thin takeaway from a film that incorporates so much human drama – perhaps too much in places. It’s a movie that’s going to require a rewatch, so I’m especially glad it’s part of the box set I bought.

East Palace, West Palace, Zhang Yuan (1996, China). Amazon started taking the piss a bit for a few weeks, and sent me a Chinese film every week, It’s almost like they were reading my tweets… It’s true the Sixth Generation of Chinese directors, and later, have produced some of the consistently best films of the last few decades, and I’m more than happy to explore their output… But I also treasure variety in my viewing, and a constant diet of Chinese films, no matter how good, can get as wearying as a constant diet of films from any other nation (wait, most people watch US films all the time… what am I saying?). East Palace, West Palace refers to a park in Beijing frequented by gay men, who go there to pick up sexual partners. A police raid results in several of them being taken prisoner. One particular police officer takes one to his office and tries to get him to admit to his “behaviour” – homosexuality was apparently not a crime at the time the film is set, although that didn’t stop the police rounding them up every now and again. And, although it feels like a cliché – the gay man tells his the police officer his life story and so the police officer falls for the gay man – it never feels like one as the film progresses. Partly it’s because the flashback sequences are so well-staged, and partly it’s because the way the film drops into fantasy at the end, with the gay man dressing in drag and so seducing the police officer, with it all feeling like a metaphorical treatment without undermining the emotional content. I’ve watched a lot of contemporary Chinese films recently, but I can’t begrudge that because they’ve all been excellent films. True, I’ve become a fan of Jia Zhangke and Zhao Liang, but it’s not that much of a stretch to say that China’s Sixth Generation, and later, of film directors has resulted in the strongest national cinema so far of the twenty-first century.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 857


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Moving pictures 2017, #15

More of the usual – China, Poland. France and Russia. I’m still trying to expand the nations whose films I watch, but I do have my favourite directors…

The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). I’ve been a fan of Jia’s films since first seeing A Touch of Sin, and if the films in Jia’s Hometown trilogy seemed a little disappointing – see here and here and here – something in the description of The World persuaded me it was closer to 24 City and A Touch of Sin and so more likely to appeal. I bought the eureka! dual edition. And so it was – much more like 24 City and A Touch of Sin, I mean. In fact, I think it might be my favourite of Jia’s films. The main character of The World, although any such description is a hostage to fortune in this film, works as “talent” at a Beijing amusement park. The movies opens with her walking along a corridor, demanding loudly if any of her fellow co-workers have a band-aid (plaster). We then see her on stage, as part of some sort of dance routine, with other women in variations on national costume from assorted nations. And Jia mantains that sort of documentary feel to the rest of the movie, as he follows the young woman through the days that follow. There’s no plot as such, just men and women interacting in a weird artificial environment – which is only enhanced by the beautifully sharp cinematography and the strange, but natural, if slightly washed-out, colour palette. It feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot during the making of a film, but it’s never entirely clear what the story of that film is. There’s the central character, and her relations with her colleagues; and then a friend from her province turns up and she has to look after him. We also see women being abused by a system set up to exploit them – the theme park hires some Russian dancers, for example, and their handler takes their passports, and so traps them in China (a not uncommon practice in many parts of the world). Over it all is a layer of strangeness imparted by the easily recognisable, but small-scale, landmarks which populate the theme park – the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Manhattan skyline, etc.. And several parts of the film that are animated. I really liked A Touch of Sin on first seeing it, and liked it a great deal more on rewatching it several months later. But The World I loved the first time I watched it, and I’ve seen a couple of times since and still love it. I think this film has jumped into my top ten, but I’ve yet to figure out what to displace. Recommended.

Constant Factor, Krzysztof Zanussi (1980, Poland). I’m not entirely sure precisely what the factor the title refers to, although the plot of the film seems relatively straightforward. A young man joins a firm and discovers that his honesty is a handicap rather than an advantage. He dreams of climbing Mount Everest, an ambition which killed his father. For some reason, his employer sends him on overseas jobs even though he’s done nothing to “earn” the privilege. But when he turns down routine opportunities for corruption, and then refuses to back down and so jeopardises a lucrative contract, his ability to travel is taken from him. And that includes his planned trip to the Himalayas. He gets to the airport and they won’t let him leave the country. The film works because the protagonist is sympathetic, despite his pigheaded honesty – or perhaps because of his pigheaded honesty – after all, it’s not as if his co-workers are depicted as venal and corrupt… They’re just trying to make ends meet in a system that rewards corruption better than it rewards honesty. So, just like Western society then. There is, like some of the other films in this box set, a sort of televisual drama drama – kitchen-sink drama, even – feel to the film, so much so it’s starting to feel like a Polish speciality (Kieślowski, after all, started out in television). The three Martin Scorcese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets are proving to be an excellent purchase, despite the cost.

Little Red Flowers, Zhang Yuan (2006, China). I think Zhang was one of a number Chinese directors I stuck on my rental list in an effort to explore the country’s recent cinema, but I don’t recall where I came across Zhang’s name – and LoveFilm has recently got into the habit of sending me films from a particular country one after the other. So after a run of Romanian films, it’s now a run of Chinese films. This is no real hardship – of all the countries’ cinemas I’ve been watching over the past couple of years, China’s since the late 1990s has to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest. Particularly the Sixth Generation directors and later… Little Red Flowers is a not very sympathetic film, but extremely well put-together. It follows a four-year-old boy – based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Wang Shuo – at a… boarding school? orphanage? The title refers to the school’s equivalent of “gold stars”, awarded for good work. The regime is pretty brutal for young kids, and the facilities primitive at best. I don’t recall Little Red Flowers being an especially comfortable film to watch, and I was unsure if its message was one of accommodation or staying true in a regime that saw your values as subversive. There’s a greater lesson there, of course, but I’m not sure this film is the best vehicle for it. A good film, and worth seeing – but more, I think, because it’s a good example of what China’s Sixth Generation of directors can offer than because the films offers more than its story.

Promised Land, Andrzej Wajda (1975, Poland). I know Wajda’s name as one of Polish cinemas big names, and I’ve seen several of his more celebrated films, but this was, I’d believed, one of his less celebrated, albeit still highly regarded, movies. And besides, I’ve not yet found cause to fault the choices made by these Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – okay, where’s the Szulkin, eh? I’ll forgive the lack of Żuławski given that Mondo Vision are doing special edition rereleases of his oeuvre, and they’re pretty hard to beat –  but the films I’ve seen before which appear in these box sets I’d already categorised as excellent films… and those I’ve not seen are proving to be every bit as good. So a wise purchase all round, then. Anyway, Promised Land is an historical piece, set at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. Three men – a Pole, a German and a Jew (interesting that his nationality seems irrelevant) – all invest in a new textile factory. Their backgrounds prove important, especially when the Pole has an affair with the wife of a Jewish financier. The factory they financed is burnt to the ground. They lose everything. But the Pole bounces back by marrying an heiress. It’s very much a story of three ambitious young men from different backgrounds pooling their resources, only to find their success treats them differently. The historical aspect wasn’t entirely convincing at times – the eixigencies of filming in 1970s Poland, no doubt – and ssome of the characters were a little larger than life… But this was good stuff. I do like Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron a great deal, possibly because they feel like teleplays, and was not that taken with his Ashes and Diamonds… but Promised Land occupies that uneasy middle ground. A quality film, certainly, but I still need to see more of Wajda’s oeuvre.

Taurus, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). After describing Francofonia (see here) as an archetypal Sokurov film – as if there were such a thing! – I watched Taurus, the second of Sokurov’s Power trilogy… and this was almost pure Sokurov cinema. For reasons I do not understand, the first and third films of the trilogy, Moloch and The Sun, were given US/UK releases on DVD (the fourth too, if you include Faust, which some do), but Taurus never was. And having now watched it I can see no good reason why it should have been ignored. The BFI have done excellent jobs on the oeuvres of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, but if they’re looking for other directors to cover then Aleksandr Sokurov should be top of their list. Whatever. I managed to get hold of a copy of Taurus, and I watched it. And it’s pure Sokurov. It depicts the last days of Lenin, who, surprisingly, died at the age of 54 after only a year in power. In the film he is recuperating from his first stroke, and after his recovery meets with Stalin – who pretended to a favouritism by Lenin that never existed – but later succumbs to another stroke. The palette is subdued blues and very painterly, and if there’s one sour note it’s that Lenin has a younger body than his face suggests – he supposed to be early fifties, but has the physique of someone two decades younger. Much of the film takes place in Lenin’s bechamber, which has all sorts of echoes with other films by Sokurov… but later, he goes for walk in the woods surrounding the dacha, and that’s another bunch of Sokurov’s films it’s referencing…Ãnd yet, the Power trilogy is, as the name suggests, about the nature of power, and by choosing three powerful figures whose powers were fading fast – Hitler toward the end of his reign, Hirohito after Japan had surrended, and Lenin on his death bed – Sokurov is in danger of belabouring his point. Except he makes each film a character study and a metaphysical treatise. This is a director who is head-and-shoulders above everyone else at the top of his game. Ten years from now, people will be comparing Tarkovsky to Sokurov, not trying to find reasons why Sokurov should be seen as of similar stature to Tarkovsky because the latter once praised him.

Éloge de l’amour, Jean-Luc Godard (2001, France). In theory, I have a lot of time for Godard; in practice, less so. I think he’s perhaps the most experimental director of commerical cinema – without being full-on avant-garde – France has produced, and I think he has not only deliberately built that reputation but also capitalised on it. Some of his early experimental as part of the Nouvelle Vague is blindingly good, but I suspect more by accident than by design. Whenever Godard was more interested in his stars than his story, the film suffered – the two contrary examples perhaps being Bande á part and Une femme est une femme – but when his focus was on the narrative, he produced some truly excellent films. And in later years, he appears to have been more concerned with cinema as an art form, which means his films became more interesting narratively without having to rely on the charismatic stars of earlier decades. So, an improvement in some respects. As many a director has discovered, you can tell any old story given a star with sufficient screen presence – as indeed Godard himself has taken advantage of in the past. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Éloge de l’amour is a film that succeeds on its own terms, but its terms are somewhat narrower than most viewers would accept. It starts out as black and white, and never quite convinces as noir, which somewhat renders the choice of of palette dubious. But then it switches to saturated colour, but never quite explains the reason for the change. Godard’sfilms usually require several viewings to fully appreciate, but this was a rental and I only gave it the one viewing. The more Godard I watch, the more Godard I want to watch. But his oevure has only been released patchily in the UK…

1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 856


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Moving pictures 2017, #2

The resolutions for film-watching seem to be working. There’s only one US film in this lot and, while it wasn’t on the list I’m using, it is on some other ones. And it wasn’t that bad either.

man_movie_cameraKino-Eye, Dziga Vertov (1924, USSR). Vertov is best-known for his Man with a Movie Camera, an astonishing piece of silent meta-cinema made in 1929. Eureka! recently released a new edition of that film, dual format, featuring some of the Vertov’s other works. Vertov apparently had… strong ideas about cinema and its uses, using it to document “film truth”, which, as Wikipedia has it, has “fragments of actuality which, when organized together, have a deeper truth that cannot be seen with a naked eye”. It perhaps appears an obvious truth these days, no matter what media, but in 1920s Soviet Russia it seems somewhat ironic, especially given some of the “embellishments” of actual events Eisenstein reputedly incorporated into his films. But the idea of making films with an agenda, with more than just an aim “to entertain”, I certainly find appealing. Art is a powerful tool, even if it’s chiefly used for the most trivial of purposes. In Kino-Eye, Vertov perhaps set his sights a little high – Wikipedia again: he believed “his concept of Kino-Glaz would help contemporary ‘man’ evolve from a flawed creature to a higher, more precise form”. Which, to me, smacks of Fyodorovism, or at least a form of it stripped of its spiritual dimension. No matter what his motives, in Kino-Eye, Vertov gives us a silent documentary of life in the USSR in the early 1920s, featuring a number of, for the time, novel cinematic techniques, such as montages and, er, running the film backwards. I’m not entirely sure what message the latter is intended to convey, especially the sequence where a bull is slaughtered… which is then run in reverse and so shows the butcher stuffing the bull’s organs into its body and the bull miraculously coming to life. Nonetheless, Kino-Eye is a fascinating slice of life of a time and place that has long since passed, and it is somewhat scary to realise that the lives of the Russian poor have not substantially changed, despite a century of progress, despite eighty years of socialism… And, of course, extremely disheartening.

women_in_loveWomen in Love, Ken Russell (1969, UK). I’d been meaning to watch this after reading the book, so when I learned the BFI had put out a new edition on Blu-ray, I picked myself up a copy. I have yet to get a handle on Russell’s oeuvre – some of his films show a singular vision, some of them seem no more than polished examples of their type. And it’s saddening to think that some people think Russell’s vision was defined by films such as The Lair of the White Worm or The Fall of the Louse of Usher, especially when you consider films such as The Devils, Billion Dollar Brain and Crimes of Passion. And, of course, Women in Love. But there’s also Women in Love as an adaptation of a DH Lawrence novel. And it is not a novel that would be easy to adapt for cinema. Happily, Russell avoids the book’s bitterness, although Oliver Reed’s stiffness as Gerald Crich hints at some dissatisfaction somewhere, without making it clear whether it is Lawrence’s or the film-maker’s. Of course, Russell’s film is best-known for the nude wrestling scene between the aforementioned Reed and Alan Bates, who plays Lawrence stand-in Rupert Birkin, and it’s certainly a… striking scene. In a nutshell, Bates plays Lawrence, Jennie Linden plays his wife, Frieda, Glenda Jackson plays Katherine Mansfield, and Alan Bates her husband, John Middleton Murry. Bates is a wealthy mine-owner in Derbyshire, Jackson and Linden are sisters and schoolteachers, and Bates is a school inspector. At this point in Lawrence’s career, his admiration for the working class had turned sour, as indeed had his appreciation of the upper classes, after London society had turned its back on him. It’s obvious in the book, but it’s not even evident in the film. Russell does an excellent shop with the story he has been given, and if Lawrence’s acerbic prose has been diluted in its move to the screen, it doesn’t spoil Women in Love as a film qua film. It is, without a doubt, one of Russell’s best films, and it deserves the accolades it received, including: four Oscar nominations, one win; three golden Globe nominations, one win; and eleven BAFTA nominations. As an adaptation, its refusal to engage completely with its source material actually works in its favour. I am a big fan of DH Lawrence’s writing, and would of course recommend reading the novel. But Russell’s film is also very much worth seeing, just as much for what it adapts well as for what it doesn’t.

ghost_mrs_muirThe Ghost and Mrs Muir, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1947, USA). Gene Tierney is a widow, desperate to get out of her mother-in-law’s house and control, and so moves to the south coast to look for suitable accommodation for herself and her young daughter. But she doesn’t have much money, and when she spots a house going cheap in the book of the estate agent she has engaged, but he insists it is unsuitable for her… well, that only makes her determined to check it out. And the reason the house is cheap, it transpires, is because it is haunted by its previous owner, a retired sea captain played by Rex Harrison. But Tierney is determined to take no shit, least of all from a ghost, so she and Harrison come to an accommodation, she moves in, and everything goes, er, swimmingly. But money is tight, and tighter still when Tierney’s pension from her late husband’s share of a gold mine dries up completely. So Harrison suggests she write his memoirs. And that’s what they do. And a publisher buys them. And the book is best-seller. At the publisher’s office, Tierney meets George Sanders, an oleaginous writer of children’s books, who charms her. Harrison thinks he’s a wrong ‘un, but she thinks he will ask for her hand in marriage. Then she learns he’s already married… Whatever charm The Ghost and Mrs Muir possesses comes entirely out of its story. Tierney, always a face worth following on the screen, is never entirely convincing in her role but still manages to keep the viewer’s interest and sympathies. Harrison is gruff and old-fashioned, and perhaps a little too debonair for his role, but it’s all forgivable. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this film on a list of great films somewhere – if not the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, then perhaps the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They one… and I can’t honestly see why it was there. It’s a charming story, played well and shot well, but it’s by no more than an above-average example of of its type.

satyajit_ray_3An Enemy of the People, Satyajit Ray (1990, India). I was impressed with Ray’s percipience in making this film, only to discover it’s an adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play from 1882 – despite, frighteningly, being still relevant today, never mind in 1990 or 1882. In Ibsen’s original, a doctor discovers that the waters of the town’s bath are contaminated, but when he makes this known, those who stand to profit from the trade brought to the town by visitors to the bath set out to rubbish his findings. Ray adds religion to the mix, inasmuch as the contaminated water is in a temple, and bolsters the story with a little of science – drinking the water from the temple could give a person hepatitis. But the story pretty much remains the same. The doctor – Dr Gupta in Ray’s film – tries to publish his findings in the local newspaper, but his brother, head of the local municipality, brings pressure to bear to prevent it. In desperation, Dr Gupta arranges a talk at a local university… but his brother fills the audience with his stooges and manages to turn public opinion against Dr Gupta. After all, how can water provided by a god make people ill? (Don’t get me started.) Ray’s treatment of his material is very low-key. The film consists almost entirely of interiors, and the camera placement is more suitable to that of a TV series than a feature film. But the material is certainly deliberately infuriating, especially the debate in front of the students, and it’s all too easy to extrapolate An Enemy of the People‘s story to the present day. In fact, it’s scarily prescient. Even more so, when you consider Ibsen wrote it in 1882.  Ray doesn’t have the sense of the mythic about his films that Ghatak does, but his films are more personal and more, well, theatrical.

une_femmeUne femme est une femme, Jean-Luc Godard (1961, France). One day I will have a theory about Godard’s oeuvre that works, but for now my present theory is plainly nonsense. This is a colour Godard film, it’s also one clearly prompted more by his relationship with star Anna Karina than it is anything else, and yet it still manages to hang together and work reasonably well. Okay, so it’s pretty much Godard taking the piss throughout with musical cues – in fact, the entire film is a lesson in how to annoy the viewer using only musical cues. There’s a silly argument at one point, which is what most people seem to remember from the film, in which boyfriend and girlfriend Jean-Claude Brialy and Karina continue an argument by showing each other words from the titles of the books they own. Karina and Brialy are an item, she wants children, he insists only once they’re married but doesn’t ask her to marry him. It’s a silly, and constrained, personal drama, whose fame chiefly seems to rest on Godard making such a to-do about Karina, his girlfriend of the time (they married after the film had completed). Plot-wise, Une femme est une femme is as thin as you can get and still manage 85 minutes of running time. It pretty much relies entirely on the charm of its cast. Karina is, strangely, variable. Brialy is good throughout. And Belmondo wins every scene he appears in. As Godard films go, this feels more like a five-finger exercise, and whatever boundaries it pushes seem more accidental than part of the reason why Godard made the film in the first place. I suspect my new Theory of Godard looks something like: when Godard is making a point, it’s likely to be a good film; but when Godard is more interested in his cast, or one member of the cast, then it’s not…

behemothBehemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I forget where I stumbled across Zhao’s name, perhaps linked with Jia Zhankge’s, but I stuck one of his films on my rental list, and it duly arrived and… this is bloody good stuff. In fact, I thought it was Zhangke when I started watching it, but it looked so unlike his movies that I was briefly confused. But. For a start, Zhao Liang chiefly makes documentaries, whereas Jia Zhangke’s films only resemble documentaries. In Behemoth, Zhao Liang documents China’s open-cast coal mining and those whose survive by pirating coal from the edges. Zhao does this odd thing where he splits the screen but in such a way that the splits are not immediately obvious, as if the screen is a triptych of linked scenes. It is weird, but effective. He also has a naked male figure who appears in many scenes and quotes from classical Chinese literature… and that description sounds completely different to how it actually appears in the film. I put Behemoth in the DVD player expecting something like A Touch of Sin, but  I found myself watching something very different and, if not better than that film, certainly as good as it. I immediately put Zhao Liang on my list of directors to watch. You should too.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Moving pictures, #63

Still trying to to catch up… Half of the films in this post’s half-dozen are from the US, but only one of them is an actual feature film per se. Both Benning’s and Baillie’s work are better considered art, or video installations – a form of art I especially like. The remaining films are an odd mix – one I expected to like but didn’t, one turned out to be a lot better than expected, and one wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d hope although still quite good.

gangs_new_yorkGangs of New York*, Martin Scorsese (2002, USA). If Terrence Malick is the nearest Hollywood has produced to an actual auteur, then Scorsese, although a resolutely commercial director, is perhaps closest in Hollywood to him. Personally, I find Scorsese’s films well-made but over-rated; but he has the advantage of a career pretty much explicitly laid out in the films he’s directed, all of which are still readily available in a format of your choice. Gangs of New York was a commercial success, and a critical one too – not just appearing on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but also nominated for a shedload of Oscars, BAFTAs, Gold Globes and assorted other film awards (although it won no Oscars, Day-Lewis got best actor BAFTA, and Scorsese won best director Golden Globe). The story is set in New York during the 1840s to the 1860s. The film opens with a pitched – and gory – battle between the Irish immigrants and the native New Yorkers (of course, they’re all immigrants, the so-called “natives” arrived a couple of generations earlier). The movie then follows Amsterdam, son of the murdered leader of the Irish faction, and played by Leonardo di Caprio, as he returns to New York as a young man and goes to work for leader of the natives, Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is apparently historically accurate, even down to the accent used by Day-Lewis and others, and it’s pretty gruesome stuff. Quite how the US built a reputation as the Land of the Free and the Land of Opportunity when its biggest city was a cesspit of violence and corruption is a mystery. But then you have the myth of the wide open spaces of the Wild West, when it was all land stolen from the Native Americans, and those who stole it were mostly as violent and venal as the worst criminals. That was all pretty much around the same time. And not so long ago. Mind you, Dickens’s England was no less grim a place. Although it does seem a little like the new governments of both the UK and USA are determined to return us to those days…

holy_motorsHoly Motors, Leos Carax (2012, France). This film had all the ingredients which should have led to me loving it, but for some reason it never quite worked for me. The story is enigmatic, very little is explained, in fact it’s more of an anthology than a single plot, the cinematography is excellent, and the cast are very good too… But the whole thing felt like a film-making exercise to me, and only more so when I learnt that one of the longest segments is based on a short film made by Carax four years earlier. I’ve heard Holy Motors described as an anthology film, deliberately broken down into more easily-digestible chunks to prove a point about art house cinema, but I’m not sure I buy it. The celebrity cameos seem to suggest a personal project from a director with more of a reputation than his oeuvre suggests. Eve Mendes, for example, plays a model abudcted by Mr Merde and says nothing during her part in the film. Kylie Minogue plays a colleague of the main character, and ends up singing a really quite awful song that can’t decide if it belongs in a Broadway musical or a rock jukebox musical. The framing narrative doesn’t explain the individual segments, only links them. And while the cinematography is excellent, as is the cast, the story is enigmatic to the point of nonsense – the segment in which the protagonist – well, a cleverly-disguised stunt double – does a motion-capture sequence for an ugly CGI sequence of two great wyrms mating is entirely meaningless. That this is later followed by a sequence in which a father picks up his teenage daughter from a party, only to learn she hid in the bathroom because she’s afraid of not being popular… it shows only that the guiding principle here is directorial whim. There’s no pattern, no story-arc, no point. There’s only a director who feels like he’s not in control of his creative process – and, though I’m only going on the one film I’ve seen by Carax, he strikes me as someone who may one day make a great movie… but Holy Motors is not it.

travelling_playersThe Travelling Players*, Theodoros Angelopoulos (1975, Greece). I’ve been aware of Angelopoulos for a couple of years, although I’ve never previously seen any of his films nor had much of an idea what his films were like. But The Travelling Players eventually worked its way to the top of the rental list and was duly sent to me and… One thing I hadn’t known about Angelopoulos is that his films tick a lot of my boxes: long static shots, declamatory dialogue, plots that cover decades… This is stuff that I love in films, and apparently The Travelling Players is not unique in Angelopoulos’s oeuvre in doing so. The Travelling Players is currently available as a part of a box set, so I think I’ll be getting the box set. But, The Travelling Players… It’s about a troupe of actors, who travel the country with a play about Golfo the Shepherdess, between 1939 and 1952. As well as the covering the events in Greece during that time – the invasion by the Nazis, the war between the fascists and the communists, the British and US occupations, the Regime of the Colonels… – but the troupe’s internal dynamics are all based on the story of the House of Atreus. There are parts of the the film where a character talks directly to camera. There are some frankly bizarre scenes, like the British platoon forcing the troupe to perform on a beach, only to end up dancing with each other, or the dance hall where the fascists and communists clash like the Jets and the Sharks… The Travelling Players is also a very long film, clocking in at 230 minutes; but it’s fascinating throughout. Angelopoulos’s name was not unknown to me, but until now I’d not seen any of his films. Having seen The Travelling Players, I plan to explore his oeuvre. Recommended.

baillieVolume 1: Five Collected Films by Bruce Baillie (1964-1968, USA). I stumbled across mention of Baillie’s All My Life on a list of best films somewhere, and found a copy of it on Youtube (it’s only 2 minutes and 45 seconds long, but it is quite excellent – see here). So I did a little more research, and learnt that Baillie is best-remembered for Castro Street, a short film from 1966. Canyon Cinema, a collective he helped found, released some of his films on DVD, but they appear to have sold out. Fortunately, they’re available on Youtube in HD, including this collection, which contains Tung, Mass (for the Lakota Sioux), Valentin de las Sierras, Castro Street and All My Life. The first three are experimental/avant garde cinema, and middling successful, but Castro Street, a montage of industrial plants on the titular street, is fully deserving of its high reputation; and even In My Life, which is 3 minutes of Ella Fitzgerald singing as Baillie pans a camera along a fence, hs a beauty all its own. I discovered Baillie by accident, but it turns out to have been a happy one. I won’t be forgetting him.

13_lakes13 Lakes, small roads and Easy Rider, James Benning (2004/2011/2012, USA). I’ve made no secret of my admiration for James Benning’s work, and while I have everything he has so far released on DVD through the Österreichesches Filmmuseum, one of his best-known works, 13 Lakes, is still unavailable from them. Fortunately, someone has loaded it up onto Youtube, although it’s not a brilliant transfer. And since I’d figured out how to watch Youtube using the app on on my telly via Amazon Prime, I used it to watch 13 Lakes. Benning’s titles tend to the literal, so 13 Lakes is indeed about thirteen lakes, each of which is filmed from a static position for ten minutes. That’s it. The shots are framed such that water fills the bottom half of the screen and sky the top half. Whatever happens while the camera is running, is captured; and the soundtrack is entirely ambient sound. I happen to think Benning is a genius, and while he does really interesting things with narrative in Deseret, American Dreams (lost and found) and Landscape Suicide, other films such as RR and the California Trilogy are more in the nature of video installations. As is 13 Lakes. So he presses lots of buttons for me. Small roads is more of the same, static shots of minor roads in the US, each shot a couple of minutes long and the soundtrack composed entirely of ambient sound. Unlike in 13 Lakes, the screen is not split in two, in fact the proportion of land to sky increases as the film progresses. It is mesmerising, despite the lack of narrative. Easy Rider, however, is something different. Benning retraced the route taken by the actors in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, but focused his camera on the landscape. He uses the soundtrack of the film – some music, some dialogue – but other times relies on ambient sound. What I especially like about Benning is that he’s mythologizing the landscape of the North American continent using the artefacts of its current colonising culture. Not entirely, of course – Four Corners covers Native American cave art, after all. But Deseret explicitly charts the impact of people on the Utah landscape, and while 13 Lakes shows the transient nature of the marks humanity makes on a body of water (the wake of a boat or jetski, soon erased), small roads documents a more permanent marker on the landscape: tarmac. And Easy Rider ties the landscape directly to a cultural object, the story of a feature film, a fiction. I would dearly love to have copies of all of Benning’s films, but sadly only a few have been released on DVD. Equally sadly, I do not live in a city with a world-renowned modern art museum that is likely to exhibit his work. (I do, however, live in a city with Curzon cinema, but even that means nothing – as Curzon, in all their wisdom, have so far chosen not to show Sokurov’s Francofonia here, but only in their London venues. Bah.)

rogopagLet’s Wash Our Brains: RoGoPaG, Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti (1963, Italy). Alfredo Bini apparently had the bright idea of putting together an anthology film comprising four shorts from well-known directors, although I’ve no idea if the concept was as commerically viable back then as it is now – ie, not at all. It’s not like this was the only example – there’s films such as Le Bambole from 1965, for example. Certainly RoGoPaG had a better line-up of directors… but given how little your average audience cares about who directs a film – many lists of best films don’t even name the director, for instance – it’s arguable how relevant that is. In the event, we get four short films that are emblematic – perhaps too much so – of the four directors’ works, without being their best work. Roberto Rossellini provides a story about an air stewardess who attracts the unwelcome attentions of an American who flies her route – to Bangkok – and who she decides to repel by acting more seucally-liberated than she actually is. It’s a thin piece, and it hard to work out what the point of it all is. Godard provides the second part, a five-finger exercise based on the thinnest of plots: a nuclear bomb has exploded near Paris, and two young actors get to practice acting exercises as a response to the explosion. The third film is by Pier Paolo Pasolini and is easily the best of the four. Orson Welles is making afilm about the Crucifixion, although he actually appears to be re-staging in real life famous paintings of the Crucifuxion. One of the extras has not eaten for a while and spends the entire film trying to find something to eat – to his eventual detriment. The humour is broad, the acting broader, Welles looks the part but is dubbed so he doesn’t sound it, and the re-enactments of the Crucifixion are quite astonishingly effective. The final film is the most traditional, and tells a straightforward story of a middle-class Italian family looking to upgrade their home by buying a plot of land on a future development. The kids spout advertising slogans, the family are clearly victims of consumer culture, and their final realisation of their situation is rewarded with an undeserved death. Despite the names attached to RoGoPaG, I suspect Bini thought he had something weightier on his hands than he actually had. The Pasolini apparently caused a bit of a fuss on release, though it seems tame stuff these days to non-Catholic eyes. I’m still not entirely sure what purpose anthology films served, or why anyone ever bothered to make them. I suspect they were mostly vanity projects for producers – “hey, I got to work with Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and, er, Gregoretti!” – but they’re certainly an odd fit in the world of twenty-first century cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 831


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Moving pictures, #62

These posts are starting to back up, so I’m going to have to get a few of them out. But hey, you like reading about films, right? It can’t be science fiction all the time, after all. Er, not that it has been this year. Anyway, movies… The US keeps on creeping back in – although in this case it’s two classic Hollywood movies. I’d like to keep my viewing on a 2:1 basis – ie, two non-Hollywood for every one Hollywood… but it doesn’t always work out that way. Oh well.

rome_open_cityRome, Open City*, Roberto Rossellini (1945, Italy). I thought I’d seen several of Rossellini’s films, but it seems this is only the second – the first was Journey to Italy, back in 2014. Rome, Open City was apparently financed by a wealthy old lady, as the war had pretty much destroyed the Italian film industry. She wanted Rossellini to make a documentary about a Roman Catholic priest who’d helped the partisans against the Nazi occupiers. Rossellini then persuaded her to fund another documentary about Italian children who had planted bombs and fought against the Germans. Fellini’s screenwriter suggested combining the two documentaries into a single feature film, and work began on that two months after the Allies had driven the Nazis from Rome. Rome, Open City pretty much tells the stories of those two documentaries in Neorealist style, and it does it quite effectively. A lot of the cast were non-professionals, and that, and the black white photography, actually gives the film a documentary feel. I’m still not a big fan of Italian neorealism, at least not of the  films under that label I’ve seen so far, although I like them enough to want to continue to explore the genre; but Rome, Open City was pretty good. Interestingly, some of the stock Rossellini used was supplied by a US Army private called Geiger stationed in Rome. Geiger claimed to have contacts in the US film industry and some have credited him with the global success of post-war Italian cinema. Fellini, however, called him a “half-drunk nobody” who claimed to be a producer. Geiger sued Fellini for defamation in 1983 but lost the case.

nostalgiaNostalgia, Andrei Tarkovsky (1983, Russia). And so the Tarkovsky rewatch continues, with this, his next to last film, made in Italy but starring a cast from various countries. A Russian writer is travelling about Italy, researching the life of an eighteenth-century Russian who lived in Italy but committed suicide after returning to Russia. The writer is accompanied by an Italian interpreter; and during their travels about Tuscany, they hear of a man who repeatedly tries to cross a mineral pool while carry a lit candle, and his story fascinates the writer. The old man (played by Swede Erland Josephson) had been in an asylum, but was released when the state closed them all. He’d been committed because he had imprisoned his family inside his house for seven years. (There’s more than an echo, and not just from the casting, with Tarkovsky’s next film, The Sacrifice.) I love Tarkovsky’s films, but I think Nostalgia might be the least satisfying. It looks lovely, of course; and the glacial pacing is pure Tarkovsky from the first frame. But it suffers because it has two male centres of attraction. Tarkovsky’s films are typically told from a single male viewpoint (he didn’t do female characters, more’s the pity). Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev are about the title character, Solaris is about Kris Kelvin, Mirror is about the director, The Sacrifice is about Erland Josephson’s character… the nearest he gets to more than one is in Stalker, but it’s still the title character who provides the real focus. But in Nostalgia, you have the focus bouncing from the Russian writer to Josephson’s character, and it makes the movie feel unbalanced. The final scene, in which Josephson lectures a crowd and then self-immolates, also comes across as a weird change in tone, and though it feeds back into the emotional and narrative closure of the Russian writer’s story, it results in an ending that provides only a limited resolution. I think every self-respecting film fan should have Tarkovsky’s movies in their collection, but that doesn’t mean all Tarkovsky films are equal. Or indeed that I will feel the same way about each and everyone of them if I rewatch them all five years from now.

gunga_dinGunga Din*, George Stevens (1939, USA). Despite the title, the film is not just based on Kipling’s poem but also some of the stories from his collection Soldiers Three. In the film, the three are Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, and they’re NCOs in the Royal Engineers on the Northwest Frontier of India in the 1880s. In the first half of the movie, the three are sent with a company of sepoys to a British outpost which had ceased transmitting on the telegraph mid-message. They find the outpost deserted, but are then set upon by Thuggee bandits. They manage to fight them off, and return to their garrison. Fairbanks is all set to leave the army, marry Joan Fontaine and become a tea planter. But his old buddies still need him, especially when they learn the Thuggee guru is holed up in a gold temple. Their plan to capture him (and steal the gold) goes wrong, and they’re taken prisoner… but they turn the tables and capture the guru. But they can’t escape. And when the British army comes marching toward the temple, the guru reveals the whole thing is a trap and he has an army of his own hidden in the hills. He gives an angry speech about British imperialism and Indian self-rule, but it means nothing because the title character, a humble water carrier played by a US actor in blackface, manages to warn the British army. The poem’s race relations are pretty shit to start with, and the film only amplifies them. And yet there’s that bizarre speech by the Thuggee guru – an Italian actor in blackface, incidentally – which riffs on some pretty unpleasant truths about the British empire, and you have to wonder about sentiments more common now in the twenty-first century (except perhaps among Trump voters and Leave voters) appearing in a seventy-seven-year-old American film…

grapes_wrathThe Grapes of Wrath*, John Ford (1940, USA). Hollywood has a long history of churning out worthy adaptations of classic American novels, much like the BBC does for dramatising English nineteenth-century literary classics, although by the 1980s I suspect Hollywood had managed to cover all the major works. The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about Oklahoma migrant workers in California during the Great Depression. To be honest, I’d not expected much of this film, and I’d probably taken onboard a few too many stereotypes about the story, and the period of history it covers, over the years; and I’m fairly sure I read a Steinbeck novel back in my early teens but I can’t recall whether it was The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men… Anyway, I had relatively low expectations for The Grapes of the Wrath movie, and so the selfishness of US society it depicted came as little surprise… but the story also showed a side to the Okies – intentionally, obviously – in which they displayed a lot more human kindness and fellow feeling than those most at that time, and certainly more than those who were exploiting them. There’s even a government camp which looks after the migrant workers, provides them with shelter, hygiene and safety. Of course, all the local growers try to close down the government camp, because they want the Okies as desperate as possible so they will accept their rock-bottom wages. Despite a long history of films like this which show the dirty underbelly of capitalism (actually, more like the unvarnished reality of capitalism), US audiences still seem to revere the sociopaths who succeed materially in their flawed system – hell, they even make them president. Trump is not fit material for a folk hero. Tom Joad, the character played by Henry Fonda in this film, who is an ex-con returning home when the film opens, after being sent down for killing a man in a bar fight… well, Tom Joad would make a much better folk hero. And probably a better president too.

hijackHijack, Kunal Shivdasani (2008, India). Until watching this, I’d forgotten how shamelessly entertaining Bollywood movies are. I’ve been watching a lot of art house/world cinema this year, more so than in previous years certainly, and though I like such films as much because they show other parts of the world, as well as telling stories I find more appealing, it had slipped my mind how brain-switched-off entertaining some films can be. Hollywood does it well. But Bollywood does it better. With songs. Seriously, there’s no comparison. I can’t even remember what Hijack was about – a plane hijack, I guess – but I do remember starting to grin at the ludicrously cheesy opening credits, and the lyrics to the song played over the credits, and not stopping until the film had finished. I don’t even remember the song and dance numbers, and you’d think they at least would be memorable. But I don’t think it matters all that much – in the same way it doesn’t matter when you see a tentpole blockbuster: you’re there for the two to three hours of experience, and why should it matter if you can remember nothing five minutes after leaving the auditorium? Except, well, cinema – or at least film – is an artform, and it succeeds as an artform when it is memorable. Nothing happens in James Benning’s movies but they are memorable, they are art. Hijack punches all the buttons for mindless entertainment, but will probably be ignored by those most likely to enjoy it because it’s in Hindi. And has songs. But it was fun, it was dumb, and it was entertaining. And if that’s all you’re looking for then Bollywood is as valid a source as Hollywood.

bandeBande à part, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I’m slowly working my way through Godard’s oeuvre, and while I have a lot of time for what he tried to achieve I do tend to find his films a bit hit and miss. This one, despite being highly regarded, I found a miss. The plot is nominally based on that of an American noir novel. Two men and a woman, all in their twenties, decide to rob the woman’s aunt, who has a large stash of cash. But one of the men’s uncle finds out, so they bring the robbery forward a day. It goes wrong – they kill the aunt and cannot find the money. So they leave. One of the men goes back, as he thinks he knows where the cash might be hidden. His uncle follows him. They find the money and kill each other. The aunt reappears, not dead after all. She, and her lodger, take the money. The young woman and the surviving young man ride off in disgust. It’s all filmed in black-and-white, and very Godard-seque – he was married to the film’s star, Anna Karenina, at the time, and I find his films suffer when he’s more interested in his stars than in his movie – although Bande à part is not as consciously Nouvelle Vague as, say, Truffaut’s Tirez le pianiste (which I suspect is going to be my yardstick for New Wave-ness from now on). Worth seeing, but only middling Nouvelle Vague and slightly-above-middle Godard.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 829


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Moving pictures, #53

I think I’m managing a decent balance of countries in my film-viewing – France currently scores highest after the USA and UK (then Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Canada and Sweden…). But I would like to improve it. I’ve found a good source for African films, and emailed them to ask if they deliver to the UK – but no reply yet. Some other nations’ cinemas are much harder to find films… like Albania. It apparently has a thriving film industry, has even produced a handful of festival favourites… but finding copies on DVD is proving difficult. I shall continue to look, however. Meanwhile…

jungle_bookThe Jungle Book, Wolfgang Reitherman (1968, USA). I can remember the first time I saw this film. It was in the gym at the Doha English-Speaking School in Qatar, sometime around 1970 or 1971. (I’m a founding pupil of two English-speaking schools in the Middle East.) We also had an LP of songs from the film, and given I heard the songs so often during my childhood, I may well have confabulated that into multiple viewings of the film. So I was quite keen to watch it again (in contrast to, say, 101 Dalmatians, which I had no firm memories of ever seeing as a kid, but suspected I might have done). And… it was okay. I had expected it to be better than it was. The animation was nowhere near as beautiful as that of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, and while the songs were mostly very memorable… that was all they were. It all felt a bit weak. Which was weird. I couldn’t help comparing it to 101 Dalmations, which I had not expected to like when I saw it a couple of months ago, but found quite charming. I’m not sure where The Jungle Book fits in the Disney canon – I’m not that much of a fan of their films, to be honest, and am only working my way through them out of a sense of completeness (and a vain hope of being blown away again as I was when I watched Sleeping Beauty). At the moment, myself I’d classify The Jungle Book as middling Disney – not great, but not awful; fun, with catchy songs but an unmemorable story.

eccentricitiesEccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, Manoel de Oliveira (2009, Portugal). Among the countries from which I had not seen a film was Portugal. (I can’t find a felicitous way of phrasing that which emphasises the country, but what I mean is: I had never seen a film from Portugal.) So I hunted around on LoveFilm, and found this, Eccentricities of a Blond-haired Girl, directed by Maniel de Oliviera. And… it was good, very good. It felt like a dramatisation of a story by Karen Blixen. Which is a compliment. A man on a train introduces himself to the woman sitting beside him, and then proceeds to tell her his life-story. Cue flashback. And it’s a very Blixen-like story. In the apartment across the street from the man’s office lived a young woman. He fell in love with her, and arranged to meet her. They were drawn to each other and decided to marry. But his uncle, who is his guardian and employer, wouldn’t let him marry, and fired him when he insisted on going ahead with it. In desperation, the man accepted a job from a friend running a plantation on Cape Verde. A few years later, he returned, having made his fortune. He again asked the young woman to marry him, and she accepted. But another friend asked him to stand guarantor to a business venture… but then disappeared with all the cash, leaving the young man penniless once again. He was offered the job in Cape Verde a second time… but managed to reconcile with his uncle and so turned it down. Now, he had his original job back, his uncle would pay for the wedding, everything was working fine… but the fiancée turned out to be a kleptomaniac (hinted at throughout the film) and so he rejected her. At only 64 minutes, this is a pretty economical film. But it has that literary quality with which the best directors can imbue their movies. It feels like an adaptation of a literary story (it is: by Eça de Quierós), it feels like The Immortal Story or Babette’s Feast. Recommended; and I have added more films by de Oliveira to my rental list.

mutinyMutiny on the Bounty*, Frank Lloyd (1935, USA). Some stories seem to become so much a part of Western Anglophone culture there’s no real need to read the book or see the film or watch the play or hear the song… and so it is with Mutiny on the Bounty, in which the crew of an English ship in the late eighteenth century mutiny, set their evil captain and his sycophants adrift in a boat, settled down to a life of ease on a Pacific island, only for the captain to survive a 7,000 mile ocean journey, set the Royal Navy on the mutineers, and so bring them to justice. And the story goes: that Captain Bligh was a total monster, Fletcher Christian was an Everyman hero, and bad luck and circumstances prevented the mutineers from living the fruitful and paradisical lives they deserved. At least, so Hollywood would have you believe. It’s true that history has demonised Bligh, and Hollywood – in this film especially – fixed that version in the public consciousness. But apparently he was a good captain, and Christian was far from the selfless hero played by, in this movie, Clarke Gable. But that’s all by the bye – it’s a Hollywood film, historical accuracy is not in the product description. I had, however, expected to be mostly unimpressed by Mutiny on the Bounty. But it made a surprisingly excellent fist of life aboard an eighteenth-century sailing vessel, and the storm scenes in particular were done well. Not bad.

electraElectra, My Love, Miklós Jancsó (1974, Hungary). This may be one of the most bonkers films I have ever seen. I have seen a number of bonkers films. I have seen all of Jancsó’s films available on DVD in the UK; Jancsó makes bonkers films. But even by his lights, this is an odd one. Now I love the declamatory nature of Jancsó’s films, and I like the continual movement – of the camera, of the cast – that he uses. But even so, Electra, My Love seemed weirder than I was used to from Jancsó. As the title suggests, it’s about Electra, a thorn in the side of the tyrant Aegisthus who had murdered her father, Agamemnon, fifteen years earlier. And the film plays out Electra’s story, as her brother Orestes, believed dead, reappears in disguise, reveals himself, kills Aegisthus, and takes power. But given that this is a Jancsó film… The story takes place in the middle of nowhere, a grassy plain with no evidence of civilisation other than the crude buildings which feature in the film. And while Electra walks about declaiming, there is a cast of several hundred in continual movement about and around her, including men with whips, dwarves with cymbals, naked women and men dancing, marching bands, dancers with sticks, and a giant ball. It’s like watching a Greek myth in interpretative dance with dramatic dialogues on top. It shouldn’t work, it should feel pretentious to the nth degree… But Jancsó’s genius is that he does make it work, that it comes across as a somewhat peculiar staging of the story, but a staging that adds to the story rather than obscures it. Jancsó is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but I count myself a fan.

springSpring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, Kim Ki-duk (2003, South Korea). The title refers to the “seasons” of a monk’s lifetime. He lives in a tiny monastery which sits in the middle of a lake, and at various points in his life, events happen which are documented under the seasons of the title. The Wikipedia entry – see here – has an excellent description of them. I will admit, I am woefully uninformed when it comes to the creed and practices of Buddhism (but then I’ve never read the Bible, Talmud or Qur’an either), so much of the symbolism in this film went straight over my head. Which may be why, despite its often gorgeous cinematography, I think I like Ki-duk’s 3-Iron more – although Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is plainly the better-looking film. But then Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is a film which succeeds because of its photography. The plot starts out as a series of vignettes, and any story-arc feels like something of an after-thought, but the film’s biggest draw, its Buddhist symbology, would be likely lost on all but students of the religion (but then, who catches every reference in a literary novel?). Both 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring were recommendations from David Tallerman, who I believe counts Ki-duk among his favourite directors… and while my tastes usually lie a little closer to home – ie, from India through the Middle East and Africa to Russia and Northern Europe – and my knowledge of Far Eastern cinema is patchy at best, I do think I’d like to see more by this director.

chinoiseLa Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I think I can ditch my Theory of Godard, it’s plainly complete nonsense. It’s not as if I can split out his famous “political” films either, and declare they don’t work for me – because some of them do. I suspect that if there is something in common to the Godard films I like, it’s that his focus in the ones I like seems to be more on experimenting with narrative forms than it is on just his cast. So in Weekend, he told a surreal story; in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, he tried several different narrative forms; and in Détective, he set out to tell a mystery story that could not be parsed in one sitting. But in La Chinoise, it’s all about the cast members monologuing to camera – especially his new wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky – and while its story (it can hardly be called a plot) presages the student revolts of a couple of years later while simultaneously mocking left-wing student politics, it still possesses Godard’s baffling love of US iconography. The end result is not one of his most gripping, although some of the jokes are good, and the overall structure is interesting, if not entirely successful. Back in 2002 (I could have sworn it was a year or two earlier as I seem to remember buying the DVD while in Abu Dhabi, probably from Amazon), but anyway, in that year I saw my first Godard, À bout de souffle. It was also, I think, my first exposure to the Nouvelle Vague. I have never really considered myself a fan of French New Wave cineman, but the more of Godard’s oeuvre I watch, the more I admire him for his body of work and the more of his films I find that I do like. La Chinoise, I think, is currently borderline – but I’d like to watch it again sometime, so who knows…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 808