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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


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Moving pictures, #51

There have been too many movies of late – typically Hollywood action or thriller movies – which I’ve started to watch on Amazon Prime, only to give up ten minutes in because of their macho stupidity and lack of resemblance to anything approaching the real world. So I guess in that respect the service is proving useful, since I haven’t wasted rental DVDs on those films. Unfortunately, it does mean I have to look further afield for the sort of films I do want to watch – and I was already watching pretty obscure ones… It’s also proving annoying how few non-Anglophone movies are released on DVD in the UK – and some are released in such low numbers, they’re deleted less than a year later. Several years ago, I used to operate what I called “The Rule of DVD” – ie, don’t buy a DVD unless it was priced under £10. At the time, it made sense since most DVDs were released at £19.99 or £16.99. Unfortunately, the cheapest ones were generally the big Hollywood blockbusters, so it meant waiting for a sale or picking up second-hand ones on eBay… Nowadays, DVDs under £5 are pretty common, but again it’s the blockbusters (or really shit straight-to-DVD films). And the ones I now want are even more expensive than they were. Argh.

Having said all that, this bunch of films is mostly obscure – with one glaring exception, which, unbelievably, I’d never seen before (I thought I had but, watching it, nothing was familiar).

kumikoKumiko, the Treasure Hunter, David Zellner (2014, USA). I think this was a recommendation from David Tallerman. It’s certainly not a film I’d have put on my rental list. And despite the first half being set in Japan. and entirely in Japanese, it’s an American film. It’s based on an urban legend, that a young Japanese woman who was found dead in Minnesota in 2001 had been searching for the ransom money buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Kumiko, an introverted office lady, finds a videotape hidden in a cave on the shore. It’s a copy of Fargo, but she convinces herself it’s real, uses her employer’s credit card to buy a plane ticket to the US, but the card is cancelled, so she starts walking toward Fargo. She’s picked up en route by a friendly sheriff, but her English is poor and when he learns her purpose he can’t get across to her that Fargo is fiction. An odd film. Zellner manages to get across Kumiko’s alienation pretty effectively – both in Japan and in the US – and Rinko Kikuchi’s slightly-bewildered but blank-faced expression throughout convinces you she is precisely the sort of person who would fixate on something fictional as fact. Worth seeing.

assassinThe Assassin, Hou Hsiao-Tsien (2015, China). And another recommendation from David Tallerman. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film. I’m not an especially big fan of wu xia, although many of those I’ve watched have been gorgeous spectacles. The Assassin, however, takes a different approach – it’s very slow, very quiet, and a lot of it takes place indoors. Shu Qi plays the title role, who after failing to kill her target (because he had his baby son in his arms), is sent to the province of Weibo to kill the governor… to whom she was once betrothed. While The Assassin doesn’t have the colourful and kinetic cinematography found in a lot of wu xia, it is beautifully shot, and makes a great deal of use of stillness – which is only emphasised by the cast’s deliberate lack of affect in playing their parts, and which also makes the sudden eruptions of violence all the more visually shocking. Definitely worth seeing.

classic_bergmanIt Rains on Our Love, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). This was the second film Bergman directed, with a script co-written by himself and based on a Norwegian play by Oskar Braaten. A young woman runs away to a provincial town after becoming pregnant, and a young man, fresh out of prison, is looking for a new life. The woman misses her train and bumps into the young man. They decide that since luck brought them together then they are fated to be together. After leaving their train, they stumble along a lane during a downpour, and end up breaking into a small house for shelter. But the owner catches them. He offers to rent it to them. The young man goes looking for a job, finds one, and the two settle down. But every time good luck comes their way, it’s followed by bad. Fortunately, there is a man with an umbrella, who appears every now and again and speaks to camera, who helps them out of their difficulties. I can’t say this was especially memorable – it was interesting seeing how Swedes lived in the country back in the 1940s, but the whole thing felt like a somewhat unsubtle play. One for fans only, I suspect.

starA Star is Born*, George Cukor (1954, USA). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before – as I mention above – but perhaps I just thought I had because I knew the story from the Barbra Streisand / Kris Kristofferson version, which I definitely remember seeing. Oh, and I’ve seen the Janet Gaynor / Fredric March version too – this time last year, in fact. The story is simple enough: matinee idol on the way down spots young talent and helps her to become a star, and as their careers head in opposite directions so their relationship suffers. In this version, the upwardly-mobile star is Judy Garland in a comeback role, although apparently still suffering from chemical dependencies, and the star heading downwards is James Mason, who was not the first choice by any means but despite being a little too urbane for the role proves capable of a surprisingly good drunk. The film was shot in glorious Technicolor, and Cukor makes good use of it. But it was by all accounts an unhappy shoot, and the studio then butchered Cukor’s cut in an effort to chop it down to a “more commercial” length. The version I watched is the 176-minute restored version from 1983, which uses still photos and voice-over dialogue to fill in the scenes lost on the cutting-room floor. And judging by which scenes were cut, I’m surprised the theatrical release made any sense at all. I’m not a Garland fan, and this film is pretty obviously her star-vehicle, nor did I think the musical numbers all that good – the overly-long ‘Born in a Trunk’ number, filmed after Cukor had left the production, was especially self-indulgent. Still, at least I can cross it off the list.

detectiveDétective, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). I am mostly indifferent to French cinema, I have discovered, except for a handful of exceptions – Ozon, of course; and some Renoir; Demy; Rivette, perhaps; Tati, obviously; Denis, Assayas, assorted migrant directors like Kieślowski and Żuławski; and, I’m surprised to discover, quite a bit of Godard. I had a theory that I liked colour Godard but not black-and-white Godard, but what I hadn’t expected was that I’d like colour Godard so much. True, I count Le Mépris as a favourite film, but it’s his “commercial” film and not typical of his oeuvre. But I’ve found myself liking, and admiring, some of Godard’s later work, like Two or Three Things I Know About HerWeekend, Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language. I find him… interesting. In the positive sense of the word (as it’s used by Brits). Détective is a case in point. It’s ostensibly several thriller plot lines entangled together, all of which revolve around a single hotel in Paris. But it’s also almost impossible to parse in a single sitting. I’m going to have to get a copy of my own, because I want to watch it again – it’s a film that demands rewatching. And to make a film that can’t be parsed with a single viewing is such an astonishingly arrogant thing to do that I can’t help admiring Godard for doing it.

returnThe Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003, Russia). I’d seen Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan last year, and thought it very good – although I did prefer Lungin’s Ostrov, but Zvyagintsev’s earlier films are easier to get on DVD in the UK (in fact, all of Zvyagintsev’s feature films are available for rental, none of Lungin’s are) – so I added The Return, The Banishment and Elena to my rental list… and The Return duly arrived. And… it is bloody good. I liked it more, I think, than Leviathan. Two boys return home one day to discover that their father, who disappeared twelve years before, has returned. He takes the two on a fishing trip in an attempt to reconnect with them, but his methods are harsh and brutal. He stands by, for instance, when the two boys are mugged for the wallet of cash he has just given them. When the muggers escape, he goes after them, and brings the ringleader back for his sons to have revenge on – but they can do nothing. One son is keen to earn the father’s approval, the other is resistant. The trip ends in disaster, when the younger son climbs a decrepit watch tower, echoing the opening scene of the film in which the boy is too scared to climb down from a similar tower, and the father climbs up to fetch him down but falls to his death. The film is beautifully photographed, with a a washed-out colour palette that suits its story and setting. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805


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Moving pictures, #27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Moving pictures, #18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 753