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Moving pictures 2017, #23

A few more US films than usual in this post, although one was a Disney, one an independent film, and the last a silent movie from the 1920s.

Peter Pan, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1953, USA). Look at that face on the DVD cover – doesn’t he look, well, a bit evil? I thought all the way through this Disney adaptation that Peter Pan looked impish, but more in the sense of a small devil than a prankster kid. I get that he’s completely immature and thoughtless – it’s there in every word he says and everything he does – but I’d never thought of him as a villain, or even an antihero. And yet, that’s how he’s characterised in Disney’s adaptation – not as a boy who didn’t grow up, though I suspect that’s a characterisation beyond Disney’s writers, and I say that as a boy who never grew up in some senses myself – hey, I read science fiction! – but Peter Pan as an evil force is a complete misrepresentation of the character. Although not altogether uninteresting, and the fact the Darlings are so ordinary and drawn so much like other ordinary families in Disney – comical dad, doting mother, responsible older sister – the whole thing feels like a bad mishmash of two or more movies. Peter Pan is, like many Disney classics, also a pantomime, with the title character played by a woman. As too is Tinkerbell (I forget who the dames are in pantomime Peter Pan), and who has become something of a Disney icon herself, with people cosplaying her just as much as they do all the Disney princess characters and, I think (although I’m not about to investigate), a whole line of Tinkerbell straight-to-DVD animated adventures. And yet Wendy Darling is clearly the most important, and best-drawn, character in the film, and probably the source text too – her invented name did, after all, become popular enough to be considered an ordinary name these days – but then Pan and Tinkerbell are all about the fantasy and Wendy is about making sense of it and who would be interested in that? I’d expected more of Disney’s Peter Pan. I certainly hadn’t expected to take against Pan himself because he looked so bloody evil. I don’t think this one will make my top ten of Disney films…

Springtime in a Small Town, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2002, China). This is a remake of the 1948 classic by Mu Fei, which is a film I very much like. And it’s always odd watching a remake of a film you admire because it makes you wonder why you admire the original film. And in this case… I’ve no idea. This remake is pretty close to the original, but what I like about Mu Fei’s version doesn’t really seem to exist here. I think the reason the original works is because it’s an historical film, made and set during the 1940s, whereas Springtime in a Small Town is set during an historical period but is a contemporary film. The story is the same –  a woman’s old boyfriend, now a doctor, comes to visit and to succour to the woman’s ailing husband, and their old love is rekindled, but never quite requited. The mannered nature of Mu Fei’s version fits brilliantly with the material – not for nothing is it considered one of China’s greatest films – but the same approach feels somewhat artificial in Tian’s remake. It’s a valiant effort, and certainly should have been attempted – it’s only when we attempt to recreate great works of the past that we come to truly appreciate them – but I suspect Springtime in a Small Town was always going to be an also-ran. That’s not always the case, of course: there have been remakes which eclipsed the original, such as Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. Mu Fei’s original is a bona fide classic of Chinese cinema, but Tian’s remake is a bold attempt at recapturing it, which doesn’t quite make the grade. It’s a good film despite that, and had I seen it first I might well hold it in higher esteem. Worth seeing, but watch the original first.

David Holzman’s Diary*, Jim McBride (1967, USA). After making this film, McBride went on to make a raft of commercially-successful films for studios. In other words, he totally sold out. You have to wonder why. Because while David Holzman’s Diary has its faults – it’s pretty boring, for a start – it also has a great deal of originality. A young New Yorker decides to film his life, and is very forthright about how, and with what equipment, he plans to do so. But his girlfriend is none too happy with his decision, and throughout the film their relationship deteriorates quite badly. For most of its length, David Holzman’s Diary manages to convince with its premise, but there are times when its staged nature is a little too obvious – and it is, perversely, when it’s at its most cinema verité that it feels most fake. There’s a scene with a “goddess of the street” that feels both very real and also really staged, more because it feels like “Holzman” is forcing an encounter for the sake of his film where none would normally exist. I can see why David Holzman’s Diary made it onto the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I suspect history has been less than kind to it, and will continue to be less kind to it as the years pass, than the list has supposed.

It’s All About Love, Thomas Vinterberg (2003, Denmark). Vinterberg’s Festen is the first official Dogme film and it is a bona fide classic. Which makes It’s All About Love, with its incredibly bland and uninteresting title, even more of a mystery. It has huge ambition, and I admire it for that. But it fails at pretty much everything, which is not totally a deal-breaker… but its interesting bits don’t quite add up to an interesting whole, which is a deal-breaker. Joaquin Phoenux and Claire Danes play a pair of Poles – she is a world-famous figure skater, he is married to her but their relationship has long since soured and now he’s stopping off in New York on the way to a new job in Canada in order to get her to sign divorce papers. But Danes is surrounded by a group of frankly creepy hangers-on and managers… Phoenix is given the run-around, but he’s not sure why – and it doesn’t help when his elder brother, played by Sean Penn, phones in randomly from several other scenes. It transpires Danes’s managers have hired four Russian ice skaters, and had them surgically altered to resemble Danes so they can take over her career, allowing her to retire, with, it’s proposed, Phoenix, as their relationship seems to have rekindled. But then there’s a slaughter on the ice, but the real Danes escapes, and she and Phoenix fly off to Russia and end up somewhere really cold where she dies of exposure. As I said before, It’s All About Love is all about ambition. The world is not our own, and there are thunking great clues dropped throughout the film – the resolution, in part, depends on the world Vinterberg has created. Sadly, none of it really convinces. The small details ought to, but the whole edifice teeters so much on the edge of disbelief that none of it helps. Festen is a great film, and I wanted to like It’s All About Love but, to be honest, it doesn’t even qualify as a noble failure, it’s just a failure.

El Desenlace, Juan Pinzás (2005, Spain). The Spanish do erotic thrillers really well, but I’m not convinced this falls into that description, despite being pretty much exclusively about sex. A director of a film, his producer (who is also his mistress), and the writer of the source novel, along with a prying journalist, all meet in Galicia to discuss the upcoming adaptation. El Desenlace has been promoted as a Dogme film, and it’s certainly shot on digital video with unflattering lighting, although it’s no Festen. Much of the film consists of the director character winding up the writer character over his choice of sexual partner – specifically a transgender cabaret artist who appears at a local nightclub. Which is where things get complicated – because the director’s producer  promises the cabaret artist a major career, while the cabaret artist has also decided it’s time to drop the writer sugar daddy. I can certainly understand why El Desenlace is touted as a Dogme film, but it’s also a very talky film – the entire plot is carried in dialogue – and for all its arguments, and its reliance of a central cast of four – five, including the cabaret artist – it doesn’t do a great deal with the material it has. Disappointing.

The Big Parade*, King Vidor (1925, USA). There’s always something slighlt risible about US films set during WWI. It was called the Great War, and The War to End All Wars, at the time, and World War 1 later, but the US calls it the 1917-18 War and likes to pretend it contributed – when it was only there for the last year and suffered only a tiny fraction of the damage suffered by European nations. So a film about the 1917-18 War from a major Hollywood studio, less than a decade after the war finished, is just adding fucking insult to injury. John Gilbert plays the playboy son a of a mill owner who signs up and discovers the horrors of war for himself. There is so much that is wrong with this film – it glorifies the US’s piss-poor contribution ot WW1, and it legitimises the existence of over-privileged nitwits like Gilbert’s character. Yet it all makes for top-notch Hollywood drama of its time. Vidor was no amateur, he knew his stuff. This is a silent film, and it had the full resources of Hollywood behind it. Some of the long shots, with the casts of hundreds, if not thousands, are impressive. But, please, stop valourising the rich, stop pretending the US won all the world wars, and stop fucking pretending you’re anything but a socially backward nation with access to relatively high technology. The Big Parade‘s position on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is dubious at best, although on balance I’m currently tempted to let it remain.

1001 Movies You Musrt See Before You Die count: 862


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Moving pictures, #58

Continuing on with the movies posts in a world in which superheroes, should they start to appear, would actually look like the good guys…

housekeepingHousekeeping, Bill Forsythe (1987, USA). I’m a big fan of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction and have all of her novels, so I was naturally interested to see how she translated to the silver screen because, er, well, I’m not sure. And the answer is, er, I’m still not sure. I enjoyed the film Housekeeping, but not as much as I enjoyed the novel. But one of the joys of Robinson’s novels is her prose, and so a cinematic adaptation has to provide an equivalent – and I don’t think that Forsyth’s Housekeeping does. But, would I have read the book having seen the film? Probably not. It’s a perfect example of how the two media interact. It’s usually said the book is better than the film, although there are a few examples where the reverse is true – Marnie, The Commitments… – and it’s certainly true for Housekeeping, even though the film is not all that bad without knowledge of the book. Christine Lahti is good as the flaky aunt who takes over the upbringing of the two girls (one of whom narrates). However, the landscape as shown in the film never quite fit my mental map from reading the book. Mostly it was too big. Now, the US is big, so I suspect the film was a better representation than what I had imagined, but it still felt weird watching it. Intellectually, I guessed I was wrong, which then felt like accusing myself of a failure of imagination… But then voicover is a poor substitute for interiority, if only because using it to the same extent feels like over-using it. Post-facto narration is one way of presenting interiority via voiceover, but it’s tricky to write in such a way that the lack of hindsight doesn’t seem odd. Mostly Housekeeping succceeds, and on reflection its charm probably carries it further than someone with knowledge of the book would expect. Worth seeing, but I much prefer the novel.

hitch_truffHitchcock / Truffaut, Kent Jones (2015, France). I’m a big fan of Hitchcock’s films – in fact, he was the first director whose movies I collected on DVD because he was the director, rather than buying DVDs based on story or stars or  genre, and I buillt up a collection of pretty much everything he had made. A recent rewatch of his two main collections, after upgrading them to Blu-ray, only confirmed by admiration of the movies. Truffaut, on the other hand… I love his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 – in fact I love the film but hate the book – but nothing else by him has ever really appealed to me. I’ve always much preferred Godard. But Truffaut was a big fan of Hitchcock and, as a writer for Cahiers du Cinema, was instrumental in rehabilitating Hitchocock as an auteur. This documentary includes footage of the original interview which led to Truffaut’s book (I really do need to get myself a copy), as well as present-day talking heads discussing Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Truffaut’s interview of Hitchcock. It’s fascinating stuff, more so because of what it reveals of Hitchcock than because of its commentary – there’s a telling moment where Hitchcock directs Truffaut during a photo shoot, and it’s clear from his comments that Hitch knows exactly what looks best. Recommended.

zero_de_conduiteZéro de conduite*, Jean Vigo (1933, France). I know Vigo from L’atalante, which I bought many years ago from, I think, a sale at HMV. It turns out he only made four films, and both L’atalante and Zéro de conduite make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before  you Die list, which I calculate at 50% of his oeuvre, and that has to be considered a pretty impressive achievement. Except… well, I didn’t think that much of Zéro de conduite. In fact, of the three films included on the disc I rented – it also included À propos de Nice and Le natation par Jean Taris – I thought À propos de Nice more interesting a movie than Zéro de conduite. Anyway, Zéro de conduite – it’s set at a boys’ school in, I suppose, the 1910s. The school is harsh and the pupils eventually rebel. None of it seems entirely real – there’s a teacher who steals food from the pupils, there’s a lack of discipline that seems more wish-fulfilment from the pupils than the teachers… and while it’s all entertaining enough, nothing seemed to really stand out. Le natation par Jean Taris was a straightforward documentary on a swimmer and his technique, and while Vigo’s film-making techniques may have been every bit as innovative as Taris’s swimming technique in 1931, all that remains now is a mildly interesting documentary on swimming which clearly prototypes techniques now commonplace. À propos de Nice, however, is much more interesting proposition. The result of a desire to make a film about Nice, Vigo was determined to avoid common narratives, and so chose to contrast the rich with the poor. The film opens with aerial shots of the city, a surprising enough thing to see on the screen in 1930, before showing the great and good wandering up and down the Corniche. It then moves to the poorer sections of the city, and the contrast is every bit as effective as Vego might have imagined. À propos de Nice did more to persuade me that Vigo was an important early director than Zéro de conduite ever did, and I suspect it rightly belongs on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list.

ray_1Nayak, Satyajit Ray (1966, India). The third and final film in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 1, and while I thought Charulata the best of the three, I’d be hard-pressed to choose whether this one or Mahanagar the next best. The “hero” of the title is a Bengali movie star, Arindam Mukherjee, who has to travel by train to Mumbai to pick up an award. Also on the train is a young editor from a women’s magazine who persuades Mukherjee to allow her to interview him. As he answers her questions, it triggers flashbacks which dramatise some of the incidents which led to his current success. Like Charulata, there are also some dream sequences – so I’m starting to wonder if this is a Ray thing – and they’re both disturbing and effectively staged. One in particular has Mukherjee drowning in a sea of money when he spots a mentor from earlier in his career – except the mentor looks like a statue. Anyway, it’s weird and yet very effective. Nayak is a character study of its protagonist, but it’s also a study of what a character study is. Mukherjee’s present-day actions are explained through flashback vignettes, which also help illustrate why he reacts as he does in later scenes. There’s a running argument throughout the film between Mukherjee and his mentor, the former sees himself as part of a new generation of actors, the latter as a defender of the old tradition. Although I’ve only seen a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I already have him pegged as an urban director, compared to Ghatak’s often rural settings. (But then I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s films, and I suspect he saw himself as more of a Marxist than a defender of the rural way of life.) Certainly the three movies in this box set by Ray are urban, and it makes an interesting change to Ghatak’s films.

herzogNosferatu: Phantom der Nacht*, Werner Herzog (1979, Germany). I prefer the German title to this film, although the version of it I watched this time around was the English-language version. It’s a pretty straightforward remake of Murnau’s film, with Kinski in the Schreck role, and while he doesn’t quite manage to present the same level of menace, Herzog’s film does have some lovely cinematography and use of incidental music. Particularly in the scenes where Bruno Ganz (as Jonathan Harker) approaches Dracula’s castle, which are beautifully shot with impressively evocative background music. Whitby is transposed into Wismar, a small town on Germany’s coast on the Baltic; but the story pretty much follows Bram Stoker’s story. When you have so many cinematic adaptations of a single novel – or of that novel’s eponymous villain – then fidelity to the source text seems pretty irrelevant. By 1979, of course, Dracula had been pretty much set in the public’s mind as a saturnine but urbane aristocrat in dinner jacket and cape. Herzog’s Dracula is a welcome return to Murnau’s frankly quite odd presentration of the vampire, but in that form he at least seems to embody a real sense of menace. Having said all that, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht does seem a little, well, tame for Herzog. Nonetheless, it’s easily one of the better Dracula films made – and yes, it does belong on 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list; and yes, Murnau’s Nosferatu is also on the list, as is Dreyer’s Vampyr

stella_dallasStella Dallas*, King Vidor (1937, USA). This didn’t appear to be available on DVD in either the UK or US, and the copy I finally ended up with was a Spanish release. And it was pretty much a waste of time – the film was a potboiler, with little to recommend it and its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character, the daughter of a millworker, who has social ambitions. She engineers an introduction to mill manager John Boles, callously gets him to marry her on the rebound, and then uses her new-found position to explore society, much to her husband’s disapproval. But after giving birth to a girl, she sublimates all her ambition into giving her daughter the best start in life. Husband meanwhile has been transferred to New York, but mother and child stay back home, mother hanging out with unsavoury types while daughter grows up like some sort of changeling. But then husband bumps into an old flame, now widowed and with three boys, and they rekindle their relationship. Daughter goes to visit, is a great hit, and… well, you can see where this is going. It’s pure melodrama from start to finish, but has none of the subversiveness of Sirk. I’ve no idea why it was on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list – it may have been nominated for two Oscars, and the AFI nominated the title character as one of its 100 Heroes & Villains… But it was all a bit meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 820