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Moving pictures 2018, #35

A good mix, nothing too populist, but instead some good films from a number of different countries… Well, okay, maybe not all of them are that good…

Caravaggio*, Derek Jarman (1986, UK). That’s the last of the Derek Jarman box set and it’s a film I first saw many years ago – not at school, as it was released two years after I sat my A Levels, but perhaps when I was a university student. I don’t remember, I just remember the film itself… and this rewatch did not in that respect provide any surprises. There were a few scenes I had forgotten, but much of the film had remained in memory. Which I guess means something. Jarman’s use of deliberately anachronistic set dressing I’d certainly remembered, so the appearance of trucks and such in some scenes did not seem as shocking as perhaps intended. Which is not to say they did not perform their purpose – perhaps even more so, because the shock value no longer applied, I could see them for what they were. Which was elements of an idiosyncratic retelling of the life of Michelangelo da Caravaggio, which used his paintings – or those that have survived – as inspiration to document parts of his life. The  title role is played by Nigel Terry, who has never been better, but there are plenty of other familiar faces in there. Also in the cast is Sean Bean, in his first major role, as is Tilda Swinton, whom he snogs. Which was weird. The film is mostly told from Caravaggio’s death-bed, using it to jump back to incidents in his life. It works as well inasmuch as it allows for commentary. The film’s aesthetic, anachronisms and all, I thought especially effective, and I ended up liking the film more than I had expected. I bought this box set on a whim, and because I’d not seen Jubilee but some recent watches on Jarman’s films had persuaded me it might be worth a punt. And it was indeed. It’s even turned me into a sort of fan of Jarman’s films, which I wasn’t before. I’m now eagerly awaiting the Volume 2 box set.

Black Rose Mansion, Kinji Fukasaku (1969, Japan). Fukasaku, who is best known these days for his film of Battle Royale, made two films with famous Japanese female impersonator Akihiro Miwa (AKA Akihiro Maruyama) – this one and Kurotokage (see here). Having seen both, I can definitely say Kurotokage is the better of the two. Which is not to say Black Rose Mansion, AKA Kuro bara no yakata, is bad. It has its moments. Miwa plays the mysterious singer in the titular roadhouse. Not only is Ryuko’s past a mystery, but it also seems wildly inconsistent, as a series of men turn up claiming to be her lover and she refuses to admit whether she had affairs with them. It is, to be honest, all a little over the top, especially given that some of them profess their undying love by killing themselves and the deaths are presented with all the technicolor relish of B-movies. The whole thing began to pall after a while, it must be said, given that Miwa’s character remained stubbornly mute on her past and the parade of past lovers didn’t seem to prove anything. If you must watch a camp 1960s Japanese thriller, then I’d recommend Kurotokage over this one.

Okja, Bong Joon-ho (2017, South Korea). This was recommended by a number of friends, both those who watch Korean cinema and those who don’t. And having now seen it, I can understand why, as it sort of feels like a Korean film without actually being one. Although it certainly opens like a Hollywood movie. A US company has a bred a super-pig and sent super piglets around the world to be reared by indigenous farmers. Ten years later, they will be assessed and the best will win a prize. There’s a problem right there – not just the genetically-engineered pig, but the idea of using subsistence level farmers to grow it, given that the governmental and corporate world have been trying to wipe out subsistence level farmers for decades. Anyway, the one in South Korea, called Okja by the young woman who cares for it, wins and is shipped to New York for the ceremony. But an animal rights group try to prevent this, as they’re convinced the corporation’s motives are not as advertised. And it’s all the slightly off-kilter approach Boon brings to a story married to the usual Hollywood glib depiction of corporatisation and the near-future, sort of like cyberpunk with its raison d’être surgically removed so smoothly it hasn’t even noticed… It didn’t help that the titular super-pig looked more like a hippo, or that Tilda Swinton, playing the twin sisters who ran the corporation chewed the scenery more than the super-pig… It all felt like a fun movie that was trying so hard to appeal to a Hollywood market it had lost whatever charm it might have had. It looked very nice, but it was not very likeable.

Xala, Ousmane Sembène (1975, Senegal). Xala, pronounced khala, means “temporary impotence” in Wolof, and is also the title of the novel by Sembène from which this film was adapted. The film opens with a voiceover describing Senegal’s independence, with actors playing the parts of the new Senegalese government. One of these, a minister, is congratulated on his upcoming nuptials. To a woman less than half his age. And she’s his third wife. I’m sorry, I don’t give a shit what your religion is, but there’s no justification for polygamy. Women are not property. Sembène is making the same point, although he’s also setting out an allegory about independence, in which the new wife is the country’s new-found freedom. Which results in impotence – the minister can’t get it up despite the manifold attractions of his new wife. He is not only too wedded to the old ways, he prospered too well under them. Now he has control, he doesn’t know what to do with it. So to speak. I have to date seen five films by Ousmane Sembène and I think they’re all pretty damn good. It’s not that they’re polished pieces of work, because they’re not – there are no special effects, no studio sets, most of the cast are non-professional, Sembène’s lack of resource as usually there to see on the screen… But they’re so well-presented. Not just as depictions of life in Senegal – in Dakar – at the time of filming, but also as drama and as political statements. Sembène made 13 movies (four of them shorts) and wrote ten novels. I want to see all his films, and have a bash at some of his novels.

Winter Kills, William Richert (1979, USA). This film is allegedly a forgotten classic, and “forgotten” certainly applies to it as I’d never heard of it until I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime. And yet it received many positive reviews on its initial release. It also had a troubled production history, and I wonder if that has added to the film’s reputation… because as a straight-up thriller it leaves something to be desired, and as a comedy, black or otherwise, it fails dismally; although it nevertheless manages to mostly entertain. The plot is a thinly-disguised reference to the assassination of JFK. Twenty years after the death of the president, his brother is approached with evidence demonstrating the commonly-accepted narrative is wrong. So he investigates further, and follows a chain of anecdote and interview to… I’m not sure if it’s worth the spoiler. I can’t honestly see what was so good about this film it gained the label “forgotten classic”. The cast are pretty good, true, but the plot stumbles from the obvious to the inane, and its so-called humour falls flat more often than not. Its production history is actually more entertaining – look it up on Wikipedia. The version I watched was the director’s cut, which is not always the best cut. But, to be honest, it’s hard to see how any cut could make this film a classic unless there were thousands more feet of film left on the cutting-room floor. Best avoided.

Not One Less, Zhang Yimou (1999, China). More Chinese cinema, from a well-known Fifth Generation director. The teacher in a countryside village has to leave for family reasons, so a substitute teacher is sent… but she’s thirteen-years-old and hardly qualified. And it shows initially. When one of the boys runs away to the city to earn money to pay off his mother’s debts, she follows him. But he’s not where he’s supposed to be, so she tries to persuade the radio station manager to broadcast a message to him. Instead, a local TV station take up her story and interview her on air – or at least try to, as she clams up from nervousness. But the boy, who’s living on the streets, sees the broadcast, the two are united, and they’re returned to the village with money and school equipment – chalk, basically – by the TV station, who smell a better story. Everyone in the movies is a non-professional actor, and many filled roles they hold in real life. It gave the whole thing a very documentary air, something I especially like about Sixth Generation movies, and I have to wonder if this is one of their touchstone works. Zhang, from the films of his I’ve seen, has had a varied career, but Not One Less so much resembled the sort of Chinese film I really like that I couldn’t help but love it. The cast of mostly children are really good, especially the two leads, and the whole thing is both excellent commentary and excellent drama. Apparently, the Chinese authorities made Zhang change the text at the end which claims one million children drop out of school during to poverty because the real figure – three to five times that – was too embarrassing. The poverty of the schooling actually shown on the screen should be embarrassment enough. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 918

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Films do furnish a room

In these days of streaming, and obsessive de-cluttering, DVDs probably no longer furnish a room – which I guess means the days of judging a person from their collection of VHS cassettes, DVDs or Blu-rays has passed. Judging someone by their book collection, on the other hand, was never especially useful – if they had more than a dozen books, then they were a reader and that was good. But even then, back in the 1970s and 1980s, people used to have several coffee table books on their wall-units (remember those?) – but they’d probably been given as gifts and never read. Most of the people I knew who collected VHS cassettes collected episodes of television sf series – Dr Who, Stargate, Star Trek, etc. Films never really felt like they were worth keeping. So why do I have nearly 1000 of them? Oh well. Here are a few more that have recently joined the collection…

I still consider Alien one of the greatest sf films ever made, and if the franchise has been on a downward slide ever since I can always hope it might one day match the brilliance of that first film. Sadly, Alien: Covenant doesn’t. It’s even worse than Prometheus. And yet it was given mostly approving reviews. John Carter, on the other hand, was a genuinely good film, one of the best sf films of the past five years, and yet reviewers slagged it off. It has its faults – name a sf film that doesn’t – but it’s both a gorgeous piece of cinema and a really clever script. I decided it was time to upgrade my DVD copy to a Blu-ray. Othello is possibly Welles’s nearly best film – it has some of his most striking cinematography, but it was filmed in bits and pieces over three years and that tells against it. Personal Shopper (see here) is another idiosyncratic movie from Assayas, a director worth following, and a charity shop find.

After watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (see here), which I had rented, I went and bought everything available by the director, Ben Rivers. Which is A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (co-directed with Ben Russell; see here) and Two Years at Sea. Totally worth it. A director whose career I will be following from now on.

An international bunch here. Splendid Float is Tawianese (see here), Kurotoage is Japanese (see here) and Se Eu Fosse Você 1 and Se Eu Fosse Você 2 are so-so Brazilian comedies (see here).

The Mizoguchi Collection was a gift from David Tallerman. I am not as enamoured of early Japanese cinema as he is – except perhaps for Ozu – but I certainly recognise the quality of the films. Possession was the first of the Mondo Vision re-releases of Żułwaski’s films, and proved quite difficult to find. I now have five of the Mondo Vision limited edition DVDs. A sixth, La Note Bleue, was released earlier this year – it’s on order. Żułwaski is an aquired taste, but Mondo Vision have done a sterling job on their releases of his films. Finally, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is an excellent film,er, project, and its first volume included a beautifully-restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. So no matter what Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included, I was going to buy it because it was likely to include important films – and so it does, by: Lino Brocka, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yermek Shinarbayev, Mário Peixoto, Edward Yang and Ömer Lütfi Akad.

 


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Moving pictures 2017, #50

Not so much of a geographical spread this time, with two films from the US. One of the US films is especially timely, despite being more than seventy years old.

Keeper of the Flame, George Cukor (1943, USA). An American hero, Robert Forrest, is killed in a car crash, and the nation mourns. Journalist Spencer Tracy is intrigued by the response of the family, especially widow Katherine Hepburn, and decides to dig deeper… only to discover the dead man had been using his wealth to build a fascist organisation bent on seizing control of the country. Sound familiar? This is not a great film: Tracey is coasting, Hepburn was desperate after a couple of duds, and the final act is muddled and relies too much on a massive infodump. But the idea of a populist leader courting fascists to gain power – I’m talking about Trump, just in case you’re too dim to spot the resemblance – is certainly something that resonates now. Forrest’s death is initially presented as an accident – he died when a bridge on his estate gave way during a fierce storm… but was the bridge sabotaged? The focus on the truth behind Forrest’s death pretty much dictates the plot for much of the film’s length, but it’s a red herring – he was killed because of his plans, and that’s where the film’s focus should have been. Disappointing.

Kurotokage, Kinji Fukasaku (1968, Japan). When I saw this film was based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, I thought the name was a Japanisation of Edgar Allen Poe. But it turns out there really was a Japanese writer called Edogawa Rampo, although, yes, it was a pen name and it is indeed a rendering of Poe’s name. Rampo was a seminal writer in Japan’s mystery genre, and the story of Kurotokage (AKA Black Lizard) is one of his. The title refers to the head of a criminal organisation, played in the film by female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama, who kidnaps a jeweler’s daughter as part of a plan to steal the jeweler’s most famous piece. It’s the sort of 1960s thriller tosh the Italians churned out by the yard and the Americans managed to avoid because New Hollywood got in the way – none of which means it’s not entertaining. Isao Kimura as the detective Akechi is smooth and perhaps too much of a stereotype, but Maruyama plays a good villain; and the improbable convolutions of the plot manage to stay just the right side of sense. And it all looks very 1960s, Japanese-style, which is a plus. Wikipedia claims the film is not available on DVD, and it certainly took me several years before I found a copy – but yes, there is a DVD release, Japanese but with English subtitles, it just takes a bit of searching to find. Not a great film, but one worth seeing.

Melody Time, Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson (1948, USA). During WWII, Disney trotted out a series of anthology films designed chiefly to keep its studio of animators in work. Which is not to say that every segment in this particular film feels like makework. It’s all very dated and of its time, true, and some of the animation is not as good as other works from Disney’s heyday. But a lot of it is very good, even if it’s sometimes unsure of what register it should be in – so the story about the two lovers who go ice-skating can’t decide on melodrama or comedy; and it’s not the only one. The animation is mostly of the same sort of design as that of Sleeping Beauty, probably my favourite Disney film… but the last segment of Melody Time‘s seven sequences is a mix of live action and animation, featuring Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. It comes across like the sort of kids’ programme you’d expect 1040s American television to have produced – albeit in colour – with an earnest adult celebrity earnestly patronising a group of credulous kids that were clearly cast for their looks and their ability to look and sound credulous. I actually enjoyed the film, and took it for what it was, an historical document,

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK). So, after watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, I went and bought everything else Rivers had done that was available on DVD. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is actually a collaboration with American film-maker Ben Russell – and the DVD includes Russell’s 2013 short, Let Us Persevere in What We Have Resolved Before We Forget. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness follows musician Lichens on an island off the Estonian coast, in a forest in northern Finland, and as vocalist at a gig in Norway for a black metal band created for the film. The print is crisper than Rivers’s earlier Two Years at Sea – I’m guessing he didn’t use the same production technique and develop it at home – although there’s a similar love of static shots of steaming forests. This is another film where the landscape plays an important role, and I am a big fan of films that make effective use of landscape. I said in an earlier Moving pictures post that in a Rivers film plot was treated as an “emergent phenomenon”, and while A Spell to Ward off the Darkness was clearly and consciously constructed to tell a story – it has three parts! – it displays that same plotlessness. So there’s that dichotomy between a deliberately-designed narrative and the appearance of no narrative – and I like that narrative design can include the possiblility of no narrative, that some people actively seek to tell stories in ways that seem to disobey most rules of narrative. With someone like Rivers, I find I value his work for its cinematography – often excellent, but occasionally clichéd – and for its refusal to follow cinematic narratives.  I’m interested in narrative structures, both in film and fiction, which probably explains why I find Godard so fascinating and commercial fiction so dull. Rivers is that odd beast, an artist working in narrative cinema – which presents its own set of problems and its own reasons for appeal. I shall certainly be following his career from now on.

Splendid Float, Zero Chou (2004, Taiwan). Not sure where I came across mention of this film, but I had to buy a Chinese DVD from eBay in order to see it. And… yes, it was worth it. A young man spends his days as a Taoist priest and his nights as a drag queen on a travelling float. One night, he meets a fisherman and the two fall in love. He later learns the fisherman has died in mysterious circumstances, and determines to discover the truth of his death. But this isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more a study of the priest’s grief. It would feel like a Taiwanese version of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – an over-rated film, I think – if it focused chiefly on the eponymous, er, float. But it doesn’t. While it presents a mystery regarding the fisherman’s death, it doesn’t make a serious attempt to resolve it. As a Taoist priest, the young man is asked to officiate at a ceremony to pacify the young man’s spirit – and it’s there where the heart of the film lies. For the ceremony to be effective, it needs an article of clothing worn by the deceased. The mother and grandmother have forgotten to bring something; the priest happens to be wearing a T-shirt given to him by the fisherman when last he saw him. There’s a slight weirdness in that the Taoist priest is presented a bit like an ambulance chaser, ie, occupying an office, with a manager, and having to chase up business in order to ensure everyone’s wages are paid. Chou is highly-regarded as a documentary film-maker, although she has also made nine feature films. There’s a joy to Splendid Float, despite its subject, which many films of its like fail to achieve. I might start looking for more of Chou’s films…

Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). After damning Godard with faint praise in a previous Moving pictures post, I found the cinematography in Je vous salue, Marie really very fetching. In fact, I think it might be one of my favourite Godard films – after Le mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (and no, I don’t know why I keep on using the translated title for the latter). The story is a pretty blunt retelling of the Virgin Birth, with college dropout boyfriend Joseph and Uncle Gabriel, a rich uncle who jets in and tells Marie she will become pregnant. The film was unpopular with the religious lobby, chiefly because of full-frontal nudity in such an obvious Biblical retelling. One irate viewer at Cannes apparently threw a shaving cream pie at Godard. There’s some lovely nature photography in the film, much more noticeably than in any other Godard film I’ve seen, and although it’s a terrible cliché to use nature’s variety as illustrative of God’s purpose, Godard frames the epiphany entirely from the title character’s viewpoint. I’ve now watched Je vous salue, Marie several times and I’m still trying to work out if it’s Godard’s masterpiece. Le mépris is an obviously excellent piece of film-making, and it’s plain from the first frame. Two or Three Things I Know About Her I admire because it breaks so many of the rules of narrative cinema. But Je vous salue, Marie… I tweeted while watching it that Godard had done more to expand the language of cinema than any other director, and, okay, the comment was prompted by watching this film after a glass or two of wine… But, ignoring those directors from the very early days of film-making who basically wrote the language of narrative cinema, then, yes, I think Godard has done more to expand narrative cinema than any other director of narrative cinema. US experimental and avant-garde cinema, such as that by Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren or Bruce Baillie, doesn’t seem to have impacted commercial cinema much, if at all; European avant-garde directors tended to get subsumed into the mainstream. Of course, these days, there are also artists who use video, or video installations (the distinction is important), as their medium, such as Richard Mosse, Ed Atkins or Cécile B Evans, all of whose work I’ve recently found fascinating. Je vous salue, Marie is Godard doing commercial narrative cinema after many years away from it, and I’m still not sure what to make of it – its use of the female experience, its Biblical story-line, its nudity, its nature photography, its classical music soundtrack, its topic… There’s too much in there I’ve seen explored by other directors I admire, and while I don’t believe one or the other is an homage to one or the other, or a reference, or even a straight borrowing, it intrigues me they’ve all pulled the same tools out of the toolbox to tell different stories. Je vous salue, Marie is not one of Godard’s best-regarded films: I think that might be wrong.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 880