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Moving pictures 2018, #5

I swore I’d wouldn’t be posting just reviews of films all this year, but I had bad flu for a week, which meant I watched a lot of films and did very little blogging. So I’ve a backlog to clear. One more of these and I’ll up to date, and hopefully after that, their frequency will decrease… and lots of other content will start appearing instead. Hopefully.

Princess from the Moon, Kon Ichikawa, (1987, Japan). The only other Ichikawa film I’d seen before watching this was The Burmese Harp, which is excellent. So I expected good things of Princess from the Moon, despite the awful title and cover art. Sadly, the latter were indicative of the contents. As the title suggests, a baby arrives myteriously – well, in a meteorite – in Japan, and a family adopt the baby and bring her up as their own. It’s the Superman origin story without the superpowers. Okay, with the superpowers. Because the young woman does have strange powers. However, unlike Superman, she is eventually reunited with her people when a UFO, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or is it ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, comes to Earth and she departs on it. Meanwhile, she proves so popular among the local menfolk, and indeed further afield, that she has to set them tasks in order to manage their advances. The film aparently did not do well and, despite the presence of Toshiro Mifune as the man who discovers the “princess”, it’s not easy to see why. The tone is all over the place, and Ichikawa adds nothing to a well-used story. Apparently, the dragon was originally going to double as the Loch Ness Monster in a Hammer film but the project fell through.

Viva, Anna Biller (2007, USA). I’d rented Biller’s The Love Witch on a whim, and been impressed enough by it to add her first feature film, Viva, to my rental list. It’s nowhere near as polished a piece, and in many respects a much less subtle pastiche. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – Biller is certianly a singular talent, devoted to pastiching 1970s aesthetics and B-movies, but with feminists sensibilities. It can make for an uneasy mix. While her sensibilities are unimpeachable, her dedication to the look and feel of the films she’s spoofing does tend to place them closer to their inspirations than the twenty-first century. Biller plays a Los Angeles housewife in the early 1970s who, with a friend, is persuaded to expand her sexual horizons by moonlighting as an escort (using the name “Viva”). There are a lot of very stilted conversations between the characters, and everything is colourised to an eye-bruising degree. Later, Viva ends up at an orgy, and it’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a Russ Meyer, although without the focus on women’s chests. The end result is far less clever than The Love Witch, and embarrassingly gauche in places, but certainly shows what Biller is about and attempting to do. Seen before The Love Witch, I suspect it might misinform viewers as to Biller’s intentions; seen after it, the films feels like a work in progress. She will go on to amazing things, I’m sure of it. Viva is part of the process.

A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). My previous experience of Imamura, The Ballad of Narayama (see here), I really did not like, but I suspect I added A Man Vanishes to my rental list based on the description rather than the name of the director. And I’m glad I did. The film starts out as a straightforward documentary on the case of a Japanese salaryman who simply disappeared. Bu then the documentary begins to question its own remit, and in a scene toward the end, the set is demolished around the filmmakers as they discuss what they have filmed, revealing the documentary itself to have been a fictional construct. It is astonishingly meta, and astonishingly informed about its own nature. I’m not sure what to make of it – it deconstructs itself from the inside in a way that I had frankly not thought within the vocabulary of 1960s film-makers. It’s clever in a way that far too few films are, and even fewer documentaries are. I thought it excellent.

Die Puppe, Ernst Lubitsch (1919, Germany). I think it was this film, of all the ones in this box set, which persuaded me to add it to my shopping basket during Eureka’s Boxing Day Sale. Ossi Oswalda plays the daughter of a toymaker who takes the place of a life-size doll bought by the local baron’s son who needs to marry but is not interested in doing so. So he marries the doll. Which is not a doll. He only married her because he had fallen under the spell on a local friary who hoped to use the dowry to fund their gluttony. So of course they’re a bit upset when it transpires the doll is a real woman. And he falls for her, so they’ll be keeping the dowry, thank you very much. Like the previous film in this set, Ich möchte kein Mann sein (see here), Die Puppe is played strictly for laughs, and Oswalda in the title role makes the film. It’s a thin premise, and not especially plausible, but the movie totally commits to it. It’s a more stagey film than the earlier one, with the action taking place on what are clearly stage-sets – and that includes the town square which features in the opening. Fun, but one for fans of silent movies, I suspect.

Dekalog*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1989, Poland). In terms of Polish cinema’s exposure to the English-speaking world, Kieślowski is a giant. Poland had a huge film industry, and has produced a great number of world-class directors, many of which have been released in Anglophone markets. So quite why Kieślowski has come to be seen as the quintessential Polish director is something of a mystery, especially given the paucity of his oeuvre compared to others such as Andrzej Wajda or Agnieska Holland. The same, I suppose, might also be said of Satyajit Ray and Bengali cinema – Ray is comprehensively released on DVD on the UK, but none of Mrinal Sen’s movies are available in UK releases. But then Ray had Ismail Merchant proselytising for him in the West, probably because Ray was helpful toward Merchant and Ivory during the early days of their career. I don’t know that Kieślowski did the same for an Anglophone director, but I’ve seen no evidence he did. Which does make his selection as the face of Polish cinema somewhat inexplicable. He’s good, there’s no doubt about that. But, I’ve come to feel, middle-brow and you’d expect a director with such a high profile to be more, well, cerebral. But then perhaps Kieślowski’s reputation was formed by his TV work, which this box set has shown is superior to his feature film work. The Dekalog itself, ten one-hour long episodes, each of which illustrates one of the Ten Commandments, and all of which are set in the same block of apartments in Warsaw. Some are better than others; some are even somewhat opaque, with a far from obvious link to the Commandment they are intended to illustrate. Two of the episodes, five and six, were later remade as feature films, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. They’re probably the two strongest episodes. This box set was definitely worth getting, just as much for the TV films and special features as for the Dekalog series itself.

Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi (2016, USA). The US is very good at making films that show racist it once was but which reveal how racist it still is. On the surface, Hidden Figures cannot be faulted – women of colour were involved in the US space programme and they have a story worth telling, if only to show people they were involved. But in an effort to create drama, Hidden Figures creates situations which undo the achievements of the people it is trying to celebrate. It’s not as blindingly obvious as Kevin Costner ripping down the “Whites Only” sign on the women’s toilet, an entirely invented scene since the NASA facilities were not segregated so there was no need of a white saviour… but also the fact the film’s event are implied to take place during the late 1950s when Katherine Johnson is promoted to the Mercury Task Group, but she had been made a supervisor over a decade before in 1948. There’s no doubt the contribution of women of colour, or indeed women, to the Space Race has been forgotten, if not outright written from history; but the real histories of these people are dramatic enough without having to make changes. The fact the US practiced segregation some fifty years ago is frightening, and yet not all that much has changed – hence the need for films such as this. Black people have been so written out of history – US especially – they cannot see themselves in it, despite their many and varied and important contributions to it. They are there, doing their bit, and only a racist or a fool would say otherwise. On the one hand, I think Hidden Figures‘s purpose is admirable and I welcome the film’s existence; on the other, I rue that it has to exist in the first place, and that it has to warp history to provide a narrative acceptable to the public. But it’s not a great film, and I suspect you’d get more from the book on which it was based.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895

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Moving pictures 2018, #4

I still seem to be watching a lot of films. Normal service – well, normal as of 2015 – should be resumed soon…

Cinema Komunisto, Mira Turajlic (2010, Serbia). Back in the day, Yugoslavia as was decided to attract foreign investment by opening up one of its state-run studios, Avala Film in Belgrade, to foreign film-makers. President Tito was a big movie-fan, so it gave him the opportunity to meet many film stars, such as Orson Welles or Kirk Douglas. Cinema Komunisto uses both archive footage and interviews with those who worked at Avala. The facilities are now pretty much ruins, but the massive wardrobe and props departments still exist. It’s interesting stuff, with lots of nice touches – like the bridge Avala helpfully blew up for a US war movie, only for the film-makers to use a model shot in the final cut; or the US film star who complimented Tito on his wonderful palace, only to be told it was the “people’s palace”. Yeah right. “Socialist” dictators and their insulting fiction of non-ownership of their wealth. Worth seeing.

Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa (1961, Japan). I thought I’d seen this, but it seems I think I’ve watched more Kurosawa films than I actually have. And this was one of the ones I hadn’t actually seen. That has now been remedied. Obviously. The title means “bodyguard” and refers to the character played by Toshiro Mifune, who is never named. He wanders into a town in which two rival gangs have the local populace terrorised. Mifune decides to do something about it, by playing one gang off against the other. I’m told the story is based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which I’ve never read, although Kurosawa claimed it was based on Hammett’s The Glass Key. Yojimbo was certainly lifted pretty much wholesale by Sergio Leone, however, transplanted to the Wild West and made as A Fistful of Dollars. Which seems entirely approproate as, despite its setting in mediaeval Japan, there is very much a Wild West air to the film. There are guns – one of the enforcers in one gang has a revolver, makes much use of it – but most of the fight scenes feature swords. The characters seem a little caricatured, much like in a spaghetti Western, including the boar-like brother of one gangster, and the seven-foot tall enfrocer of the other. Kurosawa clevery ramps up the violence as the film progresses, until the final showdown results in the destruction of the businesses of the two merchants who back each of the two gangs. I’ve stuck a load of Kurosawa on my rental list recently, as I really should watch more of his films.

People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak & Edgar G Ulmer (1930 Germany). I had thought this was a documentary, but it isn’t. It’s actually a drama, made by a film club in Berlin, a fact the film actually makes a point of. It opens by introducing the main actors, and points out that once the film is over they will be returining to their day jobs, which it helpfully indicates. The story follows four friends on a Sunday, as they head for Wannsee to enjy the summer sun on the beach. As siilent dramas go, People on Sunday ticks all the boxes, but what makes the film remarkable – and it can hardly be “a pivotal film on the development of German cinema”, as Wikipedia puts it, if Lubitsch was making popular films in Berlin more than a decade earlier – but what is certainly remarkable about People on Sunday is the number of people involved in it who went on to have careers in Hollywood. Not only the two directors, Siodmak and Ulmer, but also Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Worth seeing.

The Calm, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1976, Poland). One of Kieślowski’s favourite actors, Jerzy Stuhr, plays an ex-con who tries to turn his life around after being released from prison. It’s never revealed what he was sent down for, although it seems unlikely to have been a violent crime. Stuhr leaves Kraków and heads out into the country. He gets a job on a building site, where the manager seems to trust him – although not, it transpires, for necessarily the right reasons. He meets a young woman, the two marry and a baby is on the way. His has turned his life around and everything is going well. He is a model member of society. But materials keep on disappearing from the building site, and when the manager threatens to take the cost of the missing materials out of everyone’s wages, they go on strike. Stuhr ends up as an unwilling liaison between the two. And learns that the manager himself is responsible for the thefts – and that he trusts Stuhr because Stuhr, an ex-con, would make a good patsy should the scheme be uncovered. Stuhr can’t resolve the situation and his fellow workers decide he is a scab. So they beat him up. This is not a cheerful film, although it initially appears to be. It seems Kieślowski is trying to say that no matter how hard you work to improve yourself, the system will still fuck you up in the end for no good reason. And in 1970s Poland, that was likely true. So it’s a little ironic that The Calm was banned by the Polish authorities, and didn’t get shown until 1980, because it depicted a strike and strikes were illegal in Poland.

Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China). That’s the last of the Christmas presents, and the last of Jia’s films until the box set containing Mountains May Depart that I’ve pre-ordered arrives. His films really are brilliant, so much so that each time I watch a new one I have to decide whether or not it is my new favourite Jia film. Still Life came close, perhaps just inching out 24 City but not managing to steal the top spot from The World. Still Life is set in the Three Gorges area and tells the story of Han Sanming (played by Han Sanming), who has returned to travelled to track down his wife and daughter who ran away sixteen years earlier. But the address he has for them is now underwater, part of the city that has been destroyed for the Three Gorges Dam project. Sanming joins a local demolition crew, who are demolishing buildings using lump hammers. The film then shifts to Shen Hong (played by Zhao Tao, who played the lead in The World, and Han Sanming played her boyfriend), a nurse who is in Fengjie to look for her husband, who it turns out has become a successful local businessman. In fact, he runs several demolition contracts, and Sanming works for him. He also has a rich girlfriend. When Shen Hong finds this out, she asks for a divorce. In the final section of the film, Sanming’s wife turns up and reveals that their daughter is now working furthe rsouth in indentured labour to pay off the wife’s brother’s debt. Sanming offers to take wife and daughter with him, but he would have to pay off the debt – and he doesn’t have the money. so he returns alone to the coal maines of Shanxi… Although a drama, Still Life plays like a documentary – it’s one of the chief appeals of Jia’s films – and some of the scenery on display is fantastic. The Three Gorges region is astonishingly beautiful, but it is also heavily built-up and, during the period the film was made, was being slowly demolished and flooded for the dam. It makes for some striking cinematography. Excellent stuff.

Ich möchte kein Mann sein, Ernst Lubitsch (1918, Germany). The title translates as “I don’t want to be a man”. Ossi Oswalda plays the high-spirited daughter of an indulgent uncle. When he leaves, she is put in the charge of a new guardian, who is far more strict. So she dresses up as a man and goes out on the town, ending up in a posh ball, where she finds it much harder to be a man than she had expected. She bumps into her new guardian, and tries to steal his date in revenge. Unfortunately, someone else has more success, and Oswalda and her guardian drown their sorrows in drink and become great friends. So much so they begin kissing each other. When they leave the ball, the cab driver drops Oswalda off at the guardian’s house, and vice versa. But it all works out in the end. Oswalda is undoubtedly the star of the film – there wouldn’t be a film without her. Her bad behaviour in the opening section of the film does an excellent job of outlining her character; and her antics when cross-dressed, most of which are based on a complete obliviousness to her disguise, display excellent comic timing. When you consider that Ich möchte kein Mann sein was made a dozen years before People on Sunday, and there’s not all that much that’s technically different between the two… it does undermine the claims to importance of People on Sunday. The latter is undoubtedly the better film – it’s longer, 73 minutes to the 41 minutes of the Lubitsch, and it’s a drama played completely straight and which makes a feature of its amateur cast. Ich möchte kein Mann sein is a flat-out comedy, although not the fall-about slapsatick comedy Hollywood was making at the time, and it makes a meal of its “fish out of water” story. A fun film, but one chiefly for fans of silent cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #3

Moving swiftly on… This year, this blog is not going to turn into a repeat of last year. Honest. There will be content other than film reviews (or rants). But it’s going to take me time to get to that point, as I need to change a few of the bad habitds I’ve picked up over the last two years, so you’ll have to bear with me for a few weeks…

The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France). Sometimes, Amazon Prime really does throw up pleasant surprises. It would have thrown up more, recently, but it seems when they upgraded it they broke the subtitling thing, and they don’t show now unless they’re burned into the print. Which is fucking annoying. Streaming, eh. And people wonder why I prefer DVDs and Blu-rays… Not that the subtitle bug caused any problems with The Red Turtle, as it is notable for having no dialogue. A man is washed ashore on a deserted island. His attempts to escape on rafts are thwarted by turtles. Especially a large red turtle, which he manages to capture and drag on shore. The following morning, the red turtle has become a woman with red hair. The two live together and have a child. The child grows to a man. Who attempts to leave the island. And, okay, I admit, when the son was an adult, I spent most of the time wondering where his trousers had come from. It’s not like his father had a spare pair. But the animation in The Red Turtle is astonishingly beautiful, although not in a Makoto Shinkai way, more a ligne claire way. It’s not the most dramatic story to make it to the silver screen, true; but there’s some clever foreshadowing, and the lack of dialogue is no handicap to following the narrative. The Red Turtle has been praised by many and won a couple of awards, and Dudok de Wit won a special prize for Un Certain Regard at Cannes. The film was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Zootopia (which I’ve not seen, but… really?). A definite candidate for my best of the year list.

Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA). My promised Bondathon blog post is still to come – that’s the one in which I rank all twenty-four official 007 films in order, after watching them over 2 to 3 weeks… It should come as no real surprise that I think the best Bond film is… On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In fact, I thought the best Bond movies were the stripped-back ones, without the stupid gadgets or supervillains. OHMSS was George Lazenby’s sole outing as Bond and popular wisdom likes to have it the film was bad and he was fired from the role as a result. In fact, Lazenby turned down a seven-film contract and a $1 million signing bonus (this was in 1969, so it was a fuckton of money). True, the film was generally considered one of the lesser movies in the franchise, but it has since been critically re-appraised and many consider it the best. I happen to agree. Becoming Bond is Lazenby’s story. He’s interviewed by the film-makers, but parts of his life are also dramatised, with Josh Lawson playing a young Lazenby. Lazenby’s career path to Bond is pretty well-known: mechanic to car salesman to male model. At the time Connery announced his retirement from 007, Lazenby was best known for a series of adverts for Big Fry chocolate. Broccoli met Lazenby and asked him to audition for the role of Bond. When Peter Hunt, editor on previous Bond films who had been given the director’s chair for OHMSS, met Lazenby, the role was pretty much his. Filming went well, although Lazenby insisted on doing his own stunts – there are conflicting stories about relations on-set, although the one about Rigg despising Lazenby, so much so she chewed garlic before a scene in which they kissed, is apparently untrue. Once OHMSS had been released, Lazenby refused to play ball with the producers. He turned up to the premiere sporting a beard. And he refused to sign a seven-film contract, despite the $1 million signing fee, partly thanks to bad advice from his agent who told him he could probably get $500,000 a role for any film going forward. Unfortunately, his film career pretty much died. He went into real estate, and earned a very comfortable living. Lazenby made a really good Bond. True, he was a bit stiff at first, but as the film progresses he settles into the role, so much so that he’s more convincing when undercover as Pursuivant, Griffin Or Sir Hillary Bray than Connery ever was as Bond himself. And in the action scenes, Lazenby displays real physical presence. The Bond fight scenes were always a bit crap, but Lazenby throws punches like they were real punches (he actually knocked out a stunt man during his audition). The next Bond to come close to Lazenby’s physicality is Timothy Dalton. Daniel Craig may be very physical, but it’s cartoon violence – compare the fight scenes set aboard a train in From Russia with Love and Spectre. Anyway, I should be saving all this for my Bondathon post. Becoming Bond is a fascinating documentary, which cemented my view that OHMSS is the best of the 007 movies.

Pedestrian Subway, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1974, Poland). I bought this box set when it was released a year ago, and it’s sat in its shrinkwrap until now. But Cinema Paradiso and the Royal Mail were conspiring against me in the week before and after Christmas, so I dragged it out and bunged in the first  Blu-ray… And this collection is really well presented. Really well presented. I had Dekalog on DVD, on two DVDs in fact, bought back in 2002 and 2004; but when this box set appeared, I bought it, and passed on the DVDs to a friend. And I’m glad I bought the boxset, and not just because of its additional material. As well as the ten episodes from Dekalog, two per disc, there are also one TV movie per disc and one documentary. I’ve not watched all of the latter, but Pedestrian Subway is the first of the TV movies. It was shot in black and white and takes place in a subway in Warsaw which boasts a dozen or so shops. A teacher is on a school trip to Warsaw, and sneaks away to visit a shop in the subway, in which works a woman, whom he apparently knows. The dialogue reveals that she is his wife and that he threw her out after catching her in flagrante delicto with another man. But now he misses her and regrets his decision. Apparently, Kieślowski threw away all the footage he had originally shot as he wasn’t happy with it, and hurriedly reshot the film from start to finish. It’s a clever piece of work – the relationship between the man and woman is revealed piecemeal, the events in the subway are a subtle criticism of the Polish regime, and some of those who appeared in the film had professional relationships with Kieślowski over a number of years. Dekalog is good drama on its own – which was something I had forgotten until I rewatched them, and I do find Kieślowski’s feature films a bit middle-brow – but these TV movies new to me turned out to be pretty damn good, so this is definitely a collection worth having.

Bahubali: The Beginning, SS Rajamouli (2015, India). I was recommended this film by Indian colleagues at work, and I’m happy to add Bollywood film to my rental list – classic or modern. In fact, I’ve now got my mother watching Bollywood films. I lent her a couple, and now she looks for them in charity shops and has just given me Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna to watch … But Bahubali. Or Baahubali. This is very definitely modern Indian cinema, despite being set some five hundred years ago. It’s not actually Bollywood but Tollywood – a Telugu-language film rather than Hindi, and the second Bahubali film has been been India’s biggest box office hit ever. The first one also did really well, and clearly had a huge amount of money spent on it. It is, in fact, a total CGI fest. It opens with a woman falling down a massive waterfall. She dies, but her baby survives and is brought up by local villagers. But he is super-strong and repeatedly tries to climb up the waterfall to discover the land above. When he finally does make it, he witnesses a young woman being chased by soldiers. She escapes and he follows her to a cave, and learns she is a member of a group of rebels in the Mahishmati empire, supporters of a queen who is being held by the current emperor. So the young man, called Shivudu, helps her, and discovers that he’s actually the queen’s son. The film then goes into total flashback and explains how Bhallaladeva and Shivudu’s father, Bahubali, went to war for the throne of Mahishmati. The battle scenes are fantastic – a cast of tens of thousands, almost all of which are CGI, but pretty convincing CGI. The waterfall too is CGI – it appears to be several thousand feet high, which is just ridiculous, but all in keeping with the general scale of the film. It’s like Lord of the Rings without the hobbits and elves and orcs. But turned up to eleven. And I’ve yet to watch the second film…

Side/Walk/Shuttle, Ernie Gehr (1991, USA). While hunting for a Benning film to watch on Youtube, I stumbled across this. Gehr also makes experimental films, and his career too began in the 1960s. I do like experimental films, although the most prominent examples appear to be American and I’d like to see more by other nationalities. But I’ve watched Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage and Bill Baillie, and I’d like to see more US ones too. Side/Walk/Shuttle was filmed from an outside elevator at a San Francisco hotel, and consists of footage from the lift and an unrelated soundtrack. It’s hypnotic, in the way real art can be, despite its simplicity. One of the beauties of video art is that anyone can do it, but it has to all fit together for it to be art. If you know what I mean. What differentiates random footage and art is purpose and structure, even if neither are apparent. A person locks off a camera and films ten minutes of a forest. That’s not art. But if the film-maker is trying to prove a point, or has a message, then it is. Even if not all the clues to to that point or message are evident. I’m reminded of a Turner Prize nominee from a decade or so ago which was basically a copy of the cover art of  a science fiction novel – by Tony Roberts, I seem to recall – but the art was more than just a painting. I’ve said before that video installations are my favourite form of art, and one of the beauties of video art is that you can embed the extra-textual knowledge in it. Which some do. Other make it part of the exhibit – ie, the text explaining the installation. You can’t avoid extra-textual knowledge in any artform. The alternative is “As you know, Bob,” conversations and the worst sort of exposition, which we science fiction readers know all about. On the one hand, I think art should be more than just is presented because it needs to be in dialogue with previous art and with culture; on the other, not everyone is sufficiently informed to plug into that dialogue. Catering to the latter only results in bad art.

Personnel, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1975, Poland). One of the ways in which this collection proves its worth is in the included documentaries. In KKTV, critic of Polish cinema Michael Brooke discusses Kieślowski’s career. Brooke doesn’t have much screen presence, and is clearly reading from a prepared script (and I was amused to spot the Mondo Vision editons of Żuławski’s films on the shelves behind him). But what Brooke had to say was very interesting. And when talking about Personnel, he made the film seem far more interesting than it would have initally appeared. A young man joins the staff of a local theatre in the costume department, and witnesses how the company operates on a day to day basis. He becomes involved in a denunciation of a colleague, and has to choose between loyalty to his friend or his own career… It’s a dilemma many, even in the UK or US, can likely identify with, although in communist Poland the consequences were far more severe. Brooke mentions that Personnel is partly autobiographical, that one of Kieślowski’s first job was in a theatre, and that some of the incidents in the film Kieślowski has admitted in interviews were taken from his own experiences. I don’t think the central one is, however, in which one of the performers publicly bollocks and humiliates a member of the wardrobe department on stage (the man who is eventually denounced, in fact). But I think the incident with the exploding cigarettes might have actually happened to Kieślowski.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2017, #41

It has occurred to me I should perhaps start a separate blogs for films, but then this blog would be be tumbleweeds all the time, so I don’t think I will. For the time-being, it’s likely to be mostly movies, but as the year progresses I’m hoping that will change. Meanwhile, more, er, films…

Gimme Shelter*, Albert & David Maylses (1970, USA). There’s that meme, back before the days of internet memes, and it asks: Asterix or Tintin? Dogs or cats? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? As if it’s a handy way to categorise people… For the record, I prefer Tintin to Asterix, cats to dogs… and I’m not really a fan of either The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But Gimme Shelter is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so watch it I must… The Maylses’s schtick was that they just filmed stuff, edited it, and then presented it without commentary (totally disingenuously, of course, as the editing itself created narrative out of the raw footage and so implied commentary). Gimme Shelter plays at fly-on-the-wall, and was originally intended to be simply a documentary in the putting together of a free concert. But the murder at Altamont during the Stones’ set obviously bent that out of shape, and so Gimme Shelter becomes a documentary about that, created from footage shot for other reasons. The end result is a powerful and interesting documentary, but also a somewhat disingenuous one, so much so it makes you wonder about the “truth” of all documentaries. To be fair, documentaries suffer from having to impose narrative on topics that have no natural narrative (narrative is an instrument of bias, by definition; a story teller chooses the story they tell), but in this particular case, the post-facto narrative proved more compelling than that which had prompted the project in the first place. Which is not to say that Gimme Shelter is a bad film, it’s a good one, but it does misrepresent itself… and indeed misrepresents the event it ostensibly documents. There is truth, there are documentaries that strive for truth, and there are documentaries that, well, appear on lists like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die… I enjoyed Gimme Shelter, despite not liking the music of the Rolling Stones, but it’s more an entertaining film than it is a valid witness to the events of the time it depicts.

A Short Film About Killing, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1988, Poland). Kieślowski is an excellent entry point to cinephilia. There, I said it. But he’s also the “director’s director” most cinephiles have moved on from, and his work, to them, to us, seems in hindsight somewhat middle-brow. He was undoubtedly an excellent film-maker, and his notorious perfectionism is evident in every frame of every work that bears his name. But his mix of stark realism and whimsical fantasy has not aged especially well, and for all the beauty of his framing, and the excellence of the performances he elicited from his casts, it all these days seems a bit past-it. Which is doubly unfair, when applied to A Short Film About Killing, which is entirely realist, but also shot entirely in a way that emphasises its realism. And which, sadly, ultimately undoes its intent. The story is simple: a listless drifter brutally murders a taxi-cab driver, is caught, tried, sentenced to death and hanged. That’s it. Kieślowski dwells on the murder, showing it as a brutal, drawn-out affair, as if it bolster the credentials of his villain – and it’s true that an argument against capital punishment needs to show an acceptable victim because it would otherwise be compromised… But to then display the moral scaffolding put in place to justify capital punishment by those who execute it does undermine the argument. True, it would be cowardice to have someone whose crime, or circumstance, might mitigate, or who might even be innocent – something most anti-capital punishment films seem to do. Kieślowski’s films is all the more powerful because the crime committed is so heinous. But he also shows that the system is fixed, reprieve is impossible, and the flat, affectless way the story unfolds fails to reinforce the logic of the film’s message because Kieślowski invests too much in the circumstances of his three main characters – the murderer, his victim, and the advocate who defends the murderer. He connects them. And that makes it personal – but the film’s argument against capital punishment remains impersonal. Kieślowski was once among my top ten directors, but he has since fallen from that list. I will almost certainly watch his films again some day, so I’m glad I own good copies. Speaking of which, the three Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema have proven an excellent purchase, and I’m really glad I took the plunge, even if they were quite expensive…

Sleep, My Love, Douglas Sirk (1948, USA). I can’t find UK DVD cover art for this, because it’s never been released on DVD here. The copy I watched was a legal out-of-copyright rip bought on eBay, of pretty good quality, way better than VHS, but by no means official. And, to be fair, it’s not a film that deserves all that much to be remembered. Sirk was one of several German, or Teutonophone, directors who had successful careers in Hollywood during the 1940s to 1960s, and his All That Heaven Allows is my all-time favourite film (and the so-called women’s melodramas he made during the late 1950s are among Hollywood’s best films), but for much of his career he churned out Hollywood potboilers… and this is one of them. It’s pretty much Gaslight by another name and with a slightly different plot. Claudette Colbert is an heiress married to a wastrel, Don Amerche, and Ameche has been using drugs and hypnosis to try and set her up to murder someone and so be sent to prison, allowing him, and his mistress, to abscond with her money. So he gaslights her, and when the murder plot fails, he tries to hypnotise her into jumping from her bedroom window. But that fails too… thanks to the lucky appearance of a China-based US businessman, Robert Cummings, on leave back home, whom befriends Colbert, and then becomes the love interest. Ameche and his co-conspirators are pretty inept, and only really get as far as they do because Colbert can’t see what’s going on (despite the gaslighting). Even then, it’s only because the conspirators fall out that their plot eventually falls apart. Not one of Sirk’s best; not even a good noir film, to be honest.

Two English Girls, François Truffaut (1971, France). I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I’m not really sure what to make of him. Some of his films I think are brilliant and I love them. Others, it’s hard to believe the same guy made them. True, no one loves all the films a particular director has made – I mean, no director is that good. Although one or two might come close. I love Sirk’s melodramas, for example, but his other films I find eminently forgettable. So, liking and admiring some of Truffaut films but not others, well, I’m unlikely to be alone in that. But to go from pretty much complete indifference to multiple watches of some of his movies, that’s not so common. Although I wonder if Two English Girls, AKA Anna & Muriel, a title that appears only on the Blu-ray packaging, which is a bit random, will be one of the latter. It’s a very Truffaut film, inasmuch as it’s seamlessly put together. But it’s also slightly odd in some respects. There are, for instance, a lot of long shots, and landscape shots, neither of which Truffaut normally uses. And there are the anachronisms. Two English Girls is a period piece set at the start of the twentieth-century and yet in one shot, quite deliberately, the two sisters are on the beach and plain on the horizon are – oil platforms? electricity pylons? I’m not sure. But whatever they are, they definitely didn’t exist in 1902. And in the opening scene, one of the young girls on the swing has quite visible orthodontic braces. And yet… the eponymous characters are well-drawn, and if Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the young Frenchman who becomes a de facto brother, and then lover of one, seems to act his role somewhat stiffly and with little visible emotion, his voice-over – text from the novel from which the film was adapted? – helps chart his character. It all felt very DH Lawrentian, which is no bad thing to my mind, but with an undercurrent of stiffness that is entirely foreign to Lawrence’s stories and prose… You know, I think Two English Girls might be one of the Truffauts I watch several times…

Endless Poetry, Alejandro Jodorowsky (2016, Chile). This film follows on directly from The Dance of Reality (see here), as it covers Jodorowsky’s early twenties, when he moved to Santiago and became part of a group of artists and poets. Jodorowsky is played one of his sons. Another son plays his father, as he did in the previous film,, which no doubt says all sorts of Freudian things, especially given that Jodorowsky himself makes several appearances, as himself, to give his young self advice– but what am I saying? Any Freudian who read any of Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées would probably wet themselves at the stuff he puts in them. Endless Poetry is, like the earlier film, a succession of incidents in Jodorowsky’s life, centred as it was at that time on poetry. But after his parents’ shop burns down, and they lose everything, Jodorowsky consults Nicanor Parra (an important Latin American poet, now 102 years old!), but dissatisfied with his advice, Jodorowosky decides to leave Chile for France, in order to “save surrealism”. Leading to one of the film’s most powerful scenes, where Jodorowsky’s father confronts him on the jetty, the two argue, and separate unreconciled… only for Jodorowsky himself to appear and have the two play out how, in hindsight, he wished the encounter had gone… which involves twentysomething Jodorowsky shaving his father’s beard and head, so he resembles one of the male/female characters which appear in several of his comics. Jodorowsky then steps onto a boat, which backs out to sea – although it’s obviously heading towards the camera but the film is running in reverse, and which seems an entirely fitting end to a pair of movies which have charted Jodorowsky’s beginnings, as a child and as a poet, while also recapitulating his entire career. I’ll admit I had previously considered Jodorowsky a director notable more for the weirdness of his vision than as a maker of good films. (And I’m a fan of his sf bandes dessinées too.) But The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry really are very good films, and it’s a shame Jodorowsky had to resort ot crowdfunding to finance them. Hopefully, he won’t need to for his next one. Perhaps he might even try making a sf film…

The Lesson, Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov (2014, Bulgaria). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental, and it looked worth watching. Which, happily, proved to be the case. A teacher in a town in Bulgaria translates documents on the side to make ends meet. Her husband has a camper van he is trying to sell, but he can’t get it working. One day, someone in her class steals some money, but no one will admit to the deed, or return the money when given the opportunity to do so anonymously. Then a repossession agent turns up at the teacher’s home and tells her they’re in arrears and the bank will auction off the house in three days – because the husband spent the mortgage payment money on a gearbox for his crappy caravanette. Then the translation company, which owes the teacher money, starts dragging its feet on paying her… and so she’s forced to go to a loan shark for the money to pay off the bank. (And then, after she’s made payment and returned to the school, the repossession agent rings to tell her he miscalculated and she owes a further 1.37 lev… which she has to borrow from a bus conductor on her way to the bank… but even that’s not enough because there’s a bank fee on top for the additional payment… and so she’s forced to scoop out coins from a good luck fountain.) At which point, the translation company declares bankruptcy, and the owner runs off with the money, so now the teacher can’t pay off the loan shark… The ending comes as no real surprise, but the build-up is cleverly done. Nor is the behaviour of the bankers and the loan shark all that much of a surprise, although they are disappointingly too much bastards. In fact, the teacher’s situation is pretty much created by the actions of total bastards – her husband, the owner of the translation company, the bank, the loan shark… Nevertheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 876


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Moving pictures 2017, #33

One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which, to be honest, I didn’t much like, a rewatch (after many years), another strange Indian film, I finally cracked open the BBC Shakespeare Collection I bought a couple of years ago, and a pair of dramas, one made in 1970 and one set in 1970…

Buffalo 66*, Vincent Gallo (1998, USA). There are many puzzling films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is, their presence is puzzling, not the film itself, such as all the ones by Woody Allen… but you can add this one to that not-so-select group too. An indie film directed by and starring Vincent Gallo, with a feeble plot, and featuring a central character who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It’s also supposed to be set, I think, in the early 1980s, although it’s hard to tell, and the soundtrack contains some 1970s UK prog rock anyway so who knows. Gallo has just been released from prison, and goes to visit his parents. Except he’s been lying to them for years, about his incarceration, even about his relationship status. So he kidnaps Christina Ricci and demands she impersonate his invented girlfriend. Which she does, for not-actually-discernible reasons, and does it a bit too well for Gallo’s liking. The title is apparently a reference to an American Football game in 1966 or something, as if anyone outside the US either knows or gives a shit about the country’s dumb sports. I really couldn’t see why this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – there were a couple of nice-looking scenes, and I actually like 1970s UK prog rock so I  enjoyed hearing the music. But… Buffalo 66 might be an above-average example of its type, but it’s eminently forgettable and doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Duvidha, Mani Kaul (1973, India). Uski Roti (see here) was Kaul’s first film; Duvidha was his third movie. I’m not really sure what to make of them – well, the two I’ve seen so far. I have watched Bollywood, I have watched parallel cinema. I like both, but I love the films of Ritwik Ghatak. And yet Kaul is nothing like either. If anything, he’s more consciously in the tradition of European art-house cinema, but without seeming to settle on a particular style. True, this is after seeing only two of the films on this DVD, but I’ve seen a lot of European art house films, and Kaul’s pacing reminds me of Béla Tarr (although he predates him), and some of his staging reminds me of Sergei Parajanov, and his use of voice-over and dialogue feels more Russian than Indian… In other words, Kaul presents a singular vision, not just in Indian cinema, but internationally… and I’m still trying t work out how much I like it. Duvidha at least boasts a more straightforward narrative than Uski Roti – a young couple marry, and the husband heads off to a distant town for five years to make his fortune… But a ghost in a nearby banyan tree learns of the husband’s plan, and so impersonates him and returns to the wife and takes the husband’s place. It’s based on a story by Vijayadan Detha, which was in turn based on a Rajasthani folk tale. Unlike the previous film, this one is shot in colour, but I can’t tell if the slightly washed-out palette is deliberate or a consequence of the transfer. The framing, however, is obviously down entirely to Kaul, and he shows a considerable amount of inventiveness in placing his camera and framing his shots. The pacing is once again slow, and the story is told through a mixture of voice-over and looped dialogue. There’s a bleakness to the landscapes depicted, something also notable in Uski Roti, but more visible here because the film is in colour. Clearly Kaul deserves his accolades and reputation, but I think I need to watch more of his films – or the ones I have a few more times – before I can get a real handle on his work.

Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1987, Poland). I last watched this over a decade ago – I had a DVD copy of it, which I gave away when I bought the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema Blu-ray box sets – and sort of remembered the story when I sat down to rewatch it. You know, the plot… the guy who catches a train, and his life goes one way… but then he doesn’t catch it and his life goes another way… twice. Sort of like Sliding Doors. But Polish. And political. And not a rom com. And without that annoying John Hannah chap. It’s clearly early Kieślowski, with its television staging and heated political arguments. This impression is hardly lessened by the second of the three “alternates”, in which the protagonist fails to make the train, attacks a station official and is arrested… and so ends up in the Polish prison system and becomes a dissident. I’ve seen pretty much everything Kieślowski made – Artificial Eye released most of them on DVD around a decade or so ago – and the one I remember most fondly is No End. Having now rewatched the Three Colours trilogy, after replacing my DVD copies with Blu-rays, I approached this rewatch of Blind Chance with mixed feelings. I’d remembered the basic plot… but I’d forgotten quite dull most of it is. At the time I first watched Blind Chance, I’d not seen much Polish cinema, so the political element of the story I found fascinating. But I’ve since lots of Polish films, and I’m a little better informed on the country’s political history… It’s a bit like… I’m currently reading Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, and it sometimes seems like its reputation rests on the fact it portrayed life in the USSR as some sort of blackly comic farce… and yet that has always been my impression of the Soviet Union. It is books like Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty that are really eye-opening about the USSR. And so Blind Chance – despite its tripartite structure, it doesn’t seem to offer any particular insight, or especially interesting commentary, on the Polish regime of the 1970s and early 1980s. Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron seem, to me, to make their point with much more bite than Blind Chance, although the latter is certainly the cleverer script. I don’t know; I found this rewatch of Blind Chance somewhat disappointing, much as I had the Three Colours rewatch.

Coriolanus, Elijah Moshinsky (1984, UK). I’d been renting DVDs from this box set, but then decided to go and buy so I could watch them at my own pace… so, of course, it’s taken me 18 months to crack open the box set and start watching it. I did rewatch The Comedy of Errors before watching Coriolanus – you know, the one with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltry playing a pair of twins, both of which have the same names (as if), leading to all sorts of mistaken identity merry japes. Coriolanus stars Alan Howard in the title role, a Roman general who reluctantly stands for consul in Rome, and wins. But that pisses off the political classes, and Coriolanus blames it all on the plebians, whom he holds in great contempt. This is not the most edifying of Shakespeare’s plays – kof kof, of the ones I’ve seen; although to be fair there’s few enough of them that qualify as “edifying”. Coriolanus is apparently a tragedy, and not a historical play, although I don’t understand the distinction as surely Roman times were considered historical even in Shakespeare’s day? I mostly remember it as a lot of standing around pontificating in front of “crowds” of a dozen or so people, several after-the-battle scenes, and lot of Coriolanus feeling sorry for himself. Meh.

Say Hello to Yesterday, Alvin Rakoff (1970, UK). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD, and so stuck it on my list. Jean Simmons plays a suburban wife, who travels in to London one day on the train and comes to the attention of flighty young man Leonard Whiting. He badgers her incessantly, on the train and once she has arrived in London. Eventually, she succumbs. They end up in bed in a cheap hotel. He professes his undying love; she is more pragmatic. This is hardly a unique or insightful story, but it is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of its time. Okay, so I don’t actually remember 1970, but I do remember 1975 – and not a great deal had changed in terms of, well, the sort of things that would concern a production designer, during those five years. Everyone drives Minis, everywhere looks grubby, the whole aesthetic is just so naturally early 1970s it’s clearly unforced. Whiting is hugely annoying, but Simmons is good; but it’s the look and feel of the film where it truly scores. Though you can’t tell it from the film, it’s obvious the hotel sheets are drip-dry nylon. It’s that kind of movie. I tweeted while watching it that silver birches seem to embody the 1970s style of utopia for me. They’re there in Fahrenheit 451, and they feel almost emblematic of the sort of utopian, or comfortable, lifestyle the 1970s considered futuristic. For me, they’re a science-fictional tree.

The Commune, Thomas Vinterberg (2016, Denmark). Vinterberg’s Festen was the first film made following the Dogme 95 rules, and it’s a bona fide classic film. But he also made the bafflingly crap It’s All About Love. And the very good The Hunt. And, well, they were the only films by him I’d seen prior to watching The Commune. But I knew he was a name worth watching, so I bunged The Commune on the rental list – and I should really add a few more. In Copenhagen in 1970, a successful couple want to move into the large house in which the husband grew up, but they can’t afford the rent on their own (even though the wife works as a newsreader on television). So they invite friends of similar political leanings to share the house as a commune. They advertise to fill up the last few places. Unfortunately, the original couple’s marriage disintegrates – he’s a university lecturer and falls in love with student – and this causes problems in the house. This is not a Dogme 95 film, not judging by the lighting at least. And the plot is pretty much a lit fic staple – college professor sleeps with student, starts to question his marriage, it falls apart… except the girlfriend joins the commune, and the wife stays, and it’s all pretty obviously uncomfortable. Or helped by the rest of the commune, who are all the sort of earnestly progressive types more likely to get bogged down in trivia than actual worthwhile causes. A watchable film, better made than most, but not a great film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 870


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1001 progress

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

sacrifice

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

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

black_god

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

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

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

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

nuummioq

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

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

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

storm_over_asia

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

 


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Moving pictures, #45

More movies!

suffragetteSuffragette, Sarah Gavron (2015, UK). I’m surprised it’s taken until 2015 to make a film like this. Actually, I’m not surprised, just disgusted. True, this film is bsed on fictional characters, and real historical people such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emil Davison do make brief appearances (the former is, in fact, played by Meryl Streep). The film tells the story of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK through a pair of invented characters – a working-class laundress played by Carey Mulligan, who more or less accidentally becomes a suffragette. Well, inasmuch ,as she rebels a clear injustice and that brings her into contact with the suffragettes and so she reluctantly joins their campaign. To me, it seems incredible that women should ever have been denied the vote, but I’m not stupid, I realise that historically men have been complete scumbags, and many still are today. I remember thinking while watching Suffragette that most social progress has come about because of violent action, and that decades of insistence on “peaceful demonstration” has only slowed the rate of social progress – if not driven it backwards, as twenty-first century culture seems in many ways less progressive than that of the twentieth century. I have to wonder sometimes if the twentieth century was only a social experiment, and now it’s over. But I suspect what’s more likely is that WWI killed off great swathes of the upper classes and so opened up management of society to the middle classes, but now the upper classes are back in charge once again. But Suffragrette… An important film, I think, because of its subject, but not a great film; and though played well by its cast and directed well, it did all feel a bit meh. Recommended because of its subject, if not as a film per se.

jeremishJeremiah Johnson, Sydney Pollack (1972, USA). I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but I find myself liking several Western films that don’t follow the usual Western story-lines. Like this one. Not a brilliant film, by any means; but there’s lots of lovely scenery in it, and the story is sufficiently distant from your typical Western story that I found it interesting… but I’m not convinced Robert Redford was suitable for the title role. He looks too, well, urbane. The title character heads off into the mountains for a new life. Fortunately, he stumbles across an old timer before he dies of starvation, and the old timer teaches him how to survive. Taking his leave after learning all this is to learn, he finds a homesteader family that had been attacked by Blackfoot. The wife has been driven mad with grief and she insists Johnson take her young son with him. So he does. He then comes across a trapper who had been buried neck-deep in sand by Blackfoot, and rescues him. They track down the Blackfoot who attacked the trapper and steal back his possessions – and killed the Blackfoot braves. This apparently makes Johnson something of a hero among the other Native American tribes of the area. He ends up married to the daughter of a Flathead chieftain, and they and the boy start to make a life for themselves. But the US Cavalry asks for Johnson’s help to resuce a wagon train, and this requires a ride, against Johnson’s better judgement, through a Blackfoot sacred burial ground. The Blackfoot respond by killing his wife and adopted son. There then follows many years of Blackfoot sending young braves to test their mettle against Johnson, all of whom, of course, he kills. We like to think of the Wild West taking place in the scrub and desert of south-west USa, but there’s other scenery which falls within the genre – the Rocky Mountains in this case. And it’s hard to film such landscapes badly… but when they’re filmed well, they’re gorgeous. Pollack had always struck me as a Hollywood stalwart – a director of commercially successful films, with the odd critical success thrown in, but by no means an auteur. And while Redford may not convince as the title character in Jeremiah Johnson, Pollack does a really good job at presenting the landscape (I can’t say “capture” but I have no personal experience of it). The end result is a superior Western, albeit perhaps high second-tier rather than first-tier. But worth a watch.

uchoUcho*, Karel Kachňya (1970, Czech Republic). I wanted to like this film more than I did. For many reasons. For the fact it was banned for many years in its home country, and only shown for the first time after the Velvet Revolution. For its subject: the lives of people in a totalitarian state. For its story: the paranoia endemic in totalitarian states is heightened for a couple after they return from a party and find their front door unlocked, and that tears their marriage apart. And for its use of New Wave cinematic techniques to tell its story. But something about it didn’t quite click for me. Possibly because I have a positive view of the trappings it presents as totalitarian, which I’ve taken from films like Eolomea and Wings. If that makes sense. This is not to say what happened to the Czech Republic – Czechoslovakia as was – at the USSR’s hands is in any way condonable. But in the Eastern Bloc the signifiers they presented for success and happiness I actually find quite appealing, and though they’re all utopian surface, cleverly hiding the totalitarian reality underneath, it’s hard not to be beguiled by the dream. Which is a bit of a long-winded way of saying that Ucho reveals that horrible reality underneath as a commentary by someone who actually lived it. In terms of technique, Ucho has much to recommend it – the use of ambient light, the tight focus on the central charaters… a variety of New Wave techniques, in fact. But the shifting of focus of totalitarian depradations to married-couple dynamics feels at times like diminuation of what should be a major dramatic point. There is, for example, a point in the film when the doorbell rings and the husband and wife work themselves up into such a frenzy believing the secret police have come to take him away that he walks down to open the gate carrying a suitcase of overnight things. But it turns out it’s only a bunch of drunken colleagues from the minsterial party which opens the film. The threat remains – and the movie is clear on that – but the decaying relationship between husband and wife seems to be used a little too often to ratchet up a more existential fear than is deserved by the story. Ucho is an important film, but it is somewhat disappointing as a piece of cinema. Worth seeing – once, at least.

three_coloursThree Colours: Red*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1994, France). And so the Three Colours trilogy, and my rewatch of it, comes to a close; and Red is generally considered the best of the three… and so it is, but by considerably more of a margin than I’d remembered. Yes, yes, that final scene where all the major characters from all three films are paraded across the screen is silly and unnecessary; but there’s still a focus and tightness to the story of Red which is so much stronger than that of the other two films. Irene Jacob, who was so good in The Double Life of Veronique, plays a model in Geneva with an absent boyfriend. One night she hits a dog in her car, and it turns out the dog’s owner is ex-judge Jean-Louis Trintignant, who cares nothing for the dog. So Jacob pays for the vet bills and adopts it as a pet. But it turns out Trintignant is a bit of a misanthopric oddball, who listens in on the phone calls of his neighbours… and he draws Jacob into his obsession. But she also has problems of her own. I’d started watching Red expecting something similar to my rewatches of Blue and White, so I was surprised to discover how much better than them it is (final scene notwithstanding). There is, now I think back on it, not much that stands out in terms of cinematography – a lot of use of the titular colour, and some nice photography of night-time Geneva. And, to be fair, the cast in all three films have been excellent – but I think it’s the dynamic between Jacob and Trintignant that works so well and lifts the film above Blue and White. The film is supposed to represent fraternity, yet most of the relationships in it have failed by the end – Jacob and her absent boyfriend, a neighbour and his girlfriend… And the strongest relationship in the film, between Jacob and Trintignant, is between two characters who have nothing in common, in fact Jacob is vehemently opposed to Trintignant’s practice of phone hacking. But when Jacob leaves to visit friends in the UK, Trintignant is the only one to wish her good fortune. This rewatch has amended my opinion of the Three Colours trilogy. They’re undoubtedly good films, but having watched so much more non-Anglophone cinema since I first watched them I find them more excellent examples of a particular type of film than merely excellent films. Kieślowski was a gifted film-maker and left an enviably impressive body of work, but I find myself thinking better of his earlier Polish films than I do his later French ones. Go figure.

waiting_womenWaiting Women, Ingmar Bergman (1952, Sweden). Bergman wrote a number of films about women, and while I don’t know enough to call his attitude to women into question, I do wonder sometimes. In Waiting Women, we have a group of women reminscing about the situation which led to their current state of affairs. And it’s all about relationships. The movie opens with a group of women preparing a meal together, before then flashing back to stories of their relationships, the longest and most memorabe of which is that featuring Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck – although it does also include a nasty line in misogynistic cracks from Björnstrand. And the infamous elevator scene. Which is, to be honest, one of the highlights. The two are trapped in a lift, and over the course of some ten minutes their rancour turns to humour. The flashback structure at least meant Waiting Women didn’t feel like a televised play, which a lot of Bergman’s films do (even those with scenes that take place outdoors). Not great Bergman by any means, but even his sub-par films are still a cut above most film-maker’s best.

riverRiver of No Return, Otto Preminger (1954, USA). I mentioned in a previous post that Preminger only made one Western… and this is it. And it’s a curious beast. It has many reasons to like it, and yet to fails to, well, impress. The story is an adaptation of The Bicycle Thieves, which is a point in its favour; and the landscape in which the film is set is gorgeous, and often extremely well-photographed… but it’s the things that make it a Hollywood film which spoil it. The close-ups are done in a studio, not on location, and it shows – badly. Marilyn Monroe was a big draw at the time, but she doesn’t bring anything special to this film. In fact, she’s a bit crap – and only seems to really shine when she’s at her most artless (although I guess that was part of her talent as an actress; having said that, by all accounts, she was pretty insufferable during this shoot). Mitchum turns up to a gold-diggers’ camp to pick up his ten-year-old son, who had been left there by arrangement. It turns out the son had been looked after by saloon singer Monroe. Mitchum and son go off to Mitchum’s homestead beside the eponymous river… only for Monroe and fiancé gambler to turn up on en route to stake a claim at Council City. Their raft founders, but Mitchum rescues them. Gambler responds by stealing Mitchm’s horse to continue his jounrey, but Monroe remains behind. Gambler never returns so the three of them make their own way, by raft, to Council City. The location shooting ias lovely, the studio shots anything but. In fact, it seems for much of the film the continuity people were given the day off, as close-up shots often seem to take place in completely different environments. River of No Return is an odd beast. Preminger was a skilled director, and he manages a solid narrative with (mostly) good turns from his cast. But the mix of location shooting and studio shots never quite match and the discrepancy jars badly. One for completists.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 796