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Moving pictures 2017, #15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 856


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Moving pictures 2017, #13

The New Year’s resolution is still working. I seem to be averaging one US film per Moving pictures blog post. The films in this post were half-rented and half-owned, and two were rewatches (albeit one of them not since many years).

herzogHeart of Glass, Werner Herzog (1976, Germany). I first saw this many years ago, after buying a Herzog DVD box set in a sale. And of that initial watch, all I  could really remember was the fact the cast were hypnotised before shooting began, and the really weird way they performed on-screen as a result. Which pretty much meant I’d categorised the film as “weird Herzog that’s probably pretty good but still weird”. What I’d forgotten were the parts of the film where the camera focuses on some part of the landscape, like some Caspar David Friedrich painting, lacking only the figure of a man, while some strange German prog rock plays… for ten minutes. I love stuff like that. When the actual story kicks off – a master glass blower at a factory in an eighteenth-century town and takes the secret of the glassworks’s unique ruby glass with him – it feels a bit like the film has landed badly in the proasic after some flight of fancy. The local baron is desperate to find the secret, so much so failure drives him mad. And the rest of the town go made too. While I’d remembered how odd the casts’ performances were, since they’d been hypnotised, they actually proved considerably stranger than I’d thought. In many cases, it was like they weren’t there, their faces seemed completely blank. At other times, they over-reacted as if whatever they saw or felt just got stuck. It was… very weird. And I really did like the musical interludes. Bits of Heart of Glass are among my favourite bits of Herzog.

my_brilliant_careerMy Brilliant Career*, Gillian Armstrong (1979, Australia). I was perhaps unfair in dismissing this as a “dull Australian historical drama”, as I did on Facebook shortly after watching it, yet I really did find it over-long and uninteresting. The title refers to the boast uttered by an independent young woman in late nineteenth-century Australia. She is convinced she will become a much-lauded writer – and given that the film is based on an important Australian novel, it might well be said she did just that. A young woman is sent from the family farm to live with her grandmother in order to calm her down and teach her how to behave like a proper young woman. She meets two men, and she falls for the one with the money. She spends time at his estate. He proposes. She rejects him. His fortune then collapses. She takes a job as a governess in order to support herself, but is sent home because the family mistakenly think she is seducing the oldest son. Her boyfriend proposes again. She rejects him again. And says she wants to become a writer. (Not that writing and marriage are incompatible, as a great many female writers can attest – even in the late nineteenth century… although perhaps not so much in Australia.) My Brilliant Career pretty much stands or falls on how you take to the lead character, Sybylla, the Miles Franklin stand-in. While the film was put together well, and the two leads, Judy Davis and Sam Neill, put in excellent performances, I really didn’t take to Sybylla, which is why I didn’t take to the film. Some films like that, I might decide a second chance is warranted, and so watch them again. But this was a rental and I didn’t get a chance before sending the disc back. So it’ll have stay as a “meh” from me.

astronautAstronaut: The Last Push, Eric Hayden (2012, USA). I have a great idea for a film, it’s it like the plot of my 2011 story, ‘Barker’, about the first man in space, who dies; but in this version it’s a British space programme, because we nearly had one, you know (actually, no, we didn’t, that’s implausible make-believe). Anyway, someone made that film, it was called Capsule, and it was very dull. Astronaut: The Last Push takes that idea one step further. Two US astronauts are being set to Europa, but the most efficient course is a slingshot by Venus, and then a second by Earth. Since this will take several years, the crew of two are put into hibernation. But then the spacecraft is hit by a micrometeoroid en route to Venus, which wakes up one astronaut and kills the other. So the surviving astronaut has to stay awake, and sane, during the remaining weeks of the trip from Venus back to Earth. As does the viewer. Because once the accident is over, the only drama remaining centres on the continued sanity of the surviving astronaut. And his coping mechanisms. And that’s neither dramatic not interesting enough to fill 85 minutes. I’m a sucker for space movies, but so many of them look better on paper than they do realised on the silver screen. Usually because the story isn’t really fit for 90 minutes. But I’ll keep on watching them, in the hope I find a good one.

far_pavilionsThe Far Pavilions (1984, UK). As far as I remember, I read MM Kaye’s novel The Far Pavilions one Christmas or Easter holiday while staying in the Middle East with my parents because there was nothing else to read. It was not my usual choice of book. But I really liked it – so much so, I went on to read Kaye’s other historical novels and, years later, tracked down copies of her crime novels. A later reread of The Far Pavilions reminded me why I had loved it so much the first time I read it. So I was keen to see the television adaptation… and so I did, within a year of two of its release. But I also remember being disappointed with the adaptation, but despite that I was pleased when I stumbled across a DVD of The Far Pavilions in a charity shop for 99p (as indeed were the rest of the family, who’ll be borrowing it from me). The story is simple enough. An English boy, Ash, survives the Indian Mutiny and successfully masquerades as the son of his Indian nurse until the age of eleven. At which age, he makes himself known at the Corp of Guides garrison in Mardan in North-West India. He is sent off to England to be educated, and to grow up, as a proper Englishman, and then returns to India on his majority to take up a place as an officer in the Corps of Guides. The book makes much of Ash’s childhood as Ashok, but the TV series leaves it as off-screen back-history. Which means that Ash’s ability to pass as a “native” (Urdu-speaker? Pushtu-speaker?) has to be taken as dramatic licence in the TV series – especially since all the dialogue is in English and there are no indicators the characters have changed language. (Actually speaking, say,  Urdu, and having English subtitles would be unacceptable on UK and US television in 1984, more’s the pity.) Ash was best friends with a young princess when a kid, but now he’s a pukka sahib he ends up meeting her, only she’s being married off to a nasty piece of work and he has to escort her to her wedding. They reconnect, are horrified by her future, but both have roles to play. There’s some fine landscape in The Far Pavilions, and some good dramatic moments, but the casting is iffy at best. Ben Cross never really convinces as Ashok, a blacked-up Amy Irving makes a poor Anjuli, and Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee as Pathans is just taking the piss. The storming of the Residence in Kabul is effectively staged, and the pomp and circumstance during the princesses’ trip south, and subsequent marriage, looks good. But the miniseries never matches up to the book – which I really must reread one of these days – and, thirty-two years later, feels like a too-thin adaptation that traded on a low-grade celebrity cast and Indian scenery. True, it was the first miniseries HBO were ever involved in, so early days for the format (and kudos to them for actually going to India to film it), but I’d really liked the novel and had hoped to like this just as much.

vagabondVagabond*, Agnès Varda (1985, France). The film opens with the discovery by a vineyard worker of a young woman dead in a ditch, from what appears to be exposure. From the voiceover, it appears this might be a documentary, and a series of interviews with those involved in finding the body, and the authorities and emergency services who turn up, only increases the documentary feel. But then Vagabond abruptly shifts back in time to the earliest appearance of the young woman the narrator admits she has uncovered… and the moves forward with a combination of dramatisation of the young woman’s life – she is a drop-out, travelling about France with a tent on her back and picking up casual jobs to pay for food – and interviews with those she interacted with along the way. Vagabond doesn’t blend fiction and fact as it’s entirely fctional, but it does blend the typical modes of presentation of fiction and fact. In itself, the story isn’t all that interesting – in attempting to track back the young woman’s life and discover who she was, the narrator, and so the viewer, discovers she was perfectly ordinary. She admits at one point to having been a well-paid secretary in Paris, but decided she had had enough of that life and so took to the road. The people she meets are perfectly ordinary, lending yet more of a documentary feel to the film. The only other Varda film films I’d seen prior to this were Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, which I thought okay, and Cleo from 5 to 7, which I loved. Vagabond I thought good. So I really should add me some more Varda to my rental list. Happily, there are two box sets of four of her films each available in the UK.

masterpieces_1Camouflage, Krzysztof Zanussi (1977, Poland). I had a moment of weirdness when watching this when I realised that one of the characters had an English accent when speaking Polish. I don’t speak Polish… but I’ve apparently heard enough of it in films to to recognise some Polish words being pronounced with an English accent. Weird. It turned out the actress was bi-lingual, but brought up in the UK, and in this film was playing a Polish-speaking Brit. She is one of several students at a university summer camp. She is also having an affair with one of the lecturers. And that lecturer is one of the young ones, who has different ideas to how students should be treated than the older lecturers. This comes to a head over the summer camp’s competition, in which each student stands up before the class and gives a a talk on a topic. (The summer camp is specifically for students studying linguistics, incidentally.) The young lecturer favours one student to take the prize, one of the older lecturers disagrees. It causes problems. To be honest, I thought the talk the young lecturer felt deserved the price, or at least what little of it appeared in the film, based on a fallacy and not especially good. But never mind. Camouflage is another one of those television dramas writ large that the Poles did so well in the 1970s. It doesn’t feel like a feature film but an entire series edited together and, in hindsight, I have to wonder if this is because these films take the time to build their characters. They don’t create ones that fall neatly into well-known types. The Polish-speaking English actress mentioned earlier is a good example. Why have someone like her in the film? Her background doesn’t impact the story, is not relevant to the resolution. But the fact she exists makes every character in the film feel more rounded. And when the story revolves around the conflict between two lecturers, of different generations and sensibilities, then well-drawn characters are a must. Camouflage also looks wonderfully 1970s. Not the horribly over-egged 1970s of twenty-first-century attempts at recreating the 1970s, like American Hustle, but the real 1970s, with daft pointy collars, tank tops, and shirts and ties and jackets in different unaplatable shades of brown. A good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 855