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Moving pictures 2017, #54

A couple more posts and I’ll be caught up with my viewing.

Othello, Orson Welles (1951, Italy). I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about Welles – he was a true Hollywood innovator (and, later, a Hollywood outsider), who made some notable movies and some that were less notable… But then I saw his Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, and was much impressed. Enough to want to see more of his Shakespeare adaptations – his thrillers suffer from over-complication, but his simplifications of Shakespeare to make the material fit his runtime actually seem make them more powerful. Othello is… probably the best adaptation of the play ever put on celluloid. Er, that I’ve seen. I did wonder if it was Welles’s best film… but I think its troubled production tells against it. It contains some of Welles’s most striking cinematography, but it never quite hangs together as a single vision. It was famously a difficult production – begun in 1948, but Welles ran out of money and used his salary from acting jobs to fund more filming, so it went in fits and starts over a three-year period… And yet, the end-result is… really quite astonishing. For the record, I profoundly disagree with blacking up, and no matter that Othello has been played since Shakespearean times by countless white actors in black make-up, or that Welles cast himself in the title role – one of Shakespeare’s juiciest, by all accounts – it still seems off to deny the part to an actor of colour. Even in 1951. But as director, Welles has put together an impressive film, making astounding use of the constraints he encountered while filming. The stark black and white silhouettes of the opening scenes are among the most arresting images I’ve seen in a movie’s opening minutes. And Welles’s use of lighting and shadow in subsequent scenes is borderline genius. I suspect Welles is the closest Hollywood ever came to a true auteur, and even then he was forced to make films outside the system, and even outside the country. He produced an enviable body of work – not just in cinema – and I’m surprised no one has ever thought to collect it: perhaps the wide spread of financing and production companies prevents it, but from Citizen Kane to F for Fake, that’s an oeuvre ripe for celebration.

Limite*, Mário Peixoto (1931, Brazil). This is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I’d pretty much come to the conclusion I’d never get to see it as no copies were available on DVD, nor any other format. According to Wikipedia, the single nitrate print of the film had degraded so badly it could no longer screened. So I did wonder how the makers of the list had managed to see it. But then Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project picked it as one of their films to restore – although some parts of the print were too badly damaged to fully restore, and one scene was missing altogether. But it did mean I got to see it. And… It’s an interesting film, but not especially strong on narrative. It opens with a couple lost in a boat, which is then interrupted by a series of flashbacks. Parts of it reminded me of Maya Deren’s work (which it predates), other parts of some of the early French silent films. Much of the scenery appeared very similar to that in Vidas Secas, which was made thirty years later, so not much had changed during the intervening years. I’m not sure how much of Limite‘s reputation rests on its rarity – it was only shown publicly three times, but was privately screened for Orson Welles in 1942, who greatly admired it. It was certainly worth seeing, but there are films which impressed me more in this collection.

Music in Darkness, Ingmar Bergman (1948, Sweden). Bergman directed this, but the screenplay by Dagmar Edqvist is based on his novel of the same title. A classically trained pianist is blinded after being shot by accident at a shooting range during military manoeuvres. The only person who treats him like a human being is the servant girl in his parents’ house. But any sort of liaison is very much discouraged. The blind pianist decides to train as a church organist – it’s a better career than piano tuner, or piano player in a restaurant, for a person of his training – but even then is discouraged. He bumps into the servant girl, who is now training to be a teacher, and must win back her love. None of this is especially subtle, and while the actor who played the blind pianist – Birger Malmsten, who appears in many of Bergman’s early films – was never entirely convincing as a blind person, he was certainly convincing enough as an upper class Swede to handle that aspect of the plot.

Attenberg, Athina Rachel Tsangari (2010, Greece). I found this on Amazon Prime, which has thrown up the odd gem every now and again, and I admit I hadn’t realised it was Greek until I started watching it. And it’s a bit odd Greek, like a Yorgos Lanthimos film rather than a Theo Angelopoulos film – which is hardly a fair comparison as they’re the only two Greek directors I’ve seen recently, and the latter may be from an older tradition of Greek cinema. But, to be honest, I plan to explore Angelopoulos’s oeuvre further, and if Lanthimos and Tsangari are examples of twenty-first century Greek cinema, then I’m happy to explore that too. Providing, of course, such films are available in editions I can watch. (I studied Ancient Greek as a thirteen-year-old, but my command of modern Greek is non-existent, and I don’t remember what I learnt back then anyway.) There’s not much in the way of plot in Attenberg – a young woman’s father is dying, she enters into a relationship with a stranger who visits the small town where they live, her best friend has sex with her father. The characters are… a bit strange. The film opens, as shown in the DVD cover art, with the young woman and her best-friend ineptly teaching each other how to French kiss. And then sort of ambled along from there. I think I sort of liked it.

The End of Summer, Yasujiro Ozu (1961, Japan). For some reason, this film – Ozu’s penultimate movie – has not been released  by the BFI in one of their nice dual edition releases… although now I’ve hunted down a copy, they’ll probably go and do so. The End of Summer is, like every other Ozu film I’ve seen, an ensemble piece, about family, about business, about marriagable daughters who need husbands. It strikes me as a more Westernised film than his others, in as much as some of the characters are quite Westernised, and their Westernisation is part of the tapestry of family life Ozu weaves. A patriarch has an unmarried daughter and a widowed daughter-in-law and wants to finds husbands for them both. He runs a sake brewery which is starting to fail. The daughter-in-law – Ozu favourite Setsuko Hara – has no real desire to remarry; the young daughter would sooner marry a young man she knows who recently moved to Sapporo. But in the travelling back and forth between his offspring, from Kyoto to Osaka and back, the old man strains his his heart and is stricken with a heart attack. He survives the first, but not the second. And all his match-making counts for nothing. There’s a a sense in Ozu’s films of one generation ensuring the next is well settled for their life, so they too can ensure the same for their children. Mostly this comes across as patriarchs trying to find husbands for their daughters. In mid-twentieth-century Japan. Most fathers’ minds, it seems, when not filled with business deals, were exercised with ensuring their children were well settled for their own journeys into retirement. The idea that the previous generation has sufficient “float” to get the next generation started – either in social capital or financial capital – seems quaint at best these days. None of which invalidates Ozu’s movies. They’re well shot ensembles pieces – his technqiue of cutting from speaker to speaker during a conversation may be crude but remains effective – and his choice of domestic plots that illustrate elements if Japanese life of the time of shooting still resonate today. I still maintain Ozu is better than Mizogushi, and maybe one day I’ll convince David Tallerman of that too.

Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott (2017, USA). Back in the 1970s, you used to be able to buy LPs of chart hits, usually published by K-Tel, which featured recent hits but performed by artists who only sounded like the original artists. Alien: Covenant should have been named Alien: K-Tel. It’s like a run-through of all the best bits of the previous Alien films, but done with less quality. And, following firmly in the footsteps of Prometheus, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense or go any way to building a logical narrative out of the franchise. And yet, according to Wikipedia, most film critics in the press were mildly approving. Really? Have they forgotten what a good film looks like? Because this isn’t one. The plot is cobbled together from bits and pieces of earlier Alien movies, it introduces fifteen characters and makes no effort to let the viewer get to know them – compare and contrast with the cast of Alien – and said cast also behave completely unprofessionally and fall to pieces at the first opportunity. There’s so many things wrong with this film it seems churlish to list them. That the eponymous ship is caught in a neutrino storm which is detected shortly before it hits (handily ignoring that neutrinos pass through everything without effect – so they’re fucking difficult to detect – and also wouldn’t actually cause any damage) and yet you can’t detect a storm of light-speed particles before it hits because by definition the first evidence of it is when the storm hits… Or the character who intercepts a radio message from a planet in his spacesuit because he is at the time “outside the communication buffers” of the Covenant, which is not what “buffer” means at all. Then there’s that really annoyingly stupid mistake perpetrated by all the Alien films, in which craft drop from the mothership while it is in orbit. It doesn’t work like that. Everything is in microgravity. Sadly, it’s also a major part of the plot in Alien: Covenant – because that’s how they manage to finally kill the alien. Oops. Spoiler. And a plot which blithely skates over genocide, with no apparent moral consequences, well, that’s no good either. This is the dumbest film in a franchise which has grown increasingly dumb with each new instalment. Avoid.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 883

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Films do furnish a room

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

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

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

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

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