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Moving pictures 2017, #1

The first film post of 2017. I’m not planning on watching as many films this year as last, since I’m hoping Ill be spending that time doing other things, like writing. I’m also going to try and watch two non-US films for every US one. I sort of managed it in this post – two US films, although admittedly one was a short, and the rest from the UK, Sweden, Italy and Russia.

meet_john_doeMeet John Doe, Frank Capra (1941, USA). The world was not a nicer place when Capra was making his films, but the solutions to its problems did seem so much easier to implement. And, of course, the same obstacles to those solutions existed then as now – greed, and the need for the rich to keep the poor in a place where they can control them and keep them poor. Meet John Doe is typical in that regard, so typical its story pretty much iterates that entire philosophy. A newspaper reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is fired when a new owner takes over her newspaper. She retaliates by publishing a suicide letter in her last column, in which a “John Doe” promises to leap from the newspaper building because of man’s greed and inhumanity to man. The new owner likes the letter, so much so it prompts a hunt for a real John Doe. And Garry Cooper, a homeless ex-baseball player, is cast in the part. Cooper’s homespun neighbourliness strikes a chord, and people form John Doe clubs… and next thing you know there’s an entire political movement wrapped around it. Except the John Doe Clubs refuse to allow politicians as members. But then the newspaper owner who backed the campaign reveals he had planned to use it all along to create a third political party under his control. And when Cooper objects, they monster him in front of  his followers at a rally in a stadium – because, well, they’re scumbags, because that’s what rich people do when they don’t get their way. The whole grassroots movement then falls apart, and Cooper is driven into hiding. But the sheep-like people eventually see the error of their ways and the John Doe clubs start reforming… There’s a lot in Meet John Doe that maps onto twenty-first politics, proving only, I guess, that twenty-first century politics is not all that much different to twentieth-century politics. The homespun neighbourliness Cooper sells doesn’t play in the present day, what with assorted demagogues whipping up xenophobic and racist hate for their own ends – stand up, Mr Farage, Mr Trump.  Of course, this is a Capra movie, and he was a master at leaving the viewer feeling good about life. Which is where, I suppose, his films differ from real life…

masters_of_venusMasters of Venus (1962, UK). I remember the Children’s Film Foundation films you used to see at the cinema before the main feature, although this one predates me by quite a bit and was apparently shown on telly anyway. But it sounded worth a punt, so I stuck it on my rental list… and so it arrived and… it was pretty much completely as expected: the sort of science fiction film and television churned out until the late 1960s, and which never really convinced but then no one ever expected it to. A teenage boy and girl often visit their father’s work – he’s a rocket scientist, in charge of the first flight to Venus. On one particular visit, two sinister agents of an unknown power – they have six fingers on their hands, so it’s clearly not the Soviets – try to sabotage the rocket. They succeed in sabotaging the control centre, but the rocket – with two of its crew and the two teenagers – launches prematurely and sends the four off to Venus. Once they reach Venus, something seizes control of the rocket and prevents them from returning to Earth. The two astronauts investigate, and are captured by Venusians. So it’s up to the two kids to rescue them. Venus was apparently colonised by people from Atlantis and they’re afraid of conquest by Earth. There are two factions, Men of Action and Men of Science, and the former plan to destroy Earth to safeguard Venus. The latter would sooner reach an accommodation. Once on Venus, the story pretty much runs along well-established rails – captured, escape, captured again, find allies among Venusians, escape, turn tables, save the day, etc, etc. It’s fun, in a very dated sort of way, and does sort of make you pine for the simpler days of science fiction and story-telling. I mean, watching it fifty-plus years later as an adult, you’re going to get a different experience, and nostalgia is going to be ninety-nine parts of it. Which sounds a little like damning with faint praise as, like most of the Children’s Film Foundation’s output, Masters of Venus is well-made, pacey, and ticks (for the time) most of the right boxes. It’s an historical document, no denying that, but given that perspective it’s worth seeing.

maya_derenAt Land, Maya Deren (1944, USA). After watching Meshes of the Afternoon by Deren and Alexander Hammid, I had a look round on Youtube and it seems most of Deren’s output is on there. There’s been some controversy over who exactly contributed the most to Meshes of the Afternoon, with it generally being seen as chiefly Deren’s work, but Stan Brakhage claiming that Hammid was mostly responsible for it. But given that Deren went on to make nearly a dozen further films, and Hammid only made two more, and she spent decades lecturing on film-making, she’s clearly the more important figure of the two in American avant-garde cinema. And At Land, which has only her name attached, is not dissimilar to Meshes of the Afternoon in approach. It opens with reversed film of Deren emerging from the sea, but then she finds herself at a dinner party. There’s a chess game between two women on the beach, and lots of rolling around in the sand. It’s all completely silent – as was, in fact, Meshes of the Afternoon, until a soundtrack by Teiji Ito, who was married to Deren at the time, was added in 1959. I’m enjoying my delves into avant-garde cinema, although, to be honest, I’m not big on symbolic story-telling in the medium. I guess in that respect it’s little different to my taste for plain prose – prose claire, if you will – inasmuch as I’m all for evoking strangeness, but through the use of clear imagery. And, while Deren’s films are striking, I’m not sure I agree with obfuscation of story by telling it through symbolic imagery. It should be a value-add, not the be-all and end-all. Nonetheless, I plan to watch more of Deren’s films. If I can find them…

classic_bergmanSawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman (1953, Sweden). The title is a bit of a clue – and the DVD cover art would be even more of one, but my copy was part of the box set depicted – but this movie is set in a circus. But it’s not a happy movie. Well, it is a Bergman movie. Yes, yes, I know, he made some light-hearted comedies as well as his usual dour Nordic tragedies, but Sawdust and Tinsel falls firmly into the latter camp. A circus arrives in town, and the owner tries to patch things up with his ex-wife who lives in the town. But it goes badly, resulting in the man his current lover is having a fling with challenging the circus-owner and subsequently getting badly beaten up by him. There’s a certain flavour to Bergman’s films, no matter where they are set – a circus, a maternity ward, a holiday home – that tends to overpower any story he might tell. It’s not just the stark black and white cinematography, which is only true for about two-thirds of his oeuvre; or the “staginess” of many of his films, which give them the feel of theatre plays or literary short stories (although in a different fashion to, say, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story). I’m not sure I’m a fan of Bergman’s work, although I’ve managed to collect quite a bit of it. Some of his films are blindingly good, and he amassed a hugely impressive body of work… but I’m not sure yet how much value I put on many of his works. I think I need to know him better, I need to rewatch some of the films I’ve watched, perhaps with some sort of structure or purpose. I think he deserves it, and I think it would be rewarding doing so. And, to be fair, there are not that many directors you could say that about.

saloSalò, or the 120 Days of Sodom*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975, Italy). I didn’t go into this film completely ignorant of what it would be like, which was just as well, as it’s a brutal and horrible film, and while it certainly makes some important points, it nonetheless makes for very uncomfortable viewing. During World War II, Salò, a town on Lake Garda, became the centre of Mussolini’s last fascist state, from 1943 to 1945. Then there’s the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, which the title references, although the film takes place over three days. It all seems relatively innocuous at first. Four men, referred to only by their titles, take a group of teenagers, and then pretty much treat them and all those about them with a complete lack of morals. During a meal, for example, one of the soldiers starts to rape a waitress. There are repeated scenes of a woman telling stories of her past to an audience of the teenagers; sometimes she sings. It’s the end of the film which is most brutal. I’m squeamish, I freely admit it, and I dislike watching horrific scenes in films – in fact, I deal with them best when they’re obviously special effects (ie, pre-CGI). But even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom tested by tolerance for squeam, particularly toward the end when many of the teenagers are physically tortured. Having now seen Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, I’m in two minds about the film. It’s a horrible film to watch, but it makes important points. Pasolini was an important director, and his work should be treated accordingly. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is also on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, amongst many others, so it’s clearly a film regarded highly by many… I’m glad I watched it, but I’m not so sure I could watch it again. And yet I find myself conflicted over buying the shiny new BFI Blu-ray release…

banishmentThe Banishment, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2007, Russia). This is the third Zvyagintsev film I’ve seen, after the earlier The Return and the later Leviathan. So I knew what to expect: glacial pacing, long static takes, close-ups on actors who barely change expression… And I like that sort of stuff, I really do. But for some reason The Banishment seemed like more of a watching ordeal than the other two films by Zvyagintsev I’ve seen. A family travel out into the country to spend time at his childhood home. The wife reveals she is pregnant, but the husband does not believe the baby is his. He forces his wife to have an abortion, but she deliberately overdoses on pain medication afterwards and dies. A flashback reveals that the baby was the husband’s, after all. There’s a subplot involving the husband’s brother, who is a gangster of some sort, and who turns up and then promptly has a heart attack – but there’s not much to it. The cinematography is gorgeous, with some beautiful shots of the Russian countryside (actually, not entirely Russian – The Banishment was filmed in France, Belgium, Moldova and Russia; in fact, the countryside home was built from scratch in Moldova. But never mind: we all know movie geography does not map onto the real world, and that an exterior shot of a building in movieland is not necessarily the location of the following interior shots…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843

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Moving pictures, #69

The last Moving pictures post of 2016 (although it’s appearing in 2017), and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact I wrote 69 of these bloody things in twelve months. While I didn’t write about every film I watched, at 6 films on average per post, that’s still a big whole pile of movies. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, and some of them became favourites. Most of them I’m at least glad I watched. Let’s hope the same can be said during 2017.

last_tangoLast Tango in Paris*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1972, France). I’m still convinced Bertolucci is just a gifted copyist, and Last Tango in Paris is just Bertolucci doing Nouvelle Vague, but with some very dodgy sex scenes. Okay, so the first clue is Marlon Brando as the male lead, an actor whose appeal continues to mystify me and whose adoption by Hollywood is quite baffling. The only thing to be said in his favour is he has shown a little more critical acumen than his colleagues in choosing the projects he worked on… But Last Tango in Paris is a blot on his copybook. It’s an “erotic drama”, which means there’s lots of simulated sex – and all involved have repeatedly insisted it was simulated – but lots of dodgy sexual politics. Even for 1972. Brando plays an American in Paris who owns a run-down hotel and whose wife has just committed suicide. He falls in with Maria Schneider, a carefree twentysomething Parisian. They have hot sex. Brando sets the rules and gets unreasonably angry when Schneider breaks them – sexual politics, 1972-style. There are lots of intense close-ups, New Wave style, and even that bit where Brando taps Schneider on one shoulder then pops around the other, doesn’t Azanvour do that in Tirez sur le pianiste or am I misremembering? The film sparked controversy on its release, but was a critical and commercial success. I’ve always known of it, of course, it’s like the first big mainstream “dirty” film that everyone of my generation knows about; the second is 9½ Weeks, which I saw back in the 1980s and I’m sure would be a major disappointment if I ever rewatched it. Of course, whatever reputation might have attached to Last Tango in Paris as far as a callow youth was concerned, that no longer holds true for me, and I took the film as I found it. And having seen it, and read up on the actual controversy regarding its making – it pretty much destroyed Schneider, those simulated sex scenes were as near as dammit to rape… it’s hard to consider it worthy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. To be honest, Andrzej Żuławski does it much better with l’amour fou as a theme, and at least manages such stories in a style all his own… Bertolucci, on the other hand, is a bit of chameleon, and while he certainly has an excellent eye – I’m thinking of both The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, but there are many good shots in Last Tango in Paris – I’m not convinced the sum of Last Tango in Paris‘s good bits outweigh the extensive and less than salubrious baggage it carries.

flowers_shanghaiFlowers of Shanghai, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1998, Taiwan). So I bought this “box set” – it was five DVDs in a cardboard box – because I wanted to see two of the films in it. But having now watched four of them, I’ve become a bit of a Hou fan, because he really is very good. Flowers of Shanghai is the most gorgeous-looking for Hou films I’ve seen so far, with perhaps the exception of The Assassin. The film takes place in four late nineteenth century brothels in Shanghai, and is divided into four sections, each named for the central courtesan of that section: Crimson, Pearl, Jasmine and Jade. The film chiefly consists of a static camera focusing on a group of people, courtesans and their most frequent patrons, and so telling the story of their lives and the realtionships between them, some of which are defined by those patrons. Plot-wise, it’s perhaps not the most gripping of stories, but if there’s one thing my travels in Hou territory have taught me it’s that he prefers to lay out his story in the incidentals. The dialogue defines the relationships between the characters, the mide en scène defines the setting, and the story comes out of the interplay between the two. So it’s just as well that Hou scores so highly on presenting his mise en scène, it is in fact one of his strengths as a director. He frames gorgeous shots because he has set up gorgeous shots – and Flowers of Shanghai shows that off to an impressive extent. I’m still not entirely sure why I bought the Hou “boxed set”, given that I’d only seen one of Hou’s films before, but it was a wise purchase. I now count myself a fan of his work and plan to purchase everything else he made – because, of course, only two or three are actually available for rental in the UK…

the_pastThe Past, Asghar Farhadi (2013, France). And from a new director I now admire to… well, Farhadi’s About Elly is a brilliant film, a clever drama/thriller and wholly Iranian. I loved it the moment I saw it back in 2013. His Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation were also very good. But The Past is, well, it’s not an Iranian film. It’s a French film. And it suffers as a result. It’s about Iranian immigrants in France, but their concerns, the plot, is all the sort of stuff that would drive a French film. I know the immigrant experience is important, and that documenting it is not only worthwhile but important… But, to a non-native eye I freely admit, The Past did seem to resemble more the experiences of non-immigrants than immigrants. If that makes sense. Perhaps it was a sense that the, er, sensibility seemed suited to the language and setting, when the nationality of the director and cast suggested it should have been otherwise. I firmly believe cinema is a powerful tool for documenting life across the planet, in all its manifest forms, in all its various societies and communities. That’s why I treasure world cinema. It provides an insider’s view. I’m not interested in a French-style drama that just happens to be made by an Iranian director and happens to feature a cast of Iranian extraction, because I’m more interested in seeing life as experienced by Iranians, yes, even Iranians living in France. Perhaps I’m doing The Past a great disservice, perhaps I’m completely missing a huge part of this film, but I’ve seen a number of Iranian films and I’ve seen a number of French films and to my eye this smelt like a French film. Which is not to it was a bad film – Farhadi is bloody good, after all – but I do prefer Iranian cinema to French cinema, and would rather this film had tended to the former than the latter…

meshesMeshes of the Afternoon*, Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid (1943, USA). Most discussions of avant garde cinema often focus on US avant garde cinema, possibly because most European avante garde film-makers went on to become commercially successful, such as Luis Buñuel. And of those US avant garde films, Meshes of the Afternoon from 1943 is generally noted as one of the most seminal. While on the one hand the experimental films of Bruce Baillie and Stan Brakhage might fit into the commonly-held view of the history of cinema – it was the 1960s! everyone experimented! – but no one really expects the same of two decades earlier. Common sense dictates there must have been people experimenting with film in the 1940s just as much as there were in the 1960s (for the all the latter decades reputation for experimentation, etc.), but popular history tends to elide such experiments. Meshes of the Afternoon, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is one such experiment whose reputation has withstood the test of time. I found a decent copy of Youtube and watched it there. And watching it, well, there’s a lot of Lynch in there, or rather, Lynch was clearly influenced by this film, if not others by Deren. A woman dreams about a hooded figure with a mirror for a face. She follows it along a path, but loses it. She returns home and finds a key. The key morphs into a knife. There are several versions of her sitting at a table. She sees the hooded figure in her bedroom. Some of this is a dream, some of this seems to be a re-enactment of something she dreamed. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about avant garde cinema, and its history, in order to understand why Meshes of the Afternoon is considered so important. It’s good, certainly; but I’ve no way of judging its historical importance. Given the year… although Buñuel’s Un chien Andalou was released in 1929… there’s clearly some early importance there, and Deren went on to make more films and lecture extensively in film-making. Some of Deren’s other films are available on Youtube – I’ve watched one, At Land, already – and I think she has an oeuvre worth exploring… But with Benning, Bailie, Brakhage and now Deren & Hammid, this is obviously an area of cinema I need to spend a bit more time on…

good_menGood Men, Good Women, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1995, Taiwan). That’s the last of the “box set”, so now I’ll have to get me some more Hou DVDs. This is the third film in Hou’s Taiwanese History trilogy, which also includes A City of Sadness (not seen) and The Puppetmaster (see here). Like the second, and possibly the first, it’s a biopic, this time about Chiang Bi-Yu, who left Taiwan in the 1940s to fight the Japanese in mainland China, and after WWII returns to Taiwan, becomes a communist and so comes into conflict with the Kuomintang regime. The film depicts Chiang’s life in black-and-white, but is interspersed with sections in colour documenting the life of the actress who plays Chiang in the film that is Good Men, Good Women… And I have to wonder if this is where Stanley Kwan got the idea for the structure of Center Stage (see here). Both are great films, of course; and it’s no surprise that China, and other areas speaking languages of the Chinese family, should produce movies that are more than kung fu actioners or gorgeous wu xia spectacles, but we rarely get to learn that over here in the UK… So mark both those films down on your list as superior films – even if, er, they’re not actually available in the UK or US.

ride_lonesomeRide Lonesome*, Budd Boeticher (1959, USA). I couldn’t find a copy of this in the UK or US, so ended up buying a rip from someone on eBay because the film had passed out of copyright. Fortunately, it proved to be a good transfer – to be fair, most these days for sale on eBay are pretty good transfers. And as I started watching Ride Lonesome I sort of understood why it had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but then the further into the film I got the less I understood why it had earned its place on the list. Partly that was down to Randolph Scott, the star, who seems a pretty solid centre around which to plot a Western story, but he does, well, have an unfeasibly big head, in fact, he looks a bit like a puppet. Some actors make great Western heroes – Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart… Randolph Scott just seems proportioned wrong. As for the story… He plays a bounty hunter, taking a killer to Santa Cruz, Arizona, to be hung. They stop off en route at a desert rest-stop – and the scenes set in and around that are lovely to look at and well played – and pick up a pair of freebooters, and the rest-stop’s widowed female owner, as companions. All of which leads to complications later. The story is not much, but this is a Western. The desert scene cinematography is very good, and I’d love to have seen it in full-on restored Technicolor. Later scenes, in landscape more familiar from Western television series, were less impressive. And the story’s final twist was not quite as unexpected as the story had suggested it might be. A good Western, I suspect, although I’m not so sure it deserves a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 842