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Moving pictures 2018, #67

I need to get these out of the way. I have three Moving pictures posts, including this one, to finish off 2018’s viewing. Posts #68 and #69 to follow soon…

Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino (1980, USA). This film is probably best known for breaking New Hollywood and ending the US’s willingness to give carte blanche to directors and instead returning to Extruded Studio Product. Which, given the fact most of Hollywood’s best films are director films, seems a step backwards. Except Hollywood is all about profit, not about making good films. Which is not to say that Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It looks fantastic. But it is overlong, massively distorts the story it tells, and was reputedly a terrible production. Legend has it Jonathan Hurt went off and made The Elephant Man in between shoots on Heaven’s Gate. It’s easy to believe, because the whole film reeks of out-of-control personal project. The story, as it goes, is yet another take on the cattle barons versus homesteaders conflict in late nineteenth-century USA. The film opens with two friends graduating from Harvard. It then jumps forward twenty years, and one of the men is a marshal while the other represents the cattle barons. In the film, the homesteaders are all European immigrants, which was not the historical case. Nor did they kill cattle because they were starving. But Cimino is making a point beyond the history he used as inspiration, so he ups the stakes all round, and has the cattlemen respond with brutal violence. And this is in a 219 minute film, so it goes on and on and on… The fact the production was so bad, and Cimino a total prima donna – he apparently wanted the street widening for one of the towns he’d had built, and instead of moving one side out six feet he demanded both sides were moved out three feet each – well, it’s easy to see why Heaven’s Gate flopped so badly on release. It’s been reassessed since – but a lot of it still doesn’t work: the layered-on xenophobia, the excessive violence, the rambling plot, multitude of characters… If Heaven’s Gate is seen more favourably now, it’s probably because auteurs have been back in favour for a few decades and the success of sell-through, in whatever format, has opened up a market for auteur movies. Which Heaven’s Gate isn’t really. But as the last gasp of New Hollywood it’s worth seeing at least once.

Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell (2018, USA). It is possible to accurately describe a film in such a way that it sounds like it’s worth watching but the 139 minutes spent watching it could still prove a total waste of time. Which is as good a description of Under the Silver Lake as any plot summary. Slacker Andrew Garfield is having trouble paying his bills and is threatened with eviction. He spots a young woman at the apartment building’s pool and is smitten. But then she goes missing. Meanwhile, he’s intrigued by an underground comic which shares the film’s name, and which suggest there is some secret history underlying pretty much everything. After a series of encounters, Garfield bounces from one clue to the other in his hunt for the young woman, before ending up at the mansion of some mega-wealthy recluse who claims to have written every single pop song ever heard. So Garfield brutally murders him. He eventually tracks down the missing woman, and it’s all to do with secret hermetically-sealed fallout shelters beneath the Californian desert, where members of the ultra-rich seal themselves off until they die because only by doing that can they achieve immortality, or some such bollocks. Under the Silver Lake tries really hard to be Eyes Wide Shut but pretty much fails at every point. The plot didn’t seem to go anywhere, except round in ever-pointless circles. It looked pretty, though; and the cast were quite good. But definitely not worth seeing.

Blind Shaft, Li Yang (2003, China). This is the film for which Li made his name, and the first of his loose  trilogy of “Blind” films. A pair of con men work in China’s poorly-regulated, and often illegal, coal mines. They pick some more schmuck desperate for a job, and persuade him to pretend to be their brother, and the three of them will sign up at a coal mine. They then murder the third man and claim it was an accident. And the mine owners pay them off because they don’t want the authorities investigating the mine. The films opens with a murder, and then follows the two miners as they return to the city to look for a new victim. But the naive teenager they eventually persuade to join them… one of the miners likes him too much to murder him. For all that we’re told China is a communist country, and communist countries have free healthcare and education, and the booming Chinese economy has seen giant cities grew up out of nothing, not to mention vast industrial zones… but the films made by Sixth Generation directors tell a slightly different story. Sch as this one, and Li’s later Blind Mountain. People far from the shiny new cities live in poverty, and have to pay for medical treatment and education. There’s a scene in Blind Shaft, in which the two miners, flush with the spoils of their last crime, are in the city and spot a youth holding up a sign which says he has won a place at college but needs money to pay for it. The miners are so impressed he has passed the entrance exams, they give him some money. It’s a different picture to the one painted by glossy trans-Pacific blockbusters, which likely explains why they tend not to get theatrical releases (or indeed approval from the Chinese authorities in some cases). Definitely worth seeing.

Love in a Fallen City, Ann Hui (1984, China). There’s some good stuff on Amazon Prime. you just have to look for it. And it’s probably tempting to stick to the high profile stuff, even for foreign films, as the movies we see made in other countries depend on what’s made available to us – either by dubbing or subtitles – and often isn’t all that indicative of that nation’s cinema. This is certainly true of China, Western views of whose cinema have no doubt been chiefly shaped by first of all Hong Kong action movies, plus Shaw Brothers’ wu xia, then later wu xia films kicked off by the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon… Plus, of course, there are the films by Fifth Generation and Sixth Generation directors, and the entirely different aesthetic, and choice of subject matter, they bring to Chinese cinema… But there are yet other films, which were either never released in the West, or had such limited releases they were all but invisible, and for whatever reason, although I’m not going to complain, some of them seem to have been made available on Amazon Prime. This is not to say all such movies are undiscovered gems. One or two of them are actually quite good, but most are pretty unforgettable – and some of the more successful ones are actually pretty bad. Love in a Fallen City is an adaptation of a novella of the same title by Eileen Chang, originally published in 1943, set before and during the Japanese invasion of China in WWII. It’s a boy meets girl, girl is not sure about boy, boy and girl realise they truly love each other as disaster strikes sort of story. It’s all very well-meaning, but I suspect the source material makes a more interesting job of it than the film did. It’s been several weeks since I watched it, and pretty much nothing has stuck. Oh well.

The Legend of Tarzan, David Yates ( 2016, Australia). Tarzan must be up there with Sherlock Holmes as the white male fictional character who has had the most film adaptations and, like Holmes, each adaptation has brought contemporary concerns to the adaptation. Perhaps Tarzan movies have not been quite so “contemporary” as Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis in the 1940s, but each take on the character, even if set in its correct period, has been of its time. Which is probably a good point to document my own relationship with the character of Tarzan, which is entirely overshadowed by a Tarzan annual I read in a hotel in the mid-1970s the night before an orthodontist’s appointment. It was one of the those hotels with a bathroom shared by several rooms. And one story in the Tarzan annual affected me powerfully. That, and the pain of having a brace fitted, have burned it into my memory. Other than that, it was regular showings of the 1960s Tarzan television series (that’s the one with the chimpanzee called Cheeta) on Dubai television when I was a kid, and memories of the Johnny Weismuller movies, although I can’t remember when and where I saw them. Of course, of Edgar Rice Burrough’s properties I’ve always much preferred John Carter, and I don’t recall even reading a Tarzan novel – although one of my favourite books as a kid was Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan of the Apes (I had the Pan UK reprint paperback, which apparently doesn’t even exist on Amazon). Anyway, he’s a familiar character to me, and it’s been interesting seeing how he’s been re-interpreted over the years. The Legend of Tarzan opens with Tarzan, as Greystoke, settled in England, but asked to return to the Congo to investigate slavery there – and so becomes embroiled in a plot by the Belgian envoy to deliver Tarzan to an tribal leader in return for the fabled diamonds of Opar. It’s all very twenty-first century, with lots of CGI apes, and near-superpowered protagonists, but it makes an excellent point about the slavery. It smells quite a lot like a Victorian superhero movie, and the story beats are more from that template than the source material, but it’s certainly an improvement on the last few Tarzan movies and better than the reviews it received.

Big Shot’s Funeral, Feng Xiaogang (20011, China). Donald Sutherland plays a big name Hollywood auteur in China to remake Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. The production company has hired a Chinese cameraman to follow Sutherland and record everything he says and does as material for a “making of” documentary. Unfortunately, Sutherland’s character doesn’t seem to have much clue what he’s supposed to be making – or rather, he has an entirely different film in mind to the one the producers are expecting or that he signed up for. This often results in incomprehensible instructions to the cast and extras, which his translator translates as something more understandable. Meanwhile, Sutherland forms a friendship with his documentary cameraman, despite the cameraman’s rudimentary English. But as the shoot progresses, so Sutherland’s character becomes disenchanted with the project. He doesn’t want to make some commercial crowd-pleaser, but that’s what the producers want and that’s how the production is being steered. Before shooting is finished, the director falls into a coma. The cameraman is asked to arrange his funeral, and told to use sponsors to pay for it. Which is where it all turns into farce, as the cameraman’s friend, a businessman, gets sponsorship deals for everything. I’ve found Feng’s films a bit hit and miss, but this one was good. It went from laid-back self-deprecating humour to quite biting satire. Good.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures, #46

Yet more movies… All but one are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but two of them I’d seen previously.

solarisSolaris*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1972, Russia). I first saw Solaris back in the early 1980s when I was at school. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was on, I think, BBC2, and the junior common room had a single television set but I somehow managed to persuade a half a dozen of my fourteen-year-old peers to sit and watch three hours of Russian sf film. Whatever leadership qualities I had then which allowed me to manage that have long since gone. But I’ve treasured Solaris ever since. In fact, it was one of a handful of films I was determined to own once DVDs appeared on the market (I never liked VHS, and refused to buy videocassettes). I’ve watched it few times since buying it on DVD back in 2002, but this most recent rewatch was triggered by upgrading my copy to Blu-ray. And I still love the film, although it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky. Despite the odd moment which is wildly implausible – such as when Kelvin’s launches Hari in an escape rocket from the station, and Kelvin survives being in the same chamber as the launch – the entire film looks astonishingly believable. There’s something about the production design (rocket launch notwithstanding) that makes the space station look like a real place. The story is loosely based on Lem’s novel of the same title, so loosely Lem was apparently unhappy with the adaptation; but, to be frank, when having someone of the calibre of Tarkovsky adapting a work it seems churlish to complain it’s not especially faithful. And it’s true the film does mostly ignore the Solaris organism, which is the focus of the book, and instead spends its time documenting the effects of the organisms on the scientists aboard the space station. But it looks gorgeous, and even the moments of black and white – Tarkovsky ran out of colour film stock – seem to fit in with the overall look and feel of the movie. Solaris works so well because it doesn’t do the science-ficiton thing and focus on the novum, the Solaris organism, as the book does, but focuses instead on Kelvin’s relationship with Hari. In the book, the Solaris organism manifests fantastical cathedral-like islands; in the film, it manifests a single enigmatic woman from Kelvin’s past. I know which story I prefer.

deer_hunterThe Deer Hunter*, Michael Cimino (1978, USA). I’d seen this many years ago, but other than it being about Vietnam, and containing a scene featuring Russian roulette, remembered pretty much nothing of it. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Because, to be honest, I thought The Deer Hunter merely okay. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken are two of a group of steel workers who regularly go hunting in the mountains and generally behave like swaggering macho working-class Americans. And then they sign up to fight in Vietnam and, well, there are a million films about that, in fact until 9/11 it pretty much defined a big part of the US psyche… But things don’t go well in Vietnam and they’re captured together – in one of those coincidences that plots require – and tortured by the Viet Cong… before escaping. But all of them have been damaged by their Vietnam experiences. Well, all except De Niro. Although perhaps he is, as he can no longer no shoot defenceless deers when hunting. Christopher Walken forgets who he is and begins playing Russian roulette for money… and winning. John Savage loses both legs and the use of an arm, and ends up in a VA hospital. I can see how at the time this movie took a number of chances, and they paid off. But from forty years later, there’s little in it to impress all that much. It concerns a topic which is the hangup of a nation that is not my own and a generation which is not my own. I have to judge it as a film and only that. There is no baggage. And in that respect, it has its moments – Cimino’s ambition is plain, and it mostly pays off; but the characters are thinly-drawn and there’s too much reliance on the cast to bring them to life (some, notoriously, weren’t even scripted but had to improvise). It’s a good cast, of course, and they mostly went on to greater things – but this is early in their careers. The Vietnam scenes do not compare well with those in other films (my only comparison, of course), and there’s little subtlety in the war’s effects on the characters. I’m in two minds whether this belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. There are better Vietnam War films, there are better war films… but it captures something – even if it’s only its director’s ambition – that might be worth preserving.

all_quietAll Quiet on the Western Front*, Lewis Milestone (1930, USA). The most surprising thing about this film, I guess, is that it’s a US film with US actors who play Germans fighting for Germany during World War I. Has Hollywood ever made a movie about Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS soldiers? I don’t think so – at least not where they’re playing the heroes (and we’ll nip the “good Nazi” discussion in the bud right now, thank you very much). All Quiet on the Western Front is essentially a “war is hell” story, and it happens to be written by a German and set during WWI. Which clearly wasn’t seen as a commercial obstacle by Hollywood – although, to be fair, Hitler didn’t seize control of Germany until 1931, but surely it was obvious what was going on in Germany at the time (for a start, half of Britain’s aristocracy were supporting Hitler by then). Despite all that, All Quiet on the Western Front is a fairly unexciting war film, if that doesn’t sound odd. What I mean is, it doesn’t offer any astonishing insights – perhaps it did in 1930, although I find it hard to believe; perhaps it did in 1928 when Remarque’s novel was first published in the Vossische Zeitung, although given the effects of WWI on the German population away from the Front (especially given the blockade by the British Grand Fleet), so maybe not… True, it humanises the enemy of WWI, and that may have been something new to US audiences, which I guess makes it anti-propaganda and not something which Hollywood normally does. And, after all that, the trench warfare it depicts seems a little sanitised compared to the reality as documented, or indeed in later films set during the war.

rivetteDuelle, Jacques Rivette (1976, France). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still no clearer as to what it’s about. There are apparently two women, the Queen of the Night and the Queen of the Sun, and they fight a magical battle in mid-1970s Paris over a magical diamond. I tweeted while watching this that in most films there’s always a sense the director is playing to the gallery, but that sense was completely absent from Duelle (as indeed it was in Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round too). You feel like a Peeping Tom, watching something without knowing the context. I was, I admit, beguiled by the “limited edition” status of the collection in which this appears, and having been impressed by La belle noiseuse; but two films in and I’m beginning to question my purchase. It’s not that Duelle is a bad film – it’s not, it’s well-shot and well-acted… but, well, it’s a bit like watching someone’s home movie (with extremely high production values, that is). If the synopsis given on Wikipedia is the story Rivette thought he was telling, the film is a little too confused for it to stand as a description of its plot. I quite liked Merry-Go-Round‘s inability to resolve itself – it was very L’Avventura, and I admire Antonioni’s film, and indeed his oeuvre. But Duelle often feels like assorted episodes from an incomplete series. I’m going to have to watch it again, I think; but I’m convinced I’ll never make real sense of it.

gospelThe Gospel According to Matthew*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964, Italy). I was looking for something on Amazon Prime to watch on a Sunday afternoon, and stumbled across this, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It wasn’t quite the easy watching I was hoping for, but never mind. It’s a pretty much straight-up telling of the eponymous gospel, its southern Italy locations making a good fist of standing in for Biblical Palestine. I’m not entirely sure why the film exists, to be honest. It’s not a new spin on the gospel, and as commentary it’s remarkably thin. The neorealist style works well with the material, but we’re still talking about a 2000-year-old fantasy that a substantial portion of the world’s population think is historical fact. Here are a few facts: Jesus was Jewish; he spoke Aramaic; Jesus is not an Aramaic name, so he can’t have been called that; he probably wasn’t born in Nazareth either, because there’s no archaeological evidence the town existed before the third century CE. But then Pasolini’s film tells it as it’s presented in Matthew’s gospel, which was written at least two generations after the Crucifixion, and has undoubtedly been rewritten many times since. But that’s the source material, this is the film. And it, well, it tells a story, and it does it well. But the source material is always going to overshadow it, and while I salute Pasolini’s bravery in tackling it, and I admire the understated way he told the story, it does all feel a bit unnecessary. Does it belong on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list? I honestly don’t know.

haxanHäxan*, Benjamin Christensen (1922, Sweden). Um, I could perhaps have better planned my viewing… to go from saying I have no interest in a movie about Christ straight into one about Satan and witchcraft… Especially when Häxan proved well-made and fascinating. I’ve no idea what prompted Christensen to make it – surely Sweden in the 1920s wasn’t that bad a place? Häxan opens with a history of witchcraft, before then illustrating that history with a series of re-enactments. One part involves the trial of an old woman for witchcraft, and the final part of the film attempts to give modern explanations to behaviour classed in less enlightened times as witchcraft. And this is in a film made in the 1920s. Though it may be difficult for some to believe, I was not around at the beginnings of cinema. Silent movies were very much a thing of the past when I was born. And, I suppose, I inherited the general response to them that my generation had – sound was better, so why bother watching silent films? Of course, I’ve seen quite a number of them since then. Indeed, I’ve become a fan of Murnau’s films, and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a bona fide classic, as is Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia, not to mention Ponting’s The Great White Silence, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Dovzhenko’s Zemlya. Okay, I’m not a big fan of the Keystone Cops, and while I’ll happily watch Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or early Laurel & Hardy, they’re pretty much watch-once-and-enjoy experiences; and that’s even true of early Hitchcock… but there are silent films – and I don’t just mean Metropolis – that every cinephile should have in their collection… and yes, Häxan is probably one of them. Happily, there’s a good edition from Tartan readily available in the UK.