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Moving pictures 2018, #32

A return to usual, with only two of the six films from an Anglophone country. I’m still trying to reduce the percentage of US films in my overall films seen list, and now rent two foreign-language films for every English-language one.

The Super Inframan, Hua Shan (1975, China). I was looking at new releases on DVD/Blu-ray on the Cinema Paradiso website and spotted this, and it looked totally worth a go, a Hong Kong action film done like a Japanese tokusatsu that ripped off Superman. Sadly, it sounded better on, er, paper than it actually was on the screen. I mean, it was exactly what the description promised – a ridiculous plot that confused science-fictional aliens and mythological demons, lots of balletic fight scenes, monsters that could only have been dreamt up by someone whose brain has turned into cheese, cheap costumes that visibly fell apart during the fights, risible dialogue, and jeopardy that was so fake it killed suspense. I had expected to be a lot more entertaining – and bits of it were quite amusing. But unlike some films which are so bad they go out through the other side and become good, The Super Inframan never even made it halfway. The transfer – it’s a new Blu-ray release – however was very good, and as brainless colourful moving pictures to watch while consuming alcohol go, it’s as a good a candidate as any other.

The Freethinker, Peter Watkins (1994 Sweden). I have no idea what to make of Watkins. His use of faux documentary is second to none, but his move toward a mix of drama and documentary, on obscure subjects, probably explains why his films are now financed by television companies in other countries, like Sweden. They are also long. It feels like he’s given up his chance to make a difference to focus on the stories he want to tell. And while I can’t begrudge him that, I have to begrudge the loss of 1990s and 21st century equivalents to War Games, Privilege and Punishment Park. Instead we have La Commune (Paris, 1871), all 345 minutes of it, and The Freethinker, all 276 minutes of it, and The Journey… all 873 minutes of it! The title of this film, which is split across two DVD discs, refers to Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who lived from 1849 to 1912, and wrote “over sixty plays and more than thirty works of fiction, autobiography, history, cultural analysis, and politics” (Wikipedia). ‘The Freethinker’ is also the name of Strindberg’s first play, which he apparently had trouble staging. In fact, Strindberg seems to have struggled for acceptance at first. I wonder if this is true of all art that withstands the test of time. It could be said art is the present in conversation with the past, and art that argues with, criticises, disputes or even refutes the ways of the past is art that tends to last longer. Of course, access also helps – either by popularity or patronage – and obscurity has consigned much great art to the dustbin of history. Watkins’s films are not especially accessible – 276 minutes! – and have become increasingly less visible. And yet they’re clever stuff. They’re inventive in the way they use their format – mixing dramatisation and documentary, breaking the fourth wall, having the cast comment on the historical personages they are playing… a technique also used in La Commune (Paris, 1871). However, unlike La Commune (Paris, 1871), The Freethinker reminded me in places of Sokurov’s films, especially his “elegies”. But where Sokurov talks over his found footage, meditating on a variety of topics inspired by the pictures on the screen, Watkins treats his documentary elements more traditionally, albeit as part of a far from traditional whole. Of course, Strindberg is, for Watkins, just a jumping off point to discuss the role of the artist and critic in society, much as in some of his other films – Privilege, for example, is commentary on the intersection of popular culture, commercialism and authority. At the moment, I’m in two minds whether I should replace my DVD copies of Culloden, The War Game and Punishment Park – part of a French-released box set which also contains La Commune and The Gladiators – with the eureka! and BFI Blu-ray releases… although I suspect I probably won’t. But I’ll continue to hunt down his other films, which, I must admit, are not especially easy to find.

Nowhere in Moravia, Miroslav Krobot (2014, Czechia). Krobot is apparently a highly-respected theatre director and this is his first feature film. Which might go some way to explaining why it is so slow and so dull. Which is totally unfair, as I know nothing about his plays. In this film, an ex-teacher of German now runs a small bar in a backwater Moravian village. Basically, very little happens for much of the film. It introduces the various oddball characters – the woman who lives with two men, the vagrant who drops into the bar every night to buy booze, the mayor who spends most of his time hunting a stag at night… Someone dies, and a relative from Germany comes to the village for the funeral. The bar owner’s sister goes back with him to Munich, she is many years his junior, for a better life. Then the woman with the two lovers is murdered by them. They’re caught very quickly, and taken away by the police. And, er, that’s it. Disappointing.

Fahrenheit 451, Ramin Bahrani (2018, USA). One would imagine in these days of fake news or YouTube slipping Nazi propaganda to children that Fahrenheit 451 would be ripe for a remake – despite the title referencing an ancient temperature scale only the US continues to use, and the actual temperature actually having fuck all to do with paper burning as Bradbury got it completely wrong… And yes, you’d be right about the need for a new Fahrenheit 451. Especially given Bradbury’s original intent for the novel – not a commentary against censorship but against the pervasiveness of popular culture fed through television… But this is not that Fahrenheit 451. This is a reboot of the original film adaptation but with added emojis and reality-TV gloss. And, er, that’s it. Montag is a firemen, he burns books. He comes to doubt his mission, and eventually joins those who seek to preserve books. Except culture is not just books, and in this day and age what were books can now be served in a variety of ways. This new Fahrenheit 451 has the firemen destroy computers because of ebooks (er, haven’t they heard of backups? the cloud?), and it’s pretty much stated that people are mostly illiterate (which suggests an easy test for “criminals” who own books – see if they can read). There is a lot of pointed commentary, on a variety of related subjects, that can be made using a story like Fahrenheit 451. Adding a 2018 gloss to Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation – and they didn’t even use Truffaut’s genius move of casting the same actress as both Montag’s wife and mistress! – is the dumbest possible way to use the story. What next? Nineteen eighty-four with VR goggles? Avoid.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA). To be honest, I had thought this was a Japanese film, not an American one. After all Yukio Mishima was a famous Japanese writer, if chiefly famous for publicly committing seppuku – although many seem to forget he was also a right-wing nutjob, and even ran his own government-approved militia. He does, to be fair, come across as a fascinating character, more so at least than Strindberg, see above. and like Watkins’s The Freethinker, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is ostensibly a documentary about the man’s life, but uses non-traditional means of doing that. The film not only dramatises parts of Mishima’s life, but also excerpts from his books; and some of the latter are almost hallucinogenic. (I might even have a go at reading one.) I had not expected to like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and even less so when I learnt it was a US film – although filmed in Japanese, with a Japanese cast – but I was surprised to discover that I liked it a great deal. In fact, I’m thinking of getting myself a copy…

My American Uncle, Alain Resnais (1980, France). Gérard Depardieu plays the technical director of a textile firm that’s merging with a competitor. He’s not offered the role of technical director in the new merged film, but a more important position as managing director of a subsidiary. But this requires a move several hundred kilometres from Paris, and is a job well out of his comfort zone. He makes a hash of it. And it affects his marriage. All this is to apparently illustrate the theories of philosopher Henri Laborit, who appears at intervals during the film, explaining his theories on evolutionary psychology (a lot of “evo psych” is now, of course, completely discredited). There are many characters in this film that have affairs with other characters, but given how prevalent that is in French dramas it didn’t really feel like it fed into Laborit’s thesis. So what you have is a long convoluted drama interspersed by lectures to camera by Laborit. Which makes for an odd viewing experience. Both Resnais and Jacques Rivette seemed to like making knotty elliptical dramas based on really quite subtle points, but both also seemed to have difficulty with pace. You can get away with that if you have the cinematography – and while Rivette clearly did, I’ve yet to be convinced Resnais had it. They’re both directors who each produced a fascinating body of work, neither which can be easily described. And it’s that refusal to follow expected narrative forms in narrative cinema – much as Michael Haneke does this century – that’s why I’m interested in their films… but sometimes it doesn’t quite work…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 915

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