Following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has proven an interesting experience. It’s introduced me to films and directors I might otherwise not have seen – although I’d already started exploring “world cinema” a long time before. And it’s not, to be honest, a great list – too much Woody Allen (one is too many), too many Hollywood classics whose time has passed (anyone who says the same is true of All That Heaven Allows will be punched, or at least roundly insulted), too many obvious picks as representatives of other nations’ cinemas… But it’s been worth using it to guide my viewing, even if the two movies from the list in this post were exactly the sort of films I have little time for…
Breaking Away*, Peter Yates (1979, USA). A coming-of-age film set in small-town USA, specifically Bloomington, Indiana, whose name I know but I’ve no idea where from. A bunch of townies, centred around cycle-mad Dennis Christopher, have various run-ins with university students, culminating in a university-only bicycle race in which a townie team is finally allowed to compete… and manages to win. It’s all thuddingly obvious, for all its attempts at depicting the real life of townies – “cutters” – in Bloomington. Small-town America is not a place that holds any interest for me, and the lives of the people who inhabit it strike me as poor fodder for stories. Okay, so there are universal themes that can be explored, and in the right hands, that of a literary author like Joyce Carol Oates, say, there might be something there I’d be interested in. But US cinema is a (chiefly) commercial medium, so there’s a demand for accessibility built-in, and the life depicted in this movie, well, that’s a wide swathe of the audience. And they’re welcome to it. Seriously, Breaking Away is dull and mind-numbingly predictable, and I’m completely mystified by its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s not even as if Yates is some sort of auteur – I mean, the only film he ever made that managed some sort of character was Krull. On the other hand, Breaking Away was apparently nominated for five Oscars, and actually won one (best original screenplay). Having said that, the gong that year went to Kramer vs Kramer (WTF?), despite the shortlist also including Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz. So, a fucked-up year for the Oscars, for sure. If you never ever see Breaking Away, you’ll have missed nothing.
La vie en rose, Olivier Dahan (2007, UK). This is a straight-up biopic of Edith Piaf, and it stands or falls on its depiction of its subject. Which was apparently good enough to get it nominated for a raft of awards. To be fair, I know nothing of Piaf or her music – I didn’t even know “piaf” meant “sparrow” until watching this film. And, well, it’s a biopic, it seems weird to comment on the story as it’s someone’s life. But you can comment on how it is presented, and this felt completely straightforward and, well, a bit dull. Piaf apparently started out busking during the interwar years, before being recruited by impresario Gérard Depardieu, and steadily growing in fame thereafter. The film leaps about chronologically, depicting scenes from later in her life in between the historical bits. Piaf was not, apparently, a very nice person. Earthy, I can understand, given her background; in fact I admire her for maintaining that element of her character. But she also became a bit of a diva, and did not respond well when crossed. But that that’s the gamble with “warts and all” biographies – does the subject survive the airing of their faults? Piaf clearly did – this film was hugely successful. I knew almost nothing about Edith Piaf before watching La vie en rose, and I know more having now seen it… but I’m still never going to buy one of her albums. Shrug.
Crimes and Misdemeanors*, Woody Allen (1989, USA). Why are there so many Woody Allen films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? Not only do I dispute his alleged greatness, the man also abused his daughter and his existence, never mind career, should not be celebrated. I watched Crimes and Misdemeanors only so I could cross it off the list; I would not otherwise choose to watch an Allen film. I do not like them, I do not wish to support his career (this was a charity shop DVD, so happily he did not profit from my purchase). And yet, ignoring Allen’s presence, which pretty much renders this film nothing as he wrote and directed it, it’s just not all that interesting a movie. Martin Landau plays a wealthy and influential Jewish opthamologist, who has a grasping mistress murdered. Allen plays an unsuccessful documentary film-maker, who is hired to film his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a highly successful TV producer, but Allen spends most of the film trying to get into Mia Farrow’s pants despite being married. It is creepy as fuck. Landau’s and Allen’s stories don’t really intersect – they have friends in common, and the whole point of the film is that they meet at the end and sort of confess their sins to each other and so give each other entirely unearned absolution. Except Landau hired a contract killer, and Allen is a grade-one shit. So not much resolution there for anyone with an ounce of morals. Of the Allen films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, none of which belong in the list, this is the least worthy of inclusion. Avoid.
The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Irving Lerner (1969, UK). I found this in a charity shop and thought it might be worth a go. It wasn’t. It’s based on a play by Richard Shaffer. Christopher Plummer, who appeared in the play, swaps role to appear in the film. It’s about the meeting between Inca leader Atahualpa and conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who is played in the film by Robert Shaw. It starts with Pizarro trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund another expedition to the Americas, which he sort of agrees to do. There’s then a bit of exposition in which Pizarro explains in voiceover how he actually managed to put his expedition together… And then it leaps to South America and the conquistadors’ encounter with the locals and their plan to pillage the kingdom of Atahualpa by trickery. Pizarro claims godhood in order to get close to Atahualpa, who, as played by Plummer, is not all there. The conquistadors strike and Atahualpa is taken prisoner. But Pizarro comes to respect the man as he holds him prisoner, and when he insists the Inca should not be killed he argues against it. The film was shot on location, and it shows. Unfortunately, the script is too heavily based on the play, and the dialogue is far too stagey. On top of that, few of the actors convince in their roles – perhaps they might have done in a more obviously theatrical stage play, but in a movie shot on location they frequently over-act. There’s very little here worth watching, so it’s not worth going out of your way to find a copy.
JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December, Jean-Luc Godard (1995, France). This is allegedly a documentary about Godard by Godard, but I’m not entirely convinced it is what it claims to be. Godard stars as sort of himself, inasmuch as he’s readily recognisable but the film refers to “JLG” in the third person. And yet it’s clearly presented as JLG, the voiceover is his train of thought, the topic of the piece his career and oeuvre… And the figure which appears in every shot is indeed Godard… but it seems odd that a director whose career is so focused – at least in its early days – on appearance should look so unkempt. Late in his career, Godard also seems to have discovered the usefulness, and the beauty, of static nature shots, and there are several very effective ones in JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December. The end result is a film that seems late Godard in appearance but early to mid-Godard in content. True, that latter element is explicit – Godard listening interviews from earlier in his career, faux interviews throwing quotes from earlier in his career back at him. And then, in the middle, you have Godard reading from a French edition of AE Van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Godard is a sf fan, that much is known. The House That Stood Still is the most noir of Van Vogt’s novels, and quite easily his best. In the right hands, it would make an amazing film. Is Godard the right hands? He’s done US noir in the past, several times, and he’s done sf noir; but I can’t say I found the results especially convincing. Godard would certainly make an interesting adaptation of it, but I’m not convinced it would be a good one. None of which has anything to do with JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December, which is a fascinating look more at Godard’s thought processes – at the time JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December was shot – than his career, and nonetheless manages to some lovely cinematography, almost as if it were determined to demonstrate Godard could do it. Get this box set – if you’re a cineaste, it’s worth it.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885