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Moving pictures 2017, #44

Trying to maintain a varied diet of films to watch often means you find yourself watching something that doesn’t actually appeal. We all have our favourites, and we often stick to them, but I enjoy trying new things, discovering new favourites… even if you find some things you’ll know better to avoid in the future. Of the six films below, none I thought especially good. I prefer other films by Pasolini, I still have no idea what the Jancsó Kapa and Pepe films are about, and even the Herzog was far from one of his best…

The Decameron, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971, Italy). This was the first Pasolini I ever saw. According to my records, I rented it in 2009, although I don’t recall why. It wasn’t until I watched the Pasolini segment of RoGoPaG (see here) late last year that I thought his oeuvre might be worth exploring. And then The Gospel According to St Matthew, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, appeared free to watch on Amazon Prime, and then I rented his other film on the list, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom… And while I’ve sort of become a bit of a Pasolini fan, The Decameron is not among my favourites of his. Like his The Canterbury Tales, it’s an adaptation of some of the stories from a mediaeval story cycle, but Italian in this case rather than English. But in look and feel, it’s very similar (or rather, the other film is, as this one preceded it) and the humour is similarly scatological and earthy. So much so, in fact, that the film opens with a “tempo” in which Ninetto Davoli visits his long-lost sister (he thinks) only to be dropped into a latrine and is covered in shit, just so she can steal his money. Later, he finds himself imprisoned in the sarcophagus of a richly-dressed bishop in a cathedral. And so it goes. Another episode sees a man pretending to be deaf-mute in order to enjoy the sexual attentions of the nuns at a convent. The humour is broad, so are the points being made. And while the 14th-century source novel clearly influences the various tales, Pasolini’s own sensibilities, even back in the 1970s, are also on display. The stories are often crude, with a sense of humour even Talbot Rothwell would have shied from, but a celebration of the human condition still shines through. It’s hard to reach the end of a Pasolini film without feeling entertained or a little better about humanity in general. I don’t know that he was especially good at documenting humanity’s failings – to be honest, this box set has me totally confused as to what Pasolini was trying to achieve – but it’s difficult to finish one of his films without a smile. So props for that.

Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan (2011, USA). I’m not sure what persuaded me to add this to my rental list, but I wish I hadn’t. It was the first film I’ve seen by Lonergan, and likely to be the last. Anna Paquin plays a New York student, who one day distracts a bus driver as he’s pulling away, causing him to run a red light and run over a woman crossing the street. But Paquin is so self-centred, she has to make the accident about herself, and though she recognises she did cause the accident she doesn’t actually admit it until near the end of this over-long, overly narcissistic, very dull, three-hour film. When she learns the bus driver has not been fired, she badgers the woman’s estranged relatives into sueing the MTA for damages, insisting as one of the conditions they sack him. There is not a single likeable character in this film – even Lonergan himself, who plays Paquin’s divorced father, is needy and neurotic and snide. Jean Reno plays a South American businessman who is in a relationship with Paquin’s mother, and while he seems the most pleasant character of the lot, he’s portrayed as a bit of a simpleton, and the anti-semitic remarks that eventually see him pushed out of the family are totally manufactured. At 90 minutes, Margaret would likely have outstayed its welcome; at three hours, it was torture. Perhaps you have to be American to appreciate this film; I am not American; I thought it was awful. Avoid.

Anyádi s szúnyogok, Miklós Jancsó (2000, Hungary). I’ve still no idea what these films are about, although a theme common to both this and the first film in the series, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), appears to be suicide. This film – whose title apparently translates as “Mother! The mosquitos!”, although the subtitles definitely said, “Fuck the mosquitoes!” at one point – initially appears to be set in in a train museum, with Kapa and Pepe playing train drivers or train engineers. But like the first film, the story quickly changes, and though the two main characters continue to play themselves, they’re now in different roles. There’s also a band who apear at intervals and play rock, with help of assorted pieces of defunct industrial equipment and, I seem to remember, a drill. They’re not unlike Norway’s Hurra Torpedo. And there’s another scene which is apparently set really high up on something, a statue I think, as if Jancsó were trying to prove a point by including some vertiginous scenes – although perhaps it’s only me, someone who suffers from vertigo, who would even think to mention them. There’s a review on imdb.com which is less than helpful. It says, for example, “The comedy jacket of the story gives a cool atmosphere”, and does very little to actually explain what is going on. I feel their pain – because I have no idea either. Nonetheless, I’m glad I bought these six films and I hope one day to understand them.

Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog (2011, USA). Herzog is one of the most interesting directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and his documentaries are typically every bit as good as his feature films. But this one was a bit of a mis-step, I think. The topic is one that’s been over-subscribed in documentary films for decades, and Herzog’s straightforward yet off-kilter approach fails to make it interesting. Some of the questions he asks are a bit off-the-wall, and it’s clear the interviewees think so too, but… The subject is people on Death Row, two people, in fact, one of whom still maintains his innocence. Seriously, are there any people with more than two brain cells on this planet who need persuading that capital punishment is a bad thing? State-sanctioned murder is still murder. You can throw up as many examples of miscarriages of justice, or even bona fide monsters, but even that giant fairy in the sky so many people seem to think really exists, even he thinks it’s wrong. Into the Abyss is a series of interviews with two inmates on Death Row in Texas, and with those who know the inmates or were involved with their crimes, or their bringing to justice. But I don’t see the point of it all – granted, he’s preaching to the choir. But since the only argument that’s going to work on the pro-capital punishment crown is a nail-studded cluebat, I don’t see the point of documentaries like Into the Abyss, no mater how balanced, or how off-centre, the approach they take.

The Space Between Us, Peter Chelsom (2017, USA). The space between the two principals, the figures on the DVD cover art, is, well, space itself, ie, the space between Earth and Mars. Did you see what they did there? Clever, that. Asa Butterfield was born on Mars – his mother was the commander of the first mission to Mars, but happened to be pregnant at the time. NASA decided to keep Butterfield’s existence a secret. Sixteen years later, he is finally allowed to visit Earth. Which he thinks is great because he’s made a friend online, Britt Robertson, a spiky and clever, but good-hearted, foster kid, and because it also allows him to go looking for his father, whose identity he only knows from an old photo. Of course, NASA would sooner he stayed in seclusion at one of their facilities. But he escapes, goes and finds Robertson, and the two head across country looking for dear old dad. What is it with Hollywood films and their daddy issues? Can they please move past Misogynistic Pop Psych 101? Robertson is sparky, which is probably the new feisty; Butterfield is earnest and gauche. Gary Oldman phones in it. It’s a nice story, and they made a halfway decent fist of presenting a near-future which could send a mission to Mars and start a colony there. But it’s all too easy. Okay, I admit I watched this after seeing National Geographics miniseries Mars, but you might as well have changed Butterfield’s skin colour and you could have told pretty much the same story. Except, of course, white US audiences are more likely to sympathise with a star-crossed Martian than a star-crossed African-American. Oh, and the growing up on Mars so he has an enlarged heart is the sort of metaphor they beat out of you in the cheap writing workshops, the ones given by people better known for writing how-to books than actual books. Or screenplays, in this instance.

Secuestro Express, Jonathan Jakubowicz (2005, Venezuela). My first film from Venezuela. And despite being released in 2005, it was all a bit 1990s, to be honest. A young and well-off couple are kidnapped by three gang-bangers – this is a common thing in Caracas, it seems – who demand a ransom from the woman’s father. The young man escapes, leaving his girlfriend to the kidnappers’ mercy, but is later recaptured and killed. The father pays the ransom, the young woman is released. The film is shot in a very MTV-ish style, lots of cross-cuts, jittery cam, blurring and Dutch angles. The characters are introduced with stylised on-screen text bios. The acting is not all that good, although the female victim, played by Argentine actress Mia Maestro, is pretty good. If I’d seen this twenty years ago, I’d have been more impressed, and not just because, er, that was a decade before it was actually made.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878

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Moving pictures 2017, #43

One of these days I should do a themed week in my movie-watching – films from one country, perhaps, or by a single director. Well, maybe, not an entire week, maybe just six movies in a row. Since I’ve just purchased a Jean-Luc Godard collection, I could do it with his films, pick half a dozen straight out of the box. Some would be rewatches, but I’ve been wanting to rewatch some of his movies anyway. It’s an idea. Meanwhile, another mixed bag…

Medea, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1969, Italy). This is what I know Pasolini for, and why I bought this box set – an historical, well, almost fantasy, film like Fellini at his most self-indulgent. I mean, given that I love Fellini’s Satyricon (see here) and Casanova (see here), it should come as no surprise that Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (see here) and Medea also press my buttons. The story – which is based loosely on the Ancient Greek character of the same name – is more or less incidental. It’s the visuals which count. And Pasolini goes full out on those – much of the movie was filmed on historical sites, such as the Göreme Open Air Museum in Turkey. It looks fantastic, and even convincingly accurate – although I suspect it bears little resemblance to actual Ancient Greek society. But Medea is one of those films where you can just bask in the wonderful mise-en-scène, and perhaps feel a little smug for consuming some Ancient Greek culture, without caring over much about the story. Maria Callas, in her only movie role, makes for a striking Medea, but to be honest it doesn’t really matter who plays who. This a film that just looks great. In fact, Arabian Nights and Medea alone would justify the purchase of the the Six Films 1968 – 1975 Blu-ray box set, but, as below indicates, Theorem is also another film in the set that presses a lot of my buttons. And, let’s face it, the other three films are no slouches either.

Up in Smoke*, Lou Adler (1978, USA). This is a film I would normally go nowhere near, but it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and so I guess I gotta watch it… It’s credited with being the first stoner comedy, which is not a genre I find appealing. Or amusing. Which was pretty much the case here. Up in Smoke is the first film appearance of dope-head comedy duo Cheech and Chong, who went on to make a further six films, seven if you include an animated feature released in 2013, twenty-eight years after their last movie. Cheech and Chong play a couple of stoner Angelinos, who meet when Chong’s car breaks down on a highway and Cheech gives him a lift in his lowrider. Chong admits he’s a drummer, and Cheech invites him to join his band. They then spend the rest of the movie driving around parts of LA on the hunt for marijuana, inadvertently managing to avoid being arrested by inept cop Stacy Keach at every turn. At one point, the pair are deported to Mexico (it’s deliberate) and offer to drive a van back to the US, not knowing that the van’s bodywork is made entirely out of marjuana. The film ends with a battle of the bands, which Cheech & Chong do not win, but by then everyone is so high from the burning van no one really cares. Including the viewer. Jack Nicholson apparently thought the film was hilarious, perhaps he was under the influence. I don’t recall a single chuckle in it. True, my sense of humour is more of the Confucian variety – as Confucius said, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof. Slapstick, in other words. This is not slapstick. Still, at least I can now cross it off the list. I very much doubt I’ll be bothering with the six/seven sequels…

The Soft Skin, François Truffaut (1964, France). A well-known literary critic and editor catches a plane to Lisbon to give a talk at a conference. In the hotel where he’s staying, he meets a beautiful flight attendant he remembers from his flight. They ride up in the lift, but to her floor not his… and when he reaches his own room, he telephones her and apologises for not helping her with her bags and asks her for a drink. She refuses, but then rings back and accepts… And so begins an affair between the two. Some time later, the critic accepts an invite to a film festival in Reims, and takes the flight attendant, his mistress, with him. But the trip doesn’t go very well – he has difficulty getting away from the festival organisers – and on the way back to Paris they stop off at a country pension. The critic’s wife later discovers photographs of this weekend tryst, and subsequently demands a divorce…  I’m finding myself increasingly a fan of Truffaut’s films, but I also find myself having trouble getting a handle on his film-making. He doesn’t have an identifiable style – or rather, he has many. And his chameleon nature, which is never less than skilfully done, makes it hard to think of Truffaut’s films as a single body of work. The Soft Skin is a well-drawn character study of its two leads, well-shot, and with some nice observations. But it doesn’t seem of an ilk with Two English Girls or Fahrenheit 451. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me until now to appreciate Truffaut’s excellence, the fact his films seem to undermine auteur theory, despite the fact Truffaut is a Nouvelle Vague director, and in fact it’s Truffaut himself who invented the concept in his 1954 essay, ‘Une certain tendance du cinéma français’. The Soft Skin seemed like a polished French adultery movie of the 1960s, which is almost a genre itself, and so its appeal is limited to the appeal of its type. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t see that it was an explicitly Truffaut film.

TO 2001 Nights, Fumihiko Sori (2009, Japan). It’s an anime film, so guess who recommended it… Although at least this one was recommended in conversation, rather than snuck onto my rental list. And David Tallerman (for it was he, of course) did point out it looked good but was pretty naff. Which turned out to be more or less spot-on. It’s not actually a feature-length movie, but two stories from a manga series. The first, ‘Ellpitical Orbit’, has a spacecraft returning from an exoplanet colony stop off at a space station in, I think, LEO. The captain of the spacecraft is the ex-wife of the station commander, although interstellar travel now means they have aged at different rates. And then space pirates attack and… I was too busy wincing at the awful dialogue, so I’m not entirely sure how it all panned out. The second story, ‘Symbiotic Planet’ is about a colony on an exoplanet, or rather several colonies, each of which seem to recapitulate 1980s Cold War tensions. The exoplanet is notable for its fungi, and when a member of the staff is infected with the fungi, it proves beneficial rather than fatal… TO 2001 Nights looks lovely, albeit not always entirely plausible in the way media sf never really does, but its stories are a bit crap. David called it right. Worth seeing, perhaps, but eminently forgettable.

Theorem, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1968, Italy). I was expecting something much like the other Pasolini films I’d watched when I put this in the player. What I got was something that reminded me much more of Antonioni’s films. It opens with journalists interviewing workers from a factory that has just become a collective. The film then flashes back to the house of an affluent Italian family. Ninetto Davoli – a familiar face in Pasolini’s films – plays a dancing postman who heralds the arrival of Terence Stamp, an enigmatic stranger, who moves into the house, and then sleeps with each of the family members, including the maid. All of them are healed in some way after sex with Stamp. And when he leaves, they each do something their previous view of their lives had prevented them from doing – the father giving his factory to his workers, for example, as in the opening shots. It’s all very late sixties, and apart from Davolini doing his arm-flapping dancing about, much more like Antonioni than Pasolini, except… while it’s certainly enigmatic, like Antonioni, it doesn’t have his glacial pace, nor his focus on his characters – Stamp is, after all, a cipher. And I’m pretty sure Antonioni would never have included a shot of a naked man running around on the slopes of a volcano – Zabriskie Point notwithstanding. I considered Six Films 1968 – 1975 worth buying for Arabian Nights and Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom alone, but having now seen both Medea and Theorem I’m even more glad I bought it. And I really ought to watch more of Pasolini’s works.

Queen, Vikas Bahl (2014, India). I suspect people who don’t watch Bollywood films underestimate the range of movies produced by the Hindi film industry. It’s true many are boy meets girl boy loses girl boy gets girl back, with singing and dancing, but a lot of the more recent, and very successful, Bollywood films I’ve watched have been anything but that. Like Queen. The title character, Rani, is about to get married, but her fiancé dumps her two days before the wedding. So she decides to go on the honeymoon on her own, to Paris and then onto Amsterdam. In Paris, she is befriended by a Franco-Indian maid, who’s a party girl and takes Rani to various night spots, introduces to her friends and generally shows her how to have a good time and how to be an independent woman. Rani then moves onto Amsterdam, where she finds herself staying in a hostel and sharing a room with three guys, a Russian, a man from Japan, and a Frenchman. They soon become friends, and explore the city together – including a trip to visit a friend of the Parisian maid, who is a sexworker in the red light district. While there were plenty of songs in Queen, unlike in other Bollywood films I’ve seen the action didn’t stop for a dance routine. The more Bollywood films I watch, the more surprised I am that people in this country don’t watch them as often they would watch, say, French or Japanese films. True, they’re in Hindi, and rarely dubbed, although the cast do code-switch a hell of a lot, and even more so in Queen, but refusing to watch a film because it has subtitles is just wilful ignorance. (I should check my own collection one of these days, to see what percentage are non-Anglophone.) A lot of the Bollywood films I’ve watched were fun, but Queen was charming too. It was entirely carried by Kangana Ranaut in the title role, although Lisa Haydon was also good as the Franco-Indian maid. It’s rare you reach the end of a Bollywood film without feeling cheered, and Queen made you feel good about enjoying it too. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878


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Moving pictures 2017, #40

It’s odd how films drop into my viewing schedule – although “schedule” is far too strong a word – but… I watch a lot of rentals and, of course, I have a limited time to watch them (the longer it takes, the less rental discs I can get through in a month), whereas other films I own so I can watch them at any time… And yet only two of the below movies are actually rentals; the rest are films I’ve purchased. Also, we have the first Pasolini from the collection I bought… which makes him the second director, after Truffaut, who I’d seen previously (Truffaut in 2006, Pasolini in 2009) but had not been much bothered about, but in 2017 changed my mind sufficiently about their films to invest in a Blu-ray box set…

Kiss Me Deadly*, Robert Aldrich (1955, USA). This is one of a handful of classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’d always assumed I’d seen it before at some point, probably because the title is so iconic. But nothing in it seemed familiar as I watched it, so I guess not. Actually, that’s not strictly true, as the maguffin in Kiss Me Deadly inspired the plot of Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Ralph Meeker plays two-fisted gumshoe Mike Hammer (a character I know best from the Stacy Keach incarnation of the 1980s), who is out driving on a lonely country road one night when he gives a lift to a young woman wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. Thugs then force his car off the road, take the two prisoner, knock out Hammer, torture the woman, then stage a car crash. Hammer survives. Determined to uncover who the woman was, and why she was murdered, he follows a series of clues, which eventually lead him to a beach house owned by a mysterious scientist, and a suitcase containing some radioactive material… which results in the film’s infamous ending – the beach house going up in a nuclear explosion. To be honest, it was all a bit ridiculous. Hammer has always been paper-thin as a character, and though Meeker made him more of a brutal thug than the white knight he’s usually protrayed, it wasn’t enough to make him interesting. The Wikipedia page points out many of the Bunker Hill locations used in the film have since disappeared, but that seems a pretty thin reason for inclusion on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I suppose a certain notoriety has attached to the film, despite its daft premise and incomprehensible plotting, and I did enjoy it… But I’m not convinced it should be on the list.

Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). After watching the slog that was Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) – all 345 minutes of it! (see here) – I wasn’t expecting all that much of Privilege, and the fact it’s a late sixties docudrama and a musical…, well, that didn’t bode too well either. But I was surprised to discover I loved it. Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann at the time, plays Steven Shorter, the UK’s most popular celebrity. The film opens, with documentary-style voiceover narration, as Shorter is welcomed back to the UK with a ticker tape parade. The film uses the same semi-documentary format, with occasional songs, as it follows Shorter’s career as a political tool to appease the masses and, later, a messianic figure to encourage church attendance and obedience. It’s all set in a 1970s dystopian UK, and Watkins is not afraid to use the completely absurd to make his point – the filming of the apple commercial, for example, is absolutely bonkers. I was reminded, while watching Privilege, of V for Vendetta, which covers similar territory, but uses fascist iconography as its dystopian credentials. Privilege, however, looks like it’s set in the same world as that inhabited by its contemporary viewers. Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek, although played beautifully straight – but it does make its point far more bitingly and effectively than V for Vendetta. I want my own copy of Privilege now.

Colossus: The Forbin Project, Joseph Sargent (1970, USA). I hadn’t planned to buy this. I knew of the film, but had never seen it before, and when a brand new edition – the first since VHS, I think – appeared, I fancied seeing it and so put it on my rental list. But then it appeared in a recent Prime Day at a price of great cheapness, and so I sort of found myself sort of clicking on the buy button… A Blu-ray too. And… it’s sort of fun in that early 1970s earnest science fiction B-list sort of way – ie, a serious film the studios never expected anyone to take seriously, although it was made with serious intent. Much like Planet of the Apes. The title refers to a massive computer, supposedly heuristic, and probably more like an AI as sf understands the term, which is put in charge the US’s nuclear deterrent. with no human oversight, or possibility of human intervention. What could possibly go wrong? The film – based on a novel by forgotten Brit sf author DF Jones – avoids the obvious consequences of such hubristic foolishness. It transpires the USSR has only gone and done exactly the same thing. And Colossus and the Soviet AI, called Guardian, begin “talking” to each other – in the film’s most technologically cringe-inducing scene – then form a gestalt and, well, take over the world, ushering in a new age of computer-led fascism. In actual fact, Colossus: The Forbin Project feels like a better-made film than it probably deserves. I can’t quite figure out why. There are no A-listers in the cast, what few special effects the film possesses are adequate and very much of their time (although the Colossus CCTV reticule is quite prescient), and the multiple scenes with the president of the US feel a little soap-opera-ish… I think it’s because the film takes itself seriously and doesn’t talk down to its audience. Yes, there’s plenty of expository dialogue, but it’s well-anchored in the story, and it’s only really its datedness that embarrasses (the aforementioned scene aside). I felt kinder toward Colossus: The Forbin Project after it had finished than I did while watching it, and while I love the aesthetics of early 1970s near-future movies, I don’t think this one is ever going to be a favourite…

Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten, Miklós Jancsó (1999, Hungary). This is the first of six low-budget semi-improvised comedy films written and directed by Jancsó after a long break from film-making. The films star a pair of gravediggers called Pepe and Kapa, played by Péter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi. And, I admit, I’m not entirely sure what I watched. This is not an unknown consequence of watching a Miklós Jancsó film and, to be fair, it’s one of the reasons I like them so much. This movie (the title is a bit of a slog to type) opens with a group of men haring up in 4WDs, jumping out of them and then shooting some women and a man in a house. The action cuts to a cemetery, where Kapa and Pepe appear. They start chatting to two old men, Jancsó himself and Gyula Hernádi, the writer of many of Jancsó’s earlier films.  Kapa and Pepe, who wear insignialess blue uniforms, seem to spend most of the time arguing and insulting each other, in quite coarse language, often involving passers by in their disputes. Then there’s a funeral, followed by a wedding and… a new section starts, and now Kapa is a yuppie and Pepe is a policeman, but then he turns into a yuppie too, except Kapa can remember him being a cop and so is confused (he’s not the only one). The two gravediggers are not the only characters to re-appear, or change roles, as the victims of the opening shooting also turn up as Kapa’s family, but this time shot by his niece. Not that he seems overly bothered. And Jancsó and Hernádi turn up too, despite being killed earlier… And then Pepi is walking up the cable of a suspension bridge to the top of the tower, with nothing but a narrow handrail to either side (and it looks massively dangerous). Kapa joins him, and the two start to argue, and I had to look away as I suffer from vertigo and… well, I was lost. I don’t even know what the title – it translates as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest – means or refers to (Kapa, in the guise of a corporate raider, calls himself “the Lord’s Lantern” after being shot in the head and coming back to life). The style is very different to the other Jancsó films I’ve seen, with cuts and close-ups and zooms and pull-backs, rather than long tracking shots and dolly shots. The acting is also much more natural, far less stylised – in fact, it’s pretty much what you would expect of a contemporary film. It’s all sort of bewildering, but in a completely different way to a film such as Electra, My Love, since the two main characters are not fixed – indeed in that earlier film, the characters are more or less concretized in mythology – but drift through a series of stories, maintaining their own identity even though there’s no narrative link from one story to the next. Despite being baffled by it, I’m glad I bought it. I’ll be watching this again, I think. And I’m looking forward to watching the five sequels…

The Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1972, Italy). Pasolini was one of those directors whose name I ticked off after watching the films of theirs which had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But then earlier this year I watched his Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (see here), which proved far less gruesome than I’d expected (I’m extremely squeamish) and intriguing enough to persuade me Pasolini’s oeuvre was worth exploring further. So I stuck his Arabian Nights on my rental list, and a few weeks ago it duly arrived, I watched it (see here), and was much impressed. Enough to shell out for Six Films 1968 – 1975, a Blue-ray collection of, er, six films by Pasolini. And the first one, which I’d not seen, that I pulled from the box, was The Canterbury Tales. Annoyingly, I didn’t realise there was an English-language version of the film on the disc, so I ended up watching a film starring British actors dubbed into Italian with English subtitles. (Pasolini famously dubbed all his films into several languages.) And… I know of the source text, but I don’t know it, I’ve never read Chaucer. I don’t even know enough about it to judge Pasolini’s film as an adaptation. But I can judge it as a film and as a Pasolini film (based on the handful I’ve seen so far). In that respect, it clearly does everything Pasolini does, and it does them well. Perhaps the Chaplin pastiche/homage in ‘The Cook’s Tale’ is a bit too overt, and ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ does feel a bit too much like a 1970s British sex-comedy, although somewhat… earthier. I’ve also no idea where the film was shot – in the UK, certainly, judging by the cast, but all the locations certainly look the part.

You, the Living, Roy Andersson (2007, Sweden). This is a sequel to Songs from the Second Storey, which I watched just before travelling to Sweden because it was, well, Swedish, although all things considered that might not have been too smart as it was  weird as shit… But I sort of enjoyed Songs from the Second Storey (see here) and I sort of enjoyed this sequel. Although perhaps “enjoyed” is too strong a word. As is “sequel”. Neither film is easy to describe. They have no plot, but are basically a series of vignettes, strung together with occasional linking material. The comedy is blacker than that really black thing they made earlier this year – or was it last year? – that’s the blackest thing ever, and Andersson shoots everything in sombre hues, and puts his cast in pale face make-up, which makes everything look even more miserable. You, the Living is worth seeing, although it’s unlikely to raise a chuckle, but make sure you’re in a good mood when you sit down to watch it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 875


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From silver screen to silver disc

I’ll continue to post these DVD hauls posts, I think, since I seem to be spending as much time on this blog writing about movies as I do books. Er, actually probably more about movies, this past twelve months or so. And so here are the latest batch to join the collection…

I decided it was about time I completed my collection of Bergman DVDs, so I went hunting on eBay… and found myself cheap copies of The Virgin Spring, Port of Call, Three Strange Loves, To Joy and Music in Darkness. Some of them are currently deleted. And I’m still missing about a dozen or so titles. I’ve only watched To Joy so far. It was not very joyful.

A pair of sf Blu-rays picked up in the recent Amazon Prime Day. Colossus: The Forbin Project, a classic giant-computer-starts-WWIII movie, was on my rental list. Mars, a National Geographic docudrama about the first mission to Mars, clearly designed to cash in on the success of The Martian, was already on my wishlist.

After watching Arabian Nights (see here), I wanted to see more Pasolini, although I’d been tempted back in January when I’d watched Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom… But I’d managed to resist temptation then. Except, well, you know how it goes… relaxing of an evening in front of the telly, laptop on your knees, bottle of wine… and oops I’ve gone and bought Six Films 1968 – 1975 by Pasolini on Blu-ray. But I don’t begrudge buying films on a whim that I know I’ll watch several times. Having saidthat, I’m not sure why I bought Orson Welles’s Macbeth – well, I put a bid on it, and actually won it – but I do like Welles’s films.

A pair of out-of-copyright Fritz Lang movies, bought on eBay for a couple of quid. Neither are especially good. I wrote about Clash by Night here and Moonfleet will be in the next Moving pictures post.

This set was a lucky find on eBay. Second Run have released several films by Miklós Jancsó, but these six Pepe and Kapa movies are from the end of his career and are unlikely to ever be released in the UK (these are Hungarian editions, with subtitles in a variety of languages, including English). The titles translate, approximately, as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest, Mother! The Mosquitos, Last Supper at the Arabian Grey Horse, Wake Up, Mate, Don’t You Sleep, The Modhács Evil and Eddie Has Eaten My Lunch.0


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Moving pictures 2017, #35

I was described recently as a “film nerd”, which felt wrong somehow. I’m a “film fan”, certainly. In much the same way I’m a science fiction fan. I’ve been a subscriber to Sight & Sound since the late 1990s, and when I’ve liked a director’s work I’ve tried to watch as much as their oeuvre as I can find. The first director for which I did this was Alfred Hitchcock. Back in the late 1990s, when I was living out in the Middle East, I visited the UK one leave, and bought two DVD box sets of his films – the box sets, in fact, I recently upgraded to Blu-ray. My taste in movies has changed a bit in the years since I bought those Hitchcock DVDs, so much so that I now have to look a bit further afield for the sort of films I like to watch. Although I do still think Hitchock is an excellent director. But sometimes – often – I have no choice except to purchase a copy from some obscure source, because it’s not available for rental, streaming, or in your local HMV. I don’t think that makes me a film nerd – although, to be fair, I do currently own rather a lot of DVDs and Blu-rays…

Cyclo*, Tran Anh Hung (1995, Vietnam). There is only one Vietnamese film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s this one. I’ll admit I’ve seen very few Vietnamese films – in fact, this is only the second. Although, weirdly, it’s the second film I’ve seen by Tran – I reviewed his 2009 film, I Come with the Rain, actually a French film, for videovista.net several years ago. Anyway, I find it hard to believe the compilers of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list could find six films by Vincente Minnelli to include but only one from Vietnam. But it is, it must be said, a good one. The title refers to the profession of the main character – he pedals a bicycle taxi, or “cyclo”, about the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. He is not named throughout the film. His father died in a traffic accident some time before. He lives with his grandfather, who repairs bicycle tyres for a living, his older sister, who carries water in a local market, and his young sister, who shines shoes in local restaurants. They are dirt poor and pretty much live hand-to-mouth existence. But then the cyclo gets involved with gangsters, and his prospects start to look up. But it all goes horribly wrong when he is asked to kill someone but fails after overdosing on the drugs he was given to “calm him down”. This is all pretty grim stuff, and the way the lower levels of society prey on each other, facilitated by those with means, is hard to watch. At one point, the cyclo driver stops for a piss, and while he’s peeing against a fence, thieves run up and steal his cyclo. Given how much he depends on his cyclo, and how little he earns, and the fact hge doesn’t even own it but has paid a deposit to the owner of a cyclo company so he can use it… well, that’s pretty low. Of course, it’s always in the monied classes interests to have the lower classes fighting amongst themselves, because then they’re not fighting for what should rightfully be theirs. Cyclo certainly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’d like to have seen more films from Vietnam on it. I shall definitely be keeping my eye open for more movies from that country that I can watch.

Forever Amber, Otto Preminger (1947, USA). For some reason, I decided to work my way through Preminger’s oeuvre… and it’s not a bad oeuvre for a Hollywood director, especially a non-US-born Hollywood director (of which there were, and are, many). Although best known for noir movies, Preminger’s films are especially interesting because of their variety, and their varied levels of success at whatever he made – Preminger’s one Western for example, was River of Now Return (see here), which was something of a failure but is still quite an interesting film. And Forever Amber, despite being a historical romance based on a schlocky best-seller, is nearly an interesting film. The same might also be said of Preminger’s attempt at a Euro-thriller, Rosebud. But, Forever Amber… The title character is the adopted daughter of a farmer in seventeenth-century England. After the Restoration, Amber, now a sixteen-year-old beauty (played by the twenty-three-year-old Linda Darnell) meets a Cavalier captain, and follows him to London. She starts moving in high circles, but no sooner has she found wealth then she is conned out of it and sent to Newgate. Her cavalier captain, meanwhile, has been a given a ship and sent privateering. She breaks out of Newgate with a footpad, and the two go into partnership, she luring and he mugging fops in dark alleys. The Watch catch her, but the captain gets her a job as an actress so she won’t hang. An earl takes a fancy to her after seeing her on the stage and marries her. But she still pines for her absent cavalier captain… The film is an adaptation of a 1944 best-selling romance by Kathleen Winsor. It was her first novel. Wikipedia says of the book: “The fifth draft of Winsor’s first manuscript of Forever Amber was accepted for publication, but the publishers edited the book down to one-fifth of its original size. The resulting novel was 972 pages long.” WTF. Winsor went on to write a further seven novels, the first appearing six years after Forever Amber, and the last in 1986. It’s clear from Forever Amber, however, that she didn’t know much about seventeenth-century England. Rags to riches might be a romance staple plot, but Amber’s ups and downs beggar belief. And for a farm girl to end up married to an earl! While working as an actress! True, this is around the time Nell Gwynn first started appearing on stage  and later became the king’s mistress – but she was still under twenty and Amber would be almost a decade older. I suspect Gwynn might have been an inspiration for Amber. Even so, Gwynn’s career was far more… calculating than Amber’s history of lucky breaks. Foolishly, I went and bought a copy of the book on eBay for a couple of quid. One day, I might even get around to reading it.

A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, François Truffaut (1972, France). I’ve been enjoying the Truffaut films I’ve been watching, but this one was hard work in a way that made me think that perhaps it was me at fault. So I watched it again. And felt the same. I still don’t know why I bounced out of it, although I’m not apparently the only one to do so. A young sociologist arranges an interview with female inmate Camille Bliss, and records her as she tells her tale of woe – which is then presented in flashback. He decides she is innocent and finds sufficient evidence to prove her innocence, and she is duly released. After her release, Bliss becomes a singing star but a fling with the sociologist ends badly when her husband catches the two in the act. She kills her husband and frames the sociologist. Who is then sent to prison for the crime. I’m not sure why I didn’t click with A Gorgeous Girl Like Me. The more Truffaut I’ve been watching, the more I’ve come to appreciate his films. But not all of them. The Last Metro I thought a bit dull, despite a good story and high-powered cast. Shoot the Pianist I decided was the New-Wavest film that ever New-Waved. Day for Night had bags of charm, and Mississippi Mermaid had bags of gallic cachet. But A Gorgeous Girl Like Me just seemed to fall flat. Perhaps it was the self-centredness of Bliss, or the fact that some of her adventures just didn’t ring true, or even plausible. Fortunately, I went and bought The François Truffaut Collection on Blu-ray, which includes A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, so I’ll be able to watch it again and decide wther it really does work for me or not…

Miss Hokusai, Keiichi Hara (2015, Japan). I think it’s pretty clear who recommended this film, if not actually added it to my LoveFilm rental list one afternoon in the pub. The title refers to the daughter of the historically-famous artist, who was a reknowned artist in her own right. There is no plot as such to the film, just a series of incidents from her life. Some of them are fantastical, like the one where her father recounts a series of dreams where his hands sort of astral-project and travel all over the city, and he tells this to a famous oiran whose face, it transpires, astral projects while she is asleep. The animation is mostly very attractive, although there’s a lot of that anime-style mugging whose appeal bounces off me. In particular, there’s a student who works in Hokusai’s studio who’s played for laughs, and the comedy doesn’t work for me. The visiting artist who’s put forward as a love interest was a much more interesting character. Unfortunately, the episodic nature of the film works against it, because while it’s very nice to look at, and the characters quite clear, none of it is in service to a plot. True, I’ve not seen a great deal of anime, but I’ve seen a number of anime feature films I’ve thought very good – good enough, in fact, to pick up copies for myself. Miss Hokusai was somewhere around in the bottom of the top third, I think – much better than meh, but not quite really good.

Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade (2016, Germany). I had this on my rental list after hearing positive things about it (Sight & Sound were very complimentary, I seem to recall), but then discovered it was free on Amazon Prime. Result. And… it was one of those films which are quite obviously good, but you’re not sure if you’re enjoying it much. One minute, it’s engaging; the next you wonder why you’re watching it. But then, after it’s over, you decide on balance that it was actually a pretty good film. The title refers to someone who does not exist. A man in his sixties, a bit of a slob and a practical joker, decides that his workaholic daughter, currently working as a consultant on an asset-stripping project in Romania, needs to lighten up. Well, ostensibly, she’s helping a Romanian oil company outsource the maintenance of its oil refineries, but we all know that’s the first step in selling off national assets cheap to plutocrats so they can profit at the taxpayers’ expense… Anyway, he travels out to visit his daughter, but his presence is not really welcome – nor is it helped by him playing silly jokes, like handcuffing himself to his daughter and losing the key. So he leaves. Except he doesn’t. The day after, he introduces himself to the daughter and two of her friends in a restaurant, wearing a wig and false teeth, as “Toni Erdmann”. And he continues to pop up. It’s clear everyone thinks he’s a complete buffoon, but they’re not really sure if they should take him at his word, no matter how implausible it often is. And that’s part of the problem with the film, because Erdmann is a comic character who’s not all that comical. He’d be tragicomic, except there’s no tragedy here, only a father-daughter relationship that has eroded over time to almost nothing, and is now being strained by his intrusion into her life. But, of course, something has to give, and in Toni Erdmann it’s her resistance to his buffoonery and attempts to rebuild their relationship. Despite that, Toni Erdmann never manages to feel like a, er, “feel good” film. It makes for a weird disconnect, and it only really succeeds because everyone plays their part completely straight. A good film, but it takes a while before you realise it.

Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). I wasn’t sure what to make of Pasolini after seeing two of his films, but after watching Arabian Nights I think I have a better handle on his work, and I sort of like it, but I’m still not entirely convinced… If that makes sense. Arabian Nights has been described as the best cinema adaptation of (some of the stories in) The Arabian Nights. It’s true that it keeps the nested narrative structure of many of the stories, which is confusing enough when reading them… although Pasolini somehow manages not to confuse the viewer. And the locations in the film – Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and Nepal – are fantastic. Arabian Nights looks fabulous, but… like the other Pasolini films I’ve seen, the acting seems amateurish at best, the plotting somewhat haphazard, and the dialogue often just repeats what is plain to see there on the screen. But everything looks so, well, appropriate to the story, so much more so than in, say, The Thief of Bagdad from 1924, with its ersatz Arabian studio sets and made-up script standing in for Arabic (or Farsi). And yet, although the cover art suggests Arabian Nights is pure spectacle, it never quite seems like it. I’m not sure how Pasolini manages it, but there’s power in his films and that overcomes all the bits that don’t add up – the acting, the dialogue, the plotting. Also, Pasolini seems to like long shots, and I’m a sucker for long shots. Whatever the reason, I really liked Arabian Nights. Pasolini has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but this isn’t one of them; I think it should be. There’s a Blu-ray collection of six films by Pasolini available from the BFI, only two of which I’ve seen, Arabian Nights and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.  I’m sorely tempted by it…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 872


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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, #63

Still trying to to catch up… Half of the films in this post’s half-dozen are from the US, but only one of them is an actual feature film per se. Both Benning’s and Baillie’s work are better considered art, or video installations – a form of art I especially like. The remaining films are an odd mix – one I expected to like but didn’t, one turned out to be a lot better than expected, and one wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d hope although still quite good.

gangs_new_yorkGangs of New York*, Martin Scorsese (2002, USA). If Terrence Malick is the nearest Hollywood has produced to an actual auteur, then Scorsese, although a resolutely commercial director, is perhaps closest in Hollywood to him. Personally, I find Scorsese’s films well-made but over-rated; but he has the advantage of a career pretty much explicitly laid out in the films he’s directed, all of which are still readily available in a format of your choice. Gangs of New York was a commercial success, and a critical one too – not just appearing on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but also nominated for a shedload of Oscars, BAFTAs, Gold Globes and assorted other film awards (although it won no Oscars, Day-Lewis got best actor BAFTA, and Scorsese won best director Golden Globe). The story is set in New York during the 1840s to the 1860s. The film opens with a pitched – and gory – battle between the Irish immigrants and the native New Yorkers (of course, they’re all immigrants, the so-called “natives” arrived a couple of generations earlier). The movie then follows Amsterdam, son of the murdered leader of the Irish faction, and played by Leonardo di Caprio, as he returns to New York as a young man and goes to work for leader of the natives, Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is apparently historically accurate, even down to the accent used by Day-Lewis and others, and it’s pretty gruesome stuff. Quite how the US built a reputation as the Land of the Free and the Land of Opportunity when its biggest city was a cesspit of violence and corruption is a mystery. But then you have the myth of the wide open spaces of the Wild West, when it was all land stolen from the Native Americans, and those who stole it were mostly as violent and venal as the worst criminals. That was all pretty much around the same time. And not so long ago. Mind you, Dickens’s England was no less grim a place. Although it does seem a little like the new governments of both the UK and USA are determined to return us to those days…

holy_motorsHoly Motors, Leos Carax (2012, France). This film had all the ingredients which should have led to me loving it, but for some reason it never quite worked for me. The story is enigmatic, very little is explained, in fact it’s more of an anthology than a single plot, the cinematography is excellent, and the cast are very good too… But the whole thing felt like a film-making exercise to me, and only more so when I learnt that one of the longest segments is based on a short film made by Carax four years earlier. I’ve heard Holy Motors described as an anthology film, deliberately broken down into more easily-digestible chunks to prove a point about art house cinema, but I’m not sure I buy it. The celebrity cameos seem to suggest a personal project from a director with more of a reputation than his oeuvre suggests. Eve Mendes, for example, plays a model abudcted by Mr Merde and says nothing during her part in the film. Kylie Minogue plays a colleague of the main character, and ends up singing a really quite awful song that can’t decide if it belongs in a Broadway musical or a rock jukebox musical. The framing narrative doesn’t explain the individual segments, only links them. And while the cinematography is excellent, as is the cast, the story is enigmatic to the point of nonsense – the segment in which the protagonist – well, a cleverly-disguised stunt double – does a motion-capture sequence for an ugly CGI sequence of two great wyrms mating is entirely meaningless. That this is later followed by a sequence in which a father picks up his teenage daughter from a party, only to learn she hid in the bathroom because she’s afraid of not being popular… it shows only that the guiding principle here is directorial whim. There’s no pattern, no story-arc, no point. There’s only a director who feels like he’s not in control of his creative process – and, though I’m only going on the one film I’ve seen by Carax, he strikes me as someone who may one day make a great movie… but Holy Motors is not it.

travelling_playersThe Travelling Players*, Theodoros Angelopoulos (1975, Greece). I’ve been aware of Angelopoulos for a couple of years, although I’ve never previously seen any of his films nor had much of an idea what his films were like. But The Travelling Players eventually worked its way to the top of the rental list and was duly sent to me and… One thing I hadn’t known about Angelopoulos is that his films tick a lot of my boxes: long static shots, declamatory dialogue, plots that cover decades… This is stuff that I love in films, and apparently The Travelling Players is not unique in Angelopoulos’s oeuvre in doing so. The Travelling Players is currently available as a part of a box set, so I think I’ll be getting the box set. But, The Travelling Players… It’s about a troupe of actors, who travel the country with a play about Golfo the Shepherdess, between 1939 and 1952. As well as the covering the events in Greece during that time – the invasion by the Nazis, the war between the fascists and the communists, the British and US occupations, the Regime of the Colonels… – but the troupe’s internal dynamics are all based on the story of the House of Atreus. There are parts of the the film where a character talks directly to camera. There are some frankly bizarre scenes, like the British platoon forcing the troupe to perform on a beach, only to end up dancing with each other, or the dance hall where the fascists and communists clash like the Jets and the Sharks… The Travelling Players is also a very long film, clocking in at 230 minutes; but it’s fascinating throughout. Angelopoulos’s name was not unknown to me, but until now I’d not seen any of his films. Having seen The Travelling Players, I plan to explore his oeuvre. Recommended.

baillieVolume 1: Five Collected Films by Bruce Baillie (1964-1968, USA). I stumbled across mention of Baillie’s All My Life on a list of best films somewhere, and found a copy of it on Youtube (it’s only 2 minutes and 45 seconds long, but it is quite excellent – see here). So I did a little more research, and learnt that Baillie is best-remembered for Castro Street, a short film from 1966. Canyon Cinema, a collective he helped found, released some of his films on DVD, but they appear to have sold out. Fortunately, they’re available on Youtube in HD, including this collection, which contains Tung, Mass (for the Lakota Sioux), Valentin de las Sierras, Castro Street and All My Life. The first three are experimental/avant garde cinema, and middling successful, but Castro Street, a montage of industrial plants on the titular street, is fully deserving of its high reputation; and even In My Life, which is 3 minutes of Ella Fitzgerald singing as Baillie pans a camera along a fence, hs a beauty all its own. I discovered Baillie by accident, but it turns out to have been a happy one. I won’t be forgetting him.

13_lakes13 Lakes, small roads and Easy Rider, James Benning (2004/2011/2012, USA). I’ve made no secret of my admiration for James Benning’s work, and while I have everything he has so far released on DVD through the Österreichesches Filmmuseum, one of his best-known works, 13 Lakes, is still unavailable from them. Fortunately, someone has loaded it up onto Youtube, although it’s not a brilliant transfer. And since I’d figured out how to watch Youtube using the app on on my telly via Amazon Prime, I used it to watch 13 Lakes. Benning’s titles tend to the literal, so 13 Lakes is indeed about thirteen lakes, each of which is filmed from a static position for ten minutes. That’s it. The shots are framed such that water fills the bottom half of the screen and sky the top half. Whatever happens while the camera is running, is captured; and the soundtrack is entirely ambient sound. I happen to think Benning is a genius, and while he does really interesting things with narrative in Deseret, American Dreams (lost and found) and Landscape Suicide, other films such as RR and the California Trilogy are more in the nature of video installations. As is 13 Lakes. So he presses lots of buttons for me. Small roads is more of the same, static shots of minor roads in the US, each shot a couple of minutes long and the soundtrack composed entirely of ambient sound. Unlike in 13 Lakes, the screen is not split in two, in fact the proportion of land to sky increases as the film progresses. It is mesmerising, despite the lack of narrative. Easy Rider, however, is something different. Benning retraced the route taken by the actors in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, but focused his camera on the landscape. He uses the soundtrack of the film – some music, some dialogue – but other times relies on ambient sound. What I especially like about Benning is that he’s mythologizing the landscape of the North American continent using the artefacts of its current colonising culture. Not entirely, of course – Four Corners covers Native American cave art, after all. But Deseret explicitly charts the impact of people on the Utah landscape, and while 13 Lakes shows the transient nature of the marks humanity makes on a body of water (the wake of a boat or jetski, soon erased), small roads documents a more permanent marker on the landscape: tarmac. And Easy Rider ties the landscape directly to a cultural object, the story of a feature film, a fiction. I would dearly love to have copies of all of Benning’s films, but sadly only a few have been released on DVD. Equally sadly, I do not live in a city with a world-renowned modern art museum that is likely to exhibit his work. (I do, however, live in a city with Curzon cinema, but even that means nothing – as Curzon, in all their wisdom, have so far chosen not to show Sokurov’s Francofonia here, but only in their London venues. Bah.)

rogopagLet’s Wash Our Brains: RoGoPaG, Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti (1963, Italy). Alfredo Bini apparently had the bright idea of putting together an anthology film comprising four shorts from well-known directors, although I’ve no idea if the concept was as commerically viable back then as it is now – ie, not at all. It’s not like this was the only example – there’s films such as Le Bambole from 1965, for example. Certainly RoGoPaG had a better line-up of directors… but given how little your average audience cares about who directs a film – many lists of best films don’t even name the director, for instance – it’s arguable how relevant that is. In the event, we get four short films that are emblematic – perhaps too much so – of the four directors’ works, without being their best work. Roberto Rossellini provides a story about an air stewardess who attracts the unwelcome attentions of an American who flies her route – to Bangkok – and who she decides to repel by acting more seucally-liberated than she actually is. It’s a thin piece, and it hard to work out what the point of it all is. Godard provides the second part, a five-finger exercise based on the thinnest of plots: a nuclear bomb has exploded near Paris, and two young actors get to practice acting exercises as a response to the explosion. The third film is by Pier Paolo Pasolini and is easily the best of the four. Orson Welles is making afilm about the Crucifixion, although he actually appears to be re-staging in real life famous paintings of the Crucifuxion. One of the extras has not eaten for a while and spends the entire film trying to find something to eat – to his eventual detriment. The humour is broad, the acting broader, Welles looks the part but is dubbed so he doesn’t sound it, and the re-enactments of the Crucifixion are quite astonishingly effective. The final film is the most traditional, and tells a straightforward story of a middle-class Italian family looking to upgrade their home by buying a plot of land on a future development. The kids spout advertising slogans, the family are clearly victims of consumer culture, and their final realisation of their situation is rewarded with an undeserved death. Despite the names attached to RoGoPaG, I suspect Bini thought he had something weightier on his hands than he actually had. The Pasolini apparently caused a bit of a fuss on release, though it seems tame stuff these days to non-Catholic eyes. I’m still not entirely sure what purpose anthology films served, or why anyone ever bothered to make them. I suspect they were mostly vanity projects for producers – “hey, I got to work with Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and, er, Gregoretti!” – but they’re certainly an odd fit in the world of twenty-first century cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 831