An even odder selection than usual. Two US films that are on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, another film by a favourite director, and a film I knew nothing about but which blew me away when I came to watch it…
Nemuritorii, Sergui Nicolaescu (1974, Romania). I had thought this was a science fiction film, although I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it was the translation of the title, which means “The Immortals”. It is, in fact, an historical drama, set during the Middle Ages, and about a group of mercenaries who return to their homeland, Romania, and attempt to oust its current ruler. And, er, that’s it. There’s a running joke about a wooden chest which carries a great treasure, and which all their enemies are keen to possess… but the chest proves to be empty. In places, Nemuritorii reminded me of Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood – it has that same earthy and violent approach to Middle Ages history – and Nicolaescu’s reputation as a good filmer of battle scenes is amply demonstrated. But Nicolaescu’s relationship with the Ceaușescu regime was problematic at best, and though he entered politics after the 1989 revolution, I’m told he’s not held in especially high regard by modern Romanians. I can’t say that Nemuritorii struck me as a great film, although it was entertaining enough and shot well enough. That earlier mention of Flesh and Blood was not entirely unwarranted – this film felt much the same: an entertaining Middle Ages adventure, with numerous battles, a cast of near-stereotypes, and a carry-through gimmick. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it’s a good film.
She’s Gotta Have It*, Spike Lee (1986, USA). I don’t think I’d actually watched any Spike Lee films until this watching this one, his debut, although I knew full well who he is and am aware of some of the films he has made. and while I can’t say the film appealed to me a great deal, I can see why it belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – so I’m glad I saw it. It’s not just that’s it’s an entirely African-American film, made wholly within the African-American culture of the US, but that it also takes a nicely meta-cinematic approach to its story and plays around with cinematic narratives and conventions. For a debut film, that’s pretty ballsy. And it works. The title refers to Tracy Camilla Johns, a young African-American woman living in Brookyln. She has three suitors (all three of which she regularly has sex with), but she cannot decide which one would be best-suited as her permanent partner – and, to tell the truth, she likes having three boyfriends. Characters in the film frequently talk directly to camera, there’s plenty of character assassination, and the film ends on an ambiguous note. The acting is not great – John Canada Terrell is especially bad – and the artificiality of the narrative structure is occasionally pushed a bit too much in the viewer’s face… but for a debut piece of work this is an astonishingly ambitious movie and its success rate is amazingly high. On top of that, She’s Gotta Have It was also one of the films that led to the resurgence of US indie films in the 1990s. I suspect its narrative experiments have been overlooked because of its importance as an African-American film and an indie film (and Lee’s character’s later appearances in Nike adverts), but She’s Gotta Have It has a lot to recommended it. Worth seeing.
Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India). This was Ghatak’s last film – he died in 1976… although according to the University of California Press edition of A River Called Titash, Ghatak’s adaptation, A River Called Titas, an earlier film, was not released until after his death, although Wikipedia claims otherwise. Whatever the truth, Ghatak made only eight feature films, and I’ve now seen half of them. And though they’re black and white and mostly exist only in bad transfers or prints, and were probably produced and shot on tiny budgets, I find them fascinating. Not just because they depict life in India – or rather, Bengal, and now Bangladesh – in a fashion not commonly seen in Indian films… but also because they were as much political and sociological essays about Indian life as they were dramatic stories. A River Called Titash, the book, has been described as an ethnological account as much as it is a novel, and that’s equally true of the film. Reason, Debate and a Story is not an historical film, although it is in parts ethnographical, particularly when it documents the dances by Bengali villagers. Ghatak himself plays a drunkard writer who has been critical of the partition of Bengal – and I suspect he was pissed in several of the scenes (he was an acoholic, after all). His wife leaves him so he decides to leave Kolkata, and as he wanders out of the city he picks up assorted waifs and strays. There’s his brother-in-law, who is educated but cannot get a job; an extremely handsome young woman; and a teacher of Sanskirt teased as “mad” by his pupils. The woman is, I think, a metaphor for Bangladesh, which desires reunification with West Bengal (and later does one of the worst lip synchs of a playback singer I’ve seen in a film). The Sanskrit tracher is obviously the history of India. And later, when they meet up with a villager who makes masks for dances, you have literate suburban India versus uneducated rural India. Ghatak doesn’t disguise his arguments, and as avatars his characters are hardly subtle. But there is also some very nice landscape cinematography (badly served by the poor quality film stock used), and I will admit to having thought Bangladesh was chiefly delta and alluvial plain before seeing this film. The aforementioned dances, which appear to be based on mythology, with dancers in masks dressed as Hanuman, Durga, Ganesh, etc., are fascinating. Ghatak’s message on the reunification of Bengal gets a little lost, although I’m doubtless missing lots of references as my knowledge of the area is quite poor. Weirdly, the film opens with a trio of dancers in black zentai outfits dancing on a set meant to represent a desert. They reappear two-thirds of the way through the film, and at the end. I have no idea what they’re intended to signify. But I still think Ghatak is a genius director.
Broadcast News*, James L Brooks (1987, USA). Nope, don’t get it. This is an average drama, well played by its cast – although with Hurt and Hunter, that’s a pretty high-powered cast – but I have no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s just not that interesting. Hurt plays a sports anchor from a regional station who has landed a job as news anchor of a national station. (It’s probably worth pointing out that no other country has the US’s bizarre regional/national broadcasting set-up, and we non-USians have no fucking idea how it works.) Hunter is a top news producer, and Albert Brooks a gifted TV journalist. Hurt wants to pick Hunter’s brains to make himself a better anchor, but she won’t have it. Brooks wants his try in front of the camera. It’s all completely boring and trivial, and Brooks’s career as an actor continues to mystify me. Hurt and Hunter are both good, but they’re in the top rank of Hollywood talent (not that they can draw salaries commensurate with their ability; that’s not how Hollywood works). But even so top talent needs a story more interesting than this. Broadcast News is a Sunday-afternoon film, or maybe a Saturday-afternoon-instrad-of-football film, it’s not 1001 of the top films ever made.
The Asthenic Syndrome*, Kira Muratova (1990, Russia). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still not sure what it’s about, or indeed if it’s any good. It’s two films with unconnected stories. The first is black-and-white (well, more of a sepia colour) and opens at a funeral. The widow is grief-stricken, and, it seems, slightly unhinged. She attacks a man at a bus-stop, she bumps into people, she shouts and rants at no one in her flat, she drops wineglasses on the floor and breaks them… As if that weren’t baffling enough, the dialogue is completely bizarre. People shout at each other, and over each other’s voices, and what they say usually has no relevance to what’s happening in the story. Halfway through The Asthenic Syndrome‘s 153 minutes, the film appears to end, and the camera pulls back to reveal a man on a stage in front of a cinema screen in an auditorium. He introduces the actress who played the widow in the black-and-white film, but the audience are uninterested and file out noisily. One man remains after the others. He’s a teacher and the protagonist of the second film, which is in colour. The dialogue in this film is much like it is in the first. The teacher has narcolepsy – in fact, he fell asleep during the film-within-a-film (Wikipedia mistakenly implies the title refers to his narcolepsy, but asthenia is just a medical term for “weakness”). The Soviet Union depicted in the film is a grim and run-down place – I like the phrase someone used to describe The Asthenic Syndrome, “the last Soviet film and the first post-Soviet film” – but I find it more interesting as a contrast to earlier optimistic Soviet films such as, say, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, made only a decade earlier. The Asthenic Syndrome‘s avant-garde approach does wear a bit thin over two and a half hours, although there’s some quite arresting imagery, and there’s a lot of repetition, particularly in the dialogue. I’m going to have watch The Asthenic Syndrome again, I think, to get a proper handle on it, but I sort of fell on balance that it belongs in the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. And I’d like to see more of Muratova’s films.
I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the Mr Bongo 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because it included Lucía and Memories of Underdevelopment, and I knew little or nothing of the other two films. Well, one was by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who also directed Memories of Underdevelopment; but I knew nothing about I Am Cuba (AKA Soy Cuba). So late one night I stuck it in the player, expecting an earnest documentary of communist Cuba, likely something of a chore to watch… but I loved it. And I don’t understand why it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s one of the most technically innovative films I have ever seen. It is a documentary about Cuba, but it uses some of the most astonishing camera techniques I’ve seen since first watching Eisenstein or Vertov. Obviously, some of the shots are almost routine these days, and done using CGI, but back in the early 1960s, they didn’t have that – and there are several where you have to wonder how the hell Kalatozov managed it. There’s one where the camera swoops from the street up the side of a building, then from the rooftop through windows and down to the street, that is quite astonishing. I Am Cuba is not a documentary in the usual sense of the word – there’s no earnest voiceover explaining what’s shown on the screen, just people and events in Cuba being filmed almost fly-on-the-wall. Apparently, the film didn’t go down very well when it was made, and was pretty much forgotten for thirty years, and only rediscovered in the early 1990s – and championed by both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. That 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution turned out to be an excellent buy – three excellent films and one very good one.
1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 853