My viewing of late has been a bit all over the place, as this post no doubt demonstrates. But at least I managed to cross a couple off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list…
The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield (2012, USA). David Siegel made his money in timeshares, in fact his company was one of the largest timeshare companies in the world. And he chose to put some of that money into a new home for him, his wife and their eight children. The house was inspired by the Palace of Versailles, but they actually modelled it on the penthouse floors of the Paris Las Vegas Hotel – which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the family’s taste. Once finished, the Versailles House would be one of the largest private homes in the US (but not the largest, as some of the film’s marketing claims). Unfortunately, the market crash in 2008 wiped out Siegel’s company, and he went from having more money than he could spend to not having enough money to pay his bills. And one of the assets he tried to sell was the unfinished Versailles House. For $50 million. But no one would buy it. The Queen of Versailles is basically a film about a rich family trying hard to cope with having considerably less money. On the one hand, neither Siegel nor his wife, an ex-beauty queen who qualified and worked as a computer engineer before turning to modelling as it was more lucrative, and who is thirty years his junior, came from riches. On the other, they’ve become so used to wealth, their lifestyle epitomises senseless spending. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, despite the fact they’re utterly useless and stupid with their vast riches. The film ends with their future looking bleak. In fact, things did pick up for them afterwards. The economy recovered, Siegel’s company recovered, they never did manage to sell Versailles House but once their fortunes had recovered they restarted construction. It’s still not finished, but at least it now will be.
The Horse Thief*, Tian Zhuangzhuang (1986, China). The only film I’ve seen by Tian prior to this one was his remake of Springtime in a Small Town. I’m a big fan of the original, Spring in a Small Town, released in 1948 and directed by Mu Fei, but I couldn’t honestly see the point of the remake, much as I enjoyed it (see here). The Horse Thief is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and Tian has said he intended for it to be low on dialogue and more of an ethnographic film, a document of Buddhist rituals among the Tibetans. There’s not much in the way of plot – a viewpoint character, who opens the film as a horse thief but tries to change his ways – but lots of footage of landscape and rituals and people. It’s a fascinating film, and often looks quite beautiful. But its lack of a plot does tell against it somewhat, and even though only 88 minutes long, it palls a little in places. Unfortunately, the copy I watched wasn’t an especially good transfer, which tends to diminish the value of good cinematography. I think I’ll add some Tian to my rental list, and I suspect The Horse Thief does indeed belong on the 1001 Movies You See Before You Die list.
Secret défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France). I came to Rivette relatively late, only a few years ago, after watching a rental copy of La belle noiseuse, which prompted me to further explore his oeuvre. Which I initially did by buying the Blu-ray box from Arrow Academy which included Out 1, a 773-minute film – and which I have yet to watch. (at least that particular film).. But I added other of his films to my rental list, and this was the first to arrive. And… it’s good. It’s not what I expected. It’s longer than it needs to be, although with Rivette that’s given, but it’s certainly a well-plotted thriller that manages several twists. Sandrine Bonnaire is a scientist, whose father committed suicide several years before. Her brother has come across evidence that it was murder: a photograph showing their father’s assistant, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, at the station where their father caught the train from which he fell to his death, despite Radziwilowicz claiming to have been miles away at the time. Radziwilowicz is now the head of their father’s company and a rich man. While confronting Radziwilowicz at what used to be their family estate, Bonnaire accidentally shoots his secretary and lover. Which is where things get complicated. Because then the twin sister of the murdered lover turns up. And Radziwilowicz admits he did kill the father, but for good reason… Rivette makes long films; he does not make “taut thrillers” – “baggy thrillers”, perhaps… There’s a good solid mystery in Secret défense central to the plot, with some satisfying twists and turns – did Radziwilowicz really kill Bonnaire’s father? Yes, he did, but why? And what does that motive tell Bonnaire about her own past? It’s padded out a bit, particularly by the sub-plot involving the twins, but it’s all resolutely mimetic, which is something I hadn’t expected, given the other films by Rivette I’ve seen. I liked it, I liked it a lot; which is something I’m finding myself doing with Rivette’s films. They’re definitely worth seeing.
Die Bergkatze, Ernst Lubitsch (1921, Germany). I enjoy early silent films, especially German, although they were, to be fair, pretty much the market leaders back in the day, unless you fancied slapstick comedy like the Keystone Kops or Buster Keaton, in which case Hollywood was the market leader… and certainly when it comes to humorous silent movies I suspect US ones have weathered the years better than German ones. I bought this Lubitsch collection – in a sale, I seem to recall – because one or two of its contents seemed intriguing. And one or two were. But there were other films on the three Blu-ray discs. And some of them have proven not so intriguing. On the one hand, there’s clearly very much a Lubitsch… thing – I hesitate to use the word “vision”, given the youth of the medium at the time – and he was equally clearly technically skilled. But I can’t say Die Bergkatze, subtitled “A Grotesque in Four Acts”, struck me as especially comical. A Lothario officer is assigned to a remote outpost in the mountains. En route he is attacked by bandits, but let go by the daughter of the bandit chief. At the fort, the officer is given a detachment to fight the bandits. They lose the fight but are believed to have won, so the fort commander gives his daughter’s hand in marriage to the officer… And somewhere around there, I lost the plot. Or the film did. There was a scene in which the officer and, I think, the bandit chief’s daughter, are played music by a group of snowman who actually looked more like Cybermen. And the entire film was shot through weirdly-shaped cut-outs, but if there was a pattern, or plan, to them, I couldn’t work it out. There is a documentary about Lubitsch’s work in Berlin in this collection, which I have yet to watch. Having recently seen one of Lubitsch’s Hollywood films – To Be or Not to Be from 1942 – I can’t say I’d ever have classified him as one of the greats of the Golden Age of Hollywood, unlike some of his German compatriots; and I have to wonder if some of his later films are not held in higher regard than they deserve.
The Astronaut Wives Club (2015, USA). Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club, published in 2013, was one of the many books I used as research for All That Outer Space Allows. Koppel had done some of my work for me, but I found the book unsatisfactory in its somewhat superficial treatment of the titular women and their lives. Nonetheless, when I heard they were making a television series based on it – clearly to cash in on the success of Mad Men and the, er, failure of Pan Am – I was keen to see it. But it did not fare well and, like many such US television series, doesn’t appear to have made it to sell-through. But I managed to see it anyway. The book covers the wives of several of the intakes of astronauts, but the TV series is all about the wives of the Sacred Seven, the original Mercury astronauts: Rene Carpenter, Trudy Cooper, Annie Glen, Betty Grissom, Jo Schirra, Louise Shepard and Marge Slayton. It takes some liberties with actual events – yes, Trudy Cooper was a pilot, the only astronaut wife to hold a pilot’s licence, but none of the Mercury 13 were friends of hers… but inventing such a relationship did at least allow the writers to devote an episode to the Mercury 13, congressional sub-committee and all, and I think bending history to include it was a good call. The astronauts were also painted as probably a good deal nicer than they actually were. The only reference to the “icy commander”, for example, is when Louise Shepard finds a sign reading that on her husband’s office door. In fact, everyone is so nice, it beggars belief. Even when Donn Eisele spends his time at the Cape living with another woman, everyone is very nice about his adultery. I don’t know if The Astronaut Wives Club was intended to last more than a season – certainly, the astronaut-related lives of the wives of the Sacred Seven are pretty much covered during the show’s ten episodes. (Um, I see from Wikipedia it was intended to complete in a single season. But had it been picked up for a second season, it would have shifted focus to the wives of another group of men.) I can see why it wasn’t picked up – put simply, it’s not very good. The astronauts and their wives were anything but bland people, and this series makes them bland. And yet they’re also all so good-looking! The astronauts were not chosen for their looks, and their wives were who they were. Rene Carpenter was known for her glamorous looks – and she capitalised on them, as well as her talent as a writer, by becoming a TV presenter – but the actress playing her is outshone by several of the other wives. In fact, they’re all so good at everything, absolute paragons, as if the writers of the programme had mistaken the time and effort the wives put into projecting the right image so their husbands would get flights was the actual reality. It wasn’t – as Mary Irwin’s autobiography clearly shows. Also, and I’ve no idea why the writers/producers chose to do this, but The Astronaut Wives Club uses present-day music, not music contemporary with when it was set. It feels… wrong. Disappointing.
Yol*, Yılmaz Güney & Şerif Gören (1982, Turkey). As the asterisk indicates, this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, the only Turkish film on it. I’ve seen half a dozen Turkish films, most in the last decade, including a couple from the 1960s that were… interesting. The more recent stuff I’ve seen has been very good, and probably deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, films such as Uzak or Night of Silence – certainly more so than Yol, which probably made the cut because it was openly critical of Turkey’s military junta of the time. So much so, in fact, that Güney was in prison during the actual filming – Gören followed Güney’s instructions in directing – but later escaped, took the negatives to France, where he edited them. Yol follows five prisoners given week-long passes to visit home. One story is about honour killing, another is about a man taking responsibility for his brother’s family after his brother is killed. A third sees a husband and wife attacked by an angry mob after being caught having sex in a toilet on a train. It’s not that Yol is a bad film – but the sole representative of Turkish cinema on the list? AS one of three or four films, it would probably have made the cut. It’s a bit soap opera-ish in parts, and it’s hard not to suspect Güney’s dissidence was not a major factor in its selection. (Okay, so it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well – but even that was likely influenced by Güney’s situation.) The same is also true of the issues it covers, like honour killing. Which is not to say that films which cover important issues should not be lauded for doing so. But cinema is a visual medium, and features films are a narrative form, so it’s not unreasonable to expect excellence in both from an acclaimed film. Worth seeing, but it’s not the best ever film to come out of Turkey – and I can say despite having seen only half a dozen Turkish films.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 910