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Best of the half-year, 2018

For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.

2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.

books
1 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.

2 Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.

4 The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.

5 Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.

Honourable mentions – Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.

films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.

1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.

3 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.

4 Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..

5 India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.

Honourable mentions – Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.

films – documentary
1 Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.

2 A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set  around the actors, is especially effective.

3 Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.

4 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.

5 Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.

Honourable mentions – Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.

albums
1 The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.

2 Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.

3 The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.

I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).

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Moving pictures 2018, #5

I swore I’d wouldn’t be posting just reviews of films all this year, but I had bad flu for a week, which meant I watched a lot of films and did very little blogging. So I’ve a backlog to clear. One more of these and I’ll up to date, and hopefully after that, their frequency will decrease… and lots of other content will start appearing instead. Hopefully.

Princess from the Moon, Kon Ichikawa, (1987, Japan). The only other Ichikawa film I’d seen before watching this was The Burmese Harp, which is excellent. So I expected good things of Princess from the Moon, despite the awful title and cover art. Sadly, the latter were indicative of the contents. As the title suggests, a baby arrives myteriously – well, in a meteorite – in Japan, and a family adopt the baby and bring her up as their own. It’s the Superman origin story without the superpowers. Okay, with the superpowers. Because the young woman does have strange powers. However, unlike Superman, she is eventually reunited with her people when a UFO, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or is it ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, comes to Earth and she departs on it. Meanwhile, she proves so popular among the local menfolk, and indeed further afield, that she has to set them tasks in order to manage their advances. The film aparently did not do well and, despite the presence of Toshiro Mifune as the man who discovers the “princess”, it’s not easy to see why. The tone is all over the place, and Ichikawa adds nothing to a well-used story. Apparently, the dragon was originally going to double as the Loch Ness Monster in a Hammer film but the project fell through.

Viva, Anna Biller (2007, USA). I’d rented Biller’s The Love Witch on a whim, and been impressed enough by it to add her first feature film, Viva, to my rental list. It’s nowhere near as polished a piece, and in many respects a much less subtle pastiche. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – Biller is certianly a singular talent, devoted to pastiching 1970s aesthetics and B-movies, but with feminists sensibilities. It can make for an uneasy mix. While her sensibilities are unimpeachable, her dedication to the look and feel of the films she’s spoofing does tend to place them closer to their inspirations than the twenty-first century. Biller plays a Los Angeles housewife in the early 1970s who, with a friend, is persuaded to expand her sexual horizons by moonlighting as an escort (using the name “Viva”). There are a lot of very stilted conversations between the characters, and everything is colourised to an eye-bruising degree. Later, Viva ends up at an orgy, and it’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a Russ Meyer, although without the focus on women’s chests. The end result is far less clever than The Love Witch, and embarrassingly gauche in places, but certainly shows what Biller is about and attempting to do. Seen before The Love Witch, I suspect it might misinform viewers as to Biller’s intentions; seen after it, the films feels like a work in progress. She will go on to amazing things, I’m sure of it. Viva is part of the process.

A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). My previous experience of Imamura, The Ballad of Narayama (see here), I really did not like, but I suspect I added A Man Vanishes to my rental list based on the description rather than the name of the director. And I’m glad I did. The film starts out as a straightforward documentary on the case of a Japanese salaryman who simply disappeared. Bu then the documentary begins to question its own remit, and in a scene toward the end, the set is demolished around the filmmakers as they discuss what they have filmed, revealing the documentary itself to have been a fictional construct. It is astonishingly meta, and astonishingly informed about its own nature. I’m not sure what to make of it – it deconstructs itself from the inside in a way that I had frankly not thought within the vocabulary of 1960s film-makers. It’s clever in a way that far too few films are, and even fewer documentaries are. I thought it excellent.

Die Puppe, Ernst Lubitsch (1919, Germany). I think it was this film, of all the ones in this box set, which persuaded me to add it to my shopping basket during Eureka’s Boxing Day Sale. Ossi Oswalda plays the daughter of a toymaker who takes the place of a life-size doll bought by the local baron’s son who needs to marry but is not interested in doing so. So he marries the doll. Which is not a doll. He only married her because he had fallen under the spell on a local friary who hoped to use the dowry to fund their gluttony. So of course they’re a bit upset when it transpires the doll is a real woman. And he falls for her, so they’ll be keeping the dowry, thank you very much. Like the previous film in this set, Ich möchte kein Mann sein (see here), Die Puppe is played strictly for laughs, and Oswalda in the title role makes the film. It’s a thin premise, and not especially plausible, but the movie totally commits to it. It’s a more stagey film than the earlier one, with the action taking place on what are clearly stage-sets – and that includes the town square which features in the opening. Fun, but one for fans of silent movies, I suspect.

Dekalog*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1989, Poland). In terms of Polish cinema’s exposure to the English-speaking world, Kieślowski is a giant. Poland had a huge film industry, and has produced a great number of world-class directors, many of which have been released in Anglophone markets. So quite why Kieślowski has come to be seen as the quintessential Polish director is something of a mystery, especially given the paucity of his oeuvre compared to others such as Andrzej Wajda or Agnieska Holland. The same, I suppose, might also be said of Satyajit Ray and Bengali cinema – Ray is comprehensively released on DVD on the UK, but none of Mrinal Sen’s movies are available in UK releases. But then Ray had Ismail Merchant proselytising for him in the West, probably because Ray was helpful toward Merchant and Ivory during the early days of their career. I don’t know that Kieślowski did the same for an Anglophone director, but I’ve seen no evidence he did. Which does make his selection as the face of Polish cinema somewhat inexplicable. He’s good, there’s no doubt about that. But, I’ve come to feel, middle-brow and you’d expect a director with such a high profile to be more, well, cerebral. But then perhaps Kieślowski’s reputation was formed by his TV work, which this box set has shown is superior to his feature film work. The Dekalog itself, ten one-hour long episodes, each of which illustrates one of the Ten Commandments, and all of which are set in the same block of apartments in Warsaw. Some are better than others; some are even somewhat opaque, with a far from obvious link to the Commandment they are intended to illustrate. Two of the episodes, five and six, were later remade as feature films, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. They’re probably the two strongest episodes. This box set was definitely worth getting, just as much for the TV films and special features as for the Dekalog series itself.

Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi (2016, USA). The US is very good at making films that show racist it once was but which reveal how racist it still is. On the surface, Hidden Figures cannot be faulted – women of colour were involved in the US space programme and they have a story worth telling, if only to show people they were involved. But in an effort to create drama, Hidden Figures creates situations which undo the achievements of the people it is trying to celebrate. It’s not as blindingly obvious as Kevin Costner ripping down the “Whites Only” sign on the women’s toilet, an entirely invented scene since the NASA facilities were not segregated so there was no need of a white saviour… but also the fact the film’s event are implied to take place during the late 1950s when Katherine Johnson is promoted to the Mercury Task Group, but she had been made a supervisor over a decade before in 1948. There’s no doubt the contribution of women of colour, or indeed women, to the Space Race has been forgotten, if not outright written from history; but the real histories of these people are dramatic enough without having to make changes. The fact the US practiced segregation some fifty years ago is frightening, and yet not all that much has changed – hence the need for films such as this. Black people have been so written out of history – US especially – they cannot see themselves in it, despite their many and varied and important contributions to it. They are there, doing their bit, and only a racist or a fool would say otherwise. On the one hand, I think Hidden Figures‘s purpose is admirable and I welcome the film’s existence; on the other, I rue that it has to exist in the first place, and that it has to warp history to provide a narrative acceptable to the public. But it’s not a great film, and I suspect you’d get more from the book on which it was based.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures, #36

Of the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die, 533 are from the US. That’s not an exact figure, of course – these days, with film production companies from different nations often doing deals to back a movie, it makes it difficult to say a movie is categorically from one nation or another. Even so, for over half of the list – which, admittedly, is clearly aimed at Anglophone film-goers – to be from a single country is a bit much. And, as I’ve discovered, a lot of the US movies just aren’t really that good.

For the record, France scores next highest, with 102 movies; then it’s the UK at 82; then Italy at 42; Germany at 33; Japan 26; USSR/Russia 19; Australia and Sweden 13 each; Hong Kong 12; and Spain and India with 10 apiece. The countries of the rest of the world have less than ten films each on the list.

Think about that: India, which Wikipedia describes as “the largest producer of films in the world”, provides only 1% of the list – and of those ten movies, four are by Satyajit Ray and two by Ritwik Ghatak (both of whom have been critically lauded in the West), one is a silent (and actually by German director Franz Osten), and only three are Bollywood. There is also a single film from Egypt – the largest film producer of the Arabic-speaking world (three-quarters of all Arabic-language films were made in Egypt). While I will admit the only Bollywood films I have seen are two of the three on the list – and I really liked Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge – but I have seen a number of Arabic films – I’m a big fan of Palestinian director Elia Sulieman – though not very many from Egypt.

But then the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list seems to be a weird mix of populist movies and popular auteur films. Some directors appear far too often, some not often enough. There are some films which are historically important, and some which display innovative cinematic techniques. But a good many of the movies on the list really don’t deserve to be on it, and there are far better, and more important, choices the list-makers could have chosen…

And as if in illustration, this post features four US movies from the list, none of which rightly belongs on it.

phantom_carriageThe Phantom Carriage*, Victor Sjöström (1921, Sweden). I can appreciate films that are clearly important in the development of cinema, and while they may prove difficult viewing to present-day audiences, it does not usually take too much of a leap of imagination to realise how the film might have played to a contemporary audience. And so to The Phantom Carriage. I suspect “Pepper’s ghost” was an illusion not unfamiliar to audiences in the 1920s, but to see the cinematic equivalent – double exposure – no doubt impressed because of the newness of the medium. And it’s certainly used to good effect in this film. The story itself is a typical piece of Gothic hokum, although it makes extensive use of flashbacks – which is certainly daring in a silent film. I suspect this is a movie which will need a couple of watches to fully appreciate. Worth seeing.

orphicTestament of Orpheus, Jean Cocteau (1960, France). I really like Cocteau’s Orpheus, the middle film of his Orphic Trilogy, although I wonder how coherent a trilogy the three films make. Testament of Orpheus, for example, is actually Cocteau revisiting the themes and motifs of Orpheus, but without actually bothering with plot, characters or anything else so bourgeois. None of which is especially a bad thing. But Orpheus has the advantage of subtext – one that the film actually makes text at certain points – which is the German Occupation of France. And Testament of Orpheus often turns to the surrealist imagery of The Blood of a Poet, and fails to make good use of it in the context of its story. Cocteau has been travelling through time, but materialises in 1959 and persuades a scientist to kill him with a special gun so that he can remain permanently in that time. But it doesn’t go as planned, and Cocteau finds himself halfway between the real world and a fantasy world in which elements of Orpheus appear – including its characters. There’s plenty of dream-logic at work, which is heightened by the use of camera tricks such as filming in reverse. The use of a sound-stage and assorted ruins as sets only adds to the meta-fictional nature of the film. It’s a talky movie, more concerned with philosophy than drama, which makes for slow viewing. But it’s also a clever film, and makes some witty points about the medium of film and even poetry. I still prefer Orpheus, but this one comes a close second.

glenn_gouldThirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould*, François Girard (1993, Canada). I knew nothing about this film or its subject before watching it. I don’t listen to classical music, and wouldn’t know one eighteenth century composer’s works from another’s. But good documentaries make you care for their subject irrespective of any actual interest you might have had previously. And in that respect Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould succeeds admirably. It is helped by two factors: one, its subject is actually an interesting person, and two, it has chosen to document its topic in an unusual mannner. Glenn Gould was a renowned concert pianist from Canada, but also an insightful and prolific commentator on a number of topics. The film is structured, as its title suggests, as a series of short movies about Gould, ranging from fly-on-the-wall to talking heads to weird animation. And it totally works. Hunt down a copy and watch it.

ballad_narayamThe Ballad of Narayama*, Shohei Imamura (1983, Japan). There are some films that are clearly well-made, admirable even, but something about the story prevents you from liking them. Such is the case with The Ballad of Narayama. It is a nasty, horrible film. Albeit a well-made one. It’s set in a small village in nineteenth century Japan. It is the practice in the village for old people when they reach the age of seventy to walk to a nearby mountain and remain there until they starve to death. And if they won’t go voluntarily… One old woman is approaching her seventieth birthday, and much of the film is about her family as they scrabble to survive in poverty. She has decided she will go with dignity, and so spends her last year arranging her affairs. The various characters are mostly mean and despicable. One smells so bad, no one will have anything to do with him. A young woman with a burn scar on her face will happily sleep with any man, and is treated badly them by all as a result. One man has already tried starving his old father, in an effort to encourage him to head for the mountain. I really didn’t like this film, and I have no desire to ever watch it again.

short_cutsShort Cuts*, Robert Altman (1993, USA). Altman appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list six times – as well as Short Cuts, there’s The Player, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe And Mrs Miller and M*A*S*H. There’s perhaps one that actually belongs there – I’d vote for McCabe And Mrs Miller. Short Cuts, however, is one of those films were a number of intersecting stories sort of, er, intersect and er, prove, well, nothing really. The cast list is impressive, as is indeed the case for most Altman films. The plot, such as it is, involves a series of small stories which cross and intersect , which seems to be an Altman thing, but I can’t barely remember the details – and I suspect some of them I’ve confused with The Player. The problem is that all the stories seem little more than scenes in a larger story, when in fact there is no larger story. So you’ve no real idea what the point of the film is, or what happened to beginning, middle and end. I am all for non-traditional narrative structures, but a braided narrative is hardly non-traditional and for it  to be effective it really needs to be put to good use. Meh.

how_greenHow Green Was My Valley*, John Ford (1941, USA). Because of a little thing called World War II, this movie about a small mining village in Wales was actually filmed in California. And in black and white – so the difference wouldn’t be too obvious. Hollywood apparently also had a problem casting actors who could manage a Welsh accent, as most of the cast sound more Irish than Welsh. Except for male lead Walter Pidgeon. He didn’t even try, he just sounds American. Unbelievably, How Green Was My Valley swept the Oscars in its year of release, beating out Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and Suspicion to Best Picture, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks to Best Director, and also taking home Best Supporting Actor, Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Black-and-White Art Direction. And yet it’s sentimental tosh. It reminded me in many ways of The Quiet Man – another John Ford film starring Maureen O’Hara – whose high regard I find mystifying. I’ve no idea what How Green Was My Valley‘s source novel is like – I imagine it has plenty of social commentary, which Hollywood has buried beneath layers of schmaltz. And yes, there’s lots of singing…

Artists___ModelsArtists and Models*, Frank Tashlin (1955, USA). I don’t believe this is actually available on DVD – I ended up buying a ripped version of it on eBay for a couple of quid (the seller sent me You’re Never Too Young, another Martin & Lewis film, by mistake, then told me to keep it and sent the right movie). There are many films – and this is becoming an all too common refrain – whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. It’s possible to make a case for Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man – it’s an awful comedy, but the way the camera pulls back and reveals the set as a giant doll’s house is innovative. But I can see nothing in Artists and Models which makes the film in any way interesting or important. Martin plays an out-of-work artist, and Lewis is his comicbook-fan friend. It turns out the artist responsible for Lewis’s favourite character, Bat Lady, lives in their apartment building (her friend, Shirley MacLaine, is the model for Bat Lady). When the artist resigns, Martin applies for the job, using a character invented by Lewis – who dreams the stories, and describes them aloud while sleeping. I find Lewis’s OTT gurning hard to take at the best of times, and he’s in full flow in this movie. Martin is much more watchable – but stick to the Matt Helm films if you want to see him in action. Not a good film.

cabaretCabaret*, Bob Fosse (1972, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz had taken me by surprise – I had not expected to like it as much as I did. Cabaret, I thought I knew more about. I am fairly sure, for one thing, that I have seen the film before, although most likely only in snippets over the past few decades. Sadly, despite my familiarity with bits of it I didn’t take to Cabaret very much. Possibly because Liza Minelli’s character I found annoying, and because it’s impossible to take Michael York seriously as an actor. The musical scenes at the Kit Kat Club were well-staged, although Joel Grey’s emcee was creepily over-the-top. One of All That Jazz‘s strengths was its meta-fictionality, the fact it was a film about making a film, based quite heavily on Fosse’s own experiences – and the final extended dance sequence was the perfect capstone to the high-intensity story which had preceded it. Cabaret, on the other hand, is a straightforward drama enlivened by musical numbers, and not even Minelli, the movie’s setting or its score lifted it for me above other films of its ilk. All That Jazz rightly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’m less convinced Cabaret does.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 681