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Moving pictures 2018, #6

I don’t seem to have been making much traction with the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list recently. True, there’s a film from the list – Alphaville – in this half-dozen, but it was a rewatch as I first saw the film many years ago.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, Alain Resnais (2012, France). It had never occurred to me the director of Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour had made films into the twenty-first century, but after stumbling across Muriel (see here), I looked further, discovered Resnais’s last film was released in 2014… and added a bunch of those available to my rental list. And the first to be sent proved to his last-but-one film, Vous n’avez encore rien vu, with its dumb Bachman Turner Overdrive title. Happily, the title is the only dumb thing about it. A famous playwright invites a dozen or so actors with whom he has worked during his career to his funeral. The actors are all billed as themselves. On arrival at the late man’s house, they are sat in front of a screen and asked to watch a performance of the playwright’s most famous play, Eurydice, put on by a young theatre collective. And as the collective act out the play, so those at the wake begin to act out the parts they took in past celebrated stagings of the play. For some of these scenes, Resnais lays in CGI scenery, intended I think to represent the scenery of the play when those actors were in it. The play-within-a-play has been around for a long time – Shakespeare even used it in Hamlet – but making the cast of the main play complicit in the staging of the embedded play is a new twist. And it’s cleverly done. Resnais apparently had another person direct the version of Eurydice watched by the cast, so that it would be different in style to his own direction. Having only seen three films by Resnais prior to this one, the distinction was lost on me. But never mind. A good film, worth seeing.

Level Five, Chris Marker (1997, France). Marker these days is probably best known for La jetée, an experimental film from 1962 which was freely adapted as Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys in 1995. Marker actually made a shitload of films, most of them short and most of them experimental. Level Five is feature-length, at 106 minutes, but very much experimental. It has a single cast member, Catherine Belkhodja, who views the world through a variety of computer screens. The Wikipedia plot summary refers to these last as “virtual reality”, but they’re not. And even for 1997, the computer graphics are crude. If anything, they remind me a little of Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World from 1991, which I first saw in 1992 or 1993 and thought a good presentation of the future at the time. Viewed from the twenty-first century, it’s not, of course. And Level Five feels somewhat similar in that regard. It’s not just the software or the hardware on display, but also the geopolitics, the social concerns… For all that it’s trying to be prophetic – deliberately so, it makes a feature of its analyses – Level Five seems to miss far more often than it hits. And having the film consist solely of either close-ups on Belkhodja or the computer graphics she is either watching or discussing doesn’t exactly make for gripping drama. I suspect this film needed another watch or two, but unfortunately it wasa rental and it’s gone back. Ah well.

McLintock!, Andrew V McLaglen (1963, USA). Yes, that really is John Wayne spanking Maureen O’Hara on the cover art. And while art like that, and the offensive tagline, “He tamed the Wild West… but could he tame her?” might have been acceptable in 1963 (in some parts of society), they are no longer (Presidents Club notwithstanding). Even worse, a quick google shows that the film posters of the time used the same image, along with equally offensive taglines like “He’s a tender loving guy!” and “Wallops the daylight out of every Western you’ve ever seen!”. The sad thing is, is that for half of its length, McLintock! is actually an amusing comedy Western. McLintock! was a Wayne project, the first of many movies he used to promote his conservative Republicans values – although present-day Republicans may consider those values dangerously liberal in some respects. Wayne developed the script, he hand-picked the director, one of his sons played the young male lead, another son produced, and he insisted on a supporting role for Yvonne De Carlo because her husband had been injured filming How The West Was Won. The film is set in the town of McLintock, named for Wayne’s character, a local cattle baron, who owns pretty much everything in sight. His wife, Maureen O’Hara, left him two years earlier to live in New York, but now she is back – because their daughter, Stefanie Powers, is about to return from college. Meanwhile, homesteaders have arrived in McLintock, ready to settle land they’ve been given on nearby Mesa Verde. The US government has also released the chiefs of the local Comanche tribe, only for a locally-held commission to tell the tribe they must leave their land. All this is good drama, and Wayne’s character is even-handed, if overly paternalistic, and keen to see everyone is treated equally, Comanche or homesteader. But not the women. Twice in McLintock! women are spanked using coal scuttles, and on both occasions such disciplining is seen as both normal and required. In fact, Wayne and O’Hara are at loggerheads for much of the film, until he spanks her. And then she turns all loving and decides not to return to New York. Bah.

Alphaville*, Jean-Luc Godard (1963, France). Although I’d seen ten of the thirteen films in this collection before, for some reason I saved Alphaville to watch last – despite working my way through the others chronologically. I think perhaps it was because I’d last seen it nearly  a decade ago and perhaps felt I’d not appreciated it as much as I should have done… I don’t know. But I do know, however, that I liked it a great deal more this time. Eddie Constantine plays a secret agent posing as a jurnalist who visits Alphaville from the “Outer Countries”. It takes a while before his purpose there is clear, but he has been sent to bring back Professor Nosferatu, now known as Professor von Braun, the inventor of Alphaville and the Alpha-60 computer which rules it (it was not unusual in 1950s and early 1960s sf to assign AI-like capabilities to very large computers). Constantine meets up with Anna Karenina, von Braun’s daughter, and she gives him entry to the sections of Alphaville society his (fake) journalistic credentials cannot provide. None of Alphaville is filmed on sets. Godard made no effort to build a future city – and Alphaville‘s universe is implied to be galactic and not just planetary. Contemporary Paris provides the backdrop. At the time, some of the buildings used may have appeared futuristic, but now they appear mostly otherworldly, which has more or less the same effect. Some parts of the film haven’t aged so well. The seductresses, for example. Or the execution scene in the swimming pool with the sycnchronised swimmers. But there’s a lot that remains impressive. I especially liked a tracking shot following Constantine and Karenina as they travelled down in a lift, which continued in one take from them entering the lift cabin until they exited the hotel. An excellent film.

Tartuffe, FW Murnau (1925, Germany). I don’t know how many silent films I’ve watched, but I learn something new about cinematic narrative each time I watch one. I suppose I expected silent dramas to be completely different to films with sound, as if the use of intertitles laid a constraint on cinematic narrative which sound had removed from movie-making. And perhaps that’s true to some extent. But it didn’t mean silent cinema was completely unadventurous narratively. As Tartuffe demonstrates. It opens with a venal housekeeper gaslighting her employer so that he leaves his fortune to her and not to his actor grandson. Which the grandson learns on a visit to his grandfather. After being thrown out of the house, the grandson addresses the camera and insists he is not giving up. He returns to the house disguised as an impresario and puts on a private cinema screening for his grandfather and the housekeeper of… Tartuffe, the play by Molière. It’s a simplified version of the play, but the cut-down story is more than adequate to make the grandson’s point. In the film-within-a-film (explicitly so, unlike the Resnais above), Orgon returns from a trip and brings with him a religious man whom he greatly admires: Tartuffe. In fact, he admires him so much he changes every aspect of his life to accommodate Tartuffe. Orgon’s wife, Elmire, however, suspects Tartuffe is a fraud, and sets out to entrap him by seducing him. And she succeeds… I’ve seen several of Murnau’s films, and liked them, so this box set of his early works was a good buy. And a bargain too, as it was cheaper than the individual versions of the films in it.

Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi (2017, USA). I am not a fan of superhero movies. The ones everyone praises, I generally think are terrible. I mean, I’d always liked the Guardians of the Galaxy since first reading them in an Marvel anthology comic back in the 1970s, but the movie wasn’t even based on those Guardians of the Galaxy but a later reboot, and, for all its hype, it was pants. And the sequel was worse. So I had pretty low expectations for Thor: Ragnarok, especially given how forgettable the two previous Thor films were… And yes, I was aware Thor: Ragnarok had been directed by Taika Waititi, a leftfield choice for a MCU film, but I wasn’t convinced the addition of Kiwi humour to MCU bombast would work. But. I was actually entertained. Which was unexpected. Thor: Ragnarok is not a great film by any means, and it’s not entirely sure what it should have been. You have the pure Kirby-vision of the Asgard sections, but the part set on Sakaar feels more like a reject from a Star wars prequel. But the film has a number of good lines and some entertaining comic set-pieces. For example, when Thor is about to leave Dr Strange’s mansion and puts out his hand for Mjolnir and you hear the sound of glass breaking, I laughed out loud. I wasn’t convinced Waititi’s rock-creature deadpan humour worked all the time, but Cate Blanchett did make an excellent villain. I could live without most of the plot, and the final battle on Bifrost went on far too long. I’d certainly describe Thor: Ragnarok as one of the better films in the MCU, although that’s not a hard bar to clear. Perhaps its success might lead Disney to experiment a little more with who they choose to direct their films… What am I thinking? It’s Disney. They’re as corporate as you can get. They’ll either flog their new formula to death, or strangle whatever creativity their chosen director tries to put into their film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895

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