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Moving pictures 2017, #8

This seems to be a mostly classic film post, except for a recent Swedish TV series. One movie is a rewatch (the Herzog), the rest proved not as expected…

adviseAdvise & Consent, Otto Preminger (1962, USA). In the week in which a White Supremacist installed himself in the White House, and his meat puppet president signed whatever Executive Order was put in front of him, well, that probably wasn’t a good week to watch this film, which shows how US democracy works, or doesn’t work. The president has put forward a candidate for secretary of state, Henry Fonda, but it’s an unpopular pick with some of the senators, especially good old boy the senator for North Carolina, Charles Laughton. So Laughton sets out to sabotage Fonda’s acceptance by the Senate. The Party Whip, on the other hand, wants to push it through. So they convene a subcommittee of friendly faces to lightly grill Fonda before accepting his apointment. But Laughton pulls a fast one and introduces a witness who claims Fonda was a communist when at college. Fonda denies it and makes the witness look like a lying fool. He later admits to the president it was true. One of Fonda’s allies subsequently turns on him because Fonda lied under oath, but he’s already being blackmailed over a homosexual affair when in the army. Winston Churchill reputedly said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones”, and there’s also that famous poll run by sf editor Donald A wollheim back in the 1960s in which the government of choice of sf fans was “benevolent dictatorship”. In other words, after more than ten thousand years of civilisation we humans still have no fucking idea how to run a society fairly. And despite repeated attempts at utopia – and I consider there to be two great historical attempts at utopia, neither of which remained utopian beyond a single generation – such experiments only work with small communities. Maybe that’s the answer, maybe total devolution to the lowest possible level, say a couple of hundred people, is the answer. There are those, after all who swear by Athenian democracy, as practised in small village town halls across the US during the first half of the twentieth century. But, Advise and Consent… I watched it because I’m trying to work my way through Preminger’s films, but I wouldn’t otherwise recommend it unless you’re interested in historical treatments of Washington politics.

herzogCobra Verde, Werner Herzog (1987, Germany). If I had to pick the most bonkers of Herzog’s feature films, I’d be hard-pressed to settle on just one. Cobra Verde has its moments, but despite having Klaus Kinski in the lead role, is saner than many of Herzog’s other movies. Cobra Verde is, however, a bigger spectacle than many of Herzog’s other movies. Kinski plays a rancher in nineteenth-century Brazil who loses his property to drought, works at a silver mine but murders his boss when he discovers the workers are being exploited, goes on the run as the eponymous bandit (Green Cobra! Sounds like a superhero), before eventually becoming the slave overseer of a sympathetic sugar baron. When Kinski gets all three of the sugar baron’s daughters pregnant, the baron decides as punishment to send Kinski to west Africa to re-open the slave route (and hoping, of course, that he’ll get killed in the process). But Kinski manages to persuade the king of Dahomey to accept rifles for slaves, sets himself up in a local abandoned castle, and all I can pretty much remember is Kinski doing his thing (apparently to such an extent the cinematographer quit, and Kinski and Herzog’s friendship finally bit the dust). There are massive set-pieces, with what appears to be the populations of small towns running around or dancing or fighting. Despite Kinski’s presence, and the over-the-top staging of some of the scenes, Cobra Verde does feel more sane than many of Herzog’s other films. Not dialled back, by any means, just less insane than what Herzog actually went through to realise some of his other movies. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Cobra Verde, and I suspect Herzog’s films are immune to criticism to some degree. Cobra Verde is a good one, but perhaps not a great one, and I’d rate some of his documentaries above it. But if you call yourself a film fan, you should have all of his movies and documentaries anyway.

goddessThe Goddess*, Wu Yonggang (1934, China). This was a lucky find on eBay. Doubly so. I’d ordered one copy I found there, only to be sent a CD of background music for Chinese restaurants. I complained, they sent me a freepost address label to return it, and gave me a full refund. Fortunately, a second copy popped up on eBay for sale, for two-thirds of the price I’d paid before. So I bought it. Annoyingly, the BFI now plan to release a new restoration in April ths year. Argh. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you. The Goddess is a well-regarded silent film from the early decades of China’s film industry. Wikipedia refers to that period as “China’s cinematic golden age”, but I’m pretty sure the country has been having another golden age for the last couple of decades – see Jia Zhangke, Zhao Liang, Wang Xiaoshuai and Diao Yinan, among many others. The Goddess is also known as one of the last films by Ruan Lingyu, one of the most popular actresses of her day (and who committed suicide at the age of 24 in 1935). I tracked down a copy of The Goddess because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although I do like many silent films… but The Goddess, to be honest, felt much like the other silent films I’d seen. The setting and cast were, of course, Chinese, but the story itself was one that transcends nations. And the treatment of the story, and the way it was framed, seemed much in line with other silent dramas from other countries. There was no sense of vision, such as you’d get from directors like Carl Theodor Dreyer or FW Murnau – see The Passion of Joan of Arc or Nosferatu – although Ruan Lingyu’s talent was plain to see. I don’t know where The Goddess sits in the history of Chinese cinema – Ruan made over two dozen films before The Goddess, and Wu directed a further eleven films (his last in 1980) after The Goddess, his debut. I suspect there are more important films than The Goddess, but I also suspect  any better candidates have either been lost or are unknown in the US. Which is a shame.

seventh_victimThe Seventh Victim*, Mark Robson (1943, USA). There are some odd choices on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, and not just because they’re films I don’t care for, or, while good, don’t seem good enough to be one of the 1001 best films ever. But there are also those films which just aren’t all that good or innovative or important, so why are they on the list? Like The Seventh Victim. Which is a B-movie. A young woman at a residential school is told that her fees have not been paid for several months, and attempts to her contact her older sister, her guardian, in New York have failed. So the woman goes looking for her sister herself – and encounters a mystery. No one has seen her sister for weeks, her cosmetics business is now owned by an other woman, and the sister apparently rented a room above an Italian restaurant which she never used… and which contains only a noose hanging from the ceiling and a chair. It turns out that the sister had been recruited into a Satanic cult – although they’re presented more like Freemasons than the Hellfire Club – but told her husband about them and so broke one of the cult’s laws. Which is punishable by death. So she’s been hiding out, with the help of her psychiatrist. And that’s about it. It’s all very intense and earnest, but the Satanists aren’t in the slightest menacing. The sister’s disappearance adds a noir feel, but that collapses once the actual plot is revealed. There are a couple of earnest monologues on the sort of psychological claptrap Hollywood B-movies loved to lard their films with back in the 1940s and 1950s, but none of it is convincing or insightful. The Seventh Victim is entertaining enough, but it’s no more than a B-movie, and it certainly doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

jordskottJordskott (2015, Sweden). I found this in a charity shop, misread its price tag and thought it an excellent bargain, but could hardly refuse to buy it when I got to the till. It was still cheap, however. And I’m glad I bought it, because it proved to be pretty good. It starts off as a Nordic crime series, and then turns into something more like Grimm. Eva is a crisis negotiator with the Piketen special operations police task force in Stockholm – in fact, the first episode opens with her trying to persuade a man armed with a shotgun to give up his hostage, his wife. Afterwards, she learns that her father has died, and so takes a leave of absence and heads to her home town of Silverhöjd. She has not returned there since her daughter, Josefina, disappeared in the forest surrounding the town seven years before. Eva was also estranged from her father. Shortly after her arrival, a young boy goes missing, and she sees a link between his disappearance and that of her daughter. Then another young child goes missing. Eva is heir to Thörnblad Cellulosa, a logging and mining company, which owns much of the forested land around Silverhöjd, and it is the company’s operations in the forests which has led to the kidnappings. It’s all to do with a pact signed in the eighteenth century between Eva’s ancestor and the mysteroious race which lived in the forest. But, Eva’s father, and now the acting CEO, want to mine the area because silver has been discovered underneath it. Eva’s daughter mysteriously returns, but has been infected with a parasite which is slowly taking over her body. It’s this parasite the title refers to – and when “fed” properly, it gives its host heightened senses and much greater strength and endurance. Because it seems there are group of people with this parasite who help protect the various creatures from Swedish folklore which live among humans. The plot lost it a bit toward the end, when a single character starts pushing everyone toward the worst possible end, and Eva’s decision to turn her back on it all felt out of character. I’d also liked to have learnt more about the secret society with the parasite, but perhaps they’re saving that for a sequel (although none has been made so far). The unexpected mix of Nordic crime and Swedish folklore went well together, despite the odd bit that was a little too hard to swallow. Good stuff. And if you see a copy going in a charity shop near you, it’s definitely worth shelling out for.

50_cubanStrawberry and Chocolate, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabío (1994, Cuba). This is the second of two films on the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set by Gutiérrez, and the last-but-one film he made. Ill health forced him to enlist the help of a friend as co-director. Although released 1994, Strawberry and Chocolate is set in 1979. The lead character, David, is a student. He stops for an ice cream at a café, and is approached by a gay man, Diego, who tries to chat him up. When Diego reveals he has some hard-to-find foreign books at his apartment, David agrees to accompany him home. Diego is hoping for more, and the two become friends – but nothing more – and David learns about life after the revolution, as seen by someone on the fringes of society. David’s homophobic room-mate, on the other hand, sees the friendship as a chance to investigate Diego and his circle of anti-revolutionary friends, and so denounce them. There’s something astonishingly cheerful about this film, although it does quite emotional in places. The two main leads – and the female lead, Nancy, one of Diego’s neightbour, and who David ends up in a relationship with – are all likeable and well-played. Gutiérrez, known to his friends as Titón, was a film-maker in the New Latin American Cinema, which I think is a sort of umbrella term which includes Brazil’s Cinema Novo. New Latin American Cinema was, as Wikipedia put it, “largely concerned with the problems of neocolonialism and cultural identity”, and put the social usefulness of cinema ahead of artistic considerations such as cinematography or three-act stories or storybeats. It’s certainly true that cinema is a powerful tool in that respect; it’s equally true that most Western audiences appear to prefer brainless spectacle. But even then, there are ways of effecting social change without writing in-your-face social drama. Strawberry and Chocolate is a charming drama, and, to be fair, some of its social concerns are over my head as I’m unfamiliar with Cuban history and society – but it makes an effort. And so few Hollywood movies do. They just re-iterate and valourise and normalise the same old right-wing bullshit that has turned the second decade of the twenty-first century into a copy of the fourth decade of the twentieth century. Art has meaning and cinema is an art. And on the strength of Strawberry and Chocolate, and Guttiérrez’s earlier Memories of Underdevelopment, I’m going to try and see more of his films.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 849


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Moving pictures 2017, #5

I’d say this time it was an odd mix of movies, but I’m pretty sure that applies to most of the film posts I’ve been sticking up here…

4_months4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu (2007, Romania). After being embarrassed by a Romanian friend at not having seen any films from his country, I’ve now seen three in the space of a couple of months. And I’d be hard-pressed to pick the best of those three. It’s not only that all three are excellent films – the other two, for the record, were 12:08 East of Bucharest and The Death of Mr Lazarescu – but they all tell stories of importance: about the collapse of the Ceauşescu regime, the pressure the Romanian public health system finds itself under, and, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Ceauşescu regime’s handling of abortion. (And no, I don’t consider abortion a sensitive or offensive topic, I consider the choice a right all women should have; on the day I can grow a foetus inside me, then I’ll be qualified to decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in the 1980s. A student at university is pregnant and needs to have an abortion. But it is illegal in Romania. She enlists the help of her room-mate, and the two track down someone who is willing to do it secretly for money. He gives them a series of instructions. They manage to screw them up – they book a room in the wrong hotel, they don’t have enough money, they lie about how long the woman has been pregnant… However, while the abortionist’s increasingly offensive demands on the two young women are, well, offensive, what is also scary about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the invasive control the Ceauşescu regime had on the daily lives of Romanians. The Ceauşescus were overthrown in 1989 – I was in my early twenties then, and remember it on the news. But I’ve never asked my Romanian friends what they remember of it – they’re younger than me, true, but not too young; and they lived it. Movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are important in that they are a window on bad times, and keep the horror of them alive in the hope that no one is daft enough to bring them back. A decade or from now, I suspect there will be a fuckton of films made about the Trump years in the US.

alfredo_garciaBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia*, Sam Peckinpah (1974, USA). This was apparently a critical and commercial failure on its release, but has since become a cult favourite, so much so it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but I’m not convinced any “critical re-appraisal” in the years since 1974 justifies a place on the list. The title character is – off-stage – the preferred heir of a Mexican jefe, but he deflowers the jefe’s daughter and flees when her pregnancy is discovered. The jefe issues the titular order. A pair of, it must be said, somewhat effete US goons stumble across ex-GI bar-piano-player Warren Oates, who happens to know Garcia. Oates decides to try for the reward on Garcia’s head himself, a task made easier when he discovers that Garcia died in a car crash and is now buried in a country graveyard. So, with girlfriend in tow, he heads off to find Garcia’s grave, intending to dig him up, cut off his head, and take it to the jefe to claim the reward. Needless to say, it does not go as smoothly as planned. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is, quite frankly, a B-movie – it looks like a B-movie, it plays like a B-movie. True, I’ve yet to be convinced of the genius of Peckinpah, but I can see why Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia flopped on release. In many respects, it feels like a made-for-TV movie, with its stock footage and stock villains, although it is considerably more graphically violent than any US television network would allow. I think you have to be a fan of a particular type of film, which I am not, as should be blindingly evident from the movies I document in these Moving picture posts, to appreciate something like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or even to hold it in any kind of positive regard. I have watched films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die which I have subsequently purchased for my own collection, and even some where I’ve purchased everything by the director for my own collection. I won’t be doing that for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Even if Arrow have recently released a remastered limited edition Blu-ray of the film…

naked_spurThe Naked Spur*, Anthony Mann (1953, USA). This film isn’t available on DVD in the UK, not for rent or for sale, but fortunately, one evening, while flicking through cable channels I found it playing on TCM… So I watched it. Jimmy Stewart plays a bounty hunter determined to capture murderer Robert Ryan and bring him to justice in Abilene, Kansas. He misrepresents himself as a sheriff to an old prospector and an ex-Cavalry soldier, and the three succeed in capturing Ryan. The four, plus Janet Leigh, the daughter of an old friend of Ryan, who had been with Ryan, set off for Abilene. En route, Ryan does his best to undermine Stewart, break up the group and so engineer his escape. And that’s pretty much it – a bunch of cowboys bitching at each other for 91 minutes. Well, except for the last act, where Ryan does escape but dies crossing a river swollen by floods. There are a lot of Westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I can understand that they’re the closest the US gets to a homegrown mythology, and a handful of Western films are bona fide cinema classics but… I’m not convinced this is one of them. There are Western films which mythologise the landscape, there are Western films which have had their story patterns followed by many other Westerns… And while The Naked Spur certainly puts a novel spin on your average Western story, I don’t think that’s enough – despite the presence of Jimmy Stewart – to make this more than just above average. Perhaps a fan of Western films could explain to me why The Naked Spur is one of the 1001 films a person must see.

satyajit_ray_3The Home and the World, Satyajit Ray (1984, India). And that’s The Satyajit Ray Collection volume 3 box set completed, and while I consider fellow Bengali Ritwik Ghatak a genius film-maker, I’m still unconvinced Satyajit Ray is no more than a very, very good one – albeit considerably more prolific. He is, I suppose, an Ingmar Bergman rather than an Andrei Tarkovsky. Which is not to say that neither Bergman nor Ray did not make superior films. But there is more than just their respective positions in my own mental map of world cinema that the two have in common. Like Bergman, many of Ray’s films are theatrical. This is one of them. It is set almost entirely in the home of a Bengali noble in 1907, just after the 1905 Partition of Bengal. A UK-educated noble tries to introduce Western ideas into his home, and into his dealings with his wife, on his return home. But this opens her up to the fiery independence rhetoric of the nobleman’s best friend… which leads to a romantic triangle between the three. Since the marriage was arranged, the noble allows his wife her emotional freedom… which, of course, because this is how such stories pan out, pushes her back toward her husband. The film is based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, a prolific Bengali writer, who Ray adapted on a number of occasions. I really need to try reading some Tagore. As for the film, it sets up a fascinating situation, but it slowly settles out into a somewhat stereotypical romantic triangle. On the whole, I don’t think this volume 3 has been of as high quality as volume 1… which does make me wonder what volume 2 will be like and why I bought volume 3 before I bought volume 2…

memoriesMemories of Underdevelopment*, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1968, Cuba). I rented this film from Cinema Paradiso, but a week after sending it back, and when it came to write this post, I decided I needed to watch it again. So I had a look on Amazon and discovered it was one of four films in Mr Bongo’s 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set. The box set also included Lucía, which I already own, but that was no problem, I could give my copy away. So I ordered 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution… The following morning, I remembered I had 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution on my LoveFilm (ie, Amazon) rental list. Oops. I’d better remove it. Too late! As luck would have it, they’d dispatched a film from the box set with my next set of rental DVDs. And it just happened to be… Memories of Underdevelopment. Oh well. Both copies of the film arrived on the same day, but I watched the one I’d bought. And… on second viewing I thought it much better than I had first time around. This has happened before with some of the movies I’ve watched – the appreciating it more on second viewing thing, not the buying only to be sent it on rental as well thing, although to be honest the latter has happened once or twice before too. Anyway, Memories of Undevelopment follows an intellectual, a writer, as he tries to survive and make sense of the new Cuba post-revolution. It does this by focusing on his relationships with women – interspersed with some historical commentary and a long sub-plot about a friend who inherited a furniture store. As the film opens, Sergio’s wife has left him and fled to Miami to escape the revolution. Sergio has stayed. He is, to put it bluntly, something if a lecherous pig. He flirts with his young housekeeper, Hanna, and has a sexual fantasy about her adult baptism. He then meets aspiring actress Elena and seduces her. But her family are far from happy about this, especially since Elena is only sixteen (or seventeen). Sergio promises to marry her, but doesn’t so, he is arrested and charged with rape. I’m still not sure if Sergio’s relationships are intended to be allegories – Alea was apparently pro-revolution, and Memories of Underdevelopment is certainly critical of Cuba’s Spanish occupiers. Which does mean it’s a little hard to tell where the film’s sympathies lie. A negative stand seems too obvious a reading, but then a broadly positive critical reading doesn’t seem to fit either – in terms of the film’s response to the Cuban revolution, that is. Perhaps it needs another rewatch…

classic_bergmanDreams, Ingmar Bergman (1955, Sweden). Havng now seen four of the five films in this “Classic Bergman” box set I’m starting to wonder what “classic Bergman” actually is. After all, his most-celebrated film is The Seventh Seal, and that was made only two years after this one. And Bergman’s first film appeared in 1946 (he did not direct 1944’s Torment, only wrote the screenplay), and the earliest film in this box set is… well, 1946’s It Rains on Our Love, but the latest is 1958’s So Close to Life… Anyway, in Dreams, the owner of a model agency travels from Stockholm to Gothenburg for a commission with her most popular model, Doris. The model finds herself a sugar daddy in Gothenburg, while the agency owner has hooked up with an ex-lover (who turns out to be married). The film has all the ingredients of a typical Bergman film, and manages them all in a typically Bergman-esque fashion. I’ve said in the past that watching a Bergman film is like reading a story by a classic literary author. It’s a good story, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be thinking about it for weeks afterwards. And this is one of Bergman’s films like that – which is why, I guess, it’s in a “Classic Bergman” box set, and not given a premier release, like Smiles of a Summer Night, also released the same year. True, an also-ran from Bergman is always going to be worth seeing, but this entire box sert has shown itself to be more for Bergman fans than cineastes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 846