Let it not be said I don’t watch a variety of films, as this post should demonstrate. Okay, half are from the US, but from the 1930s and 1990s and the current decade… and the last is a spoof a 1970s exploitation film…
Animal Crackers, Victor Heerman (1930, USA). There were two films on one Blu-ray disc I was sent from this collection, and I wasn’t especially impressed by the first, The Cocoanuts (see here). But I had at least heard of Animal Crackers; if someone had asked me to name a Marx Brothers films, it’s one of four titles I could have given. And, after all that, I liked it even less than The Cocoanuts. It’s based on a musical play of the same title, which also starred the Marx Brothers. Groucho plays a renowned explorer who has been invited as guest of honour to a weekend party at the house of a wealthy socialite. An art collector, also invited, plans to unveil a painting he has recently acquired by a famous French rococo painter as a treat for the guests. Cue Groucho insulting host and guests, a running joke in which two groups of people try to steal the painting and replace it with a copy, leading to total confusion over which is the original, and a mildy amusing gag in which Chico asks Harpo for a “flash” (he means a torch, but the gag wouldn’t have worked if he’d said flashlight) and Harpo pulls out a succession of incorrect items – a fish, a flush, a flute… Given their stature, I’ve been surprised at how unimpressed I’ve been by the Marx Brothers films I’ve seen so far. I’ll keep them on my rental list, and hope they improve.
Raising Cain, Brian De Palma (1992, USA). I don’t get De Palma. I get that he makes thriller films, and quite effective ones… but they’re so, well, rubbish. I mean, they’re not in the least bit plausible or convincing, although they’re presented with an absolutely straight face, impressively straight faces by the cast in fact. In Raising Cain, John Lithgow plays twins, one of whom is a child psychologist who needs volunteers for his pioneer child psychologist father’s experiments in Norway… and so ends up kidnapping a kid from a playground, with the help of his twin, who is, well, evil. Except they’re not twins. There’s only one of them, and he has multiple personalities. Lithgow also plays the father, who turns up halfway through the movie. And he’s like some sort of Mengel figure, but in child psychology. And it turns out he deliberately gave his son multiple personality disorder because reasons. It was all very silly, even if it started out quite well – which is something De Palma’s films do, I seem to recall. I don’t remember why I put this one on my rental list, but at least I won’t have to watch it again. Meh.
Crisis, Ingmar Bergman (1946, Sweden). According to my records, I’ve now seen 34 films by Bergman, which makes him my second most-watched director after Hitchcock. (The figures look like this for the top ten: 1. Hitchcock (44), 2. Bergman (34), 3. Herzog (33), 4. Sokurov (28), 5. Jennings (27), 6. Godard (25), 7. Lang (23), 8. Preminger (22), 9. Ozon (21) and 10. Hawks (19).) Crisis is actually the first film Bergman directed. He also wrote the screenplay. And it’s very, well, Bergman-esque. A young woman in a small village finds herself torn between her foster mother, a piano teacher, and her real mother, the glamorous owner of a beauty salon in the city… Not to mention exploring her own power over the young men of the village. The bulk of the film seems to be about generational conflicts, with the young people of the village, egged on by Jack, a dodgy friend of the young woman’s real mother. At a recital, where all the elders of the village are gathered, Jack kicks off an impromptu jazz party in the next room, and incenses all the village worthies. Bergman spreads his conflict widely – across generations, city versus village, men versus women… For all that it was his first film, Crisis feels like a solid piece of Bergman work. But then Bergman wasn’t new to drama, having been involved with film-making since 1941. Even so, that demonstrates a notable talent, which he more than demonstrated over the next fifty years. Ingmar Bergman is not just a giant in Swedish film, but globally. It’s a shame he’s considered a bit fringe by most Anglophone cinema-goers.
Taipei Story, Edward Yang (1985, Taiwan). This is the last of the films on the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2, which includes DVD and Blu-ray (sadly, region A) copies of six movies, from the Philippines, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Turkey and Taiwan. Having now seen several – well, three – of Yang’s films, and having thought all three of them excellent, I think I have a handle on his film-making. His films are about people trying to make sense of their lives in Taiwan. In Yi Yi (see here), it’s initiated by the preparations for a marriage. In Taipei Story, it’s a young woman and her relationship with her boyfriend, an ex-baseball player, whose finances are precarious. Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose films I love, plays the male lead, the female lead is a Taiwanese pop star who ended up marrying Yang. There is something about Yang’s films that appeals greatly – and not just to me, judging by the plaudits he has received. They seem almost documentary-like in their starkness, a likeness only heightened by their use of real locations, rather than sets, and handicams. In fact, on reflection, one of the appeals of Chinese and Taiwanese cinemas, especially sixth generation Chinese cinema, is its lack of soundstage footage and the fact much of it is location shooting. Hitchcock was a master of soundstage shooting, and I do love it in my 1950s melodramas, but Taiwanese and Chinese cinemas’ seeming insistence on less artificial staging is very much in its favour. I don’t know enough about the cinema tradition in the two countries to know if this was an artistic choice, or a result of the constraints on film-making in the country, government or otherwise – but The Goddess, made in 1934, was plainly made on a set, although that was a world away historically and politically; on the other hand, Jia Zhangke’s first three films were made illegally as he did not have government permission… None of which is entirely relevant. Anyway, Taipei Story is indeed excellent, and I plan to watch more of Yang’s films.
The Love Witch, Anna Biller (2016, USA). I want to make a film, I know, I’ll make a pitch-perfect spoof of a 1970s exploitation B-movie… I’m not sure it’s a thought process I’d have followed, had I the talent, skills and resources to make a feature film – although I can think of many bad films I’d like to remake (sf ones, of course). But I can also think of a number of sf novels I’d sooner adapt, rather than remake or reboot an earlier film… And I think my first choice for such a novel would be AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, a hackity mess of California noir and pulp sf, and for which I have a completely unjustifiable love… And okay, I guess I see why Biller made The Love Witch. And it’s so beautifully done you’d swear you were watching a 1970s movie – except, that is, for the feminist lecture in the middle. Which is well deserved, I might add. Because it’s all very well aping the forms of 1970s exploitations cinema, but aping the sensibilities requires a tone-deafness to present day society that is, well, strictly Hollywood. Biller, happily, is not Hollywood. This may be a note-perfect spoof of a 1970s film but it’s also a 2017 film and that’s undeniable. I watched The Love Witch expecting a guilty pleausure and ended up becoming a fan of Biller.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Tony Richardson (1962, UK). I picked this up from a charity shop for £1.99, which isn’t bad for a dual-format BFI release. I’d certainly heard of the film before, and while Tony Richardson was not a name I knew particularly well – see Joseph Andrews here – my knowledge of the film was enough to lead to high expectations… which it failed to meet. Tom Courtenay plays a youth – although he looks his age, twenty-five, rather than the youth he’s supposed to be – who is sent to a borstal, Ruxton Towers. The borstal’s governor spots that Courtenay is a good runner, and so encourages him. The film ends with the borstal boys running against the pupils from a nearby public school (for non-British readers, that’s a private school). Their best runner is James Fox. Courtenay beats him, but refuses to cross the finish line. Throughout the film, Courtenay’s life is told in flashbacks. He lived in Nottingham – so it’s very much Saturday Night, Sunday Morning territory (also adapted from an Alan Sillitoe novel) – and was arrested for stealing a cashbox from a bread van. I’d expected more of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which is often held up as a classic of 1960s UK cinema, especially its kitchen-sink realism side. But it all felt a bit put-on, like a cross between a BBC play for today and a Northern soap opera. Meh.
1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 885