It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Moving pictures 2017, #16

What was that about Hollywood films? I seem to have been ignoring them quite successfully of late…

Rosetta, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne (1999, Belgium). I think in retrospect I like the idea of the films of the Dardennes Brothers more than I like their actual films. They make very personal movies and I agree totally with that, ones that often use handheld cameras and a lot of improvisation by the cast… But the stories they tell often seem stretched beyond their natural length. Rosetta is a case in point. The title refers to a young woman in a Belgian town, who loses her job, and reacts violently. She is, in fact, desperate for work, because she lives in a trailer park and has an alcoholic mother. She lands a job at a waffle – gauffre – baker, but loses that when a profligate son decides he needs a job. So she shops her one friend, a waffle seller who had been making some money on the side with his own waffles, so she can have his job. This is an unpleasant film populated with unpleasant characters, and the title character’s blindness to the moral expediency of her own actions is treated so flatly it’s hard to tell what lesson the Dardenne brothers expect the viewers to take. To a European audience, it’s clearly a condemnation, but I wonder if it plays the same in other parts of the world? And I wonder if such subtlety serves any useful purpose…  Except, belabour the point so unsympathetic audiences will get it and you risk alienating your natural audience. Having said that, I suspect I fall firmly within the demographic the Dardennes expect to appeal to, but I’ve yet to see one of their films I can really take to heart. Rosetta is a good film, but not one to love.

Mississippi Mermaid, François Truffaut (1969, France). I’d not expected like this. Although Truffaut was one of the mainstays of the Nouvelle Vague, I’ve never really had all that much time for him as a director – despite loving his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. But then I watched his Tirez le pianiste and revised my opinion… Even so, Mississippi Mermaid was a surprise: a commercial film that actually really wasn’t that commercial. Truffaut may not have been as interesting a director as Godard, but when he was in love with his cast – as he plainly is with Deneuve, and possibly also Belmondo, in this movie – at least he only shows them to advantage rather than allowing them to completely derail his story. Having said that, the story of Mississippi Mermaid isn’t all that plausible. A rich plantation owner on Réunion Island has arranged a marriage with a woman whom he knows only from her letters. The woman takes a ship to the island. Except she doesn’t arrive. Instead, Deneuve claims to be the blushing bride-to-be, explaining that she’d sent a photo of a friend in order to better assess Belmondo’s intentions. They marry, they’re very much in love, but she often seems to contradict information she gave in her letters. Then she cleans out his bank accounts. She was a fake. He sets a private investigator on her trail, but some time later inadvertently bumps into her. They rekindle their relationship. But then the PI turns up, and refuses to let it lie as Deneuve was responsible for several crimes. So Belmondo kills him. The scenery is quite impressive – parts of the movie were actually filmed on Réunion Island. But the two leads shine in their roles, and Deneuve is on particularly fine form. It’s a dumb story that should not convince, but Deneuve and Belmondo carry it effortlessly. It’s no surprise’the film was a box office hit in France. And yet, for all its commercial cinema credentials, it refuses to obey the form – it’s over-long (123 minutes!), it can’t decided if its protagonists are heroes or anti-heroes, and it’s not sure if it’s a thriller or a warped romance. I really liked it.

The Hourglass Sanatorium, Wojciech Has (1973, Poland). I watched Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript last year and thought it astonishingly good, but I’m also sure few directors manage more than one such film. The Saragossa Manuscript – which I’m now glad I didn’t buy, despite wanting to, as it’s included in one of the Martin Scorceses Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – is a series of very cleverly nested stories, and The Hourglass Sanatorium uses a similar structure while also tying it to the ravings of a mad protagonist, so it’s not really clear what is what or what it means throughout the film’s 119 minutes. I tweeted while watching it that it was a film to generate nightmares, and while it may not have done it that particular night, it’s very definitely a film filled with nightmarigh imagery. A man visits his dying father in a sanatorium, but nothing is as it seems – not the country he travels through, nor the sanatorium itself. The fears of his childhood are made manifest, and yet none of it is really explained. The film is apparently an adaptation of a 1937 short story collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz, and the fact it’s based on a collection likely explains the somewhat episodic nature of the film. None of which actually detracts from it. The Hourglass Sanatorium is definitely a film that’s going to need repeated rewatchings. I’d also like to see more by Has.

Killer of Sheep*, Charles Burnett (1978, USA). I’m happy to admit I’d never have watched this film if it had not been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’m equally happy to confess I’d have missed out otherwise. I am, in fact, surprised the film is not better known. It was shot in the late 1970s in the Watts district of Los Angeles, but wasn’t actually released until 2007. Because the film-makers didn’t have enough money to secure the rights to music used in the film. Those music rights cost $150,000. The film was shot for $10,000 (around $38,000 in 2016 dollars). It is, it must be said, an excellent soundtrack, but it does help illustrate the strangehold the big media companies have on creative content. Killer of Sheep has no plot as such, it’s just a series of short vignettes set in and around Watts, with an amateur cast. It’s not a documentary because it tries to make its point – the life of working-class blacks in LA – through dramatised incidents, which often works better than a documentary. In order to persuade the viewer of its argument, a documentary needs a narrative – and some documentary makers are excellent at creating narrative, like Adam Curtis or Patrick Keiller. Another methiod is to present a sympathetic vierwpoint character, or more than one, a technique used by Joshua Oppenheimer in The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. Old style, of course, was to present facts as if building an argument – cf Hotel Terminus, The Thin Blue Line… Patricio Guzmán, on the other hand, presents two arguments, and it is the parallels between them which make his point. But making a drama of a situation has the benefit of allowing the director to control their narrative to an extent not possible with archive footage  (well, unless you’re Aleksandr Sokurov…). Killer of Sheep makes its point emphatically, and it does it with actors and staged stories. Definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

To Kill This Love, Janusz Morgenstern (1972, Poland).Morgenstern is pretty much unknown outside Poland. His Wikipedia page is smaller than my own, and there’s not even a link to his oeuvre on imdb.com. As far as I can determine, he directed a lot of television work, which no doubt accounts for the televisual look and feel of this film (although it is something I have noted previously about several Polish films of the 1970s). A young couple seem suited for each other, but their relationship runs far from smoothly – she is a nurse but too squeamish for some of the tasks she must perform, and he ends up in a relationship with an older woman. To be honest, not much in this film sticks in memory. It felt like a kitchen-sink drama, Polish style, and although the film justifiably made a star of female lead Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak, it’s a thin takeaway from a film that incorporates so much human drama – perhaps too much in places. It’s a movie that’s going to require a rewatch, so I’m especially glad it’s part of the box set I bought.

East Palace, West Palace, Zhang Yuan (1996, China). Amazon started taking the piss a bit for a few weeks, and sent me a Chinese film every week, It’s almost like they were reading my tweets… It’s true the Sixth Generation of Chinese directors, and later, have produced some of the consistently best films of the last few decades, and I’m more than happy to explore their output… But I also treasure variety in my viewing, and a constant diet of Chinese films, no matter how good, can get as wearying as a constant diet of films from any other nation (wait, most people watch US films all the time… what am I saying?). East Palace, West Palace refers to a park in Beijing frequented by gay men, who go there to pick up sexual partners. A police raid results in several of them being taken prisoner. One particular police officer takes one to his office and tries to get him to admit to his “behaviour” – homosexuality was apparently not a crime at the time the film is set, although that didn’t stop the police rounding them up every now and again. And, although it feels like a cliché – the gay man tells his the police officer his life story and so the police officer falls for the gay man – it never feels like one as the film progresses. Partly it’s because the flashback sequences are so well-staged, and partly it’s because the way the film drops into fantasy at the end, with the gay man dressing in drag and so seducing the police officer, with it all feeling like a metaphorical treatment without undermining the emotional content. I’ve watched a lot of contemporary Chinese films recently, but I can’t begrudge that because they’ve all been excellent films. True, I’ve become a fan of Jia Zhangke and Zhao Liang, but it’s not that much of a stretch to say that China’s Sixth Generation, and later, of film directors has resulted in the strongest national cinema so far of the twenty-first century.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 857


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Moving pictures, #26

MOAR MOVIES…

saragossaThe Saragossa Manuscript*, Wojciech Has (1965, Poland). Imagine the Arabian Nights set in eighteenth-century Spain but with a Polish cast speaking Polish throughout, and you might get some of the flavour of The Saragossa Manuscript. The film is based on an actual book, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, allegedly by Count Jan Potocki, originally published in 1805, although the book was added to in later years, bits were lost, and even the complete contents are not entirely certain. A plot summary would take up a lot of bandwidth, chiefly because it consists of stories nested within stories nested within stories, to such an extent it’s no longer clear which is the framing narrative. Mostly it’s based on the adventures of a Spanish nobleman in the eighteenth century, as written down in the aforementioned manuscript, which is discovered by a pair of officers from opposite sides in Zaragoza during the Napoleonic Wars. The first half of the film seems to consist of the hero of the story, an ancestor of one of the officers, being enchanted by ghosts and then waking up under a set of gallows; but in the second half, the stories become even more inter-nested, and the film begins to get much more interesting. So much so that by the end of it, I quite fancied having a copy of it. Wikipedia claims “multiple viewings of the film are recommended in order to comprehend the plot”, although I didn’t find it that hard to follow (once, that is, I’d realised it aped the Arabian Nights’ structure), but I’d still like to watch it again. Recommended.

first_manFirst Man into Space, Robert Day (1959, UK). I have no idea why I put this on my rental list – I’m guessing it’s because of the title. I’m not sure I’d describe it as “Best of British” as the cover claims, given that it’s set in the US, was filmed partly in the US, and features a mostly US cast hardly makes it especially British. But it was produced by a UK company and filmed by a British director. An astronaut pilots a rocket-plane into space, encounters some weird cosmic storm, and crashes back on Earth transformed into a monster… and promptly goes on a rampage. It’s fairly typical B-movie nonsense of the period, of course, although interesting inasmuch as the rocket-plane was the very real X-1, and stock footage of X-1 flights was used (at least for the in-atmosphere bits). True, the cockpit as depicted in the film bore no resemblance to the real X-1’s, and the X-1 never reached Mach 2.5 or flew out of the atmosphere (it wasn’t until the X-15 that either of those happened – and it held speed and altitude records for decades). I think the actual last flight of the X-1 captured on film was an appearance in Josef von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot from 1957 as a Soviet “parasite fighter”, and actually flown by Chuck Yeager for the production. Filming for Jet Pilot took place between 1949 and 1953, but the film wasn’t released until four years later.

dancerDancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier (2000, Denmark). This was a “lucky” charity shop find, and I say “lucky” because I’m still not sure if von Trier is a genius or a complete charlatan. And I’m no nearer knowing after watching this… although I am starting to incline toward to the former. Dancer in the Dark is an unholy mix of made-for-TV true-crime drama and late twentieth-century music video. It’s a musical, but its star is Björk, which means every musical number (and she’s in them all) bears more resemblance to her music than it does musical film or theatre of the time. Now, I still consider Björks’s Post from 1995 a classic pop album – although I no longer own a copy (whereas Chapterhouse’s Blood Music, from 1993, I still own and think is the best shoegazer album ever made). Anyway, Dancer in the Dark… Björk plays a Czech emigré to the US who works in a factory. She is steadily losing her sight, but is saving up her wages to pay for an operation so her son will not suffer the same fate (plots like this DO NOT WORK in the UK, because we have the NHS – THIS IS A GOOD THING, DO NOT KILL THE NHS). Anyway, her boss finds out, she loses her job, she kills her landlord (at his request) and, wouldn’t you know it, she’s arrested and charged with his murder. Then there’s a court case, which owes more to The Thin Blue Line than it does Law & Order. The supporting cast is surprisingly high-powered – and in one notable scene, Björj plays against Catherine Deneuve in a prison visiting booth… and though Björk isn’t actually acting she somehow or other manages to hold her own against Deneuve. Unfortunately, that’s not true of every scene she’s in, and her gauche artlessness often works against the others’ much more polished performances. Still, von Trier is not a director who follows the rules, and you watch his film for that reason as much as for any other. [2]

once_chinaOnce Upon a Time in China*, Tsui Hark (1991, China). Well, there’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and even Once Upon a Time in Mumbai… not to mention many other variations, or the fact that Once Upon a Time in China is actually a series of films, comprising Once Upon a Time in ChinaOnce Upon a Time in China IIOnce Upon a Time in China IIIOnce Upon a Time in China IVOnce Upon a Time in China V, Once Upon a Time in China VI and Once Upon a Time in China and America. I think I’ve seen that last one too. I was, perhaps unfairly, expecting something like Hero or even Hark’s later Seven Swords. But Once Upon a Time in China felt very small-scale, more like those Hong Kong films I used to watch on VCD back in the 1990s. Jet Li plays a martial arts instructor and apothecary who finds himself caught in the middle of a fight between the local milita and a criminal gang, while Americans are trying to move into the country, looking for slave cheap labour to use back home. Some of the fight scenes are cleverly done, particularly the final one in the godown, with the combatants on huge ladders. Of the twenty Chinese films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I’ve now I’ve seen around half. One or two I loved, but most, like this one, seemed little better than those VCDs I used to watch. Oh well.

descendantsThe Descendants, Alexander Payne (2011, USA). This is not actually on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but it’s on the combined list given on listchallenge.com, so it must have appeared on an earlier, or later, edition of the list. I’m baffled as to why. Clooney plays a laid-back Hawaiian lawyer whose wife is in a coma aftet a boating accident. According to the terms of her living will, it’s time to turn off her life-support, so he gathers in their two daughters (and the older one’s dim-witted boyfriend). Also at stake is a large parcel of land on the island – Oahu, I think – which the family wants to sell for a huge amount to a developer. Clooney is not against the sale, but when he learns his wife was having an affair it sort of complicates matters. And… they put this on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Die list? Seriously? It’s a not very interesting family drama about a bunch of unlikeable characters – Clooney is not very good at playing unlikeable, obviously, but he’s so passive in this he’s not very sympathetic. Not worth seeing.

101_dalmatians101 Dalmatians, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman (1961, USA). I’m not sure why I’ve been watching so many Disney films recently. Some are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I found myself admiring a couple of them enough to buy copies for myself… but several have also appeared on Amazon Prime and so I thought I might as well give them a go. I suspect I saw 101 Dalmatians way back in the 1970s when I was a kid, but I have no memory of doing so (much as I didn’t for The Rescuers – see here), and it’s impossible to tell if what I do know of the film is from having seen it or just simply picked up from more than five decades of commentary on it. Anyway, I spent a Sunday afternoon watching 101 Dalmatians… and was surprised to find it a considerably more charming film than I’d expected. I hadn’t known it was set in the UK, although I should have guessed since I sort of knew that Dodie Smith was a British author. And, of course, a lot of successful Disney properties of the 1960s were based on UK books and set in the UK. Rod Taylor (an Australian) was an odd choice for Pongo, the male lead, but he was good in it. Cruella De Vil was somewhat OTT and, while the rest of the cast were standard Disney types, the dogs were good and surprisingly not annoying. And the art was good too. Better than I had expected.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 769