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Moving pictures 2017, #9

A mix of the usual suspects this time around, and it sounds good to say that and mean cinema from countries such as Russia, Germany, Japan and China. It seems I’m actually sticking to one of my New Year resolutions.

man_movie_cameraEnthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Dziga Vertov (1931, Russia). If there are two words which are likely make me buy something I had not otherwise considered purchasing, they are “limited edition”. I’d seen Vertov’s astonishing Man With a Movie Camera a couple of years ago, but hadn’t been that bothered about owning a copy… and then Eureka! decided to release a limited edition dual-format box set of Man With a Movie Camera plus some of Vertov’s other works. So, of course, I had to buy it. On the other hand, it’s also true I treasure the sort of films in this box set, ie, documentaries of other times and other places… and yes, that’s probably a consequence of my love of Sokurov’s films. But I’m also fascinated by films which see cinema as more than just brainless spectacle, and Vertov was a vocal proponent of cinema as a social tool. And of the films in this box set, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donblass is a prime example of the type. It’s pure Stakhanovism – a coal mine in the Don region is determined to beat its quota, and Vertov is there to film them doing it. And, er, that’s it. It’s not a silent film, although the others in the set are. It’s also quite astonishing how crude coal-mining techniques were back in 1930s USSR. Men wielded picks against the coal face, ponies pulled carts of coal from the face to the pit-head. I come from a mining background – my grandfathers all worked down the pit, and although my father joined the Electricity Board when he left school, my uncles all went to work for the NCB. Despite all that, I know little about the actual work of extracting coal from underground, and what little I know of early twentieth-century UK coal-mining comes from, er, DH Lawrence. I suspect Soviet techniques were not all that different, and it’s interesting actually seeing them on the screen. All told, this limited edition box set has proven to be a wise purchase.

lisbon_storyLisbon Story, Wim Wenders (1994, Germany). I stuck this one my rental list thinking it was by Manoel de Oliveira, but it’s actually by Wim Wenders, whose films I’m also happy to watch (although I’ve seen considerably more by Wenders than de Oliveira). But de Oliveira does appear in the film, so blame Amazon rental’s search facility… Although, having said all that, I did enjoy the film. Wenders I find a bit variable, but this was one of his better ones. A German director – the same one, in fact, from Wender’s The State of Things (1982) – asks the sound man from that film to make his way to Lisbon. Which he promptly does. But the director is not there. So the sound man wanders about the city, recording ambient sounds, making friends with the director’s friends (a bunch of kids, mostly, and a string group with a female singer). The philosophy underlying the film, as proposed by the missing director, when he appears, is bollocks… but the film is a mostly sympathetic portrait of its titular city and the characters it finds there, and for that reason it’s watchable and sort of successful. I like many of Wenders’s films, and I’d certainly put him in a list of “100 most interesting directors of the twentieth century”, but… The Million Dollar Hotel? Really? It was so bad. Having said that, it’s a bit unfair to write Wenders off on the basis of one film – and I see from Wikipedia, he’s made nearly 20 films since the aforementioned, none of which I’ve seen. So perhaps it’s time I rectified that. Because Lisbon Story, despite being rented under false pretences, is an enjoyable film.

chungking_expressChungking Express*, Wong Kar-wai (1994, China). This was Wong Kar-wai’s breakthrough film, and, according to Wikipedia was shot in six weeks as if it were a student film. And it shows. Admittedly, I say that having come to Wong’s films first through In the Mood for Love and loving it, and so I can’t help but compare Chungking Express to it. And while I found it a good film, I did wonder why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. Wong deserves to be represented but this isn’t his best film. It’s important in as much as it signals his new direction and aesthetic, but then why not pick a film that is a better representantive of that new aesthetic, such as In the Mood for Love? Chungking Express comprises two stories, both of which revolve around unnamed Hong Kong police officers and their lack of a love life – or rather, the consequences of their lack of a partner and the efforts they go to in order to find one. In the first story, a cop buys a tin of expired pineapple chunks, as you do, on the anniversary of his break-up with his girlfriend, and falls in with a mule for a drug lord. In the second, a cop falls for a young woman who temporarily takes over the fast food outlet from which he buys a “chef’s salad” every night. The film looks like a mix of rushed shots and carefully-framed shots, an aesthetic Wong honed to excellent effect in his later films. The oblique approach to plotting also stood him in good stead in his later films – compare it with Ashes of Time (or even Ashes of Time Redux). Wong is a singular talent, and as such belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but you sometimes have to wonder at the choices from a director’s oeuvre they’ve picked for the list.

late_springLate Spring, Yasujiro Ozu (1949, Japan). Ozu gets to you slowly. You watch one film and then you start watching another, and before you know it you watch more and you become a fan. And yet each film follows a similar plot: a daughter who must be married, and then a slow parade of the reasons why this cannot happen or must happen. And the beauty of Ozu’s films, of the way they are constructed, is that the viewer sympathises with each and every viewpoint. Perhaps it’s just that he builds strong characters on screen, to such an extent you realise how many characters in commercial cinema are little more than ciphers or tags. There’s no point in describing the plot of Late Spring, or indeed any Ozu film, because that’s not the point. They’re not just domestic dramas, they are ur-domestic dramas. They are so rich with detail, they actually transcend drama. Getting lost in an Ozu film is not getting lost in the story but getting lost in the lives of the characters. And that’s not something you can say about many movies. I came to Ozu late, but I’ve come to love his ability to generate drama from the prosaic, the quotidian. The differences between UK society and Japanese society become irrelevant, because Ozu manages to make the viewer care about the situation from the Japanese point of view. And that makes these rare films. I’m collecting all the BFI releases, why aren’t you?

robin_hoodRobin Hood, Wolfgang Reitherman (1973, USA). I’ve seen this named as one of the best, if not the best, of Disney’s animated feature films. So my hopes were high when I slid it into the player. And the opening credits are really quite well done. But I much prefer the Disney films with the clean lines, rather than the more sketched sort of lines of the 1960s and later. But even with that, Robin Hood just seemed… so small a story, with Nottingham depicted as a village, and everything just too small scale for the story as it purported to be. There was some impressive voice talent – or rather, well-known names – in some of the parts, such as Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas, and they were good. But it all felt a bit like an unrelated story that had borrowed the trappings of the Robin Hood legend, without bothering to be all that faithful. So far – and I’ve not seen all of the Disney animated feature films yet – I’d rate them as follows: 1 Sleeping Beauty, 2 Cinderella, 3 101 Dalmatians… and er, I need to watch, or rewatch, more Disney animated features to build up that top five. And no, I don’t count the Pixar films. I’ve still got a number of the classics to watch (or re-watch, albeit the last time I saw them was decades ago as a kid), before I can produce a definitive list. All the same, I’m not expecting Robin Hood to score as highly for me as it does for others. Did I mention that I was born in a town that used to be part of Sherwood Forest, so this legend has always felt like part of my heritage? No? Well, it does. Although that’s only a minor part of the problem. I liked the animal characters, even if it was a little worrying that both Robin and Maid Marion were both foxes (no trans-species love affairs in Disney), and some of the non-native species present in the film didn’t really have much reason for being present. And framing the over-arching narrative as some sort of good-ole-boy southern-USA story felt like appropriation. Not one of Walt’s best.

zhao_liangCrime and Punishment, Zhao Liang (2007, China). I loved Zhao’s Behemoth, which is an astonishing documentary that deserves to be seen by everyone. And, one night, having imbibed a certain amount, I decided I wanted to see more by Zhao but the only films available I could find were in a French-released box set. It had English subtitles, so I bought it. And… it’s pretty grim stuff. There are three films, and none of them makes for cheerful viewing. Crime and Punishment follows a small group of police officers in an impoverished town in north-east China. The people they deal with are poor, often not especially smart, and several are habitual criminals. The police officers are, by turns, arrogant, corrupt, violent, naive and not very smart. There’s a lot of shouting in this film, and several instances where the police openly beat up a suspect they’ve apprehended. But it’s the opening sequence to the film which sticks most in memory, a silent sequence in which the police officers fold up their bedding with military precision until each bed contains only a perfectly-formed cube of duvet. With all the guff you see in the press about China’s powerhouse economy and industrial and technological might, it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the country’s population live in poverty – as is amply displayed in Crime and Punishment – and those who don’t are pretty much indentured labour – as seen in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City and A Touch of Sin (which are, admittedly, not documentaries). I may not have been entirely sober when I clicked “buy” for the Zhao Liang box set, but it proved a worthwhile purchase. Which neatly brings my words on this last film in this post back to my words on the first film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850


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Moving pictures, #53

I think I’m managing a decent balance of countries in my film-viewing – France currently scores highest after the USA and UK (then Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Canada and Sweden…). But I would like to improve it. I’ve found a good source for African films, and emailed them to ask if they deliver to the UK – but no reply yet. Some other nations’ cinemas are much harder to find films… like Albania. It apparently has a thriving film industry, has even produced a handful of festival favourites… but finding copies on DVD is proving difficult. I shall continue to look, however. Meanwhile…

jungle_bookThe Jungle Book, Wolfgang Reitherman (1968, USA). I can remember the first time I saw this film. It was in the gym at the Doha English-Speaking School in Qatar, sometime around 1970 or 1971. (I’m a founding pupil of two English-speaking schools in the Middle East.) We also had an LP of songs from the film, and given I heard the songs so often during my childhood, I may well have confabulated that into multiple viewings of the film. So I was quite keen to watch it again (in contrast to, say, 101 Dalmatians, which I had no firm memories of ever seeing as a kid, but suspected I might have done). And… it was okay. I had expected it to be better than it was. The animation was nowhere near as beautiful as that of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, and while the songs were mostly very memorable… that was all they were. It all felt a bit weak. Which was weird. I couldn’t help comparing it to 101 Dalmations, which I had not expected to like when I saw it a couple of months ago, but found quite charming. I’m not sure where The Jungle Book fits in the Disney canon – I’m not that much of a fan of their films, to be honest, and am only working my way through them out of a sense of completeness (and a vain hope of being blown away again as I was when I watched Sleeping Beauty). At the moment, myself I’d classify The Jungle Book as middling Disney – not great, but not awful; fun, with catchy songs but an unmemorable story.

eccentricitiesEccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, Manoel de Oliveira (2009, Portugal). Among the countries from which I had not seen a film was Portugal. (I can’t find a felicitous way of phrasing that which emphasises the country, but what I mean is: I had never seen a film from Portugal.) So I hunted around on LoveFilm, and found this, Eccentricities of a Blond-haired Girl, directed by Maniel de Oliviera. And… it was good, very good. It felt like a dramatisation of a story by Karen Blixen. Which is a compliment. A man on a train introduces himself to the woman sitting beside him, and then proceeds to tell her his life-story. Cue flashback. And it’s a very Blixen-like story. In the apartment across the street from the man’s office lived a young woman. He fell in love with her, and arranged to meet her. They were drawn to each other and decided to marry. But his uncle, who is his guardian and employer, wouldn’t let him marry, and fired him when he insisted on going ahead with it. In desperation, the man accepted a job from a friend running a plantation on Cape Verde. A few years later, he returned, having made his fortune. He again asked the young woman to marry him, and she accepted. But another friend asked him to stand guarantor to a business venture… but then disappeared with all the cash, leaving the young man penniless once again. He was offered the job in Cape Verde a second time… but managed to reconcile with his uncle and so turned it down. Now, he had his original job back, his uncle would pay for the wedding, everything was working fine… but the fiancée turned out to be a kleptomaniac (hinted at throughout the film) and so he rejected her. At only 64 minutes, this is a pretty economical film. But it has that literary quality with which the best directors can imbue their movies. It feels like an adaptation of a literary story (it is: by Eça de Quierós), it feels like The Immortal Story or Babette’s Feast. Recommended; and I have added more films by de Oliveira to my rental list.

mutinyMutiny on the Bounty*, Frank Lloyd (1935, USA). Some stories seem to become so much a part of Western Anglophone culture there’s no real need to read the book or see the film or watch the play or hear the song… and so it is with Mutiny on the Bounty, in which the crew of an English ship in the late eighteenth century mutiny, set their evil captain and his sycophants adrift in a boat, settled down to a life of ease on a Pacific island, only for the captain to survive a 7,000 mile ocean journey, set the Royal Navy on the mutineers, and so bring them to justice. And the story goes: that Captain Bligh was a total monster, Fletcher Christian was an Everyman hero, and bad luck and circumstances prevented the mutineers from living the fruitful and paradisical lives they deserved. At least, so Hollywood would have you believe. It’s true that history has demonised Bligh, and Hollywood – in this film especially – fixed that version in the public consciousness. But apparently he was a good captain, and Christian was far from the selfless hero played by, in this movie, Clarke Gable. But that’s all by the bye – it’s a Hollywood film, historical accuracy is not in the product description. I had, however, expected to be mostly unimpressed by Mutiny on the Bounty. But it made a surprisingly excellent fist of life aboard an eighteenth-century sailing vessel, and the storm scenes in particular were done well. Not bad.

electraElectra, My Love, Miklós Jancsó (1974, Hungary). This may be one of the most bonkers films I have ever seen. I have seen a number of bonkers films. I have seen all of Jancsó’s films available on DVD in the UK; Jancsó makes bonkers films. But even by his lights, this is an odd one. Now I love the declamatory nature of Jancsó’s films, and I like the continual movement – of the camera, of the cast – that he uses. But even so, Electra, My Love seemed weirder than I was used to from Jancsó. As the title suggests, it’s about Electra, a thorn in the side of the tyrant Aegisthus who had murdered her father, Agamemnon, fifteen years earlier. And the film plays out Electra’s story, as her brother Orestes, believed dead, reappears in disguise, reveals himself, kills Aegisthus, and takes power. But given that this is a Jancsó film… The story takes place in the middle of nowhere, a grassy plain with no evidence of civilisation other than the crude buildings which feature in the film. And while Electra walks about declaiming, there is a cast of several hundred in continual movement about and around her, including men with whips, dwarves with cymbals, naked women and men dancing, marching bands, dancers with sticks, and a giant ball. It’s like watching a Greek myth in interpretative dance with dramatic dialogues on top. It shouldn’t work, it should feel pretentious to the nth degree… But Jancsó’s genius is that he does make it work, that it comes across as a somewhat peculiar staging of the story, but a staging that adds to the story rather than obscures it. Jancsó is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but I count myself a fan.

springSpring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, Kim Ki-duk (2003, South Korea). The title refers to the “seasons” of a monk’s lifetime. He lives in a tiny monastery which sits in the middle of a lake, and at various points in his life, events happen which are documented under the seasons of the title. The Wikipedia entry – see here – has an excellent description of them. I will admit, I am woefully uninformed when it comes to the creed and practices of Buddhism (but then I’ve never read the Bible, Talmud or Qur’an either), so much of the symbolism in this film went straight over my head. Which may be why, despite its often gorgeous cinematography, I think I like Ki-duk’s 3-Iron more – although Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is plainly the better-looking film. But then Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is a film which succeeds because of its photography. The plot starts out as a series of vignettes, and any story-arc feels like something of an after-thought, but the film’s biggest draw, its Buddhist symbology, would be likely lost on all but students of the religion (but then, who catches every reference in a literary novel?). Both 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring were recommendations from David Tallerman, who I believe counts Ki-duk among his favourite directors… and while my tastes usually lie a little closer to home – ie, from India through the Middle East and Africa to Russia and Northern Europe – and my knowledge of Far Eastern cinema is patchy at best, I do think I’d like to see more by this director.

chinoiseLa Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I think I can ditch my Theory of Godard, it’s plainly complete nonsense. It’s not as if I can split out his famous “political” films either, and declare they don’t work for me – because some of them do. I suspect that if there is something in common to the Godard films I like, it’s that his focus in the ones I like seems to be more on experimenting with narrative forms than it is on just his cast. So in Weekend, he told a surreal story; in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, he tried several different narrative forms; and in Détective, he set out to tell a mystery story that could not be parsed in one sitting. But in La Chinoise, it’s all about the cast members monologuing to camera – especially his new wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky – and while its story (it can hardly be called a plot) presages the student revolts of a couple of years later while simultaneously mocking left-wing student politics, it still possesses Godard’s baffling love of US iconography. The end result is not one of his most gripping, although some of the jokes are good, and the overall structure is interesting, if not entirely successful. Back in 2002 (I could have sworn it was a year or two earlier as I seem to remember buying the DVD while in Abu Dhabi, probably from Amazon), but anyway, in that year I saw my first Godard, À bout de souffle. It was also, I think, my first exposure to the Nouvelle Vague. I have never really considered myself a fan of French New Wave cineman, but the more of Godard’s oeuvre I watch, the more I admire him for his body of work and the more of his films I find that I do like. La Chinoise, I think, is currently borderline – but I’d like to watch it again sometime, so who knows…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 808