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.
Enthusiasm: 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 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 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 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 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.
Crime 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