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 2017, #15

More of the usual – China, Poland. France and Russia. I’m still trying to expand the nations whose films I watch, but I do have my favourite directors…

The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). I’ve been a fan of Jia’s films since first seeing A Touch of Sin, and if the films in Jia’s Hometown trilogy seemed a little disappointing – see here and here and here – something in the description of The World persuaded me it was closer to 24 City and A Touch of Sin and so more likely to appeal. I bought the eureka! dual edition. And so it was – much more like 24 City and A Touch of Sin, I mean. In fact, I think it might be my favourite of Jia’s films. The main character of The World, although any such description is a hostage to fortune in this film, works as “talent” at a Beijing amusement park. The movies opens with her walking along a corridor, demanding loudly if any of her fellow co-workers have a band-aid (plaster). We then see her on stage, as part of some sort of dance routine, with other women in variations on national costume from assorted nations. And Jia mantains that sort of documentary feel to the rest of the movie, as he follows the young woman through the days that follow. There’s no plot as such, just men and women interacting in a weird artificial environment – which is only enhanced by the beautifully sharp cinematography and the strange, but natural, if slightly washed-out, colour palette. It feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot during the making of a film, but it’s never entirely clear what the story of that film is. There’s the central character, and her relations with her colleagues; and then a friend from her province turns up and she has to look after him. We also see women being abused by a system set up to exploit them – the theme park hires some Russian dancers, for example, and their handler takes their passports, and so traps them in China (a not uncommon practice in many parts of the world). Over it all is a layer of strangeness imparted by the easily recognisable, but small-scale, landmarks which populate the theme park – the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Manhattan skyline, etc.. And several parts of the film that are animated. I really liked A Touch of Sin on first seeing it, and liked it a great deal more on rewatching it several months later. But The World I loved the first time I watched it, and I’ve seen a couple of times since and still love it. I think this film has jumped into my top ten, but I’ve yet to figure out what to displace. Recommended.

Constant Factor, Krzysztof Zanussi (1980, Poland). I’m not entirely sure precisely what the factor the title refers to, although the plot of the film seems relatively straightforward. A young man joins a firm and discovers that his honesty is a handicap rather than an advantage. He dreams of climbing Mount Everest, an ambition which killed his father. For some reason, his employer sends him on overseas jobs even though he’s done nothing to “earn” the privilege. But when he turns down routine opportunities for corruption, and then refuses to back down and so jeopardises a lucrative contract, his ability to travel is taken from him. And that includes his planned trip to the Himalayas. He gets to the airport and they won’t let him leave the country. The film works because the protagonist is sympathetic, despite his pigheaded honesty – or perhaps because of his pigheaded honesty – after all, it’s not as if his co-workers are depicted as venal and corrupt… They’re just trying to make ends meet in a system that rewards corruption better than it rewards honesty. So, just like Western society then. There is, like some of the other films in this box set, a sort of televisual drama drama – kitchen-sink drama, even – feel to the film, so much so it’s starting to feel like a Polish speciality (Kieślowski, after all, started out in television). The three Martin Scorcese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets are proving to be an excellent purchase, despite the cost.

Little Red Flowers, Zhang Yuan (2006, China). I think Zhang was one of a number Chinese directors I stuck on my rental list in an effort to explore the country’s recent cinema, but I don’t recall where I came across Zhang’s name – and LoveFilm has recently got into the habit of sending me films from a particular country one after the other. So after a run of Romanian films, it’s now a run of Chinese films. This is no real hardship – of all the countries’ cinemas I’ve been watching over the past couple of years, China’s since the late 1990s has to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest. Particularly the Sixth Generation directors and later… Little Red Flowers is a not very sympathetic film, but extremely well put-together. It follows a four-year-old boy – based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Wang Shuo – at a… boarding school? orphanage? The title refers to the school’s equivalent of “gold stars”, awarded for good work. The regime is pretty brutal for young kids, and the facilities primitive at best. I don’t recall Little Red Flowers being an especially comfortable film to watch, and I was unsure if its message was one of accommodation or staying true in a regime that saw your values as subversive. There’s a greater lesson there, of course, but I’m not sure this film is the best vehicle for it. A good film, and worth seeing – but more, I think, because it’s a good example of what China’s Sixth Generation of directors can offer than because the films offers more than its story.

Promised Land, Andrzej Wajda (1975, Poland). I know Wajda’s name as one of Polish cinemas big names, and I’ve seen several of his more celebrated films, but this was, I’d believed, one of his less celebrated, albeit still highly regarded, movies. And besides, I’ve not yet found cause to fault the choices made by these Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – okay, where’s the Szulkin, eh? I’ll forgive the lack of Żuławski given that Mondo Vision are doing special edition rereleases of his oeuvre, and they’re pretty hard to beat –  but the films I’ve seen before which appear in these box sets I’d already categorised as excellent films… and those I’ve not seen are proving to be every bit as good. So a wise purchase all round, then. Anyway, Promised Land is an historical piece, set at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. Three men – a Pole, a German and a Jew (interesting that his nationality seems irrelevant) – all invest in a new textile factory. Their backgrounds prove important, especially when the Pole has an affair with the wife of a Jewish financier. The factory they financed is burnt to the ground. They lose everything. But the Pole bounces back by marrying an heiress. It’s very much a story of three ambitious young men from different backgrounds pooling their resources, only to find their success treats them differently. The historical aspect wasn’t entirely convincing at times – the eixigencies of filming in 1970s Poland, no doubt – and ssome of the characters were a little larger than life… But this was good stuff. I do like Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron a great deal, possibly because they feel like teleplays, and was not that taken with his Ashes and Diamonds… but Promised Land occupies that uneasy middle ground. A quality film, certainly, but I still need to see more of Wajda’s oeuvre.

Taurus, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). After describing Francofonia (see here) as an archetypal Sokurov film – as if there were such a thing! – I watched Taurus, the second of Sokurov’s Power trilogy… and this was almost pure Sokurov cinema. For reasons I do not understand, the first and third films of the trilogy, Moloch and The Sun, were given US/UK releases on DVD (the fourth too, if you include Faust, which some do), but Taurus never was. And having now watched it I can see no good reason why it should have been ignored. The BFI have done excellent jobs on the oeuvres of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, but if they’re looking for other directors to cover then Aleksandr Sokurov should be top of their list. Whatever. I managed to get hold of a copy of Taurus, and I watched it. And it’s pure Sokurov. It depicts the last days of Lenin, who, surprisingly, died at the age of 54 after only a year in power. In the film he is recuperating from his first stroke, and after his recovery meets with Stalin – who pretended to a favouritism by Lenin that never existed – but later succumbs to another stroke. The palette is subdued blues and very painterly, and if there’s one sour note it’s that Lenin has a younger body than his face suggests – he supposed to be early fifties, but has the physique of someone two decades younger. Much of the film takes place in Lenin’s bechamber, which has all sorts of echoes with other films by Sokurov… but later, he goes for walk in the woods surrounding the dacha, and that’s another bunch of Sokurov’s films it’s referencing…Ãnd yet, the Power trilogy is, as the name suggests, about the nature of power, and by choosing three powerful figures whose powers were fading fast – Hitler toward the end of his reign, Hirohito after Japan had surrended, and Lenin on his death bed – Sokurov is in danger of belabouring his point. Except he makes each film a character study and a metaphysical treatise. This is a director who is head-and-shoulders above everyone else at the top of his game. Ten years from now, people will be comparing Tarkovsky to Sokurov, not trying to find reasons why Sokurov should be seen as of similar stature to Tarkovsky because the latter once praised him.

Éloge de l’amour, Jean-Luc Godard (2001, France). In theory, I have a lot of time for Godard; in practice, less so. I think he’s perhaps the most experimental director of commerical cinema – without being full-on avant-garde – France has produced, and I think he has not only deliberately built that reputation but also capitalised on it. Some of his early experimental as part of the Nouvelle Vague is blindingly good, but I suspect more by accident than by design. Whenever Godard was more interested in his stars than his story, the film suffered – the two contrary examples perhaps being Bande á part and Une femme est une femme – but when his focus was on the narrative, he produced some truly excellent films. And in later years, he appears to have been more concerned with cinema as an art form, which means his films became more interesting narratively without having to rely on the charismatic stars of earlier decades. So, an improvement in some respects. As many a director has discovered, you can tell any old story given a star with sufficient screen presence – as indeed Godard himself has taken advantage of in the past. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Éloge de l’amour is a film that succeeds on its own terms, but its terms are somewhat narrower than most viewers would accept. It starts out as black and white, and never quite convinces as noir, which somewhat renders the choice of of palette dubious. But then it switches to saturated colour, but never quite explains the reason for the change. Godard’sfilms usually require several viewings to fully appreciate, but this was a rental and I only gave it the one viewing. The more Godard I watch, the more Godard I want to watch. But his oevure has only been released patchily in the UK…

1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 856