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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…

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Moving pictures 2017, #17

The run of Chinese films from LoveFilm is still going, although only one of the two in this post from that country was actually a rental. We also have the re-appearance of Hollywood… although it’s a 1950s Western by a German director. And there’s a British “quota quickie” in there too.

Antareen, Mrinal Sen (1993, India). This is the only other Sen film I can find available on DVD, which is weird as he seems to be held in equal regard in Bengali cinema as both Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, but he also seems to have been working much later than Ghatak. But then Ray was the most prolific of the three, and has been championed in the west for years by David Merchant. Neither Ghatak nor Sen had such a champion – in fact, of the two, Ghatak probably has a higher reputation, although only three of his eight films were ever released on DVD outside India. The two Sen films I now own are both part of NFDC’s Cinemas of Indias restoration of Indian movies, and, I think, the only two by Sen in the  their three box sets. Which is a shame. In Antareen, a writer house-sits a friends decrepit old house – well, it’s more like small palace – and one day the telephone rings. He explains to the caller, a woman, that the owner is away, but they continue to chat. She’s in a loveless marriage and desperate to reach out to someone, and he’s lonely on his own in the big house. He sits by the phone, waiting for her to call. They become friends. Then they decide to meet. Sen’s films seem to have a gentler approach to drama than Ray’s. They also seem less stagier, too. Ray’s films feel like they’re often confined to sets, whereas the two movies by Sen I’ve seen are more cinematic. It’s a pity there’s not more available by him – he directed 27 after all, the last in 2002.

Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuiao (2005, China). I watched this twice before sending it back to LoveFilm, and I still think it needs another rewatch. The story is simple enough: the government moves a family to a provincial town, but all they can think about is returning to Shanghai. But their new life is never going to take them back. The film focuses on the daughter of the family, who is realistic enough to build a life for herself in the town but can never seem to do anything right in her father’s eyes. He meets with other volunteers who agreed to move to factories set up in provincial towns to ensure the survival of China’s industrial capacity in the event of war and they plot to return to Shanghai. His bitterness makes him aggressive, and he stalks the daughter. Things then go badly wrong for her, which precipitates the family into moving without permission back to Shanghai. After a couple of Chinese films that hadn’t really grabbed me, this one I thought really good – but then Wang was the director of Beijing Bicycle (see here), which I also thought very good. Annoyingly, those two appear to be the only films by him available in the UK – this is getting to be an all too common complaint.

The Seventh Veil, Compton Bennett (1945, UK). I had thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but that was apparently The Seventh Victim – a B-movie about a Satanist cult – and not this one, which is a great deal better, if overly melodramatic, but nonetheless quite typical of its time. Ann Todd – who I always get confused with Anna Neagle, and, to be honest, I’m not sure which is the better actress – goes to live with controlling uncle James Mason, playing that smooth-talking villain he did so well, who turns her into a world-class concert pianist. And he’s there to ensure she maintains the discipline needed to stay at the top. She, however, has other ideas – like: love, relationships, etc. The title refers to a piece of simplistic psychology used by the film – each mind has seven veils, like Salomé, and the psychiatrist, Herbert Lom, must persuade Todd to drop that last veil if he is to discover why she tried to commit suicide in the later-set framing narrative. (Hint: James Mason.) It’s melodrama with a capital M, and, I suspect, knocked out as a “quota quickie”. The film it reminded me of the most, strangely, was The Ghost and Mrs Muir, which has made a couple of editions of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Todd is probably The Seventh Veil‘s biggest handicap – she has to play her character from schoolgirl to, well, at least half a decade younger than her actual age – and is clearly Todd throughout. But Mason is certainly on top form. It’s almost as if the role were written for him – in fact, it’s a testament to his skill that so many of his roles did seem written for him. Mason deserves a lot more love than he received. He was one of our best actors.

Rancho Notorious, Fritz Lang (1952, USA). I’m trying to work my way through Lang’s entire oeuvre… which sounds like an admirable ambition until you discover how varied his oeuvre was. I mean, is there a typically Lang-ian film? There’s those early German silent films, and they’re all blindingly brilliant. But then he moved to Hollywood and churned out a series of noir films that weren’t all that much better than his rivals, although one or two did shine. And then he ended up with the quite brilliant serial-drama oddities that were The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. And in between he made… all sorts of stuff. Like this Western, starring Marlene Dietrich. It tries really hard to subvert the form, but decades it feels almost typical of the genre. A man’s bride-to-be is gunned down in a robbery on a general store, and he vows revenge. All he has as a clue is the phrase, “Chuckaluck”. He eventually tracks this down to ex-prostitute Dietrich, who runs a ranch near the Mexican border which she allows outlaws to use as a hideout, for ten percent of their haul. The revengeful widower eventually ends up infiltrating the gang in residence at Dietrich’s, but he doesn’t known which one killed his wife. I think I’ve said before I’m not a fan  of westerns, and the ones that appeal to me are the ones that make a real meal of the landscape… which this one doesn’t. It seems ordinary, and I’d expected better from Lang.

Paper Airplanes, Zhao Liang (2001, China). This is the least satisfying of the three films in this box set, chiefly because it deals with drug addicts, who are, to be frank, not very interesting. On the other hand, this disc also includes three short films which are definitely worth seeing. So, in total, buying the box set was a good move – and now I have to get myself a copy of Behemoth, because Zhao is really very good indeed. In Paper Airplanes, the addicts discuss their addiction, with a surprising lack of self-awareness, but a very informed awareness of what the addiction is doing to them and what its consequences might be. Some of the addicts are in bands, and we see them performing, but if they’re looking for salvation, or even riches,  that way then they’re deluding themselves. Of the three feature-length documentaries in the box set, this is easily the weakest,. Nonetheless, Zhao Liang is a name to watch, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for anything new he produces.

The President, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2014, Georgia). Despite his stature in Iranian film, Makhmalbaf doesn’t seem to get Western releases to the same extent as other Iranian directors – pretty much the entirety of Abbas Kiarostami’s oeuvre is available in the West, for example, and yet Kiarostami’s Close-up is about a person passing themselves off as Makhmalbaf! Even Makhmalbaf’s most celebrated film, Gabbeh (see here), has never been released in the UK, so I had to buy a US release. So the fact The President is available for rental is a bit of a puzzle… although it’s not really an Iranian film. It’s set in an invented East European/West Asian country, but its cast are Georgian, it was filmed in Georgia, and the Georgian language is used throughout. Which makes it a Georgian film, even if Makhmalbaf is Iranian. I had noted Makhmalbaf’s black sense of humour in other of his films, but it’s in full force in this one. A dictator of an unnamed nation is ousted by rebels, and must flee across the country in disguise, with his young grandson. And… it’s beautifully done. The kid is by turns a charming innocent and a total brat, the dictator is angry, afraid, unrepentant but pragmatic. The final scene in which he is recognised by a group of angry peasants is like something out of a brutal Monty Python. And The President is quite a brutal film in places, and its humour is about the blackest I’ve seen – although not quite as black as the scene in Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar where an army of one-legged men chase after artificial legs thrown from Red Cross helicopters. Recommended.

1001 MoviesYou Must See Before You Die count: 857


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Moving pictures 2017, #10

Another good spread of films. The sole US one is actually a documentary about the making of a German film, and is included in the Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection.

herzogBurden of Dreams, Les Blank (1982, USA). There are several famously difficult pieces of film-making, and perhaps the two best-known are Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Coppola’s film was documented in Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola (see here), so it should come as no surprise to learn there’s an equivalent documentary made during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. A comparison between the two documentaries in inevitable – both films were made in remote locations, with productions that spiralled out of control, a difficult marquee name, and a director with a far from firm grip on the production. Yet in Burden of Dreams Herzog comes across as jolly and mostly sanguine. There’s none of the expected despair. Kinski’s antics also don’t figure largely in the documentary, despite stories that the film crew offered to murder the star because of his outrageous demands and behaviour. Much of Burden of Dreams focuses on the logistics of the shoot, and the difficulties of dragging the riverboat up over the hill (they actually had three copies of the boat, by the way). Of course, there were also other problems – Fitzcarraldo originally starred Jason Robards in the title role, but he took ill and had to pull out. Watching him in the part, it’s clear it was better-suited to Kinski. Mick Jagger also played a supporting role, but when the shoot was delayed as they recast the title role, Jagger had to leave due to other commitments. They didn’t bother to recast, just wrote his part out of the film. Which was just as well as he was terrible. Of the two documentaries, I think Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is better, but that may simply be because Apocalypse Now is a more epic movie than Fitzcarraldo.

signale1Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, Gottfried Koldtiz (1970, Germany). Back in the 1960s and 1970s, DEFA, the East German national film studio, made four big budget science fiction films. Three were made available in the US in a DVD box set around a decade ago – Der Schweigende Stern, Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea. I think the box set is deleted now, so it’s hard to find. But if you see a copy, snap it up. However, one of those four films, Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer, often described as East Germany’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has never been released on DVD (except perhaps in Germany… but the copy I watched was actually from a German television broadcast, so perhaps not). Anyway, a friend came round one  Saturday evening – a German, as it happens – to watch some films, and I put Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer on. I’d been expecting good things of the film, as I like the other DEFA sf films, especially Eolomea, although I’d been told Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer wasn’t that good… And, er, it wasn’t. The spacecraft Ikaros is exploring near Jupiter when it’s hit by meteorites and suffers catastrophic damage. The crew survive, but they have no radio. A search for their wreck is unsuccessful, and they are presumed dead. But Commander Veikko is convinced they’re still alive and wants to try using his spacecraft, Laika. But he’s forbidden from doing so, and so uses a routine mission to service some satellites or space probes (it wasn’t clear which) to surreptitiously hunt for the lost spacecraft. Which he finds. And they rescue the stranded crew in the nick of time. What little plot there is in the film occurs in the last thirty minutes, the rest of it is just over-extended set-up. Including several scenes on a beach. I think there must have been a rule in East German sf film-making that required at least one beach-scene. And if the cast were riding horses, that was even better. A future party scene is also mandatory – although the one aboard Laika, to celebrate a crewmember’s anniversary, is cut short and seems entirely pointless. Also, confusingly, during the party the blonde wears a brunette wig and the brunette wears a blonde wig. Oh, and also apparently de rigeur in Warsaw Pact sf movies is a crap robot. And the one in Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer is only beaten by the one in Через тернии к звёздам. Despite all that, I’m glad I found a copy of Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, and I’m glad I watched it. I might even rewatch it one day.

nebo_zovyotНебо зовет, Mikhail Karyukov & Aleksandr Kozry (1959, Russia). And after Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, we settled down to watch Небо зовет, a Soviet sf film I’d been wanting to see for ages, but had never managed to find a copy on DVD. And… It turned out to have an almost identical plot to Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer: one spacecraft has to rescue another. Even worse than that, I have a copy of Battle Beyond the Sun, which is pretty much an edit of Небо зовет dubbed into Engish and with additional monsters. So it made for an odd viewing experience. Небо зовет opens with a journalist being shown around an office where Soviet scientists are designing rockets and spacecraft. Inspired by the models he is shown in a museum at the office, he dreams of a future in which the USSR has an extensive space presence. And the screen goes all fuzzy… and we’re in that very future. The Soviets are about to send a spacecraft to Mars, but the Americans are determined to beat them (the US mission seems to be a private enterprise). The Americans steal a march on the Soviets, but come a cropper when their rocket encounters a meteorite storm. So the Soviets divert to rescue them, but this ends up with both crews being stranded on an asteroid, Icarus. An automated rescue mission is sent but spectacularly blows up. A second, crewed, is successful, but the crew die. However, the crew of the Soviet and the US rockets both survive, and are given a hero’s welcome when they return to Earth. The model work and production design in Небо зовет is excellent, and while the space station design, which resembles an aircraft carrier, seems a bit odd (their spacesuits have magnetic boots, so they won’t just float away), as do the giant clamps with which the rockets dock. But this is a 1959 film, and the Soviet space programme was very secretive (they didn’t even admit Korolyev’s existence until after glasnost). Небо зовет is fun in a dated sort of way, and certainly a great deal better than its butchered US edit, Battle Beyond the Stars.

broodThe Brood, David Cronenberg (1979, Canada). I’m not sure why I stuck this on my rental list. It’s not like I’m a big fan of Cronenberg’s work, although I’ve liked many of his films. But he does horror, mostly, and I don’t like horror films. I’m okay with older ones, before CGI, when the special effects are obviously special effects. As is the case with The Brood. The story in this film, on the other hand, is completely bonkers, and despite a good cast – Ollie Reed! – never really rises above the completely silly. Reed plays a psychiatrist whose treatment causes patients to physically manifest their mental pathologies. Yes, actually physically manifest them. Meanwhile, a husband suspects his ex-wife, who is a patient, of abusing their young daughter and he’s trying to win custody as a result. At which point, a weird child in a snowsuit appears and starts beating people to death with hammers. When the husband stumbles across the weird child hiding in his mother’s house and it attacks him, he kills it in self-defence. At the autopsy, the police discover the child has no belly button, no genitals, no teeth, and is not entirely human. It turns out there are lots of these weird children – a group of them later appear and beat a teacher to death with hammers in front of her class of young kids (yes, seriously – how on earth was Cronenberg allowed to film that?) – and they are all parthogenically generated by the ex-wife in response to her anger, and they go out and attack the objects of her anger. It doesn’t… really work. It’s all played with a straight face, and is pretty convincing in parts, but as it progesses the dafter it gets… until the whole edifice is moments way from collapsing into a heap… Which it doesn’t quite managed to do. Not a good film, but a better one than its plot suggests.

zhao_liangPetition: The Court of Complainants, Zhao Liang (2009, China). In China, those who feel they have been abused by local government and the local justice system can petition the government in Beijing. But it’s a long drawn-out process and riddled with corruption. The petitioners live in a shanty town outside the city, and can spend years, even decades, there. Starting in 1996, Zhao filmed some of these petitioners as they tried to get justice from a government that plainly didn’t care about them. Some of the stories, you wonder why the government has not stepped in – a tax collector who demands more grain from some farmers, and less from others. One petitioner is killed by a train after running from “retrievers”, goons hired to force the petitioners to return home, and the camera shows the bits of her body strewn along the track. In the end, everything is razed – “Petition City” is completely demolished, as is the local train station, in order to make room for facilities for the 2008 Olympics. I’ll admit to being surprised Zhao has been able to make his films – although by all accounts it was far from easy – and if they’re not overtly critical of the current Chinese regime, they certainly are by implication. It is horrifying what the people in the film have had to put up with in order to redress injustices, and even scarier that by the time the Olympics opened – and there is a deeply corrupt institution, if ever there was one – any trace of Petition City and the people who lived there had vanished. Zhao’s Crime and Punishment is set in a provincial town and the authorities it depicts seem more incompetent than anything else – or, at least, corrupt in small and human ways. But Petition is set in Beijing, the seat of government, and the people interviewed by Zhao in the film are all from the provinces, showing just how little the government cares about its people. This is, of course, not unique to China. Every capital gets the lion’s share of finance and resources. And as wealth gravitates to the capital to take advantage of that fact, so the equity gap widens and those in the provinces find them increasingly poorer and increasingly powerless… Until they end up in a similar situation to those depicted in this film. There is apparently a five-hour director’s cut of Petition: The Court of Complainants, but I’m not sure I could have sat through it. The box set I bought includes the 120 minute cut. If I’ve not said it before, Zhao Liang is definitely a name to add to your list of directors to watch – Behemoth first, then this one.

ek_din_achanakEk Din Achanak, Mrinal Sen (1989, India). Three names usually crop up in articles on Bengali cinema: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. I’ve seen a number of films by the first and plan to watch more, I’m already a fan of the second, but I’ve never seen anything by the third. Until now. And Sen’s movies are even harder to find than Ghatak’s. In fact, Ek Din Achanak is the only one available from a large online retailer of books and films and other stuff. There’s another one, Antareen, I’ve managed to track down… Both were released by NFDC Cinemas of India, who have also released two 20-DVD box sets of restored films from various parts of India. WANT WANT WANT. They’re bloody expensive, though, and I’ve yet to find a UK-based seller. Anyway, Ek Din Achanak was a well-played drama about a family whose father, a university professor, disappears one day. They try to carry on without him, and eventually become so accepting of their situation that they blame their present troubles of their own making on him. Despite the plot, and the focus on the family, Ek Din Achanak doesn’t feel as theatrical as Ray’s films. It feels like a movie. Which does sort of feed into my glib description of Ray as India’s “Ingmar Bergman”, although I haven’t quite figured who that makes Mrinal Sen… as if I could do that anyway after watching a single Sen film… But in Ek Din Achanak I found a well-played drama about a situation that felt real, but also unreal enough to be the sort of story you would expect in a literary-style drama. I’d like to see more by Mrinal Sen; I suspect I might have trouble finding more to do so.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850


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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 2017, #2

The resolutions for film-watching seem to be working. There’s only one US film in this lot and, while it wasn’t on the list I’m using, it is on some other ones. And it wasn’t that bad either.

man_movie_cameraKino-Eye, Dziga Vertov (1924, USSR). Vertov is best-known for his Man with a Movie Camera, an astonishing piece of silent meta-cinema made in 1929. Eureka! recently released a new edition of that film, dual format, featuring some of the Vertov’s other works. Vertov apparently had… strong ideas about cinema and its uses, using it to document “film truth”, which, as Wikipedia has it, has “fragments of actuality which, when organized together, have a deeper truth that cannot be seen with a naked eye”. It perhaps appears an obvious truth these days, no matter what media, but in 1920s Soviet Russia it seems somewhat ironic, especially given some of the “embellishments” of actual events Eisenstein reputedly incorporated into his films. But the idea of making films with an agenda, with more than just an aim “to entertain”, I certainly find appealing. Art is a powerful tool, even if it’s chiefly used for the most trivial of purposes. In Kino-Eye, Vertov perhaps set his sights a little high – Wikipedia again: he believed “his concept of Kino-Glaz would help contemporary ‘man’ evolve from a flawed creature to a higher, more precise form”. Which, to me, smacks of Fyodorovism, or at least a form of it stripped of its spiritual dimension. No matter what his motives, in Kino-Eye, Vertov gives us a silent documentary of life in the USSR in the early 1920s, featuring a number of, for the time, novel cinematic techniques, such as montages and, er, running the film backwards. I’m not entirely sure what message the latter is intended to convey, especially the sequence where a bull is slaughtered… which is then run in reverse and so shows the butcher stuffing the bull’s organs into its body and the bull miraculously coming to life. Nonetheless, Kino-Eye is a fascinating slice of life of a time and place that has long since passed, and it is somewhat scary to realise that the lives of the Russian poor have not substantially changed, despite a century of progress, despite eighty years of socialism… And, of course, extremely disheartening.

women_in_loveWomen in Love, Ken Russell (1969, UK). I’d been meaning to watch this after reading the book, so when I learned the BFI had put out a new edition on Blu-ray, I picked myself up a copy. I have yet to get a handle on Russell’s oeuvre – some of his films show a singular vision, some of them seem no more than polished examples of their type. And it’s saddening to think that some people think Russell’s vision was defined by films such as The Lair of the White Worm or The Fall of the Louse of Usher, especially when you consider films such as The Devils, Billion Dollar Brain and Crimes of Passion. And, of course, Women in Love. But there’s also Women in Love as an adaptation of a DH Lawrence novel. And it is not a novel that would be easy to adapt for cinema. Happily, Russell avoids the book’s bitterness, although Oliver Reed’s stiffness as Gerald Crich hints at some dissatisfaction somewhere, without making it clear whether it is Lawrence’s or the film-maker’s. Of course, Russell’s film is best-known for the nude wrestling scene between the aforementioned Reed and Alan Bates, who plays Lawrence stand-in Rupert Birkin, and it’s certainly a… striking scene. In a nutshell, Bates plays Lawrence, Jennie Linden plays his wife, Frieda, Glenda Jackson plays Katherine Mansfield, and Alan Bates her husband, John Middleton Murry. Bates is a wealthy mine-owner in Derbyshire, Jackson and Linden are sisters and schoolteachers, and Bates is a school inspector. At this point in Lawrence’s career, his admiration for the working class had turned sour, as indeed had his appreciation of the upper classes, after London society had turned its back on him. It’s obvious in the book, but it’s not even evident in the film. Russell does an excellent shop with the story he has been given, and if Lawrence’s acerbic prose has been diluted in its move to the screen, it doesn’t spoil Women in Love as a film qua film. It is, without a doubt, one of Russell’s best films, and it deserves the accolades it received, including: four Oscar nominations, one win; three golden Globe nominations, one win; and eleven BAFTA nominations. As an adaptation, its refusal to engage completely with its source material actually works in its favour. I am a big fan of DH Lawrence’s writing, and would of course recommend reading the novel. But Russell’s film is also very much worth seeing, just as much for what it adapts well as for what it doesn’t.

ghost_mrs_muirThe Ghost and Mrs Muir, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1947, USA). Gene Tierney is a widow, desperate to get out of her mother-in-law’s house and control, and so moves to the south coast to look for suitable accommodation for herself and her young daughter. But she doesn’t have much money, and when she spots a house going cheap in the book of the estate agent she has engaged, but he insists it is unsuitable for her… well, that only makes her determined to check it out. And the reason the house is cheap, it transpires, is because it is haunted by its previous owner, a retired sea captain played by Rex Harrison. But Tierney is determined to take no shit, least of all from a ghost, so she and Harrison come to an accommodation, she moves in, and everything goes, er, swimmingly. But money is tight, and tighter still when Tierney’s pension from her late husband’s share of a gold mine dries up completely. So Harrison suggests she write his memoirs. And that’s what they do. And a publisher buys them. And the book is best-seller. At the publisher’s office, Tierney meets George Sanders, an oleaginous writer of children’s books, who charms her. Harrison thinks he’s a wrong ‘un, but she thinks he will ask for her hand in marriage. Then she learns he’s already married… Whatever charm The Ghost and Mrs Muir possesses comes entirely out of its story. Tierney, always a face worth following on the screen, is never entirely convincing in her role but still manages to keep the viewer’s interest and sympathies. Harrison is gruff and old-fashioned, and perhaps a little too debonair for his role, but it’s all forgivable. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this film on a list of great films somewhere – if not the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, then perhaps the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They one… and I can’t honestly see why it was there. It’s a charming story, played well and shot well, but it’s by no more than an above-average example of of its type.

satyajit_ray_3An Enemy of the People, Satyajit Ray (1990, India). I was impressed with Ray’s percipience in making this film, only to discover it’s an adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play from 1882 – despite, frighteningly, being still relevant today, never mind in 1990 or 1882. In Ibsen’s original, a doctor discovers that the waters of the town’s bath are contaminated, but when he makes this known, those who stand to profit from the trade brought to the town by visitors to the bath set out to rubbish his findings. Ray adds religion to the mix, inasmuch as the contaminated water is in a temple, and bolsters the story with a little of science – drinking the water from the temple could give a person hepatitis. But the story pretty much remains the same. The doctor – Dr Gupta in Ray’s film – tries to publish his findings in the local newspaper, but his brother, head of the local municipality, brings pressure to bear to prevent it. In desperation, Dr Gupta arranges a talk at a local university… but his brother fills the audience with his stooges and manages to turn public opinion against Dr Gupta. After all, how can water provided by a god make people ill? (Don’t get me started.) Ray’s treatment of his material is very low-key. The film consists almost entirely of interiors, and the camera placement is more suitable to that of a TV series than a feature film. But the material is certainly deliberately infuriating, especially the debate in front of the students, and it’s all too easy to extrapolate An Enemy of the People‘s story to the present day. In fact, it’s scarily prescient. Even more so, when you consider Ibsen wrote it in 1882.  Ray doesn’t have the sense of the mythic about his films that Ghatak does, but his films are more personal and more, well, theatrical.

une_femmeUne femme est une femme, Jean-Luc Godard (1961, France). One day I will have a theory about Godard’s oeuvre that works, but for now my present theory is plainly nonsense. This is a colour Godard film, it’s also one clearly prompted more by his relationship with star Anna Karina than it is anything else, and yet it still manages to hang together and work reasonably well. Okay, so it’s pretty much Godard taking the piss throughout with musical cues – in fact, the entire film is a lesson in how to annoy the viewer using only musical cues. There’s a silly argument at one point, which is what most people seem to remember from the film, in which boyfriend and girlfriend Jean-Claude Brialy and Karina continue an argument by showing each other words from the titles of the books they own. Karina and Brialy are an item, she wants children, he insists only once they’re married but doesn’t ask her to marry him. It’s a silly, and constrained, personal drama, whose fame chiefly seems to rest on Godard making such a to-do about Karina, his girlfriend of the time (they married after the film had completed). Plot-wise, Une femme est une femme is as thin as you can get and still manage 85 minutes of running time. It pretty much relies entirely on the charm of its cast. Karina is, strangely, variable. Brialy is good throughout. And Belmondo wins every scene he appears in. As Godard films go, this feels more like a five-finger exercise, and whatever boundaries it pushes seem more accidental than part of the reason why Godard made the film in the first place. I suspect my new Theory of Godard looks something like: when Godard is making a point, it’s likely to be a good film; but when Godard is more interested in his cast, or one member of the cast, then it’s not…

behemothBehemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I forget where I stumbled across Zhao’s name, perhaps linked with Jia Zhankge’s, but I stuck one of his films on my rental list, and it duly arrived and… this is bloody good stuff. In fact, I thought it was Zhangke when I started watching it, but it looked so unlike his movies that I was briefly confused. But. For a start, Zhao Liang chiefly makes documentaries, whereas Jia Zhangke’s films only resemble documentaries. In Behemoth, Zhao Liang documents China’s open-cast coal mining and those whose survive by pirating coal from the edges. Zhao does this odd thing where he splits the screen but in such a way that the splits are not immediately obvious, as if the screen is a triptych of linked scenes. It is weird, but effective. He also has a naked male figure who appears in many scenes and quotes from classical Chinese literature… and that description sounds completely different to how it actually appears in the film. I put Behemoth in the DVD player expecting something like A Touch of Sin, but  I found myself watching something very different and, if not better than that film, certainly as good as it. I immediately put Zhao Liang on my list of directors to watch. You should too.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 843