My fourpennyworth (Cinema)

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Wednesday 22 November 2006

Unnecessary postscript

I’ve just started up a cinema-only journal on a conventional blogging site (http://filmjournal.net/estienne). This is my third attempt to do this, and since I have actually managed to complete two entries, must be regarded as the most successful. Most of my ‘work’ on it has been concerned with making lists of links to film sites and other film blogs – including this one, or at any rate the cinema entries in this one. As I checked the link and looked through the entries again (once more regretting that slip in the dating of The Asphalt Jungle on 26.3.06), I read the one on 16.4.06 about being part of a focus group and going to see L’Armée des ombres, in which I fail to recall the favourite director of one of the participants less than 24 hours after the event. It suddenly came to me, all these months later: Alain Resnais. I seem to recall the participant in question went a bundle on Last Year in Marienbad, which, let’s face it, you’d have to if Resnais was your favourite director. (Or was it Hiroshima mon amour? Oh well.) Funny to think of these grand old masters of the 1960s still being around – like Bergman and Antonioni.

Resnais has never done much for me, I’m afraid, despite still having as his muse and partner the wonderful Sabine Azéma. I haven’t seen Hiroshima since college (though I did catch a very odd film that was based on it, H Story, at the London Film Festival one year), and Marienbad left me even colder than it was meant to. (I’m quite keen to use a reference to it in one of my writings, though: an episode called ‘Last Tango in Marienbad’, which would tell the history of a couple’s sexual relationship, or lack of one, in reverse. I think it’s a rather good conflation of titles: can’t think why it hasn’t been used before.)

(Category: Cinema)

2.44 pm

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Tuesday 31 October 2006

Life spun

Tina Aumont, an actress with a fascinating filmography in the late 1960s and 1970s, reportedly died on Saturday (28 Oct). As the daughter of French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont and the Mexican actress Maria Montez, she was born into the film business – in Hollywood, no less – and having started films in her teens she was still relatively young (60) at her death.

I was – I am – a big fan of hers, though as the reasons for my interest are largely to do with her appearance, I feel a little bad about bringing them up at this moment. Suffice to say that she is a very memorable presence, though one of her most interesting features – a low, smoky voice – is rarely heard in her films, as she usually worked in Italy where she was often dubbed. Even in the English-language horror film Lifespan – recently revived on DVD with its once-controversial bondage scene restored – she was dubbed by her cousin (of all people), as her own voice was thought too knowingly crackly for the part she played. Another irony as far as I’m concerned is that I’ve seen her two most well-known films – Fellini’s Casanova and Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty – and can’t remember her in either of them. Or in her first film, Modesty Blaise, come to that.

The film of hers that most intrigues me puts her right at the centre – unlike the three mentioned above, in which her role, though sometimes significant, is never very large. This is another film by Tinto Brass, L’Urlo, which I have seen in a low-grade version on VHS with an often inaudible soundtrack (and I am given to understand that its music is particularly fine). This is a remarkable piece of work, filmed largely in England, full of deliberately impenetrable political allegory, excellent counter-cultural sentiments, mordant and/or grotesque satire and, this being Brass, lots of sex and nudity. Aumont, dubbed by Wertmuller favourite Mariangela Melato, is fully in tune with the spirit of the thing and has a rather nice chemistry with her leading man, Gigi Proietti (a highly-regarded clown in Italy but hardly known here). As with its companion piece Nerosubianco, it’s only available on videos and DVDs of dubious provenance and in rather truncated versions, though given the nature of L’Urlo it’s impossible to know how much of the choppy editing is deliberate and how much has the censor’s fingerprints on it.

L’Urlo was made towards the end of the 60s, and Aumont’s films for the next half-dozen or so years were very eclectic indeed: along with the Fellini, she’s in a late Rossellini film (the woman caught in adultery in his Messiah) and one by Francesco Rosi (Cadaveri eccellenti, where she plays a prostitute – a pattern emerging?); interspersed with these respectable works are gialli like Torso, sex comedies like Il Trafficone, the cult Euro-pudding that is Lifespan and out-and-out sexploitation fare like Nuda Principessa (starring black male-to-female transexual Ajita Wilson). There’s even an experimental art film in the form of Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes (with Nico and Jean Seberg). She also co-stars in a pair of vehicles for that stupendous Italian sex symbol Laura Antonelli (another favourite), Malizia and Divina Creatura. Quite apart from my personal interest in her, I’ve often wondered whether her very wide-ranging if relatively concentrated career might be a way into examining the oddity of 70s Italian cinema – where heavyweights like Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, Antonioni and Pasolini are still working (even if three would be dead by the end of the decade) and had been joined by talents like Bertolucci, Rosi, Olmi and Bellocchio, but all we seem to remember are the gialli and/or horror films by Bava and Argento, and the sex comedies.

Looking on imdb (what do you mean you couldn’t tell?), I note that later in her career she had a part in Catherine Breillat’s police thriller-cum-twisted romance Sale comme un ange, but it was cut. Very intriguing…

(Category: Cinema)

2.00 am

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Tuesday 29 August 2006

That cissy year

I’m seeing a good deal of publicity for Stephen Frears’ new film The Queen. Most of the US commentators are fascinated by the fact that, having played Elizabeth I in an Channel 4/HBO mini-series last year (for which she won an Emmy only yesterday), Helen Mirren now gets to play the Virgin Queen’s namesake and cousin several times removed, Elizabeth II. It certainly sounded like intriguing casting – as, indeed, with the first Elizabeth, who usually seems to be played by a skinny redhead rather than a buxom blonde – and I was slightly concerned that, having missed the Queen in her youthful and good-looking prime, I would at last contrive to find her attractive, via an actress whose propensity for getting her kit off* has endeared her to me for almost 30 years. (I can’t remember which film of hers I saw first – Age of Consent or Savage Messiah.)

Of course, in this country the main focus for this film has been its subject matter, which is the week following the death of Diana (… ‘Princess of Wales’, as the newsreaders used to intone) in August 1997. (It hadn’t occurred to me that the anniversary, albeit only the ninth, was almost upon us.) There seems to be nothing the papers like more than rehashing the various aspects of the ‘Diana story’ – one of them (Mail, Express, I forget which) had her on the cover only this weekend – and this film will give them the excuse to go overboard (oh, hang on, no, that’s Robert Maxwell).

For me, that week told me rather more about my fellow countrymen than I cared to know – and, if I’d thought that electing Mrs Thatcher thrice was as bad as the British could get, I had another thing coming. The country seemed to go into hysterics: the media coverage was (almost literally) endless, and, as far as one could tell, both fed and was fed upon by the people’s mood. On that Tuesday’s Newsnight – Diana having been dead for less than 48 hours – the psychologist Oliver James suggested that we were having a collective breakdown, and the presenter (whichever woman it was that night) looked at him with utter amazement. (James is a gloomy bugger at the best of times – and not exactly without a political axe to grind – but I think he was absolutely right on that occasion.) With one exception all my friends seemed to be incommunicado, so I had no one to share my growing exasperation with, or let me know the latest tasteless joke about the car accident.** The exception, ironically enough, was the one furthest away (on the other side of the world, in fact), but he was at least on the internet – comparatively rare in those days – and I sent him an e-mail in which I declared that ‘we’ve become a nation of cissies’. (He often quotes this line back to me, with evident approval.) People started saying (as they still do, now and then) that they were more moved when she died than when close relatives and friends did; later on in the week, there were stories of shopkeepers being menaced by bullies (no doubt with tears in their eyes) for having the temerity to consider opening up on the day of her funeral. Dismal, dismal, dismal…

It looks very much, I’m sorry to say, as if this film takes the whole ‘Queen of Hearts’/‘People’s Princess’ view of Diana as a given. Oh well.


* Aside from her undoubted talent – which still, as with Elizabeth, has the capacity to surprise – Mirren has always impressed by being down-to-earth and candid, though a slight frostiness seems recently to have entered her voice when she is asked about all those nude scenes of hers. Apparently she’s only done it in about seven films – and, God knows, I think I can name them all…

** A fortnight later I met up with a group of friends and learned some of these gags. Pretty bad, most of them – there was one about the difference between the London and Paris Ritzes (in London you get after-dinner mints, and in Paris you get… minced after dinner) – but I have to say I saw it as a good sign.

(Category: Cinema)

9.03 am

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Sunday 2 July 2006

Duras on Bresson

Wonderfully apt comment on Robert Bresson from Marguerite Duras:*

‘I feel as though he’s working in some secret medium to which he alone has the key.’

That’s certainly how I feel about his films. There are others whose work seems exhilaratingly unconcerned with what is going on, or has gone on, elsewhere in cinema – I’ve always liked the fact, for instance, that my old favourite Buñuel doesn’t particularly engage with his fellow directors, and might never have watched anyone else’s films after 1945 – but Bresson is in a different league. I suppose it’s possible, too, that even he doesn’t have the key to his own work: what I’ve seen of his comments on films and film-making come across as oddly simplistic (not simple like the films themselves) and contradictory.


* It’s included on the Artificial Eye/MK2 DVD of Bresson’s film L’Argent.

(Category: Cinema)

1.36 pm

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Wednesday 28 June 2006

Cambridge flim-flam

The 2006 Cambridge Film Festival brochure arrived this morning. Bigger than ever, apparently – the festival and brochure both. I’ve not really been a big festival fan since it reopened in the 3-screen Picturehouse some years ago. In the old days, when it was centred around the tiny Arts Cinema in Market Passage (and rather charmingly used college auditoria for some of the showings), there seemed to be an abiding sense of the thing coming apart at the seams, but that was to be expected, given the location and the way the cinema was run. Now there’s much less excuse for getting it wrong – which they still do, though, and on a regular basis. (Amateurish enthusiasm replaced by professional indifference, in other words.) I suppose I’m just cheesed off that the very strong Francophile tendency of previous festivals is now nowhere to be seen.

So what do we have this year? Some big-hitters from Cannes/Berlin this year to steal a march on the Edinburgh Film Festival: Volver, Three Times, A Scanner Darkly, Heading South. Some interesting-sounding stuff left over from last year: The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Gypo (apparently the UK’s first official Dogme film), Happy Endings (which I watched on cable last night, as it happens), Keane. There’s an undeserving recipient of the annual retrospective in Luc Besson* – and I say that as a fan of both Léon and Nikita. (He hasn’t really made that many films, for a start – and in any case they’re only showing five of them: there’s no The Last Battle or The Fifth Element, for instance.) There’s also a mini-retrospective of Michel Gondry to go along with his new film The Science of Sleep. He’s hardly got started with his film career, though the videos are probably worth rewatching.

The revivals are a mixed bunch: old Sky Cinema/TCM favourites Oklahoma!, A Portrait of Jennie and The Asphalt Jungle (NB any of the directors of these films – Zinnemann, Dieterle, Huston – would have made a very interesting subject of a retrospective); the excessively classic Taxi Driver, presumably for the simple reason that there’s a new print; Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, whose unusual combination of rock footage and counter-cultural provocation means that it’s already shown much more often than it deserves; and finally, a genuinely interesting-sounding silent co-production between Germany and India from 1927, A Throw of Dice. The short film season, an old Cambridge specialty which to its credit the Picturehouse seems to support fully, will no doubt give us the occasional ‘Wow!’ in amidst the more usual ‘Huh!’ and ‘Eh?’.

There are a couple of informal themes dotted throughout the brochure: ‘UK focus’ and ‘new German cinema’. Most of the films in the former strand look truly terrifying (although not because they’re part of the British horror revival, unfortunately). As for the latter, it’s apparently been a vintage year for German films, with four in particular – Requiem, Der Freie Wille, Sehnsucht and Das Leben der Anderen – getting great reviews and prizes. Not one of these is coming to Cambridge, however: instead, the biggest of the German films here will be Atomised/Elementary Particles, based on the scandalous Michel Houellebecq novel of a few years back, which was generally rated a disappointment at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. (The CFF has given it a provisional certificate of 15, which is disappointing in itself: I seem to recall the book being really rather dirty…)

Talking of dirty, there’s a little season within the festival called ‘A brief history of Erotic Cinema’. There’s that deadening sense of ‘the usual suspects’ about some of the choices, and blank mystification about others (Partie de campagne, anyone?). I wonder whether it’s just an excuse to have the UK premiere of the starrily-directed portmanteau film Eros (Soderbergh, Antonioni, Wong Kar-Wai – cripes!). However, one tasty-sounding morsel, accompanying the inevitable (if hardly unwelcome) showing of Belle de Jour, is a ‘lost’ episode from Borowczyk’s Contes immorales, Une Collection particulière: wonder what that’s like. (Borowczyk’s La Bête, another far-from-surprising choice – come to think of it, as he died this year (and quite early on, too), isn’t WB yet another excellent candidate for the retrospective treatment? – is being shown with the magnificent Tex Avery cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood…)

I’m looking forward, of course, to The Notorious Bettie Page – indeed, I seem to have been waiting for this since before it was filmed – and am very interested in seeing Three Times: its director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has one of the most exalted reputations of any arthouse film-maker still living, and I was certainly very impressed by the one film of his I’ve seen, Millennium Mambo (which is, they say, a rather minor work). However, his stuff doesn’t tend to get distributed here (I had to get the DVD of Mambo from France), so this might be the only chance I get to see it. I shall also try to catch Little Fish (ho ho), an Australian film with a great cast (Blanchett, Weaving, Neill) and a gloomy subject (drugs, crime).


* As I delve further into the brochure, it begins to look as if the festival’s ‘official’ retrospective is of Bruce Weber – the, er, photographer…

(Category: Cinema)

8.18 pm

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Monday 12 June 2006

Squids in

First time in ages that my trip to the cinema didn’t end up with me sitting in the living-room-sized ‘Screen 3’ of the Arts Picturehouse: no doubt that was because the film was in English for a change. The film in question was a New York indie called The Squid and the Whale, directed by Noah Baumbach. I gather from the latest Sight and Sound I bought on the way to the cinema that it has actually been the most profitable art house offering in the UK for some months: however, my interest in it came from US reviews of it last year, where it regularly appeared in the top ten of the critics polled in Film Comment.

The film concerns a long-married couple who have decided to split up. Their two sons initially take sides, the elder with the father and the younger with the mother. However, this apparent symmetry, although advertised in the very first words we hear (when they pick sides for a tennis match), is perhaps a red herring for the real theme of the film, which is the gradual discovery by the elder son that his much-admired father is a complete prick… (They have a lot of fun with bad language in the film – the younger son in particular comes out with some choice remarks whenever he is losing a game – so I thought I’d go along with it.) The parents are both well-educated: the father is an English professor with a couple of well-regarded novels under his belt but nothing on the horizon, while the mother has just finished her first book, which has been accepted for publication.

The boys react to the separation in very different ways. The elder tries not to let the changed circumstances affect him, continuing his school life much as before, but his idolisation of his father, as well as his father’s revelation that the mother had affairs, leads the boy to take against her and to listen more, if anything, to the advice his father gives him (which is generally bad). He is also a repeat plagiarist, making no distinction between parrotting his father’s opinions (eg recommending books that he evidently hasn’t read) and passing a Pink Floyd song off as his own. The younger son, mistrusting his father but not wholly sympathetic to his mother, takes up drinking and masturbation with gusto, and eventually both boys’ failings become so obvious that even their distracted parents have to start paying attention.

The film’s great strengths are its dialogue and its acting. Although the characters’ positions are quickly established and follow fairly predictable paths, the writing is sharp, detailed and often very funny, allowing for subtleties and variety which the accomplished cast make the most of. The parents are played by those reliable troupers Jeff Daniels (finally, perhaps, putting to rest the good-guy image he once had) and Laura Linney (who works wonders with what in retrospect seems a much smaller role). The elder brother, in some ways the lead character, is played very well by Jesse Eisenberg, who’s been good in everything I’ve seen him in (eg Roger Dodger, of course, but also that so-so werewolf film Cursed); the younger one, someone to look out for in the future, is called Owen Kline, and I wonder whether he’s an offspring of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates (he seems to have the latter’s nose and general colouring). There’s even quite a good supporting role for William Baldwin (as a good-natured, gone-to-seed tennis pro), and although I’ve perhaps seen too many films where Anna Paquin plays a barely-legal sexpot with a crooked smile, this wasn’t such a bad example. I was reminded of two films about marital break-ups I saw on DVD last year: The Door in the Floor and We Don’t Live Here Anymore. I’m not really sure why this seemed a better film than either of those. As I recall, both were more elegantly filmed (Door in the Floor in particular). Perhaps this was less schematic, more free-form, more responsive to what one might call the ‘here and now’ (despite being set in 1986 for some reason).

I think it has its flaws as well. There’s no real sense of progression, meaning that the end (where we finally get to see ‘the squid and the whale’) feels slightly arbitrary; and engaging as it is while you’re watching it, it doesn’t feel particularly resonant afterwards.

Interestingly – and perhaps accurately for the time it’s set in – one repeated element that shows the father’s bad faith is his fondness for European cinema, especially the New Wave: both À bout de souffle and The Wild Child are referenced, while a poster of The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache’s marvellous, three and three-quarter hour film La Maman et la putain, a personal favourite of mine) is prominently displayed and commented on. The father, fully committed to what the Coen Brothers would call ‘the life of the mind’, even muscles in on a film date his son is going on with his pleasant, newish girlfriend, making them choose Blue Velvet over Short Circuit: we get to see choice moments from the former, when Laura Dern registers her astoundingly wide-mouthed horror at Isabella Rossellini’s battered nudity.

(Category: Cinema)

1.30 am

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Friday 9 June 2006

Belgian realism

The cultural commentator Jonathan Meades, when he was still plump and jolly, once pointed out in an entertaining TV programme that the Belgians were evidently even madder than the English, and was able to adduce all sort of examples for their peculiarity – the most memorable of which was their fondness for the sport of vertical archery. His best gag was to claim that Belgium’s most famous modern painter Magritte, far from being a surrealist, was in fact a social realist, ho ho ho. But if Magritte really were a social realist, I wonder what that would make the Dardenne brothers…

I watched the Dardennes’ film Le Fils last week with a growing sense of amazement at its gripping intensity and formal simplicity (a hand-held camera following the film’s protagonist at close range for long periods at a time), convinced by the end that I had seen a truly outstanding piece of cinema (albeit on DVD). So I determined to watch an earlier film of theirs, one that (unlike Le Fils) won them the Golden Palm at Cannes: Rosetta. In fact, this was a ‘re-watch’, as I’d rented it before and paid not very close attention to it.

While knocking most films I had seen recently into a cocked hat, Rosetta didn’t seem quite as accomplished as Le Fils: there were diminishing returns from Rosetta’s very physical way of reacting to bad news after the first few minutes (where the camera follows every move of her determined resistance at being manhandled out of her place of work by a couple of security guards), and, the extraordinary vitality of the main actress* notwithstanding, Rosetta’s motivation is very emphatically signalled, to the extent that, at one point, she lies in bed coaching herself to repeat that she now has a job, a friend and a normal life. (This motivation needs to be made as clear as possible, because it will lead her to do a very bad thing later on in the film.) The lead character in Le Fils, on the other hand, has motivations that not even he can get to the bottom of. The ‘action’ scenes in Le Fils (the boy falling off a ladder, the ex-wife falling into a faint, the final chase sequence) also seemed to be more astutely handled. The brothers have a new film out at the moment, L’Enfant: it’ll be interesting to see whether this over-the-shoulder shooting technique can work wonders a third time (there’s an earlier film, La Promesse, but I haven’t seen it yet), and what more they can find to bring to it…


* This is Émilie Dequenne, whom I am tempted to call the ‘Belgian Billie Piper’ for their physical similarities, though that comparison does her no favours at all. Rosetta was apparently her first acting part, but she has since then moved into professional acting in French films with admirable smoothness and swiftness. (Is this a French thing? One can think of plenty of examples of women doing this – above all Sandrine Bonnaire, whose work now seems rather tamely conventional after those ferocious early performances in À nos amours and Sans toit ni loi, but also those Bresson girls: Marika Green, Anne Wiazemsky, Dominique Sanda, etc, etc…)

(Category: Cinema)

3.40 pm

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Tuesday 23 May 2006

The Judster

I’ve been paying more than usual attention to the news and reviews coming out of Cannes this year. Two films that have caught my eye are Bug and La Tourneuse des pages. My interest has been piqued, naturally enough, by the films’ leading ladies: Ashley Judd and Catherine Frot respectively. The latter is easily one of my favourite French actresses (in the top two* of a very long list indeed) and since being ‘discovered’ at a fairly advanced age in Un Air de famille ten years ago has steadily risen in prominence and prestige. I don’t know whether her profile in France compares with that of Isabelle Huppert (whose sister she played a few years ago in Les Sœurs fâchées, another interesting-sounding film that didn’t manage to cross the Channel): she’s nothing like as well-known over here, but then British knowledge of French actors tends, alphabetically speaking, to start with Deneuve and end with Depardieu…

As for Ashley J, I decided when I saw Ruby in Paradise all those years ago that she could do no wrong, but she seems to have put that to the test more than once in recent years. Her early, rather low-profile career was marked by many strong, subtle performances: Ruby herself, of course (a great debut), but others in Normal Life, Norma Jean and Marilyn and The Passion of Darkly Noon, as well as two smaller roles in Smoke and Heat, where she was appropriately incendiary. She’s pretty good in Kiss the Girls, but the relative success of that film, then Double Jeopardy, led to a series of starring roles in more conventional fare, which meant – modern Hollywood being what it is – a conveyor-belt of horrible films. (I wasn’t even that taken with her appearance in Frida, despite the film’s obvious appeal to me – the artist biopic, the rest of the attractive female cast (Hayek, Maestro, Golino, Burrows) salvaged from Mike Figgis’ Hotel.) The gimmicky but unexpectedly effective Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely seemed to me to offer her a suitable platform for her talents (singing apparently not being one of them, despite the family name), and now there’s Bug, which sounds like a return to the old days. (As far as the French reviewers are concerned, it’s also something of a return to form for its director, the once-unstoppable William Friedkin.) The piece is adapted from a successful stage play, which always gives me pause: not for the more obvious anti-theatrical concerns (eg long speeches, enclosed locations) – which in fact I tend to think film does pretty well – but because the sort of resolutions which are acceptable on stage often come across as rather puny on film. Anyway, this one sounds pretty wild, with lashings of hysteria, paranoia and sex. It’s even been described as having her first nude scene, which presumably shows how little the reviewer knows of her early, ‘better’ career: in both Normal Life and Norma Jean… she displays a great deal of flesh, in the latter even being called upon to duplicate Marilyn Monroe’s famous calendar poses.


* My other favourite being Karin Viard. I’d watch anything CF and KV are in – and every so often, as with La Nouvelle Eve, I get the chance to see both of them in the same film. I’ve recently seen Viard as the middle sister in that missed opportunity of a film, L’Enfer. Strange how, out of a film culture positively oozing with loveliness, I choose two actresses who could never be described as raving beauties, though each is not without a certain je ne sais quoi

(Category: Cinema)

12.38 pm

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Monday 15 May 2006

Clique of one

Sometimes I feel very alone…

Take this afternoon, when the following Guardian headline popped into my rss reader: ‘In brief: Chris Rock to direct Rohmer remake’ (http://film.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1775331,00.html). My first thought was Christ! and my second, Who’d appreciate this horrible-sounding news? To which the answer was ‘No one I know…’ They’d have to know who Chris Rock is and what an Eric Rohmer film is like. Most of them don’t know either of those things, and those who know about one won’t know about the other.

Actually, since Chris Rock is considerably more than a smart mouth and has been gaining critical plaudits for his TV show Everyone Hates Chris, and Rohmer’s stories are often reducible to rom-com outlines, it’s perhaps not such bad news as it first sounds. (The film in question is Chloé in the Afternoon, the last of Rohmer’s ‘Six Moral Tales’, which is certainly more conducive to a US make-over than the conversations about Pascal in My Night with Maud or the slightly questionable goings-on with teenage girls in Claire’s Knee.)

(Category: Cinema)

1.19 pm

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Thursday 4 May 2006

Beauty made plain

After many years of thinking I’d already seen it – on the strength of recalling a couple of dry remarks from Ralph Richardson, and Montgomery Clift banging on the door at the end – tonight (Weds) I sat down and watched the film The Heiress properly. It turned out I hadn’t seen it after all.

I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very well-tooled piece of Hollywood machinery, with the music (Copland) and production and costume design working effectively in the background. The director, William Wyler, seems to have been rather overlooked in recent times – I seem to recall a critic a few years ago making light of Charlton Heston’s opinion that he was a better director than Anthony Mann (Heston made Ben Hur with Wyler and El Cid with Mann). Mann, of course, has been very much ‘rehabilitated’ (if he needed it), courtesy of those interesting westerns he made with James Stewart in the 1950s; but Wyler’s work over about 25 years (up to Ben Hur, basically) contains a large number of really first-rate films, from Jezebel to Detective Story. (My own favourite would be The Best Years of Our Lives, I think.)

The acting’s very striking. Olivia de Havilland, whose Hermia in the Max Reinhardt version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream made me think her easily the most beautiful product of Hollywood’s golden age – to the extent that the premise of that otherwise excellent film The Strawberry Blonde, that James Cagney has to settle for her rather than Rita Hayworth, never made sense to me – turned in a performance as amazing as people say, well worthy of the Oscar it won her. Apart from anything else, this gorgeous woman (all of 32 or 33 when the film was made) really did seem rather unappetising. The role – as a plain, not very forthcoming young woman, unknowingly undermined throughout her life by a father who insists on comparing her unfavourably with his dead wife – is a quite deliberate tour de force, with a great big crisis and subsequent transformation about two-thirds of the way through: de Havilland steps up and gives a physically and vocally detailed and modulated performance, though of course anyone looking for modern-day verisimilitude will be disappointed. Likewise with the fascinatingly subtle work from Richardson as her father. Richardson was regarded as one of the ‘Big Three’* classical knights, along with Olivier and Gielgud, when I was a teenager in the 70s, and his stock seems to have fallen somewhat in comparison with theirs: even then, he was regarded as a sort of ‘sublime’, uncanny actor, and I suppose there’s sometimes a sense of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ about that kind of reputation. But in The Heiress, he’s very solid and exact (and very British – no attempt to Americanise his accent, despite having the still brassy-sounding Miriam Hopkins as one of his sisters). Despite the disadvantages his character labours under, he manages to inject a certain amount of humanity. Clift, too, is excellent, though the performance seems to be more naturalistic (and has often been criticised as rather bland in comparison with the others’ powerhouse work).

I was keen to see this film because of Martin Scorsese, who praised it extravagantly when making The Age of Innocence: I suspected that here, as so often, Scorsese’s hugely admirable enthusiasm for old films undermined his own work, and on the basis of tonight’s viewing I’d have to say my suspicions were correct. (Scorsese increasingly seems to me a figure whose fondness for cinema is more interesting than his own films; I think much the same of the distinguished French director Bertrand Tavernier.) There’s little in The Age of Innocence to compare with the sheer chill of de Havilland’s realisation that Clift is not coming for her, or when she finally stands up to her ailing father (‘So you have found your tongue at last…’), or of course the end, when she leaves Clift standing, banging on the door.

But I come round to the acting thing again. I remember reading an offhand opinion – no doubt on one of those film forums I’m so fond of – that old films basically have ‘bad acting’ in them. (I sort of see the point, actually.) We’re constantly told nowadays that Marlon Brando, and those working in the same tradition (de Niro, Pacino, etc), are the great film actors, but I wonder whether this is just a sort of fashion (albeit a long-running one), rather like dismissing great Bach and Handel performances from the past because they precede the ‘authentic’ movement. In Brando’s obituaries a couple of years ago much was made of the fact that he shared his home town – Omaha, Nebraska – with two other great film actors: Henry Fonda and the aforementioned Mr Clift. It seems almost arbitrary to suggest that he is a ‘better’ actor than either of those, but nonetheless most of the obits did so. Film acting is really a very odd business: wonderful performances are elicited from amateurs and children, in a way that would be more or less unthinkable on stage; a director like Bresson could achieve marvels from his deliberately unexpressive actors (or, as he liked to think of them, models), including a donkey. And films can contain wildly differing styles of acting: the quartet of lead performances in The Heiress (de Havilland, Richardson, Clift and Hopkins) is, indeed, a case in point, although the example I’ve always liked most is the trio in Some Like It Hot: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, each giving a masterclass in a quite different acting technique.


* This trinity always seems a little unfair to the ‘fourth man’, Michael Redgrave, whose Parkinson’s made him more or less invisible in the 70s. Now there’s a classical theatre actor with a truly impressive film CV…

(Category: Cinema)

12.45 am

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Thursday 6 April 2006

Cambridge Talkie

Good gig last night – getting paid for waffling on about ‘the films in my life’. It was part of some Film Council research to get more money for films (principally digital projectors, by the sound of it) from the Lottery Fund. There were eight of us, five men (all Brits) and three women (all foreign – is there a point to be made about this?). I remember which directors all but one of them named as their favourite: Hitchcock, Lean, Resnais, Wong Kar-Wai, Kubrick, Tarkovsky (tied with Kubrick, again), plus my own choice (Bunuel) – but ironically, the one I’ve forgotten, or just didn’t overhear, was from a woman who at the last minute name-checked two of my very favourite films: My Night with Maud (on my ‘respectable’ list) and Scaramouche (on my ‘unrespectable’ list). So obviously her choice of director might well have been to my taste. Can’t imagine who it could have been. She was very stern about cinema not being escapism, so you’d imagine one of the unsmiling gods of the European humanist tradition: Bresson, say, or Dreyer. But I think I would have remembered if it had been either of those. (Good, if unexpected, to see Resnais there. A pity, as always, to see Kubrick creep onto the list – one and a half times, in this case… Still, better him, I dare say, than some of the people it could have been.)

They asked about turning points in our viewing of films. Of the endless number of films that seem to have had a great effect on me, I chose three from my late tweens and teens: the original King Kong, A Matter of Life and Death and Abel Gance’s Napoleon. A number of connections: the first film that three of us men remembered seeing was a Connery Bond one (Diamonds are Forever, in my case, back in 1971). The idea of watching films being somehow ‘immoral’ cropped up occasionally: for one woman, it was going down to watch films in the living room in the dead of night; for two of the men, it was getting in to see films without paying or watching X-rated ones under 18. (For me, characteristically, a principal impetus for watching foreign films as a teenager was the greater-than-average chance of seeing a naked woman. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned this, but I didn’t see the harm. Of course, if I’d pointed out that this was still a major issue in my choice of film-viewing, that would have been a different matter.)

With a small portion of the loot obtained from this chatter, I went straight afterwards to my first cinema film in what seems ages* – Melville’s L’Armée des Ombres. This was a long, rather drab-looking film about the French Resistance, which made its undeniable impression through its specificity. Curiously untidy – a rather full-blown musical score, occasionally obvious studio sets and no less than three, randomly-occurring narrators – and expansive at odd times. The hero, for instance, spends a few days in London, and at one point finds himself caught outside during an air-raid. Though he has already been established as rock-hard and impassive (as only a character played by the granite-like Lino Ventura can be), he is unnerved by the bombs, and ducks inside a house, where a group of service men and women are dancing. The bombs continue to fall, and the group continues to dance: Ventura just watches them, especially the women, before leaving again without a word. Some very good set-pieces, including a marvellous twist that I didn’t recall from the last time I saw it (I think I may have been napping then, as I only really remembered the last five minutes). I seem to recall that Melville had been in the Resistance, so that would have been one reason for doing the film. The other – what made him a hero to directors like Godard, and is the reason for his current high critical status (as a ‘genre’ man) – is that he was greatly enamoured, and deliberately imitative, of American thrillers (‘Melville’ was, after all, a pseudonym), and the laconic, stoical characters of this film are clearly cousins to the protagonists of those tough-guy American films of the 40s and 50s.


* It can’t be that long: they’re still showing the black and white adverts with the couple in the car getting lost (the man, bizarrely enough, is someone I’ve met through work: Paul Higgins, who runs Theatre 503, formerly the Latchmere), and the German car ad with the boy with the grown-up face (he reminds me of ‘Old Father Time’, or whatever the eldest child is called in Jude the Obscure) and the unnecessarily well-orchestrated background music.

(Category: Cinema)

4.38 pm

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Sunday 26 March 2006

Narrowly marginal

Just been informed by my news-ticker ‘Auntie’ that the film-maker Richard Fleischer has died – or, as they put it: ‘Conan director Fleischer dies, 89’.

Conan, eh? That tells you all you need to know about cinema’s current debasement, I suspect, or at any rate its galloping amnesia. Among Fleischer’s other films are The Vikings, with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis – surely a better bet as his most famous film – The Boston Strangler, again with Curtis (on amazing form), which took the then-modish technique of screen-splitting (cf the original Thomas Crown Affair) and tried to use it in a serious manner, and 1952’s The Narrow Margin (remade, with Gene Hackman but without the article or much of the quality, some forty years later). This last film – Fleischer’s, I mean, not the remake – is a highly efficient B-movie thriller with a pretty impressive reputation. I often think of high-minded film-makers who dream of directing an unpretentious but well-constructed piece (but are usually incapable of doing so) as having a ‘Narrow Margin moment’. It’s not dreamy and existential like the film noir thrillers that came before or rather grandiose like the high-profile crime films – Touch of Evil, say, or The Asphalt Jungle – that came after. It’s just a really good film… I wonder if they’ll show it as a tribute? Unlikely, given the sheer number of possibilities (see below). (As it happens, the remake was on ITV last night.)

I’ve just checked the ‘Auntie’ reference. Interestingly, the films of his which the BBC put in their lead paragraph are: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (again with Douglas), Fantastic Voyage (how could I forget that? – Raquel Welch covered in goo in her white wetsuit, Donald Pleasance’s head being eaten by a white corpuscle) and Tora! Tora! Tora!. Other highlights covered lower down include Soylent Green (hooray!) and the original ‘melonfarmer’ film, Mr Majestyk.

(It turns out that the ‘Conan’ reference isn’t to the original Conan the Barbarian, but to its sequel, Conan the Destroyer, What a way to be remembered…)

(Category: Cinema)

8.06 pm

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Friday 17 March 2006

How beastly!

Picked up a copy of Sight and Sound yesterday – not without a certain reluctance perhaps, as it feels less and less authoritative* (and coincidentally refuses even to answer my letters whenever I apply for a job there) – only to discover that an old favourite of mine, Walerian Borowczyk, had died. The exigencies of magazine publishing suggest that this happened at least a couple of weeks ago: I’ve just googled ‘Borowczyk’ and ‘obituary’ and at the top of the list was the one in the Guardian on 23 Feb – http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,1715657,00.html. (I do wish there was a way of getting this sort of information automatically sent to you by e-mail: a kind of ‘obituary watch’…)

Borowczyk really is a classic cinéaste maudit – arguably the best example there is. The standard line is that he was a ground-breaking, critically-acclaimed animator in the 1960s whose early live-action films Goto and Blanche were praised for their strangeness and painterly qualities, before he went spectacularly off the rails, spending the rest of his career making erotica, from Immoral Tales in the early 70s to his last film, Love Rites, in the late 80s, the nadir being number five in the celebrated Emmanuelle franchise. Naturally, since films in which the main, er, thrust is sexual constitute a genre just like the western or film noir or musical, there has been a spirited rearguard action (blimey, doesn’t it suddenly seem impossible to avoid double entendres when sex, er, comes into it?) defending Borowczyk’s later films, praising his undiminished talent for composition and dream-like atmosphere. (A good test-case here is the really very poor, unbelievably incoherent Emmanuelle 5, which nonetheless contains a harem sequence that is vintage Borowczyk.)

For professional critics who see something in his work, the conventional defence – as with the Guardian obit – is to call him a ‘surrealist’. If ‘surrealist’ is regarded as a straightforward synonym of ‘dream-like’ (= oneiric), then this would perhaps be justifiable, but since it isn’t, it isn’t. Much more than, say, Jean Rollin – who initially appears to be covering similar sex/horror ground, discovering unexpected pleasures in some unpromising source material – Borowczyk is his own man, who presumably used the ‘erotica’ label in order to get funding but whose ideas of what is erotic coincide surprisingly rarely with conventional thinking on the subject. (I was first introduced to Borowczyk, or at any rate the idea of him, more than twenty years ago via a discussion of his most controversial film, The Beast, which could then only be shown in the jism-pits of Soho: what I most remember from the conversation is the image of the raincoat brigade, faced with the series of extraordinary images in that film, not really knowing what to do with themselves.) I suspect that if he were considered more of an experimenter with producing certain cinematic effects – if people could get over the fact that those effects are centred around sex (which I realise is a big ‘ask’) – then discussions of his work might be more profitable…


*Given my still-inchoate ideas about the true pleasures of the cinema – the offhand, the incidental, the unexpected appearance of ‘real life’ in the midst of artifice – you might expect me to applaud this diminishing authority. But when I consider that S&S seems to be losing it by playing catch-up with cheersheets for the Hollywood juggernaut such as Premiere, I’d rather not.

(Category: Cinema)

12.18 pm

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Tuesday 7 March 2006

See the Sea

This weekend I sold my first video – indeed, my first item – on eBay. It wasn’t something I wanted to keep, but I knew it had sellable potential, so I put a relatively high starting price on it. In the end it made three times that, despite having had no takers a few hours before the sale was due to finish. (The film, incidentally, was Radio On, whose director, Christopher Petit, seems more interesting for his influences than for his actual films. He made a quasi-commercial film in the mid-80s, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – that’s right, from the P D James novel – with Pippa Guard at her most fetching: it’s a bit of a mess, frankly, though there is quite an interesting sequence when Pippa is stuck in a well and takes forever to climb out.)

Anyway, flushed with the success of selling this, I put together a number of other likely videos and the odd (very odd) DVD. Of course, regarding my video collection as something of a resource, I’ve not watched them all, and in any case I had to check that they were in good enough nick to be sold. So tonight I watched The Naked Vampire by Jean Rollin, the lesbian romantic drama Everything Relative and Regarde la Mer by François Ozon. As I watched, I ran through a possible description for eBay in my head. This might have been the reason why all three impressed me so much: indeed, in the case of the Ozon I don’t think I’m going to sell after all.

They all seemed very good of their type: the Rollin was typically him, with copious nudity, lots of scenes that didn’t seem to have any point, deft use of locations (in this case both urban and rustic) and a rather somnambulistic acting style, but it also had a wild, avant-garde soundtrack and a care about decor and colour co-ordination that often seems absent from his other work. (Most of the costumes were frankly insane.) Everything Relative, well-known among the cognoscenti for its sequence of intercut sex scenes towards the end – lesbian films often seem to make the viewer wait for the inevitable fumbles – turned out to be generally well written and well acted, with a number of serious points to make. It would often have a group conversation scene where another film – even one with a fairly hefty indie reputation (Sideways springs to mind) – would use some kind of montage. As for Regarde la Mer, it used to have a reputation as Ozon’s best a few films back – at 50 minutes, it’s almost long enough to be considered a full-length film – and even now, after the successive disappointments of Eight Women, Swimming Pool and 5 x 2, as well as the petering-out of the very promising Sous le Sable, I wonder if he has made a better. It’s very well (and precisely) filmed, very well acted – the creepy hiker, Marina de Van, is part of Ozon’s rep, and has gone on to make films of her own, but the English actress Sasha Hails, who is marvellous, seems to have vanished – and with an extraordinary control of tone. On the audio commentary, if my French doesn’t deceive me, Ozon says that he made the film in 15 days. Perhaps he needs some restrictions to do his best work (and it’s true that the other shorts on the DVD, clearly made for very little money, show an inventiveness and truthfulness that you don’t find in his longer films).

(Category: Cinema)

2.26 am

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