Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Shooting Mr Howard

It’s interesting to speculate on what movies Andrew Dominik might have cast an eye over before embarking on his 160+ minute movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There have been more than a few that have ruminated over the Jesse James story. The title of the film suggests it might be trying to hew close to the known facts even though it’s based on a novel by Ron Hansen. But there’s not a lot of background. James career as a member of Quantrill’s Raiders is not featured prominently though his continuing aggravation at the outcome of the Civil War and the losses suffered by his family are plain. In an interesting piece in the New York Times which coincided with the US release of the new version Terence Rafferty mentions T J Stiles “excellent 2002 biography Jesse James:Last Rebel of the Civil War and it may be that you have to go the literature to find a complete portrait of an enigmatic figure whose reputation and legend is such that there are almost an infinite variety of representations. In Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid where the focus is actually on Cole Younger played as a jolly but cunning simpleton by Cliff Robertson, Jesse (Robert Duvall) is reduced to almost cameo staus and at one point acts so oddly for the suggestion to be made by one of the gang that he might be gay.

The background has indeed been portrayed very fancifully over time. In Henry King’s Jesse James, the lead is played by a fresh-faced Tyrone Power whose life of crime is provoked after his mother is ripped off her land by the advancing railroad. In that film most of Jesse’s criminal activity focuses on him taking revenge on the railroad company itself. Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James starts with the bungled bank robbery in Northfield Minnesota and presents a series of flashback recollections by third parties before the fateful moment when Jesse has his back to Ford while he adjusts an off-kilter picture on the wall. In a couple of instances the ‘picture’ is in fact one of those embroidered mottos. In Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James the picture is a portrait of some unknown person. In that film, and in Dominik’s, we are also given the information that Ford made a living for awhile by recreating the assassination on the stage and presenting it over and over again before wide-eyed audiences.

My friend Bruce Hodsdon remarked to me after seeing Dominik’s film that he thought the Fuller offers more ideas and, for its time, stylistic revision of classic Hollywood narrative (right from the start Fuller was creating his own genre) than Dominik does in these post-Malick times. Dominik’s film takes twice the viewing time and somewhere between 50 -100 times the budget (in real terms). To Bruce it seemed that Dominik is seeking to elevate ambiguity into an Art form which certainly has its limits and the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Bruce found the new film a trip not without interest though and thought it may be a suitable requiem for the James legend in the cinema.

It’s doubtful if this is the last word. There is probably already another film-maker out there who has just put his own script in a bottom drawer but may impatiently wait a decade or so before the story is successfully pitched to another money man. Some of those pitches in the past have been most imaginative. Perhaps the most conceited was Walter Hill’s version of the story The Long Riders which had various sets of acting brothers, Keachs, Carradines, Quaids and Guests playing the James, Youngers Millers and Fords who formed the gang that had that ill-fated crack at the Northfield Minnesota bank. The Carradines in fact have a long history with the James legend. John Carradine played Robert Ford in the Henry King version and re-appeared again in the Nicholas Ray film. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then you have to think that Philip Kaufman studied the Nicholas Ray version very hard indeed. The staging of the robbery in Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid is eerily familiar to the way it’s handled in the Ray film.

One element that runs through the Fuller film, the Ray film and the Dominik film is the use of the traditional ballad. I have remembered since my first viewing of the Ray film the lines about the “dirty little coward who shot Mr Howard”. In Fuller's film the song is sing by a bar-room balladeer to Ford hilself and in Dominik's film Nick Cave has a similar duty and sings the whole song before a drunken Ford interrupts the proceedings in a New York tavern. I saw the Ray film again just recently on the American DVD and until then I was unaware that the famous scene in which Jesse and Frank ride their horses off a cliff top into a river to escape the chasing posse lifted the footage of that moment that was shot for the Henry King version way back in 1939.

But back to the present and Dominik’s film. After making a legend of Chopper Read in what was the best Australian film of its year, it’s taken him another seven years to get a second movie going. I presume it was his choice to attempt to deconstruct both the James and Ford legends. I must confess that young directors who wait out these sorts of periods don’t always do themselves a favour when they could be honing their craft if not their art on stuff that is less ambitious and less expensive. But I have no idea how Dominik has been spending his time and so shouldn’t be too prescriptive. As it is, he’s decided to pack a lot in to the 160 minutes he’s taken to tell the story. Part of that length may be related to the fact that commerce requires him to give as much attention to Brad Pitt as Jesse as it does to the far more interesting story of Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. Thus after the assassination we then get a lengthy time devoted to Ford’s activities, his love life and how he did or didn’t cope with his celebrity and notoriety. The story is brilliantly told segment by segment. Each has some wonderful staging especially the scenes of Ford doing his theatre performances. Maybe however you just want to find a key to why Jesse was as he was rather than another incomplete and thus unsatisfactory interpretation of his short life.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

John and Adam and Rudy and Baz

Coincidences are everywhere and context is everything. On the day when I finally saw Rudolph Nureyev’s and Robert Helpmann’s film version of the ballet Don Quixote, I also saw Adam Shankman’s Hairspray, a major box office hit which needs no recommendation from me.

Nureyev’s dancing was not recorded in many films. Notwithstanding this he still has his devoted band of followers. In Paris a society dedicated to keeping his name alive presents an annual program at the Ciematheque. We attended it’s 2004 screening where an Austrian film version of Swan Lake was the centerpiece. The evening was memorable in various ways. I’d never before seen Nureyev dance in any extended fashion and when you see him in the film you realize how extraordinary he was. His leaps, his athleticism, his grace – it was sheer overpowering animal skill. The film knew what the audience wanted – an obsessive need to see the great man’s art. The film version of Don Quixote was no different. It’s hard to follow any narrative. There’s a Spanish village and a handsome young man played by Nureyev. He seems to flirt with most of the young women but one, danced by the wonderful Lucette Aldous, spends most of her time fighting the others off him. Then Don Quixote played by Robert Helpmann comes into the village and spots the young woman. He converts her into various dream like apparitions, discovers her in flagrante with Rudolph and then moves on. The film was shot in an aircraft hangar at Essendon Airport using the Australian Ballet for all the other roles. Aldous was the star of the day, of a decade or so in fact. Helpmann was co-artistic director of the Ballet in those days. Nureyev is credited with the choreography “after Petipa’. The camera doesn’t miss a beat in keeping you fully informed about the dancing.

Which brings me to Hairspray. I don’t know if Adam Shankman has made anything else. Here he’s credited with the direction and the choreography. His ability to direct his own dance numbers is much less than his choreographic skills. In fact the direction of the ensemble numbers seems to be taken straight from the Baz Luhrman/Moulin Rouge school whereby the dancers’ feet are resolutely kept out of frame and the editing reduces the numbers to shapeless messes. Why this method should be chosen is beyond me but as always with Baz he’s always starting things which have a malign effect when others try to use them. It is quite ruinous in many of what should be exhilarating moments of a film which otherwise has a sweet and positive message about tolerance and racial integration in suburban Baltimore of the sixties. My viewing of it came only a couple of days after enduring our current Prime Minister’s recent set of weasel words about Aboriginal reconciliation and the comparison only served to remind of odiousness and sanctimony wherever it rears its ugly head. Hairspray has some great comedy, some lovely songs, engaging character types played with enthusiasm and some really great musical moments especially with the black kids who seem to be dancing their lives away on permanent detention. But the filming and editing of those ensemble dance numbers really left a lot to be desired.

Hairspray also reminded me that still out there are at least three great shows adapted from movies and transformed into wonderful stage musicals. Why no one has ever got them back onto celluloid is a mystery. It’s also a mystery as to why no one has ever bothered to produce them on stage in Australia. The first is Stephen Sondheim's Passion, adapted from the wonderful Scola film Passione D'Amore. Then there is the fabulous Kander and Ebb version of Kiss of the Spiderwoman which I saw on my one trip to Broadway lo many years ago and which still electrifies the memory and then, much less well-known I admit, is Douglas Cohen’s adaptation of No Way to Treat a Lady a small scale show for four actors and a small band which really has some of the very smartest songs ever written and a great ‘book’. As with the Sodheim I’ve only ever heard the show on CD and even in that form its terrific. An actor acquaintance Ito whom once lent the CD of No Way to Treat a Lady suggested that nowadays people are a bit sensitive about doing shows about serial killers and muderers who top their female victims on stage and that might be the cause of any reluctance to put the before today's audiences. Political correctness rears its head. I dont see it myself so could someone pull the finger out either here or there.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Grapple Tackled

I’m beginning to feel like a misanthrope and a curmudgeon. When did I notice I hear you say. The good new movies just aren’t coming at the moment through though the good old ones are. A recent unexpected DVD viewing of Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive reminded me of just how precious is the work of some of those artists whose output consists of just a few small infrequent jewels. The current art house rave After the Wedding comes wrapped in the sort of kudos that indicate a likely certifiable hit. It has won nominations and prizes everywhere including the audience award at the Sydney Film Festival for most popular film. Yet I cant help feeling that what I got from it was a rather large dose of manipulation by virtue of a script whose method seems to be to introduce, at near frenetic pace for such an intimate enterprise, coincidental and/or choreographed script developments designed to cause a shock or surprise at each turn. (At this point be warned I’m not going to bother concealing plot developments). Jacob is working as a schoolteacher in an Indian orphanage. The Director, Mrs Shaw, says a Danish would-be benefactor wants Jacob to go to Copenhagen and explain what the place is up to before a bucket of money will be tipped in to save the orphanage from closure. He heads off reluctantly and has a cursory meeting with the benefactor Jorgen, a big time businessman/property developer, loving husband and good father of young twins and a marriage age daughter. He invites Jacob to the daughter’s wedding the next day and Jacob suddenly sees his old flame who abandoned him in India, not being able to compete with the freely available drugs and promiscuous sex that Jacob enjoyed. We then realize that Jacob is the daughter’s biological father. The new marriage quickly descends into chaos as the daughter works out what’s going on and goes further into instant farce via an episode of philandering, (foreshadowed by some early flirting by the groom when he first meets Jacob). When this is tucked away, Jorgen admits he’s got cancer and very soon dies. But before that he need to settle accounts, as does everyone else. On and on the script goes, working us over, trying to wrench the emotions on ever more flimsily created occasions. Now that I think back to the director’s previous Open Hearts I see the same powers of contrivance beginning to get to work. That film did have some emotional punch and you didn’t get the feeling you were being constantly set up. The Dogma tradition which this film tags along on, is actually rather replete with such methods when you come to think about. And yet the critics and reviewers find this stuff ‘emotional and engaging” and “a captivating, precision-executed relationships drama” and best of all from some stoneheart on the Wall Street Journal, "a thrilling and beautiful celebration of the unpredictability of life." One man's unpredictability is another's script contrivance I fear. Needless to say the film has the sort of ‘happy ending” that apparently sends crowds out into the night with a warm inner glow. I thought, however, I’d been the subject of an artistic grapple tackle and had only just escaped.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Cult Following

The Final Winter has sprung from nowhere. Financed privately, it was a last-minute inclusion in the Sydney Film Festival and has found a (I assume) Sydney based distributor who has put up the money for a dozen or more prints and a good ad campaign to go out mostly through the art houses. It lists, in two groups, seven executive producers, followed by two producers, a director, Jane Forrest, and a co-director. The auteur of the movie is its writer/lead actor and former Rugby League player Matt Nable. Set in the 80s when Rugby League was the cult game that dominated Sydney and Brisbane sport it’s subject is a brutish player Mike Henderson, nickname Grub, who plays for one of the impoverished, underperforming inner suburban teams headed for extinction. Off the field he’s a nice guy who doesn’t cheat on his wife and two kids, but is prone to drink too much and erupt with the same kind of violence he’s known for on the field. (The representation of football’s beer culture is one of its very best elements). His more skilful brother has left the club behind and is playing for one of the fancy teams. The president of the club is trying to woo the brother back to get a ‘marquee player’ for the club to boost its status. (That’s not a phrase I recall from the 80s but there you are). For the first bit of the film there is a long sequence where all the casual brutality of Rugby League, then and now, is on display. It then covers a week in Grub’s life after he assaults his brother on the field, spends much time agonizing as to whether he’ll be suspended, charts his fragile domestic relationship (“I want back the man I married. I want Mike Henderson not Grub!”) examines the future of the team given the President’s ambitions involve a clean-out of the staff and has a sad/happy ending when Grub accepts his life and fate. TV melodramatics abound. They aren’t helped by some of the actors delivering clunky lines without much skill and by some actors going over the top. John Jarratt (or as he’s referred to in the Dendy’s ads John Jarrat, or as he’s referred to in the Palace ads John Jarret) seems to be still under the influence of his role in Wolf Creek and mugs endlessly. Much of the ground was trod once before in Bruce Beresford’s rather slipshod version of David Williamson’s The Club. That film too succumbed to footy nostalgia with lots of cameos by once big names now balding and rotund.

I remain intrigued however as to why Sydney people keep investing in films about Rugby League. This minor cult sport, nowadays played at frequently near empty stadiums for the benefit of large numbers of TV viewers in the two northern states, is an impenetrable mystery to most outside those areas. Despite millions of Rupert’s money being spent on a Melbourne team the matches there are still played in phone booths to almost complete disdain and shown on TV in the early hours of the morning. They don’t play it at all in the west or the south. Listening to Matt Nable on radio yesterday he was no doubt on message when he spoke of its universal values and that this is a film for all sports fans. Hmm. Sports fans actually like going to or watching sport. But this is the second Rugby League film in a year. The last one, Khoa Do’s Footy Legends had buckets of taxpayer funding from the Sydney-based authorities and was without doubt the worst Australian film of the year. That one opened in over a hundred cinemas nationwide and closed after the minimum statutory terms were reached, grossing around half a million. This one is less ambitious but I doubt it will have any greater impact though some will praise its honesty, truth etc and its performances, especially Nable's. I note that the ads are already mentioning three four star ratings given to it.

I sat alone in Hoyts George Street Cinema 3 to watch. Admittedly it was APEC Saturday and the city was deserted thanks to endless police warnings of imminent violent behavior. The only such behavior I saw was the unsavory late tackles, punch ups, all-ins, head highs, coat-hangers, Liverpool kisses and bar-room brawls that characterise Rugby League even after its move from the inner suburbs to the (empty) stadiums.. Now its up mainly to the denizens of the art houses to make or break it. That will be interesting.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Selling Out

It would be nice to think that all the attention that SBS is getting is only its just desserts for its wholesale introduction of crassness into a service that was once a stand out cultural beacon in the wasteland of free to air television. There was once nothing like it in the world. During those golden decades when David Stratton was presenting both new films of the highest quality and, in parallel, an unrivalled collection drawn from the greatest films of the past, the station represented something unique and precious. It owned soccer and cycling, its documentaries were as the program called them “Cutting Edge”, it gave us international news reporting each night of the highest order and set new standards for subtitling (see below). Then the management let both the key people and the high standards slip away. They thought they knew best but it’s plain to see of course they really have very little idea. I didn’t mind the channel showing commercials between programs but clearly the advertisers did and the old thin edge of the wedge finally destroyed the channel’s credibility for those of us who welcomed its presentation of the world's best movies.

It has taken a simple dummy spit from a newsreader (who apparently from the news reports alleges breach of contract because she wasn’t given enough prominence or wasn’t treated with sufficient gravitas) to start the process which just may bring the whole edifice down around the shambling buffoons now running the place. They claim success by having raising the ratings from an average of 6% to 7.5%. (one article suggested that they had raised the ratings by 25%, an assertion of innumeracy if nothing else.) This group includes Board Members like former Packer operative Gerald Stone and former Howard acolyte Christopher Pearson. Pearson once assured the readers of his column in a Murdoch rag that SBS would not be placing ads in the middle of movies. I haven’t seen, nor had reported to me, any recantation so maybe he still believes that’s the case.

Now SBS is on the back foot. Its newsreader is having meetings with senior management about exit or, most unlikely, re-entry arrangements and its senior management is drawing headlines like “Mary Kostakidis’ walkout highlights how SBS has been hijacked by deluded management” (SMH, 25/26 August). An ominous note from contrarian Paul Sheehan headed “SBS an indulgence we don’t need” (SMH 27 August) should give us all the shivers. What hope is there for it to revert to its more modest ambitions and its unique programming? Probably not much but there might just be a small moment at hand for someone in the political class to rise up and say enough is enough, that management and the governing board have failed and that they all need to move on and take their failure with them.

I mentioned above the work that David Stratton did in presenting the riches of the world’s film heritage for over twenty years. The program was generally called Cinema Classics and I estimate that David screened more than a thousand films in that time. It was a program replete with everything from curiosities like the Mexican Bunuels (just now re-screened at BIFF) to virtually every film made by Akira Kurosawa. If you made a copy of each you would have a library of unsurpassed breadth and quality. Of course we all forgot the films were on and forgot to set the recorder and went out drinking or whatever. But you have the right to expect that SBS would have retained the unique subtitles that it created for each of these works. (Often those subtitles were the first ever to be done of some films. I’m told there are copies of these films circulating, illegally, in quality US video rental stores. Piracy is a crime but cinephilia trucks no such restrictions.) But has SBS preserved this unique material or have its managers, amongst all the other mayhem they've committed, let this resource be lost or destroyed? It’s a question that needs an answer by somebody competent to examine the channel’s activities in recent years.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Action Men

The multiplexes have suddenly delivered a small set of films about men in action that provide some interesting turns. Kevin Costner, Anthony Hopkins, Bruce Willis and Tommy Turgoose all give us some variations on men being violent. Costner's Mr Brooks has so much plot and so many characters it takes an eternity to tell its tale of a nice well-mannered serial killer whose alter ego is the real villain. Thus Costner can be a nice guy, mostly, and its left to William Hurt sitting in the back seat to say, or put in front of us, all those nasty guilt ridden things that schizophrenic serial killers may or may not endure. The conception is cute and if it had been made back in the glory days of RKO it may have been genuinely disturning because Jacques Tourneur and De Witt Bodeen may have worked out a way to keep us guessing as to whether Mr Brook's shadowy accomplice is real or imagined. Much may have been made of the alter ego's impotence perhaps. It has only one moment that one might call Hitchcockian when Costner agaonises as to whether he should save his daughter from prison by devising a murder that will get her out of the suspicions of the police. It doesn't last long. Fracture has a similar Hitchcockian moment, better done and with a bit of oomph when Ryan Gosling as the young lawyer tryinjg to nail ultra smart murderer Anthony Hopkins has to decide whether to abandon his integrity and 'frame' the man we clearly know committed the murder for the murder. It doesn't last that long but the film's plot at least has you wondering how the moral dilemma is going to be resolved and what twists and turns it will take to do so. Otherwise Fracture is just a detective story with tricks aplenty, not dissimilar to a John Grisham story. It is entirely devoid of any sensibility that might suggest that it inhabits anything other than a fairy tale world of good guys and bad guys and princesses who's hand is to be won or rejected.

The difference between both of these films and a genuine crime story is the palpable difference where you get involved in the downj and dirty details of the locales and all the people. Admittedly lawyer's offices aren't conducive to such details. To put it bluntly these two are modern film's equivalents of Agatha Christie and what we, at least I, really desire is the modern film equivalent of Carl Hiaasen or George P Pelecanos. Unfortunately the cinema's one attempt to do Hiaasen, Striptease, was a travesty and as far as I know nobody has even attempted to do Pelecanos. I can see why. The details of their stories, the backgrounds, the encyclopaedic knowledge of locale and local custom are too hard to render in a movie where the main action involves getting you from point A to point AA quickly and with a modicum of violence on the way.

That's why the Die Hard franchise is so effective. It does what it does without any great pretension and is far more inventive about the details of its background than the other films. Of course it's all invented and you wonder how on earth a villain could finance the elaborate scheme devised to destroy America's computer networks. Actually you only wonder that afterwards because while it's happening you get a mountain of often ugly CGI effects showing much near incendiary and visceral violence. The Asian bad girl is a terrific villainess and the kung fu kicking she gives Bruce Willis is very good indeed. You actually dont have much sympathy for him at all while it's happening.

And Tommy Turgoose. Well he operates as a sort of mascot to a group of skinheads in the North of England. The group divides into two - one racist, the other not. The other however still thinks that having a good time destroying derelict aprtment buildings is a good thing and quite forgivable. Through Tommy's eyes he discovers the sub-culture that formed as Thatcher thrashed her way through the Fallkands and bands I've never heard of play something the ads called 80s classics on the soundtrack. It's funny to get a piece about this subject which seems to serve only as nostalgia though the moment when Combo and his racist gang, lead by young Shaun stride out in Leone-esque slow motion has a deal of droll fun to it.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman

As I sat down to write a Film Alert I switched on the radio and heard news of the death of Ingmar Bergman. News Radio was running a report from the BBC’s Arts Correspondent who gave a quick rundown on a career that lasted over fifty years making almost sixty feature films. For cinephiles I suspect that their individual discovery of Bergman, particularly if that occurred in the fifties, was a moment that opened eyes and minds to ideas far beyond what had previously been regarded as the norms of narrative cinema. Bergman’s stories were different and so were his methods of telling them.

A teacher at my high school gave me a copy of four Bergman scripts published in a single volume. I read Wild Strawberries and confessed my puzzlement at its mysterious combination of flashbacks and dreams. It was patiently explained to me but it was a year or so later, at a MUFS screening, before I saw the film and ‘understood’ Victor Sjostrom’s journey. That was followed by Smiles of a Summer Night, dripping with sex but as well with entirely uninhibited behaviour. There was the quite intense The Face a k a The Magician and then The Seventh Seal. That last seemed to be the most profound film ever made, grappling with death and God’s vengeance in an almost fearful way. His actors and his technicians, especially the photographer Gunnar Fischer, seemed to be in a different league to everyone else.

Yet fashions changed and we sated ourselves on directors like Frank Tashlin, Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. Bergman seemed to be too po-faced, too serious. His comedies like The Devil’s Eye and Let’s Talk About Women weren’t funny. Not like Frank Tashlin’s anyway. Bergman became an occasional controversialist, only making a splash with films like The Silence which was deliberately obscurantist but heavily into carnal sex. We didn’t get to see such films in their entirety anyway. It took me years to ascertain for sure whether the rumour about the couple having ‘actual’ sex in the cinema was true or not. It wasn’t.

Bergman’s mature years seemed to be his greatest. The trilogy of Persona, Hour of the Wolf and Shame, made between 1966 and 1968 remains a landmark and probably will be his most enduring work. He was fifty when he completed those films and went on to make almost twenty more films including some of his most popular. He won Oscars. I thought he won for Cries and Whispers but the SMH today only mentions for Fanny and Alexander.

His last film Saraband was made for TV in 2003. It featured Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson and picked up on the characters from the earlier Scenes from a Marriage taking both of them through to a quieter, more contemplative time in their lives. As with all of his work however, it’s the woman who has gained a sense of repose, the man is still in a modest state of turmoil. It’s Josephson whom Bergman makes to bare not only his soul but his rather gnarled and knobby body. Ullmann provided Bergman with a continuous, near miraculous, portrait of woman in all her glory and you imagine that the director contemplated her beauty, her resolve and her strength with continual fascination over thity years or so. There is a sense about his films with Ullmann that no matter how often he did contemplate this Galatea he could never quite fathom all her mysteries.

In recent years the magic of DVD distribution has allowed almost all of Bergman’s work to be revealed again. This has included all the films made before 1955, the year that he made Smiles of a Summer Night. Those films are generally more straightforward, more melodramatic and, possibly for budgetary reasons, much more constrained in their locations and range of characters. They are still eternally fascinating and they include magnificent works like Sawdust and Tinsel, Secrets of Women and A Lesson in Love.

It’s hard to say that Bergman has been ‘an influence’. Perhaps the dark foreboding of much Scandinavian cinema owes something to him but really his stories were so much his own that they were never really absorbed into the mainstream method. Only Woody Allen, whom I’ve also heard paying tribute as I write this, seemed to want to go so far as both parodying and imitating him. The rest of the film world finally just stood back in awe at his continued exploration of his themes and his continued fascination with death, decay and the possibility that we might have to account for ourselves to a maker. His talent was unique and I suspect that for a long time to come his films will feature in all those lists of Ten Bests and Persona in particular will forever be regarded as one of the very few finest works of art produced for the cinema.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Oz Comedy

My thanks to the reader who rang to say that Clubland is the best Oz comedy since Muriel's Wedding. Indeed it is so I thought I'd share that with you.

Digital goodies

Mention of Jia Zhangke in Paul Martin's comment on the piece on Clubland makes me put up a quick note about him and his film which still has a screening at the Brisbane festival to come to complete its trip around the Australian festival circuit. Still Life is indeed a masterpiece, as are almost all of Jia's films. Since it premiered at Venice last year and initially got generally bagged or worse dismissed by a stupefied press contingent forced to watch it at midnight, it has gone on to great critical success. It has also been sold for commercial distribution in 66 countries. Jia Zhangke also produced a film, directed by Han Jie, a member of his production company, titled Walking on the Wild Side which I was enthralled by when I saw it last year at Vancouver. It's a ripping story of a trio of juvenile delinquents playing up big time in China's backblocks. I think only the Brisbane Festival has been smart enough to pick that one up and it screens there next week as well.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

At Clubland I saw the future and started to fear

This note follows on from an earlier post about digital projection, which actually drew a few responses and you can find it below somewhwere if your curiosity is piqued. But start at the start. The Ulladulla Arcadia is a nice name for a cinema of the future and if you wanted to see Transformers or the latest Harry Potter or a couple of others you would have been served with a picture provided by a nice warm, comforting 35mm print. If however you choose to see Clubland you pay your money to see murky grey green yellow images, entirely lacking in definition or clarity, drained of color and with lines occasionally rippling up the screen. The image is far worse than you would have ever seen by hiring a VHS video of the film and playing it on a twenty year old TV set. That image was provided by some digital device or other and there was a screen announcement that it would be screened that way an instant before the film started. I feared the worst.

This was somewhat a pity largely because the film seems to be a very bright sparky comedy with lots of very knowing things to say about how young people start their sex lives, the sort of pressures they place on themselves, the fake mature analysis they put themselves through and, towering above some of them, the mothers from hell who can manipulate, manipulate, manipulate and manipulate and when they've finished manipulating start manipulating again. Brenda Blethyn does this act with scrupulous and hilarious intensity. Its quite amazing to see a Brit pro do this sort of performance and do it every inch and every second of the show. It's hard to see her being beaten for the AFI best Female Actor award. Similarly it's hard to go past the performances of the two kids for sheer winning qualities as well. Emma Booth as Jill is simply gorgeous as well as brilliant and she delivers a lot of those lines where she has to race through dialogue about her self-esteem, her image and her standing in her girl friend's eyes with great technical skill. Ultimately its's very funny indeed. Keith Thompson's script may well be the most funny ha ha script written here in a decade or more. Off the top of my head I cant think of anything that surpasses it. But.....

Back to the image. Truly you have to wonder why it is that such a shoddy thing was shown at all. An enquiry to the very charming young manager, who asked as we left had we enjoyed the show, led to the following points being made. and I quote as near to verbatim as my memory permits: "Yes it was a very poor image indeed but this was the only film they were screening in digital. It was supplied by a "little distributor" and the cinema, deep on the mid-South Coast, could only expect to get digital copies from that source. More generally digital copies were supplied by one of two labs. One lab usually provided good copies. the other usually provided mediocre copies. This one came from the other. Yes, there were ripples, yes the color did bleed and spray out, yes the blues had turned to yellow on occasion. Sorry about that. Come back and see something else on 35mm."

Given the experience you have to wonder whether you might be wary of such future presentations. You also have to wonder whether equipping cinemas with digital projectors is worth the money. If patrons begin to instinctively sniff that certain films might be digitally projected and if those films include the best or near-best Australian film made this year then the expansion of access to these films via cheap digital copies may, thanks to distributor parsimony I suspect, turn counter-productive for those people, especially those in the backblocks who will only see the films under these conditions. People who sit through such images may eventually choose to wait for the DVD or worse, not bother to watch it all.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Book of Numbers

Black Book is Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch film for over two decades. The half dozen films he made before he went stateside in the late 80s to shock the international bourgeoisie with Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man were the work of a consummate vulgarian. He was, like Miike Takashi, a director whose vulgarities I prefer, utterly unafraid to show sex and violence in graphic detail. He reveled in and relished it. The best film of his earlier Dutch career Spetters, a film about unadorned teenage sex and casual violence, was, I thought, gut wrenching. After one more film, the carefully choreographed The Fourth Man Hollywood beckoned and he gave a lot of oomph to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career with Total Recall and Sharon Stone’s reputation with Basic Instinct. Showgirls, a film much derided in its day, and probably the most consummate of his consummate vulgarities, still has its admirers, most notably, here anyway, Adrian Martin and David of ‘Margaret and David At the Movies’.

I suspect that Verhoeven had lofty ambitions for Black Book but first let me digress into a little biography. An Australian soldier taken prisoner of war in Crete once confessed to me his dislike of the Dutch. ‘They would not fight the Germans” he said, and as well “They only organized a Resistance when it was clear Hitler was going to lose”. Verhoeven’s view of the Dutch Resistance has the same sour outlook. It was, he proposes, venal, self-serving, anti-Semitic and duplicitous. It’s key organizers walked both sides of the street and had an unhealthy interest in getting a share of Nazi treasure. The heroine of Black Book is a Jewish woman whose principles are put to the test and whose bravery is never questioned. She is asked to ingratiate herself into the affection of the head of the Gestapo, starts sleeping with him and falls in love. Nevertheless she never betrays those principles, even those exercised in the bedroom with her handsome Nzi lover, has a higher purpose. She is one of the few lead characters about whom this can be said. While for a long stretch you think this is a Boys Own adventure about outsmarting the Nazis in fact the Dutch 'Resistance' gets a right going over and the film ends with much bitterness and a very sour taste.

In Verhoeven’s usual fashion the violence is fairly explicit and there’s much female flesh on show. I wish I could remember the phrase someone recently told me about Verhoeven’s interests in displaying female breasts but I cant so I content myself simply with noting the frequency with which the female lead Carice Van Houten is required to take off her top is probably a record for a mainstream feature made in the prim years of the first decade of the 21st century.

But, notwithstanding the interesting subject and the sex and the violence, the film still plays too much like one of those derring –do Brit movies of the fifties rather than something has been made just last year. Maybe my taste now means that it needs a Ken Loach and Paul Laverty or a Paul Greengrass to give it gravitas and depth. It seemed to me just that bit mechanical and that everything was being done by the numbers. Maybe if Verhoeven had sought recapture the full frontal attack mode he used for Spetters or Turkish Delight it would have gripped me more.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Death of Edward Yang (1947-2007)

The Taiwanese film-maker Edward Yang made only seven films between 1983 and 2000. Such was his reputation from those films that the tributes to him have flooded in since it was announced that he had died on June 29 after a long battle with colon cancer. I never saw his first film That Day, On the Beach (1983) but it’s appearance was enough for people to cause comparisons with the work of Michaelangelo Antonioni. His next film Taipei Story (1985) remains one of my personal favorites indeed It’s included in my top ten of all time as recorded on the Senses of Cinema website. That film starred Yang’s friend and colleague Hou Hsiao-hsien and together they formed the backbone of a new Taiwanese cinema that has continued to entrance international, if not domestic, audiences to this day. Hou and Yang are key figures of the cinema in the last two decades of the 20th century.

Yang’s output over that time was quite small, a mere seven features since his debut. Hou has been more prolific but Yang also spent much time as a teacher and he worked on a number of projects with his own students. Nevertheless the small number of films he made in the 90s were quite extraordinary beginning with a masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day (1991) , continuing with A Confucian Confusion (1994), Mahjong (1996) and capping iall off with Yi Yi /A One and a Two… (2000). Some have been shown on SBS but the last-mentioned film, which won him the Best Director prize at Cannes that year, is regrettably, I feel certain in saying, the only one of his films available on DVD in Australia. Its story of a family in present day Taipei delves into so many of the cross-currents and contradictions of modern Chinese society as each family member comes to the forefront in the broad canvas laid before us.

When Yi Yi was screened at the Brisbane Film Festival Tony Rayns’ program note said: “Directed with a formal precision that never masks the warmth of its feelings for the characters, the film suggests that the ways in which we deal with our problems change very little over the years, even if the problems themselves do change. Yang marshals a dozen major characters and nearly as many strands of storyline…with apparently effortless clarity. Yi Yi offers a wordly and very wise vision of the way we live now.”

Which sums up quite a lot about Yang’s achievement in one small para. I never met him and as far as I know he never visited Australia, at least not to present any of his films to a public audience. A pity really because he was someone special and his small output is likely to be reshown, revived and discussed for a long time to come. If you want to know just how deep and wide the reverence for him is then just google his name and you’ll find tributes by Variety, the New York Times, the Guardian and The Independent very prominent among the dozens of other references. The obit in The Independent was written by Tony Rayns and tells more of the man himself than most of the others and describes him as ‘a committed independent whose movies spoke eloquently for his wry detachment from the political and economic chaos around him.” A full scale retro is called for to celebrate a major film-maker who died, at the age of 59, far too young.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Bee warned

Marina Prior enters the stage from the theatre itself. Blonde bewigged, she struts across the mocked up high school auditorium, adjusts her décolletage, pouts at the audience and starts ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Already the audience, especially the non-subscription seat holders up the back and on the second tier of the Sydney Theatre, are whooping and whistling with pleasure. We’re in for a happy, easily pleased night. Magda Szubanski’s entrance has much the same effect. She mugs her way onto the stage, her squat bulk only partly concealed beneath a boy’s school uniform. Her character is named William Barfee, ‘pronounced Barfay’ she constantly reminds others, perhaps an echo of WC Field’s Egbert Souse,’with a grave’.

This musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin has a lot of bite and much to say about parental and youthful ambition. It has some funny lines and seems to allow Prior and her co-judge Tyler Coppin to improvise more than a bit. It’s staging owes more than a little to old-fashioned panto with much audience participation, including four who are called up to join in the spelling competition and encouraged to act up more than a bit. On the night we saw the show one audience inductee couldn’t spell ‘Jihad’ and was ejected early. One kept spelling words correctly that clearly she was not expected to, causing consternation, cracking up and behind the hand smirking from the professional cast. At least that was the way it was played that night. Maybe it’s like Siegfried and Roy’s show where even the apparently aleatory moments are completely planned.

Prior did her star turn beautifully. It’s been more than a decade since I last saw her as Maria in Ian Judge's great production of West Side Story and she can still bring the audience in and send them home happy. For one moment she and the rest of the cast were outclassed by a kid called Josie Lane who sings ‘I Speak Six Languages”, a song about ambition and expectations. Lane sings it so brilliantly you wonder whether you were present when a star was born. Her bio indicates this may be about the first time she’s ever been paid to perform.

Finally the show has one unusual moment you wont find in Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jamie McGregor sings ‘My Unfortunate Erection’, a matter not normally the subject of a song and dance show. This is the second of Finn’s musicals to be done here, after Falsettos a decade or so ago. They are, as Bruce McAvaney is prone to say, a bit special.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Salt of the Earth

I saw a couple of dozen films at the Sydney Film Festival and had seen a dozen or so already in Adelaide or Vancouver. (The latter included Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana and Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach, all great films, and most of the New Crowned Hope films. You can check out what I liked in a couple of pieces I contributed at www.sensesofcinema.com.) At the SFF there was one further standout, Flanders directed by Bruno Dumont. It seems to have been entirely ignored in the modest post-festival wraps that have appeared so here goes a paean of praise for this is the kind of film that justifies any Festival’s existence.

After four features, now it’s clear that Dumont is already one of the major European film-makers, as distinctive in his voice and approach as any of the best half dozen French film-makers of the last three decades. I don’t know which of Dumont’s films, if any, have already been screened in Sydney. The festival catalogue was pretty skimpy with any information about directors’ bios or any previous films screened here. Whether or not he’s had exposure it was apparent that the morning audience was ready to sit still and be put through Dumont’s personal griller.

Flanders heads back to his native soil, the harsh and rude country of the north. It also heads back, after his unfortunate digression to California for an exploration of the lives of shiftless sophisticates in 29 Palms, to salt of the earth working people. His characters again seem to live in a permanent melancholy that pervaded L’Humanite and The Life of Jesus. They have relationships that are perfunctory and wary. The sex that takes place between them is equally perfunctory. Young characters head into the fields or the barns and get off quickly. The females are rarely satisfied. The sex between Barbe, the promiscuous female lead and her neighbor Demester and that between Barbe and another farm worker she fucks while Demester and another lover Blondel are away on military service is as joyless as it gets. We never actually see her making love to Blondel. It’s his death that devastates her and sends her into an asylum.

Dumont takes this biological microcosm a step further by removing his rural working class lads from their environment and sending them off to fight a war in one of France’s African colonies. It might be anywhere and any war. The boys embark on ajourney into the unknown on horseback, splitting away from an armoured unit to head into the hills. At this point the film is at it’s most Brechtain and you have to wonder whether Dumont might see his characters as the descendants of the bewildered buffoons who went of to war on the promise of treasure in Godard’s Les Carabiniers.

Only one of Barbe’s lovers, Demester, returns. He abandoned Blondel to his fate when chased by nameless African insurgents but does feel remorse and guilt. Finally Demester is able to confess his love for Barbe, a love that he had denied expressing and which thus contributed to her promiscuity and her breakdown.

This is bleak. No question. But it has a ring of truth about human experience and the limits, especially, of male expression. It’s a theme that Dumont has pursued through all his work and I guess we cant expect him to change. His rural France is a world away from Parisian sophistication.

To the accusation of misogyny I can only say that showing misogynists at their coldest and most brutal doesn’t endorse them nor even seek pity for them. His denizens of rural France are as they are. This is an unvarnished truth told in a manner that sets the camera just far enough away to ensure that we bring our curiosity, don’t abandon our sympathy, but see people in a manner that shows the truth of their lives.

Finally given the programming placement, to see this film a day in proximity to Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe serves to emphasize the difference between someone young engaging with society and someone old withdrawing from it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Evening's empire returns into sand

Geoffrey Rush strides straight through the performance space at the Belvoir Theatre, the epitome of military hauteur. He returns a short time later, an aging monarch overseeing the last remaining days of his tattered regime. Flunkies flunk and wives fuss, imperiousness is everywhere and his personal physician has given up hope. The set shows struts holding up the crumbling palace walls. My second Ionesco play comes forty years after the first , a production of The Chairs starring Max Gillies in my first week at University. We’re all getting old so this arrives just in time for a quick morale boost. Everything is connected.

Rush and Neil Armfield have been working on their translation of Ionesco’s Exit The King for years we are led to believe. Whatever the length of its genesis, its timing in a full-throttle production at Belvoir is exquisite, coming as it does as we enter the last dark days of our own tatty ruling elite. Given the timing it’s almost impossible not to see the play through the prism of John Howard’s coming downfall. It’s all there in the first half of the play, the much better half, (before the elevated thespian histrionics take over and there is a somewhat sluggish prolonged, attempt at gravitas.)

Before intermission we are treated to a cruelly funny depiction of the tyrant fading away – the fits, the temper, the expressions of wonderment that everyone could be so ungrateful. It all has a familiar ring and makes the jokes just that much more thrilling. Rush knows it. He plays up for all he’s worth and he has this brilliant set of supports – Bille Brown, Gillian Jones and the divine Rebecca Massey.

The theatre was full on a Tuesday night and they clapped and cheered and laughed endlessly. Deservedly so, for it was a wonderful night that did much to reinforce every prejudice, or insight, about petty tyrants and their blubbing ways as the end draws nigh.

Monday, June 18, 2007

More on the SFF

I sat through my first theatre emptier last night. It was an austere Korean film called The Last Dining Table. It had a dedication to the Swedish director Roy Andersson and a friend says that provides an interesting entry into the sense that might be made of it. Little by little, with digressions and diversions, it builds a small portrait of life for just a few of Seoul's residents. Some of the behaviour is quite funny and it has some very curious sex scenes including one quite unique moment involving an old woman buying the services of a handsome cabaret performer. That isn't a scene I recall having any parallels elsewhere....Andre Techine's The Witnesses plays with a moment in (gay) history when the AIDS epidemic started and there was panic in both the medical profession and the gay community about just what was happening and what could be done about it. This is reflected mostly through the character of a gay doctor who sees it all up close and personal. Techine moves the story along at an almost breakneck speed as he charts the progress of the disease and the course of various relationships affected by the outbreak. I dont recall a film being made about this element of the epidemic at the time though some of the matters it charts were also the subject of Philadelphia....when I first saw Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates last year I was particularly repelled by what I adjudged to be a scene of violent rape. It occurs when the lead man Isa breaks up from his wife and starts prowling round his former girl friend mostly looking for sex. There's a lot of ambiguity. Does she let him into her flat or does he have a key. He's just there in a flash. Does she lead him on with knowing looks about what's coming? Why doesn't she scream? Is this all, as Manohla Dargis suggested in the New York Times, 'very frisky sex'. Some say yes but I'm not completely convinced but I'm told I'm going against what the director himself intended to convey. Moving past that the story of an older man and the younger wife who realises the relationship is impossible, notwithstanding all the hurt to herself the decision involves, is very good. The film however is not as good as the director's earlier Uzak/Distant or Clouds of May. In those films you think there is something more to get involved with than a portrait of a supreme male egotist. No doubt the portrait of the egotist is something intended to cut to the quick of Turkish male hegemony but watching a lying creep on screen isn't always the most edifying experience no matter how smart the film-making. I also didn't think Ceylan was as good an actor as the actor who took the lead in the other two films. His performance had a little too much of a mannered attempt to be audience friendly....the print of The 5000 Fingers of Dr T was yet another tribute to the art of restoration. A beautiful new 35 mm copy was on show. It had been done for Sony Classics after earlier material had so deteroriated that the film was often screened on TV in black and white. The wonderful number when the instrument playsers do an ensemble dance in the dungeon brought a spontaneous round of applause from the packed house in the State...having now seen Bahman Ghobadi's Half Moon I can now say I've managed to catch all seven of the New Crowned Hope films commissioned or supported by Peter Sellars to celebrate Mozart's 250th anniversary. The enterprise provides more shocks and surprises than might have seemed possible and the fact that Sellars and his Executive Producers Simon Field and Keith Griffith went entirely to the Third World with their commissions is a tribute to their daring and courage and the capacuity to think outside the loop. The immediate thought of anyone but Sellars and his colleagues would no doubt have been to ask the world's most famous directors to do something and a list headed by, well you can nominate your top half dozen. Of course all would have submitted budgets that probably, for each film, would have consumed the funds expended on all seven that were eventually made. Not all did hit my buttons and one, Paraguayan Hammock tries the patience to an unbearable degree. It emptied the theatre pretty early on. Ghobadi's film is uplifting, joyous, a constant surprise and very musical even though we have to wait awhile for the full force of it all. In the meantime the story of a man and his sons travelling to Iraq to dramatise the liberation of the country from Saddam just constantly involves you in a way that several of the other more cerebral films in the series dont..... More later

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Border Incident

I cant claim to be an aficionado of the documentary or, as they have somehow come to be called 'docs'. I think I'd rather read an article about the subject than go through the whole atrchive footage, talking heads, cuurent day, talking heads format. Somehow or other though I found myself in the smaller of the Greater Union George Street cinemasfor a most interesting, indeed even entertaining (not always the same), doco called Crossing the Line about an American soldier who defected to North Korea in 1962 and became, among other things a movie star whose villainous characters were always played by Arthur Cockstud, in the many films he made.

The protagonist is James Joseph Dresnok, a young and almost uneducated man, abused as a child by foster parents (his childhood is like the old joke "my parents moved house six times when I was a kid and I found them five times" ) who jouins the army and finds himself guarding the DMZ in South Korea. He's jacked off with it all and heads across the border. There he comes under the tender ministrations of the North Korean authorities who use him as a battering ram for the rest of his life. He's the one who can tell visitors of the virtues of Kim Il-sung and so on.

He marries twice and has kids but doesn't marry Korean women. His kids speak a fractured form of English but are privileged students at the Foreign languages school from whence the diplomatic corp is selected. There are three others like him. They all appear as Americans in anti-American movies. Two die quite young and then the only remaining one wants out. He tells a story thast Dresnok abused him and is reunited with his Japanese wife. He eventually gets oiut, is sntneced to 30 days in the brig and makes the cover of Time. This above all must have prompted the North Koreans to let Dresnok tell his story. It's fascination never ceases.

This is a BBC doco, made with all the sort of polish that can be applied but it does seem to have had fantastic and unusual access. What remains is for someone to create a season of Arthur Cockstud movies. That would be even more fascinating.

The film has its second screening on Saturday 23 June.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Axe that chopped off the Head of Charles I

Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe is having its two SFF screenings on Friday 22 June, a mere few hours apart. Having had a glimpse of the film already I thought I might try and help fill the house with this note. Be warned. I don’t think the film is ‘lavish’ or ‘witty’ and I didn’t discern much ‘mischievous joy’. It is the product of an ascetic film-maker who has always ploughed a sometimes uncompromising, occasionally unpromising road.

Honore de Balzac and Jacques Rivette could hardly be more different as men or as artists. Balzac was a huge figure given to massive over consumption and prodigious bursts of energy that produced prose that bursts off the page. Some belittled him and his claim to be the greatest French novelsist of all time. Rivette is an aesthete, a film-maker as refined as can be found. He has spent his life involved in politics and plotting and some claim he still pulls the strings behind the scenes at Cahiers du Cinema, even though his name no longer appears on the editorial list.

Balzac lived merely fifty one years but finished 95 works and left many more unfinished. Rivette is almost eighty and has made a couple of dozen films, all meticulously complete although the extreme length of a couple caused them to be re-issued in shorter versions. His films are an acquired taste and only a small number have been seen much outside France. His previous two films, the vampire tale The Story of Marie and Julien (2004) and Va Savoir (2000) both came out on DVD in Australia. (I have written some short notes about Marie and Julien on the website mentioned at the side.) As far as I know, of Rivette’s other films only Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), La Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Hurlevent (1986) had any screenings at all here.

Yet it might be that both of these major figures in their nation’s cultural life of their times are rounded up by a passage from Balzac’s ‘La muse du departement’:

“There is no great talent without great willpower. These twin forces are need to build the huge monument of an individual glory. Superior men keep their brains in a productive state, just like the knights of old kept their weapons in perfect condition. They conquer laziness, they deny themselves all debilitating pleasures…Willpower can and should be a just cause for pride, much more than talent, whereas talent developsd from the cultivation of a gift, willpower is a victory constantly won again over instincts, over inclinations that must be disciplined and repressed, over whims and all kinds of obstacles, over difficulties heroically surmounted.” (quoted in an article by Simon Leys in the New York Review of Books,12 January 1995)

In Paris Nous Appartient (1960), set in the then present, the characters sought to comprehend a political conspiracy that had vague derivations, particularly from ‘Ferragus’, from parts of Balzac’s ‘LHistoire des Treize’ a trilogy of stories about modern Parisian life. Rivette returned to that source again in an episode of his mammoth, made for TV but never shown there, Out One (1971). There, Eric Rohmer plays a professor of literature who is asked questions by Jean-Pierre Leaud. But Leaud is feigning mutness and has to write his questions onto pieces of paper that Rohmer has to decipher. It’s very drole and I assume that Rohmer was able to ad lib his way through the banalities posed to him by Leaud. In 1991 Rivette adapted Balzac’s ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ into La Belle Noiseuse, the story of a painter whose meeting with a young girl causes him to recommence work on his masterpiece. Now the film-maker has formally adapted ‘The Duchess of Langeais’ for Don’t Touch the Axe setting the film in its time, 1834. Again the source is one of the three stories from ‘L’Histoire des Treize’

The story is done as plainly as can be. There is no attempt to create Balzac’s extravagant prose or heated drama. With the exception of a couple of scenes set at Parisian society’s nightly ball, the attention is almost entirely upon the mature but coquettish Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) and her ‘love’ for the besotted Marquis de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu). But her mannered distance isn’t enough for Montriveau and he sets out, brutally, to bring her to heel, to make her grovel …. Other people hover in the background of both characters but the attention is entirely on the two.

As always with Rivette, the sequences invariably take place in real time. The director has again eliminated those elements that might create some artificial sense of drama, most notably by refusing to use any music beyond those few bars played by the orchestras at the balls. Its effect is to intensify the words, the looks, the objects. The grim game being played out by the ‘lovers’ can have no distractions.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A few initial reactions at the SFF

The opening night film was one of those big budget French productions Piaf, directed by Olivier Dahan, from the genre of French equivalents of the English heritage movie. Thus a star turn by a largely, till now unknown actor, covers a French institution with wonderful technical precision while displaying a fair amount of courage in rendering herself ugly for much of the movie. Piaf has had a fascination for me for a long time and her records get played still on the car stereo. In Australia her memory was kept alive and her reputation enhanced especially, a couple of decades ago now, by Jeannie Lewis doing first some concerts and then later a very good turn in a full scale musical drama of her life. That was a show that packed them in for quite awhile.

The structure of the new film was its own worst enemy and I cant resist quoting from A O Scott's otherwise quite supportive piece in the New York Times in which he describes the shifting time stuctures:
" La Vie en Rose, .... has an intricate structure, which is a polite way of saying that it’s a complete mess. Resisting the habit of starting at the end and flashing back to the beginning, it begins at the late middle, goes back to the beginning, comes back to the near-end, jumps around in the early and middle middle and then noodles around between a bunch of almost-ends and the really absolutely final end, with a quick, baffling detour into an earlier part of the early middle. Clear enough?"

I must say that I was a little surprised at the near complete eleimination from the film of Theo Sarapo, Piaf's last husband. he was decades younger than her but the relationship lasted quite a few years until her death. He gets a solitary mention. Those who absorb useless information or who may be curious to see the young Sarapo at the time he was married to Piaf can track him down by watching Franju's Judex in which he had quite a large role.

The Walker has a great subject, a gay guy who makes a living squiring women round the Washington society circles. Woody Harrelson's sassy southern boy is note perfect in his combination of malice, corrupt behaviour, contempt and care for his victims/asssociates. The film cools down into just another crime story in the American fashion with the inevitable deep dark secret at its heart but on the way it's very funny indeed as well as very smart. Its early mindset is so vicious that I got the impression, on later reflection, that it might have once tried to, or wanted to, say a lot more about the interwining of sex and politics and the hearts of darkness that live in the Bush administration but that's not for me to know and all you can judge is what's on the screen. The scandals that have recently emerged about hookers and hypocrisy may have come too late for the film and its writer/director to take the next step deeper into the underbelly of a society that reeks from the clash of politeness and surface civility with deeply inlaid hypocrisy and personal betrayal.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Digital Age descends on your local

Following my little excursion to attempt to see The Italian a Melbourne cinephile has filed a 'you aint seen nothin' riposte'. He writes

Three out of the last four visits to Palace cinemas revealed digital projection of varying levels of unacceptability. COPYING BEETHOVEN, ORCHESTRA STALLS and AS IT IS IN HEAVEN (just why Sydney-siders crossed the street let alone the harbour to see this is another minor miracle for the industry). All digital at Westgarth and Como. Unannounced in the press. A friend sent me an email picture of the little hard drive sent out to one cinema. Plug it into some PC and download the images. Apparently they project as images albeit jerkily.I don't mind digital projection of very high quality. Certainly some digitally produced films turn into great film print experiences. STILL LIFE seen projected digitally looked great. But these other efforts are like watching DVDs on a large home cinema screen. Well, not that large at times. Drained colour, no depth of image, subtitles so huge because they are in proportion to the size of a TV image.Maybe in Sydney you get the one and only film print of some of these great attractions.

I would not know the ins and outs of digital projection but this is something that it is going to agitate us a lot into the future. The projectionists maynot mrely be missing but completely disappeared in the Argentinian fashion, never to be seen again and only their mothers and cinephiles to carry on a lonley vigil.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Have you ever seen The Bicycle Thief?

Cinephilia can be fraught with the unexpected. Now that the Valhalla is gone and the programming of the Chauvel has been taken over by those with mysterious powers to select next to nothing of interest, those seeking the small art house movie that was once the preserve of those venues seem to have keep their eye out on cross-harbour venues like the Cremorne Orpheum. That’s the place where As it is in Heaven has taken the lion’s share of the million bucks the film has grossed at the Oz box-office. It’s not huge by a lot of standards, after all, The Lives of Others has already taken double that amount. But no matter there are now small art house movies which are headed exclusively or near exclusively to Cremorne and its satellites. Finding a place for such movies at the Palace or Dendy Cinemas in the city, the east or the west is apparently difficult. The most recent film to go this route is The Italian which has garnered high praise but is also having a very limited release, which does not include the mainstream art houses, if I may use what might be an oxymoron. With The Italian the distributors have managed to find one south of the harbour venue, Hoyts Paris Cinema in the heart of Fox Studios, or as its now called the Entertainment Quarter.

I headed there for my usual Saturday morning treat session yesterday and after walking seeming miles from Oxford Street arrived breathless just as the feature was due to start. As I was entering somebody emerged from the cinema to say the screen was “just black”. The ticket-seller got onto her walkie talkie and summoned somebody. A couple of minutes later, the somebody walked into the auditorium and announced that the film would start in a couple of minutes. It didn’t.

As time passed one fairly loud conversation started up between two oldish couples sitting near each other. Oldish? Well the first words were: “Did you read ­the write-up in the paper.” (‘Write-up’ is a word another, older generation uses.) “No. I read the short bit in the Metro” “Oh”. “Do you know what it’s about?” “An Italian kid gets adopted by a Russian family”. “Oh”. ….I may have discovered Generation O, a group even older than Generation A.

At this point one member of the participating couples has to repeat this to her until now silent male companion. “IT’S ABOUT AN ITALIAN KID WHO GETS ADOPTED BY RUSSIANS”. “O…..(very long pause) DID YOU EVER SEE THE BICYCLE THIEF” says the aging male partner…………..(very long pause). “O, what’s that?”

Somewhere near this point we’re told that the problem can’t be fixed. Having looked at the projection box for signs of activity every now and then during the fifteen minutes or so that has passed, I realize that there are no projectionists at all in the building. The person making the announcements is the young, under 25, manager. She has exhausted her bag of options and has to call up help. She offers us a comp and as well we can go watch another movie which is shortly to start. This is Orchestra Stalls, a French comedy directed by Daniele Thompson which I avoided in the recent French Film Week.

The original decision to avoid the movie was the correct one. From the start it piles on ridiculous amounts of cloying sentiment. A young woman visits her aging aunt in a nursing home in Macon. Somehow or other, inspired by the aunt’s tales of life at the Ritz, she decides to head for Paris and emerges from the Metro near the Avenue Montaigne. The rest of the action takes place in that street as the young woman gets a job in a café and thus gets to deliver coffee to the performers, musical and theatrical, at the nearby Theatre Des Champs-Elysees, engage in other little adventures and come in contact with the next door auction rooms. We also get lots of nice shots of the also nearby Eiffel Tower and the Pont d’Iena. Couples and singles play out little romances, breakups and coincidental meetings. Everything ends happily. Some of the contrivances are more ludicrous than others. Chief among these contrivances is the casting of the world’s worst actor, Sydney Pollack, as an American film director who is in Paris to make a bio-pic of Simone De Beauvoir. Why it is that other directors keep casting Pollack in these roles is something that eludes me. I would have thought that after his mind-numbingly unconvincing performance in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut the game would have been over. But no, here he is again lumbering his way through English and, worse, French dialogue in a voice that carries neither an ounce of modulation or a skerrick of conviction. Sydney has one line in the movie, which he delivers to his putative De Beauvoir “Never do anything for free”. Am I correct in assuming that this line especially reflects Sydney’s own deep and heartfelt thoughts? It seemed to have the most convincing delivery.

I’m still yet to see The Italian and with the Sydney Film Festival approaching it’s dropping down the priority list already. When I emerged from Orchestra Stalls I was told the problem had been fixed and a session of the film was starting at that very moment. I passed. ...But I probably was the only other person in the room who had seen The Bicycle Thief.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

When your gravity fails

Filmmakers who try to make a film about their obsession or even their personal fascination run the risk of being so fascinated that they fail to notice they are boring the pants off everybody else. Such is the case with Curtis hanson's Lucky You.

There are more than a few things that dont ring true in this ode to Texas Hold'Em, a game now so huge they play it at my local pub every Monday. (So huge in fact that even James Bond gave up his beloved baccarat in Casino Royale to play it.) But back to the clangers. There's Eric Bana's golf swing and putting stroke as the most obvious. No way he could shoot 78 off the stick around a tough course. There's the grossly sentimental ending as well.

The film has one redeeming feature but you have to wait until the film is over before it comes on. Over the credits there's a new Bob Dylan song "Huck's Song" beautifully crooned by the old maestro himself. Dylan's product placement people also did well out of the movie. His name appears on a taxi's billboard and later there are a few bars of "Like a Rolling Stone" playing to suggest he's appearing in some nearby showroom. Nice, but not enough to redeem an incredibly dull picture.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


In the post labelled Creep Shows, I took some quotes from Crikey attributing words to Chris Corrigan. Apparently there has now been a correction and the words were in fact uttered by Greg Combet. Today's Australian reports that Mr Combet had told The Daily Telegraph newspaper in Sydney on Monday that he thought the program let the Howard Government "off very lightly, given that they concocted the whole scheme and John Howard personally signed off on it". Sorry about that. Cant help the mistakes of others.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Creep Shows

In Perfect Stranger, a tick the boxes thriller made by James Foley, the otherwise routine events taking place are enlivened by the array of male characters that Halle Berry, as a crusading tabloid reporter, has to deal with. She starts by exposing a family values Senator as a closet gay with a penchant for importuning the late adolescent interns that work in his office. Next is her associate at the paper, a techno wiz whose talent for busting into computer systems is used to move the plot along at a rapid clip. He’s a self-pitying alcoholic with unrequited lust in his heart for Halle and a general contempt for humanity as well as the law. Then there’s the key subject, Bruce Willis a rich womanizer with a team of harridans around him he’s obliged to outwit if he wishes to pursue his extra-marital amours. There is a spineless newspaper editor who is warned off the story about the Senator. Finally, there is an ex-boyfriend trying to ingratiate himself back into Halle’s favors while continuing to cheat. The only person with any moral compass is a female cop. The writer of the film was, however, a male.

Shooter also has its fair share of creeps, those prepared to betray their friends for what they think is the national good. It’s predicated on the idea that a Senator from Montana is controlling a rogue element within the CIA and that element is orchestrating what at first seems is a plan to foil a Presidential assassination but turns out, naturally, to be something else. Mark Wahlberg, seen at the start undertaking covert and violent military action inside a sovereign foreign nation, gets the chance to say a few speeches which are of the a plague on all their political houses kind before embarking on revenge soaked mayhem worthy of Takeshi Kitano. One point of great interest is that the great Levon Helm, master musician from the long lamented The Band, has a cameo as an arms expert, the second such appearance, after his terrific little contribution to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, It’s a scene which snaps the brain back to full attention.

Far better than both is Matthew Saville’s Noise, which may be just about the best crime picture ever made in Australia. Young cop Graham already has an attitude problem when he gets consigned to sit in a caravan sited in a shopping centre way out in the bleak western suburbs of Melbourne. He’s there in the hope a local will come forward with information about a mass killer on the loose. Graham admits he’s fairly dumb but he has got down pat, and its brilliantly rendered by Brendan Cowell in a performance that ought to street the opposition in the AFI Awards, the young cop’s ability to be nasty, cynical, offensive and intimidating all at once. Graham’s girl friend is also a cop but she plays in the police band. Together they smoke a little dope and bicker. She thinks he's keeping secret from her that he's got cancer. But the plot is driven along by having Graham suffer not from cancer but from tinnitus. Shades of Insomnia here. Graham sees it as an escape into being a compo case. It’s immediate effect is to cause his judgment to go astray at key moments and for his supervisor to take a dim view of his work. The slow build-up, the creation of an authentic milieu and sheer blinding accuracy of the portrait of the dumb cop at the centre of it all is brilliant. My admiration for it grows because the film, unlike too many others of its current ilk, owes nothing to the odious example or methods of Quentin Tarantino, the current fashion-plate for crime movies. This is deadly serious stuff and it eschews all flashy violence in favor of a slow burn that maybe suggests David Fincher and Seven in particular may have been a very worthy model for making such an intense and involving piece of work.

Finally there were a lot of creeps on show in Bastard Boys, but not anywhere near enough. Surprisingly given the general level of caricature that others have graced with that ugly word docudrama, I actually felt a little sympathy for Chris Corrigan. Not for what he did but for the way he was represented as this rather pathetic nerd - friendless, cold, greedy, impatient and utterly lacking in political judgment. But the real creeps were almost entirely absent. The film-makers were either not interested in, or too frightened of delving into, just what role the odious Peter Reith and John Howard had in it all. Reith is portrayed as pretty much an innocent bystander. Anybody who has dealt with Reith never has any trouble in saying how he was prepared to lie and deceive at the drop of a hat. “Born to plot” he once said of himself! Leaving him out and concentrating on the workers and unionists only told part of the story. As Chris Corrigan told Crikey and The Daily Telegraph: “I think the Government gets off very lightly, given that they concocted the whole scheme and John Howard personally signed off on it. We have the cabinet documents, and he signed off on the sacking of the entire workforce. The producers originally told me they weren’t making a boring tale of class warfare but the production serves it up in spades...I will be surprised if anyone other than welded on members of the industrial left can survive four hours of this tedium.” Well over 900,000+ watched on both nights so one's tedium is another man's rivetting drama.

The scriptwriter claimed in a piece in the SMH that she was being fair and objective to all. She said nobody would be interested in a polemic. Dont know where she got either of those ideas. Not from watching Ken Loach's masterly Days of Hope.

Still, in an election year it’s good to know that the ABC and it’s current management will now have managed to be consigned away with all the other voodoo dolls that will have pins stuck into them for the next six months or so by an increasingly rattled government smelling of defeat. Hopefully Labor will show its gratitude following a Rudd election victory and enable the Corporation to commission more interesting left wing drama. With a bit of practice we may even discover in our midst our very own Loach.

Monday, May 14, 2007


I've been struck down with a lethargy inducing rhume of some kind. My sparks have however been rekindled by watching the caricatures in Bastard Boys, a DVD viewing of Claude Cahbrol's The Bridesmaid and by contemplating what the Government has done with the klatest film policy announcements. I'll be back on deck to give the entire world the benefit of my views asap.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


The little trip to NZ produced some interesting insights. One was that the newspaper scene in NZ, which seems not to be in a stranglehold from the evil Murdoch empire, is bright, diverse and lively. It lacks anything like the bad taste , downright vulgarity, arrogance and slef-righteousness that most of our newspapers feature. Over the course of a week or so there were more than a shore of pearls, including a reprint of a piece written by former Senator George McGovern which did a demolition job on the odious Dick Cheney that is worth memorising. Whether it appeared anywhere heare I dont know. I cant imagine any of the Murdoch publications touching it. Such truth is anathema to them. My favourite little moment was from 'Mountain Scene' a weekly published in Queenstown NZ. Its from the backpage of the 26 April issue and the author is known only as Ferris. Under a heading "The Killing Fields of Africa' it told of Auckland's Rugby woes. Strangely enough the Kiwis dont despise Australian Rugby they just sort of alugh and produce a bit of mock pity when it's mentioned. Their real hatred is directed towards the South Africans. Here's the para.

"The Aucklanders are in that zone no self-respecting, rugby-playing, barbecues only Kiwi wants to be - their fate in the hands of South Africans. Four South African teams to be precise - and a fifth if you regard Western Force as merely an outcrop of the republic due to the number of arrogant Jaapie pricks who have migrated to Perth."

Ferris was right to worry. The South Africans somehow pulled off last round victories thanks to inept Australian teams that got them the two top spots in the Super 14 and guaranteed home semi-finals.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Let George Do It

Its a week before Federal Budget night so let's do a little speculating and have a ramble about what might be in store for the film industry. Last year, at 6.01 pm on 16 December to be precise, I put up a post on http://filmalert.blogspot.com/ speculating about future decisions the Federal Government may make about the film industry. I said then that ‘next year we can probably expect somebody to come up with some rejigged bureaucratic arrangements, probably putting parts of the AFC into the FFC and leaving the residue of the AFC to run the National Film and Sound Archive and the cultural activities stuff like grants for festivals. ....’. I turn my back on the country for a week, (pondering while I’m away mysterious headlines like “Campion to don gloves and follow Betham” Dunedin Sunday Star Times, (I think ) and come back to find a piece by John Garnaut and Gary Maddox in the SMH, (a version of which you may still find if you look around at at http://www.smh.com.au)

It reported that in fact the Government proposes to throw everything film related into one large melting pot and that the FFC, the AFC (and apparently all the attendant AFC functions like the National Film and Sound Archive) will come under one big roof. If that’s true then maybe one of the anonymous bureaucrats who conducted the recent behind closed doors review of the film industry has been attracted by the model of the French CNC which has as its principal missions to regulate the industry, sustain it economically, promote it across all audiences, including internationally, and conserve it. We could do worse.

We’ll probably never know the thinking went into any proposals for future arrangements. The Review process was completely opaque. Any interrogation or interlocution, that is if indeed there was any, was also conducted out of the public eye. Any consultation and the submissions that went to the Minister and the Cabinet Submission itself were naturally conducted with the usual surrounding secrecy one associates with the high level control freakery practised by the Howard Government and the ‘modern’ Federal bureaucracy.

No matter, according to Garnaut and Maddox, no doubt after information was supplied to them by someone close to the Government, we will have something that might come to appear like a Federal Film Commissiariat (FFC). It’s possible that given the proximity to the election, and the need to bed the arrangements down quickly, Brian Rosen will become pro tem the Federal Film Commissar, taking ultimate responsibility for everything from development, cultural policy, marketing, promotion and preservation. I may be wrong there of course. The Government may already have someone else in mind for the Commissar’s job, perhaps Donald McDonald’s name might mysteriously emerge again if they cant get him up as Chief Censor. But I digress into the realms of paranoid fantasy….. surely….Whoever it is, they will probably also have the task of winnowing out a number of public servants whose jobs will be seen as unnecessary, duplicatory or capable of amalgamation. That’s always messy and it takes a hard person to get it right for the longer term…Perhaps Max Moore-Wilton could be brought back. He’s a cultured sort of guy…but I digress into paranoia again…surely….

Apparently the unions are happy and maybe have already committed to saying so on Budget night when the full details are known and a mountain of positive press releases from interested parties, not just the film industry, extolling the Howard Government’s brilliance and generosity can be expected to fall into the press boxes in Parliament House and out onto the wire services. They will then be quoted from extensively as the Government takes the cudgels to Kevin Rudd in Question Time the day after. The Australian Screen Directors’ Association already is reported by the SMH as being supportive. ASDA’s concern for new money and new subsidy arrangements arises from its view that only $360 million was invested in film production last year, not enough apparently. ASDA wants transparency and for all the money invested to be spent on film-making not on lawyers’ and bankers’ clip fees. That's a laudable object. Still, when you add in the amounts spent on and by the various film bureaucracies, Federal and state, and such bodies as the NFSA and the Australian Film Television and Radio School it would be fairly easy to get the total amount, public and private, already devoted to film and its attendant activities well up over the half a billion dollar mark each year. That’s reached without any additional large scale foreign investment on projects like Superman et al that use the studio facilities built and/or subsidised by the states.
The problem for me remains the same however as it has for a number of years. Nobody of course yet knows if these arrangements will improve the quality of our films and lift our international standing, or even return it to its once much higher levels. I’d like to think that when the announcements are made there might be some focus on this element of our film production for the fact is we currently make too few films of very high quality. This year, with two of the three major European competitive festivals already past or upon us we have still not managed to make a film good enough to be adjudged worthy of entry into those elite competitions. (One of our films has of course won an Oscar) But generally, the films that are made with the support of the agencies still seem to be regarded as mediocre by international standards and are not really making much impact locally either critically or at the box office. Let me ask you if you think the most admired films of the last two years (Wolf Creek, Little Fish, Look Both Ways, Kenny, Jindabyne, Ten Canoes and Happy Feet) really stand up against the best we’ve done in long gone years.I don’t think I’m being nostalgic in being just a little circumspect about where we are at right now.
So, what would I like George Brandis to say and do on Budget night? I’d like him to say that the new arrangements will allow the sole agency to radically rethink the attention given to the process of scriptwriting, the funding of writer/auteurs and the relationships that exist between writers, producers and directors in the Australian film industry. As well, he could say that he wants a strong, forthright and full commitment on behalf of all (Federal and State) funding and investment bodies to ensure that our best film-makers, those whose work has been internationally or locally recognized and rewarded, and our best writers, are working more fruitfully and more often. I’m not holding out much hope that he will.

I also doubt that Peter Garrett will offer any similar sentiments on behalf of the Labor Party either. He’s probably happy enough to go with the rebates idea that is at the core of the new additional funding arrangements. It would make his life as Arts spokesman easier. I’m sure he’ll have been encouraged to agree by the unions and others. Garrett is a brilliant spokesman on environmental issues but in his job as Arts spokesman I think he’s a bit of a dud. I suspect he thinks that if he doesn’t have to dream up his own film scheme to placate a vociferous, demanding and well-organised lobby group he wont be unhappy. That’s one more sleeping dog to let lie in the run-up to the election.

But, if Brandis, or even Garrett, were to take a leap and make those commitments however we might just be taking the first small step towards getting back our once-held status as a nation producing films of the highest international standards and reap the rewards, psyche and financial, for so doing.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Week That Was - Three

Everybody’s a film buff – even the Chanticleer columnist in the Australian Financial Review who opened his Friday piece with the “The banks lending Airline Partners Australia the money to buy Qantas Airways shares have, as they might say in a spaghetti western, cojones the size of the Sydney Opera House”…. while saying nothing of the Spanish vocabulary, it’s doubtful ‘they’ would have ever said that…Jane Campion is making a comeback to feature films with Bright Star, starring Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne the fiancée of John Keats…a page three article in the SMH informed us that the surprise art house hit of the year, As it is in Heaven, has now completed nineteen weeks and grossed over $600,000 mainly at the Cremorne Orpheum…Bra Boys is fading fast from local screens but not before one punter asked the director in a Q&A about the absence of women from the movie and ended with ‘Are you guys gay?’…the Chaser did Bra Boys over in a way that inevitably drew crude attention to the first of the two words of the title….Dave Kehr in the New York Times gave us the first review of the new releases on Criterion’s new budget label, Eclipse. It’s a five film early Bergman package selling for a third less than the usual Criterion releases. To come we are promised packages of films by Louis Malle, Yasujiro Ozu, and Raymond Bernard, the last being a near forgotten French film-maker of the thirties…. Donald McDonald, a man well-known as a close friend of the Prime Minister, and a member of the PM’s cheer squad during the last election campaign, has been put forward by the odious Philip Ruddock as the next Chief Film Censor. What a sad way to finish a career, going from being the head of two of Australia’s great cultural institutions, the ABC and the Australian Opera, to being the nation’s cultural copper. The SMH reported that Ruddock unilaterally decided to overrule formal advice from his Department recommending another person. He took McDonald’s name to the regular meeting of state and commonwealth Attorneys-General and got a bagging for his trouble. A corrupt process said the NSW Attorney, a sentiment echoed by the Victorian A-G who said, according to the SMH, that the proposed appointment ‘had a stench about it that really smacks of a decaying government in Canberra’. Ruddock was at pains to say that Mr Howard did not participate in the consideration of the matter by Cabinet. I suppose that neatly confirms that a mate is getting the nod…

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Week That Was - Two

A delegation of film-makers went to Canberra, led by George Miller, to, according to the SMH, thank the Government for supporting Australian film. George showed Peter Costello his Oscar….The AFC announced that it threw a hugely successful Parliamentary Reception…the new Arts Minister George Brandis continues to hint that an extra $60 million is heading in the direction of Australian film production in next month’s Federal Budget….Premiere magazine announced that the April issue will be the last that goes to print before it becomes exclusively an online publication…Greater Union Theatres resumed advertising in the Sydney Morning Herald…Bra Boys became the highest grossing Australian doco ever. What remains unexplained for some of those who have chosen not to buy a ticket is how a film with such an odious and self-aggrandising trailer could have attracted anybody let alone record numbers. Russell Crowe has apparently taken the subject material off to Brian Glazer with a view to re-making it as a feature…The Australian Financial Review published a three page review of two new books on Orson Welles. Those making a living from picking over the master’s bones continue to prosper. Sanford Schwartz’s note didn’t have much good to say about the biographies and studies authored by Simon Callow or Joseph McBride, nor the earlier David Thomson opus. It did say some approving things about James Naremore’s similarly earlier study and went to some length to make a somewhat less than convincing case for Welles as a surrealist. Grist to the mill in the great man’s aura…Universal Pictures announced its first release slate since the UIP conglomerate was broken up…. Globalisation and its discontents were apparent when the SMH Spectrum gave over three pages (nicluding the cover) to a story reprinted from The Independent about the wondrous Catherine Deneuve and her fifty years in film. Author John Lichfield went to Paris and found there, a couple of Frenchmen prepared to speak off the record (“One industry insider says Deneuve has a reputation for being not too bright…”) and John Baxter who claims that ‘unlike say a Jeanne Moreau she has been unwilling to try riskier, more demanding roles as she has got older.” The article asserts that Deneuve ‘makes a few films a year, none of which have been worthy of her for years’. The journo seems to think she hasn’t made anything of interest since she got her Oscar nomination for Regis Wargnier’s ponderous Indo-Chine in 1992. But I’d be willing to bet the journo hasn’t seen most of the stuff she’s made since then. Since 1992 she’s worked for Raul Ruiz, Phillipe Garrel, Leos Carax, Andre Techine, Manoel De Oliveira, Nicole Garcia, Lars Von Trier and Wargnier again among others. For some there has been more than one movie. (Since 1992 Moreau has worked for Vincent Ward, Waris Hussein, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Peter Handke, Charles Sturridge, Wim Wenders & Michaelangelo Antonioni, Gavin Miller, Marvin J Chomsky, Ismail Merchant and made a number of films for Josee Dayan among others.) According to Lichfeld, Deneuve’s ‘memorable screen appearances can be counted on one hand, perhaps two’. A side article in the SMH nominated The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Repulsion, Belle de Jour, Indochine and Dancer in the Dark as ‘five of her finest roles’. Which is the fingers of one hand. To get past the second handful, and on, you could add Vice and Virtue, La Vie de Chateau, Les Creatures, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Mississippi Mermaid, Peau D’Ane, Un Flic, Tristana, The Last Metro, The Hunger and something from the large number of films she’s made for Techine in particular. That’s without even considering the post-1992 films, especially those she did for Ruiz, Garrel and de Oliveira mentioned above, many of which apparently haven’t traveled beyond French shores. Why, well I guess her critics would say because she’s not a great actress whose work is always worth seeing. I think it may be more complicated than that, especially given she’s not always the star of those films. French production still hovers around 250 films a year and international distribution of all European films has slowed to a trickle in the relentless rise of Hollywood and its satellite independents. Whatever, it’s a sign of the SMh’s current standards when cover articles consist of a reprint of a report of some pom journalist in Paris, his conversation with an Australian once upon a time cinephile (who I dont think actually goes the movies much, if at all, anymore) and the snide bagging of a goddess. Very ordinary stuff.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

62 year old white man's Burdon

I went to an Eric Burdon and the Animals concert in the late 60s at the old Festival Hall in Melbourne. He was on a double bill with Roy Orbison. The Big O came out and did a beautiful set and brought the house down with ‘Leah’. Those in the crowd who were there for Orbison were ecstatic. “Better than the record!” screamed one fan behind me, a cheer I have myself very occasionally since used at other concerts, usually to the general bewilderment of those nearby. The interval between the two groups dragged out. Then on came Burdon and the Animals until someone noticed that the drummer was missing. Off went Burdon and the Animals and about ten minutes later, a sheepish, apparently stoned, drummer appeared along with the rest of the group and the show went on. Burdon tried valiantly to salvage something from the shambles and by the time he got to ‘House of the Rising Sun’ the crowd was in a forgiving mood. By that time the original Animals had mostly all departed, notably Alan Price who was off writing music and becoming a star composer/performer in his own right, later contributing famously to the soundtrack of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man. The original group got back together once only for a very fine album ‘Before We Were so Rudely Interrupted’ which has the best ever version, known to this man, of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’.

One thing the original group never managed was a film of its own. Lots of Brit rock groups of the sixties did so but not the Animals - too dour probably and too unlike a pop group. I seem to recall that they did make an appearance in the background of a Raquel Welch picture called The Biggest Bundle of them All. But, memory plays tricks, and it seems, if it in fact happened, that it is an appearance so modest and so distant that they don’t even get credited for it in the IMDB. So Burdon has been left largely to his own devices and for four decades or so he has toured the world giving pretty much the same show each time. He was at the Basement last week and the crowd was mostly blokes and mostly blokes at or near Burdon’s age of 65.

By now the show starts on time and by now the once diminutive Burdon has filled out quite a bit. He’s almost gnomish in his figure - short, squat, hiding behind shades, pudgy little fingers pointing at the band in playful mock recognition as he comes on and launches into the slowest ever version of one of his big hits Horace Ott’s classic ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’. But the slowness has a purpose. It seems to take an eternity to reach the karaoke moment when he can climb up off his stool and begin the

I’m Just a Soul Whose Intentions are Good…

And allow the blokes, finally, to come back with the reply


He had us in the palm of his hand and there we stayed for the best part of an hour and three quarters including a couple of great encores finishing with Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. There were two more numbers allowing for audience participation, “It’s My Life’ and ‘We Gotta Get Outta This Place’. But not ‘House of the Rising Sun’. That belonged to Eric. The Animals had taken it over. Bob Dylan used to sing it at his early pre-electric concerts until the Burdon/Animals version became definitive. Dylan had to stop singing it because then people thought he was copying Burdon or wanting to be a rock star. Burdon even did a new number ‘The Secret’ which he said was on his new record published by Bush Records. Hmmm. It was nice.

The great man’s voice is still in pretty good shape. He has a band which appears to like him, especially the cute young bass guitarist. The piano player seems as old as Burdon and just as adroit. The others are kids. It’s apparently hard to remember all the song lyrics. Occasionally Burdon resorted to glancing at a book containing the words of the songs in very large type. Nothing like Frank Sinatra in his last days standing there with all the lyrics coming up from a screen below him, but a sign that it aint easy doing a couple of hundred nights a year on the road as you head towards your seventies. The Basement was a great venue for the night. Close, warm, heady. …just right for aging rockers and their aging coterie of fans.