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 fiancĂ©e 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.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Taking an Ax to Westlake

Donald Westlake’s books don’t even get published by English or Australian publishers these days. Try and find him even at that fountain of US imports Borders and you come up blank, at least at Bondi Junction. Then again for completists he’s a little hard to keep up with. For starters he has a dizzying array of aliases and nom de plumes including, according to the IMDB, Curt Clark , Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Samuel Holt and Richard Stark. The last of course has achieved fame as the novelist who provided the basis for, among others, Point Blank and its infamously inept remake, Payback. Tracking down the movies based on his work is thus fraught with difficulty. He’s been a favourite of the French and other Europeans for some time and they change the titles and the names of the characters at will. Even Jean-Luc Godard once got hold of him. Made in USA should apparently have a credit to a Westlake/Richard Stark novel as it source material but in the way of the master, the credits on that movie consist of a couple of perfunctory cards with a few people’s initials contained thereon. One novel Two Much was first made into a film in France, titled Le Jumeau before being done again in the USA. One Jimmy the Kid has been filmed in both the USA and Germany. Westlake has also written scripts, most notably that for The Grifters Stephen Frears classy film of the Jim Thompson novel, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Westlake dedicated his novel Don’t Ask to Robert Redford, George C Scott, Paul le Mat and Christopher Lambert “Dortmunders all”. Dortmunder and his crew are almost the essence of Westlake’s attraction. They are a motley crew of street smart criminals who just try and make a modest dishonest living. They don’t kill people but they do think up ingenious ways to rob them. It’s very New York as well. Each of the gang members brings a special expertise in the city to whatever caper they are involved in. Kelp can get through any door. Stan Murch and his mother can drive you from point A to point B anywhere in New York in the quickest possible time. Dortmunder’s wife is a wondrous picture of the light-fingered but eternally optimistic supermarket employee. To those actors names now can be added Martin Lawrence and Herbert Knaup. The former appeared as the Dortmunder character in the travesty What’s The Worst That Could Happen? and the latter starred in a German version of Jimmy the Kid (the book in which the smart kid is asked a quiz question about naming a number of Australian States and includes the Northern Territory without getting gonged!).

Westlake’s expertise lies in deadpan humour, extravagant plots, bizarre crimes and, on occasion, brutal murder. He has satirised a lot of things including country and western music and rampaging Australian journalists. He is also a bit of a lefty which brings me to Le Couperet/The Ax Costa Gavras’s film of one of Westlake’s most recent novels. The subject, or rather the very finely drawn background, is globalisation and its effect on highly educated people in first world countries who lose their jobs to rationalisation, relocation, competition or call it whatever manifestation of maximising shareholder value you care to name. Westlake has invented a serial killer who takes to murder solely for the purpose of getting a job in a time when fifty year old men are being thrown on the scrap heap of the modern post-industrial state. He located his story in the slowly dying manufacturing areas of the US North East. Costa-Gavras has transposed it to the Franco-Belgian border area without missing a beat. The adaptation is so precisely close to Westlake’s that fans might begin to worry about what bits might be left out. Almost nothing. It is, in my view, the best Westlake adaptation put on the screen and makes all those puny attempts to do Dortmunder and others rather weak by comparison. (I make the point that it’s a Westlake adaptation, not a Richard Stark.) Gavras has captured the icy amorality of it all.
What audiences who don’t have any advantage of knowing the sly tricks Westlake gets up to made of it I don’t know. How much of the naturalist look of the film suggests to audiences that this is to be taken for real is not something I can answer. I should mention that the only divergence from Westlake’s narrative seems to be the ending. In my memory Westlake got his man off scot free. Gavras seems to have opted for a bit of enigma and for the life of me I cant work out what’s happening or why. Maybe the director’s well-known conscience got to him and suggested that his hero might have gone too far and we should leave a question mark as to whether he’s been rumbled. Rene Clement did the same thing long ago when he had Ripley caught at the end of Plein Soleil. Patricia Highsmith had let him off in her novel. But all in all, Le Couperet is immensely enjoyable and I cant ask for more than that from a Westlake source. The aforementioned deadpan humour, extravagance, and delight in the mechanics of murder have thus far eluded most of those who have attempted to put his work on the screen. One final curious note, the Dardenne Brothers, hard-edged chroniclers of the Belgian downtrodden, oppressed and petty criminal classes, have a credit among those listed as producers of the film.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Week that Was - One

Sorry to be out of contact. I could claim that I have been in mourning for Freddie Francis who died recently and whose obituary was included in the Sydney Morning Herald, again republished from the Guardian. Freddie may not have appreciated the headline ‘Even his bad films were good’ but would have appreciated the glowing tribute to his work as a cinematographer which garnered him Oscars for Sons and Lovers in 1960 and Glory in 1989. Freddie may have been amused to know that the couple of dozen cheap horror flicks he also directed are now regarded as ‘always stylish and usually successful’. He may have been even more amused to know that ‘several have become cult classics such as Paranoiac(1963), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), The Skull (1965), Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) Torture Garden (1967) Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) and Legend of the Werewolf (1975). I didn’t know that. Stuart Rosenberg also died after a long career of mostly modest success. But he did contribute a now iconic moment in Cool Hand Luke with the resonating line “What we have got here is a failure of communication”…. The Film Finance Corporation announced its final funding approvals for the 2006/07 financial year. It has now approved funding for 15 feature films. More than likely in this new age of low budget digital film-making there will be double that number made with funds obtained from such sources as the state film bodies, friends and relatives, credit card debts, and new fountains like the Adelaide and Melbourne Film Festivals, each of which now has a small bin full of money to hand out to projects which will premiere at their events. The FFC funded films should all have the privilege of having a distributor on board and thus will be the ones that get a shot at success in the cinemas. The others will try to find a way through festival screenings, one offs and whatever else the producers can think of to get them before the punters. It’s possible that one or two may just find their way through to a wider audience. After all as far as I’m aware Kenny had no FFC funding and it went on to do better than any other movie of the last year. The problem used to be getting your film made. Now its getting your film shown. Maybe the Cinemtheque has to take some steps in this regard. Surely it has the capacity to put new films as well as old on the screen and put film-makers before at least one audience. With all these movies being made there is going to be some very pent-up supply and it will emphasise just how laggard our film exhibition has become. … ABC Radio’s Australia Talks Movies devoted an hour or so to a discussion of the so called ‘French Film Festival’ now touring the country and tried to tease out some lessons for Australia from France’s unique film production output and its unique methods of funding it. The discussion included comment from the curator, a diplomat at the French Embassy, who spoke English with an accent that made Maurice Chevalier sound like he’d been to Oxford, and from the ubiquitous James Hewison who mentioned inter alia that in France film is referred to as the 7th art, that when the Nazis occupied France they took over the French film studios and that it was Charles De Gaulle who had introduced the still extant ticket levy which caused all cinema patrons to pay for those continuing handsome levels of production. Also aired were a couple of phoners who rang in to say how much they had once enjoyed such treasures as M Hulot’s Holiday and Les Enfants du Paradis. Julie Rigg’s absence through indisposition was sadly felt as presenter Paul Barclay tried to keep things going. Nobody actually got to the same nub I mentioned before. With ana avergae of five French films a week opening in Paris, its distribution and exhibition hell for all but the most robust and no end of support from the quality French press saves important films by important film-makers from tanking and then being shot out the door. Back in 2004 during our stay in France Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent opened and closed within a couple of weeks. The investors who backed the film's success in cinemas, the distributors and exhbitors got burned. On the other hand, theatrical success is an ever more dubious measure of a film's worth even with the public. In a paper that Bruce Hodsdon and I submitted to the Federal Government's review we made this point quite strongly. Needless to say our thoughts were ignored and I wouldn't hold out any hope that any future government might have any major rethink on such matters either. You can read the paper by going to the website mentioned on the side of the blog…The Sydney Film Festival has launched its new website for the 2007 festival at alerted us early to the prospect of seeing Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, Manoel De Oliverira’s Belle Toujours and Andre Techine’s The Witnesses among others. ...In the meantime the box office is being dazzled by, of all things Bra Boys.... says a lotin a small number of letters.