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 cafĂ© 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.