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 d├ęcolletage, 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.