Sunday, December 28, 2008

Screened Out

I have been musing away reading the the obituaries for Harold Pinter which have concentrated almost exclusively on his contribution to the theatre. A single para, even a mere few words, were generally all that his substantial contribution to the cinema apparently warranted.

There were however a number of fine film adaptations of his work that ultimately via TV and now DVD would have probably have been seen by many more people than ever attended a production of his work. But there they lie, almost completely ignored, filmed adaptations, mostly of the early plays to add to a long string of script credits including most especially a fruitful series of collaborations with Joseph Losey that, in the 60s and 70s substantially enhanced the reputations of both the writer and the director.

Losey’s career was merely muddling along before the collaboration started. He was making mostly low budget films in Britain where and when he could. He had just made perhaps his greatest film, The Criminal at the very low rent Merton Park Studios. The Damned (1962) had been made for Hammer Studios. Blind Date (1959) was a low budget detective story and Eva (1962) despite its big budget, was an international disaster. They were however, films which addressed some tough issues and attracted some positive reviews as well as high quality actors and writers into the director’s orbit. Notwithstanding that, none of those films were box office successes. Yet somehow or other the money for The Servant (1963) was conjured up by producer Norman Priggen. Losey, Pinter and Dirk Bogarde then combined to make an off beat, baroque, and highly erotic movie from Robin Maugham’s very short novella and together, with gusto, they peeled back the skin of the British class system to do some revelling in personal weakness and corruption. It was a breakthrough work for all three and their films both together and separately, were treated very differently following its success

The three collaborated again in 1967 with Accident, an adaptation of LP Hartley’s solid British novel and Pinter adapted Hartley again for Losey's The Go Between a Cannes prize-winner in 1970 and a huge success around the world. One amazingly ambitious project never came to pass, an adaptation of Proust’s Remembrance of Thing’s Past, though Pinter’s six hour script was apparently once performed or read at the National Theatre in London.

Beyond these highlights Pinter seemed ever ready to do adaptations of just about anything. He ranged from domestic dramas to a common or garden spy story and in each, the so-called Pinteresque dialogue which the obituaries have laboured over, was always somewhere present. Alec Guinness proved particularly adroit at delivering those short, clipped lines and pregnant pauses for the otherwise unremarkable The Quiller Memorandum (Adam Hall/Michael Anderson, 1966).

The range of this element of his work is noteworthy and most authors were well-served by Pinter’s transformations. His filmed scripts included The Pumpkin Eater (Penelope Mortimer/Jack Clayton, 1964), The Last Tycoon (F. Scott Fitzgerald/Elia Kazan (1976), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (John Fowles/Karel Reisz, 1981), Turtle Diary (Russell Hoban/John Irvin, 1985), Reunion (Fred Uhlman/Jerry Schatzberg, 1989), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwod/Volker Schlondorff, 1990), The Comfort of Strangers (Ian McEwan/Paul Schrader, 1990) and the remake of Sleuth (Peter Shaffer/?, 2007)

Pinter also directed a film adaptation of Simon Gray’s Butley done as part of the American Film Theatre series of film versions of modern drama in 1974. Pinter’s own The Homecoming was also done as a part of this series by Tony Richardson. He also directed several TV films.
The film adaptations of Pinter’s plays were all high quality movies though none were very successful with filmgoers. They began with Clive Donner’s version of The Caretaker (1963) and this was quickly followed by William Friedkin’s version of The Birthday Party (1965).

Pinter also seemed to enjoy the social life of making movies and appeared in quite a few small roles including in both The Servant and Accident. He had a very funny part as Uncle Benny in John Boorman’s Le Carre adaptation The Tailor of Panama (2001) and small roles in movies as oddly diverse as Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema, 1999), The Tamarind Seed (Blake Edwards, 1974) and The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Kevin Billington,1970).

A couple of years ago a major season of Pinter’s work for the cinema was presented in New York. It was a rare tribute for a writer in the director or thematically-oriented world of film cultural programming. Pinter was a most deserving case for such attention. As a writer of original scripts, adaptations of his own and other work, most notably modern British writers, as a director and even as an actor his contribution was unique. His work in film was in many ways a seamless continuation of his original work for the theatre which is the basis of what will be an enduring reputation and it shouldn’t be near completely overlooked in any assessment of the man’s life and work.

There have been a huge number of TV adaptations done of his own plays in all parts of the world and as well there have been a seemingly limitless number of profiles, interviews, reviews, discussions and colloquia devoted to his work. He seemed to freely participate in all of these, perhaps mindful that the theatre is a public art and relies on the electronic media for endless amounts of publicity. But he was much more than a practitioner of the high art of the theatre and there are instant reminders of his work everywhere. He took on with great gusto the duties of the artist to discuss, expose, crusade, engage and enrage. If you want a quick reminder you can find it on the shelves where The Servant, Accident, The Go Between, The Comfort of Strangers and The Last Tycoon are freely there for all to see. Maybe soon someone will add The Pumpkin Eater and Jerry Schatzberg's very under-rated Reunion to that list to serve as further reminders that Pinter practiced a craft within the film industry as well as the art of the theatre.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

An update on the history of magic

James Galea bounds out onto the stage of the Sydney Theatre after the screen behind him has run what amounts to an ad for his brilliance. We shall see. One of the endorsements was from one of the tastemakers on The Footy Show. He soon has the audience involved via a trick where everyone has to clasp their hands together and then get their thumbs pointing back upright the way he demonstrates. Nobody knows how. Then he’s prowling along the front row asking for thoughts as to what a magic show might contain. He asks a guy in the middle of the front row to hold a post parcel box on his knees. Finally we get ‘rabbits’ and he launches a rant that there wont be any in his act. His show is called "I Hate Rabbits" and a rabbit with a red line through it is part of the back projection. He’s still prowling, asking people would they like to double their money and he hits on an audience member who says he has a $50 bill in his pocket.

It’s moi!

I’m up on stage and James gets me to write my name with a big felt pen and put a secret sign on the note. Suddenly he folds it and folds it and folds it and then it’s gone. He produces something and unfolds it. A $5 bill. He takes my watch off me and drops it into a bag which has two slits. Suddenly he flaps the bag and the watch is gone and I’m asked to take my seat. No point in arguing.

James is a card prestidigitator without peer. He dazzles us with tricks involving a card which keeps returning from impossible places, especially his back pocket. The tricks are so delicate that most of the audience have to watch them on the big screen behind him. He plays a pea and thimble game with amazing dexterity. If you counter-intuit you can win on your guesses but the sleight of hand is remarkable. He brings up another audience member and guesses a word she has chosen from three books he offered her and he brings up another to do an elaborate trick with an upside down bottle inside a tube. This audience dummy takes so long to follow instructions the impact is lost.

Then it’s back to me. I’m again on stage as he stands in front of stand containing a towel and an orange. I suspect nothing and he slices open the orange to produce my signed $50 bill, dripping with juice. He wipes it down with the towel and throws the towel away. I was going to borrow it to mop sweat from my brow but he beat me to the punch. No one wants scene stealers. I then have to retrieve the box from the lap of the punter in the first row. He cuts the sticky tape off the box and produces another box. I’m invited to remove the bow and the wrapping paper. Inside the box is a brown wooden box and inside that box is a can of Heinz tomato puree. He opens the can with a can opener and out pops my watch. Or so I and the audience believe. Its high fives all round between us and he whispers “thanks mate, you were good”. Much better than the time on the boat on the river in Shanghai, I think.

He makes a woman’s wedding ring disappear and turn up on his own key chain buried deep in his pocket. Finally, there’s time for another incredibly elaborate card trick which involves him memorising the entire order of the pack and then some, the pack then being cut several times by strangers.

Then it’s over. The exhilaration of the hour long show is extraordinary. James high fives his assistant as he exits the stage. He’s happy and so were we.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Australia Fair

First I have some questions about well, an amazing movie. Clunky start, finish like some old time John Ford picture. Only Baz does close-ups as big as those or does someone else? Did Mandy Walker also photograph Tracey Moffat's Bedevil? Some of the shots look the same, particularly the studio interiors. David Wenham doing his whining act would be good if he hadn't done it before most notably in that movie where he appears as a witness at a Royal Commission. No chemistry between Hugh and Nick. Nick starting to look old but trying to hide it. Was all the stuff about Aborigines being warned that the film refers to dead people and the roller title at beginning and end about the stolen generations in the version the Oz critics saw? Are Aborigines now requiring that a fictional film referring to dead non-existent Aborigines requires a warning? Must ask Bordwell what his shot clock comes up with for average length of shot. 2.7 million feet of film and according to an ad in Inside film never less than six cameras running. Really?

"That was good" said an old lady nearby. "Not them again" said another old dear when we held the script about the The Stolen Generations for a moment. Interesting demographic emerging. Is it people closer to forty than twenty who will go to it. If so it defies all box office activity these days. Was there a scene with a pedophile priest shot or contemplated.

He's never dull but Snowy River made me more tearful, and was probably about as manipulative.


Tucked away at the Chauvel is Youth Without Youth, the first film by Frances Ford Coppola for over a decade. It brings him full circle. His first official film the no-budget horror flick Dementia 13 was also barely in the public gaze, or at least the critical gaze. Yet I found it quite remarkable, the only film all year with enough plot and mystery and intrigue and ideas to make me want to see it again as soon as possible. The great man is so far out of the loop these days that he’s getting his money from smallish French and Italian producers and distributors, shooting in cheap foreign locations and minimising costs by film on HD. It might have been sad indeed, as such circumstances have been for many as they attempted to keep going in the face of general indifference. But Coppola’s rigorous methods and intelligence are on full show. Coppola has adapted a story, or is it a novel, by a Rumanian writer Mircea Eliade. The book was given to him by an old friend, a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago. I think the story posits the idea of a man who at the moment of his death is hurled back in time to relive the events of his life. This gives him an opportunity to be somewhat reflexive, and reflective, about things and he conducts his life again through a conversation with an all-knowing double. Coppola films it with a classical camera style. There are according to the director, only two occasions when the camera moves. The energy is generated in the editing and staging and not by an application of the current fad for unruly hand-held camerawork. Youth Without Youth wasn’t something I expected and it turned out to be the most involving experience I’ve sat through in a long time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Not having seen Australia I am at a disadvantage to thousands of others who have been herded into previews and advance screenings. I am aware however of two interesting emerging phenomena. The film seems to have been summed up in five critical words; “good but not great” and “long”. The most interesting response was in, of all places, R. Murdoch’s very own Sunday Telegraph. I read the piece by a young woman columnist sitting in a café at Berry. I expected to find it online but its not there so I cant tell you her name and my recall wont necessarily be perfect. This is what I took to be the gravamen of the piece from less than perfect memory. 1. Baz wanted to make a film about aboriginal dispossession. 2. This is a no-no. It would be regarded as dark and depressing (note those words) so to do. 3. That story has already been told anyway and no one went to see it. It was called Rabbit Proof Fence. 4. Baz thus made a love story involving whitefellas from different classes and embedded within his story set in the outback the 'real' story. 5. The ‘real’ central character is the young Aboriginal who goes through all the horrors that whitefellas have inflicted on blackfellas over a couple of hundred years. 6. Baz’s minders did not want journalists to ask Baz questions about this element of the subject for fear it might turn the punters off. There was a lot more including digs at the campus post-modernists and how they say you can tell stories. That I thought was interesting and I’ll take it with me into the movie.

The second interesting phenomenon is more to be expected. The opportunity has been taken to hop into the rest of the recent, i.e, the last decade or so, Australian film production and, in passing, attack David Stratton for being too generous towards Oyster Farmer in particular and other unspecified films in general. That Oyster Famer review seems to have assumed the status of the single defining event that caused Australian audiences to turn off going to Australian films. The latest right wing mavens to take up this challenge, after Michael Duffy and that ratbag Andrew Bolt (as my late dad always referred to him), were Greg Sheridan in his secondary guise as editorialist on The Australian and the ludicrous Miranda Devine. I say only one thing. The fact that they all obsessively return to this minor matter, scatering their vitriol and insults along the way is amazing to behold. Sheridan insults the intelligence further by gratuitously slagging off Ivan Sen’s wonderful and prize-winning Beneath Clouds as well. I was always convinced that John Howard's press office ke[t an eye on Stratton's opinions. A ;little too pinko for their taste and when the opportunity presented itself Sheridan stuck the boot in. It seems that the demise of the Howard office with its endlessly updated clipping service for selected warriors is sorely missed.

The warriors seem to have collectively decided that apart from Australia (with its themes of aboriginal dispossession, the nation’s unpreparedness for military attack and its setting in a harsh, uncompromising landscape notwithstanding), the rest of our recent cinema is ‘dark and depressing’ as noted above. Occasionally someone remembers Happy Feet and Kenny in this context even though the latter got depressingly dull towards its end. Maybe this isn't the same as depressing. Nobody, except maybe Philip Adams, apparently thinks Mad Max is either dark or depressing. Maybe it’s when the film has both characteristics that it causes a problem.

Someone who continues to feed this into the debate is Brian Rosen, the now film industry feather duster, who continues to find a sympathetic ear with a couple of journalists, most notably Michael Bodey and Gary Maddox. Rosen apparently absolves himself from any responsibility for this state of affairs notwithstanding that he was the head of the Film Finance Corporation for half of the Howard years and decided where the money would be spent. That has given offence to some and you can read one response to it, and to The Australian’s editorial, by Rod Bishop, former and much admired head of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School here at Urban Cinefile.

Monday, November 10, 2008

National Pride

We all have our prejudices. Some say that the reason that the Coen Bros Burn After Reading was a dud at the domestic box-office, after a strong opening week, is that it is viciously anti-American. It proposes a US intelligence establishment full of vain, selfish, pompous dunderheads, chronically incapable of understanding even the simplest fact or comprehending the most obvious event. They are contemptuous of husbands, wives, colleagues and rivals. (“Shall I inform the FBI?” “Oh God no. Don’t bring those idiots in on this!” …or something like that, says one.)* The working class stiffs, toiling away for a low hourly rate at a gym, who move the plot along when they stumble on what they think are state secrets, are also vain, stupid egocentric and selfish.

The actors called upon to deliver this raucousness are brilliant at portraying such vanity. In fact, making the movie must have been a hoot for all those Hollywood liberals involved. Even the usually abysmal John Malkovich is perfectly cast as an alcoholic analyst shafted in a bit of bureaucratic byplay. Never in fact has such fun been had from a Coen Bros movie, despite a lot of attempts. Even the editor of Sight & Sound, not renowned for a sense of humour, found the movie affecting enough to describe it as “a minor Coens comedy with major stars goofing off”. Very kind.

Notwithstanding, Americans apparently, and American critics especially, though they get the joke, don’t like it. Australians on the other hand are going to it in such numbers that it is defying all attempts to knock it off the box office leadership charts.

But Australians are not immune to this syndrome. The only time I went to Cannes, along with the world’s film critics, I had the misfortune to suffer through Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream, a film which played fast, loose and inventively with Aboriginal mythology. Needless to say the white guys were the bad guys. The rest of the world judged it largely as another of Herzog’s badly directed japes at civilisation but the Australians went apoplectic at the thought that the world might believe Herzog’s inventions were, rather like Bruce Chatwin’s in his novel “The Songlines”, the product of documentary reportage.

Philip Adams, then Chair of the AFC, was so enraged as to write a “Dear Werner you are a complete idiot” open letter published gleefully in the Cannes daily press. If there had been an organisation called Handwringers Anonymous we would all have been forced to join, such was the collective dismay.

The poor sods who try and control the cinema in China also have to suffer such indignity frequently as well. Each year a bunch of tyros with digital cameras go into the streets, back alleys and byways of far flung outposts of the celestial empire, usually without troubling even the local authorities for permission, and make movies like Xiao Wu, Blind Shaft, Blind Mountain and Little Moth to name just some. At Vancouver this year there was Sweet Food City among others. All of them are portraits of how the underclasses, the left behinds, the forgotten and the misbegotten go about their daily lives in tough times. Blatant misrepresentations no doubt abound, but as the Coens and Herzog know, these only serve to make the movies smarter, more pointed, more accessible and, frankly, more interesting to the wider world. Those whose sensitivities are affected, like genteel critics, po-faced officials, censors and rabid nationalists wont be given more than scant regard. So be it always.

*That may be why a film like Traitor, is so boring and, after its main twist is revealed, predictable, in its attempts to be fair to all sides. In so doing it employs a principled and highly ‘moral’ FBI agent as a key protagonist. Who can believe that? Americans I guess.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Young masters and untamed youth - Vancouver in Autumn

Vancouver is off the beaten film festival track. It's not a mega event withhundreds of world premieres fighting for the attention of thousands ofcritics, buyers and festival programmers. Its main program collectstogether the usual hundred or so suspects for international art houseattention and it presents a broad based focus on new Canadian cinema.Its distinguishing mark is a focus on new, and 'young', cinema from EastAsia. It's a program which attracts a small but hardy band of scholars andfestival advisors if not directors, and has been developed over twodecades of complete devotion first by Tony Rayns and now by Rayns andChinese film expert Shelly Kraicer. It has succeeded in launching a dozenmajor film-makers into the west and continues to unearth new talent throughthe annual Dragons and Tigers competition with its prize of $10,000provided by local arts patron Brad Birarda.

This year the selection ran to close to fifty new films and again it wasbookended by full house screenings of two Korean hits. The opener was KimJie-woon's The Good The Bad The Weird a playful action-packed homage toSergio Leone set in the war zone of Manchuria in the 30s. The closer wasYim Phil-sung's fairy tale for adults Hansel and Gretel a film whichchocolate box colors that might have been designed for Jacques Demy with a tale straight out of Angela Carter to concoct pure contrived pleasure.Otherwise though it was the Japanese, both their quality commercialfilm-makers and their aspirational and very youthful debutantes, who shookthe place up. The best film on show was yet again a new film by Kore-eda Hirokazu. The director's first feature Maborosi was an early winner of the D&T prize andhe has sent each of his five succeeding films to the festival as they comealong every couple of years. Last time it was his period samurai flick Hana which knocked us about and caused people to compare him with Jean Renoir.This time it's Still Walking a family drama which evokes the work of themaster Yasujiro Ozu. The generations come together for a reunion on the date of the accidental death of one son. They're quietly respectful buteach cant stand one or more of the people in the room and each has theirown unresolved issues with others. A few of those matters get a little better, some get a little worse and everyone goes home. Kore-eda has a knack for masterful simplicity and there's no doubt that the festival invitations toscreen the film are going to flood in from around the world.

There is one peripheral matter of some astonishment about this film. Both Cannes and Venice rejected it for inclusion in their competitions, decisions which utterly baffled those who saw the film here where it was the hit of the week.

Hashiguchi Ryosuke's All Around Us has a similar quiet focus on a familybut this time its just a couple working their way through eight years ofmarriage. The relationship started offhandedly and endures some harshpsychopathology before it finally achieves some sort of serenity. Long andcontemplative but very moving.Elsewhere Kitano Takeshi's Achilles and the Tortoise amused intermittently and Miike Takashi demonstrated yet again why he ought to be the permanentoverseer of the James Bond franchise. Miike still makes several films ayear, his total being over a hundred by now and could easily fit in Bond's slam bang action sequences on his schedule. His God's Puzzle cheerfullymixes a story about quantum physics (!) with his trademark jokey action andnone do it better than he, especially where the action takes place in therain-soaking open air. Among other new work by established directors a word should also be put infor Service another low-budget and very raunchy peek at the Filipino underbelly by the prolific Brillante Mendoza. Its subject is a dysfunctional family who operate a rundown cinema named ‘Family” somewhat ironically, that mostly serves as a pickup joint (to put it politely) for the local gay community.

The D&T competition for eight young directors remains at the heart of Vancouver's engagement with Asia. This year, for probably the first time inany film competition, half the entrants were made by women. My own favorite among them was Sode Yukiko's Mime Mime, a supersmart story of a young bored teenager, a mild rebel with bad attitude and a risky sex life involving office visits to her middle-aged former school teacher. He's mostly bemusedby her infatuation but more than happy to be the complacent recipient ofher experiments. The jury gave prizes to two others of the women. Emily Tang's Perfect Life won the $10k. It's enigmatic but very assured, much influenced you suspectby the work of its co-producer Jia Zhangke. The story has parallelnarratives about two young women, one trying to disengage from her familyand the other, thousands of miles away, whose husband has peremptorilydisengaged from her and their two kids. Both of them live in the world ofChina's economic miracle but, as In Jia's work, Tang wants to look at justwho wins and loses in the orgy of 'progress'. Do the stories connect? Forjust a revelatory instant. More temperamental was Yokohama Sutoko's German + Rain another story abouta temperamental and rebellious young girl but this time one almost outsidethe borders of polite Japanese society.The other prizewinner was Gao Wendong's grim but fascinating Sweet Food City symbolically set in a model metropolis built a mere fifteen years agobut now a slum inhabited by thieves, pimps and prostitutes among others,all trying to live in buildings that are literally being scavenged and pillagedfor their bricks even as people squat within them. Gao's camera prowlsaround the architecture, to shoot in places where the image ofdeconstruction is astonishing. His story of a prostitute and her man has anarrative that's a bit messy and requires you to fill in some gaps yourselfbut you cant beat a good Chinese indie film (last year's Little Moth wasanother) when they decide to show us a good hard peek at the people beingleft behind.

Finally a word should be said for what was perhaps the most unusual movieof all, this year at least. Seo Won-tae's Synching Blue is a formal contemplation of solitariness and contemporary alienation.. A young Asian man spends his time alone in a large house and resorts to what young menoften resort too in such circumstances. He has some connection with a young American woman who works as a swimming pool attendant. Most of the activityat the pool is taken up by a mixed gender team of synchronised swimmers. Seasoned observers could not recall any previous work of art which thus asked its audience to even contemplate the possible connection between that amusing 'sport’ and the gentle practice of onanism. If you came looking for the unusual or for young people to give us something naughty Seo's film,completely free of dialogue, supplied it. So did several others. Vancouver in the autumn when uninhibited youth comes out is quite a place to be. Thecrowds that come out testify to that.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bureaucracy rampant when direct Ministerial intervention is what's needed

After my last post, see below, I had a look at what's happening at Screen Australia. Is there to be any end of the bureaucratic bullsh-t going on which seems quite contrary to the plans for direct selection and investment set out in the previous post? First of all, the Minister, the Bald Eagle aka Peter Garrett, released his Statement of Expectations at to what Screen Australia will get up to. This to a statutory authority, a status which once upon a time a time conferred independence of judgement and freedom not merely from Ministers but also from the apparatchiks that increasingly crowd out Ministers’ offices and stultify any smart thoughts. Screen Australia has now released its draft Statement of Intent (SOI) for 2008/09, in response to that Statement of Expectations. Screen Australia advises that these “SOIs are formal commitments by Screen Australia to meet the expectations of Government.” Can you believe an alleged arts/industrial organisation participating sensibly in such nonsense. If you do then you will believe that huge box office successes, Oscars and Cannes entrants are a matter of weeks away and the tooth fairy will squire Nick and Russell down the red carpet on Oscar night. Who dreamed this up? Please step forward and identify yourself so that the nation can laugh at you. Screen Australia says its draft sets out preliminary thinking within the organisation on the shape of its future programs. And that it “will use the directions articulated in the SOI as the basis for developing the suite of programs to be offered in 2009. A second round of industry consultation regarding guidelines and programs will take place in October”. Those meetings should be, as the old mate Counihan used to say, a real hoot but, sufficiently prolonged, the process could take the Government and its befuddled film bureaucrats through to the next election without a single movie being made to reflect either expectations or intentions or even the achievement of KPIs or any other bit of new management jargon designed to ensure nothing really happens. The process will also have the benefit of allowing bureaucrats to hide fear of failure or acknowledge failure itself. I’ll bet some consultancy firm has been hired to handle all this if not dream it up. That company would have a chortling bank manager and in eighteen months or so it will be favourite, based on its experience, to supervise a whole new round of announcements and consultations as to how Screen Australia, under its new Chief Executive Officer, plans to refocus, restructure and concentrate on achieving commercial and other success. …

The debate about quality Australian film

The Sydney Film Festival recently made an interesting contribution to the discussion about how to get our best film-makers working. Here's what they published in their online site. I'm surprised that nobody took the matter up further

Question 5SFF: Federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett recently announced that he will be giving direct grants of $10 million each to twelve currently unemployed filmmakers. Informed sources have suggested recipients may include Ivan Sen, Jane Campion, John Ruane, Richard Lowenstein, Ray Argall, Jocelyn Moorshouse, Leo Berkeley, Scott Murray, Shirley Barrett, Rowan Woods, Albie Thoms and Brian McKenzie. If you were handing out the money, who would you pick - excluding yourself, of course?
Randall Wood (Rare Chicken Rescue): "Ivan Sen - He's got a big heart and that shines through in his films - He's a wonderful storyteller (but I don't think he's unemployed)."
Tony Radevski (Ephemeral): "Ivan Sen."
Lisa Matthews (Ten Pound Poms): "The majority of those above are mostly not unemployed. If such a welcome magic money wand was to appear - I would like to see the following filmmakers realise their next film: Curtis Levy, James Middleton, Lawrence Johnston, Jessica Hobbs, Samantha Lang, Ivan Sen, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Jeremy Simms, Andrew Dominik, Stavros Kazantzidis, Matthew Saville and Andrew Lancaster."
Michael Mier (The Sound of CRY): "Filmmaking is such a hard process I really couldn't decide who should get grants. It seems those that are determined always find a way to make their films and I really love helping others realise their projects so it would be too hard to select ten names."
Glen Hunwick (Mutt): "Lisa Hunwick, Jake Hunwick, and Taylor Hunwick, (no relation of course)."
John Evagora (296 Smith Street): "Rowan Woods - The Boys is still one of my favourite Australian films."
Stefan Moore (The Cars That Ate China):"I would pick Dennis O'Rourke and Susan Lambert (who is admittedly my wife) but unless any of the suggested recipients are proposing to use the grant to make a very good film or films, I would say that this is a shocking waste of money."
Tali Gal-on (Lucille): "Sarah Watt - because I love Look Both Ways, and I can't wait to see what she does next. Dee McLachlan - The Jammed was a horrifyingly powerful film. And some up and coming directors that I met at the VCA: Daniel Agdag, Rosalie Osman and Sam Bryant."
Alex Holmes (Ali and the Ball): "Emerging filmmakers... excluding myself, of course."
Keri Light (Wanderlust/Wonderlost): "Because he is talented, because he has been my mentor and because he is now one of my best friends, I shall say Richard Lowenstein. That's one. But if there is a conflict of interest in picking one's mentors and friends, I shall nominate Michael Cody so that we can make our film...which may be even more of a conflict of interest... hmm. Maybe Minister Garrett should do as is stated in the question and give $10 million to each of the 12 directors listed or $5 million to 24 directors. How very cool. How sweetly divine. Brilliant."

Sean Kruck (Summer Breaks): "It would depend on the project. I would look at established filmmakers but also take a punt and mix it up with some fresh blood. Australian films generally don't seem to make much money so why not take bigger risks on the filmmakers and the style of films?"

Good thinking in there and a ringing endorsement of direct ministrial intervention in an ailing industry!

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Short Note about the Best Australian Film of the Year

Nash Edgerton's rather fine debut The Square, initially took me by surprise for precisely the reason that it eschews the cheap shock tactics of the films on display in Not Quite Hollywood a film which to my eye and ear has attracted far more undeserving attention than any in recent years. I got the impression that the Edgerton brothers, Nash the director and Joel the actor/writer, have worked out rather well just what a crime story needs to get its audience engrossed – believably drawn characters, some sly satire (especially in the male hairdos), a sense of absorption of the lessons of some of the great moments in noir, most notably Double Indemnity. The film twists its way sinuously throughbthe sleepy suburban streets of Sydney's outer suburbs and peels back bits and pieces of iconic lifestyle along the way. The joke about the dog and the shark was so brilliantly irrelevantly unexpected I roared with delight. Regrettably it seems that my enthusiasm isn't shared by many and the film has flopped badly. Perhaps in a decade or three someone will make a doco about the flops of the two thousand and noughties

Romulus Returns

Romulus Films
No doubt stung by criticism that its late night roster of the complete J Arthur Rank film library was starting to show the strain of repetition, after some 20 plus years of faithful service, the ABC has gone out and acquired some more old British films. It appears now to be the proud owner of the Alexander Korda/London Films library and, more recently, has also been screening what would appear to be the entire output of the independent production and distribution company Romulus Films. In other contexts, presenting the entire out put of a significant producer like Romulus might be quite noteworthy. But then again there is nothing in the publicity material which suggests that we should treat this as a bit of a cinematheque moment as the titles are run through. And the copies are plain old pan and scan a distinctly ordinary effort which suggests that its all been acquired o.n the cheap

Romulus was founded by James and John Woolf. They were the sons of pioneer producer C. M Woolf who co-founded the J. Arthur Rank production empire. In 1949 the Woolf brothers set up a production company and the initial modus operandi was to attract Hollywod stars and directors to Britain to make quality pictures. The first is often claimed to be Albert Lewin's exotic Pandora and the Flying Dutchman with James Mason and Ava Gardner but the official lists indicate two films before it, The Late Edwina Black (Gordon Parry) and I'll Get You for This (Joseph M Newman). Romulus then had a couple of big hits directed by John Huston, The African Queen and Moulin Rouge, and kept trying intermittently with Hollywood casting in Beat the Devil, The Iron Petticoat and I Am A Camera. When the so-called British new wave came along in the late fifties Romulus produced a number of films that fitted into the category of working class drama, most notably the ground breaking Room at the Top, The L-Shaped Room, and Term of Trial. One of the brothers, John, was the discoverer of Laurence Harvey he of the finely chiselled cheekbones and the sporter of that alarming quiff of hair that seemed to stand up for several feet in front of his face. He was the first Leningrad Cowboy. Harvey appeared in more than a few of the Romulus films, most notably The Good Die Young, I am a Camera, Three men in a Boat, Women of Twilight (in which he has a cameo which requires him to sing in a deep baritone voice clearly not his own) and of course his defining part as Joe Lampton in Room at the Top.

The sad news for all those enthralled with this information is that the ABC has already screened most of the films mentioned above and is unlikely to screen them again for a year or so. The good news is that there are still, if the Corporation has indeed acquired the company's complete output, more than a few films remaining to be screened. They may or may not include some of the company's later productions which were done with major studios, most notably The Pumpkin Eater, Jack Clayton's best film. The ABC may also have acquired Clayton's first film, a short adaptation of Pushkin's The Bespoke Overcoat, a film which I've never managed to catch

Manny Farber

It wont mean much to many but the saddest news of the week came on learning of the death on 19 August of Manny Farber one of the lions of film criticism and one of the most independent voices ever to turn his attention to serious analysis of the art of the film. Long ago, way back in the sixties, Farber wrote his still iconic piece “White Elephant Art vs Termite Art. It appeared in a 1962 Film Culture and I think I still have a copy somewhere. Back in the mid 60s, this piece turned us all around. It was as significant in its day as Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory” which also appeared in that very same issue of Film Culture. I’m going to cheat in my appreciation here by quoting at length from a piece by Jim Hoberman which was reprinted in last week’s Village Voice as part of Hoberman’s eulogy for the great man. Hoberman writes: “Farber's contribution, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," is the snappiest jeremiad I've ever read. Its target is films that are inflated, over-wrought, precious, "tied to the realm of celebrity and affluence" – white elephant stuff, in which the artist tries "to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance." Against this beast (personified by Antonioni, Truffaut, and the then modish Tony Richardson) Farber raises the red flag of termite art, a mysterious form that flourishes in dark corners where "the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence." Farber's termites include journalists, pulp writers, B-movie directors, and comic-strip artists – intuitive, unself-conscious professionals who have "no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything." Farber’s enthusiasms played into the hands of buffs, enthusiasts, auteurists and others who were seeking out byways of American film history and discovering the delights of noir and westerns. Farber directed us towards Don Siegel, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh and they became the gods whose work was to be found nestling in ‘ranch nights’ at suburban revival houses, the programs of MUFS and SUFS and at independent cinemas like the Carlton Moviehouse where the proprietor would run all sorts of stuff if you just asked him to put it on. In his later years Farber became a highly regarded painter, as indicated in Hoberman’s note, and was able to forego the pleasures of meeting deadlines. Regrettably for Australians, his work appeared in all sorts of difficult to find magazines and I’m not sure, beyond the one book "negative Space", whether it has been collected in the same way that that the work of others like Sarris and Pauline Kael has. That’s a pity but maybe his death, in his nineties, will prompt a resurrection of some of the best writing ever on film….For a much better appreciation try here …

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dino Risi

I learned of the death of Dino Risi via the obituary published in the latest Cahiers du Cinema. Long time critic Luc Moullet devoted two pages to a eulogy on Risi and its career. It brought back some memories and made me ponder on just how many of Risi's films remain unseen.
Risi died on 7 June at 90 years of age and it seems to have passed unnoticed, at least in the mainstream English language press. His was a name that had largely fallen off the radar in recent years. Yet at his peak he directed a number of the most popular Italian films ever made, worked with some of Italy’s finest actors and had at least one of Hollywood’s accolades accorded to him, a remake of one of his greatest successes.

Risi was born in 1917 and trained as a psychologist. He got into the film industry as an assistant in the early forties and later took classes under Jacques Feyder while still interned in Switzerland during the war. He made documentaries and in the early fifties gave up his psychology practice and established himself as a feature film director. He specialized in the light comedies beloved of Italian audiences. The roots of these films trace back to neo-realism and the settings especially were always quite meticulous in their detail of everyday life. Few of them were exported for viewing by art house audiences around the world but in the 50s and 60s in Australia you could see them at the inner suburban cinemas which catered to the vast pool of recent Italian immigrants. Many, though not all, however were screened in copies without subtitles and it was hit or miss for the dedicated followers who lapped up the pleasures offered by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni long before they achieved international success.

In the early 60s Risi became something of an art house treasure. His Il Sorpasso/The Easy Life (1961) was a huge hit with cinemagoers who appreciated its sly humour. Risi tapped into studies of that peculiarly Italian combination of traits - sophistication, street cunning, and a blithe disregard for the law. Few will ever forget the moment Vittorio Gassman blithely steals someone else’s parking ticket before placing it on his own car which in a flash establishes Gassman’s character. Gassman’s riotous sentimental education of the young and repressed Jean-Louis Trintignant in the ways of the world set the world laughing.

Risi’s other big critical success, and international hit, was Profumo di Donna/Scent of a Woman, made in 1973. Again it starred Gassman, one more of the sixteen very fruitful collaborations between the actor and director. The part of a blind man with a chip on his shoulder, a giant libido and an extraordinary nose for female scent was dangerous but riotous. Hollywood remade it with Al Pacino in 1992. Martin Brest’s film, incredibly long for a dramatic comedy at some 156 minutes, was also a critical and popular success. As usual however the original was a better movie.

As per usual with European films, the distribution of Risi’s work outside his home country was sporadic. Some of it popped up dubbed. Much of it was ignored. That hardly seems to have mattered to a director who kept working until well into his seventies. Today very little of his work is available. A check of the Time Out Film Guide doesn’t have a single Risi title listed as being available for TV or DVD in Britain and you suspect that the same would apply in Australia.

If his death causes anyone anywhere a tingle of nostalgia then it would be nice if someone got out a selection of his best and assembled them for an international tour. SBS could help with the subtitling for over the years the keen eyed viewer had the chance to see more than a little of his best work on that channel. (Alas no more those golden years have passed). One film especially would be welcome, the drama he made with Alberto Sordi in 1960, A Difficult Life. Whether it has ever been screened here is beyond me but in the European obituaries it is singled out for high praise. Otherwise I’d just be happy to see all sixteen of those films he made with the extraordinary Gassman, collectively probably the actor’s best work when his characteristic jauntiness, suavity, brilliant comic timing and unassailable ability to deliver dialogue at machine gun pace were on full display. Throw in the early Sophia Loren pictures as well and a bit of the cinema’s heaven would be there for all to see.

Risi’s two sons Marco and Claudio have followed him into the film business

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Wajda roars back with "Katyn"

Every so often a film comes along which doesn’t merely intend to change the world’s political and social perceptions but actually succeeds in doing so. The numbers in the first group are large enough but the numbers in the second are small. I dont believe I'm over-exaggerating when I suggest we think of the effect that Rossellini’s Rome Open City or Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Pasolini’s Salo Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses or Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth had on society, on their own national cinemas and the cinema itself. You can go all the way back to the silent era and D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation or Eisenstein’s Strike and Battleship Potemkin, to find yet other films which shook the world or at least the part of it that stood to be deeply affected by such radicalism.

It may just be that the latest such transformative film might have been made by Polish master Andrzej Wajda. You might have thought Wajda’s battles, lasting forty years or so, against authoritarianism and Soviet communism had all been won. He had spent most of his adult life as a film-maker trying to bring the truth of the modern Polish nation to his own people and to the world. He had done it in an environment of suppression, censorship and fear. He had stood resolutely against the oppressing forces and Poland recognized his work sufficiently to give him latitude.

Using that latitude Wajda, like all of his colleagues, still had to develop strategies to outflank and out think the forces of a state dedicated to strait jackets of thought. Poland, like all of the satellites of the USSR developed a highly repressive police state structure. However, its people, especially its artists, spent much of their time seeking to undermine this apparatus, questioning its legitimacy and supporting dissent. The strategies that Wajda and the film industry used frequently involved the use of historical parallels or personal issues that reflected current political reality.

Wajda was fortunate enough to start his career by making a trilogy of master works, A Generation, Ashes and Diamonds and Kanal, that still live on not just as films but as political documents produced by a society which has spent centuries involved in doomed attempts to repel invaders, and whose history is littered with failed national causes and disastrous revolts against tyranny. That history provided rich resources for a fearless film-maker and for those who followed in his footsteps. In the bleak cold war years Wajda and his acolytes and followers produced film after film that peeled back layers to show the true feelings of the Polish people. Communism slowly withered. Wajda and the film industry were at the forefront of its demise, especially by supporting the Solidarity movement. Wajda documented the progress towards democracy with two of his greatest films Man of Iron and Man of Marble. He also chronicled those issues more obliquely in his Polish/French co-production Danton. Since then Wajda has made half a dozen films, most of which don’t seem to have traveled beyond Polish borders.

It’s something of a surprise that, 25 years after Danton and at the age of 80 he has come roaring back into public, and political, prominence with one of his most ferocious and controversial films. The premiere of Katyn in Poland took place on September 17, 2007, the 68th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. It took place at the National Opera Theatre in Warsaw, was attended by the elite of Poland’s state and church and covered live by the major Polish television networks. Two million Poles saw the film within a month of its release. In an article in The New York Review of Books, Anne Applebaum reported that ‘for a few weeks almost every cinema in the country was showing the film, sometimes a dozen times a day.’ Its release started a national debate again and brought long-simmering issues out into the open. To some surprise, it has even re-opened debate about the Kaytn massacre in Russia as well. Almost two decades earlier, in 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev had acknowledged Soviet guilt about the events. Later Boris Yeltsin had ordered the Soviet archives to be opened, allowing research to be freely undertaken. A number of books were published in Russian and other languages which made plain the Soviet Union’s guilt and complicity. Notwithstanding this, in Putin’s Russia, nationalism has re-emerged and one major newspaper suggested that Soviet responsibility was ‘not obvious’. Such a view added to the continuing furore in Poland.

So, how should those for whom the Katyn massacre is an unknown byway of history approach the movie. There should be several things to consider. First there is the depiction of the massacre itself. It was a gruesome occurrence, endless cold blooded murders of the flower of Polish youth. Ruthlessness predominates as the anonymous, hardly noticed Soviet foot soldiers go methodically about the business of executing and then burying the dead in mass graves. No detail is spared.

More importantly Wajda leads us to the climax with a fresco of characters and incidents that fill in the details of Poland in 1939. In his statement accompanying the premiere, Wajda saw the film as “about individual suffering, which evokes images of much greater emotional content than naked historical facts. A film that shows the terrible truth that hurts, whose characters are not the murdered officers but women who wait their return every day, every hour, suffering inhuman uncertainty.” It takes him more than two enthralling hours to tell the tale and he starts by ensuring that we realize that it wasn’t just Soviet tyranny that was intent on destroying the intelligentsia of Poland. Early in the film we see the shocking round up by the Germans of the faculty at Jagellonian University in Cracow. Poland, its clear, is a nation jammed between two great powers. Faced with occupation there is resignation and rebellion. There is also stupidity and reckless courage. Small vignettes of Polish pre-war life finally build a composite image of a nation whose entire history has sadly been subject to constant invasion and repression by outside forces. That produces a quite aching sadness. Katyn is a film in which the great and powerful crush the small and weak.

For those outside Poland, Wajda has told the story of one of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. His own father was one of the victims. Has he made a film just to settle accounts, to bring one of the key moments of Polish history still unresolved to the forefront? “Wajda himself says: “Let it spin a tale about the suffering and drama of many Katyn families. About the Katyn lie that triumphs over the grave of Joesph Vissarionovich Stalin which forced into silence about it for half a century the then allies, the western ones of the USSR in the war against Hitler, Great Britain and the United States.” Once again, perhaps for the final time, he has used the cinema to remind us that tyranny, oppression and evil have to be resisted at every step.

(NB. Some of the information in this article is drawn from “A Movie That Matters” by Anne Applebaum, The New York Review of Books, February 14 2008. Katyn had its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in January. It is being screened at both the forthcoming Melbourne and Brisbane International Film Festivals. Dont miss it.)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack
Sydney Pollack seemed to have a good life making movies. His career as a director spanned more than forty years during which he made twenty feature films . He also produced a quite large number of others and, later in his life, made a number of appearances as an actor in roles which suggested he simply enjoyed the camaraderie of film-making and production enormously. From the start of his career with the low budget two hander The Slender Thread, in which Sidney Poitier played the telephone counselor trying to stop Anne Bancroft from suiciding, Pollack routinely attracted Hollywood’s best technicians and its best actors. The consequent consumnate craftsmanship was always there on display and attracted industry awards, most notably a Best Picture Oscar for Out of Africa in 1985. He was attracted to adaptations and his sources were varied. He did everything from Tennessee Williams (This Property is Condemned), through William Eastlake (Castle Keep), Kraren Blixen (Out of Africa) to John Grisham (The Firm). His chief relationship with an actor was with Robert Redford. They made half a dozen movies together ending, somewhat unfortunately with their riff on Casablanca, Havana (1990), a rather sad and underwhelming piece that showed how easy it is to misfire. But the odd dud notwithstanding Pollack’s was a career with a lot of hits and highlights. The first big one was They Shoot Horses Don’t They in 1969 and the box office also went gangbusters for The Way We Were (1973) and the film that he’ll probably be best remembered for Tootsie (1982). Both got a lot of Oscar action. If I seem a bit reserved it’s because his films, while workmanlike and highly polished, never quite got me excited enough to want to watch them over and over again. He was no Kubrick, Cronenberg, Peckinpah or Polanski. He made more money than those peers but he tended to make safe commercial films that discussed things and told stories in an eminently sensible way - cool, polished, funny where they had to be. In some very few cases he got to be genuinely romantic though all his films had love stories entwined within them. Out of Africa was one such and some make great claims for the merits of Bobby Deerfield¸ a love story between a racing car driver and a young dying woman which meditates over death and loss. I cant say I found its elaborate story telling very affecting. If I have guilty pleasures I confess a fondness for Castle Keep and for his somewhat bizarre The Yakuza, made from a Paul and Leonard Schrader script clearly derived from watching countless Japanese movies on the subject. Robert Mitchum brought all his gravitas to the lead role of the American interloper blundering into the mysterious ways of the Japanese underworld. Pollack seems to have been very generous to his colleagues over the years. He took a producer’s role on a dozen or more films, most in his later years, by talented directors including Jerry Schatzberg’s zingy country and western flick Honeysuckle Rose, Steve Kloves wonderful sibling rivalry story The Fabulous Baker Boys and a couple of Anthony Minghella's recent movies. Finally there’s his work as an actor. This was how he started his career before moving into TV production and then onto the movies. His screen acting in his later years always routinely seemed to draw praise, most especially in Tootsie and then in Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen) and Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick). Most recently he was in Daniele Thompson’s Orchestra Stalls playing an American producer in Paris looking to cast his next movie. He must have had fun doing them all. However for the life of me I could never work out why such a clunky and unconvincing deliverer of dialogue should ever have got those roles and in each I thought his presence and speech patterns served to make you think you were momentarily watching some amateur night moments. Still, sitting around on the set with Stanley or Woody or in Paris making a frothy comedy must have hardly seemed like work. He had a good life right to the end and he was making films until very recently including his final work a fascinating and clearly heartfelt documentary portrait of the architect Frank Gehry. Pollack was born in Lafayette, Indiana in 1934 and died in Los Angeles this week.

Ten Thoughts on Asian movies at the Sydney Film Festival*

1. There are some areas where Asian film-makers have cornered the world market. Animated films featuring sex, bloody and extreme violence, carnage and subversive thoughts about society have become the hallmark of Japanese cinema. At first, maybe around the time of Akira this was a product of the nation’s fascination with the graphic novel or manga but now it’s full-fledged international industrial phenomena. The SFF’s offering, Shinji Aramaki’s Appleseed Saga:Ex Machina gives aficionados a fix on the future with nods to John Woo.
2. China is a gobbler upper. Since Hong Kong lost it’s ‘independence’ in 1997, film-making in the former colony has slowed and increasingly integrated itself into mainstream Chinese production. The creaking and archaic Chinese studio system has been invigorated to a degree by foreign investment and the relocation of key production figures like Tsui Hark to Beijing. This has meant that commercial production is belting along and even key independent film-makers like Jia Zhangke can find a niche within the system. It can at least now cope with his tales of alienation and loneliness. Jia’s Useless is a documentary meditation on change and the loss of ‘Chinese values’.
3. Resourcefulness is at a premium. Some Chinese film-makers still don’t always trouble the authorities with meaningless and bureaucratic applications for permission to make their films, export their films or screen them at overseas film festivals. They take the inevitable rap on the knuckles. This usually takes the form of a request to pay a visit to some harassed and fearful official at a ‘Bureau’ somewhere to ‘explain’ how these things came about. They then get on with the job of making another movie. Peng Tao’s Little Moth which delves into the shameful trade in disabled children, using them as begging bait on the streets, has all the aching humanity as any film by the Dardenne brothers or, to make a probably too grand claim, the Bresson of Balthazar and Mouchette. Authorities don’t necessarily appreciate humanity on screen.
4. Reourcefulness is everywhere. Philipino cinema has given us a bright new star. His name is Brillante Mendoza and. With the speed and facility of Fassbinder he has made five films in three years, a pace unparalleled in today’s production climate and we have to scramble to keep up. His last two, Foster Child and Slingshot, both have a sense of documentary immediacy, using actors in real-life settings. Slingshot in particular has drawn comparisons with the work of Robert Altman with its network narrative set among a poverty stricken community living in a tenement in a down at heel part of Manila.
5. The skill to do network narratives isn’t confined to Hollywood. Mendoza’s Slingshot is just one smart movie juggling characters and plots with gusto. Taiwanese tyro Singing Chen, whose first film Bundled featured at an earlier SFF, has come up with the smart, droll and surprising God Man Dog, featuring a pop singer, her spiritualist husband, a guy with a truck transporting Buddhist statues and a petty thief. Their individual stories are all meshed together in what Shelly Kraicer calls “a small miracle (which) keeps all those balls in the air, crisscrossing in delightfully unexpected ways, creating image after image of astonishing beauty and building to a series of climaxes whose magic seems gracefully easy, completely earned and uncannily rhapsodic.”
6. South Korea is the powerhouse. Just as its industrial production elbowed Japan out of the way, South Korean cinema has shaken and stirred the Asian melting pot. More of its films get remade, more of its high end quality film-makers get foreign funding, more of its films routinely win prizes. Its producers back mavericks like Jang Sun-Woo, action men like Ryoo Seung-wan, smart and sassy genre masters like Bong Joon-ho and Ozu acolytes like Hur Jin-ho. Then there is the case of Hong Sang-soo. He has spent over a decade meditating on the battle of sexes, making movies that with titles like The Woman on the Beach and The Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, which are redolent with references to western art. But Hong strides through this with stories that deflate male egos, sympathetically show female wile and, in the end, reveal mutual incomprehension. His films crackle with sexual tension and, in some cases, are as about as explicit as you can get. This year’s is Night and Day
7. Masters and Apprentices. Taiwan’s cinema has a great tradition by which its major figures actually devote time to developing other talent more broadly. A couple of decades ago two titans emerged, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. They were intimately involved in each other’s work, Hou acting and producing Yang’s early masterpiece Taipei Story. Hou has continued to involve himself with others. So too has the third titan Tsai Ming-liang,. Tsai’s fetish lead actor Lee Kang-sheng has turned to film-making himself and has now made two features. Help Me Eros seems so small scale that it’s hard to get a grip on. The lead, played by Lee, is living through a quick descent into poverty. His human contact is a girl in a call centre and a sassy cigarette seller who dispenses betelnut to good customers and is being harassed by the club owner she works for. Then the surprises start and include a scene with an eel in a bathtub that does have more than its share of sexual drollery.
8. The hardest thing is getting on board early. We’ve already mentioned Brillante Mendoza but what to say about Miike Takashi. His western spoof Sukiyaki Western Django and his noirish take on teenage violence Crows:Episode 0, introduce SFF audiences to a director who has made gangster pictures, horror movies, a kid’s film, comedies with bite and historical and contemporary action pictures. Be warned. The director can be a major addiction. You will have approximately 75 films to catch up with, made at a furious pace and dating back only to the early 90s when Miike first got a start making low-budget gangster flicks with brio and gusto that went straight to video. Those early pictures are now revered and of course are very difficult to track down. But don’t delay. Next year Miike will make another five or six pictures. Some wont be so good, some will be ripoffs of whatever else is fashionable. But there will be something among them to make the blood curdle, the hairs on the back of the neck stand up in outrage or sheer admiration. Miike’s movies remind you that enthusiasm and an ability to make something whip-crack sharp and up to the minute takes a smart film-maker a long way.
9. Japan’s classical tradition remains largely unknown but someone’s working on it. We still haven’t seen any, or maybe its only most of Naruse, Shimizu and others. That’s hardly the fault of the SFF, just an observation of how Japan itself has only opened very narrow portals that allow us a look at it’s vast output, especially the incredibly vibrant pre-World War 2 cinema. It’s just a fact that there are certified masterpieces laying round the archives which may never see the light of a projector in a subtitled copy. However, a single spark can start a forest fire and the screening of Kinugasa Teinosuke’s A Page of Madness is a cause for genuine celebration especially as it will be screened in the vastness of the State Theatre with a live performance of Phillip Johnston’s specially commissioned score.
10. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are new frontiers. They are not rich countries. They have not consciously set out to conquer the world of the cinema and take over from others who went before. They have just made quite an impact. Their film-makers are winning invitations to the major film competitions, attracting the attention of quality oriented producers/investors in Europe and elsewhere. They win prizes and create buzzes that ought to make Australia, its producers, its film bureaucrats and anybody else wishing to see us get back to the once-attained highwater marks of world cinema have a good hard look at themselves….enough.
* I wrote this piece at the request of the Sydney Film Festival and am a member of the Festival’s Film Advisory Panel

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Absence and a fond heart

Just in case you thought this blog might have died I want to assure you that force majeure was in operation and  prevented anyone getting the benefit of my thoughts. However, I haven't been idle and you can get ready for more soon now that some commitments are cleared. in the meantime just a couple of links might be of interest. In this week's Urban Cinefile I've sent in a short obituary about one of my favourite actors Richard Widmark, a man who played everything from thugs like Tommy Udo in his Oscar-nominated debut role in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death to US Presidents, cavalry soldiers, and even an American Indian, notwithstanding his blonde main. You can find that at

You can also find details of a couple of film history courses I'm giving at the Eastern Suburbs Community College if you Google the college's name and hit the link for film.

More coming soon