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 …