Sunday, November 14, 2010

Spy Games

Spoiler alert. Do not read this if you dont want know the main plot twist in The American. You have been warned.

When I sit down to write my personal history of spy fiction I shall digress only for a moment to consider where the genre incorporated elements of crime fiction and elements of intellectual authors at play (often under pseudonyms) to hide a paucity of observation. In the Le Carre world, spy fiction has always provided the opportunity to expansively examine other matters in which the author’s real interests are exposed – the futility of cold war politics was superseded in Le Carre’s world by adventures and explorations of colonialism, pharmaceutical conspiracies, American imperialism, Russian adventurism and so on.

But for those seeking only to write something generic the cheapest plot device was always the trope of the lonely agent/hitman whose task, unbeknown to him, is to arrange for and participate in his own assassination. It was a trope of the cheapest order and one which was and is fallen upon with monotonous regularity. At some point the avid spy fiction reader could pick it coming, often far too early.

I don’t think George Clooney is an avid reader of spy fiction. How else to explain his decision to make The American and for this hoary old chestnut of a device to be wheeled out yet again and presented as if it were new. There’s even the same ludicrous ending of many a tatty tale where the would be assassin of the professional assassin is assassinated by another who then tries to kill the professional assassin. Like duh!

From the credits on the movie George didn’t have that far to go from the comforts of his palatial quarters near Lake Como to make the movie. He also didn’t bring any mates to help him do it. But I guess a good time was had by all during the course of production. Aside from George, there’s not a major name anywhere on the acting or technical credits of anybody known beyond Anton Corbijn the tyro director of rock clips and movies about rock stars. Who sold what to whom about the project is mysterious to those of us without access to the great man (still the most handsome leading man since Alain Delon, notwithstanding the pepper and salt beard in the early scenes; still the most charismatic and watchable American star since Clark Gable) but I guess its not important.

The shots of the village, the countryside, the cafes, the meals prepared by the priest (Italian glug) and that swish restaurant with that rather out of character waiter (surely more old-style French than modern Italian) create a deep wistfulness and nostalgia for days and trips gone by.

And it would be nice to think you can now go in to an Italian post office and be served immediately.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Arthur Penn

I heard of Penn’s passing just as I headed out the door so no time then to contemplate the career of a director who for cinephiles at least had a very hot streak from The Left-Handed Gun (1958), through The Miracle Worker, Mickey One, The Chase, Bonnie and Clyde; Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves and The Missouri Breaks (1976). That’s close to a couple of decades of remarkable film-making, all of them in some way peering under the skin of American history and society and finding a lot of pent-up lawlessness and violence.

Back in those long lost 60s when discovering new directors was the game and we awaited solitary events like the Melbourne Film Festival for our first glimpse of the directors that cahiers and Sight & Sound were praising, coming across an American director like Arthur Penn at the very start of their career and then watching in quick succession a run of increasingly assured films was then, still is I suppose, quite a rarity. But nowadays when maybe ten thousand new films are made each year and you have access to thousands more of them very quickly, the discovery doesn't have quite the uniqueness it had then. Penn was in that tradition of Losey, Aldrich, Siegel, Fuller, Anthony Mann, Nicolas Ray, Raoul Walsh and no doubt many others of lesser ability and reputation who did their best work on violent subjects, or maybe subjects where America's peculiar closeness to guns, brutality and death was most nakedly and simply on display.

In retrospect the fact that the run seemed to end with what on paper must have looked like a sure fire success, a western with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. But it turned off critics and the public alike, one of those ironies of the business. Bonnie and Clyde will preserve his reputation for ever and the line in Night Moves comparing watching a Rohmer movie with watching paint drying probably made it into all the obituaries.

We never saw any of the ‘live television’ which first made Penn’s name in the 50s That pre-historical part of his career may yet come to light but not so far. We did see The Left-Handed Gun, Penn’s film of Gore Vidal’s television play about Billy the Kid and it became apparent there that Penn had a sense of adventure. The long static shot simulating the taking of a photograph was repeated countless times by others, the shot directly into the sun which allows Billy to appear as a ghostly presence before he blasts one of his enemies into oblivion, these became signs of a director wanting to experiment within the confines of Hollywood film-making. When he got the chance, after his second film The Miracle Worker won a bagful of Oscars, Penn took the opportunity, with Warren Beatty, to attempt to be an American Fellini, with Mickey One. That film remains a fascinating artefact of its time. The Chase and especially Little Big Man were fine westerns. The former has one of Marlon Brando’s very finest performances in amongst its story of over-wrought Texas oilmen and its sub-text of the forces that led to the Kennedy and subsequent Lee Harvey Oswald assassinations.

In the end Penn just faded away. Towards the end he even made a movie with the magicians Penn and Teller but nobody I asked has ever seen it. Since I mentioned it David Stratton has been in touch to say he's seen it and has passed on his noted about what he saw. Not something to write home about. Still the memory of the films from that hot streak period will live on and his place in the Expressive Esoterica section of the Pantheon, I think, is secure and something to be admired.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eastern Promises

Vancouver’s special niche in the world film calendar has evolved, over two decades, from a small hometown event into one of the key portals for new films out of East Asia. Programmed by Tony Rayns and Shelley Kraicer, the Dragons and Tigers selection of 43 new feature films and 20 shorts, draws on productions big and small from 14 countries. The range is huge. Prestigious films from the major production centres Japan, China and South Korea, most previously premiered at earlier competitive events in Europe, repeatedly filled the festival’s biggest cinemas. At the other end of the spectrum, the eight film Dragons and Tigers competition for first time directors presented in the luxurious intimacy of VIFF’s own Vancity Theatre, again drew hardcore cinephiles and adventurous viewers. Neither element disappointed. Between these two groups were another set of movies having their international or North American premiere.

But first to the competition and the big shock. The jury comprised three of the biggest names around – Bong Joon-Ho, (the continent’s hottest director and one whose next film is currently the subject of much speculation even in the pages of the latest Film Comment which reports a rumour, not true says Bong, that he is teaming with JJ Abrams), supported by French-Canadian Denis Cote, a recent double prize-winner at Locarno, and Chinese master Jia Zhangke. They gave the prize, and the cash from local arts patrons Brad Birarda and Robert Sali, to Hirohara Saturo’s Good Morning to the World, a smart and beautifully directed story about a loner schoolboy searching for answers about a dead man he finds in the street. Honourable mentions went to Xu Ruotao’s Rumination, a very playful, neo-Godardian, portrait of China during the years of the Cultural Revolution played out in a desolate abandoned industrial estate by a troupe of actors summing up Chinese history in gestures and mime and to Phan Dang Bi’s Don’t Be Afraid, Bi!, a surprisingly frank examination of Vietnamese sexual desires.

The shock however was that the judges completely ignored Jo Sung-Hee’s End of Animal which might just be the most remarkable debut film from Asia since well, let’s make it personal, Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu back in 1997 or Bong Joon-Ho’s Barking Dogs Don’t Bite in 2000. A broke down by the side of the road movie which might have been made by a young David Lynch, End of Animal is replete with enigmatic characters with psychic powers, last minute plot swoops, violent unexplained events, dark secrets, mysterious flashbacks and some blackly humorous collisions of all of the above. The assurance of its direction is extraordinary and it is aided immeasurably by the performance of young star Park Hae-Il’s performance as the mysterious stranger who knows all. Park, a star in the making with a couple of standout performances already under his belt was so impressed by the script that he agreed to do the movie for nothing. The film is next being screened in the London Film Festival so maybe its time will come in that neck of the woods.

While big names Miike Takashi (13 Assassins), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee who Can Recall his Past Lives), Sono Shion (Cold Fish), Lee Chang-Dong (Poetry), Jia Zhangke (I Wish I Knew), Hong Sang-Soo (Hahaha and Oki’s Movie) and Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock) expectedly delivered for their audiences, VIFF’s usual capacity to spring suprises was also on show with several international premieres. Imaizumi Koichi’s The Family Complete will make its name because of the seriously sexually explicit material it contains. A former gay porn star, Imaizumi’s third feature apparently continues his exploration of gay sexuality, this time around an SF plot involving a family struck down with a mysterious virus which firstly traps them into never aging but, more hilariously, produces sexual desire which causes all family members to only seek satisfaction with their own grandfather. Imaizumi, somewhat heroically given the context and the requirements of the plot, plays the grandfather himself, while his film riffs off Ozu and all the other Shockiku home dramas of Japanese cinema history. Very droll indeed but, as we were warned, only for the broadminded and maybe a tad too explicit for a nation which recently refused a local festival permission to screen Bruce La Bruce’s LA Zombie, a film which drew happy midnight screening crowds in straight-laced and innocent Vancouver.

Zhu Wen’s Thomas Mao is a droll two part exposition of the relationship between the esteemed painter Mao Yan and his long time friend the German art curator ‘Thomas’. Where the fiction begins and the documentary ends is the jokey sub-text to a movie which sets out to describe the friendship in two parts – the first in the wilds of Inner Mongolia and the second in Mao Yan’s studio where the painter makes yet another portrait of his fetish subject. Shades of Apichatpong.

Finally, leaving the intellectual world for a moment and the best for last, to a film that, literally I kid you not, caused among its large audience of young Korean women, gasps of pleasure, shrieks in fact, especially at the moment when its star Won Bin, last seen playing the son in Bong’s Mother, took off his shirt. He revealed both a bullet wound and torso of such honed and rippling musculature that the audience seemed to collectively swoon. But that was barely part of the excitement. Lee Jeong-Beom’s The Man from Nowhere, a huge domestic hit, posited a story of an ex-CIA (South Korean branch) hitman/agent, now passing his days in anonymity as a pawnshop proprietor, coming to the rescue of a drug addled neighbour and her child. Jokes abound, especially with the drug dealing community longing for a return to the certainties of military dictatorship, but it’s Won Bin’s magnetism and Lee’s breakneck pace direction and superslick editing that keep you on the edge throughout. There is enough plot for three movies but some seriousness as well in the background milieu of child prostitution and organ harvesting. You would like to think that the film’s reward might be as a sure fire international hit and something that might even attract the attention of American remakers.

For the record, Australia was represented at VIFF by Julie Bertucelli’s The Tree, a handful of docos and two shorts included in a compilation under the rubric ‘High School Stories/Teenage Hell – Felix Thompson’s (an expat) Bedford Park Boulevard and Alexander von Hofmann’s Tinglewood....unless of course you think we should claim Michael Rowe and his enigmatic Leap Year as one of our own.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Walsh St Wager

The bet that Animal Kingdom makes is that audiences wont be sated by the extravagant vulgarity of Underbelly and will be prepared to come out to the movies to see something resembling a film a clef about another notorious piece of Melbourne’s criminal past. It shares one interesting element with The Wire. The most odious characters are neither the criminals nor the police but the lawyers. In The Wire the character who most makes your blood boil as he efficiently, and for high fees, frees his criminal clients from jail, turns a blind eye to gangland executions and exploits every loophole is the egregious lawyer who cheerfully gets his clients off a host of major violent crimes. In Animal Kingdom we accept gangland executions, revenge killings of and by police, the murder of a child, but we find really disgusting the amoral behaviour of the solicitor Ezra White, portrayed as a man of straightforward, nothing surprises me, efficiency by Dan Wyllie and, even worse, the smiling female criminal barrister who get their clients off. It’s an interesting turn of events. Somehow the notion of watching criminals do what they do has always been fascinating and touches something in us that admires slippery behaviour even when it’s violent. Watching lawyers go about their legitimate business of defending the interests of their crooked and violent clients is stomach turning.

The character of Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) also has some elements of interest. In a couple of scenes his psychopathic side gets a run through. The murder of the girl/child of course is one but at other times such as the scene where he meets his brother in the supermarket or harasses his brother Darren with questions as to whether he’s gay you get just a touch of a sense of the obsessive. The questions to the ‘gay’ brother are done in an outwardly friendly way along the lines of I don’t mind one way or the other but I just want to know but, like all psychopathic behaviour, Pope doesn’t know when to stop. But the scene ends with a whimper. It’s hard to know just how much Ben Mendelsohn’s performance throttles this aspect of Pope’s behaviour. Mendelsohn is not the sort of actor you cast when you are looking for someone whose mere demeanour can convey threat or menace. David Wenham has dibs on that trope but he’s already been there and much more effectively.

The best Oz feature film to delve into the domestic lives of the criminal underclass remains Rowan Wood’s The Boys. That was a film where the sons, at least all bar John Polson’s wimp, could turn violent at a moment’s notice and you believed it. Fuelled by drugs and life choices, they were far more animalistic than the relatively ‘sane’ family here where only one mad dog, Craig, stands in for the uncontrolled and impulsive. Michod actually seems to want to emphasise the ‘nice’ suburban nature of the family, carefully setting his action in houses set among quiet tree lined streets.

The image we have of the criminal and police classes in the noughts is physical similarity. The crims, at least the Williams and Morans who appear in the paper are all overweight as if they have too much time to sit around at home eating or in cafes drinking cappuccinos. Policemen today, especially detectives in suits, are rotund and have round bald heads as if they have been over fed on too many late night Chinese noshups. (Even Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness has a paunch.) Or maybe with the cops at least somewhere there’s my memory trace of watching sixty hours of The Wire and seeing the police team dominated by guys like Bunk or the Sergeant or even McNulty who just eat and drink too much. (Except of course for the magnificent musculature of Lance Reddick as Daniels who gets to show off his pecs and abs at regular intervals, especially after he leaves his ambitious wife and takes up with the ambitious prosecutor.) In Animal Kingdom the ultra wiry Guy Pearce’s only nod to cop normality is a poorly cultivated moustache.

The one character/performance that is note perfect is that of James Frecheville as Josh. He captures perfectly male teenage hesitancy, insecurity, inarticulacy, diffidence and an ability to bottle up all the emotion. His hunching of his shoulders and downcast look has an exactitude about it that one hopes springs from great acting. In one so young it is remarkable to see.

Otherwise David Michod’s mise-en-scene is fairly lacklustre in giving his quite engrossing script any extra oomph. The scene where Josh runs away from Pope, begs a lift and, just as we think he might be getting away, has the car slammed, is done as near to blandly as you’ll ever see from a director who presumably has misspent his youth, like all others of his generation, watching Scorsese and David Lynch pictures. You have to wonder whether TV shooting styles, fear, good taste or simple reticence produced such a damp squib moment. It just moves the story along rather than giving some rawness and visceral excitement of the kind you find in the French Mesrine diptych for instance. Which I guess is about where the film mostly lands.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rescued from the Waters - Fritz Lang's House by the River

Fritz Lang may be among the best-served directors for DVD extras which open up his films and enlighten audiences in ways that criticism on the written page rarely contemplates. Almost everything he ever made seems to have been released, including his silent films, and the range of extras, commentaries, special essays and so on seems to be bigger than for anyone else. The DVD of his 1950 film House by the River provides one such most enlightening extra – a forty minute plus recitation by Pierre Rissient as to the how the film was lost and then found.

When Pierre first came to Australia back in the 1970s he enquired then as to any likely interest in obtaining the Australian rights to the film. When I asked him how it was that he was able to offer them he went into one of his man of mystery modes and would only say not to worry they were legitimately in his keeping. Eventually I think he sold a print of the film to the National Library’s Film Lending Collection. The copy should now be held in the National Film and Sound Archive.

The film was made by Lang at Republic Studios. It was the only time that Lang made an American film that was not distributed by one of the majors of the day. Lang claims it was “offered to him” though it is easy to see why he would be attracted to the story of murder and the astonishing effect it has on those involved. The killer is liberated and believes himself to be a superman above the law. His brother is inadvisedly implicated and assumes all the guilt. But it had no stars who might sell a ticket.

Pierre Rissient recounts the tale of how the film fell through the distribution cracks in post-war France, notwithstanding that a legion of cinephiles, including all the famous later film directors, were keen to see it. He took it upon himself to track down the film and investigate the situation regarding the rights. The story of this effort, of many years, is recounted in the recitation that is an added extra for the DVD which is released in the US on the estimable Kino label. I recently bought a copy in Spain released under the exclusive label issued by the FNAC chain. The only drawback to the Spanish release is that the Spanish subtitles, while inserted electronically, are not removable so they have to be viewed as well.

The film was made for a studio that would normally fall into the poverty row classification. But, as Louis Hayward says when confronted by the facts of his disreputable life, “sometimes cheap perfume can be very exciting.” The script, the staging, the photography and the music score by the highly regarded George Antheil bespeak of a determined effort by Republic to do something of value. Antheil started as an experimentalist writing music to accompany Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mecanique (1924) and had a separate concert hall career all the while. He composed music for De Mille, Ben Hecht and Nicholas Ray among others but his film credits are small by comparison with many others who worked for over thirty years in movies. The photography by Edward Cronjager is similarly superior and its use of shadows and darkness deserves comparison, as Pierre mentions, with the work of John Alton. The photography stands up very well especially when compared with the work that was done for Lang on other later films. A number of those films, but especially, Human Desire (1954), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1961) all have a cheap look about them as if their budgets prevented them being made with anything other than the flattest glare. House by the River stands this test of comparison very well.

For anyone interested in Lang’s work House by the River is essential viewing, not perhaps among his handful of very greatest films but surely one which explores the director’s themes with some subtlety. The DVD is even more essential because it sets down the effort that was made by Pierre Rissient, acting alone, to save the film from oblivion. The recounting of the story is fascinating in itself. We have a lot of reasons to be grateful that it’s now all there for us, a couple of mouse clicks and a credit card away.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Who's to Bless and who's to Blame

And so the the Salo saga ends….for the moment. For close to thirty five years Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo has been occupying the minds of Australia’s film censorship authorities and a lot of others. If you would like to get the full blow by blow details and many more besides you can go here to a splendid website devoted to many mind-boggling concerns with film and other censorship

What’s interesting and has attracted little recent attention over those 35 years is to note just who was in charge at the time. I think I've got this right.

In March 1976 when the film was initially banned those who did so had been appointed by the Whitlam Government. In 1992 when an attempt was again made to import it the film was initially banned by appointees of the Hawke Government. A successful appeal was upheld by the Review Board chaired by another appointee of the Hawke Government, Evan Williams, still currently the Australian’s film critic.

In 1998 when the film was re-banned, the decisions were taken by appointees of both the Keating Government, most notably the Convenor of the Board Barbara Biggins, who had been put there by Attorney-General Michael Lavarch to replace Evan Williams, and by the Howard Government. Ms Biggins was quick to fire off a salvo to the press when the latest un-banning occurred.

In 2010 when the film was passed for DVD release, the decision, and the subsequent appeal which also ended in favour of releasing he film, was made by still serving appointees of the Howard Government. The Classification Board is chaired by long time John Howard friend, confidante and former ABC Chair Donald McDonald who himself apparently voted in favour of releasing the film.

For most of the last twenty years, the politician who has shown most interest, indeed a dogged interest, in the matter is one time National Party and now Liberal Party Senator Julian McGauran. To gain an understanding of the degree of debate McGauran has indulged in the website above refers to much of his efforts in the Parliament. McGauran's most recent responses have included the following: (Salo) “is a handbook for deviants and could trigger crazed minds”…. “Salo is not another pornographic movie with consenting adults but a movie that depicts children.”…” Our chief censors have just made the job of vice squads around the country harder.” …” The lifting of the ban is detached from community standards and leaves no line in the sand – sending our censorship laws into outer space.”

Right… we get the idea, although I’m not sure we even still have vice squads and, yes, I guess its hard to have a line in the sand in outer space….enough already but perhaps its worth reminding ourselves of an earlier remark by McGauran when the film was re-banned in 1998: "I'm actually over the moon that the artists have been pulled back into line ... You must remember I'm National Party - artistic merit doesn't mean much to me. The Sydney-style view ... doesn't amount to a row of beans."

So there… prepare to read reports of just how disgusting the film is all over again when the DVD reviewers get to work…and remember it was a mate of John Howard who did it, or at the very least, was one of those who did.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on a Federal Government led by a Prime Minister who alerts the media as to the whereabouts of his church attendance each Sunday you get another small and unwanted shock. This is an additional shock to that associated with the Government’s pandering to the religious right involved in the almost certainly futile attempts to censor the internet. These efforts on the internet are being led by of all people, the almost cartoonish political pygmy Stephen Conroy. Watching or listening to Conroy trying to explain or justify any policy decision is wince-inducing. How simple does the brief have to be before he remembers the details in reasonable order one is forced to wonder. Never mind for the moment, for out of the blue, we have a new entrant in the beat Tony Abbott at his own game stakes, the Minister for Home Affairs, who has fired in yet another appeal against yet another decision to allow Pasolini’s Salo to be screened, this time on DVD. The Minister, the suspiciously named Brendan O’Connor (who he you may well ask), has asked the Classifications Review Board to take yet another look at Pasolini’s little nature study of the end of fascism, thus drawing attention yet again to a movie which for reasons that escape normal human intelligence politicians simply cant leave alone.

For the record I myself was once a member of this Review body. I am pleased to advise that while I was frequently accused of worrying too much about what children might get frightened of, like that great space-age spider in something called An Ewok Adventure or some such, we never actually banned anything in my time. In one special case that was tested when we faced considerable pressure to take action over a dire flick (in my view anyway) called I Spit on your Grave. The film had been referred to the Board, despite being in video circulation for years. Some cheapjack lawyer down in Tasmania had discovered his clients were getting a lot of sympathy from judges in that backwater when the lawyer mentioned that his clients’ criminal behaviour had resulted from a viewing of the aforementioned movie. Banning it would apparently cause violence towards women to cease instantly down there among the apple pickers. A narrow majority thought the film didn’t deserve to be verballed in this way and wouldn’t play along. Nothing more was heard about any further outbreaks of serial criminal behaviour resulting from seeing the film. Or, if it was, nothing more was reported to we members.

But back to Pasolini and bear with me. After my tenure was not renewed my services were availed of on a number of occasions to write submissions on behalf of distributors who thought a crummy classification decision had been made about their investments. One such was a distributor and exhibitor of Hong Kong movies who had paid a fair bit upfront to acquire the rights to a film called The Man Behind the Sun, an earnest, vulgar and extremely graphic account of the activities of the infamous Japanese medical experiments carried out on Chinese slaves during the 1939-45 War. One of the encyclopaedists has since described the film as a ‘revoltingly explicit dramatization of the war crimes Japanese soldiers and scientists perpetrated on their Chinese captives.’ Too true.

Notwithstanding the unedifying content, the distributor had paid his money upfront and didn’t have a chance of getting it back if the film were banned. The Appeals Board, which included my old friend the late Keith Connolly let the film through and the distributor did quite nicely out of it, screening it to a mostly Chinese clientele in a Chinatown cinema. The film didn’t travel well however. Electric Shadows Cinema in Canberra, noting this success, put it on to dismal business and yanked it after a week. About the only attention it attracted was from the RSPCA who rang to say that they heard there was a scene in it when live rats were set on fire. This is so said the cinema management, explaining that rats were used by the Japanese to develop anthrax spores. The RSPCA advised that they would be contacting the Canberra Times and organising a protest outside the cinema if the film were not taken off. The cinema management asked what time they proposed to be there so that he could ensure that the rest of the media were also alerted. The RSPCA then thought better of it and allowed the film to disappear quietly.

But back to Pasolini and Salo. The film was banned in the early 70s. There was a memorable screening of stills from the film at the Sydney Film Festival presented by that critical old stager Gideon Bachman. But the film stayed banned until the early 90s when it was passed with an R (Restricted) classification limiting the audience to those over the age of 18. Just before the rights were due to expire, some five years later, somebody, probably with a nod from the Howard Government, fired in a request for a review and the Appeals Board, which Howard and his henchmen hadn’t had to stack with dogmatic and religious types because that had already been done by the previous Labor Attorney-General Michael Lavarch, duly banned it. The distributor actually consulted me about what might be said in the film’s defence but was otherwise utterly undisturbed I suspect. Attempts have since been sporadically made to import the film legitimately again. (Copies of the film have been clandestinely circulating in video stores for decades.) But to no avail. One attempt was even made, I believe, by the redoubtable Melbourne Underground Film Festival. But no.

Recently however it appears that the film has been passed for DVD distribution and yet again the Federal Minister, this time from the Rudd Government (see above), has promptly moved to prevent this. The aforementioned O’Connor has asked the Review Board to again ‘review’ the matter. We will shortly know whether the Board remains the bastion of conservatism that Lavarch established and Howard maintained it or has been allowed to assume a degree of liberalism.

But….will the farce surrounding this film ever end. Please…. it just isn’t worth that much effort and worry….leave it alone….get on with doing something useful…Like the internet, Salo is out there and if the ‘review’ overturns the decision you can still find it in DVD rental stores if you ask or you could still just order it on Amazon and import it through the mail. I doubt the slightest attention will be paid...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Oscar Washup

Oscar 2010 – Last words
“There was no joy for the Australian nominees…The closest thing to a win for an Australian, was an Austrian, Christoph Waltz, claiming best supporting actor for playing a scheming Nazi in Inglourious Basterds.” Gary Maddox in the Sydney Morning Herald reporting, from deep in the bowels of Pyrmont, on the Oscar ceremony. For a rather more droll, Brit-take-the-piss report try here

The SMH is one of those papers with a schizoid view of the Oscars. Its writers relentlessly rubbish them while its editors are no doubt happy to publish endless column inches about them. Even by the end of the week, commentator David Dale couldn't resist further notes: “The biggest winner The Hurt Locker (weekly box office up 12% - ed) will go on to even bigger earnings. Precious probably wont be assisted by its wins. A low-budget tale of squalor and child abuse sounds too much like a typical Australian film to attract Australian audiences.” That squelch was in The Tribal Mind, SMH 13-14 March…Meanwhile writer Louis Nowra, making a new reputation for himself these days as Demolition Man after recent jobs on David Williamson, Bob Ellis and Germaine Greer in various intellectual publications, surfaced again to remind everyone of his brush with Kathryn Bigelow fame, by reminding the SMH gossip columnist that he “wrote the screenplay” for Bigelow’s K-19:The Widowmaker. Nowra’s other claims about the film were that he never saw it, that Harrison Ford got paid a million a day for 20 days work and the film broke even at the box office. Louis added what he called “a little known Hollywood fact. No movie that has ever featured a submarine has ever lost money.” Not sure if all those things are true. Any assistance with information about box office flops featuring submarines would be welcome…. Louis has had other brushes with Hollywood, most notably with the Weinsteins in their Miramax period when his play Cosi was adapted into a movie in 1996 directed by Mark Joffe. At the time, Louis apparently acquiesced quietly, as far as is publicly known, when a happy ending was substituted for the play’s downbeat finale.

I saw The Hurt Locker yesterday. Mmmmmmixed feelings. I suspect its not as good as Generation Kill, the seven hour mini-series made for HBO by the creators of The Wire, of which I've only watched one ep thus far. Very gruelling but covers similar stuff, right down to the wrestling and fighting in the barracks. ...and the lead guy in The Hurt Locker is a psychopath who spends much time placing not just himself but his mates in danger. For that he gots socked once and has an angry speech of ten seconds duration delivered at him by the wounded buddy. but filmed with great skill in the I'm going to make you feel you're there style. Yet again its a film for the political moment that pinches the prize.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

John Dankworth

Many years ago MUFS screened the first ever Joseph Losey film that I associated with the director. It was a low budget Brit crime story made in 1960 for peanuts at the Merton Park Studios. Till then, and resuming immediately thereafter, Merton Park was a home for B features like the Scotland Yard series. The Concrete Jungle as it was first known here in a version that had been cut for American release but was later better known by its original title The Criminal, was a knockout movie, full of raw violence in both its criminal demi-monde and within the British prison system. It contained some ferocious verbal and visual asides about British class systems. Everyone had their place you see and those who transgressed by seeking to go elsewhere were punished. John Bannion, the ambitious crook played by Stanley Baker was always a doomed man, a thieving boy who created misery for those around him by seeking independence. Among the people involved along with Losey were the great actors Stanley Baker, Sam Wanamaker and Patrick Magee, all of whom I think I was seeing onscreen for the first time. The Australian Kenneth J Warren who played the pyschopathic thug Clobber had a terrific part as well. On the soundtrack, it was the first time I heard the voice of Cleo Laine. She sang the lament reprised throughout the film “all my sadness, all my joy, came from loving a thieving boy”. The music for the film was written and played by another then unknown, John Dankworth. It all came flooding back when I heard of Dankworth’s death this week, another of the titans gone

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eric Rohmer 1920-2010

In 1978 when we were visiting Paris for just the second time we found ourselves sitting in a plush private theatre next to a young woman who had also been invited along to a screening of Alan Rudolph’s Remember My Name by our mutual friend Pierre Rissient. The producer of the film Robert Altman was in attendance.

At the end of the screening Pierre was invited by Altman to join him for dinner and we three of us found ourselves looking for somewhere to eat. Since then Mary Stephen, Karen and I have remained firm friends, our paths crossing in all sorts of places, Paris mostly, but others as well. Mary went on to make films herself, including her beautiful second feature Justocoeur (1980) which I invited to the 1981 Melbourne Film Festival and more recently she has crossed continents in her career as a film editor.

Mary has had little luck in getting her many film-making projects going but not long after arriving in Paris she did have the good fortune to meet Eric Rohmer and he cast her in one of his films,The Aviator’s Wife/La femme de l’aviateur (1980), and gave her employment as assistant to his Chief Editor Cécile Décugis. (Among other things, Cécile had edited Godard’s classic Breathless/A bout de souffle.) The acquaintance made became, as with many of Rohmer’s collaborators, a firm and lasting friendship and in the early 90s, after Cécile’s retirement, Rohmer asked Mary to edit his film Conte d’hiver/A WinterTale She continued to be his editor until his last short film.

Most of Rohmer’s features were produced by the formidable Margaret Meneghoz, the head of the production and distribution company Les Films du Losange which Rohmer himself had founded with Barbet Schroder in the early 60s. However, his last three films The Lady and the Duke (2001), Triple agent (2005) and The Story of Astrée and Céladon (2007) and some shorts made in the intervening years were produced by the indefatigable Francoise Etchegaray through the smaller Compagnie Eric Rohmer. (For The Lady and the Duke, Francoise enlisted the support of Pierre Rissient and obtained finance from Pathe. Pierre Cottrell who had produced some of Rohmer’s early films was the Associate Producer.)

Eric, Françoise and Mary formed powerful bonds and it was somehow poetic that Rohmer died on Mary’s birthday thus, as she says, linking them forever. Rohmer’s bonds with Mary extended beyond her editing. As a classically trained musician she was integral in incorporating the music in Rohmer’s films and for a number of them she and Rohmer took a joint credit as composers of the score under the pseudonym of Sebastien Erms.

Before embarking on his film-making career, Rohmer was editor of Cahiers du Cinema during the years when it lead the world towards new perspectives on the American cinema and, by virtue of the fact that its key critics Rivette, Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol all went on to become and remain major figures in French film-making. Rohmer also established another name for himself as well, as the co-author with Claude Chabrol, of one of the first book length studies of a major film-maker. Their study of Hitchcock is still quoted today and was a key step in taking consideration of Hitchcock’s work far beyond that of a mere master of suspense.

For many long time cinephiles the first experience of Rohmer’s cinema came in his Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night at Maud’s in 1969. Set in Clermont-Ferrand, the city closest to the exact centre of France, it told of a bachelor who commits himself to one beautiful girl, unbeknown to her, but is then tempted by the exotic free spirited Maud. After a long night of talk and tease and tantalising moments he drives away. For some it seemed the epitome of the kind of cerebral and sophisticated French cinema for which film festivals and art houses were invented.

Before his breakthrough with My Night at Maud’s, Rohmer had made two features and two dramatic shorts in the series of “Six moral tales” and an uncountable number of educational documentaries. On the latter he learned the craft of his film-making, absorbing the one shot/one meaning narrative methods of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, thus seeming to arrive in the late fifties as a fully prepared film-maker.

After My Night at Maud’s Rohmer completed his series of Moral Tales with the similarly successful Claire’s Knee (1970) and Love In The Afternoon (1972). In each of the tales, and in most of Rohmer’s work, there is a focus on an array of women who are strong, smart, beautiful, ever-fascinating, eternally tempting and eternally wise. To play these characters Rohmer discovered a host of extraordinary actresses, all of them beautiful in ways beyond classical good looks, all expressive, aware, lively and capable of delivering conversation about moral matters with an exactitude and conviction that produced a seeming instant truth. For all his films’ apparent simplicities, Rohmer’s characters always rang true and his women were an eternal life force. The actresses Beatrice Romand, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Riviere and Anne Tesseydre among many (David Thomson estimates thirty to forty) have assumed luminous places in the memory thanks to Rohmer’s cinema.

In the mid-70s Rohmer embarked on a planned series of adaptations of classical literature, but after two films Die Marquise von O (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978), both of which flopped, Rohmer returned to his metier with two more series, the first being ‘Comedies and Proverbes” made between 1980 and 1987 and then what seems his finest work, the four films which comprise the Tales of the Four Seasons. Much of the focus of all of them was on the misunderstandings of young people in love. The contradictions between the mind the heart were never so clearly, often painfully, revealed. By this time in his life, Rohmer felt little need to travel outside Paris and rarely attended festival screenings or even the openings of his films. He preferred to hang out at near home, taking pleasure in the company of the many young Parisians who idolised his work.

Rohmer took the best part of a decade to complete the Tales of the Four Seasons. During that time he didn’t allow the grass to grow making any number of short films which allowed him, and his crew to experiment with new technologies and equipment. Many of the shorts were assembled into feature length films, most notably the delightful Les Rendez-vous de Paris (1995). This experimentation bore its finest fruit in Rohmer’s first digitally filmed feature The Lady and the Duke, a film set during the French Revolution in which all the backgrounds were taken from paintings by Jean-Baptiste Marot based on the etchings of the period and digitally edited to produce a picture of Paris of quite astounding exactitude.

We were in Paris at the time when Triple Agent premiered and its release was accompanied by an astonishing burst of activity – the cover stories of both Cahiers and Positif, lengthy interviews in both, a retrospective of almost superhuman completeness at the Cinematheque (it included most of the aforementioned educational documentaries and several sessions devoted to discussion of his art and craft) and adulatory reviews everywhere. Given this attention I was later astonished that most of the major Australian film festivals weren’t interested in screening that film, nor his last feature, but it’s never too late.

For those who might want to track down Rohmer on screen I can advise that a couple of years ago I was attending a film festival where Jacques Rivette’s 12 hour television series Out One was being screened. For various reasons I only managed to sample one episode. In it the actor Jean-Pierre Leaud was playing a man unable to speak who was conducting an interview with an expert on the novelist Honore de Balzac. The questions were being put by handwriting them on cards. Undeterred, the expert extemporised at great and sometimes droll length on Balzac’s themes and style. It was a performance to treasure and, as far as I recall, the only time I saw Eric Rohmer in a dramatic role on film. He made cameo appearances in many other movies, including Mary’s Justocoeur, but otherwise there is a wonderful edition of the French TV series Cineastes de Notre Temps directed by Janine Bazin and Andre S Labarthe devoted, with much love, to Rohmer and his work. Subtitled copies of it on DVD are in private circulation so it’s a matter of asking around among the cinephiles and collectors if you want to see it.

Eric Rohmer is not merely a key figure in the cinema, providing a rich legacy for review and contemplation. His work is also a testament to the uniqueness of French production which gives its key film-makers the freedom to make their own way and seek out new and personal ways of telling tales. Many follow in his footsteps though none has his unique combination of grace, serenity, affection for beautiful women, bemusement at love’s foibles and elegant simplicity of filming.

Eric Rohmer was born Maurice Scherer in 1920 and died aged 89 in Paris on January 11. For an intimate appreciation of him can I suggest that you look at the tributes on Mary’s Facebook page in which her sadness is lyrically expressed.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

DVD Dialogue - You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, USA, 1936)

So why this film to kick off a new series?

A series? Hmm. We’ll see how far the enthusiasm of the new year lasts.

As a DVD it does several things brilliantly. The copy is superb. The film is a Walter Wanger production and without knowing exactly what’s happened there seem to a lot of Wanger’s productions being circulated in very poor copies. The bootleggers have had a field day issuing his films in cheap editions using very poor material. For years there were copies of Algiers and Scarlet Street being offered cheap but the copies were terrible. Even SBS played a copies of those films that were very poor indeed. I think Wanger’s productions may have gone out of copyright and anyone could put them out. The only problem was that the material available, which needless to say wasn’t being supplied by the legitimate heirs and successors of Wanger’s immensely high quality output, was in very poor shape. So it’s a pleasure to see that Universal has been putting Wanger’s productions out on DVD using material clearly close to the original negative.

As well the single extra on the film is magnificent. So credit where it’s due.

Was it a Wanger project or Fritz Lang’s?

Well according to David Thomson, it arose when Wanger and Sylvia Sidney bumped into Theodore Dreiser who said he was writing a piece about Bonnie and Clyde. Dreiser said it would make a great movie and Sylvia a great Bonnie Parker. After they had a script, Sidney suggested Lang. She had just been in his first American film Fury (1936) and no doubt saw him as perfect for the task of making a movie about a guy hit with the full force of the law for something he hadn’t done. The Bonnie and Clyde aspects got played right down. Henry Fonda, always brilliant playing troubled, virtuous men, is an ex-con trying to go straight but defeated at every turn. A decision, prompted by an excited new wife, to go house-hunting instead of turning up for work on time proves a fateful moment. Then there is the long elaboration of a robbery and its aftermath for which Fonda’s Eddie Taylor gets the blame. The sequence involving a pair of eyes looking through a gap in a car windshield in pouring rain, the attack using tear gas, the single unknown man who drives the armoured car away and the heard but not seen accident, is magnificent.

One of Lang’s best films?


What about this single extra?

It’s a piece in which Claude Chabrol, all of 70+ plus, looks at the film on a viewer and analyses Lang’s film-making skills with quite remarkable perception. Chabrol is also interviewed and these sequences and bits and pieces of illustrative material from the film are incorporated into a very fine piece of film criticism. Whatever you thought you knew about You Only Live Once you know a whole lot more after seeing this. Chabrol has this fascination with Lang’s staging that enables you to get much additional meaning and much greater appreciation of Lang’s skills. This would not have been an expensive film. Most of it, even the outdoor post robbery and flight sequences are done in the studio or with back projection.

Chabrol’s analysis is most acute. There is even one lateral tracking shot, when Eddie is being escorted towards Death Row and is flanked by a guard and by the kindly priest Father Dolan where Chabrol notes how the camera loses the characters from the middle of the frame. He is perplexed as to why the shot is there in this fashion as he doesn’t concede that the clumsy look is intentional. This is film criticism of a very high order and, as I guess as I have been saying for ever, the opportunity that DVD has opened up for new methods and techniques of criticism has added immensely to the sum of our knowledge and broadened the way we can actually dissect films.

Chabrol was once a critic and has no doubt retained these skills.

Yes. Mind you very few film-makers outside that small coterie of French critics cum film-makers, mostly from the fifties and sixties, have ever had these dual skills capable of closely-argued and rigorous analysis and fine film-making. Maybe Lindsay Anderson and Peter Bogdanovich qualify. Hasn’t been anyone else who has come to film-making from these roots for decades.

Chabrol actually made a film that seemed to be a homage to Lang’s Mabuse character?

Indeed. I think it was called Doctor M. I may be one of the few in the world to have seen, it at a market screening at a festival in the early 90s. The less said the better I’m afraid. Chabrol is a true inheritor of Lang’s legacy. As an imitator he failed.