Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Alphabet (not a film)

If you find a satisfaction in the completion of arbitrary lists, please marvel at my ability to watch a film for each letter of the alphabet.  It's a far easier task than watching a film from each year of the century, and this is a venture you might enjoy trying for yourself (indeed, I once listed it as a way to play along at home)

America 3000 (1986)
The Belly of an Architect (1987)
Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Empire Records (1995)
Faust (1926)
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Häxan (1922)
The Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Julius Caesar (1950)
King Ralph (1991)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
M (1931)
Ninja Terminator (1985)
Office Space (1999)
Persepolis (2007)
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
The Robe (1953)
Shaft (1971)
Train to Hell (1998)
Up (2009)
La Vie et La Passion de Jesus Christ (1903)
Winstanley (1975)
Xanadu (1980)
Yellow Submarine (1968)
A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

One can have fun constructing one's own alphabet of movies.  I could just as easily have watched (off the top of my head) 'Animal Crackers' (1930), 'Beethoven's 2nd' (1993), 'Caravaggio' (1986), 'Dog Soldiers' (2002), 'East is East' (1999), 'Fantasia' (1940), 'Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns' (2003), 'Hot Shots! Part Deux' (1993), 'I, Robot' (2004), 'The Jungle Book' (1942), 'A King in New York' (1957), 'The Lion King' (1994), 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (1956), 'No Country for Old Men' (2007), 'The Omen' (1976), 'Il Postino' (1994), 'The Quiet American' (1958), 'Russian Ark' (2002), 'Step Up 2 The Streets' (2008), 'TMNT' (2007), 'U-571' (2000), 'V for Vendetta' (2006), 'Wall Street' (1929), 'X2' (2003), 'You Only Live Twice' (1967), and 'Zardoz' (1974).  But that would have been a different Penciltonian to the one you have been reading.

A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

Do excuse my wonky screen-caps - I'm photographing my TV again
We're nearing the end of the Penciltonian now, so as well as watching films from those last few years, I'm tidying up a number of loose ends.  I was keen to watch a film for every letter of the alphabet, and found that I had, quite appropriately, left Z for last.  Since I didn't have the time to watch 'Die Zweite Heimat' (1993) before the end of the year, I turned to 'A Zed and Two Noughts', a pleasingly literal choice for the letter.

Like most Peter Greenaway films, this is full of wit, conspiracies, nudity and astoundingly attractive cinematography.  So much symmetry, such colour.  Greenaway's introduction to the film points out the myriad myriads of light-sources used, from sunlight and starlight to different kinds of bulbs, flames, sparks and rainbows, and with this in mind the uses of light and colour in the film are really quite remarkable.  Some images anticipate my favourite Greenaway film, 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' (1989): a woman in flamboyant, ancient reds in a pink-lit lavatory, or the fascinating or horrible treatment of food that is no longer food.

Venus de Milo (Frances Barber) and a zebra.
"The wives of two zoologists die in a car driven by a woman called Bewick who's attacked by a swan on Swan's Way".  The zoologists, identical twins, obsess over decomposition, grow more identical, and begin to liberate zoo animals for Alba Bewick, who loses a leg but grows more symmetrical.  Though the film is enjoyable and engrossing, you must never watch it it while eating your dinner: it's a beautiful picture, studded with time-lapse footage of decay - apples, prawns or zebras, passing from near life to maggots to brown mush.

The cast includes credible actor Geoffrey Palmer, arrestable comedian Jim Davidson, David Attenborough as narrator of a nature documentary, and a piquant part for Frances Barber, who I know better as Doctor Who's intensely villainous Madame Kovarian, here playing Venus de Milo, a writer of erotic animal stories.  It's a curious and exciting cast, and a film that lingers long in the memory.


I haven't found a film that looks and sounds better.  Magnificent light, colour and framing, and a pulsing, obsessive, urgent score by Michael Nyman.  This was the first film I looked at on blu-ray, and is the only film I would recommend to you in that handsome, unnecessary format.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Cœur Fidèle (1923)


1923 offered me a number of temptations.  I was urged towards 'Safety Last', the Harold Lloyd comedy, though I couldn't find it on region 2 DVD - or perhaps the original version of 'The Ten Commandments', the remake of which I've occasionally enjoyed.  I felt, though, that since almost half the films I'd watched for the project have been American I might do better to watch something European.  Despite the fact that the films are silent, there are, or were, big enough cultural differences between countries that the whole flavour of a French film is extremely different to that of an American film, and so on.  In the end I was tempted by 'Cœur Fidèle'.  Firstly, it had been released on blu-ray, which is rare enough for ancient films that it (currently) usually means they're either very good or very culturally significant.  Secondly, it has an 'œ' in its title, and what mortal man can resist a good 'œ'?

Director Jean Epstein was a stylish fellow, and by all accounts a great director, and chose to tell an extremely simple story with great directorial innovation.  What we have, then, is an uncomplicated melodrama which is all about extreme close-ups of faces, balled fists and reactions.  I've complained at length about the lack of close-ups in 1910s movies, but here, in 1923, they're very much in evidence.  Epstein makes a memorable drama of this tiny story, using sophisticated fades, and new ways of showing us two ideas at once.  The art and the story are as much in the hands of the director and editor as the screen-writer.

Alas!
The film wasn't at all popular with audiences when it was first released, and I can see why: it asks a huge amount of patience and attention from its viewer, as its deliberately simple story unfolds.  While I admired the techniques, I found myself wishing for something more surprising or interesting in the narrative.  I appreciate great direction, but it's stories that really excite me.  It didn't help that 'Broken Blossoms' (1919) had a very similar content: the horrible jerk, the bland hero, and the threatened, incapable woman who gets to do all the acting.

Much of this film's visual  thunder was stolen by 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), which came later but which I saw sooner, and which uses the same technique of extreme close-up followed by extreme close-up followed by extreme close-up to build intensity of feeling, almost pushing the camera through the character's face into their terrified brain.

I learnt a new French word!
Having seen 'Cœur Fidèle', I never need to watch another silent film - at least, not as part of this viewing project.  I've covered the first two decades of The Pencilonian (and much besides), and have no more gaps to fill in the silent era (which was, broadly speaking, everything before 1927 and most things before 1931).

But there are plenty I'll revisit, some almost immediately, and I'm curious to look out some of the later silent films, the sort of thing we hear about in 'Singing in the Rain' (1952) and 'The Artist' (2011) - indeed, I'd be curious to see 'The Artist', since it's a silent film made in modern times (though aping the style of the classic silents, of course).

Music videos are probably the most prominent display for silent films these days, with dialogue-free stories told to suit the music, rather than the other way around.  I made my own silent film a year or two ago, 'Pencilton and the Giant Spider' (2012), which isn't as good as 'Cœur Fidèle', but which is shorter and features more fluffy animals.


Thursday, 21 November 2013

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)


A mere four years after the novel saw publication, here comes 'Tarzan of the Apes'.  It opens with a zoologically dazzling opening montage to match that of 'Life of Pi' (2012) - A snake!  A warthog!  A lion!  An elephant!  Some kind of bear!  Double rhinoceros!  I suppose audiences back then might have been more easily impressed by such stock footage displays as the one that starts this picture.  (That is, if it is stock footage - it could have been shot for the purpose for all I know, but lions really don't live in jungles, and the scenes with actors were apparently shot far from these animals' real haunts, in Louisiana).  Still, it must have been exciting to go to the cinema and see, not just bleary human forms and shuffling slides of text, but vast, shaky animals.  It's the same reason we see a venus fly-trap in action in 'Nosferatu' (1922), or animals in full colour in 'The African Queen' (1951)

As we all know, Tarzan is a hairy but clean-shaven fellow who lives in the jungle, swings on vines (he does so only briefly here, at the half-way point of the film - I suspect the famous image comes from a later picture) and was raised by animals, making his eventual meeting with civilised society (as opposed to sinister-looking Arab slave-traders, local savages and other horrid stereotypes) exciting and slightly-but-not-very romantic.  The concept is a little similar to that of The Jungle Book, except that, while Mowgli was (I think) an Indian child raised by a wolf, a panther and a hilarious bear, young Tarzan is an English child of the upper class raised by apes and heir to a fortune and heritage of which he knows nothing, meaning a (financially) happy ending is practically guaranteed from the start (though as we'll see, this film never quite reaches that inevitable 'you were rich all along' conclusion).

It's an interesting view of humanity's innate yearnings.
So, for the first half, young Tarzan is raised by a lovely chimp called Kala, larks about a while, and has no reason to talk to anybody - convenient in a silent film.  The intertitles mainly tell us what is happening or what characters are thinking, which seems a rather poor use of silent film as a visual storytelling medium.  This feels less like a film, more like a written story with moving illustrations - illustrations which are as spectacular as they are expensively staged: slightly.  As in 'America 3000' (1986) and 'Battlefield Earth' (2000) , our hero learns English and ingenuity after discovering a book, and immediately comprehending its uses and the meaning of its symbols.

After this we skip a number of years, and meet the adult Tarzan, played by Elmo Lincoln, an actor with an amazing name.  He engages in a variety of adventures of exactly the kind one might expect of Tarzan, and left me wishing I was watching the less innovative but much more fun 'George of the Jungle' (1997).  This, though, was almost certainly the first time there had been a film quite like this, so I suspect I ought to have admired its novelty - but I've seen it all done more enjoyably and slickly later on, so these fresh adventures seem, with the weight of time, full of cliché.

It's not even as sexy as it sounds.
The film only covers the first half of the novel's story.  I'd be tempted (though to be honest not very tempted) to watch the sequel which was released the same year (and was a Western, curiously enough) but it no longer exists anywhere in the world, and can be watched by nobody.

The film suffers, as many 1910s films do, from lack of close-ups of actors' faces, meaning that even if they're doing their best acting we don't really see the emotion, so it's very hard to engage with it as a drama.  By this point these things were getting better, and film-making was growing steadily more competent, so I suspect the rather rough and bleary print I saw on Youtube has also counted against my appreciation of this film.  That is, the early 20s films I've seen restored for home release have looked and sounded so crisp and beautiful, and my dismay at the 1910s may in part stem from the fact that I've watched the whole decade for free in gloriously compressed 240p YouTube video.


You can find the film on YouTube, but here's the novel too.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A Short Film About Killing (1988)


I was sad, and had been for a while, about international catastrophe, and about entropy, and about the rising tide of British racism, and the fact that the public and the media are not unsympathetic to this terrible thing, and because I had recently watched 'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1971), which is not a very happy film, though I think it worth watching.  So I decided to lighten my day by viewing a movie.  I had two hours in the middle of a working Friday, and the films I had set aside for The Penciltonian were all too long for that.  I needed something shorter, so I watched 'A Short Film About Killing', which is deeply unhappy but seemed to help.

It's a film by Krzysztof Kieślowski, who made the probably-more-famous Three Colours Trilogy, and whose 'Dekalog' I watched a few years ago, after hearing comparisons between it and 'Heimat' (1984).  'Dekalog' is a series of ten one-hour films for television, based loosely around the Ten Commandments, which left me with the impression that Poland (or at least, Soviet Poland) was a cold, cold, miserable place, always snowy and without hope, and that the main occupations there were dying and being cold while travelling short distances.  They were extremely well-made, and compellingly watchable, and two of the most striking were expanded into slightly longer versions for cinema release.  'A Short Film About Killing' is one of those two.  It may sound bleak, but the other, 'A Short Film About Love' wasn't radically more cheering.


This is a film about a young man, Jacek, who kills a stranger, a taxi-driver selected apparently at random.  Not because of some feeling of Nietzschean superiority, as we saw in 'Rope' (1948), but, perhaps, because he's sad, and sees no prospects for himself, or for other reasons undisclosed or barely hinted at.  Perhaps he thought it would be easy.  It isn't easy - he tries to strangle him with a rope, but it turns into a horrible ordeal, horrible for everybody involved, and horrible to watch.  We've watched the Jacek going about the city, and he doesn't seem unpleasant or unreasonable, he just seems disaffected with life - and we've also followed the taxi-driver, who has spent his day declining to pick up customers.  He picks up the wrong one in the end.  And we've been watching Piotr, a sensitive young lawyer with nice hair, who passionately opposes the death penalty, and who, a year later, has to defend Jacek.

Here, as in the hour-long version from the 'Dekalog', we cut straight from the murder to the end of the trial.  This isn't like a lot of murder stories.  There's no investigation of clues, no sense of how Jacek was caught.  We see the murder, then we see the last seconds of the trial, and then we lead up to the other killing, the execution.  It's a philosophical, devastating piece.  Perfectly, horribly directed, though it seems somehow inappropriate to praise the art when the message is so grim and so important.  Something has been done to the lenses or the grading to make the world around Jacek dauntingly dark and murky, as if wherever he moves he's walking into the dark.  He's distressed towards the end of the film, but at the start he's almost emotionless, except once, when he catapaults a spoonful of coffee at a cafe window to amuse some children.  He smiles at this, the only time he smiles in the whole film.  A clip of his brief, uncharacteristic smile was used in the opening titles to 'Dekalog', and once I knew its context, its use seemed terribly, terribly unfair and cruel.


I think you should watch this film, but I understand why you don't.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Rope (1948)


Look, the forties have been going wonderfully well - 'The Third Man' (1949) for goodness' sake, and 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945) - and I've enjoyed the decade so much, more consistently than any of the others, indeed - that I didn't want to spoil things now.  1948 was the sole empty year of the forties (heck, the only unfilled year between 1940 and 1996, at the time of writing), and I didn't want to ruin the decade with something poor, or even something promising but mediocre.  So I chose Hitchcock's 'Rope', because I know it to be good.

Now, that isn't a problem in itself, many of the films I've watched I've known and loved and chosen for their familiar merits - but this won't be the only Jimmy-Stewart-Hitchcock-thriller-set-in-a-single-room that I've seen for The Penciltonian, though this and 'Rear Window' (1954) have very little else in common.  So do pardon me cherry-picking this film to fill the gap.  Such an indulgence seems permissible as a reward of sorts, since I'm down to the last five empty years.

I suspect he would humour anyone's aunt at a party,
in such a way as would amuse him.
Like many of the best films, 'Rope' is experimental enough to be interesting, but conventional enough to be watchable (or should those be the other way around).  The great novelty, of course, is that the whole film (after an establishing shot) is told in a single, unbroken shot, with the camera roaming to show us details, rather than the convention of various angles edited together.  It's a tactic used far more lavishly - ridiculously so - in 'Russian Ark' (2002), which is told from the point-of-view of an unseen central character, whereas here the camera stands only for the audience.  We're the ones watching this murder story.

When I first saw it about a decade ago, I was surprised by a couple of things that now seem utterly unsurprising.  First, it was made in 1948 - and the only Hitchcock I knew back then was 'Psycho', from 1960.  I was surprised, as the two years seemed incredibly distant one from another (though, as a mathematician would tell you, they're only twelve years apart).  1960 is very nearly the modern day, or so I thought, but the forties were practically Victorian.  I'd hitherto thought of Hitchcock's career as a tiny, intense thing, all occurring in a short blurt the length of a decade, like the Beatles albums.  It was the first time I started to tie films to their years, a process which led, eventually, to The Penciltonian.

'And what would you say to some champagne?'
'Helloooo champagne'.
The second thing that struck me was that it was that it was in colour.  Perhaps I had a notion that the world didn't go into colour until 'Doctor Who' did in 1970, or in the sixties at the earliest.  I'm closer to the truth now: after some odd experiments, colour happened in a big way in 1939, but was so expensive that the onset of war made it disappear again, except for the most spectacular pictures.  Colour was on and off for a while, and only became the standard about fifty years ago.  I suspect it was affordable in 'Rope' because of the relatively low budget - the film is a play, on one set, and without many fancy effects - and because, by the nature of the movie, I suspect relatively little film-stock was needed: the shots were few, and thoroughly rehearsed, and there were no alternative angles to worry about.

It is, as I say, a very fine film, and one which has aged well - there's the merit of a filmed play.  It regards two young men who, as the camera starts to roll, have just strangled their friend, purely because they could.  We see the remainder of their evening, as they throw a polite party, with the corpse's hiding place as a serving-table.  At any point it seems they could be discovered, or else give themselves away.  To an extent they seem to want to be discovered, and praised for their daring.  It's extremely tense, highly dramatic, but at the same time witty and very fun.  James Stewart is always worth watching, and all parts are enjoyably brought to life, except David, of course, who is dead to begin with.


The Third Man (1949)


A few weeks ago I saw a very enjoyable amateur production of 'Travels with my Aunt', enjoyable because of the story: at every point I wanted to know what happened next.  Certain revelations were easy to predict, but I couldn't guess where they would lead the characters, and whenever I thought I had my head around it some complication would throw the plot in unexpected directions, and make the resolutions I expected far further away.  It wasn't just easy schlock, it was a morally complex and clever work of plotting.  Since the details, the characters and their dialogue were likewise very appealing to me, I praised Graham Green, who had penned the original novel, and resolved to re-watch 'The Third Man', as he wrote both the novel and the screenplay.

It's a British film about an American in Vienna, at a time when it was a divided and international city, a bureaucratic tangle, filled with crime, trouble and outlandish camera-angles.  It's an excellent noir, and I very much like noir, so long as it's excellent.

I like this shot of a bridge.  It looks so much more modern than
most of Vienna as we see it.  The city and the film seem to be
on the border between the old world and the present day.
My first viewing of the film was immensely satisfying, trying to work out the central mystery of the eponymous Third Man.  Subsequent viewings have been no less enjoyable, regarding the performances, the lighting and cinematography and the ingenuity of the story.

I feel a little guilty that I only have positive things to say about the film - I could probably be of far more interest if I condemned it, but it pleases me too much - a beautiful thriller with a great plot - it resists sentimentality and the temptation to grant a comfortable ending.  As it transpires, I've really enjoyed all the films I've watched from the 1940s (except the German ones, oddly enough, despite loving Weimar Republic cinema).  The great surprise of The Penciltonian is that this has turned out to be the best decade for films.  'Went The Day Well' (1942), 'Double Indemnity' (1944), 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945), all amazed me.  Of course, I haven't looked at 1948 yet, so perhaps it will al go wrong from here.


The film, if you'd care to watch it from some optical media. And you might like 'Third Man', a song by The Duckworth Lewis Method. They're very good, you know.

Das Herz der Königin (1940)

Zarah Leander IS Mary Queen of Scots.
There are plenty of English-language films about foreign history - 'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1971), for instance, about the death of the Tsar of Russia, or almost any film about Jesus, so I've long been curious about foreign films about English history.  Are there Indian films about Cromwell, or Russian biopics of Queen Victoria?

'Das Herz der Königin' is exactly what I'd been looking for - a film made in Nazi Germany about Mary Queen of Scots' imprisonment and (spoiler) execution by Queen Elizabeth of England.  It's a bit of history I don't really know, as it wasn't on the syllabus in my youth.  I read the first half of Antonia Fraser's biography of Mary last year, so have a vague understanding of the queen and her times, but since I didn't ever finish the (good and thorough) book, the end of Mary's life is something I first learned about from this film.

I think this may be Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who I've much enjoyed in Fritz Lang's
'Metropolis' (1927), 'Die Nibelungen' (1924), and the Dr Mabuse films (1922, 1933)
The history is something like this: England and 'Schottland' were completely separate nations back then, and their queens, Elizabeth and Mary, were cousins who always wanted to meet.  Catholic Scotland believed Mary was the real heir to England's throne, as, refusing to recognise Henry VIII's divorce, they considered Elizabeth illegitimate and thus an ineligible heir.  Mary went to France for a bit (which in those days was next-door to Scotland) to marry a prince, who died.  When she came back to Scotland it was no longer as Catholic as she was (for, having had Catherine de Medici as a mother-in-law, she was Catholic indeed).  Everything went pretty badly for her until she was locked up by the English for some reason (in the middle of Sheffield, though you wouldn't recognise it in those pre-tram days), and was beheaded for something like treason.  She and Elizabeth never met, except perhaps a little bit in this movie.  The fruit of her loins became king of both England and Scotland, uniting the island of Great Britain, so that's a sort-of happy ending for you.

Zarah Leander, Nazi Germany's great diva, plays Mary, and gets a number of sad-sounding songs, though their contents could be intensely jolly for all I know, as I was watching the film in German without subtitles, so had no idea what anybody was saying.  Nonetheless, Leander gives a pleasant performance, though some count it as her worst.  I've long been curious to see her in action as Maria and Pauline Simon in my beloved 'Heimat' (1984) go to see her in the 1938 film of the same name, and admire her greatly.

Sorry, German language, I've no idea what you're trying to tell me.
The whole film looks very fine, giving us a splendid, very clean picture of history.  Big Tudor costumes: doublets, kilts, ball-gowns and jerkins.  Plenty to envy, and want to wear.  We can tell it's set in England and Scotland, as there's Norman architecture and lots of capotains, a hat I very much enjoy.

I think I would have found the movie more enjoyable, not to mention more intelligible, had some subtitles been available to me.  It would probably make the film's anti-British bias more evident, which in pictures is only apparent in the chilly horridness of Königin Elizabeth's performance.  Who knows what allegations lie within the dialogue?

P.S. Because I only realised a year ago, I shall clarify: Mary Queen of Scots isn't the same person as 'Bloody' Mary, Queen of England, they merely shared a forename, a century and a lineage.  This all happened about 450 fears ago, shortly before Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Guy Fawkes, the revolution and the interregnum (in that order).

P.P.S. While watching the film, my chair broke and I fell over backwards.  It was hilarious.


Look, it's not out on video, but you can find the film on Youtube.  Or better, why not read Antonia Fraser's biography of Mary?  It's really good.  I only didn't finish it because I'm lazy.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)


When I was quite a young child, I was fascinated and disturbed by the ends of two films that I had seen on TV.  One ended with a giant dinosaur being burnt to death in a church.  I never found out what that film was.  The other ended with the Tsar of Russia being taken to a house where all the windows were painted up so nobody could see in or out, and the family eventually being placed in a room and shot to death.  That film was 'Nicholas and Alexandra'.

Recently I found it again, on VHS in a charity shop, and was delighted to find that its three stars were all actors I very much like to watch.  Most obviously Tom Baker IS Rasputin.  This was three years before he was famous, and at this point he was still a really good actor.  He was as good as this when he started being The Doctor in 1974 - he's at the top of his game in 'Terror of the Zygons' and 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', for instance, but stayed in the role long enough to grow bored and tired, and rarely took a dramatic role seriously again.  But here he is, before all that, scintillating in the role of Rasputin, that most maligned of holy men.  Rasputin was not mad nor a monk, nor a monster - he was a fascinating man, a constant pilgrim, who struggled with his faith and (apparently genuine) powers.  Unlike Hammer Horror's schlocky take on him, this film gives us the historical Rasputin, a far more interesting and tragic person, and one I hope to meet some day, when we're all dead.


Secondly, there's Janet Suzman as Alexandra, the Tsaritsa.  When I think of eighties women, Janet Suzman always comes to mind for her performance in 1986 TV serial 'The Singing Detective', with her strong, cold, muscular manner, her big red hair.  There's an amazing, disconcerting strength to her that's evident here and in 'The Draughtsman's Contract' (1982?), and I think it a pity she isn't more famous.

Third, there's Michael Jayston as Tsar Nicholas.  He gives a quiet performance in the role of Russia's doomed Tsar.  Nicholas II is often presented as a cruel oppressor, but this film shows him as a man trying to be a good, kind leader, who wants to protect his family and preserve his power, that he might some day pass it to his haemophiliac son.  He doesn't understand his people, and he's terrible at taking advice.  I know Michael Jayston best as The Valeyard, that sarcastic, villainous barrister in 1986's 'Trial of a Time Lord', but he's given a far more emotional role here.  There's a scene after his forced abdication when he comes home to Alexandra and just weeps and weeps.  It's a terrible thing to behold.  I understand he recently reprised the role in an audio-drama entitled 'Tsar Wars' opposite Tom Baker as a robotic Rasputin.  I have not so far sought it out.

Nicholas and Alexandra, their daughters, their son, their doctor, waiting.
That would be quite a cast, but there's also Laurence Olivier, Ian Holm, Eric Porter, Julian Glover, Timothy West, Steven Berkoff and so on.  It's a handy hub when calculating actors' degrees of separation.

It's a very serious film, but a very interesting one.  It's quite an education, and a really devastating tragedy.  This was a terrible time to be Russian, and it only grows worse as the Tsar sends his nation into the first world war, and so seals his fate.  From the intermission to the Tsar and his family's long-drawn-out murder in the House of Special Purpose, this is a catalogue of disaster.  The Tsar makes this catastrophe, and it falls on him very heavily.  Not lightly do I compare anything to 'Downfall' (2004), but this is as close as I have seen a British film come to those depths, the gruelling horror of history.



P.S. When I die I want to die like Rasputin: poisoned with cyanide and shot with guns and stubbornly staying alive to prophesy terrible doom, before being bludgeoned to death with chains.  This film really stuck with me.  What a time in history.


Why not watch this film?  It's in English, so you've no real excuse not to.  Don't watch it if you're unhappy, though.

The Bed Sitting Room (1969)


A bizarre post-apocalyptic comedy, directed by Richard Lester (he of the Beatles films), with a script co-written by Spike Milligan and a cast that includes many of the comedy greats of the era.  Much of it is extremely silly, and some of it is even stupid, and as a whole it's an utterly bleak picture about the futility of Britishness after the atomic catastrophe.

Marty Feldman IS the NHS.
It's a film adaptation of Milligan and John Antrobus's absurdist play of the same name.  Jaunty music and surreal jokes played out on Britain's filthiest, ugliest and most polluted landscapes, the most depressing places in the country, fields of shattered crockery, hills of abandoned shoes, every floor littered with something.  It's bleak and ridiculous, and the director apparently worried that he'd spent so much time making it look miserable that he'd forgotten to make it funny.  I'm not sure how well he succeeded, but I enjoy it very much.  It thrills me and it distresses me.  It just about matches 'Daisies' (1966) for oddness, which is quite an achievement.

A field of abandoned crockery.
My favourite scene of the nineteen-sixties is in this film, when Mother (Mona Washbourne) is visited by a nurse who hands over her death certificate and informs her that she's died.  Mrs Throper is overwhelmed with a deep, gentle sadness when she's allowed to hold all her certificates at once: birth, marriage, death and school.  She later gets to throw plates and bottles at Harry Secombe, and becomes a cupboard.

Mrs Throper receives her certificate.
An excellent cast, including Arthur Lowe, Peter Cook, Roy Kinnear and Marty Feldman, manages to deliver the bizarre, almost nonsensical dialogue with a warmth, and make bizarre individuals into people.  Nobody here has realised they're in a tragedy.  The expectation of imminent thermonuclear war must have been a very terrible thing back then, and I don't imagine this film offered much in the way of consolation.


This was the first release in the BFI Flipside range, excellent but neglected British films.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (1922)

A disguise of Dr Mabuse
Many months ago, I wrote about this film's sequel, 'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' (1933), which pitted Inspector Lohmann from 'M' (1931) against the villainous Dr Mabuse from this silent picture, 'Dr Mabuse, the Gambler'.  At the time I was faintly curious to know what Mabuse had been up to before his insanity and institutionalisation, but at the time I was wary of silent films, so passed the opportunity by.  However, my trusty CRT television broke down and died a few weeks ago, so I upgraded to HD at last, and ordered myself a copy of this movie to test it out.  I learnt early in The Penciltonian that director Fritz Lang created pictures worth looking at.  As in 'Metropolis' (1927), he casts Rudolf Klein-Rogge as a charismatic villain, and as in 'Die Nibelungen' (1925) he tells his story over almost five hours, with the audience watching the first half of the film one day, returning to the cinema a day later to find out what happened in the second half.

Nice hat and pattern there, Aud Egede-Nissen.
This film breaks the division I'd imagined in Lang's directorial career.  In my mind, he spent the 20s making epic sci-fi and fantasy silent films, before moving into (slightly) more grounded Berlin-based crime thrillers with the advent of sound in the 30s.  But this is a silent crime film of gargantuan character, and feels like it belongs in both portions.  It's the age of monocles, of cocain and of intertitles.  Dr Mabuse is a psychoanalyst, a gambler and a hypnotist.  An evil hypnotist, mind.  As in the sequel, there's something of a mystery over whether his powers are granted by a knowledge of human psychology, by a triumph of patented German will-power, or by some force yet more malign and magical.  Mabuse is a brilliant and terrible individual, a stylish and intense fellow and a master of disguise.  He dresses up a lot, coaxes people into losing vast sums at cards, and uses his pawns to engage in the more practical criminal fare of theft, un-theft, stock-market cunning and (eventually) murder.  In short, he's The Master, 48 years early.

Chief Inspector Norbert von Wenk regards the artworks of high society.
Within ten minutes of the start, I was excited about some day rewatching the film.  It had an energy, a flair and a visual style that I found very alluring.  I used to have a rather dim opinion of silent films (an opinion you can share if you watch 'Birth of a Nation', 1915, first), but films like this are so rich and exciting, and tell their stories with a directness and drama that you wonder why spoken dialogue ever seemed like a necessary invention.  I love the scene of hypnosis that we see from the point-of-view of the hypnotee, as everything except Mabuse's face grows blurry and the playing cards change their faces.  I love the scenes of miss Cara Carozza dancing - she's an amazing dancer, but not necessarily a good one, but her unembarrassable flailing and jiving is something I one immediately wished to imitate - a strangely attractive, undisciplined style, with plenty of gusto.  I dig the amazing and scary expressionist art that stocks the houses of the city's upper crust; Mabuse says expressionism is just 'spilerei', 'playing about' - but he sees nothing wrong with playing about.  He's a Spieler!

The film very briefly passes the Bechdel test when Cara and Gräfin Dusy Told talk to
each other in prison, but in no time they're on about Dr Mabuse this and Dr Mabuse that...
It's a fine thriller, with a timeless flavour, if not a modern one.  Scenes that I take to be innovative (though they may already have been old hat) are things which later became clichés, but remain ever exciting: a taxi-driver surreptitiously pulls a lever releasing knockout gas in his passenger compartment, for instance.  It feels as if James Bond could break out at any moment.  This is so far advanced, so far advanced in terms of ambition, style and depth from that other tale of silent criminality, 'Dr Nicholson and the Blue Diamond' (1913, and yes, all doctors in cinema were evil until 1965) that it's hard to believe only a decade has gone by.  This is a sinister and exciting story, and is comfortably up to the standards of Fritz Lang's more famous crime-films.  And it's impressive indeed to remain exciting for so many hours.


P.S. This was the same year as 'Nosferatu' and the amazing 'Häxan'.  What a year for European cinema!  Over in the states 'King of Kings' was happening, so the year's merits may have been international.  Of the lot, I believe this is my favourite.  I may need to re-watch 'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' again now, to remind myself what happened next.


It may surprise you to learn that ancient cinema looks beautiful on blu-ray.  It isn't a format I advocate often, but it brings out every crinkle, every wall-paper, and is a fine way to take these thrilling stories.

A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist (1978)


'A Walk Through H' is one of my favourite pieces of art, and worth just as much as a visit to a gallery.  It's pictures and narration, so my comments will follow suit.

The story is told in 92 maps, with occasional birds.
It's almost animation, but the pictures don't move, only the camera does.
A red path has guided the ornithologist through these many maps,
but may not be reliable.
The maps begin to fade, leaving only the image of a signpost,
or the skeleton of a windmill.
The maps hail from a variety of sources, and seem to have been selected by
Tulse Luper.  In reality, they're drawn and painted by Peter Greenaway,
my favourite director, and a painter at heart.
The maps have an unusual beauty.
An important map, reproduced from a bogus ecological textbook.
This map was stolen from Van Hoyten, the Owl Keeper at Amsterdam Zoo.
Van Hoyten appears (in person) in 'A Zed and Two Noughts' (1985),
which I hope to tell you of some other time.
A map on the plumage of an upside-down partridge. 
"My wife took a drawing I had bought to be framed. It was a drawing I didn't know too well, but well enough to know that, when it came back, it had been exchanged for another. This is that replacement. I said nothing to my wife but, taking the receipt, I went to find the frame-maker. I couldn't find him. I mentioned to my wife that I'd passed the shop where she'd had the drawing framed, she only looked surprised for a moment."
As the ornithologist nears the end of his journey, time is taken for
exultant music, and many birds.
 
"Tulse Luper suggested my journey through H needed 92 maps. Anticipating my question he suggested the time to decide what H stood for was at the end of the journey and by that time it scarcely mattered."


This film is on Volume 1 of The Early Films of Peter Greenaway, along with 'Windows' (1976) and 'H is for House' (1974), which I have talked about elsewhere.  Volume 2 has my favourite, 'The Falls' (1980), which I would have made you read about and watch, dear reader, were my copy not on semi-permanent loan to an actress in Leeds.

Monday, 11 November 2013

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)


I'm rather wary of war films.  As part of my job I visit elderly people in their homes, and I've known a couple of them to spend their entire lives sitting before the television, watching war-film after war-film.  They wake in the morning, put on a war adventure channel, and watch it until bed-time, every day until they die.  It's one way to spend retirement, I guess, but one of them shouts and screams death-threats at the films' villains, 'bloody Japs', 'we're gonna kill ya', and so on, and many phrases far too coarse or murderously racist for me to reproduce in the pages of The Penciltonian.  War films seem to play to, and encourage, a horrible sort of xenophobia.

For this reason I spent a long while avoiding 'All Quiet on the Western Front', which I'd bought from a very interesting charity shop in Walkley (the right-hand half of the shop was a charity shop like any other, and the left-hand side was a pet-shop.  One of the shop assistants was a giant dog).  If I'd given the film's packaging slightly more attention it might have allayed my fears.  Firstly, the protagonists are WWI Germans, an unlikely set of heroes for an American film, and secondly this is a famed anti-war picture.  That's a genre I can more easily get behind.

War.
I've heard it said that it's impossible to make an anti-war-film, as war always looks really cool.  I'm not sure I agree with the argument, but it's an interesting one.  War looks absolutely awful all the way through this movie.  The youths, a class of boys, are stirred up by their schoolmaster with a torrent of rhetoric about glory and duty to defend their country.  They chant joyfully about their fatherland as one might today yell 'U-S-A!  U-S-A!'  Inside twenty minutes they're on the front lines, and everybody starts starving and dying, being blinded, losing limbs and freaking out.  The main character, Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) sees all his friends and contemporaries wiped out, and, when he returns to his home-town on leave, finds his old community refuse to believe his stories of a futile, unwinnable war.  They're too convinced by their own opinions, and by the propaganda from the media.

In Britain today, the old idea that soldiers are all inherently heroic is making a return, meaning that any future wars will be far more appealing to our society.  So far as I can ascertain, soldiers have two main jobs: shooting people, and threatening to shoot people if they fail to obey.  As a career, it's a very exciting way out of the poverty of austerity Britain - glamorous, masculine, and with the chance to punish the enemies most cursed by xenophobic tabloids.  One needn't be heroic to find that appealing.  One need only be physically fit.  Perhaps I'm excessively liberal, but I favour peacemakers to gun-toting peacekeepers, and find teachers, firefighters, missionaries and (when they're not being scary) police officers more admirable than armed drones.

The opening slide of the movie
I was pleasantly surprised to find 'All Quiet on the Western Front' so well-made and watchable.  If you've been following The Penciltonian with an obsessive avidity, you may recall that I've really liked the 30s films from Germany and Russia, but found the English-language stuff like 'The Island of Lost Souls' (1932) and 'Lives of a Bengal Lancer' (1935) for instance, to be rather heavy-going.  This was made only three years after the first feature-length talking picture, and the transition from silent films to talkies was a pretty bumpy one.  Here, though, is a well-crafted film, directed with a flair - with, for instance, some extremely disturbing shots of mass death when the British come over the top - and which wouldn't seem outdated even if it were released a decade or two later.  This is an impressive film with a message worth hearing.


P.S. Happy Poppy Day, if that's what floats yer boat.


Thursday, 7 November 2013

Münchausen (1943)


I've seen films made during wartime from Britain, America and France, so I was very keen to find one from Germany.  I'm aware there were other countries involved in World War II, but these are the four we see in 'The Longest Day' (1962), which seems a fair criterion for The Penciltonian.  'Münchausen' is a lavish comedy made by order of Joseph Goebbels, to prove that Nazi Germany could rival anything Hollywood could produce.

The film tells the story of Baron Hieronymous von Münchausen, the famous teller of tall tales (or as he's presented here, man of bizarre adventures).  He rides on a cannonball, wins the love of the Empress of Russia, and travels to the moon, where he learns that time works quite differently to how it does on Earth.  It's a story that suits the colour and ambition on display here, and the inventive film-craft available in the country that produced 'Metropolis' (1927).  It's a lavish tale, intended to rival 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Gone With the Wind' (both 1939) for splendour, so accordingly the movie is full of the most astounding hats, costumes and model shots.

The Baron meets the fastest man in the world
At first it seems we're watching the Baron in the 18th Century, but we soon learn that an apparent descendant of his is holding a costume ball, so the old-fashioned costume and music give way to automobiles and electricity, and what seems to be a black character played by a white actor turns out to be a white character whose make-up comes off easily.  There's a pleasing artificiality to the film, right from the start, which excuses some of the fantastical stylisation of the rest of the film.  The modern day Münchausen tells the story of the famous Baron, and we flash back to all manner of unlikely adventures.

The body of the film is full of the bizarre antics and prop comedy I'd expect from 'The Goodies': a wardrobe of clothes get rabies and attack our hero, a bugle is too cold to sound a note but once it warms up indoors it plays incessantly until stamped to pieces, and a giant pastry is opened to reveal a dwarf playing a tiny harpsicord.  It's a very silly film, but it's more fun than funny.

Münchausen, in a fez, meets a eunuch in I-don't-know-what-that-hat-is-but-oh-my.
Hans Albers plays Baron Münchausen, and gives his best performances in quiet close-ups rather than the wild action sequences.  I'm inclined to think he's a bit too old for the role: this is a character who wishes for, and gets, the gift of ageless immortality for as long as he wants it.  He looks about sixty, so seemingly has eternal youth without the youth.  It's like watching the latter half of the Roger Moore era of James Bond, with a hero running around and seducing women a fraction of his age.  Münchausen even meets an aged Giacomo Casanova, the implication being that Casanova has grown too old to be chasing women, while the Baron has retained his mojo.  The women grow older while Münchausen stays the same, and one is forced by her family to join a convent, a fate from which the heroic Baron notably doesn't save her.

It's an lively and watchable film, but doesn't quite live up to the movies it seeks to trump.  It gets more interesting as it goes on, with a memorable trip to the moon where a babies grow on trees, and people's heads galavant without bodies, and fashions are just amazing.  There, Münchausen's trusty servant ages to death over the course of a few days, and the film suddenly seems less ridiculous, and really rather sad.  "The moon is a rather exhausting star," as the Baron notes.  It this film, death (in males, at least) seems to be something that should be chosen.  Dying suddenly in the heat of battle seems acceptable, but choosing mortality seems to be the ideal.  Since the film was ordered into existence by the minister for propaganda, I wonder how close that was to the dominant philosophies of forties Germany.

On the moon, a friendly disembodied head with amazing hair sits on a flower.
I'm glad to have sought this film out, as, though I've watched a great many German films for this Penciltonian project, there was a large gap between the early films of the twenties and thirties, and the later ones from the eighties onwards.  My knowledge of the nation's output seemed to disappear with the rise of Nazism, and wasn't restored until decades of apparently awkward post-war Heimatfilm had gone by.  Perhaps that was for the best, in terms of quality: I've been watching films from the best eras of German cinema.


The Kid (1921)


I'd nearly gotten through the whole project without watching any Chaplin, and I'd almost filled the 1920s with foreign-language films (not that this is especially noticeable when they're all silent).  'The Kid' goes some way to rectifying both of these things.  I spent a great many years with a very fixed idea of what a Charlie Chaplin film is like, and was surprised and delighted when I finally saw 'The Great Dictator' (1940) and found it to be extremely funny, rather emotional, and not at all what I expected.  Since then I've enjoyed 'Limelight' (1952) and not been wholly convinced by 'The Gold Rush' (1925) though in the latter case I wasn't watching the silent original, but a later version which dubbed sound and dialogue over a film that never needed them.  'The Kid' is the first time I've actually seen Charlie Chaplin in a silent movie.

The concept, in short: a woman 'whose only sin was motherhood', abandons her newborn baby in a stranger's car.  The crooks who then steal the car are alarmed by the baby, and leave it by some dustbins, where it's discovered by a tramp - it was still acceptable to call people tramps back then - who is inspired by the heartfelt note left by the woman, and raises the baby as his own.  Five years later the tramp and the kid are still living quite happily together in a situation of dire but endurable poverty.

Chaplin (credited as Charles, rather than the more familiar Charlie) wrote and directed the film, plays the lead and composed the music.  This sort of monomania is excusable, as all the elements are excellent; Chaplin was an extremely talented man, and applied his talents with good judgement, so it's not without reason that he became incredibly famous.  As in his other films, he manages to couch very silly comedy in a sentimental story - not saccharine, but highly emotional, with reasons to really care about the characters.  He has some serious social points to make about poverty and the tremendous stigma attached to single or unmarried mothers, and makes them here, in the midst of all manner of slapstick and myriad laugh-out-loud moments.

I could write much more, but it's a short film and a silent one, so will leave the rest as screen-shots and captions.

The kid is taken away by Social Services.  What an amazing look of distress!
Jackie Coogan was the first great child actor, and grew up to be Uncle Fester.
Silent films are renowned for their subtlety.
I really like it when Chaplin laughs.
He always looks like he's having a great time.

As you may know, I love pancakes, and have long sought good pancake films.
'Bucket of Blood' has a pancake-pan as a murder implement, but
no film I have watched contains such a platter of pancakes as this.
Edna Purviance rocking an amazing outfit here.
Please kill more animals, reader.