Thursday, 28 February 2013

Blade Runner (1982)

I've known this film by reputation - that of classic science-fiction thriller that I ought to have seen long ago - for a few years. I made mention of 'Blade Runner' to my friend Tom (or, I should say, one of my friend Toms, for I've had either a Tim or a Tom, usually both, within my circle of intimates at every stage of my life, often one or more of each), to whom SF has generally seemed inimical, and he spoke about this film with enthusiasm, suggesting that it has merits despite its genre, as much as because it's science-fiction.  When the film popped up on BBC iPlayer one day I knew I should seize the chance to see it.

This is a classy film, a future noir, and by no means as schlocky as I might have expected from the pitch, a detective tracking down human-looking androids.  Rob, who recommended me Tuesday's film 'Taxi Driver' (1976), told me he'd been disappointed, on watching this as a child, since the premise and the casting of Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard led him to expect an adventure about Han Solo fighting robots, but found that the film offered something almost wholly different.

Deckard and Rachael, and a pleasingly symmetrical shot

It has the intelligence and moral ambiguity of good-quality noir, and the ostensible villains are shown to be anything but.  Not that the androids are falsely accused, or aren't violent, but that this doesn't divide cleanly into good characters and evil.  Nobody is unkind for the sake of it, or for unreasonable personal gain, and Harrison Ford only survives to the end of the film because the greatest of his enemies acts like a person, rather than a character.

The film is very visually attractive, and I greatly like the costumes and make-up on display.  Despite my mundane stylings, I'm intrigued by our world's changing fashions, their silhouettes and details, and especially such eccentric garments as are invented for near futures like this.  Male, female, hats, jackets and all.  It's all developments within reason, and all looks pretty good, quite wearable - and on the outside fringes, this is still a world where the right person in the right context can wear a fez or dungarees, at least in places where they could get away with such garments in the present day.

A slow-motion tumble through glass

As you may reasonably determine from the fact I've already gotten on to the costumes, my memories of the film are here thinning out.  This isn't by any means down to it being a poor or forgettable movie, but I saw it in a sextuple-bill of films two months ago, so this is pretty much where my memories run dry, so I shall curtail matters in an accelerated form.

I'm told that the film is meant to leave open the suggestion that  Harrison Ford's character is himself a replicant, but I entirely failed to get this idea from what I saw.  I was watching the 2007 Final Cut (as opposed to the release versions or the 1992 Director's Cut), which could have some bearing on this, or perhaps not.  Regardless, I can't think that this development would be especially beneficial to the story or the character.  Both had plenty enough going on already. Slightly over half the films I've watched for this project have been new to me, and this is one of fairly few that I think I owe a second viewing to get straight, so I may some day return with second thoughts.

P.S. Since we've just had a run of 60s, 70s then 80s films on the blog, tune in on Sunday for 'King Ralph' (1991).

I couldn't tell you which edits these are, but I'm sure Amazon will inform you if you care.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Taxi Driver (1976)

I mentioned my film-watching antics to my friend Rob Reed, who lectures in film-related things, so seemed likely to suggest films I hadn't seen and wouldn't have thought of.  He knows how ignorant I am of cinema (or rather, he knows which areas of film I've fixated on, and therefore what I've missed), and, when Christmas came, gave me a film wrapped in festive paper.  'Taxi Driver' was that film (or else this paragraph would seem irrelevant, would it not?).  

The only Martin Scorsese-directed films I'd seen at this point were 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988) and 'No Direction Home' (2005), a documentary about Bob Dylan - both of which apparently lay some way outside his usual style.  I had a notion that his films were violent, dark, and full of Italian-Americans shouting at each other (a prospect I've now found hails from his 1990 work 'Goodfellas', which Rob likewise pressed into my hands).

Oh look, some guns.

I suspected that this film would lead to a violent finale, but I wasn't certain even of this.  For the first half-hour, this could just turn into an idiosyncratic romantic comedy, except that our taxi-driving protagonist is just a tad too intense, too socially awkward, and then increasingly so.  For some reason, it hadn't to me occurred at all that the plot would actually be about a man driving a taxi around, but that's how it went.

From the off this was far more attractive than the other 70s films I've looked at so far.  Richer, more menacing, with the taxi prowling, leonine.  We see Robert de Niro thinking, as he drives his taxi, but we don't know what about.  Even in his narration, he gives few clues.  Only the music is overtly menacing - and it's Bernard Hermann composing, so it could hardly be otherwise.

I'll jump past the main body of the film, as I've no interest in reciting synopses in this blog.  In what I took to be the final ten minutes, the film seems to slip into another genre - the practiced violence, the spree I'd spent the last hour preparing for, is far, far dirtier, less clean and easy than I'd expected.  The colours fade and the world slips into slower and slower motion until time seems to stop to show us the whole mess.  Then, when I most expected the film to end, it doesn't.  There are five or ten more minutes, which serve to make the scenario even more unsettling, the idea that the events in this film could happen anywhere, to anyone, for no particular reason.


I sometimes wonder what it's like to live in America, where films such as this are set, not in some bigger, cooler, distant and more important nation, but in your homeland.  The States always seem much grander that Britain, even when that just means grimmer and more horrible - and the accents, to one who never visited, mark New York out as a genre rather than a region.

Anyway, I feel I've been writing too many words about some films lately, so, while I could go on rather longer, I'll curtail this here.  Less is more, as they say.

P.S. Since the last update was from the 60s and this was from the 70s, you can expect an 80s film on Thursday, a 90s one on Sunday, and so on, until I grow bored and frustrated with the pattern.  It might prompt me to finally watch something from the 1950s, a decade untouched by the last forty-four films I've watched over the past four months.

The film, if you yearn for it.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr Leonard Cohen (1965)

Though Leonard Cohen is now known as a singer-songwriter, this documentary was made two years before he'd released his first record.  Here we see Leonard Cohen the poet, the novelist, the stand-up comic.  He plays a harmonica at one point, and is briefly seen playing some chords on a guitar, but these are momentary novelties.

Appropriately, when I first saw this documentary at university in 2004, I hadn't heard any of Cohen's albums.  I'd heard a few of his songs, as the neighbour who showed me the film always had Leonard Cohen songs blaring from his open door, and his classic 'Hallelujah' was especially unescapable in those days, wherever you went.  I was very taken with the short film and with the charisma of its lead, and it only took me seven years to get around to listening to his music.  This week, having a far clearer, and rather different understanding of the man and his career to what I had in 2004, I revisited the documentary and found it excellent.

The young Cohen signs a book of his poems for a fan

Leonard Cohen knows he's somebody special.  That makes him sound arrogant, and perhaps he is, but for the most part it's just a confidence in the worth of his art, in the quality of his poetry, and in the fact that a documentary made about him at this young age will some day be a work of historical significance.  Since he's become both famous and highly influential since then, I'd say he's been vindicated in this high self-esteem.  The narrator speaks with the same confidence, as if this film was intended as much as an advert for the merit of Canadian culture as a documentary in search of the truth.

'His talent has been saluted by the international press.  Canadian critics have called him the finest poet of his generation.  He himself has said he has chosen a path that is infinitely wide and without direction.  This, he says, is a very good path for someone who moves in the funny way that he does'.   It's a pity Cohen now has such a reputation as miserable and depressing, as his sense of humour is apparent throughout the film, as it is through his records.  When he stands on stage to tell a story he remains deadpan while his audience roar with laughter.  When he's in more intimate surroundings, he can hardly contain his giggles at mild whimsies.

We get a good showing of Cohen in action.  He delivers a number of poems, none directly to camera: some are given to live audiences; one in a recording studio, where the camera observes him from within the booth, and then from the mixing desk; some, we have only the audio over shots of Cohen travelling or socialising.  In an especially 1960s sequence (for this is a very mid-60s film), we see him interviewed by men in suits, who struggle to understand his youthful idiosyncrasy, his irony, his claims to be apolitical.  Away from the interviewer, he talks more candidly about the questions he was asked and the answers he would and wouldn't give.

A highlight: Leonard Cohen takes a postmodern bath

At the end of the film Cohen is shown some of the footage and interviewed about seeing himself on the screen.  These five minutes are my favourite part, and the reason this short feature stuck in my mind for a decade.  There's a shot of him asleep in bed, and he talks about how privileged he is to see himself asleep.  He then points out that, of course, he isn't seeing himself asleep, only himself pretending to sleep, as this was faked for the cameras.

Continuing this theme, we see Leonard Cohen in the bath.  He sits, bathing himself for a while, but eventually picks up a pen and writes 'caveat emptor' on the wall.  'Let the buyer beware'.  He's asked why he wrote this, and explains that he's warning the audience: what we're seeing isn't Leonard Cohen privately bathing, it's Leonard Cohen observed by a camera, pretending to be alone.  It's a brilliant illustration, a moment of postmodernism which comes back to me quite often.  Watching documentaries of any kind, but especially reality TV of the Apprentice mould is intriguing when you remind yourself that the subjects are surrounded by cameras, and any action, any emotion they show is given in the knowledge that it may be broadcast.  With very few exceptions, we never see people going about their daily lives, and the reality we're given is all constructed for us.  Leonard Cohen knows this, and knows how to play us.  No wonder he got so famous.

It's way expensive for 45 minutes.  Borrow my copy instead.  And listen to some Cohen music, why doncha?  There's an affordable box-set of most of his studio albums, and they make a magnificent guide through the latter third of the 20th Century

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

Until a week before I saw this film (or should I say, 'these films') I had never heard of Glenn Gould.  I received many recommendations during a merry weekend, but the title and the very brief description I heard from my friend and scientific advisor Fnord meant this was one of only two films I sought after from the ten or twenty titles I solicited.

Glenn Gould was a concert pianist and this is a set of 31 short films (averaging 3 minutes apiece, plus or minus three minutes) about him and his life.  Being a few years dead, he himself does not appear, not even in photo.  What we have are dramatisations, vignettes, monologues, snatches of animation, and interviews (in English and French) with those who knew or met him.

Glenn Gould coming to a resolution

Since the movie is divided so clearly into many short segments, it has the feel of one of my favourite novels, 'Bear v Shark' (Chris Bachelder, 2002) which is made up of 100 very short chapters, typically only one or two pages in length.  Snippets and snapshots, ideas rather than full scenes.  Each of the 31 films here is given a chapter-heading.  Few if any of the dramatisations give us major events in Gould's life, preferring to show us quiet or private moments, one side of a telephone conversation or, on several occasions, Glenn Gould listening.  Almost the whole soundtrack is Glenn Gould on the piano, either supporting or competing with the contents of the scene.

I like this, as a way of telling the story of a person, more than any biopic I've seen.  In my comments on 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) I talked about how 'I'm Not There' (2007) broke Bob Dylan into seven characters to examine his different facets.  This managing something similar, but without divorcing the parts from the whole.  The scenes point in from myriad directions but in a manner less fanciful than that other film.  A lot, perhaps everything, can be shown about Glenn Gould in these 31 attempts far more quickly and economically than if these 90 minutes were given over to more straightforward structure.  For one thing, that would require more characters than one; in this form Glenn Gould is the film's only focus, and any other face or voice is likely to enter and leave his life in under six minutes, never to be spoken of again.

Glenn Gould on the telephone again

It's remarkably solitary.  Many scenes with the one character, thinking, listening, often being highly sociable and articulate but only over the telephone.  Refusing to speak about his music, which speaks for itself.  The only extended dialogue in the film, and my favourite of the chapters, is 'Gould Meets Gould', a dramatised interview in which both sides were scripted by the real Gould.  It shows Glenn, his voice as sonorous and pedantic as ever, leading a highly-strung interviewer (of the same voice) through certain fascinating ideas, theories of art, the ways he thinks and works - his insistent dislike of the ratio of one performer to a whole roomful of audience, for instance; Gould favoured a more intimate relationship with the audience-member, and so abandoned public performances in favour of studio recordings.  The interview is conducted at break-neck pace in a wired-up church, and the two parties (Glenn Gould pacing, the interviewer head in hands) are lit only from behind, their faces in so much shadow as to be invisible to the viewer.  All this dominated by his thunderous piano.

I feel I have rather a lot in common with Glenn Gould.  Perhaps anybody watching this film would come away feeling equal affinity with the man (as is so readily the case with any biography which really gets of the heart of a real person in favour of caricature or easy answers).  Nonetheless, I feel compelled by Glenn Gould's thoughts and philosophies, ways of working and talking; I feel some kinship with his troubled hair; his habitual solitude balanced against a capacity to be extremely talkative and rhetorical, away from people.

'Gould Meets McLaren'
An animated sequence of spheres

Something I always forget about biographies is that the main character dies at the end.  I once made the mistake of reading a biography of Gilbert and Sullivan, in which they both died, which was more than I was prepared to deal with.  The films hardly seemed arranged chronologically, but they did begin with Glenn Gould's beginning and ended with his death and legacy (the latter of which was some consolation, at least), and though I'd only known him for an hour and a half I was more upset than I'd expected.

This might be my favourite of the films I've watched for this project so far.  I once made a video documentary about a singer-songwriter friend of mine, Tom Hollingworth, and wish I'd had the sharpness of mind to have made it in the fashion of these 31 films.  I might actually have been able to say something interesting about him.

P.S. When I made mention of this film to my mother she gave a nostalgic cry of 'oh, Glenn Gould,' so my dearth of knowledge of the man is probably down to my ignorance rather than his obscurity.  In my defence, there was never a year when we both of us walked the Earth.

P.P.S. I know I've already covered 1993 with 'Jurassic Park', but this film was something special, and I was unwilling to ignore it.  Since it seems quite as much documentary as dramatic biopic I'm content to count it toward Achievement 6, my intent to see documentaries from ten decades.

P.P.P.S. Come back this weekend when I'll be commenting on a documentary about the life and work of another Canadian artist, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Leonard Cohen' (1965)

The DVD isn't so Region 1 as Amazon might claim, and I'd recommend it gladly.  It's pretty cheap, too.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Goodbye Lenin! (2003)

I used to think of foreign-language films as rather specialist, indeed as rather unappealing, and I bought the (rather xenophobic, actually) stereotype of non-English-language cinema  being humourless and pretentious.  It wasn't until a neighbour coaxed me to watch 'Amélie' (2001) and another showed me 'Jean de Florette' (1986) that I realised foreign films were just, y'know, films, in foreign.

I fell into just as crude an assumption again this month: thinking my lodger (who is working class, socially conservative, uncurious and by his own admission has only read three books in as many years, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy) would find no appeal in these films.  I was as surprised as glad, then, when he joined me for the latter two thirds of 'Goodbye Lenin!' seeming unperturbed by the German language with English subtitles, engrossed by a good story well told.  I assume too much, and ungenerously.

A statue of Lenin is carried away by a helicopter

Perhaps I should end my comments there.  I've said nothing of the film, but that it's good and enjoyable (surely the only things a positive review needs to convey).  I'll tell you what it's about.  It's a German comedy about the reunification of East and West Germany.  A brief and crude history primer if you need it: East Germany was the North Korea of its day, but communist rather than isolationist, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989  marked the sudden end of the Cold War that started in the 1950s.

The main character, Alex, lives in East Berlin, and his staunchly socialist mother Christiane slips into a coma for eight months, missing the whole thing - the wall coming down, the rejoining of the two Germanies - and when she wakes she's so fragile that any shock, particularly this shock, could kill her.  So her son and daughter, having just modernised their lives, wardrobes and decor, must hastily un-modernise and keep up the pretence that nothing has changed.

All signs of Western-style capitalism are covered up, with Coca Cola and the daughter's new job at Burger King carefully hidden away.  East Germany missed the 80s entirely, but had the 70s twice, and everyone seems rather alarmed to return to the clothing they'd never realised was horrible.  Despite this, the film eventually reveals a nostalgia for Soviet East Germany.  The main character initially bemoans the great labour of creating this bubble of faux-East, but seems happiest there, sad that his country ended and disappeared with such relief and so little ceremony - that people were glad to leave, rather than to move in, once the borders opened.

Alex films fake news reports to keep up the illusion

I'd wondered what a German comedy would be like, since the stereotype of Germans attributes to them a dearth of merriment - though, of course, I've remarked on excellent comic moments in German films such as 'Faust' (1926) and 'M' (1931).  'Goodbye Lenin!' is fun, rather than funny, the kind of tone one might expect from a romantic comedy.  Indeed, there is a romance between Alex and a nurse who tends to his mother, which looks briefly like it might be at the heart of the plot, but becomes almost irrelevant by the time the film is half-way through, as the focus switches to the convalescent Christiane.

In actual fact, the tone of this film reminds me most of 'Heimat 3' (2004), the sunniest of the Heimats, which was made in Germany at the same time as 'Goodbye Lenin!' and likewise regards the German reunification, though its extra duration allows it to run from 1989 to the Millennium.  The early 90s were probably the most fun and exciting time to be German, but it's good to finally hear a word, even a nostalgia-tinged one, in favour of East Germany, a nation I'd previously thought the world was glad to be rid of.

P.S. Though 'Goodbye Lenin!' is in German, the title really is in English, and, like 'Shaft's Big Score!' (1972) delights me by including an exclamation mark.

P.P.S. I'm trying to regularise the blog to two posts each week, Thursdays and Sundays.  I may visit Tuesdays on occasion for things which are not comments on films, or unlikely novelties.

I'll persuade y'all to watch something in German eventually, so why not this?

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse (1933)


Mabuse, villain of the earlier 'Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler' (1922) has, since his arrest, gone insane and possibly then gone sane again.  He sits in the asylum, wild-eyed and wild-haired, never speaking a word, but writing page after page after page of instructions on how to commit perfect crimes.  And far across the city, somebody is committing those crimes.

This is recognisably the same Berlin as in 'M' (1931).  The criminal criminal underworld acts with a certain gusto, and seems a relatively agreeable side of society, for those willing to join in - living, laughing and cooking sausages together when not indulging in petty crimes.  The only real evil among them comes from those rare crimes, murders.

Thomas Kent and Lilli in a soggy situation

At the four corners of this adventure are are the aforementioned Dr Mabuse; Professor Baum, the psychiatrist who studies him; Thomas Kent, a handsome and for-some-reason-American-named, basically law-abiding crook who won't commit the murderous instructions passed down from his unseen master; and reprising his role from 'M', the excellent Otto Wernicke as the equally excellent Inspector Lohmann.

Unusually, the presence of both Lohmann and Mabuse makes this a sequel to two different films, taking the hero from one and the villain from the other.  I haven't seen 'Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler' (1922), but I was delighted to see the return of Lohmann (or rather, I'd forgotten him utterly, as I hadn't seen 'M' for five years when I watched this, but he was so enjoyable here that I immediately rewatched 'M' and was delighted to see him return there, even if it was more of a pre-turn).  It's a full-blooded performance with a great amount of humour where it's needed.

The Spectre of Mabuse over Professor Baum

Mabuse is suitably sinister and cadaverous, and is played here by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who was the fascinatingly alien Koenig Etzel (that's Attilla the Hun, to you or me) in 'Die Nibelungen' (1924) and Rotwang in 'Metropolis' (1927).  Yet more frightening, perhaps, is Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.).  Film after film, from the thirties to the sixties, show psychiatrists as more prey to neuroses and what used to be termed 'criminal insanity' than anybody they might actually treat, so it's little wonder they're so feared today, and 'Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse' gives us a classic example.  It beats Hitchcock's 'Spellbound' (1945, often counted with popularising all the main psychiatrist stereotypes) by a good decade.  This whole film, in fact, has a great deal of Hitchcock to its style and flavour, and it would surprise me very little to hear he'd given it his attention.

I can see why this is less well remembered, at least in the English-speaking world, than 'M' (1931), which got there first, and had Peter Lorre on its side - but it's a pity that, bar the odd Amazon recommendation, I've never heard this spoken of.  Anyone who enjoys 'M' enough to rewatch it will find a great many of its merits reproduced here.  The special effects are as bold as I've now come to expect from 20s and 30s cinema, and the DVD cover is an exciting one indeed.  Perhaps not the right way to judge a film, but it's a test that's often led me right in past.

Tempted to investigate?

Monday, 11 February 2013

Madhouse (1974)

A Vincent Price horror movie about Vincent Price horror movies.  Whenever Vincent Price falls asleep, 'Dr Death', his character's most famous character comes to life and commits foul murders.  But is it really Vincent Price behind the mask and gloves?

As you may note, I find something satisfying about so much as typing the name Vincent Price.  He's a very enjoyable fellow, and in his element here - and the metafiction, using scenes from his older films as the back-catalogue of the actor he plays here, renders the whole thing more self-aware and more interesting than a plain murder mystery.


So, 'Dr Death' kills Vincent Price's fiancé; she quite literally screams her head off (see directly above) but this doesn't cause anyone from the party downstairs to pop in and check she's ok, or the film would be over in the first five minutes.  Everyone assumes Vincent Price did the deed.  Even Vincent assumes this, and the odd suggestion seems to be that there was no real police investigation or public outcry - but it sets his career back somewhat and he has to be persuaded out of retirement by Peter Cushing to resurrect his old movie character for a British commercial TV channel - with murderous consequences, as the killings begin.

This film is full of people looking in big mirrors
while failing to spot things right behind them

For some while it seems that this might not be a murder-mystery at all, but rather an open-and-shut case.  Vincent Price seems to be the only person with both opportunity and motive.  But it seems - or seemed to me, in any case, likelier and likelier that the great Vincent was indeed doing the murders during some series of blackouts and mental breakdowns.  There are quite a lot of other candidates, of course, all just antagonistic, or just eccentric enough for them to privately be crazed murderers, but none of them quite seem far-gone enough to be behind this spate of wild and outrageous killings (one girl has her head cut off with a pen-knife, apparently.  Another is hanged with her own hair, and so on.  All shocking and ridiculous, rather than gory and terrifying, but tense nonetheless).  Is our hero also the villain?

A cameo from Michael Parkinson as himself interrupts the action finale

As the film pressed on I swung back towards the idea, even the hope, that perhaps Vincent Price was behind it all.  It would seem clean, appropriate, that his character had gotten out of hand.  That he had created a monster even within himself.  We don't quite get the ending I wanted.  It becomes apparent that there are two Doctor Deaths: Vincent Price in costume for his new TV series, and the murderer, impersonating him.  What would have seemed more satisfying and fitting, to my mind, would be for our hero Vincent Price to remove the villain's mask to reveal that it was himself, another Vincent Price.  It wouldn't make a great deal of sense, but it's what I was holding out for - that he might have created another self in Dr Death, detached from himself to exercise those murderous instincts he so finely details to Michael Parkinson.  Sadly Dr Death doesn't murder this real-life interviewer - a missed trick, if ever there was one.

One of too few nice shots

It's not a very visually exciting film, and seems to belong more in the past than in its own time.  This is a seventies in Britain that looks, fashions aside, a lot like the sixties - two decades between which I've always placed an artificial division.  Perhaps it's a deliberate nostalgia for Vincent Price's past, or at least his character's, but it seems odd when the man's clearly in his prime.  Thankfully the strength of his performance, and the mainly-believable grotesquery that surrounds him, keeps the film lively and fun.  Characters walk with blissful stupidity into situations in which they'll obviously be murdered, and this is very pleasing.  The use of old footage in the character's screenings and memories allows us cameos from Basil Rathbone and  Boris Karloff, from beyond the grave, which seems appropriate.

I fear I've given away a fair bit of the film's mystery in these comments, but there's still plenty I haven't revealed, so if it sounds appealing, you may find some strange delight in it.  Incidentally, the title 'Madhouse' is quite irrelevant, and could apply equally well to every other film I've seen this year.  'Idiosyncratic Studio' would be far more accurate, and considerably less generic.

P.S. This was yet another of Opai's  grab-bag of unusual suggestions - the good senor also recommended me 'Way Out West' (1937), 'Daisies' (1966) and the frightful 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977).  When other people have made me multiple suggestions I've openly chastised them, but these have all been intriguing, unlike one another, and unlike any film I've chosen for myself.  My apologies to those of you who've made suggestions that I haven't yet reached - I hope to cover most in time.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Na Srebrnym Globie (1977)

I've been rather inconsistent on the issue of whether or not to translate film titles to English.  My reasoning so far seems to be 'which title is more famous?', as calling 'Das Boot' (1981) 'The Boat' would seem absurd, whereas everyone seems to have heard of 'Downfall' (2004) but few would know what I was talking about if I called it 'Die Untergang'.  When it comes to obscurer films, such as 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (That's 'On the Silver Globe', in Polish) I'm inclined to go with the title I like more, even (or perhaps especially) if I can neither spell nor pronounce it.

The silver globe of the title is as unnamed planet, but every shot seems to be tinted chilly blue rather than silver.  This is a grim Polish sci-fi film (and, since my only other experience of Polish film is 1988's Dekalog, I have it in mind that all Polish cinema is very grim indeed).  This film was handed to me with a warning.  Two warnings, in fact - firstly that the film was pretty unpleasasant (I worried little, for the blog already had a tag for 'horrible films' which needed filling out), and secondly that it was incomplete.  Only four fifths of Na Srebrnym Globie' were ever filmed, as the Polish minister for culture ordered production to cease prematurely.  The unfilmed portions are represented here by passages of curt and uncharismatic narration over wild and inappropriate footage of modern Polish streets and traffic, the underground system, and one lengthy shot of pedestrians riding an escalator.

The Old Man regards a corpse

So it happens like this: a space-ship crash-lands on a planet and the astronauts saunter about variously dying and making intense philosophical monologues; I wondered for a while whether this rambling was improvisation, but since the film is based on a novel I assume a script was involved somewhere.  One of them gives birth to a child who grows up at an amazing rate.  If I've understood it rightly (and I found the whole thing rather confusing, so the rest of my summary may be way off the director's intention), anyone born on the planet ages at a tremendous pace, meaning that an entire tribe of humans grows up and passes through several generations, while the sole surviving astronaut, Jerzy, gets gradually older, eventually becoming 'the Old Man', a miserable codger hailed as a demi-god.

The astronauts have brought a film-camera with them, and the majority of the film's first half is seen through the lens of this camera, with the old man speaking directly to it and using it to record all that he sees.  This lends the film a unusually experimental, 'realistic' style (I've become wary of using the word 'realistic' with regards to films, as it means too little and too much), and leaves it seeming both grounded and avant-garde.  At the film's mid-point the old man returns to his rocket and sends the footage he's gathered back to Earth.  Then he dies, I think.

That may be a blue-skinned orgy in the background, by the by

In the second half of the film, an astronaut called Marek comes to visit.  Since he comes from Earth (a name which passed into legend during the Old Man's time) he's hailed as the Messiah.  Andrzej Seweryn chooses to pitch his performance AT THE TOP OF HIS VOICE almost from the time he enters the story, so it's hard to tell whether he's getting more histrionic as he witnesses the many horrible and distressing things that happen throughout the rest of the film.  The film's DVD cover makes no secret of the fact that he gets crucified at the end, though by that point the film had confused me so much that I couldn't tell you why.

Since so much of the film is absent, and so bleak, bewaffling and disturbing, I found it very hard to engage on any emotional level with the characters.  This, coupled with the duration (two and a half hours, and it would be longer if all of it had been shot) made it hard to give the film my full attention.  It's not as if there was a shortage of incident or colour (though the latter, as I say, was almost wholly blue).  The people of the planet find themselves at war with the indigenous Szerns, strange bird-faced angel statues, who look like something I might have cooked up during my alarming-mask-making-phase.  The civilisation grows, their hats and collars expand until they're larger than their wearers, characters call themselves actors and replace the originals, the 'actor' doubling Marek becoming a second Marek.  With no explanation I could find, there are suddenly flashy cars and ruined streets and radios playing something like rock and roll, as if society has evolved another 500 years between scenes, giving the impression that someone is cheating in a particularly stark and bewildering game of Civilization.  Checking with Opai (the lender of the film) it seems this sudden advance is probably a move to the continent of the Szerns, whose progress happens to have mirrored 20th Century Earth.  I may join Opai in watching this film exactly once, and never again.

An unhappy ending, for some reason

If I hadn't been told when this film was made, I would have struggled to guess.  The quality of the colour, lighting and film are (perhaps deliberately, perhaps not) pretty wretched - the action becomes so dark as to be almost invisible whenever a cloud pops in front of the sun - that I might have expected some time in sixties; but the design of the tribe's clothing feels like it belongs in a nineties sci-fi, and some of their pleasingly unusual array looks like it belongs in early noughties club-wear.

As it happens, the film in fact belongs in 1977, the year of 'Star Wars'.  The two really have nothing in common aside from this, and their existence in the same decade is a little surprising.  But while 'Star Wars' was a very enjoyable swashbuckler using only the aesthetics of science fiction, 'Na Srebrnym Globie' is SF right down to its heart, for good or ill.  It's the less good of the two films, that seems fairly clear, though an awful lot of that is down to the incompleteness of this Polish tragedy, and the necessarily unsatisfactory moves to fill in the gaps.

I'm disinclined to condemn it for its being not very enjoyable, as this might well be a bold and deliberate move towards making something mature, intelligent and complicated.  It doesn't really work, or didn't for me, and if you're not intrigued by what little I've said, I'd really give it a miss if I were you.  If you're like me though - up for any gruelling viewing challenge for its own sake - you may find it strangely irresistible, and then be bored and confused and fascinated and then bored again, which is the wrong sort of emotional rollercoaster, really.

Have I convinced you that you have to see this film?  No?  Well, these bits are mainly decorative, really.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Pancakes - a recipe (for three or so hungry people)

Pencilton snoozes under a warm pancake

Into a large mixing bowl pour a mole-hill of plain flour, about the volume of a small hat.  Sieve it, if you don't like lumps.  More flour here will mean more pancakes, and it's about the only part of the recipe you will need to scale up in order to feed more people, or the same number of hungrier people.

Using an unbroken egg, make an indentation in the top of the mole-hill of flour.  Break two medium-to-large eggs into this hole, giving the appearance of a volcano.  Add a pinch of salt, which will bring out flavours later on.  Using a wooden spoon (or a whisk if you have one), stir the eggs into the flour, and start to add the milk.

The milk should be poured in little-by-little, each time the mixture seems to be too dry.  In the end, after a good amount of stirring, whisking or beating, the mix of flour, egg and milk (and that pinch of salt) ought to be somewhere on the fine line between gloopy and soggy.  To see whether it's there yet, lift a spoonful of the mixture and pour it from your spoon.  Does it creep like treacle?  If so, it's too floury, and needs more milk.  Does it flow like water (or milk, indeed)?  If so, it's too milky - add some flour.  It should be somewhere between the two.  The more viscous, the more filling the pancakes will be, the wetter, the less likely to become a pancake.

Now, using your pancake pan (or regular frying pan, if you will), fry a large lump of butter, about the size of a big toe.  Let it coat the pan's interior, and drip the remainder of the melted butter (which should still be a sizeable amount) into the mixture you have prepared, and stir it up.  A good amount of melted butter in the mix will mean the pancakes are self-lubricating, and you won't need to pour any oil into the pan between each one.

Leave the mix to settle for an hour, or less, or not at all if you're very hungry.

Heat your pan until it is very hot.  Pancakes cannot be achieved over a low heat, and some camping stoves are incapable of reaching pancake temperature at all.  Pour (from a cup or ladle) a measure of pancake mix into the middle of the pan, and move the pan about until your batter spreads out to cover its bottom (or whatever size you wish your pancakes to be).  Heat for a short while - until the surface of the pancake looks dry but clammy, or until smoke emerges.

Now, the time is come to flip your pancake.  You should shake the pan vigorously (but carefully) to unstick the underside from the pan - or carefully slip a spatula beneath the pancake, to make sure it isn't cleaving to the pan.  Once you're sure that the half-cooked pancake is moving freely, give your pan a confident, but not excessive, jerk, forwards and upwards, tilting the far end of the pan up higher than the handle end.  Your pancake ought now to rise, rotate, and land upside-down ready to cook to readiness.  Do not be afraid - the pancake is very unlikely to travel far in any unexpected directions, so, with practice, you should be able to turn the pancake over with very little panic or use of energy.  Cook this side of the pancake for a slightly shorter time than the first, then slide the finished item out of the pan onto a plate.

Since the pancake mix does not itself contain sugar, the resultant pancake will be suitable for sweet or savoury fillings.  On the savoury front I'd recommend salami and grated cheese, with black pepper - or courgette and mushrooms if you're vegetarian, again garnished with black pepper.  Pepper is the savoury sugar, when it comes to pancakes, and will make any savoury filling seem deliberate.

I've no doubt you have your own preferences when it comes to sweet fillings, so I shan't presume to recommend any.

P.S. I'm well aware that this is not a set of comments on a film, but pancakes are important too.  Pancake Day is almost upon us (and as I often note, it's always Pancake Day in your heart, except on Tisha B'Av, the Jewish day of mourning)

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Faust (1926)

The three horsemen of the apocalypse!
Perhaps there was no room for famine, or is it pestilence.
The missing one, whoever that is.

It's a magnificent and wonderfully visual film, so I'm once again going to tilt this toward pictures and captions, with bursts of comment between each.  When the pictures move, of course, they're far more ominous, merry and exciting, but I didn't want to enter the strange world of the animated gif, so let's enjoy what we have, shall we?

Mephisto looms over the town and blocks out the sun with his wing.
Plague issues from his loins

So Mephisto and the Archangel have a bet.  Can this demon tempt Faust, and so become Master of the Universe?  Probably, yes.

Elderly Faust looks on the dying, but cannot save them

Marlowe's Dr Faustus is a favourite character of mine, and one whose flaws I share.  The Faust of this film, and of the old German legend, has relatively little in common with him.  I do think this is what I'll look like when I grow old, though, and possibly long before that.

If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing with loads of fire and smoke.
Under these terms, everything in this film is well worth doing.
Here Mephisto rejuvenates Faust

Faust's attempts to use Mephisto's superpowers for good go pretty badly.  He tries to heal the sick, but can't bear to look on the holy cross, so people throw stones at him.  We've all had days like that, but Faust takes it really badly, and in a fit of pique flies all over the world being young and lusty.

Young Faust imagines his Heimat

Faust yearns to go home, and falls in love with a young lady called Gretchen.

Flirtatious Mephisto gazes through a window

Mephisto, meanwhile, flirts with her aunt.  They have cocktails together, and chase around most merrily.  Emil Jannings's Mephisto is the real stand-out performance here, because he gets to be so evil, so terrifying, and then so whimsical and ridiculous, before being utterly evil again.

Mephisto fixes himself a drink.
Gretchen's aunt looks on, smitten and bedevilled.

Mephisto fixes it for Gretchen's brother to have a sword-fight with Faust, then helps Faust win, and cries 'Murder' to the whole town.  What a jerk!

German films so often come down to this little word, shouted aloud.

Honestly, why does Faust hang out with this guy?  Obviously evil character is obviously evil.

The condemned Gretchen's cry stirs Faust to action!

Faust goes to the rescue of Gretchen and renounces his youth (handily his aged self has been trapped in a mirror all the while).  And then this happens:

No, no, Erzengel!  That's far too much text for one intertitle!

The above is, I should note, an exception.  Most of the captions are concise and beautiful, but the Archangel really lets rip at the end, telling Mephisto exactly where his evil scheme has failed.  The temptation has not destroyed all that is divine in Faust.  Not on your nelly.  It all comes down to one word, and I'll give you three guesses what that word is.

An excellent and exciting piece of cinema, though perhaps it sags just a smidgen (or perhaps just moves away from the story I wanted or expected to watch) when it turns into a (somewhat dubious) romance in its second half.  Very pleasing performances all round, and the thing that constantly surprises me in 20s films, tremendous special effects.  Clearly I need to raise my expectations.

P.S. From here on, I want to post two regular updates a week on Thursdays and Sundays, occasionally using Tuesdays for wild novelties (as you'll be seeing this coming Tuesday) or for films that don't fit my hundred-film-hundred-years thing, so films from too long ago, or from years I've already assigned to particular films.

Exciting stuff, and here it is on DVD, should you be seized by a compulsion

Friday, 1 February 2013

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! (2011)

Watch 'Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My' on Youtube.  Oh, go on!

Each August I help to run a holiday camp for 14-18-year-olds, for the charity Scripture Union.  This camp, 'Transformers', started out as a computer and electronics camp, but has departed from its electronics roots and now fills the body of its days with technical sessions in programming, 3D graphics, photography, video and music production.  I co-ordinate the video activity, which is my main chance each year to be involved in the making of ten- or twenty-minute dramas of alarming intensity or especially eccentric comedy, depending on the whims of the campers.

This short motion picture, 'Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!' is one of three videos we put together in the Summer of 2011, and was devised, shot and edited in about five days, and though it's clearly cheating for me to look at a film that wasn't shot on film and in which I had a hand, this was at least shown on a big screen at the week's end to an audience larger than the cast - and that has to count for something.

So, there's a lion who lives in a conference centre and eats the guests, and who initially looks to be the hero.  Elsewhere, there's an embittered former hunter who is called out of retirement to hunt the lion - with the promise of a string of sausages.  He may be the hero, or perhaps the villain.  At the time of shooting we really didn't know.  Mr Lion has an entourage of tiny animal puppets, and Jeremy Farquad (the hunter) has a silent donkey, Little Jeremey.  It's a true story, by the way.

Since the plot was never planned more than a scene in advance, this manages to be one of the least linear, and ultimately most enjoyable of the holiday's videos.  The opening scene or two meander a little and run about 10% longer than needed, but the characters are introduced and each stakes their claim to be the main character.  While properly I ought to praised the whole cast, and often do so, I feel I ought to make some particular mention of the actors behind these two central figures.  Charlotte is a lion, and that's that - and Jeremy Farquad feels so real as to haunt my dream..

We didn't know, shooting those slightly awkward first scenes, what grand tragedy we would find ourselves producing for the story's close.  The story unfolds in a variety of directions.  Jeremy Farquad has a confusing meeting with a donkey identical to his own, during a run-in with a receptionist who's clearly in the midst of her own troubles, and for whom 'Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My' is just a part of an independently eventful day.  Mr Lion disputes with Mr Tiger, prowling predators of equal stature, and the conference centre isn't big enough for the both of 'em.  Elsewhere a cat is striving to become a bear.  Everyone seems to be the centre of their own story, and more could be told about any of them - indeed, four characters from this story have since been spun off into further adventures.

Prowling predators posture past petty Pencilton

Somehow managing to sieze the limelight from this nest of strong candidates, and steal scenes from greater performers, is Pencilton the owl.

Let me tell you about Pencilton.  When we were making this video, I came to hate the fluffy little owl.  He was the worst kind of person, and I wished to see him get what he deserved.  To all who saw his shrill fluffiness he seemed like the Fonz: the minor character who takes over, the epitome of cool and exciting.  To me, he was despicable.  Pencilton lingers with predators, glorying in their kills.  He doesn't do the damage, but he hovers nearby, approving of it.  He hangs around with bullies, to be cool.  He's like Saul in Acts 7 - he doesn't join in with the atrocity, but he holds the coats of the murderers.  He's the sort of owl who would make uniforms for concentration camps and be glad of the business.  A boaster, a liar a casual supporter of ferocity.

Perhaps this is why he comes to such an unpleasant end - not death (of which this film bears a mite too much), but destruction of identity.  The owl with too much regard for himself loses that self.  It's a rather horrible oppression, and I wondered at the time whether the video had gone too far - both in this and in its scenes of firearm brutality.  This is, if you'll recall, a Christian holiday camp, producing a video with a prodigious body-count and this dehumanisation (de-owlisation?) of a fluffy hand-puppet.

A requiem for Little Jeremey...
...or is it Little Miss Receptionist?

Two things, I think, pull this back from going too far.  First, the story is ridiculous and the characters fluffy and bizarre, meaning it's quite possible to laugh your way through the absurdity of the horrific finale.  Second, though Pencilton weeps most mightily, his final few close-ups (in which he is puppeteered by Mr Lion) see the fluffy young owl recalled from his grief by an evident joy at the new life he is to live: gold smelting, zebras, tandems and all.  Had he wept on and on through this list of exciting excursions, I think it would have been one of the most distressing endings I'd ever encountered.

So much did this ending (perhaps, itself, a product of my widely expressed hatred of Pencilton) sadden me, that the day after the holiday came to its end I started my online search for a Pencilton hand-puppet, that I might tell the story of the owl's rescue, fostering and recuperation.  I'll have you know, young Pencilton has come on a long way, has matured away (though not far away) from his selfishness and habitual churlishness, and has made his peace with Little Jeremey, whom he now counts as a brother.  I held a special screening of this video for Pencilton, LJ and their panda friend Sebastian, and they seemed to find some delight in it, or perhaps I'm just going insane.  I'll keep you posted.

I screened this video for some animal acquaintances

But this is not just the Pencilton show, so I shall try to pull back to the whole.  The various factions meet - in an altercation which involves the most magnificent combination of pipe-smoking and reverse footage - before spinning off again into yet another strand, that of Mr Pump's Legacy (not to be confused with Hergé's 'Mr Pump's Legacy'), a particularly merry story-line cut off so suddenly and so alarmingly as to be frightning, rather bleak, and wholly ridiculous.  Strong, excellently judged performances from the whole cast, who raise themselves to new heights for this tense final confrontation, make the whole thing work.  It's funny, sad and horrific in quick succession.  If the movie was longer, I think I'd find time to weep for everybody.

Of course, I've a massive natural bias here, by merit of being very close to the production.  Ostensibly the whole thing is devised by the young people, but I fear that in this case more than usual I was being Patrick McGoohan, muttering lines and plot developments from off-camera and seeing the better ones picked up and developed.  I'm quite content to hold myself guilty for anything in the video that went too far (though in some cases I might pass the blame onto Pencilton, that rapscallion).  I do find this to be a highlight of the camp's fairly rich video tradition.  While others may have been more innovative in camera placement or more ambitious in scope (we've set things in space and in 11th century Bavaria before now, and recently squeezed out 26 minutes of Shakespeare and got away with it), I hold this as the best original drama we've yet managed.  The characters all have their own lives, reasons to like them and to despise them, and when they come together I care, and perhaps you will too if you'll cast your eye over this desperate adventure.

Miss Receptionist can't be doing with all these animals

The holiday camp happens every August, somewhere near Guildford, and if you or anyone you know are of the age and inclination to come along and be a camper, you'll find all the details you could possibly want on the holiday's website, and find a good many more camp videos on our Youtube channel.

P.S. I know fitting this eccentric amateur work into my catalogue of 100 cinematic films is cheating, but I'm content to let this stand for 2011 at least until somebody lends me 'The Artist', a film from this year that I'm keen to compare to the 'real' silent films I've been watching.

P.P.S. Pencilton the owl went on to have many wonderful adventures, and this blog is named after him.  His birthday is August 24th and he collects finger-puppets, under the confused belief that they're real-live talking animals just like him.

P.P.P.S. Mr Socks Macguffin, who was almost-but-not-quite in this film (he was editing a different movie on the computer next door) has committed himself to a similar endeavour to this blog - so if you like this, you'll like his - he can be found here playing through two video-games a year from 1971 to the present day, and blogging about the experience.  Be sure to check it out; it's currently only a statement of intent, but I'll be sure to direct you there again as its content grows.