Sunday, 31 March 2013

Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur is my favourite film.  I don't think I'd claim it as the best film I've looked at, or even as the film I think is the best, but it's the one I'm closest to, and love the most dearly.

I saw it as a child, but forgot almost everything about it except that it was long, exciting, and that it spans enough time for the main character to grow a beard.  I rediscovered it almost by accident in 2004, when I stayed up all night writing an essay for university, then realised I had just enough time to take in the movie's three-and-a-half-hours duration before breakfast.  I did so, and was overwhelmed.

What I'd entirely forgotten about this ancient epic was that it's about Jesus of Nazareth.  By most standards, he's a very minor character here, as he only appears in about 5 or 10 per cent of the film, and we never see his face or hear him speak; nonetheless, he's at its heart.  The film's oft-forgotten subtitle, 'A Tale of the Christ', probably tipped me off ahead of time, but since he appears only very briefly at the one-hour mark, then disappears until the film is almost over, the climax featuring his trial and execution caught me unprepared.

Judah, Messala, Judah's mother and sister.  In very widescreen.
So, what's the story about?  Charlton Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a young Jewish prince in Jerusalem, AD 26.  His boyhood friend, a Roman called Messala, returns to the city having been placed in charge of the garrison, and tries to persuade Judah to give up the names of Jewish troublemakers and those who oppose the Roman rule.  This invitation to treachery mars their friendship sufficiently that, when a lose slate falls from Judah's home it's wilfully misinterpreted as an attack on the new Governor, who was passing at the time, and Messala condemns his friend Judah to become an oarsman in a Roman galley - a very terrible form of slavery - and locks up his mother and sister.  So, as with 'Die Nibelungen' (1924) or perhaps 'Julius Caesar' (1950), the first half of the film shows matters getting worse and worse, and the second half is about revenge.

The thing is, when Judah is struggling across the desert towards his fate in the galleys, he meets Jesus.  Or rather, he meets some guy, who gives him water as he's perishing of thirst.  We've already seen a brief glimpse of the nativity in a (somewhat religiose) scene before the opulent opening credits, and seen Joseph the carpenter, so the long-haired bloke is obviously Jesus.  This moment comes back to Judah at various times on his adventures, and on his return to Jerusalem he meets Balthazar, the wise man (you know, 'We Three Kings' and all that), who saw the Christ as an infant, and has come back from Alexandria to find him again before he dies.  Balthazar can see Judah's murderous intent, but urges peace and forgiveness.  From this point the viewer, or this viewer at least, knows Judah Ben-Hur needs to depart from his anger and find peace with his erstwhile friend Messala, but we also want to see him revenge himself with appropriate violence for his years of great suffering.

This excellent conflict drives the film's second half - the call to forgiveness and the need for bloody vengeance.  Charlton Heston, an actor I've grown to like very much since seeing him in this (I have most of a foot of 'Heston section' on my DVD shelf, next to, and dovetailed with, the Biblical epic section), performs this sort of conflict very well.  I find his scenes of anguish, distress and obvious internal torment very affecting, though I can see it's an acting style that's less popular these days, and that his egregious firearm politics of later life have marred him in many people's eyes.  If you're not familiar with him, know only that he'd make an excellent Indiana Jones or a damn good Batman, and that the sort of roles once written for him now go variously to Swarzenegger or Will Smith.

Judah resolves to have his revenge
I was a bit wary of going back to 'Ben-Hur' this year, after watching all these many films for this blog.  I've been so impressed by the quality of film-making in general and special effects in particular in films from the 30s, 20s, 10s and even 1900s that I worried this magnificent epic would seem less impressive in comparison, now that I was judging it less ignorantly.  I'm delighted to say that it's an excellently shot film, the sets huge and believable, the famous chariot race is real and the sea-battle tense rather than embarrassing.

The two big action set pieces are astounding things.  The chariot race was done for real and is about as good a chase or race sequence as you could ever hope to see.  Parts of it are shot-for-shot lifted from the 1925 film of the same novel (which has also lent its-self to the storyboards of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) but Ben-Hur seizes the inspiration and adds rich colour and the widest widescreen you've ever seen.  The chariots really do go at thrilling pace, there's the thunder of hooves and the roar of a real excited crowd.  The sequence runs for almost twenty minutes without any sign of flagging - as the horse-drawn chariots thunder nine times around the vast arena, with many catastrophic accidents along the way.  What makes the chariot race yet better is the complete absence of incidental music.  Often, as here or in some of the Roger Moore bond films (to give an unlikely example), edge-of-your-seat sequences become far tenser when the music stops, and we're just given the sounds of the environment, loud or quiet as they would be.  The music can blare in once the action is through.

It's no great surprise that it won a lot a lot of Oscars at the time, and I could happily single out all eleven of them for special praise, but I'll settle here on two.  First, the film editing, which allows a tremendous, if hardly plot-necessary, tension builder as the hortator of the galley hammers out the increasing speeds for the the oarsmen: battle speed, then attack speed, then ramming speed - with the pace and urgency of shots rising with that of the hammers, the oars and the music.  Second, the wonderful performance by a possibly-slightly-blacked-up Hugh Griffith as Sheikh Ilderim, who shines as the film's comic relief, a man of gusto and gleeful intelligence, who laughs along so graciously and patronisingly with the Romans' slurs against his ethnicity, knowing the joke is turned round against them, and who shows a great kinship with his four white horses, who ought to share his Oscar for best supporting actor.

A reflection in a bloody puddle
The end of the film is the part that stunned me when I watched it early one morning in 2004.  Judah learns that his mother and sister live, but are lepers, and are dying.  Esther, the rather wet romantic lead (though she's better and stronger in an argument toward the end) has persuaded him that the wondering Rabbi (oh, you know who) can heal them.  He takes them to see him, but finds the streets deserted, as everybody is away watching Jesus' trial.  Judah tries to help Jesus carry the cross, and tries (unsuccessfully) to offer him water as he thirsts, realising then that this is the man who once saved him.  Jesus is crucified, and everybody looks on helpless.  It's miserable, seeing this man who's done nothing wrong, has only acted kindly and gently in this film, nailed up to die.  He hasn't even said anything, anything - this isn't, as some imagine, and as I had imagined back then, somebody in any way judgemental.  He's a man who, by his actions, has cared, saved, and challenged.  Balthazar, who has come so far to see the man he met as a child, sees him executed, 'taking upon himself the sins of the world'.

Judah's family departs and hides in a cave from the rising storm, but find themselves, in the moment of Jesus' death, healed physically, as well as given hope and reason to live.  This is what confused and alarmed me back then.  For years I'd thought of the atrocity of the crucifixion as a failure, or at least as a dark and terrible thing, a reason for Good Friday to be bleak, with Easter the only associated hope.    It seemed obscene to see the family of Hur given reason to rejoice and be glad, to be healed in the moment of Jesus' death.  It was only then, having been ostensibly but half-heartedly Christian for most of my life, that I realised the Good Friday was the day that sin was conquered.  It was then, not at Easter, that Jesus declared 'it is finished'.  It was accomplished, as it was for that sin, our sin, and in this film Judah's violent anger as much as that of the crucifying Romans, for which Jesus was executed.  This is why the Friday is counted good, and though death was shown to be defeated on Easter Sunday, the more important barrier, the sin which had so long stood between humanity and God, was broken down in that moment.

Since seeing this in 2004, I've watched the film every year on Good Friday, or as close as I can manage, and to me it marks the real end of Lent.  It carries me in to see why Jesus' mission was important, why the crucifixion, and how we can be saved.  Once the film is over, once I'm relieved and have dried my eyes as necessary, it's practically Easter already, and hope can burgeon.  The film doesn't reach as far as Easter Day.  It needn't.  Judah returns to Esther and tells her he was there til the end, and heard Jesus forgive his executors from the cross, and that 'it was if he took the sword out of my hand'.  Reconciled with Esther, Judah learns that his family are safe and well, and we see the sun rising with the cross in the background and an (apparently unscripted) shepherd leading his sheep.

There are surely greater films, better made or more innovative - even, perhaps, more epic - but there are none I value more highly than 'Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ'.

A Roman who can't bring himself to berate Jesus for watering Judah.

P.S. I could probably end the blog here and be content, but the numerically obsessive part of me says I should plough on and do all hundred years - and so I shall!

P.P.S. When people say 'film adaptations are never as good as the original book', William Wyler's Ben-Hur is a great counter-example.  The book is very good, but the story-telling and the dialogue are notably superior in the film.  This also means other adaptations are never a patch on this version, though the 1925 silent film is quite something.  Incidentally, each of the adaptations (I've sought out other film, TV and radio versions) tell completely different stories about Simonides, Judah's former slave, all quite incompatibly.

Unless the prospect of long films or 50-year-old films is utterly inimical to you, you should totally see this film.  For various reasons, I have several Ben-Hurs on my shelves, so you're welcome to a lending copy.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

This film was exceedingly controversial when it came out in the late eighties.  It's based, not on the gospels, but on a novel about Jesus, and does the two things one can always expect from New Testament fan-fic: Jesus is romantically linked to Mary Magdalene, and he asks Judas to betray him.  And then, of course, there's his last temptation, but I'll get to that.  In spite (or even because of) this portrayal of a remarkably weak, human and troubled Christ, this is an excellent film and worth the watching, both for style and content, and one that I'd recommend with the warning that the crucifixions (of which there are several) are very unpleasant indeed (hence its inclusion in this blog's 'horrible films' tag).

From the off, this Jesus is not the confident and charismatic crowd-winner we're used to.  He's wracked by conflict, as God calls him to fearful duties and Lucifer puts to him, again and again, the idea that he's mistaken, that he's no messiah and should simply live his life.  The crowds simply aren't convinced by his speeches, and familiar sermons meet with derision and doubt, rather than open-eared adoration.  As it becomes clearer to Jesus that he really is the son of God, he's dismayed and terrified, as he knows where it will lead.  This Jesus is the only carpenter who'll make crosses for the Romans, and he's despised for it, by himself, as much as the other Jews.

Judas, comforted by Jesus
Rather than praise everybody involved in the making of the film for their style and quality of their performances, I'll save time and name some names.  Martin Scorsese is directing, Peter Gabriel composing, with Willem Dafoe as the Christ.  His lack of physical beauty and easy charm probably makes him the closest screen Jesus to the one Biblical description of Jesus' looks, which crops up in Isaiah: 'he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him'.  Harvey Keitel is a flame-haired and muscular Judas, the only person Jesus can really rely on.  As usual, it's a fairly white cast for something set in Israel, but unlike most Jesus biopics, the Jews here look and sound Jewish, Jewish-American, to be precise, which works very well.  I feel obliged to mention that there's a single scene cameo by David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, and he's good, quiet, pensive, but is given very little to do here, so my favourite screen Pilate remains Frank Thring in 'Ben-Hur' (1959).

What of the Last Temptation of the title?  It's the whole point of the film, but is constrained to the final fifth of a two-and-a-half hour movie.  I'll be sauntering somewhat into spoiler territory here, but since you may have already seen that screen-cap down there it's already sort-of too late, but this really isn't a film that relies greatly on twists, so I don't think your viewing experience will be diminished.  So, as you may know, Jesus goes out into the desert for forty days to fast and meditate, and while there is thrice tempted by Satan.  It's brilliantly realised in this film, which paraphrases events as well as words, and so makes both dialogue and visuals engaging and surprising.  Satan says that Jesus will see him again, and it's at this point that Jesus takes up the main body of his mission.

Aged Jesus and his guardian angel
As per the Bible, after the Last Supper, Jesus begs God to release him from his fate, to save him from dying on the cross.  Despite this, he's nailed up to die, but just as he's on the cusp of perishing, he cries out, asking why he's been forsaken.  At this point, a young English-accented girl, his guardian angel, tells him God has had mercy and released him from this terrible fate.  He climbs down from the cross, though the crowd still see him there, and he goes on to live a long and mainly happy life.  He marries, has children, grows to old age.  This, though he doesn't see it, is his last temptation.

It's highly likely this film inspired 'Human Nature' that Tennant-era Doctor Who classic: in each, our hero is offered a vision of a normal human life, the delight of love, family, and a good, natural death of old age - and each has to choose whether to live the life they yearn for, that they've certainly earnt, or to die unjustly and save the world.  Eventually Jesus begins to hear people condemn him for failing to be the crucified and resurrected Jesus they're preaching, and who the people need to save them.  For me the film's highlight is a scene in which old Jesus runs into a highly animated Paul of Tarsus, given the film's most enjoyable performance by Harry Dean Stanton, and condemns him pretending that there had ever been a crucifixion, let alone a resurrection.

I suspect the film's ongoing controversy arises largely from the idea (all in the fantasy of this last temptation, and largely, though not wholly, implied rather than shown) that Jesus had sex.  With, y'know, women.  The weakness and doubt shown in this presentation of Jesus is likely another factor, as well as the role of Judas and the notable amount of casual nudity. (My friend Tom Hagley described this as a 'nipple film', venturing that a high percentage of shots contain at least one visible, often Willem Dafoe's).  I don't think these things should count against a very good film about Jesus, which really gets to the core of why the crucifixion was necessary to reconcile man to God, and why God didn't relieve Jesus of this burden even when he begged for another solution.  If you want a modern, well-shot and horribly bloody film about Jesus, his mission and his death, 'The Last Temptation of Christ' is a far more interesting, enjoyable and helpful film than 'The Passion of the Christ' (2004).

Pondering it over the week, I'm tempted to venture that this might even be the best film yet made about Jesus of Nazareth.  Feel quite at liberty to disagree in the comments.  For another film of a novel about Jesus, albeit one in which he hardly features, tune in on Easter Sunday for my comments on my favourite ever film, 'Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ' (1959).

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Winstanley (1975)

It so happens that I like the message and the style of the occupy movement, whose camps could be found in most every city in late 2011, most conspicuously in New York, allowing the city to finally cast off the gloom of 9-11 and be about something new and more positive.  They were a visible sign of the people's dissatisfaction with the growing gap between the rich and the poor - heck, between the uber-rich and everybody else.  They made novel use of public space to oppose corporate personhood, made myriad inequalities harder to ignore, and put a public face, indeed many public faces, to those angered by certain unpunished or unpunishable villainies committed by banks, managers and ostensible 'wealth creators'.

They still do these things, though the camps are gone.  They're considered less newsworthy, but haven't gone away.  In their prime, I did what I could to furnish the movement with both moral and material support, here and in the States, and I'm trying to keep an eye on their continuing operations.  This 1975 film regards the Cromwell-era occupy movement, the Levellers, or the Diggers as they became known, led by the charismatic Gerrard Winstanley.  It's a true story, by the way.

Gerrard Winstanley burns a court summons

Just to give a very brief bit of historical context: this is shortly after Henry VIII, Queens Mary and Elizabeth, William Shakespeare, Kings James (of the Bible translation) and Charles I (of the decapitation).  The Civil War has just happened, and Oliver Cromwell is on the throne, sort of.  Despite this new age of kingless Puritanism, society hasn't really been levelled at all.  There's still a despot at the top of a hierarchy of lords, with the poor no better off than before the revolution.  (When Cromwell dies, some decades after the events of this film, Britain, rather embarrassingly, asks to have its monarchs back, and it's as if nothing has changed, but that's another century for another movie - probably with a lot of wigs in it).

So anyway, it's 1649, and Gerrard Winstanley has published a manifesto, 'The New Law of Righteousness', and has set up a camp, a commune of sorts, on common lands.  The lands sort-of belong to everybody (hence 'common'), but actually belong to Sir Francis Drake (who isn't that Sir Francis Drake, before you ask).  As we see, Drake doesn't like the idea of social levelling because (so he says) if there are no poor people, then he won't be able to keep to the Biblical precept of charity.  And while the lands are meant for common grazing of animals, the Diggers, led by Winstanley, are digging to grow their crops, and have built huts.  And this sort of thing is just not on.

Gerrard Winstanley again, because I like his face.

Winstanley's vision is simple and sensible: there's enough land in Britain for everybody to have some, so by farming the common land, nobody need go hungry; everybody just needs a little bit of land, and there's enough to go round.  This was apparently still true by the 70s, and unless the population is very much higher today, may still hold.  'Unemployment' as we think of it now didn't exist back then, and all you needed was a bit of space to plant barley, cut down some trees and build a hut and you had all the food and shelter you needed, like Minecraft or 'The Good Life'.  Despite this commendable aim, however, the camp is in terminal decline almost as soon as we see it.  Disgruntled locals, incited by a local parson, keep destroying the crops, meaning the camp cannot prosper.

I find there to be something compellingly watchable about the face of Gerrard Winstanley, at least as he's played here by Miles Halliwell.  He exudes a goodness, a niceness that I don't think I've quite seen anywhere else, and, though this is not a cheery film, every time the hope-filled Winstanley appears on screen everything seems brighter and better.  Though it all ends badly, I think I could probably pull myself out of a glum mood by watching this film for this performance.  Halliwell, like most of the cast, is not a professional actor.  His only other screen credit is for 'It Happened Here' (1964), by the same writer/director, in which he played a Nazi apologist teacher.  It's a pity he never got to play Jesus, as he would have been the best.

General Fairfax drops in.  Men ought still to style themselves so.

The only professional actor in the film is Jerome Willis as General Fairfax.  If you know your Pertwee Doctor Who, you'll recognise Willis from 'The Green Death' (1973) in which he played the manager of Global Chemicals.  His performance here as Fairfax is quite different, and the sight of him with the sharp beard and magnificent hair of the 17th century upper crust is an image to treasure.  Fairfax is an interesting character (and, I suppose, was an interesting person).  He's the highest authority seen in the film, and seems both wise and intelligent, not joining with the general condemnation of the camp, but listening open-minded to everything Winstanley has to say.  He comes across as gracious, like a good headmaster who has a genuine knowledge of all his pupils, an understanding of their motives and a love of fairness.

While there are no real villains here, as everybody seems to have a fairly reasonable motivation for their actions, David Bramley's Parson Platt is fairly close to the stereotype we hold of the puritans: the dearth of humour, the sexual jealousy and repression, the gaunt face of a sad panda; Gerrard Winstanley is far closer to the actual Puritan ideal, that of keeping God at the centre of every action and motivation, of breaking down clericalism, sacerdotalism and human hierarchy and making a beautiful and simple society in which to live and worship.  Platt, if understandable, is a horrible jerk.  The Christianity Winstanley espouses and practices is very appealing, honest, humble and gladdening.  The impression is very much that his society would have worked if those frightened by such proto-communism hadn't repeatedly taken to violence to suppress it.  Winstanley's Diggers movement collapsed, in the end, but was resurrected in the 1960s.  Noted '60s and '70s protestor and digger Sid Rawle appears in this film as a ranter, who joins Winstanley's camp mainly to mess around, burn Bibles and harass women.  Just as the story is tilting toward its bleak conclusion, Rawle's character takes his clothes off and runs around naked making a hulaballoo, and gives the characters a good laugh, at last.

An old woman laughs at a penis.

What is often said about the film, and rightly, is that it feels like it was really shot at the time it was set.  There's a documentary realism to it, and there's nothing here to tell you this is a mid-seventies production.  While a lot of Winstanley's dialogue is lifted from his writings, much of the dialogue and action has the spontaneous feel of improvisation.  Sights are seen that I expect far more from real life than from the movies: time is taken while trees are cut down and huts constructed, and when one of the men is trying to construct the side of a building a friend of his bothers him by repeatedly touching him on the head with a long piece of grass.  When it rains heavily, we have a lingering shot of one of the Diggers with a damp bogey dangling from his nose.  In the early and brief sequence of a Civil War battle, the directors borrowed real Civil War armour from the royal armouries, as it was cheaper and more convincing than making it new.  It feels very genuine, under all that fine word's meanings, and it's a real pity that there aren't more films with the feel of 'Winstanley'.

I really like this film, and having seen it a couple of times and read a little further, really like Gerrard Winstanley too, so am failing (as I may when I come to write up 1959's 'Ben-Hur' at Easter) to restrain my enthusiasms.  I suspect I've gone on for more paragraphs than I ought, and shall stop here so as not to try your patience any further, dear reader.

Available on DVD, or as one of the rather fine BFI flipside releases which contain both a DVD and a blu-ray disc, and so are ideal if you want to watch these fine pictures in the highest quality while retaining the ability to put a DVD version in your computer to extract screen-captures.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

I was looking at my blog's stats a few weeks ago, and learnt that the top five nations (in numbers of people looking at the blog, rather than in inherent merit) were the UK, US, Germany, Poland and the Ukraine.  I've looked at loads of films for the first three, one for Poland (with more on the way), but had nothing down in Ukrainian at all.  I knew this needed to be amended, for the sake of my ten Ukrainian readers (or my one very persistent reader in Ukraine, who may or may not be Ukrainian).  Amazon furnished me with a few suggestions, and I liked the cover and title of this one best.  The cover picture showed some magnificent moustaches which, I was sad to discover, are false in the story and used in only one scene.  In all non-moustache-related ways, however, I believe I chose the right film.

Ivanko drinks from the river.  We are a riverbed.

I wasn't really sure what to expect of 'Тіні забутих предків'.  What I got seemed strikingly unusual, at least to me.  I suspect it's just that this is far more Eastern than I'm used to.  Ukraine is in Europe but is as close to Iran as it is to Britain, and the director Sergei Parajanov hails from nearby Armenia (nearby in the same sense that Sheffield is near Münster), and it's Parajanov's direction that makes the film so pleasingly irregular.

The story starts with a tree falling on the main character's brother.  We get this shot from the point of view of the tree, and this unpredictable motion and imagination runs all the way through.  Rather than cutting between shots, the camera prefers to lurch around, casting shadows where it will, and the camera-operator at one point audibly taking a run-up over gravel.  Cameras vault over huts, and shots are taken from under water.  Characters, incidents and instruments are only audible, and only really present, from the moment they enter the frame.  Everything is red and gold, with the Carpathian mountains often rendering the frame behind the characters totally white, like 'Tintin in Tibet'.  Bells sound loudly through much of the action, and if ever they stop, men enter the frame and blow a hullabaloo on extremely long trumpets, after which the bells start again.  Under soviet rule, Ukraine had a 'house style' of directing, and this film was so far outside of it as to cause a great deal of trouble between the director and the authorities.

This is the screenshot absolutely everybody uses to represent this film
So I was inclined to avoid it.  It crept in eventually because I don't
like to represent any film enturely with screenshots of males.
It may sound like tokenism, but hey, tokenism has many merits,
and it's a pretty interesting screen-shot.  Of a wedding, by the by.

The brother's tree-accident is the first of several deaths, all sudden, without foreshadowing or any sense of justice.  All are mourned loudly, then forgotten entirely, which is, I suppose, the point of the title.  The film looks set to be a romance, but Marichka's death (in a sheep-related incident) curtails that plot-line very suddenly indeed.  She gets a less festive, more personal mourning than the men: Ivan (the main character) drops out of society, loses his mojo and grows a beard, and everything is in monochrome for a good twenty minutes.  Everything except Easter, of course, as you can't do a Russian Orthodox Easter in anything less than full colour.

I don't quite know how to interpret the last of the film's deaths.  I hardly think of this as a spoiler, by the way, as the movie is more a sensation than a narrative.  After an unsatisfactory life of farming, Ivan is struck on the head by some kind of sorcerer, and suddenly he's in slow motion and the picture broken down into white, red and yellow.  He stumbles out into the forest, where something happens.  Either we see the beautiful romantic reunion of the souls of true lovers, or else we're given something far more horrible and nightmarish.  Marichka is there, moving toward him, as alive as ever she was, but her hands are as grey as death, or even greyer.  Ivan and Marichka finally clasp hands, and the forest is suddenly coated in blood, and spinning.

Some blood, yesterday.

We resolve to still shots of bloody twisted branches, presented without further comment, just as we had earlier been treated to a succession of still shots of moss and bits of wood.  And just when we're getting into Peter Greenaway territory, we jump back to the world of people, everybody having a great time at the funeral, and the movie ends.

It's a curious film, and not really what I expected.  The cover had suggested something more historical, more adventurous.  The film I saw seemed at times like a realistic depiction of the hardness of a 19th century cattle-herder's life - like classic western 'Will Penny' (1968) - and at times like a Grimm fairy tale.  Certainly one to re-watch  I think, for the sound and pictures more than for the characters.

P.S. I guess 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925) was kinda set in Ukraine, but the intertitles were in Russian, so let's say it doesn't count.

P.P.S. Poland is next door to the Ukraine, and having watched this film, 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977) suddenly makes much more sense - or, I should say, it has a bit more context, but still makes little sense and remains cold, unappealing and frightening.

P.P.P.S. These days nobody in Ukraine looks at the blog any more, and Malaysia has taken its place as the country I'm rudely neglecting.  Can anyone recommend me a decent Malay film?

If you want it, the film can be had from Amazon.  I'm aware that I'm the only person who's ever ordered through this blog, but I still think it worth putting these things down here in case you ever read about something exciting and decide to scratch the itch with mammon.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Julius Caesar (1950)

Beware the Ides of March!

First things first.  This isn't the famous 1950s Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando - that was 3 years later.  This is a more obscure version with a very much lower budget, and a much more experimental directorial style.  And, of course, a 26-year-old Charlton Heston wearing what I can only reasonably describe as a pant, making his second movie appearance (his first being a silent version of 'Peer Gynt' for the same director in 1941).

Julius Caesar is my favorite Shakespeare play, and this version is probably my favourite Shakespeare film.  Quite a bit has been trimmed out, which I'd speculate was as much out of budgetary necessity as artistic desire, but I don't think the film is in any way damaged by the reduced number of lines.  I did, one year, take the Ides off work to watch three Julius Caesars in a row: this one (at 106 minutes), the 1970 version (116 minutes) which casts Charlton Heston as Marc Antony again, and the BBC Shakespeare version from 1979, with Charles Gray as Caesar, which runs longest at 150 minutes.  Watching them in that order, I got to see much of the play thrice, which is always a good way to watch Shakespeare, and got to discover new lines and scenes in each version.

Cassius Speaks

David Bradley (who, being an American, isn't the same David Bradley today famous for playing Argus Filch) directs, and takes for himself the plum role of Brutus.  He's good as an actor, but far more interesting as a director (and now, alas, better known for directing 1968 TV Movie 'They Saved Hitler's Brain').  The film never tries to be naturalistic, and so relishes in the merits of Shakespeare's text, rather than trying to pass off this ancient work of grand oratory as something casual or comfortable.  As the above screenshot may suggest, shots are often very dynamic, dramatic moments underlined quite blatantly by editing as well as performance.

To a modern viewer it might lack subtlety, but it seems wholly appropriate both for the starkness of the film stock, and for the play as written, with its swanky oratory and quotable speeches (often delivered as speeches, since there's a crowd to be persuaded).  I'd go so far as to say that this would be a very good version to watch if you're starting to study the play, since the themes, symmetries and rhetorical devices are so clearly highlighted as to be plain and evident to anyone lending the film their attention.  Sadly, the only version of the film I've been able to get my hands on looks, for want of a better word, 'crappy', and I suspect it passed onto domestic VHS somewhere between the original 16mm film and the eventual DVD, so giving it your full attention isn't as easy as it might be.

Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.
This is while Caesar's still alive, by the way.

So, what's it actually about?  I don't mean to assume that everybody knows all Shakespeare; off hand, I could only talk with any competence about five of the tragedies, three of the comedies and zero of Shakespeare's histories.  Despite its setting, Julius Caesar is counted as a tragedy rather than a history, since, though it's set in the past and regards real events, the core is about a good and sympathetic man who builds the road to his own destruction.  Who is that man, on this occasion?  Whose is the tragedy?  Studying this at school I assumed it was the tragedy of Julius Caesar, since (spoilers!) he gets stabbed to death by a gang of uppity senators, and that thereafter the role of hero passed from Caesar to Marc Antony.  This is sort-of right, but mainly wrong, as I've eventually learnt.  For one thing, it's far more morally interesting than that (and, given my suggestion that this film version lacks subtlety, I feel I should point out that Bradley makes a very good job of this moral complexity, even if he does make his Cassius unambiguously evil).  This is, in fact, a tragedy about Brutus.

'Oh,' I hear you cry, 'but Brutus is a murderer'.  Actually, I'll credit you with more intelligence than this, and it's my 12-year-old self I'm here addressing.  Yes, Brutus is one of the senators who stab Julius Caesar so - indeed, he's a close friend of Caesar, so his betrayal is worse than that of his peers.  The others act as much for personal advantage as for the love of Rome.  To oversimplify, Caesar is president but wants to be king, which will deprive the senators of power.  Brutus loves Rome, and can see the merits of his nation on the cusp of destruction, as Caesar edges towards both a crown and a claim of divinity, turning the mighty democracy into a theocratic despotism.  He alone can justify the assassination with sincere words: 'This is my answer: it's not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more'.

Cunning angles disguise a low number of extras in an excellent battle scene.

Marc Antony's excellent rabble-rousing speech (you know, 'friends, romans, countrymen', etc.), delivered with all the ingenuity and power of a tabloid newspaper, makes Brutus seem villainous indeed.  And, of course, the crowd goes wild.  You know, killing-people wild.  Just as in 'M' (1931), when the mob run rampant, inflamed by paranoia and ready to assume any innocent is the kindermörder, or as in the hopefully apocryphal modern tale of a crowd smashing up the home of a pediatrician because they think the word means pedophile, so here the people of Rome bring fire and fury, 'a sudden flood of mutiny'.  In a favourite scene of mine (marred, in this film, by an attempt at innovation which sees the action inelegantly superimposed on a border of burning buildings, a gang of plebians stab a poet to death because he happens to have the same name as one of the conspirators, Cinna.  And who'd have thought the young man had so much blood in him?

Anyway, one thing leads to another, and it turns into a war, the senators forced to take up arms against Marc Antony and the angry people of Rome.  At this point, it all becomes rather more political than personal, and the film chooses to accelerate toward the end with only an enthusiastically edited sequence of stabbing, dying and horseing.  It's an interesting war, from a historical point of view, as (for one thing) a young fellow called Herod so impressed the senators, for whom he was fighting, that they later made him the king of Judea (with, as they say, hilarious consequences), but that's so much another story that it's nothing to do with the play, still less the film, and I'll set aside my interest in minus-first-century history for another blog.  Brutus sees which way things are going, and does a king Saul, impaling himself on a sword.  Marc Antony later finds the body and finally gets it, after five acts of various people being hailed for nobility they lacked or condemned for an apparent dearth of the stuff.  'This was the noblest Roman of them all'.  The play doesn't quite end here, but the film does.  Charlton Heston. silhouettes, sad horn music, end titles.

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man!'

On this DVD set, in a quality that is mediocre yet sufficient, one may find this 'Julius Caesar' and Bradley and Heston's other notable collaboration, a silent 'Peer Gynt' from 1941.  There are also a number of episodes of 'Studio One', a series which cut classic novels and plays down to 52 minutes and shot them as-live on video with a multi-camera set-up.  It's a bit strange, being so used to America's glossy TV output, to see some that wasn't shot on film with a single-camera, but there's plenty to enjoy in these very concise productions of 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Jane Eyre', and my favourite 'A Bolt of Lightning', in which he plays James Otis, who said "no taxation without representation," and threw the Boston Tea Party.  It's out of print at present, but if it comes back and you share my strange fascination with the acting style of Charlton Heston, you may like to give it a go.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Häxan (1922)

So, this is a documentary about witches.  It's a subject I'm fairly ignorant on, though I know my thaumaturgy from my theurgy.  My limited understanding is that there are three main kinds of witch with nothing in common to one another: firstly the term is sometimes used to describe practicers of Wicca, a hippy religion that seems to have come to prominence as part of the same movement as the campaign for real ale and the revival of morris dancing, secondly people actually dabbling with demons to gain superpowers, and thirdly people accused of the second, usually without good cause (and fourthly fictional witches, of course, who rarely fit any of these classes at all).

From the film's subtitle, 'witchcraft through the ages', it sounds like it might feasibly encompass all of these in some measure.  In actual fact, director Benjamin Christensen tells the sensational story of the second kind, replete with broomstick flights and kissing the bottom of the devil, under the pretence of telling us about the less lurid third kind, the false accusations.

The pencil of judgement!

Since this is superficially a serious documentary, rather than the exercise in schlock horror thrills it turns into, it starts out quite soberly with a proto-powerpoint presentation.  We're shown pictures and diagrams of witches, familiars and hell, and a rather exciting animated model of the Earth-centred cosmos, with Sun, planets and stars all circulating, and God looking down from a photograph of Heaven.  Into these images, a pencil (or, on larger models, something like a snooker cue) occasionally protrudes to point out details, presumably, in lieu of close-ups on relevant areas.  This being a silent film, this sequence is accompanied by descriptive intertitles - though for some reason my memory keeps insisting that it was a voiceover.

The cosmos, yesterday.

I wonder whether, back in '22, this is what Benjamin Christensen thought would be the future of the movie documentary: a straight replacement for the text-book, with on-screen text broken by illustrations.  After perhaps twenty minutes of this, however, we move to a set with actors, where we're shown a witch cooking up her brew.  Just, you know, as an illustration.  Or so it seems!  In no time at all, this illustration grows into a plot, and educational intent takes a back seat.  We're led into a story about a family in which everybody, deliberately or inadvertently, implicates everybody else as witches. The inquisition turn up, as fat as you like, and torture one unfortunate for so long that she has no option but to claim to be a witch (going into lots of detail on the kissing-the-bottom-of-the-devil thing, which seems to be Christiansen's favourite part of the whole venture, and which we get to see in a blue-tinged flashback).  Of course, since she's been tortured at length and now is sure to be killed for her admissions, she drops in the names of everyone she dislikes, naming them as accomplices.

So, in short, everyone dies.  Except the portliest churchmen, of course.  And Satan, played by (you may have guessed it) director Benjamin Christiansen, who's having great fun throughout, and also turns in a wafer-thin cameo as a spectral Jesus.  His Devil makes a terrifyingly sudden appearance (aided somewhat by Bronnt Industries Kapital's excellent new soundtrack), and spends most of his time leering through windows and flicking his tongue in and out with a comedic rapidity suggestive of all the sort of x-rated antics I'm unlikely to name on this ostensibly wholesome blog.

Christiansen makes a credible point about biology

So, everybody from the main plot dies or becomes irrelevant, but the film isn't yet over.  There's still time for a convent full of nuns to totter about, jive and jitter in (no pun intended, but it sort of works here) mass hysteria.  And then on to the modern day, where, in a lively attempt to reclaim academic credibility, Christiansen shows us a few short scenes about kleptomania, hysteria, sleepwalking - that sort of thing.  The problem isn't the Devil, or so the intertitles tell us, it's that women have always been too hysterical, and the appropriate response isn't to burn them but to institutionalise them, locking them away in sanatoria for their own sake.

This seems almost as alarming, in its own way, and times have thankfully changed again since 1922, and locking people up to keep eccentricity out of society (and, we're clearly seen, out of women) is no longer seen as the wonderful modern answer.  Had it been made nowadays, the documentary might have advocated medicalisation (which I'm keen not to stigmatise, but is still a very imperfect solution, as it can occasionally medicalise the social and drug away legitimate quirks of personality).

This is what supposed witches used to look like.  Nowadays,
such enjoyably wrinkly people just get to play them in movies.

I'm not quite sure the documentary is entirely sincere on the locking-up-your-hysterical-daughter front, as by this point the intertitles have developed a dry sense of humour, which I'm tempted, without any real evidence, to describe as 'characteristically Scandinavian'.

I'll leave you with an enjoyably bizarre sequence from the torture room.  We cut away from the narrative for a moment, as the intertitles (tidy, Swedish, Times New Roman) inform us that 'one of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew when we shot these pictures'.  We see the actress in question, giggling away as the unseen director tightens the screws.  Suddenly her mouth opens in an amused yell.    Says Christiansen: 'I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced from the young lady'.

P.S. My many thanks to Decline for the recommendation.  Tune in again on the Ides of March, when I'll finally tackle a film from that most neglected of decades, the 1950s, with an obscure 'Julius Caesar' featuring a young Charlton Heston in some sort of loincloth, if that's what floats yer boat.

It's a visually delicious piece of work, and not quite as evil as the cover would suggest.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Dr Nicholson and the Blue Diamond (1913)

I've found the silent films I've been watching for this project wonderfully diverse and refreshing, but it's quite pleasing to find one that matches the silent movie pastiches and parodies I've either seen or have been involved with.  In short, 'Dr. Nicholson og den blaa Diamant' is a melodrama, though it may not entirely realise it, and has a slimy and obviously evil villain facing off against handsome wealthy people, and somebody wears a top hat.

The premise is something along these lines.  Through one of those quirks of law that I hope only occur in fiction, Alice Kensington, an heiress, is obliged to marry before she can claim her inheritance, which is to be substantial.  She's an intelligent and independent sort, and decides to enter into a mock marriage (which is presumably a real marriage sans consummation) for one month, so as to gain her inheritance without being lumbered with a husband she doesn't want or love.  She places an advert in the paper requesting a temporary husband, as you do.

People still dressed so in 1913

Dr. Nicholson, an unashamedly villainous cad who dwells in a den, spending all day smoking a hookah and operating his electronic door (pretty swish in 1913) has a cunning plan.  He hires a down-on-his-luck duke to be the faux-husband, and intends to use him to steal the priceless Blue Diamond which I like to think might be the Blue Water Diamond from 'The Last Remake of Beau Geste' (1977), or perhaps blue is just the most exciting colour for these things, even in monochrome.

Toward the climax, Dr Nicholson climbs on top of a fast-moving train, and for an exciting moment I believed I was about to see my favourite cliche, the train-top fist-fight, born.  Alas, having gotten on top of the carriage, he postures for a while, then jumps off into a river when the train goes over a bridge.  Wonderfully, this was filmed with no more trickery than telling the lead actor to actually get on the train and then jump off.  They did these things properly back then.

Dr. Nicholson in his evil lair.  He's the one with the gun.

This being 1913 - which when you think about it is a long time ago - the plot comes to us fairly slowly, taking an hour to tell a story that might have been told in half the time had the film been made a decade later.  Nonetheless, it's fairly sensational, full of incident and high drama, though I couldn't quite call it unpredictable.

The biggest surprise, watching this film, is the absence of dialogue intertitles.  I'd always assumed that these were invented about the same time as the silent film, and that the absence of recorded sound made slides of who-said-what, the movie equivalent of speech-bubbles, inevitable.  They're wholly absent here, and the only real intertitles are used to introduce new scenes, as they were in 1903's 'Le Vie et La Passion de Jesus Christ'.  This film uses a rather ingenious replacement for dialogue: every time a character needs to say something to another character, they write to them and we see the letter.  So, rather than talk one to another, characters make a point of leaving, and then a letter arrives from them once they're no longer in the location of their recipient, and the audience gets to read long paragraphs of cursive handwriting about who's doing what, and why.  At least in the English-language print that I watched, all the characters seem to write with identical handwriting.  Handwriting so classy as to be a bit too fancy to read with any comfort.

Thankfully the letters are on screen for ages.

After all this, I'm inclined to venture the dialogue intertitle as my favourite innovation in the development of cinema.  More useful to the telling of the story than audio or colour, and more charming too.  The typefaces have been a delight, wherever I've seen them: a typically soviet-looking font for 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), tidy serifs for Swedish films, and gothic script for the dark German folk-tales.  I wonder how much of the association of certain typefaces with different nations and their cultures hails from the silent film era.  Until I see more early Danish films with proper intertitles, I shall assume that Dansk is properly spoken in elegant and highly italicised penmanship, and carries over long distances.

Anyway, you can quite lawfully watch the film here, and it's quite interesting to do so to get an idea what people were capable of filming a complete century ago.  It seems bizarre, somehow, that the movies can have been going on for as long as that, but, as I've learnt, cinema was already very advanced by this point, and was already pretty complex and ambitious a full decade earlier.  If I ever get to the end of my hundred years project I'm sure I'll go mining into the 1900s and 1890s to try to grasp how films really got started - but I'm keen not to make an unwieldy project any bigger than it is at present.

P.S. My thanks to JillBob for poining me towards this film, and also for recommending 'Brick' (2005), and 'Goodbye Lenin!' (2003), all of which I've been glad to see.

P.P.S. Thursday will bring a post about 'Häxan' (1922), a rather exciting Swedish/Danish documentary about witchcraft through the ages.  I'll try not to spend too long examining its intertitles.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Brick (2005)

I feel I've been watching rather a lot of crime films for this project, whether about criminals or the law.  Indeed, the first few films I watched for the experiment at the end of November were all crime-related: the Shaft trilogy and two 30s Fritz Langs.  'Brick' is a rather exciting entry in the genre.  It transfers some of the usual chatacters, situations and philosophy of hard-boiled noir detective tales to the setting of an American high-school, resulting in a fresh look at some old ideas.

When I think of modern U.S. high-schools (and by modern I mean post-9/11) my first thoughts are of 'Glee' (2009 - ) and 'Mean Girls' (2004), so I found it refreshing and a little startling to see the familiar costume and scenery of modern American youth in so sober a story.  The detective character, Brendan, is merely a student, a pupil in his prime, but behaves with the manner of a hard-nosed gumshoe.

Emily rejects Brendan's offer of help

I think it's the dialogue that does it.  Certainly the cast aren't giving especially film noir performances or this could have been embarrassing, as ironic and schlocky as 'Bugsy Malone' (1976), a very different take on old-fashioned crime told with a young cast.  On the contrary, everyone here is taking it seriously, and I can believe in them all.  Barring Richard Roundtree in a small role as the Assistant Vice-Principal - the closest the film shows to the rule of law - the cast is made up wholly of young actors I've never seen in anything before, and will be glad to look out in the future.

So anyway, one of Brendan's friends, Emily, in in trouble.  In fact, she's dead, as we learn from the first few shots (which carry with them the visual flair of Twin Peaks, if not its melodrama), but the first half of the film shows us how this point is reached.  She's in trouble, and Brendan has the resources to investigate: he's unselfconscious, he knows how to take a beating, he's grown grim, but has a sharp mind.  Crucially, he doesn't worry too much about getting to the end of the film in the same state he started.

I really like how the space between the faces looks like a set of stairs here

In a story full of doubt and shaky alliances, he has one friend he can trust, a confidante called Brain, who knows what's happening where, and does the research Brendan needs.  Given the similarity of the two characters' names, it pleased me to think Brain was merely a psychomachia, an externalisation of Brendan's thoughts to let us know how he works through his problems.  The idea is only really undermined once, as Brain places an important call while Brendan is indisposed elsewhere, but a piece of (rather wonderful yet unostentatious) camera trickery seems to reintroduce the idea towards the end, as an out-of-focus Brain emerges from behing Brendan's head, says his piece, and returns there, either up the playing-field or in through the ear.

I really like the direction in this film, which makes a bold and engaging screenplay visually memorable. There's an extent to which, given the very modern and familiar setting, anybody, any amateur, could go out and shoot this script without spending much money and come out with something appropriate and dramatic.  Rian Johnson both wrote and directed the film, and has as much knack for drama in a beautifully-framed shot as on the page.  When time permits, I'm very curious to see his other films, 'The Brothers Bloom' (2008) and 'Looper' (2012), the latter of which shares this film's main star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

P.S. Having described some people only slightly my junior as 'a cast of young actors' in the third paragraph, I suddenly feel indescribably ancient.

P.P.S. Tune in next time for a Danish silent film from the earliest year in this project's remit, 1913.

If it appeals in the slightest, check the film out.  I clearly enjoyed it, and I believe I haven't said enough to spoil it for y'all.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The films so far

People have occasionally asked me which years I've covered and which are blank.  Without giving you a massive list of titles, this post is a summation of what I have and haven't watched.  Squares are beautiful shapes, and square numbers are just great, so that's how we'll start.

Square of films so far

90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99


Origins Achievements Pancakes Ballet

Years with multiple entries

1922: Criminal Vampire Witchcraft
1950: Shakespeare Mirrors
1959: Epic B-Movie
1965: Cohen Zhivago
1971: Shaft Rasputin
1972: Shaft Mafia
1974: Murder Windows
1976: Taxi Alphabet
1980: Poland Disco
1985: Ninja Zoo
1987: Architecture Cops
1988: Jesus Anime Killing
1989: Food Chicks
1992: Internet Salesmen
1993: Piano Dinosaurs
1998: Groove Running Nazis
1999: God Gayness Office
2003: Socialism Fantasy Party
2006: Bathroom America
2009: Beautiful CGI
2011: Pencilton Homicide Mystery Movies
2012: Tiger Gollum

Sunday, 3 March 2013

King Ralph (1991)

So here's the idea: the entire British royal family is wiped out in a tragic, if mercifully quick, photography accident - and after some searching the sole surviving heir is found.  The problem is, he's common.  What, after all, could be more common, more unlike the staid English gentry, than a stout American who knows how to rock and roll?

I watched this recently as an antidote to 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915).  I knew I needed something fun and free, and 'King Ralph' serves that purpose very well.

'Spotted Dick?!'

Ralph, played with suitably gusto by John Goodman, has no idea he's in line for the British throne.  His leads a more-or-less contented life playing raucous piano in a Vegas bar, but finds the prospect of palaces and a kingdom of his own to be a tempting alternative.  Peter O'Toole takes it upon himself to train Ralph in the ways of etiquette, but it soon becomes apparent that Ralph is ill-suited to the post.  He's a good man, kind, gregarious and amusing, but considerably too outgoing to be the king that tradition demands.  What initially seems to Ralph like a life of luxury is soon too restrictive.  He wants to bowl, to go out for a burger, but he's too famous and too important to pass incognito, and is constantly called on for tedious but politically necessary duties.

He slips out one night and falls in love with a nice stripper by the name of Miranda, played by the ever-lovely Camille Coduri (oh, you know, she was Rose's mum in Doctor Who), a romance deemed inappropriate and eventually used against him by the villainous Lord Graves (boo!  hiss!), who wants the throne for himself.

Miranda, confronted by Lord Graves

It's a rather bitty film, at least to begin with, as each fresh clash between Ralph's character and his office plays out as a sketch of sorts, this first half-hour sequence running too slowly to be a montage, but with too little direction or development to feel like part of a story  The scenes themselves are amply enjoyable (I particularly like Ralph's education on British foodstuffs, and alarm at the prospect of 'spotted dick'), but it feels rather as if a list of ideas was drawn up, and the audience was then presented with an illustrated version of that list, rather than a story with any flow or grace to it.

Things settle down in the second half, once all the ingredients are in place.  We want to see Ralph prosper, to prove that he can indeed rise to the challenge of monarchy, but we also want to see him happy, and the romance between him and Miranda blossom, and there's no way that all of these things can come to pass.  Despite my complaints about the choppy first part of the film, it soon settles into something more satisfying.  It's undemanding but charming, with a few good laughs and roles for most of Britain's upper crust of posh-seeming actors.  Pleasingly, it comes to the same conclusions about the British monarch as 'The Queen' (2006), while being in no other way similar to that fine film.

Ralph takes the king of Zambezi down the pub.

The only other complaint I'll level at 'King Ralph' pertains to Miranda.  We're told she hails from a Northern city famed for its steel-production (so, obviously Sheffield, where I live), except we're later told the city is in the North East (where I was raised, and nowhere near Sheffield), but it's entirely unbelievable that she could have gained the accent she displays living within a hundred miles of either of these places.  Admittedly people have said the same of my own accent, but I doubt whether I would turn into quite such a cockney if I lived in London for a few months.  I hope we never have occasion to find out, as I like my home much more than I like our capital, but living here has yet to turn me into a broad Yorkshireman.

P.S. On Tuesday I'll be popping up a post about all the films I've seen so far in the project and associated statistics.  On Thursday, we'll be looking at 'Brick', a very fresh noir from 2005.

Feel an urge to watch the film?  Such desires can be salved by spending.