Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Heimat (1984)

Heimat!  This Chronicle of Germany is a firm favourite of mine, and not just because of its fabulous duration.  Heimat and I both entered the world 29 years ago, in 1984, and it was watching this intimate overview of the century that first set me on my current course of watching a hundred films from a hundred years, making some sense of the twentieth century as a single story.  As you may note above, there is a video edition of this entry for those happier with dozens of clips than hundreds of written words.

Normally when you watch a film you sit down, you watch, things happen to characters, and you get your resolution and the film stops.  Heimat, though, just keeps going.  It is, in fact, very long, taking around sixteen hours to tell the story of a small village in rural Germany, and a family who live there.  It starts in 1919 and just keeps on rolling until its 1982, by which time our central characters have grown up, grown old and begotten from their loins the new generation of central characters.  In a film of such expanse I think it's no spoiler to say that almost everybody alive at the start of the story has died by the end.  There's something fascinatingly unusual, something Old-Testament-like, about a story in which the main characters at the end aren't present at all at the start, and the only characters we meet in the first hour aren't there at all at the end.  Heimat isn't like other films.  It's like life.

1938: Otto Wohlleben, who begat Hermann Simon
When I first saw it I made a mistake that's easy in real life too - I concentrated on the older generation, on Maria Simon, the film's main character, on Paul and Pauline and Eduard, and I ignored the children, forgetting that they would soon turn into real people, and I'd have no idea where they'd come from.  By the fifties the film has slowly switched its emphasis and become the story of Maria's children Anton, Ernst and Hermann, the last of whom went on to star in the 'Die Zweite Heimat' (1993) and 'Heimat 3' (2004), where he became the cinema character I know best and care about the most - but that's another story.  Characters who'd been the centre of their own lives, and at the heart of the community, become parents, become grandparents, they die of age or accident or war, or equally often we leap forward a few years and they're just gone, just dead.  Quite disconcertingly, the film raises the strange prospect that our grandparents may once have been children and people with lives as fun and interesting as our own.

The film is made up of a number of films - see the postscript for quite how that works - and is shot variously in colour, sepia and monochrome, and on a variety of film-stocks.  It starts almost entirely black and white,' because, y'know, things just were in those days, but is almost entirely in colour after colour television is introduced in West Germany in 1967 (August 25th, if you like to celebrate anniversaries).  It takes a little getting used to, but seems utterly appropriate given how the century's story is one of technological advancement.  Integral to the human stories playing out in the village are the introduction of the radio, the motorcycle, aircraft, and especially the development of advanced camera lenses, as a rural community in the middle of nowhere becomes part of the modern, industrial world.  In the first half the town's core seems to be Matthias's forge - and I'm delighted to see that the prequel 'Die Andere Heimat' -  set in the 1840s and coming to cinemas near you later this year - sees some prominent use of it.  By the end, new industries have risen and fallen, and the village is quite radically different, but remains utterly recognisable.

1944: Anton Simon adjusts a lens.  He later founds Simon Optik
The final telling in particular is perfectly filmed, timed and edited, and despite its optimistic tone and happy ending of sorts, I'd forgotten how upsetting I found it.  There are a lot of images there that linger in the mind, Hermann Simon arriving late to a funeral to find a thunderstorm has scattered the mourners, leaving the casket alone in the sopping street - and the strangely terrifying flyover of the Hunsrück landscape that follows.  This last part uses some strange and unusual techniques, things we don't see anywhere else in Heimat, but uses them to tell a story properly, a story I really care about.  And I don't think this teil's impact comes from its position at the end of an epic - I think anybody who hadn't seen a frame of Heimat could watch 'The Feast of the Living and the Dead', or even just its opening quarter hour, and find something fascinating, tense, engaging, sad and real, which is surely a good set of things for a film to be.

'Heimat', and its follow-ups 'Die Zweite Heimat' (1993) and 'Heimat 3' (2004) are high on my list of favourite things in the world, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if future generations value them highly for their quality as drama as well as their value as historical chronicles.  It's just a pity that, being extremely long German films, most of my fellow Britons haven't found the time or urge to watch them.

1982: Glasisch, who sees the whole story
Finally, and by way of a postscript: is this really a movie, as Wikipedia tells us, or a TV miniseries as IMDB claims?  Well, it's kind of both.  It's a film made of films.  Eine Chronik in elf Teilen.  Its threequel 'Heimat 3' is clearer, 'Film in 6 Teilen'.  I'm a dilettantish speaker of German , but that's surely one film in six tellings, or eleven tellings of extremely irregular duration as the case is here.  But wait, how can something in more than one discrete portion be a single film?  Well, earlier in The Penciltonian I talked about 1924's 'Die Nibelungen', one film in two portions which at five hours was so long viewers went to see part one, Siegfried, then came out to the cinema again the following day to see part two, Kriemhild's Rache.  Then there was 1945's 'Les Enfants du Paradis', which was made in Paris when the occupying forces didn't permit films longer than 90 minutes, so the three-hour story was told as a double bill of a film and its sequel, always meant to be watched together.  And then there was 'Das Boot' (1981), made for cinemas, but also shown in expanded form on telly as a mini-series.  Did I spend eleven hours watching those particular films entirely so I could use them as examples when talking about Heimat?  Maybe!  But they were excellent!  So anyway, Heimat was shown in cinemas, and people would go to watch a few instalments, then go back the next week for the next few films of film.  Rather wonderfully, I understand people started to recognise the regular viewers at the cinemas, and started meeting up with them before and after the screenings, having Heimat parties.  Why don't you have a Heimat party, dear viewer?

P.P.S. I first discovered Heimat by accident, when an erstwhile housemate of mine mentioned seeing it in a local shop, accidentally reduced from £39 to £3.99, and suggested that I go out and buy two copies, one for him and one for myself, before the shopkeepers realised their error.  It was an inauspicious start to a love affair.

The Heimat trilogy. Is there anything more alluring? No siree!

Friday, 16 August 2013

The Crow (1994)

Eric Draven (Brandon Lee †) rocks out on a rooftop, because he can.
So, some guy called Eric rises from the grave on the anniversary of his death to wreak a bloody revenge on his fiancée's murderers.  On the basis of that pitch I was wary of the film, expecting it to be distressingly horrific and charmlessly dour.  As it transpired I was quite mistaken: 'The Crow' turned out to be excellently enjoyable, with a genuine wit, warmth and lightness of touch.  The heroes are extremely likeable, enviably cool, and share a friendship that's appealing to watch.

The villains, on the other hand, are outlandishly despicable, and seem to constantly invite their own destruction.  Not in the ridiculous and pantomimesque way we saw in last week's 'Battlefield Earth' (2000), but through a habitual disdain for everyone not in their gang, almost a violent snobbery, expressed through exploitation and extreme physical abuse.  The villains are cool too but, unlike in the later 'Battlefield Earth', never threaten to eclipse the Heroes.  Indeed, if I've one criticism of 'The Crow' (which, as you may note, I'm rather taken with), it's that the gang of villains are on the back foot from the start.  The format of the film is invulnerable Eric Draven busting their asses, which means that, though the baddies present a substantial threat to society, there's really no prospect of our hero losing.  The villains are doomed.

Sarah (Rochelle Davis) and Sergeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson)
Eric's friends and allies, down at the hot-dog stand. 
It's a visually striking film, and had as significant an effect on the fashions of the alternative and gothic scenes as did 'The Matrix' half a decade later.  The film has the flavour of Batman noir, a tone at which early-nineties cinema excelled.  Watching this, I also realised where the 'Doctor Who' TV movie two years later stole all its most memorable shots and images.

It was a particular delight watching this film so soon after the aforementioned 'Battlefield Earth', that superficially exciting plodder in which no two elements complemented one another, as it showed up this film's wonderful consistency.  Here the sound and picture, dialogue and story, mythology and character all work together to make something that's amply enjoyable to sit down and watch for a couple of hours.  I'm rather surprised it took quite so many years for this film to be set before me, and I'll be glad to see it again.

Myca (Bai Ling) enjoys gouging out eyes.  She's a villain, by the way
P.S. I'm aware that almost any film would probably delight me after 'Battlefield Earth' (2000).  Even if I'd watched 'Doctor Zhivago' (1965) straight afterwards (to pick a well-made film that I nonetheless don't enjoy at all), I'd probably have come away saying it was great fun and sparkling with wonder.  Nonetheless, I found 'The Crow' to have many merits.

Hey look, optical media!

Monday, 12 August 2013

Battlefield Earth (2000)

Forest Whitaker and John Travolta as the campy villains.
The whole film is shot at these outlandish angles.  It sort-of works.
So many words of scorn have already been poured upon 'Battlefield Earth' that I shall keep my comments short.  This is an adaptation of the first half of a novel by L Ron Hubbard, the sci-fi author who went on to invent Scientology, perhaps the most easily derided of the Western religions.  His 'L' stands for 'lasers', by the way.  Like 'Xanadu' (1980), this motion-picture has merited a place on Wikipedia's 'List of films considered the worst', and while it's easier to sit through it than through many films which are technically or artistically better, there are stretches of 'Battlefield Earth' - exciting and colourful stretches - where boredom somehow sets in, where the fizzy adventuring fails to stimulate, the epic conflict elicits too late interest, and one wonders how soon the film might end.

By accident or design this failed blockbuster resembles obscure B-movie 'America 3000' (1986); each depicts an apocalyptically dusty America in the year 3,000, in which hairy men are oppressed, but find, though education, the key to revolution.  Incredibly, women get the better role in the earlier film, in which they're horrible jerks who ought never to have gained power, rather than here where they're almost wholly absent, except in a brief cameo as a possible bearer of the hero's child.  Not for them the guns, the adventuring or the declaration of independence.

An outrageous transition from one scene to the next.  There's a lot of these.
The former film had a humility of sorts: despite its flaws it knew it was ridiculous.  John Travolta, star and producer of 'Battlefield Earth', however, seems to have believed utterly in the merits of his film and its capacity to dazzle and impress its audience, and to attract them in the first place.  In interviews he compared it favourably to 'Star Wars' (1977) and 'Planet of the Apes' (1968), which is always a mistake.  He, or rather director Roger Christian under his enthusiastic tutelage, found ways to give these classics visual tributes in the new film, borrowing from the Apes the image of our hero in prison being sprayed with a hosepipe - which isn't especially striking here - and from 'Star Wars' the absurd, curtain-like wipes which mark the transition from one scene to the next.  These were a curious novelty in 1977, but an unwelcome and unbeautiful distraction in the year 2000.  Like 'Space Camp' (1986), 'Battlefield Earth' does itself a disservice by reminding its audience about 'Star Wars' every few minutes, emphasising the gulf in merit between the one sci-fi and the other.

The film isn't without merit, but I found no good reason to care for the heroes, or for the future of humanity, that male and American race.  John Travolta and Forest Whitaker, as the very villainous aliens, are highly watchable but too ridiculous to seem legitimately threatening.  The film might have made a fun and visually innovative half-hour of television if all the scenes with humans in were removed - but it seems rather extreme to wish such a fate on any movie.

Why would you even want to watch it after my comments?  Because it sounds 'so-bad-it's-good'?  Oh, ok.  Enjoy yourselves how you will, but you might get more out of 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988).

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917)

Magee (George M. Cohan) ponders his endeavour with a cigarette
'Seven Keys to Baldpate' was my choice of film for 1917 because I liked the title.  Nothing else really leapt out about the year, perhaps because the major film-making nations were busy warring at the time, and I stumbled on this enjoyable little thriller.  It stars George M. Cohan, an actor famed for his penning of morale-boosting songs including 'You're a Grand Old Flag' and the tune from the Go Compare adverts.  His legacy is with us yet!

The film has a rather wonderful premise.  Cohan's character is a novelist famed for his schlocky melodramas, and a newspaper derides him for writing such popular tosh.  He claims he could write a high-brow novel in under 24 hours, and is held to his claim in the form of a $5000 dollar bet, which in those days was lots of money.  He has until the following midnight to come up with an idea for a novel and write it in its entirety.  Needing seclusion for this task, he hurries to the Baldpate Inn for some utter peace and quiet, believing he holds the only key.  As the title may suggest, the film then heads in a direction utterly different to that of 'The Shining' (1980)

Naturally complications ensue, and a disappointingly small amount of the film is given over to Magee actually trying to write a book.  The duplication of keys means he finds himself repeatedly interrupted, both by people who know he's there and wish to see him, and by a gang of crooks who mean to use the generally empty inn as a stash in a plot to bribe the mayor.   After the first few intrusions Magee is prompted to exclaim that 'there are more keys to this blooming flat than in a Steinway piano'.  It's a line that would play just as well today, were the quaint 'blooming' replaced with something earthier.  It's a witty script, with much of the dialogue left to the imagination, but with the most important and most quotable bits presented as italic intertitles.  A favourite was a warning to Magee as he approached the inn: 'The hermit's hut!  His wife ran away with a travelling man and it made him a woman hater.  He often plays GHOST to frighten us natives hereabouts.'  Have you ever read such a promise of later-in-the-film antics?

The rude review that prompts the film's action
Except for all the white makeup and the lack of sound, the film looks a lot like the low-budget, studio-bound TV shows of the forties and fifties.  The film-grammar is all there at last, and the establishing shots and close-ups come where and when you might expect and want them.  It's far more intimate than last week's 1910s movie 'Cabiria' (1914) - indeed I think 'Seven Keys to Baldpate' is much helped by the fact it isn't an epic, if that isn't an absurd thing to say.  Grand films on great scales may sell more tickets, but this tiny tale lets us see faces, not crowds, so it's far easier to care about the central character.  We can see him think, and his dialogue can reveal quirky character, rather than relentlessly driving plot and history.  Cohan has an excellent way of looking simultaneously aghast at some new development, and slightly miffed to be interrupted from his work.

I love the concept of the film, and I'm not at all surprised to read that it was also made into a film in 1916, 1925, 1929, 1935, 1947 and 1983.  There's always a pleasure to watching a characterful fellow throw himself into a near-impossible task for a bet, especially when the unexpected and unlikely promise to loom against him.  The film is a celebration of the bizarre melodrama Magee is supposed to be avoiding, and it soon becomes apparent that if he can survive the night he won't care whether the bet is won or lost, since his adventures make such a good story.

P.S. The 1983 version was filmed as 'House of Long Shadows', and starred Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine, which is such a ridiculously fine cast of horror actors that I may need to give the film my attention.

The whole film is on Youtube here, but it's utterly silent, so you might want to decide on something to hum over it, ideally something lasting an hour and five minutes.

Empire Records (1995)

A haircutting scene!  All is not well.
So it's the middle of the nineties.  I've heard a few people opining recently that the nineties isn't enough of an era, in as much as one can't really dress nineties in the same way one can dress sixties, seventies or eighties and clearly belong in that one decade - but I'd venture that this film does indeed look identifiably nineties.  For one thing, characters have magnificent nineties hairdos of the style I envied at the time and envy still.  For another, it's set in a music store where people actually buy music on CDs, and this is counted as cool.  That era is now closed.

This is a film about some cool young people who work in the music store - and yes, as in 'Brick' (2005) I've found myself describing the cast of a film as 'young people' and realise I no longer count myself as youthful.  They're not cool cool, as their lives are troubled and complicated and their music, fashion and lifestyle choices tend to be a couple of steps toward the idiosyncratic, but I found them to be a stylish and enviable bunch.  They love their job, whether it's good for them or not, and they enjoy one another most of the time.  It's a film about what happens to people before an after the highpoint of life we know as 'being in a band', and it looks like a fine time, though I found myself at the end worrying for their continuing prospects.  They can't all wind up owning their own music store.

The store is visited by Rex Manning, that sexy, churlish Elvis Shatner of a man
It's a well-cast film, and two of its stars, Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler, went on to prosper as an actor and an elf respectively.  I tend to do an embarrassingly poor job of recognising actresses, as they're prone to more variety in hair and makeup than their male equivalents so often appear unrecognisable, but these two are unmistakable and show the promise of their later careers.  I was surprised not to have seen any of the rest of the film's cast in other works, and particularly enjoyed Anthony LaPaglia as the store's excellently patient manager, and Rory Cochrane who managed to come across as both socially incapable and excellent company.

I feel I've come away with remarkably little to say about this film.  It's so much easier when a film is technically innovative or very terrible, but this is certainly neither.  There's only so far one can spin out 'this was good and I liked it', but this is and I did.

We may be in the twilight of the age of the compact disc, but here's a DVD for format nostalgists

Monday, 5 August 2013

Cabiria (1914)

The giant statue of Moloch consumes another victim!
'Cabiria' was the first truly epic film - and I do like an epic.  It's a story of melodrama, adventure and rescue set during the second Punic War - which is to say Phoenicans, Carthaginians and Romans in the minus-second Century, with Hannibal and his elephants.  The film plays out on huge sets with a real sense of depth, and tells a story tremendous scope, with crowds engulfed in convincingly hot smoke as they flee the flaming mount Etna.   For the 1910s, it's quite a thing.  It's strange to think that people almost a hundred years ago were making movies at all, let alone movies as grand and impressive as this.

To begin with, the pictures, sets and framing reminded me of the yet earlier 'La Vie et La Passion de Jesus Christ' (1903), but this is an even more ambitious picture, less reliant on an audience's knowledge of the story being told.  Unfortunately it gets around this unfamiliarity by asking the audience to read what's happening rather than watching it, with paragraph-long intertitles of an occasionally poetic character.  Still, in terms of telling its tale clearly and presenting attractive pictures, this eclipses the other 1910s films I've seen and wouldn't seem too shabby in the mid-'20s.  It leaves 1915's 'Birth of a Nation' looking crude and ugly, a reminder that America was still a decade or two away from being coolest country.

Thanks intertitles.  Thintertitles.
Being a decade ahead of your time is quite impressive in early cinema. The only things I'd really complain about are the length (though it is an epic), the amount of off-screen politics we're expected to follow, and the dearth of mid-shots and close-ups, though of course those hadn't really been invented yet.  Watching this left me appreciating the facial closeup far more than I have before.  Without it, the main characters all seem a little too distant, like members of the crowd. Without an audible voice an actor really needs their facial expressions visible if they're to present any emotion beyond flailing-armed distress.  Still, considering how much I found to bemoan and condemn in 'Birth of a Nation' or the 1917 '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', this really is the great triumph of the decade.

You can see the whole thing on Youtube if you fancy.  It's like looking back in time: everyone involved is surely dead.