Saturday, 27 June 2015

'Die Andere Heimat', or 'Home from Home' (2013)

Before I get to ‘Die Andere Heimat’, let me tell you a little about the Heimat trilogy.  ‘Heimat’ (1984), is either a film, or a series of films, or a TV series shown in cinemas.  It was followed by ‘Die Zweite Heimat’ (1993), and the more-boringly-named ‘Heimat 3’ (2004).  Between them, they make up an epic of Biblical proportions - and I’m not just flinging that around as a cliché: one of my favourite things about the Heimat series, and about the Old Testament (in particular the Pentateuch and the books of Samuel and Kings) is the way they take their time to tell a very long story, spanning generations; by necessity full of gaps, but peppered with great details, character sketches, and sudden moments of focus on things that are either significant or charmingly domestic.  In each case, it suggests that the whole of history is one long story, and helps us see how intimately the present day is linked to the beginning of humanity.  I really like stories, and I especially like these great hunks of story, into which all others fit.

‘Heimat’ tells the story of the small German village of Schabbach, out in a neglected corner of Germany where the people talk like farmers, from 1919 to 1982 - in particular, we focus on the family of Paul and Maria Simon.  Paul Simon (pronounced ‘Powell Semen’) walks out of the village, and out of the movie, at the end of the first couple-of-hour instalment, leaving Maria to take the focus and raise the next generation.  As per the Books of Kings, time passes, the new generation gradually take the focus, and by the end of 15 hours real-time and 60 years of story, everyone we were watching at the start is dead.

‘Die Zweite Heimat’ (sort-of meaning ‘the second home’, or ‘the second homeland’) focuses on my favourite character from the series, or from anything, Hermann Simon, a sexually precocious child who leaves to study music composition in Munich - and Clarissa Lichtblau, a cellist whose celling goes awry.  The 26 hours of this second Heimat take us from 1960 to 1970 - a fascinating decade in Germany, and everywhere.  Watching it was the only time I’d ever really believed that the sixties were a real era from the world I live in, rather than being a weird fantasy genre like Sci-Fi or Western.  ‘Heimat 3’ is a more concise, at eleven hours, and tells the story of Hermann and Clarissa’s return to Schabbach, and fills in the gap from the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, up to the year 2000.  It brings in a lot of characters who were present in the first first but absent from the second, and most of them die, so much time having passed.

Brazil: a popular part of the Americas, if you're a 19th Century Prussian
For a long time, that seemed to be it.  A strong trilogy, spanning 81 years in what felt like real-time, but actually only lasting as long as the James Bond canon (including the first CR and NSNA).  In 2011, writer-director Edgar Reitz made a surprising announcement - there was going to be one more instalment, ‘Die Andere Heimat’, or ‘The Other Heimat/Home’ (though it was actually released over here as ‘Home from Home’, a reasonable title, but one that annoyingly breaks the pattern of the series).  This new film is a prequel, regarding ancestors of the Simon family in 1840s Schabbach, and deciding whether or not to leave frosty Prussia for the verdant warmth of South America.

How does it differ from the earlier films?  What makes this a film for the 2010s?  Well, we're in very wide widescreen, at last - I realise that's a 1953 innovation, but it's clear that this is a wholly-cinematic piece, not a TV-cinema hybrid like those earlier works.  Its much shorter duration (225 minutes) might represent modern tastes and attention-spans, or might just tell us that the director is near retirement, and the funding for sober dramas is hard to come by.  There's a rather more active camera, at one point following a full-pelt run through the village, and showing off the full run of 19th century building facades.

There's also a rather different use of colour to the earlier films.  The original 'Heimat' was made in black and white and colour (and on a variety of film-stocks, but this fact is slightly less obvious on the small-screen).  It starts off almost entirely monochrome, with colour shots used very rarely to highlight emotions, ideas or temperatures.  As the years go on, there's more and more colour (with the big switch to almost-all-in-colour coming at the the switch-on of West German colour TV in 1967), and this carries on until the end of 'Heimat 3', which is almost entirely colour.  'Die Zweite Heimat', coming in-between, uses it differently, giving us Munich's daytime in monochrome, and night-life in colour, to show the difference between the two worlds.  'Die Andere Heimat', set in history, is overwhelmingly monochrome, but very occasionally introduces a colour element into an otherwise black-and-white scene - a searing-hot horse-shoe, a green skirt during a discussion of colour language, or the great comet of 1844, for example.  It's something that was tried very briefly in the earlier films -a shot of colour sausages in a monochrome window in 1963, for example.  It fits in nicely, and makes good use of modern technology, but to anyone unschooled in Heimat it must seem an odd novelty.

Johann Simon (Rüdiger Kriese) and a splash of colour.
After all my feverish anticipation I’m afraid I’m a little disappointed with 'Die Andere Heimat'.  It’s good, but ‘Heimat’ was great.  If you've heard any publicity for it, you'll know it's about Jakob Simon deciding whether he wants to emigrate - but he seems to spend ages on the decision, getting into various scrapes along the way, and in the end we haven't learned a lot that couldn't be picked up from the trailer.  I wanted more.  I wanted bigger.  There’s a lot to recommend it - it’s engrossing, it's attractive to look at, it's educational, giving a convincing picture of a place, an era, and the people who lived there; the funeral for babies is as memorable as the original Heimat's funeral for Maria in the storm, so there are still some striking images.  It all just feels so short.  I realise three-and-three-quarter hours doesn't sound short, but compared to the earlier Heimats, this feels like a flash in the pan, like a first episode of something longer.  

Since starting this blog, I've watched a whole lot of films to represent the past hundred years of cinema, and while there's been a lot to delight in, it's made me weary of movie-shaped movies, films with the clear, familiar structure.  You can do a lot in 90 or 120 minutes - just look at 'Man With a Movie Camera' (1929) or 'Thirty Two Short Films about Glen Gould' (1993), for instance, but most films feel like pretty short, pretty limited stories, and I've probably found the most pleasure in the films that have done something outside the usual pattern of the movie-shaped movie, or entertained and engaged me so intensely that I forgot to watch analytically.  Now, 'Heimat' has always been a triumph of long-form story-telling, but 'Die Andere Heimat' feels more like a movie movie, a normal movie, than a Heimat movie.  At the end, it all felt a little insubstantial.  What happens next week?  Heck, what happened in Schabbach between 1844 and 1919?  It's a big old gap, and (alas) I'm not sure Heimat fan-fiction exists - at least, not in English.

(Perhaps I'm being a little harsh on films in the above paragraph, but compared to the great long-form storytelling of the modern TV serial - 'Orange is the New Black', 'The Killing' or 'Daredevil', for instance, which do so much with their characters and scenarios, movies seem very light sketches of their subjects.  A season of OitNB isn't a bad comparison to 1993's 'Die Zweite Heimat', as both are divided into 13 'episodes', each of which gives a good chunk of time to the main character - Piper and Hermann, respectively - while explicitly giving focus to a character-of-the-week, really mining into their character, situation and story.  They're both pretty intense in the drama stakes, though OitNB is more inclined to resolve to happy endings, while Heimat is bleaker, or more like real life, or more German, depending on your perspective.  They both suit binge-watching).

Margarethe (Marita Breuer) and Jakob (Jan Dieter Schneider)
Despite my complaints, I'm delighted by the existence of this new slice of time.  The whole of Heimat-dom is bigger and better for it, and when I'd finished it I really wanted to move on to the first episode of 'Heimat' proper (but I held back, as I know that's a slippery slope requiring a lot of hours and tears).  Marita Breuer, one of Germany's best method-actors, is the real star of both films - Maria in the 1984 original, and Margarethe here.  She's a great performer, and it's a real pity she's not known in the UK, and I'd happily go out of my way to watch her in anything you care to recommend.  The village, the family, and even the technology at the forge (which I thought of as crude in 1919, but can now see as rather ingenious) are all enriched by the extra context.  Go back another hundred years, and you'll notice all the things that aren't there, and that you took for granted.  It's this richness and detail and depth -- Heimat isn't like movies, it's like life.

P.S. If the 'Heimat' formula of something that's kind-of a movie and kind-of in episodes sounds odd, compare it to 'Die Nibelungen' (1924), a 5-hour movie designed to be watched in two parts on consecutive days, or 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945), a movie and its sequel, designed to be shown as a double-bill because it was briefly illegal to make films longer than 90 minutes, and this was the only way to tell the whole story.  Or 'Das Boot' (1981), which was made for German TV as a six-parter, and simultaneously prepared for abridged international cinema release, and is now mainly thought of as a movie.  Did I watch those films just so I could compare them to 'Heimat'?  Maybe, but they were astonishing in all the good ways.

P.P.S. I’ve been waiting very excitedly for this film to be released, and then be released with English subtitles, for as long as this blog has existed (which is to say, since the end of 2012).  This was always meant to be the 2013 movie, but it’s taken until now for it to come out on DVD and blu-ray.  Finally, the Penciltonian’s original intentions have been met.  It’s been a lively ride.  Good work, readers!

DVDs of Heimat, Die Zweite Heimat (and soundtrack),
Heimat 3, Heimat: Die Fragmente, Home from Home.

A few fannish, spoilery thoughts, of interest to Heimat devotees:

I think the Simon family tree now goes something like this (with a lot of guesswork on dates, and things I'll need to check on rewatch):

Großmutter Mathilde begat Johann Simon (or possible Margarethe?)

Johann and Margarethe Simon (born 1785-1790ish) begat three children who didn't live to adulthood, plus Gustav (in 1824) and Jakob (in 1826)

Gustav Simon married Henriette (whose name I may have noted down incorrectly, as I can't find her in the cast-list) and they begat Mathilde (in 1843) and Jacobine (1844), the latter of whom may be the ancestor of the South American Simons who come to celebrate Paul's big birthday in part ten or eleven of the original 'Heimat'.

Jakob married Florinchen Niem, and must have begotten some children, probably starting around 1845-1850.  Original film grand-patriarch Matthias Simon was born in 1872, so the dates work out well for him to be their grandson.  It's hard to imagine a time when he wasn't ancient.  I've always rather ignored him as a character, assuming the laters Simons inherited their merits from Maria and Katharina, admirable women both - but knowing he's a descendant of wide-eyed Jakob makes me want to reconsider him.  It's a pity we never get to see him in his prime.

In short, the male line runs Johann, Jakob, mystery person, Matthias, Paul, and the trio of Anton/Ernst/Hermann (kind-of).  Looking at those who became Simons by marriage, and so took charge of the Simon house, it runs Mathilde, Margarethe, Florinchen Niem, ???, Katharina Schirmer, Maria Weigand, and then it was boarded up, and for the life of me, I can't think what becomes of the house after Paul puts his commemorative plaque on it at the start of the 1980s.

I will need to re-watch the film to be clear about a few characters.  There's one who might be Jakob's sister, though I was a bit confused on that point.  I assume (based on casting) that she or Jakob begat a daughter who married a son of the Pastor we see in this film, Dorfpfarrer Wiegand, as he is presumably the grandfather of Maria's dad Alois Weigand (1870-1965).

Anyway, I'd be very glad of any advice or corrections on sorting all this out.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Adventures of Food Boy (2008)

Yesterday, my bandmate Pez urged me to look out ‘The Adventures of Food Boy’ on Netflix.  I can’t remember quite why the recommendation was made, but the concept entranced me: a boy suddenly learns that his family has the magical power to produce food from their hands.  What sold me on the film was a description of a scene when, attempting to run for ‘class president’ (which is a thing, in America), young Ezra Chase (for that is his name) accidentally shoots hams out of his hands.  Hams which strike his hated rival in the face.  Hams.

I spent a few hours mulling over this concept.  The idea was intriguing: food from nothing, hams from hands.  Spontaneous food-production is a fantastic notion.  You’d never go hungry again.  Heck, you’d never need to go food-shopping again.  Assuming a £20 weekly food shop, you’d be running on a saving of a thousand pounds a year, and you’d be a position to hand similar savings to everybody around you.  Engaged by a homeless person?  Ham ‘em!  Cold, cold Winter?  There must be some flammable foods you could produce and burn.  Oatmeal, perhaps, or bread?

The prospect was incredible.  You could wring a great drama out of it.  Or would this be another ‘Bernard’s Watch’ (CITV, 1997-2005), something far more satisfying in the imagination than on the screen?  Inevitably, the reality was disappointing.  Or, it was as expected; I knew from the off, this would not be beautiful art.  A star-and-a-half rating on Netflix, and the recommendation I received yesterday was more along the lines of a damning indictment.  The luscious hams I’d imagined were not great hunks of meat, they were wafer-thin processed stuff.  Hanky-meats.

Food Boy cowers in bread.
Ezra seems to find very little joy in his magical powers.  Unpredictable mustard ejection isn’t really his bag.  He has a dream, a slightly boring dream, of getting into an Ivy League university.  Do teens really get excited about that sort of thing?  Specifically, cool movie protagonists, and the sort of kid who would choose to watch a film called ‘The Adventures of Food Boy’.  Also: there are no adventures in this film.  He goes to school; he wants a career; he plays a little golf and wants to work on Wall Street.  There’s a jape, a scrape, even an antic, but no adventures.  This is no Buckaroo Banzai, no Priscilla, neither Rocky nor Bullwinkle.

How is it as a film?  Well, it’s clearly working to a tight budget.  They’ve hired a school and got a good number of extras, but there’s precious little left for the special effects.  The conjuring catering, which ought to be a visual feast, is weakly.  You can make a lot of magic with a little imagination and a good grasp of editing, as we saw in 'Orphée' (1950), but almost every apparition in this film is done the same way, with drainpipes in the sleeves.  It’s easy to guess, and it wouldn’t wow a toddler.

The movie as it appears on Netflix is in tall-screen, and seems to have been framed with this in mind - a strange rarity in the late noughties, when even made-for-TV and straight-to-video had gone widescreen.  (I have since found a widescreen version on Youtube while gathering screen-caps, but a lot of the shots seem to have been planned for 4:3).  The film is occasionally loud (with a musical score that belongs in a cooler film) and colourful - Ezra’s friends by-and-large fail to distinguish themselves, but they each have their own colour, and dress in a range of outfits around that simple theme.

Sandwich cutaway!
The other place that colour comes to the fore is in the movie’s real highlight - the highly stylised, very low budget flashbacks to famous food-wizards like the Earl of Sandwich.  These are played out on a very small stage, perfectly fitted to the film’s aspect ratio, and with all the set details painted on flat wood or cardboard.  It’s something you rarely see outside of 20s German expressionism or The Tent Stop of ‘Playdays’ (CBBC, 1988-1995).  These strangely-acted interludes really made the film, for me.

It’s not a wonderful movie, but after the dreary opening 22 minutes (which contain no food magic, and no hints that food magic will appear) it was sufficiently engaging to keep me going for the full 90.  Despite the food theme, don’t be tempted to watch it while dining, as there are a few instances of vomiting, pseudo-vomiting, and other culinary vulgarity.

P.S. The film has a strong moral which we hear articulated several times.  I like films with morals because their existence means the world will get better and we'll all be okay.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Cissie Colpitts 2, Cissie Colpitts 1 and Cissie Colpitts 3
Peter Greenaway films always make me want to make movies.  I’ve watched a few of his films for The Penciltonian - ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’ (1989), and ‘The Baby of Macon’ (1993, but I didn’t write it up because it was too horrible), and they always fascinate me.  He was trained as a painter, and came to cinema as a visual medium (which is what it is); he’s dismayed (or so he tells us in every interview) that most films are illustrated versions of novels, presenting pre-existing prose stories, rather than making more original use of cinema’s potential.

‘Drowning by Numbers’ is a film about drowning and counting.  It regards three women, all named Cissie Colpitts, who realise they can drown their husbands and get away with it by asking the local coroner nicely.  He’s a friend of the family, and he’s in love with them all.  These are not the only Cissie Colpittses in the Greenaway canon - there are three more in ‘The Falls’ (1980), and one in the three volumes of ‘Tulse Luper Suitcases’ (2003-2004).  No relation.  Anyway, as it transpires, it’s quite easy to drown people if you don’t have a particularly good motivation to do so, as the victim doesn’t see it coming.

Cissie Colpitts (Joely Richardson), and Bellamy (David Morrisey)
The film opens with an unnamed child, a real Bonnie Langford type, wearing a flouncy dress, and skipping with a rope; with each skip, she gives a number, and names one of the stars in the sky.  We see and hear her render one hundred of them.  It's quite a long, methodical way to start a film.  The numbers appear again throughout the film, starting with a ’1’ in the next scene, right up to a ‘100’ in the final shot, often written on walls or signs or bees.  It’s a pattern to follow, a game in a film about games.  'Drowning by Numbers’ is an art film.

It’s a film you’d watch for the ideas, not for the emotion.  The actors are excellent (and rightly famous), the characters are engaging, and the dialogue is interesting and amusing, but the film is so deliberately odd, so overtly theme-led as to throw up a verfremdungseffekt, deliberately alienating the viewers.  The piece, the staging, the lighting and the plot are beautiful, but obviously artificial.  Characters’ particular obsessions pepper their dialogue very heavily, and everything comes back to water, and to counting.

Bees 45 and 46
I’ve heard it said that Peter Greenaway only has one film, which he keeps making again and again.  I’m not sure if I quite agree, but it has the ring of truth.  Since 1981, their plots have generally been very close - an artist, a cook, an architect, or on this occasion a coroner, sets himself a task, probably something which will set up a lasting legacy, which may involve sex as a perk, or payment.  There’s a big bed that serves as a stage, there’s a big meal, there’s a big conspiracy with all the subtlety of Hamlet’s players; and then there’s more sex, which is generally sad or awkward, never sexy.  And in the end our hero dies, and/or has their eyes put out.  But his films aren’t really about plot, they’re about lighting, colour, themes, patterns and decay.

If the films are all similar, then what makes this one stand out?  That’s a tricky question.  It might have the best roles for women.  As above, there’s normally a male protagonist at the core of the film.  There is here, too, but his story is very much secondary to that of the three Colpittses - Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson are each excellent as Cissie, and it’s those characters who make the decisions that drive the story (though it seems certain choices run in the family).  They're almost the only characters to have forenames.  What else is different about this film?  I’d suggest the thing with the numbers, except that ‘Tulse Luper Suitcases’ does something a little similar; or the great quantity of dead animals on screen, except that ‘A Zed & Two Noughts’ (1985) trumps all over that record.  The South Coast scenery, perhaps, and the particularly misty feel of the air.  I think ‘Drowning by Numbers’ is more overt about its artificiality than any of Greenaway’s classic works, though it has some stiff competition.

Cissie Colpitts (Joan Plowright) and Madgett (Bernard Hill)
It’s not my favourite of his films.  That honour goes either to ‘The Falls’ or ‘The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover’, but I’ve probably over-watched those two.  I’ve been really looking forward to seeing this one again.  Like ‘A Zed and Two Noughts’, it’s really enhanced by its new blu-ray release.  Normally I don’t care about the novelty of high-definition, but Michael Nyman’s music - always a star in its own right - sounds much richer when it’s less compressed, and the DVD release of this film was a particularly awful transfer.  The film is much clearer, now.  When someone puts this much attention into framing, lighting and cinematography, it’s good to be able to watch it as they intended.

P.S. 1988 was an exciting year for films.  This is the year that gave us The Last Temptation of Christ, A Short Film About Killing, Akira, Die Hard, Drowning by Numbers and My Neighbour Totoro.  Since it was also the year of 'First We take Manhattan', 'The Satanic Verses' and 'Remembrance of the Daleks', I'd be happy to see another 1988, at least in the arts.