Wednesday, 30 March 2011

AFED #88: Behind the Headlines (UK 1956); Dir. Charles Saunders

I'm going to have to be quick because this one was so forgettable I'm afraid it might slip from the memory entirely.

Behind the Headlines is a short (just 65 minutes) second feature that was presumably produced as a 'quota quickie'; low-budget British films made under the edict of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act with the intention of stimulating the indigenous industry. Between 1930 and 1960 (when the Act was repealed) thousands of quickies were made, mostly deemed to be of lamentable quality.

Personally I think there are some real gems amongst them and hopefully I'll be able to look at some more in the coming weeks and months. In fact Behind the Headlines is by no means a bad example and certainly benefits from higher production values than were typical, but there's nothing remarkable either.

It starts promisingly; a platinum blonde bombshell takes a phone call at her flat from somebody she's apparently blackmailing and shortly after is murdered by persons unknown. The story moves forward to a few hours later and in a pub opposite the murder scene a gaggle of Fleet Street hacks have assembled awaiting a police briefing.

Foremost amongst these is Paul Banner (Paul Carpenter), an ex reporter turned press agent who sets about getting the inside info on the murder and scooping not only the other hacks but the police too. He's abetted by Pam - a young Adrienne Cori, sounding very prim and looking not unattractive - who seems more interested in Paul than the investigating the murder.

Events progress from pedestrian to plain ridiculous. In an absurd development it turns out the killer left a slip of paper at the crime scene containing a numerical code which when cracked helpfully reveals his name! Halfway through Banner's former fiancee Maxine (Hazel Court) appears and rather steals the attention away from Corri's character. At the denouement there's a standoff with the murderer that manages to be wholely bereft of tension.

With a light and flirtatious tone it felt strangely like a pilot for a television series, so perhaps there were plans for more of Paul Banner's adventures that mercifully never reached fruition. Canadian actor Paul Carpenter, who's career mainly comprised of supporting roles, is a perfectly competent leading man but was never likely to be a box office draw. Corri and Court, the rivals for his affections, would become better known for other roles in later years and there's also a nice turn from Alfie Bass as Paul's salt-of-the-earth assistant.

But an authentic portrayal of fifties journalism this film definitely isn't; in fact you wonder if the writers had any knowledge whatsoever of the trade and kind of people who work in it. One can be thankful that the ubiquity of clipped RADA accents found here would disappear as British cinema became a little earthier over the next decade. This was just dull though.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

AFED #87: The Gods Must Be Crazy (South Africa/Botswana, 1980); Dir. Jamie Uys

Speak, memory. Back in my last year of university, some thirteen years ago, I found myself spending a lot of time at the student union bar. They were pretty uneventful evenings, truth be told, and most of the time me and few of the other guys on my film studies course used to talk about nothing very much. Actually, they tended to do most the talking, for the main part I was content to listen.

But there used to be a few characters who frequented the place. One of them I particularly recall was an Irish mature student called Rob, who was doing an art degree. Being quite a bit older the guy had a certain swagger and confidence most of us gauche kids lacked (i.e. he'd actually had a life) as well as an occasionally excitable Celtic temperament. He irritated me early on by asking me where I came from - by which he meant ethnically - which, as a hangover of experiencing racism when I was younger was always a bit of a sore point. But he was basically a nice guy and I often wonder what became of him.

Anyway, one evening Rob was talking to us about films and he mentioned The Gods Must Be Crazy.

"It's a great film, you must have seen it, it's very famous."

The what? We looked at one another with quizzical expressions. Despite being supposedly knowledgeable film students we'd never heard of it. What on earth was the mad old git talking about? Rob proceeded to give us an account of the film, something about Africa and Coca Cola bottles, it all sounded a bit strange. That's to say the kind of thing I wanted to check out for myself.

Later I went home and consulted Halliwell's and a couple of my other film guides (this being virtually pre internet) but could find no reference to it. In fact it wasn't until a couple of years later that I finally verified the thing existed at all. Even then it seemed so elusive that I never managed to get hold of a copy and satisfy my curiosity. Until now, that is...

So just what is The Gods Must Be Crazy? Well, it's a knockabout comedy set in South Africa and Botswana that launched a series of films centred around Xi (N!xau), an endearing Sho bushman from the Kalahari desert.

It begins with a mondo style account, complete with voice over - of the bush people's lives and how they're able to survive in this inhospitable environment. The Sho, the film informs us, are completely ignorant of 'civilised' customs and live off the land in an idyllic existence free from such corrupt contrivances as greed or property.

Yet that begins to change when Xi discovers a Coke bottle that's been thrown from a passing airplane. Having never encountered glass before Xi takes it to be a gift from the gods and soon the people of his tribe are putting this remarkable object to a variety of uses.

But because it's so unique the bottle begins to inspire hitherto unknown vices such as jealousy and possessiveness. Dismayed, Xi concludes the bottle is evil and decides there's no alternative but to travel to the end of the world and throw the infernal item off the edge.

After this charming opening the film begins to become a lot more tangled with two more interrelated plot lines. First a band of guerrillas fail in their bid to assassinate the leader of a nearby African country and find themselves fleeing the authorities. We're then introduced to Andrew Steyn, a shy biologist living in outback who has to collect Kate, the attractive new teacher of the local village, in his dodgy Land Rover. There are an interminable series of mirthless slapstick escapades before they get there.

Gradually the elements coalesce and Andrew ends up rescuing Xi from imprisonment when he naively kills a herdsman's goat for food. At the climax the pair help foil the guerrillas when they kidnap Kate's class and Xi is finally able to dispose of the bottle and return home.

The Gods Must Be Crazy can be interpreted in several different ways, none of them strictly right or wrong. On the one hand it makes plenty of use of crude stereotypes: the noble savage with his childlike world view and the comically incompetent black militants. Both are facile and even in 1980 belonged to an earlier time.

Conversely one could say that the white characters don't fare that much better; yet while they're vain and conceited they are at least depicted as educated and articulate. Endemic prejudice remains the proverbial elephant and the makers knew they would be playing to mainly white audiences. Yes, the film may suggest that Xi and his people have the preferable life but in reality they envy our civilised culture as much as we do their 'simpler' one.

Beneath the corpulent excess there's a sweet fable and regardless of the patronising angle N!xau's guileless performance has genuine charm. Told properly this had the potential for an effective epic satire in the tradition of Candide, but it's no better than so so.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

AFED #86: Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (India/US, 2002); Dir. Aparna Sen

Although Bollywood cinema has risen in prominence in the west in recent years, the independent tradition, what's known as the Indian New Wave or Parallel Cinema, has a history that's nearly as long as its mainstream counterpart.

Its most famous exponent is of course Satyajit Ray, whose Apu Trilogy remains one of the great landmarks of world cinema. But the independent tradition of making films that don't shy away from contemporary concerns and divisive issues continues - despite some ups and downs - to the present day.

Released in 2002, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, is an example of the more recent trend towards films made in English, presumably with an eye towards the international market. This perhaps accounts for some of its mildly expository tendencies, but that doesn't detract from a touching and sensitively told melodrama.

A road movie of sorts, it's the story of Meenakshi Iyer, a young Indian mother travelling with her baby son back to the city after a trip to visit her parents, and Raju (Rahul Bose), a photographer taking the same trip who's been asked to keep an eye on her. When their journey is halted by a Hindu mob who've been rampaging through the area attacking Muslims, the pair are forced to pretend to be a married couple for fear that Raja, a Muslim, will die at their hands.

After seeking refuge at a nearby town while the curfew continues, circumstances contrive so that the 'couple' are forced to maintain the subterfuge. After some early misgivings borne of Meenakshi's devout Hindu beliefs, their relationship slowly grows midst the tense backdrop, until they're finally able to find a way back home.

It's a scenario straight out of the scriptwriter's handbook of course, and a not dissimilar plot was used in last year's Monsters. The crucial difference here being that the atrocities the characters are forced to confront here are firmly grounded in the sectarian troubles of contemporary India.

Writer/director Aparna Sen is clearly keen to make wider allusions to global terrorism and the horrors that result from ideological conflict; beginning with a montage of news reports including 9/11 (at the time of production still very recent). Yet it it's in her depiction of different facets of Indian society that she does her best work.

For the opening thirty minutes she simply focuses on the different characters on the bus: a group of excitable young students, a romantic young couple, a pair of Sikh gentlemen, a mother with a retarded son, a trio of boorish card playing characters and an ill-fated elderly Muslim couple. They're ostensibly a collection of stereotypes, but considering how little actually happens it's strangely compelling viewing and a little disappointing when these personalities slip into the background later on.

The budding romance between the two leads is inevitably thwarted by their personal circumstances and the gut-wrenching final parting at the train station is surely a deliberate nod to Brief Encounter. Of the two performances the pretty Konkona Sen Sharma (the director's real-life daughter) has the trickier role as the young woman forced to confront her own prejudices and she delivers with aplomb.

As a human drama it's engagingly told and although the broader political message may be rather heavy-handed most sensible people would surely concur with the sentiment.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

AFED #85: Potomok Chingis-khanа [The Heir to Genghis Khan, aka Storm Over Asia] (USSR, 1928); Dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin

Let's start with the facts: western imperialism may have been responsible for many injustices, but despite the scenario depicted here British (or 'European') colonialism in Asia never extended as far as Mongolia. While Vsevolod Pudovkin may have intended his story to be a fable one suspects this point might have been lost on a the Russian audience, although perhaps it was all grist to the mill for the communist cause as Stalin began to flex his muscles.

That aside, I'll have to confess my ignorance about the work of Pudovkin, who lives somewhat in the shadow of his contemporary Eisenstein, but also played an important role in expanding Soviet montage theory. This film, the final part of a loose trilogy of Bolshevik propaganda works that included Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927).

Compared with Eisenstein it's surprisingly western, in both the broader and thematic sense of the word, utilising the barren Mongolian tundra in a way John Ford would have admired. Bair (Valéry Inkijinoff), a Mongol herdsman, is tricked out of his rightful recompense for a beautiful fox pelt by dastardly fur traders and after a violent confrontation is forced to go on the run. After meeting up with some Soviet partisans he joins their guerrilla campaign against the British but gets captured.

The herdsman is led for execution but just as he's being shot the officers looking through his belongings discover a silk amulet that states he's a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Cynically one might suggest such claims were probably fairly common amongst Mongols, but the British decide he could be the ideal candidate to install as a puppet ruler and - having discovered him clinging to life after his shooting - set about patching him up.

However, for all the finery our hero is less than comfortable with his new role and when he witnesses a fellow Mongol shot dead before his eyes he turns with fury on his captors, triggering a somewhat bizarre fantasy ending as escapes and leads an uprising. This climax is so abrupt and curtailed you do wonder if Pudovkin had intended for there to be a third act, only to realise he'd already reached a running time in excess of two hours and deciding to call it a wrap.

It's certainly long enough and drags in places, particularly the first hour or so. But Valéry Inkijinoff (who would later emigrate to France and have a long career) is an attractive and charismatic lead; admittedly not difficult when his antagonists are such sneering stereotypes.

The film also benefits from some fascinating period detail about Mongol customs; such as the trip by the British commandant to a lamasery in Tomchinsk. Apparently, although there was some dissent amongst a faction of the Buddhist monks, Pudovkin's Mongolian advisor eventually convinced the Grand Lama to assist with the filming, and even managed to get the date changed of a religious ceremony to accommodate the production.

Friday, 25 March 2011

AFED #84: The Iron Giant (US, 1999); The Incredibles (US, 2004); Dir. Brad Bird

I'd originally intended for this to be a review solely of The Iron Giant but decided taking in The Incredibles as well would make for both an interesting comparison between traditional and computer animation, and also how director Brad Bird made a successful jump across to the newer format.

I'm highlighting Bird, because as the writer/director it's reasonable to consider him the guiding creative influence behind the two films, but it's notable that when he made the move from Warners to Pixar he took the Iron Giant's animation team with him. Inevitably a prolonged period of adapting to the new medium ensued, but the final result (The Incredibles) represented a visceral and stylistic leap forward in Pixar's house style after the more sedate Toy Story franchise, et al.

Given that it's been sitting amongst my dvd collection unwatched for a few years now, I'd not appreciated The Iron Giant was released as far back as 1999 and that Ted Hughes, whose celebrated children's tale The Iron Man it loosely adapts, had served as a creative consultant. Relocating the story to late fifties America, it wisely dispenses with the original's outlandish 'space dragon' chapter and focuses on the relationship between the robot and the boy, Hogarth (here christened Hogarth Hughes) in a story that's ostensibly a homage to Cold War sci-fi, with a big dollop of E.T. thrown in for good measure.

Hogarth is a lonely boy who lives with his single mother Annie (Jennifer Anniston) in the small town Rockwell (presumably a nod to Roswell) on the Maine coast. One night he discovers a giant robot trying the devour the local power station. The pair strike up a friendship and Hogarth sets about educating the child-like giant in the ways of the world.

He finds an accomplice in in beatnik artist (and scrapyard owner) Dean (smoothly voiced by Harry Connick Jr), who helps with satiating the giant's desire for metal. But meanwhile villainous government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) is hot on the trail of sightings of a monster. When he finally extracts the evidence he needs Kent calls in the army, but it turns out the when antagonised the giant isn't always so benevolent.

It's a perfectly judged little story, with a poignant ending that milks sentimentality, but not excessively so. Yet what really distinguishes the film is the obvious affection for the period and wealth of incidental details. At school Hogarth's class watches a public information film about what to do in the event of a nuclear strike (shelter under the table and you'll miraculously survive getting atomised), while on tv he sees a film that looks like homage to Fiend Without a Face. Even the animation is evocative of an earlier time.

Many of those observations might equally apply to The Incredibles. Although it's far grander in scope and ambition, Bird's superhero comedy is almost of game of spotting the various references; the most obvious influences are the Fantastic Four, Watchmen and the Bond series but at one point he even throws in a nod to Battleship Potemkin!

As somebody who hasn't watched many CG animations (I'll try and fit in one or two more Pixars before the year's end) it's fascinating to watch how the challenge of three-dimensional rendering is negotiated. I still incline to the view that the rendering of characters is at times rather 'blocky', as though they've been assembled from shapes, and there's a really cringeworthy moment late on when one of the characters descends some stairs that illustrates just how difficult it remains to capture human movement.

But animation is such a kenetic medium that the flaws are easily overlooked and they've always been part of the charm. Where The Incredibles really distinguishes itself is the scope and ambition of the production; this is a big, brash blockbuster (a $90m budget, no less) that just happens to have been animated.

Pixar had already developed an appreciation that you can mix broader comedy with more sophisticated wit, but Bird's script takes it that step further. There's such a wealth of cute lines here that it would be impossible to catch them all on a single viewing; home video is certainly a blessing in that regard. Bird has commented that the story was inspired by his own travails in adapting to parenthood and the way that wizened cynicism gradually yields to pure fun and adventure would appear to mirror that catharsis.

Ultimately though I return to the details and references for the source of the film's pleasures. From the opening 'footage' of a young Mr Incredible being interviewed through to the appearance of the Underminer (if you know the Fantastic Four then you'll get it) then it's a great ride.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

AFED #81: Wavelength (Canada/US, 1967); Dir. Michael Snow

What I find fascinating about avant-garde cinema is how angrily some people react to it. I was reading a few of the comments to a ten-minute extract of Wavelength posted on Youtube and they often say more about the person responding than the film itself.

"What a weird piece of shit."

"If this film were a race, I'd support it's genocide."

"I'm all for the art of cinema...but it has to have a point!"

Let's pick up on the last one, because although Wavelength may not possess a plot per se it clearly has a point, which is to draw attention to the film-making process in itself and our preconceptions of what cinema is or should be. We're so conditioned to audio visual experiences that are narratively driven that many of us don't pick up on the devices through which this effect is achieved.

Wavelength isolates one of these in particular, the camera zoom, and compels the viewer to relentlessly focus upon it. Inexorably, over 45 minutes, the camera closes in from the view of a drab apartment to a picture of some waves mounted on the wall.

At first it's accompanied by background noise from the street outside but this is supplanted by a drone that gradually increases in pitch. There are other tricks, such inverting the image to a negative, and the double and overexposure of the film creates a hallucinogenic effect that leads the viewer to question their perceptions and draws them into a highly subjective experience.

There are four brief 'human' episodes. At the beginning a piece of furniture is carried into the apartment and left. Shortly after two women sit and listen to 'Strawberry Fields Forever' playing on the radio. Several minutes later after some banging and commotion a man stumbles into the shot and collapses, dead. Finally, a woman makes a telephone call to report discovering the corpse. All the time the camera continues its zoom.

One can hardly 'watch' the film in any conventional sense since so little actually happens. Rather Wavelength is creating a space and inviting us to fill it with our thoughts, even if that's purely boredom. Whether you succumb to its mesmerism or find yourself planning what to have for dinner that evening, it's all good.

Where I think people often misunderstand avant-garde films is to think that they exist in opposition to mainstream cinema, instead of as a counterpoint. By taking an atithetical approach avant-garde film-makers rely as much on what's absent as their actual formal content.

It's also naive to think it's undertaken with po-faced piety. I don't know much about Michael Snow - although he's become highly regarded as a virtuoso multi-media artist - but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he enjoys regular movies every bit as much as the next man. The notional concessions to narrative with a 'murder' seem almost to play upon this, like a reductionist version of Rear Window or the ambiguous mystery of Antonioni taken to the limit.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

AFED #80: Themroc (France, 1973); Dir. Claude Faraldo

If yesterday's film Bigger Than Life represented an affront to civilised, bourgeois values, then superficially Themroc should have society's moral guardians calling for martial law.

The trouble is that while Claude Faraldo's satire takes iconoclasm to its logical extreme, it does so in a manner that favours the ridiculous over the subversive. The result is an oddity that might be novel, even mildly amusing, but doesn't pose much of a threat from the margins.

Michel Piccoli, an actor whose name might as easily be a byword for seventies art cinema, stars as the eponymous anti-hero; an atavistic factory worker. Living in a dilapidated tenement with his nagging mother and a girl who's apparently his sister; Themroc's existence is clearly one of repetitive daily grind. After a confrontation with his boss at work he snaps and returns home to start tearing apart the flat and bricking up the entrance so he can live like a modern-day caveman.

Before long Themroc is inspiring others. He's joined first by his sister, with whom he breaks the ultimate taboo, and then by a woman across the courtyard is emulating him by smashing up her apartment. Down below the police are taking steps to deal with this antisocial insurrection, but Themroc and his followers laugh it off. To add insult to injury he even takes to killing them to roast on a spit in his flat! By the end of the similar incidents elsewhere in the vicinity suggest that our neanderthal revolutionary has started a city-wide uprising.

The film's most notable characteristic is that the story is told without any intelligible dialogue. Themroc grunts, groans, chokes and laughs but he never articulates. Even the brief utterances from other characters are comprehensible, which I suppose at least dispensed with the need for subtitling for the international market. It's primitive cinema in the most literal sense; foregrounding the visual and redolent of the great silent comedians.

It all makes another Piccoli social comedy of similar vintage, Marco Ferreri's infamous La Grande Bouffe (Blow -Out), seem subtle by comparison. As a critique of modern society Themroc has more in common with the lunatic zeal of underground comics than the absurdism of Beckett or Ionesco.

Friday, 18 March 2011

AFED #77: Rozmarné léto [Capricious Summer]; (Czechoslovakia, 1968); Jiří Menzel

What's this, another Czechoslovak film already? Indeed, but I'll make no apologies for my endless fascination with cinema from that corner of Europe and have just come into possession of a pile of films from there, hence my choice.

My journey into Czech cinema didn't really begin until three or four years ago. It could have been different; I'd first encountered Jiří Menzel's debut film, Ostře sledované vlaky [Closely Watched Trains] in 1995 - as part of a season of 100 films the BBC were showing to commemorate the centenary of the moving image - but for whatever reason it failed to impress. Although wry humour pervades, it's stark monochrome felt bleak and depressing and I had no stomach for a coming of age drama that morning I watched it as a nineteen year-old.

So although I've watched dozens of Czechoslovak films since then, I've steered clear of Menzel's work despite its canonic position in the New Wave. Today's film could be seen as an attempt to redress that, but in truth it was a more or less arbitrary choice.

As the title suggests Capricious Summer is a melancholic, ironic little comedy centring around Antonin (Rudolf Hrušínský), a dissolute middle-aged proprietor of some public baths (basically a lagoon) somewhere in provincial Czechoslovakia in the not-too-distant past. Antonin spends his days chewing the fat with his friends, the retired Major Hugo (Vlastimil Brodský) and Canon Roch (František Řehák) and forbearing the imprecations of his attention-starved wife, Kateřina (Míla Myslíková).

The languid lives of these petit bourgoisie are disrupted by the arrival of a traveling funambulist, Arnoštek (played by Menzel himself), who gives them a display of his virtuosity (much to to Kateřina's admiration) and extends an invitation to his show that evening. There Antonin and his friends encounter Anna (Jana Preissová), Arnoštek's beguilingly beautiful young assistant.

Remarkably Anna is reciprocates Antonin's advances and he lures her back to the bathing huts that evening, but although she's seemingly willing Antonin, through either conscience or impotence, is unable to consumate and spends the night massaging her feet. When Kateřina finds them together she's predictably irrate and goes to seek solace in the arms of Arnoštek.

The remainder plays out in the the same dreamy tone of sardonic whimsy and let's just say that by the end normality has been restored, Antonin and his cohorts are a little older and wiser for the experience and the entertainers carry on their way.

It's difficult to imagine a more wistful piece of film-making and at just 74 minutes it doesn't outstay its welcome. Menzel's direction is beautifully paced and nuanced; he has a gift for finding the perfect shot and shot length to evoke the sentiment without drawing attention to his style. Like all of his work it's an adaptation of a novel (by Vladislav Vančura) and Menzel has always considered it a point of principle to remain faithful to his source.

Yet casting himself in the key role of Arnoštek, Menzel leads us to naturally draw parallels with the film-maker's role and that of the tightrope walker. When, later in the film, he falls from his rope the spectators feel less pity than smug satisfaction. It might as easily be an allegory for the ambivalent relationship we have with celebrities to this day.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

AFED #76: La Horripilante bestia humana [aka Night of the Bloody Apes] (Mexico, 1969); Dir. René Cardona

Horror movies tend to treat all science as quackery, it just so happens that all quackery is valid. Transplant surgery, in one form or another, has been the subject of the wildest fantasies ever since Frankenstein; from the many adaptations of the Shelley story, to The Hands of Orlac, to aberrations like the previously mentioned The Man Without a Body (AFED #61).

So even when Christiaan Barnard conducted the first successful human heart transplant in 1967 it was never likely to dampen the zeal for the original Body Horror. Sure enough Night of the Bloody Apes, made not long after, presents a grim reminder of what could go tragically wrong... if only science was a bit less rational.

It's your typical mad scientist yarn, albeit with a distinctly Mexican spin. Dr Krellman (José Elías Moreno) decides to conduct the world's ape-to-human heart transplant, in a desperate bid to save the life of his son Julio, who's dying of leukemia. After kidnapping an ape from the local zoo and uttering (to his Igor-lite sidekick Goyo) the immortal words "Prepare the gorilla!" we're treated to some actual stock footage of open heart surgery.

You'd think under the circumstances perhaps a bone marrow transplant might have been more appropriate. Either way the procedure has some unexpected consequences, such as transforming Julio into a grotesque were-ape who embarks on a rampage through the city, helpfully ripping the clothes of every woman he encounters to ensure plenty of nudity. The doctor manages to capture him again and there's a thwarted attempt to reverse the mutation, but it predictably it backfires and ends in tragedy.

It's totally ridiculous and for the main part pretty good, gaudy fun. The ape prosthetics, in fact all the special effects, are completely hopless, yet the low budget dictates some sparse production design that lends an appropriately comic book appearance. You might be forgiven for thinking that comic was Love and Rockets, because there's a truly bizarre subplot in which a pretty masked luchadora (female wrestler) named Lucy nearly kills one of her opponents in an accident, then grapples with the guilt and loss of confidence.

Yet aside from being the girlfriend of the cop who investigates the were-ape's killing spree Lucy's story has absolutely no relevance to the rest of the film! There are a few scenes from her wrestling bouts (with a body double who's distinctly heftier in build) and one supposes that, given the popularity of Lucha movies in Mexico, it was felt that a bit of wrestling action might sell a few more tickets. I rather enjoyed the incongruous nature of it, but after featuring very prominently in the first half of the film Lucy sadly and inexplicably becomes a peripheral figure.

Like many cult films, it's a little too mediocre to really hit the spot. It was actually banned as a video nasty over here (making it the third such film I've covered this year), but aside from the sensationalist title and the aforementioned heart surgery footage you'd be hard pressed to explain why.

Reflecting upon it later it struck me how the basic conceit of the film was a lot like J.G. Frazer's definition of 'sympathetic magic' in The Golden Bough, and there's probably a whole treatise to be written along those lines if you've a mind to.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

AFED #75: Hail the Conquering Hero (US, 1944); Dir. Preston Sturges

I have to admit I've never been completely sold on the work of Preston Sturges. It took me years to see the film regarded his masterpiece, Sullivan's Travels, but while it's by no means a bad film I couldn't quite understand the acclaim. Sturges followed it with screwball The Palm Beach Story and its a livelier affair with sophisticated humour that's aged well, although certainly not on a par with Bringing Up Baby.

So I wasn't sure how much to expect from Hail the Conquering Hero and perhaps for that reason came away pleasantly surprised. It's a deft little comedy; part satire on the (then) current fixation with war heroes and part Capraesque hokum of small town American life.

Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), a marine discharged with chronic hay fever before he ever saw any action, encounters some serving marines in a bar in San Diego. He reveals to them that he's been hiding out there working in a shipyard rather than go home and tell his mother the truth.

When it transpires that the marines' Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest) had served with Woodrow's marine father - who died in action the very day Woodrow was born - the older man takes pity and convinces Woodrow to embellish his story for his mother's sake. Woodrow and the marines travel back to his hometown, with Woodrow swapping his coat for the medal-adorned jacket of one of the others.

Yet no sooner do they arrive than the deception gets completely out of hand when it transpires the town has arranged a huge welcoming party for their 'war hero'. The more Woodrow attempts to extricate himself from the lie, the more Heppelfinger and the marines implore him to keep it up. Before long Woodrow finds himself being nominated to run for the town's Mayor and his situation grows increasingly desperate.

While hardly the most plausible story the laughs come from the absurdly effusive praise and accolades Woodrow finds heaped upon him; from the community paying off his mother's mortgage in thanks and even making plans to erect a statue in his honour. I suppose it's not a million miles from the truth in wartime middle America that heroes were proclaimed to festishistic proportions.

Eddie Bracken does an excellent job in portraying the hapless Woodrow, as does Demarest as the Machiavellian sergeant. There's also a romantic subplot in which Woodrow's childhood sweetheart Libby (Ella Raines) is about to marry another man after Woodrow broke up with her rather than admit his ignominious discharge.

At the denouement of course our antihero comes clean and admits the truth, leading to one of the phoniest endings imaginable. In the real world, confession or not, we'd expect him to run out of town, but Sturges instead goes with the message that public taste depends little on actual deeds so much as the whims of preference. If anything it needed a more caustic, biter-sweet finale, but it was a wartime film and the feelgood factor counted for a great deal.

I'm nit-picking though; this is basically a fun, breezy little number with a witty script well deserving of its Oscar nomination.

AFED #74: Ikarie XB-1 (Czechoslovakia, 1963); Dir. Jindřich Polák

Said to have been an influence on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Czech sci-fi Ikarie XB-1 demonstrates both a debt to its American cousins and a willingness to do things a little differently.

The eponymous 'Icarus XB-1' is an exploratory spaceship in the 22nd century, with a mission to go boldly go where no man has gone before, namely Alpha Centauri. Manned by a large mixed crew of various skills, their journey is scheduled to take some fifteen earth years; although because of "time dilation" only two years will pass for those on board.

The earlier part of the film focuses on the humdrum details of life on board the ship, which gradually gives way to frustration and cabin fever as time wears on. Just when you've started to wonder whether anything of significance is ever going to happen, they encounter a derelict twentieth century vessel armed with nuclear weapons. When it explodes, killing two members of the Icarus's crew in the process, our enlightened successors lambast the foolishness of our epoch. I think there may have been some kind of message here.

Shortly after the Icarus must confront an even more deadly challenge when a mysterious "dark star" emitting deadly radiation threatens to kill everyone on board as they succumb to a strange sleeping sickness. They escape - just - but one of their number has been driven insane and threatens to destroy everything in a tense climax.

Bearing in mind it was released some three years before Star Trek first aired has some uncanny similarities. Besides the large crew and mission remit, the layout of ship's bridge and prominent large-screen monitors bears a definite resemblance those of the Enterprise. If Gene Rodenberry hadn't seen this film then I'm amazed.

But the film has a very distinct look and feel by comparison with American product. There's some imaginative set design, crisp black and white photography and a creepy futurist score by  score by composer  Zdeněk Liška.

The screenplay is by Pavel Juráček, a sadly neglected figure in Czech cinema history. A scriptwriting graduate of the Prague film school FAMU, he would go on to write and direct one of the key works of the Czech New Wave with the Kafkaesque short Postava k podpírání (aka Josef Kilian) and was also responsible for the original idea behind Vera Chytilová's Daisies, amongst other work.

Juráček throws in some cute self-reflexive details, like when at meal time one of the crew speculates whether their ancestors had ever imagined they would be eating a simple pill for nutrition, or when the crude Robbie the Robot-type automaton one of the crew has brought along is revealed to be a dated antique and anything but state of the art.

The film was actually imported to America, where AIP had it dubbed by English-speaking actors and renamed Voyage to the End of the Universe. Accounts would suggest it's rather a clumsy hatchet job which even has the temerity to change the ending, but not having seen I'll just have to take that on trust.

Overall it's intriguing, but by Czech standards not a classic.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

AFED #73: Bharat Mata [Mother India] (India, 1957); Dir. Mehboob Khan

While researching world cinema recently I've been reminded how films which may be held in high regard in cine-literate circles are often by no means favourites in their countries of origin.

Take Poland for example. If you know anything about its film history you might expect the work of Krzysztof Kieślowski, Andrzej Wajda or even Roman Polanski (though most his work has been produced overseas) to dominate polls. Yet some of the most popular films amongst Poles have been little-known (in the west) comedies such as Seksmisja [Sexmission] and Sami swoi [Our Folks].

Similarly in India although Satyajit Ray's work is much acclaimed internationally it's atypical of the national cinema. A far more popular work in its homeland is the epic 1957 melodrama Mother India.

It's the story of Radha (Nargis), who as an elderly woman is asked to open a new dam in the village in which she is considered the matriarch. The film then recounts her arrival there as a young bride many years earlier, and how her mother-in-law had plunged the family into debt with the local moneylender, Sukhilala, in paying for the wedding. It means no matter how hard Radha and her husband Shamu toil away working their land three quarters of what they make is given to their unscrupulous creditor.

After an accident deprives Shamu of both his arms and he disappears, Radha is compelled to raise their three children alone. When monsoons and famine ravage the region the youngest child dies, yet Radha declines Sukhilala's offer of marriage and struggles on, still saddled with an unpayable debt. The hardship and cruelty of existence is spelled out in a stirring musical number as they slave away in the fields:

Because we are born, we must live in this world
If life is a poison, we must drink it.

The story jumps forward by many years and the onset of far happier times in a distinct change of tone. Radha's two sons, Birju (Sunil Dutt) and Ramu (Rajendra Kumar), are now handsome young men and her pride and joy. Ramu is level-headed and Radha secures him a marriage, but Birju is something of a rogue as well as bearing a king-sized grudge towards Sukhilala.

Events finally come to a head when Birju confronts the moneylender and is driven from the village, becoming a bandit. On the occasion of the wedding of Sukhilala's daughter he makes an unwelcome return and Radha, who holds the honour of the village above all else, is compelled to make a desperate decision.

This being Indian cinema in the classic tradition there are numerous musical interludes. Like Hollywood musicals of the fifties the characters are inclined to spontaneously break into song, even when you don't expect it. The rich, colourful visuals complement this and create a sense of a heightened reality.

Nagris is unquestionably the star of the show and gives a strong performance as the proud, defiant Radha, even if the make-up as she grows older isn't entirely convincing. As Birju, Sunil Dutt nearly steals the show in the second half with his boisterous turn. 'Mother' and 'son' would marry in real life after he purportedly saved Nagris's life during production.

As the film's title suggests there's something distinctly allegorical about the heroine's struggle and unswerving adherence to her moral principles. Battling on in the face of impossible circumstances, she's the feminine idealisation of how India wishes to see itself. One could put all kinds of metaphorical interpretations on the story; from the subjugation of imperialist rule to the internecine strife between Hindus and Muslims (although it depicts a Hindu community, both star and director were Muslim), but these are perhaps superfluous projections.

Overall I found it a little too overblown and melodramatic to really capture me, and at nearly three hours it's an exercise in stamina. But it's a historically significant look at a country undergoing great change with some lovely details and touching moments.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

AFED #72: Le Roman de Renard [The Tale of the Fox] (France, 1937); Dir. Ladislas Starevich

Some seventy years before Fantastic Mr. Fox, pioneering animator Ladislas Starevich delivered another anthropomorphic animal story that comfortably rivals it for quality. Le Roman de Renard may not boast George Clooney's laconic tones but its influence on the style and ambiance of Wes Anderson's film is plainly obvious, right down to the depiction of the animals' domestic lives.

Adapted from Goethe's version of the Reynard legend (a staple of European folklore), Starevich's film was one of the earliest feature length animations and a decade in the making. It shows both in the wealth of detail bestowed on every scene; from the vast menagerie of different animal characters to the meticulous set design and visual gags.

The story charts the fortunes of Reynard, a cunning and inventive fox who runs afoul of the rest of the animal kingdom with his constant tricks and ruses. The king of the beasts, the Lion, finally loses patience and sends an army to lay siege to Reynard's castle. After a prolonged episode he's eventually captured, but having constantly demonstrated his resourcefulness the Lion concludes Reynard would actually make a very good minister and duly appoints him.

Bearing in mind that Starevich's earliest film back in his native Russia was The Cameraman's Revenge, a story about infidelity amongst insects, it shouldn't come as a surprise that The Tale of the Fox isn't pitched squarely at kids. There's wry humour throughout and I couldn't help wondering whether, as a Russian who'd left his homeland to escape the communists, there wasn't some kind of satirical point being made at the end.

Personally it's not quite up there with my favourite Starevich film, the sublime Fétiche [The Mascot] (1934), which manages to be altogether weirder and creepier, but Starevich deserves to be better remembered than he is today and you should, at the very least, have a look at some clips of his work on Youtube.

AFED #71: Cold Light of Day (UK, 1989); Dir. Fhiona Louise

Sooner or later most infamous real-life crimes receive a dramatisation, but the timing of such treatments can vary enormously.

Some cases, such as that of the Moors Murders, are granted a respectful distance (although See No Evil finally told the story for tv in 2006). Yet others, like that of Harold Shipman, can make it to the screen in just a couple years. American readers will know that over there the turnaround can be even quicker.

This phenomena probably owes something to the degree to which ordinary, middle-class society is offended or horrified by the crimes, or to what extent they simply feel a morbid curiosity. Film or television executives will seldom commission such a drama if there's any risk of a public backlash, even if it rarely equates to a drop in revenue (far from it).

But occasionally independent producers have taken real-life crimes and crafted them into grimly effective films. One of the most notable (if sadly neglected) examples is The Black Panther (1977), a criminal biography of the armed robber and murderer Donald Neilson, that was made just a year after his conviction. Distinguished by a superb central performance by Donald Sumpter and told in docu-drama style by director Ian Merrick, it manages to be absorb us in the criminal's world without crass sensationalism.

Cold Light of Day belongs to the same tradition and if anything takes that sparse, scuzzy approach even further. Technically it's a work of fiction but its inspiration is transparently that of Dennis Nilsen, the serial killer who gruesomely murdered and dismembered at least fifteen young men between 1978 and 1981.

Bob Flag plays Jordan March, a lonely middle-aged civil servant who invites young drifter Joe (Martin Byrne-Quinn) to come and stay at his dingy flat. After a short while their apparently non-sexual relationship becomes increasingly tense as Jordan grows jealous of Joe's peccadilloes with other men. One night Jordan strangles Joe, wraps him in polythene and stores him under the floorboards.

Tormented yet empowered by the murder, Jordan seeks out another victim, Stephen, at the squalid greasy spoon he frequents. Their acquaintance is decidedly briefer when Jordan kills him that same night and this time goes about the business of chopping up and disposing of the remains.

A third victim, a young drug addict, swiftly follows but when Jordan's downstairs neighbour calls in assistance to clear the blocked drains a grizzly discovery is made.

The story cuts back and forth between Jordan's police interrogation and the events that brought him to that point. He indicates that murder gave him the opportunity to experience what death felt like and there's an enigmatic flashback/dream sequence (oddly reminiscent of scenes in Terence Davies' Trilogy - AFED #30) that suggests its roots to be in the childhood trauma of his grandfather's death.

Like much of the film it's oblique and obtuse. Director Fhiona Louise opts for some unconventional and off-centre camera angles that more than fulfill the purpose of detaching the viewer. Regardless of intent it proves cleverly disarming with one image in particular, when Jordan decides to do some unconventional cooking.

But Cold Light of Day, despite the involvement as producer of horror stalwart Richard Driscoll - writer/director of such reviled work as The Comic (1985) and Kannibal (2001) - is not a piece of exploitative kitsch. Admittedly it does deviate from the facts of the Nilsen case; only three murders are committed here and the otherwise effective Bob Flag is slightly too old for the role.

Yet its portrayal of a lonely, desolate world of pubs and greasy spoons, where people seeking comfort are driven to extraordinary lengths is highly unsettling. We watch Jordan interacting with his fellow tennants and even taking steps to ensure an elderly neighbour receives proper care and support. He's the kind of ordinary, seemingly decent bloke who might live down your street, and that's surely the scariest thing of all.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

AFED #70: The Great McGonagall (UK, 1974); Dir. Joseph McGrath

Although The Goon Show represented something of a watershed for post-war comedy, it's probably not unfair to describe Spike Milligan's output thereafter as variable. By all accounts his Q sketch series contained flashes of genius (and was shamelessly ripped off by the Monty Python team) but there was also the infamous Johnny Speight-penned sitcom Curry and Chips, in which Milligan blacked up to play an Indian immigrant working in a factory.

Unlike his pal Peter Sellers, Milligan was more of a comedy writer than actor, but the pressure to be consistently funny and solicit the approval of one's peers must be hugely exacting. Small wonder Spike suffered several nervous breakdowns and struggled with depression. Perhaps that's also why he was drawn to the tragi-comic figure of William Topaz McGonagall, the nineteenth century Scottish poet and actor whom he depicted in a 1974 film.

McGonagall, an aspiring laureate whose hopelessly mediocre, yet seemingly earnest, verse became the stuff of legend, had long been a favourite of the Goons and alternately been depicted by both Sellers and Milligan in the radio show. Indeed it was originally Sellers who was mooted to play McGonagall, but it's hard to imagine the chameleonic Sellers attaining the same pathos and personal input that Milligan achieves.

The story by Milligan and director Joseph McGrath tells McGonagall's story as a kind of music hall melodrama; charting his poetic 'career' from quitting his profession as weaver through to his death. Milligan stars as the eponymous bard, Julia Foster as his wife, Sellers in drag as Queen Victoria and a troupe of actors (including Valentine Dyall and Victor Spinetti) undertaking multiple roles.

The comedy is broad and adopting the scattergun approach that Milligan had made his trademark. There's some anachronistic contemporary references (e.g. "Queen Victoria, the Mark Phillips of her day") but it also makes extensive use of McGonagall's own poetry, the guilelessness of which suggests either a man with a wry sense of humour or one bizarrely deluded.

Milligan opts for the latter and there's actually something quite moving in McGonagall's plight when he travels to see the Queen at Balmoral, only to discover his invitation was a trick. We are however treated to a fantasy sequence in which the poet regales her majesty and the pair waltz to the accompaniment of a band of 'Alberts' all sporting Hitler moustaches.

The film was shot entirely at the historic Wilton's Music Hall (a place I mentioned in relation to A Little of What You Fancy in AFED #26) and so absorbed was Milligan by the role that he actually slept in its rat-infested environs during the production.

If you're like me then you'll most likely come away unimpressed from a first viewing; Milligan's accent can be difficult to understand and the revue-style humour feels a little dated. But it's both a more poignant and subversive film than initial impressions may have you believe.

In one remarkable scene halfway through the dramatic illusion is well and truly broken when Milligan seemingly forgets his line and has to have it explained to him by the director before the story can resume. It's entirely deliberate and part of the script, but so convincing is Milligan that many, including fan of the film Jonathan Coe (according to McGrath in his commentary for the dvd) weren't sure what to make of it.

Sadly The Great McGonagall was all but buried on its original release. It was produced and financed by the self-styled 'King of Sexploitation' David Grant, who (having insisted on some totally pointless nudity in a couple of scenes) wrote the film off as tax loss. This surely hurt Milligan, who clearly put a lot more in than most have appreciated, and would never get such a big screen opportunity again.

Friday, 11 March 2011

AFED #69: Unheimliche Geschichten [Eerie Tales] (Germany, 1919); Dir. Richard Oswald

For those who believed that the horror portmanteau format originated with Ealing's Dead of Night in 1945 might be intrigued to discover this entertaining progenitor from Weimar Germany a quarter of a century earlier. Indeed Unheimliche Geschichten, which shouldn't be confused with a 1932 film of the same name also directed by Richard Oswald, utilises many of what became standard devices in this sub-genre.

For starters there's a framing device; set in an antiquarian bookshop, where paintings of three archetypal figures - a Harlot (Anita Berber), the Devil (Reinhold Schünzel), and Death (the great Conrad Veidt) - come to life, much to the terror of the shopkeeper. They proceed flicking through the books, whereupon we embark on a series of five short dramatisations starring the same three actors.

In the first of these Veidt plays a man who rescues a young woman (Berber) from her lunatic husband (Schünzel). The pair check into a hotel and Veidt begins contemplating having his wicked way, but when the woman disappears and the hotel staff deny she was ever there it seems he may have encountered a ghost. Next up comes a story in which Veidt and Schünzel are competing for Berber's affection. Schünzel kills his rivals and thinks he's in the clear until Veidt's vengeful ghost returns years later.

There then follow two adaptations of classic short stories which probably represent the film's high points. For the second time in three days I found myself watching an adaptation of Poe's The Black Cat, although this was a somewhat more faithful interpretation than Fulci's (see AFED #67). Hot on the heels came a version of Stevenson's The Suicide Club that cranks up the tension very effectively.

The final story is the lightest in tone and something of an anticlimax as Veidt plays a marquis who gives a scare to an amorous guest (Schünzel) who has designs on his wife.

Given the recurring use of the three leads there's something of a repertory feel to the film which both works for and against it. On the one hand the similarities between remind us that the majority of stories utilise the universal themes, but conversely it becomes more difficult to be gripped with the drama when you know a few minutes later the players will be doing something else.

That's not to take anything away from the performances, which are appropriately knowing and melodramatic. As you might expect Conrad Veidt in particular stands out and, as I'm a fan, I'll be looking at some more of his work over the next few weeks.

But for a film that was released only a short while before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari it's surprising how reserved and conventional the style is by comparison. Expresionism would take German horror and fantasy cinema to a whole new level which is probably why Unheimliche Geschichten doesn't receive a whole lot of attention today.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

AFED #68: Xiǎochéng zhī chūn [Spring in a Small Town] (China, 1948); Dir. Fei Mu

It feels a little disprespectful to have gone nearly a fifth of the way into this odyssey without covering a single film by either of the world's two most populated countries. Hopefully I'll be able to take a look at some Indian cinema next week, but first here's the film that was voted the greatest in Chinese history in a poll by the prestigious Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005.

Spring in a Small Town
is a melodrama concerning Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) and Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei), a couple who live with Liyan's effervescent teenage sister Dai Xiu on the outskirts of a small town shortly after the end of the second Sino-Japanese War. Liyan has spent some years recuperating from tuberculosis and, combined with regret for the decline in his family's fortunes, his marriage to Yuwen is stagnant and passionless.

Into this setting comes Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) a doctor and childhood friend of Liyan who, unbeknownst to Liyan, was also Yuwen's sweetheart many years earlier. The former lovers are inevitably torn between the reigniting of old passions and loyalty for Liyan.

Sensitively directed by Fei Mu, with a delicacy of touch and pacing (reminiscent of Ozu) that most western cinema lacks, the story develops without excessive drama until the final act. Even then there are no angry confrontations, no heroes or villains, and the characters act with maturity and decency towards one another. These are good people making the best of a difficult situation and you find yourself caring for their predicament, whereas in a comparable story like Brief Encounter the two leads just seemed rather selfish. It's due in no small part to the excellent performances, particularly that of Wei.

Made shortly before the communists took power in 1949, the reputation of Spring in a Small Town suffered in its home country for many years because of its lack of a political standpoint. It seems amazing to those of us used to liberal democracy that such a touching human drama can be viewed in starkly utilitarian terms, but thankfully at least it survived to be appreciated in more tolerant times. Unfortunately Chinese films from these period are very hard to get hold of so I may not get to cover another this year.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

AFED #67: Gatto Nero [The Black Cat] (Italy, 1981); Dir. Lucio Fulci

Welcome to the sleepy English village of Unspecific, a veritable Babel of different dialects where apparently there are some "ruins", the local policeman's face is adorned with a prodigious caterpillar, and a worrying number of people have been dying violently and inexplicably.

Patrick Magee is also a resident, which is never a good sign. Given his rapacious scenery chewing it's probably wise that the locals keep their distance, but they're naturally suspicious why he spends so much time lurking around the cemetery. Magee plays Dr Robert Miles, a medium obsessed by communicating with spirits who resides in a grand gothic pile in the company of an aggressive black cat with whom he has a strange love/hate relationship. The cat may or may not embody the spirit of Magee's dead son, but either way it has an uncanny habit of being in the vicinity when anything nasty takes place.

Very loosely adapted from Poe's classic short story, Fulci's entertaining yarn is everything you'd expect, and possibly more, from a giallo of this vintage. People are dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways, there's a pervasion of kooky camera angles and close-ups of cats eyes, and a notional detective story in which American photographer Jill (Mimsy Farmer) and Scotland Yard detective Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck) attempt to get to the heart of the matter.

The magnificent Magee steals the show with characteristic excess. He was, alongside Jack MacGowran, one of the definitive absurdist actors, and although difficult to cast in more conventional cinema found the perfect outlet for his talents in horror. Sadly this was one of his last major roles before dying of a heart attack that same year, but it's a fitting end to a colourful career.

Monday, 7 March 2011

AFED #66: Olympia (Germany, 1938); Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Belgium/UK/Germany, 1993); Dir. Ray Müller

Leni Riefenstahl: evil Nazi film-maker or pioneering genius of pre-war cinema? Or perhaps both? Either way Riefenstahl remains probably the most influential woman film-maker ever.

That's perhaps all the more remarkable because her reputation is principally due to two films, both documentaries. The first, Triumph of the Will is an account of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg; a chilling work of propaganda that showcases Hitler's hypnotic genius and the spell he was casting upon the German people.

Although a certain mystique has built up around this film and its sinister subtext in truth it's not the most compelling viewing to a contemporary audience. The more innovative of Riefenstahl's techniques - such as the use of telescopic lenses and aerial photography - were assimilated by the wider film-making fraternity, but many scenes drag interminably and lack subtlety.

Her second, Olympia is generally viewed more sympathetically. An epic three and a half hour account (albeit split into two halves) of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Riefenstahl was given unprecedented resources to document the sporting festival and the result is a lavish if indulgent spectacle.

The first part of the film, Fest der Völker (The Festival of Nations), begins with a montage the ruins of the ancient Olympia in Greece, Riefenstahl then dissolves from a classical statue of a discuss thrower to a living, moving athlete doing the same. From there we move to the 'traditional' journey of the Olympic torch across Europe to the host city (in fact this innovation only began with the 1936 Games) and the pageantry of the opening ceremony at Berlin's majestic Olympiastadion.

Thereafter we're treated to an extensive document of the traditional track and field events. As with Triumph of the Will nowadays many of the techniques Riefenstahl's team deployed - tracking shots, close-ups and multiple angles - are so commonplace one can easily become blase, but it's surprising just how gripping the coverage is.

It's also worth observing that despite the film's Nazi patronage it makes no attempt to obscure the achievements of black athletes, in particular the magnificent Jesse Owens, who made a mockery of Hitler's notions of racial superiority. However, there's an amusing moment when, at the start of the 800m the German commentator observes it's "two black athletes against the best of the white race" only for one of those black runners (Woodruff) to grab victory.

Part two, Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty), is more uneven, presumably because logistics made it impossible for Riefenstahl to attend all the events taking place elsewhere and she had to work with whatever footage her camera crew had obtained. It becomes more of an abstract meditation on human endeavour and athleticism and the actual results of the competition are sometimes treated as immaterial. Some sequences, such as a montage of divers, are audacious technical exercises in editing. Others, such as an endless succession of three day eventers struggling with a water jump, are not so much comical as tedious.

The final film wasn't completed until 1938, whereupon Riefenstahl embarked on a worldwide promotional tour. While visiting the US the Kristallnacht attacks took place and, seemingly unable to countenance that Hitler could be the architect of such butchery, Riefenstahl denounced criticisms of him as "slander". The damage to her reputation would effectively end her film-making career after the war.

It reveals something about what a taboo figure Riefenstahl remained that when Ray Müller came to make his acclaimed 1993 profile of the director he had to find backing from outside Germany. Given that she was already 90 years old when The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl was made I was expecting to see a frail and bitter old woman, yet she remained uncannily youthful (she might easily be twenty years younger), very active and in full possession of her faculties.

Interviewing Riefenstahl extensively about her life from her early days as a (stunningly beautiful) young dancer and actress, through the years of the Third Reich and her later career photographing the Nuba tribes of Southern Sudan, Müller makes a good effort to get inside the head of a complex and highly intelligent woman.

Riefenstahl steadfastly maintains that she was not a Nazi sympathiser, pointing out that she was never a member of the party and sought to distance herself from Hitler and the rest of the Nazi top brass. At times this stretches credulity; culture minister Joseph Goebbels frequently referred to socialising with Riefenstahl in his diaries and her disavowals, however vehement, sound like someone in denial.

As do her protestations of ignorance about Nazi atrocities when one learns that gypsies interred at concentration camps had to be drafted in to substitute for Spaniards during the filming of her solitary wartime film (although not released until 1954), Tiefland. Riefenstahl may not have shared the Nazis' beliefs but she clearly wasn't one to let moral objections stand in the way of pursuing her art.

Above all else she appears to have been an aesthete, fascinated by the power of imagery, the imagery of power and particularly the athletic beauty of the human form. This led Susan Sontag, in writing about Riefenstahl's Nubian photography, to accuse her of fascist leanings; given Riefenstahl's track record it's a predictable and perhaps facile extrapolation. In later years Riefenstahl's fascination with underwater photography - which resulted in her final film, Impressionen unter Wasser, released on the occasion of her 100th birthday - suggests she ultimately discovered her muse capturing the shifting patterns of light, colour and texture of marine life.

We may not agree with all the choices she made, we can admonish her apparent amorality, but one can't dispute that Riefenstahl's was a long and remarkable life.

AFED #65: The Blood of Jesus (US, 1941); Dir Spencer Williams. Lying Lips (US, 1939); Dir. Oscar Micheaux

In the early part of the twentieth century thousands of southern African-Americans migrated north, inspired by the promise of a better life. Many relocated to the city of Chicago, where the prosperous environment saw the emergence of a new black middle class with its own distinctive culture.

Out of this milieu the 'race film' was born; independently produced films made specifically for a black audience by mainly black-owned studios. Between 1915 and 1950 some 500 or so race mfilms were produced, the majority of which have now been lost. Yet amongst black audiences, both north and south (where segregation still held strong), they were hugely popular.

Unlike the stereotypical depiction of African-Americans in mainstream films - tarnished from the onset by Griffith's Birth of a Nation and only progressing at an interminably slow rate - the race films depicted blacks across the social spectrum and gave early roles to the likes of Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind) and the great Paul Robeson.

Another was Spencer Williams, a seasoned character actor who found fame in the fifties in the series Amos 'n Andy but had a largely forgotten parallel career as a director of race films. For many years his 1941 folk parable The Blood of Jesus was thought lost, but since its rediscovery in the mid-eighties has become regarded as a minor classic and was the first race film to be added to the U.S. National Film Registry.

Cathryn Caviness stars as Martha, a devout young black woman in the southern backwaters who's baptised during a church service, while her errant husband Ras (Williams himself) is off poaching a hog. At home later Ras accidentally shoots Martha and, as the church congregation gathers around her bedside to sing spirituals she seemingly passes away.

But instead Martha's spirit is transported to the crossroads between heaven and hell, where her guardian angel tells her to journey along the righteous path towards salvation. She hasn't travelled far before she's tempted by smooth operator Judas Green, an agent of the devil who offers her a pretty dress and fine time in the city.

Martha can't resist and Judas escorts her to a swanky nightclub where he offers her to Rufus, a roadhouse owner who recruits Martha to provide some 'entertaiment' at his establishment. Having realised her folly Martha escapes but is pursued back to the crossroads by a posse from the roadhouse who believe she stole from them. At this point God decides to intervene and, having dispersed her assailants, decides to return Martha to the land of the living, much to the relief of Ras.

By the standard of Hollywood movies of the same vintage The Blood of Jesus is a sparse production; at times ponderous and slow moving. While the soundtrack of gospel spirituals is rousing, it's only when we finally reach the fantasy sequence that things really kick into life with the vibrant nightclubs scenes. This may not be the path of righteousness but it certainly looks like a lot of fun.

There's also some arresting use of imagery, particularly when the blood of Christ splatters upon the stricken Martha as she lies stricken at the crossroads at the climax. Although it could hardly be called a subtle film, and its heavy religiosity may rankle with those of a more agnostic disposition, it carries a raw emotive power.

Amongst race film makers one name in particular stands out. Oscar Micheaux was a former South Dakota farmer turned novelist who produced and directed the first black feature film with an adaptation of his own book, The Homesteader, in 1918. Over the next thirty years the Micheaux Film Co would produce and distribute dozens of race films, mainly focusing upon contemporary black life and all marked by Micheaux's forward-looking ideology.

Lying Lips comes from the latter end of his career, where growing competition from Hollywood had compelled Micheaux to concentrate on more routine genre productions with a guaranteed return. It's a crime caper in which nightclub singer Elsie (Edna Ma Harris) herself arrested on suspicion of murder after she discovers her aunt has been shot dead at their apartment.

Fortunately she has the support of her club's former manager turned boyfriend Benjamin (Carmen Newsome) who, alongside Detective Wasner (Robert Earl Jones, father of James), begins investigating Elsie's ne'er-do-well cousins, who stand to be the recipients of the aunt's life insurance payout if Elsie gets convicted.

Like The Blood of Jesus, Lying Lips was never going to win any prizes for its production standards; the acting is at best variable, the script strains under a lot of time-wasting exposition and it needs the embellishment of some dance and musical numbers at the club to add polish. There's also a telling indicator of Micheaux's own prejudices when the cowardly darker-skinned cousin is scared into confession by a visit to a supposedly haunted spot; pioneering he might have been but still susceptible to the old stereotype that lighter skin equated with superiority.

By all accounts Micheaux produced better work, and hopefully it may be possible to look at his earlier Body and Soul later in the year. As a modern-day viewer one is torn between being glad such films existed as a counterpoint to Hollywood and the fact it's not really all that good.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

AFED #64: Ônibus 174 [Bus 174) (Brazil, 2002); Dir. José Padilha & Felipe Lacerda

In Rio de Janeiro, in June 2000, 21 year-old Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, a young man from an impoverished background, boarded a public bus and held its passengers at gunpoint. What started as an armed robbery rapidly turned into a hostage situation as the police arrived, beginning a four hour stand-off that was captured by television crews and broadcast live to the nation.

The incident became a cause célèbre, highlighting issues both about the state of Brazilean policing and the plight of those less privileged in the country. Made two years after the event Padhila and Lacerda's documentary interviews many of those involved that day - including hostages and police - as well as exploring Sandro's story and the desperate circumstances that led him to attempt the robbery.

For those of us not familiar with the original event it plays out like a tense drama, albeit one from which we suspect not all the principals are going to come out alive. Naturally much use is made of the television footage at the time but it's the added insight of the participants and their families that transforms the raw material into a tragedy where any number of different circumstances and decisions might have led to a more fortunate outcome.

It's impossible for most of us not to sympathise with Sandro, who had witnessed his mother stabbed to death as a young boy and run away to live on the streets. With depressing predictability a rootless, hand-to mouth existence led to drug abuse, petty crime and eventually imprisonment. But what's most sickening is the callous way in which the 'invisible' street children are treated by Brazilian society and a corrupt police force who think nothing of killing them.

For Sandro, who had witnessed the 1993 Candelária massacre, in which eight young people were killed by the police, the decision to hijack the bus almost appears to have become an act of self-validation, a demonstration of his own worth. Those who knew him indicate he was not a violent person and the effects of cocaine may have contributed to his fateful decision that day.

We should probably treat this with a little circumspection, but the sickening final twist to the story will leave many outraged by the callousness and inhumanity of the police. The differing responses to Sandro's fate are a clue to the pervasive ambivalence in Brazil to the issue of street children and an indicator why the country remains a long way from finding a solution.

A powerful and provocative documentary.

AFED #63: Bambi Meets Godzilla (US, 1969); Dir. Marv Newland

Um... the plan tonight was to fit in Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, but then I changed my mind. So instead here's one that, at ninety seconds, will surely be the shortest film of the year.

 The title says everything. No, really; check it out on Youtube and other online sources.

What else can one add? Very little, although it launched Marv Newland on quite a distinguished animation career and became regarded as a classic of sorts in cartoon circles. The irony is that, despite its brevity and crudeness of style, with today's technology nowadays you could put something together in a fraction of the time that looks infinitely more accomplished.

There are basically two gags; the opening and closing credits account for about eighty percent of the running time and it's all over very abruptly. I suppose in an era before micro films it must have seemed quite innovative.

Is it a clever critique of the spectacle-driven 'Cinema of Attractions'? No, it was a guy who'd screwed up the live action short he was making and threw something together at the last minute that was kind of clever.


Thursday, 3 March 2011

AFED #61: The Man Without a Body (UK, 1957); Dir. Charles Saunders & W. Lee Wilder

Hidden amongst the quatrains of Nostradamus's celebrated Prophecies, published in 1555, is a curious passage which has long baffled scholars:

In London, many years from now
I shall awaken, disembodied, in a physician's chamber
At the behest of a rich and powerful man.
But he and I, we shall not be friends. LOL.

Baffling indeed, but it seems unlike many of the 'great' seer's predictions it may have some shred of credence. A little over 400 years later came the extraordinary dramatisation of an incident that rocked the foundations of science to its very core...

This is the remarkable account of Karl Brussard (George Coulouris), a massively successful entrepreneur who discovers he's dying from a brain tumour. It's a tragic waste because Brussard, by his own modest admission, is such a fine physical specimen (!). Fortunately Brussard's doctor has heard of a surgeon in London who's been conducting some exciting research in brain transplantation.

But hold on a second, isn't it accepted scientific wisdom that it's the brain that houses human consciousness? Surely if another man's brain was fitted to Brussard's body then Brussard wouldn't really be Brussard anymore? This not insignificant detail doesn't appear to deter the businessman, who after meeting Dr. Merritt (Robert Hutton) and hearing about the miracles he can work - even with dead tissue - resolves to find a superior intellect to continue his legacy.

And what greater mind than that of Michel de Nostredame? True, he's been mouldering away in a crypt for four centuries but that's just a minor detail. After recruiting a quack doctor to steal the prophet's head from his tomb, Brussard presents it to Merritt to see what he can do.

It wouldn't be much of a story if they failed, but upon awakening in this new age Nostradamus isn't as pleased as Brussard might have hoped; in fact he's a bit pissed off. When Brussard - who is growing increasingly confused and delusional with the effects of his tumour - asks the great man for some business advice Nostradamus stitches him up, leaving him ruined.

Eventually Nostradamus does acquire a body and seeks out Brussard for some righteous vengeance, but I'll spare you the details.

I'm probably not the first person to come to this film with a genuine desire to enjoy it. Like the best 'B' movies it has a ridiculous leftfield concept that sells itself and its surprising such a bizarre sci-fi story should be a British production. The trouble is it's executed with such plodding mediocrity that you've ceased caring by the time Nostradamus is finally revived. The script is dreary and makes no attempt to resolve the blatant flaws in logic, the direction is totally lifeless and the actors - notwithstanding the hammy Coulouris - look bored and a bit embarrassed to be there.

You can imagine somebody like Roger Corman grasping intuitively this was an idea that could only work if it was firmly tongue in cheek. In more skillful hands it might have been a cult classic, instead it's just a waste. Maybe it's not so far-fetched after all, I think I just heard Nostradamus turning in his grave.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

AFED #60: La mala educación [Bad Education] (Spain, 2004); Dir. Pedro Almodóvar

Another day, another review, but in truth I'm tired and a little despondent. I'm not sure how much that has influenced my reaction to Bad Education which, like most Almodóvar films is a perfectly fine piece of work.

Enrique (Raúl García Forneiro), a successful film director, is surprised at his offices one day by the arrival of a young man (Gael García Berna) claiming to be his old schoolfriend and first love Ignacio, now himself n actor looking for work. "Ignacio" presents him with a script inspired by their school days and the priest who sexually abused them in which Ignacio, now a transsexual, imagines meeting the priest again and exacting his revenge.

The narrative weaves a metafictional tapestry between this script and reality as Enrique, perplexed by Ignacio's offhand manner and lack of recollection of what's passed between them in the past, investigates Ignacio. After uncovering some of the truth Enrique decides to begin production of the script with Igncacio in the lead; scenes from which we've already watched. But when during filming a figure from the past turns up the sordid secrets at the heart of the mystery are revealed.

Like most Almodóvar's films there's a strong camp element, but Bad Education also draws upon personal recollections and in the subject of child abuse and the complicity of the Catholic church touches upon some extremely dark themes.

The trouble I have is that distinction director Oliver Stone once made (in talking about Quentin Tarantino) between 'films' and 'movies'. Lest that seem a tautology what I mean is that Almodóvar's work falls mainly into the latter category; his priority is entertain the viewer, rather than involve or emotionally engage. The campness is all good fun but it creates an ironic distancing from the story, so that even when looking a serious issues such as sexual abuse he seldom succeeds in evoking a strong reaction.

Consequently although I can enjoy his work and sometimes - as here - admire the innovative approach to narrative, it seldom lingers long in the memory. His are the soft-boiled curate's eggs of cinema; they have a pleasant taste and texture, they go down easily, but don't leave one satiated.

This lack of pathos renders characterisation essentially two-dimensional and its a fatal flaw when telling the kind of human dramas that are the director's speciality. When the real Ignacio finally makes his appearance in Bad Education there's a fundamental need to feel some kind of sympathy for him, however reduced his circumstances may be. We need to feel some sense of tragedy, rather than a simple denouement.

You can get away with this in certain comedies, and sometimes even a suspense, but when a film centres on an unfulfilled love story then personally I need a little more. Perhaps it just didn't catch me in the right frame of mind.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

AFED #59: Ansiktet [The Magician] (Sweden, 1958); Dir. Ingmar Bergman

Recently I've been reading a book called Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer. It's an engrossing history of the Golden Age of magic in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the key figures in the development of the artform, from John Nevil Maskelyne to Harry Houdini.

The title derives from a spectacular illusion first performed by Houdini circa 1918, an illusion which in Houdini's hands turned out to be something of a damp squib. You see, although Houdini remains a legend for his feats as an escapologist he was by all accounts a lousy magician; he lacked the finesse to make illusions seem subtle and ingenious. It's not enough to simply present a trick, you have to make the audience believe in the impossible.

Ingmar Bergman was fascinated by this subtle alchemy and saw an analogy between the illusionist's talent for challenging our rationality and his work as a stage and film director. The Magician was loosely inspired by G.K. Chesterton's play Magic but more specifically by his own early theatrical experiences, struggling to make end's meat as a young theatre director in Malmo.

Bergman stalwart (not to mention alter ego) Max Von Sydow stars as Dr Vogler, the seemingly mute hypnotist and magician who leads a troupe of travelling performers who have acquired a reputation for the uncanny nature of their act. When they arrive in a small town its officials, including cynical medic Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand), demand to see a sample of the troupe's routine before permitting them to ply their trade. Angered by the humiliating treatment they are subjected to, Vogler decides to play a terrifying trick on Dr Vergerus that will challenge his skepticism.

The film has been described as a kind of horror but it's closer to a black comedy, ironically making it one of Bergman's lighter pieces. Much of what ensues was, by Bergman's own admission, a caustic dramatisation of his experiences at the hands of certain critics, making this a revenge fantasy.

And yet as Vogler's character becomes demystified (predictably he was never really mute) in the latter stages he becomes pitiful and desperate, pleading for recompense for the performance he's given Dr Vergerus. Perhaps the point being that we're happily enthralled and provoked by an entertainment, yet ultimately hold the performer in contempt for not being what we know they're only pretending to be. A strange paradox.

Bergman could do no wrong at this stage of his career and although The Magician can't compare to the power and poignancy of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries it's still a thought-provoking piece of work; impeccably filmed in crisp monochrome and a fine cast including many regular Bergman collaborators.