Sunday, December 28, 2008

Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog has always been drawn to characters driven by obsessiveness and madness, as his six-film relationship with Klaus Kinski (himself not the most well-adjusted of individuals) testifies. ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’, both born of this collaboration, are films of almost operatic grandeur. But Herzog has also proved a clear-sighted documentarist.

(Um, when I say "clear-sighted", what I mean is Herzog goes hell for leather getting to the emotional and aesthetic truth of his subject - and if that means staging a few scenes, then fuck it, that's exactly what Herr Herzog will do. We'll return to this subject when ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’ crops up on the personal faves list.)

In ‘Grizzly Man’, Herzog finds a real-life subject the equal of any of his fictive protagonists. Timothy Treadwell spent thirteen summers in the "grizzly maze" of Alaska’s Katmai National Park, often directly contravening the regulations on camping and non-interaction with the wildlife. He shot over 100 hours of video footage, focusing as much on himself as on the bears.

Reviews of the film trot out the same descriptions of Treadwell: "environmentalist", "troubled loner". Herzog’s documentary also shows him as a lachrymose sentimentalist ("I love you," he croons to the bears, whom he gives babyish names like ‘Mr Chocolate’); a paranoid fantasist (encountering a team of photographers on a wildlife shoot, he immediately decries them as poachers; a smiley face graffiti'd on a rock engenders a flight of paranoia that would be funny if ‘Grizzly Man’ were a work of fiction) and a rampant egomaniac (he deems the Katmai National Park "my land" and declares himself "a kind warrior").

Herzog never entirely calls it either way, though. True, he accuses of Treadwell of "crossing the line" during an expletive-ridden rant about the Katmai National Park authorities; but he also delights in the (almost accidental) visual poetry of some of Treadwell's footage. Herzog is too much of a film-maker, too much of a crazed adventurer himself, not to appreciate Treadwell's commitment. He's also too intelligent, too much of a realist, not to recognise Treadwell's naivety.

That Treadwell was killed by a bear is not so much irony as inevitability. A native Alaskan, interviewed by Herzog, advocates "Our people have lived with the bears for 700 years - they stay away from us, we stay away from them." A jolting cut from Treadwell’s childish musings to footage of two grizzlies locked in combat reinforces the point: these are huge, powerful animals that kill for food. Respect them, yes, but don’t try to play with them.

When another interviewee assets that Treadwell got the death "he deserved", it sounds harsh. By the end of the documentary, you realise it’s simply a statement of fact. "This is not a nature film," Herzog says at the outset. Very true. ‘Grizzly Man’ is a study in madness and just as compelling as if Kinski were in the lead role.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Compliments of the season

Prior to heading off to pick up Paula's father (our guest for today), prior to introducing the turkey to the oven and assuring the roast potatoes and pigs in blankets of a similar fate, prior to steaming the veg (all done over a glass or two of sauvignon blanc - chef's perogative!); prior to the conversation and the jokes and the new Wallace & Gromit on BBC1 later tonight ('A Matter of Loaf and Death' - inspired!) ...

... a few minutes to fire up the computer, log on and wish everyone who reads, follows or links to these pages a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Paul Scofield

Kudos to BBC2 for tonight’s ‘Arena’ documentary on Paul Scofield, who died earlier this year.

Contributors included Simon Callow, Donald Sinden, Felicity Kendal and Nicolas Hytner, who directed Scofield in his final film role – Judge Danforth in ‘The Crucible’ – in 1996.

In the main, the documentary focused on his theatre work for the RSC, featuring some jaw-dropping archive footage, particularly of his performance as Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’.

Milos Forman’s adaptation, long a favourite of mine, has now been compromised for me. As memorable and as nuanced as F. Murray Abraham is, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it again without wondering how different – how much more compelling – it might have been with Scofield in the role.

Monday, December 22, 2008


When Steven Soderbergh made ‘Ocean’s 11’ in 2001, he was on a roll. After nearly a decade in the wilderness following his acclaimed debut ‘sex, lies and videotape’, he’d come storming back with uber-cool Elmore Leonard adaptation ‘Out of Sight’ in 1998, followed in rapid succession by ‘The Limey’ (still criminally underrated), ‘Erin Brockovich’ (a potential courtroom yawnfest that Soderbergh somehow made compelling*) and the multi-layered Oscar-winning ‘Traffic’.

Now I love all of those films, and it can be argued (quite easily it the case of, say, ‘Traffic) that all of them have more depth, more interest, more idiosyncracies – hell, just plain more to write about – than ‘Ocean’s 11’. In fact it wouldn’t be difficult to make a case for ‘Ocean’s 11’ as an incredibly entertaining but ultimately generic remake, file it under “style over substance” and move on.

But I would pick ‘Ocean’s 11’ over its stable mates any day. Several reasons.

It’s a pitch-perfect example of pure mainstream entertainment. You don’t need to think about it too much. You can kick back with a bowl of popcorn, crack a beer, relax and let 100 minutes of cool wash effortlessly over you. There’s plenty of films that fulfil the “pure entertainment” remit – most of them, in fact – but precious few that still manage to be supremely well-made and not insult the intelligence.

It improves on the original immeasurably. Lewis Milestone’s 1960 film was a ‘Rififi’-style crime caper teaming the Rat Pack with Sixties stalwarts Angie Dickinson, Richard Conte, Cesar Romero, Akim Tamiroff and Henry Silva; a classic in the making … or would have been had Milestone been able to shoot the film he wanted.

Sinatra and co. all had big room gigs at Vegas during the shooting and this, rather than the film, became their principle focus. Then there was the partying. We’re talking about the Rat Pack, after all. In Vegas. Analogy: imagine you’ve cast Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris in a movie shot around a brewery. How much usable footage do you think you’d get in the car each day of shooting?

Between his stars not turning up on set, and throwing out the script in favour of jokey ad-libbing when they did, the first ‘Ocean’s 11’ lost its chance at greatness. It’s still good fun, but a shroud of “what if” hangs over it.

Soderbergh, however, didn’t have such problems. The script for his version – by Ted Griffin – was tight as a snare drum (the reason there are no deleted scenes on the DVD is that everything slid together so perfectly: nothing about the script was redundant) and zinged with cool dialogue. The cast is top-notch: George Clooney**, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia (doing his best work in ages), Elliott Gould (ditto), Carl Reiner and Julia Roberts (the “introducing Julia Roberts” credit at the end is priceless). The second tier shine: Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan and Eddie Jemison hold their own against the big names.

Music, cinematography, production design, editing (want a masterclass on how to use a segue? watch this film) … everything melds smoothly and seamlessly.

I’ve used the word three times already, and it’s a tool of both the stoner and the lazy writer, but there really is no other way of describing ‘Ocean’s 11’: it’s cool.

Suavely, stylishly, seriously cool.

*As well as getting a career-best performance from Julia Roberts.

** ‘Ocean’s 11’ was the second of his six – so far – actor/director collaborations with Soderbergh.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Gary Cooper

Well, I did appeal for anything cinema related. My thanks to Viv Apple for giving The Agitation of the Mind its first poetry page. Her poem ‘Beau’ is a lovely tribute to the strength and integrity of Gary Cooper’s finest roles.


How did it happen? When?
There was no look across a crowded room,
no sudden surge of dizziness as our hands touched.

Was it High Noon, your eyes still steady
in the piercing light, when I first thought:
I love you, Gary Cooper?

Was it the way you looked at Ingrid Bergman
in those Spanish hills where bells tolled,
made me say I love you, Gary Cooper?

Or was it that Grand Gesture
of sacrifice to save another’s honour
with your own? And yet stealing that gem
was a mere fiction. What I saw besides
was who you are. I love you, Gary Cooper.

In your eyes I saw compassion in a playful scene.
Three brothers chase a mouse across the floor -
you raise the broom, but cannot
bring the weapon down to kill.
For that, I love you, Gary Cooper.

I won’t express such love in the past tense,
for death is no more vast than the big screen.
Tears at your Viking funeral, Beau Geste;
and still I love you, Gary Cooper.

by Viv Apple

Thursday, December 18, 2008

20 fearless actresses

Sorry: I’m a little tardy to the party on this one. And, not having been tagged by anyone, I’m doing my jumping on the bandwagon thing again. But, hey, it’s a boring afternoon at the office and my brain’s too torpid with ennui to write a proper entry, so here goes.

Film Experience Blog kicked off a “20 favourite actresses” meme a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my take on it. What follows is actually the third list I compiled. The first was, as per the remit, my 20 favourite actresses, but there was a lot of overlap with lists already compiled (check the links over at Film Experience Blog).

Then I … how to put this without sounding like a lecher? … compiled a list of 20 actresses who I consider particularly radiant, whose presence in a film, irrespective of quality of performance, engages me on a level that … Oh screw it, I’m digging a hole here and it’s about time I put the shovel down. Basically, I compiled a “most fanciable” list.

Then I decided I didn’t want to sleep on the sofa tonight, and came up with the idea of 20 actresses who have given fearless performances. Fearless emotionally, fearless sexually, fearless in terms of pushing the envelope beyond anything they’d done before. I’ve credited each of them with one film that, for me, best typifies the fearlessness of their performance.

In some cases – Isabelle Huppert or Jodie Foster or Julianne Moore, for instance – I could have reference numerous roles. That I’ve kept it at one is more out of fairness to say, Linda Hayden or Christina Lindberg, whose entire careers were saddled with nymphet eye-candy roles but both of whom went for it big time the one occasion they were given a real role.*

So, in no particular order:

Jodie Foster (The Accused)

Susan George (Straw Dogs)

Christina Lindberg (Thriller: A Cruel Picture)

Helen Mirren (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover)

Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive)

Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener)

Jennifer Connelly (Requiem for a Dream)

Linda Hayden (Blood on Satan’s Claw)

Paz Vega (Sex and Lucia)

Asia Argento (The Stendahl Syndrome)

Ingrid Thulin (The Silence)

Julie Christie (Don’t Look Now)

Kate Winslet (Heavenly Creatures)

Jung Suh (The Isle)

Samantha Morton (Under the Skin)

Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George)

Julianne Moore (Savage Grace)

Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves)

Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter)

Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher)

*I stand by Lindberg’s performance in ‘Thriller: A Cruel Picture’ as a real role, even if the film itself is firmly mired as a grubby little exploitationer.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Watch Christopher Nolan's second film 'Memento' - an out-of-nowhere cult hit that set him up for what has proved, so far, a stratospheric directorial career - and marvel at its cleverness, intricacy and structural legerdemain. Watch 'Batman Begins', the most impressive franchise re-boot this side of 'Casino Royale', and marvel at his sleight of hand vis-a-vis the identity of not-quite-villain Raz Al Ghul. Watch 'The Dark Knight' - in my humble opinion the best film released this year - and be utterly gobsmacked at the narrative-fracturing possibilities of one individual's force of will (the Joker's) smashing into the ordered and rigidly defined perameters of Batman's. Consider the themes of duality, confusion of identity and obsession that permeate Nolan's filmography.

It seems somehow inevitable that he and his brother and co-writer Jonathan Nolan would adapt Christopher Priest's novel 'The Prestige'. Using the word "adapt" loosely. Priest's novel flits between time-frames (it's bookended and mesologued by contemporarily-set scenes while the bulk of the narrative plays out amidst the greasepaint and gaslight of the Victorian music halls) and features four* different first-person narrators, none of whom are reliable. The unreliable narrator is a stock-in-trade of Priest's novels. He's also interested in perspective, illusion and doubles. He's a science-fiction writer (such genre staples as time travel, cloning and alternative histories have all featured in his work) whose novels don't read like sci-fi.

As written, 'The Prestige' doesn't come across as ripe for filming. With much of the first half devoted to working class magician Alfred Borden's diary, all fractured entries and elliptical clues, and the second consisting of aristocractic Rupert Angier's journal, just as sketchy and missing crucial bits of information, the narrative essentially stops halfway, goes back to the beginning and starts again.

What Nolan does is to take elements from both sections of the novel and shuffle them like a deck of cards. This is a film about illusions, and as such takes the form of an illusion itself. The opening sees impresario Cutter (Michael Caine) explain the stages of a magic trick - the promise, the turn and the prestige - to a young girl (who is she? - very important, this - and where, chronologically, does this occur?); he also gives evidence at the trial of Borden (Christian Bale), who is accused of murdering Angier (Hugh Jackman). Oh, and there's some business about a lot of top hats in a forest that comes on like 'Miller's Crossing' in a time-warp. Forest, what forest? And why so many hats? It's important; keep it in mind.

Do not take all of this at face value. Take some of it at deeper than face value. There are clues even in misdirections.

It's a film about illusions and it takes the form of an illusion, but 'The Prestige' isn't a parlour trick - not like 'The Village'. It's one of those rare films - 'Memento', 'A Tale of Two Sisters' and 'Deep Red' being the only other examples I can site off the top of my head - that get infinitely better once you know the twist. But, like those other films, it's not so much a twist as a complete re-evaluation and re-assessment of everything that's gone before it. The first time I saw 'The Prestige', me and Paula talked about it all the way back to the car, all the way home and all the way through a bottle of wine. Now, having seen it a good half dozen times, we still debate it after each viewing.

Of course, I can't get into a really interesting discussion of the film here and lay out some of the questions me and Paula only think we've answered, because I'd have to give away an audacious, jaw-dropping triple-whammy ending (I've spoken to some people who think it's a double-whammy ending; it's entirely possible it's a quadruple-whammy ending - like much of the film, it's up to the viewer to figure it out). And I want everyone who watches 'The Prestige' to be as blown away as I was by it.

So, I can take the easy way out and break out the superlatives, praise Christopher Nolan's faultless direction to the heavens, applaud a cluster of great performances - Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine and David Bowie (a revelation as Nikola Tesla), take a bow - and rave about the period recreation, the hugely atmospheric cinematography and the attention to detail that coheres what could have been a sprawling epic full of overlapping timelines and interrelationships into intimate drama.

Or I can say that the story is driven, superficially, by rivalry (which Nolan kicks into gear differently than Priest does, and perhaps more effectively) but is, on a deeper level, about obsession, about secrecy, about dualism. About price of success and the sacrifice that is demanded. There's a third-act revelation (or maybe second act, or maybe fifth act - you work it out) that demands a suspension of disbelief that may leave you thinking the Nolan has gone a twist too far, but the key to the film is not to take it literally. True, Priest's novel takes it literally - and then takes it even further (there's a definite H.G. Wells homage going on in the latter stages of the novel) - but Nolan's genius is to render it as a metaphor. After all, this is a film about the dualism. About sacrifice.

Does it agitate the mind? Oh, you sweet fucking-A betcha!!

*Or more.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Six degrees of happy birthday

According to IMDb, the following luminaries of the silver screen share a birthday today:

Tom Wilkinson, who starred in ‘In the Bedroom’, the debut movie of director Todd Field, who cast …

Jennifer Connelly in his follow-up ‘Little Children’, which co-starred Kate Winslet, who appeared in ‘Finding Neverland’ alongside Kelly Macdonald, whose co-star in ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ was …

Bill Nighy.

Frank Sinatra also has a birthday today, or would have done if he’d been alive. So I guess that allows me to say that for a pussy-whipped Mafia bagman he certainly cut some decent tunes without fear of a lawsuit.

A hit, however, is another matter.

Thank you and good night.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Sea Inside

My thanks to Viv Apple for the following article.

‘The Sea Inside’ has been compared with ‘Whose Life is it Anyway?’ because of its subject matter, assisted suicide. Never having seen ‘Whose Life?’, I can’t compare the two, but I would be surprised if this daunting subject could be handled with more sensitivity and truth than in Alejandro Amenabar’s supremely moving film, based on a true story.

Javier Bardem plays the part of Ramon Sampedro, a Spanish fisherman and part time poet who at the age of 26 suffered a diving accident which left him a paraplegic. Now 54, Ramon has lived for 28 years with his family: his father, macho brother Jose, sister-in-law Manuela who is his main carer, and their son Javi, who helps Ramon by transcribing his laboriously written-by-mouth words onto a computer. Although bedridden, Ramon can talk normally and still manages to smile for much of the time, enabling those around him to empathise more easily. But his inner pain is conveyed by occasional dream sequences in which he gets up and flies over the countryside to the sea, which he still loves.

Through a friend who works with a ‘Right to Die’ organisation, Ramon is introduced to Julia, a lawyer whom he hopes will take his case to the courts to let him end his life. His family, especially his brother and father, are strongly against this, and the film’s tensions arise from the relationship between Ramon and all those who love him and yet have different views on how to help him. Julia herself has a degenerative disease which influences her growing relationship with Ramon, and despite the objections of some family members, Ramon is taken in a wheelchair to the court hearing. On the way, the camera shows us through Ramon’s eyes little snippets of everyday life, and on his face we see the re-discovery of the outside world he has missed for so long: a small boy being reprimanded by his father for straying off the path, two dogs doing what dogs do, and tellingly, his eyes puzzling over the turning sails of a wind farm half-hidden by a hill. It is small details like these throughout the film which lift it out of the ordinary.

Every character in Ramon’s story has significance. I haven’t mentioned them all, or the equally significant events which accompany the story’s flow, not because it would spoil the plot - this is not a plot-driven film - but because it might dilute some of its richness. It is memorable because of each character’s closely observed interaction with Ramon, and with each other. The ending has a gentle, unexpectedly sad twist, but despite its downbeat theme the film is absorbing throughout. Javier Bardem’s performance without doubt deserves the Best Actor award received from the 2004 Venice Film Festival.

by Viv Apple

Saturday, November 29, 2008

This is England

Although it doesn't feature on the soundtrack, I couldn't help but hear 'This is England' by The Clash in my head as I sat down to watch Shane Meadows' film; in particular the snarlingly accusatory line "this is England / what we're supposed to die for".

Eight year old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose)'s father does just that: dies for his country in the Falklands War. The opening credits montage establishes the early 80s setting: clips from popular TV shows interspersed with newsreel footage of the social unrest that swept Britain during the Thatcher administration (I was still a couple of years shy of my teens back then but I remember the riots, the heavy-handness of authority).

Margaret Thatcher's presence is kept to a few shots in this sequence and the graffiti'd statement 'MAGGIE IS A TWAT' later in the film, but the legacy of her government hangs over the film like a dark spectre. This is the England I remember from my childhood: a country that was angry and spoiling for a fight, a country where racial epithets were common conversational currency.

Twenty odd years after the film was set (and having swallowed a hefty dose of political correctness in the 90s), the dialogue in 'This is England' is like a smack in the face (Channel 4, who screened it a few nights ago, broadcast a warning about the subject matter and language not just at the start, but during every commercial break). But again, it's just how I remember it. I recall friends of my father joking about "paki bashing"; the N-word was bandied about unashamedly. The National Front had an almost public face back then.

‘This is England’: agitates the mind and the memory.

Shaun, angry at his father's death and having difficulty communicating with his well-meaning but ineffectual mother, is bullied at school and subjected to tauts about his bereavement. Frustrated, painfully young and all too impressionable, Shaun's life takes a turn when he's befriended by a group of older lads, led by the locquacious Woody (Joe Gilgun). Soon he's having a whale of a time plinking away with a BB gun, getting a skinhead 'do, breaking into empty houses and committing random acts of vandalism.

Meadows shows both sides: the insubstantiality of this kind of lifestyle; and the sense of cameradie that comes of being part of a group or a gang; being accepted. Then things take a darker turn.

Woody's mate Combo (Stephen Graham) gets out of prison, having done a three stretch and kept shtum about things that would have implicated Woody, and renews old acquaintances. Combo's yer full-on skinhead, immediately showing up Woody and his gang as a bunch of kids in it for the image. Combo's dangerous, unpredictable and NF to the core. He's also eloquent and charismatic. He becomes a father figure to Shaun.

Combo enters the film at just under the halfway mark and things are never the same again - for Shaun or the audience. Stephen Graham's performance is like watching a snake: you're not all that keen on what you're looking it, but it's somehow mesmerising. His agitprop speech, a queasy bit of white supremastist rhetoric which repels even beholden-to-him Woody, is the dark centrepiece of 'This is England'. Meadows engages with his dangerous and controversial theme, his directorial approach that of a witness, not a moralist. He is intelligent enough not to preach to his audience.

'This is England' tells some unpalatable truths about cultural identity in Britain's not-so-distant past, and as such is not an easy film to watch. But nor is it without humour; and it's definitely not without a sense of tenderness towards its young, misinformed protagonist. After an up-and-down career following his superb debut 'TwentyFourSeven', this puts Meadows at the top of his game.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The ABC of literary adaptations

Give me a hand up while I climb on the bandwagon.

The Alphabet Meme, originated over at Blog Cabins, works according to the following rules:

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles.

3. Return of the Jedi belongs under "R," not "S" as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with "S." Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under "R," not "I" as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the LOTR series belong under "L" and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under "C," as that's what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

6. If you're selected, you have to then select 5 more people.

I should ’fess up here: I haven’t actually been tagged. But to quote McWatt in ‘Catch-22’, “Oh well, what the hell.”

Here’s my ABC of literary adaptations. Links where reviews have already been posted, reviews of the remainder to follow in due course:

All the Pretty Horses (Billy Bob Thornton, 2000; based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy)

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982; based on the novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K Dick)

Clockwork Orange, A (Stanley Kubrick, 1971; based on the novel by Anthony Burgess)

Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972; based on the novel by James Dickey)

Exorcist, The (William Friedkin, 1973; based on the novel by William Peter Blatty)

Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999; based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)

Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946; based on the novel by Charles Dickens)

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The (Garth Jennings, 2005; based on the novel by Douglas Adams)

Innocents, The (Jack Clayton, 1961; based on the novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James)

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975; based on the novel by Peter Benchley)

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Robert Bierman, 1997; based on the novel by George Orwell)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997; based on the novel by James Ellroy)

Man Who Would be King, The (John Huston, 1975; based on the short story by Rudyard Kipling)

No Country for Old Men (Coen Bros, 2007; based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy)

Our Man in Havana (Carol Reed, 1959; based on the novel by Graham Greene)

Prestige, The (Christopher Nolan, 2006; based on the novel by Christopher Priest)

Quiet Man, The (John Ford, 1952; based on the short story by Maurice Walsh)

Remains of the Day, The (James Ivory, 1993; based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro)

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960; based on the novel by Alan Sillitoe)

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007; based on the novel ‘Oil!’ by Upton Sinclair)

Under the Volcano (John Huston, 1984; based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry)

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958; based on the novel ‘D’Entre les Morts’ by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac)

Whisky Galore (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949; based on the novel by Compton McKenzie)

XXY (Lucia Puenzo, 2007; based on the short story ‘Cinismo’ by Sergio Bizzio)

You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967; based on the novel by Ian Fleming)

Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969; based on the novel by Vasilis Vasilikos)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: That Obscure Object of Desire

Starting with the title, let’s ask: the object of whose desire, and how come she’s so obscure? Our, ahem, ‘hero’ and narrator Mathieu (the incomparable Fernando Rey) is the man who’s got it bad. The object (how flattering a term!) is dancer Conchita, and so skewed is Mathieu’s perspective that he sees her as two women. One, voluptuous and sensual (played by Angela Molina) inflames his passions; the other, elegant and cool to the point of icy (Carole Bouquet), continually denies him.

We’re in Luis Bunuel territory, all right.

The usual targets are lined up (Bunuel’s films often come across as the cinematic equivalent of a shooting range): the middle classes* (Mathieu is a wealthy businessman who utilises his contacts in the legal profession to get his way – or resorts to bribery if that fails); the church (Conchita’s supposedly God-fearing mother takes Mathieu up on a financial offer vis-à-vis her daughter); and the state (the battle of the sexes is played out against a backdrop of terrorist activity).

This is a film that could have been made this year and would have proved scathingly satirical and ridden to box office glory on a wave of controversy. Bunuel made it thirty-one years ago.

Mathieu narrates his saga of desire and frustration to his fellow passengers during a train journey. Present in his compartment – and sly personifications of these themes – are a lawyer (officialdom), a psychiatrist (apposite, given the nature of Mathieu’s obsession and the duality of his perception of Conchita), and a mother and daughter (symbolic of the family unit Mathieu is bastardising in buying off Conchita’s mother). The funniest scene in the film has the teenage daughter brusquely sent out into the corridor as Mathieu describes his night of non-consummation.

Presupposing Steve Martin’s hilarious almost-couplings with Kathleen Turner in ‘The Man With Two Brains’, Mathieu very nearly gets his way. Conchita, furious at her mother’s bargain with Mathieu, nonetheless agrees to live with him but begins treating him as little more than a sugar daddy, sponging off him while holding out against the necessity of intercourse for as long as possible.

Their first night sees him enter the bedroom with Conchita (Molina); she excuses herself to the bathroom and dons a nightgown, leaving it unbuttoned, her décolletage exposed. The Conchita who rejoins him (Bouquet) is dressed demurely and allows him the briefest of caresses before saying, “Not yet, I’m not in the mood now.”

Mathieu becomes forceful. Conchita acquiesces, but insists he extinguish the candles. “Don’t celebrate your victory too soon,” she warns as darkness embraces them. Grunting in shock, he stumbles out of bed and re-illuminates the candles. Beneath her nightdress, a silken arrangement of ribbons and bows; quite alluring, but preventative in its design. Or, to put it bluntly, if Ann Summers had designed a chastity belt, that’s what Mathieu finds himself doing battle with.

“I struggled with it for fifteen minutes,” he tells his fellow passengers sadly. “I was incensed … It was impossible to remove it.”

The final bitter joke of ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’ is, of course, that Mathieu never gets his wicked little way. Bunuel’s subject is the concept of a woman for whom one’s passion is unrequited as having two sides: the yin and yang of erotic allure and physical unattainability. Casting two actresses in the same role is the perfect realisation. And in structuring an entire film around a besotted man being denied sex, Bunuel achieves cinema’s most absolute – and phenomenally witty – comment on sexual frustration.

*Not for nothing is one of his most famous works entitled ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise’.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: Great name for a porn star, eh?

It’s a year to the day since I started The Agitation of the Mind and I’d planned on posting a rambling kind of entry yesterday about the hit-and-miss ratio of new material on the site and how I see the blog progressing, then following up with a review of one of the Personal Faves today.

However, a dinner party yesterday evening for my sister-in-law and her partner turned into something of an all-nighter, the conversation flowing, the wine really flowing, and some good whisky doing the rounds just for good measure. That I made it into work today is a feat. That I didn’t get fired owing to the state I was in is miraculous.

So, the rambling kind of entry will have to do as The Agitation of the Mind’s birthday present, and the Personal Faves article will have to wait for the weekend.

’Kay. Let the ramble commence. I’ll get the unfortunately necessary blowing-of-one’s-own-trumpet bit out of the way first:

Outside of blogging, I have published three books on cinema: ‘The Films of Sam Peckinpah’, ‘One Hundred Violent Films That Changed Cinema’ and – don’t tell my mother I wrote this one, she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse – ‘One Hundred Sex Scenes That Changed Cinema’. I wrote that one for the money, honest.

They’re all available through Amazon; the Peckinpah one is the best.

(Parenthetically, ‘Violent Films’ got a write-up on Mr Wonderful’s Review Of Books just last month. Here’s an excerpt: “Being that the author is British, more British films are included in his listings than a jingoistic American might have thought proper. Also, the British author, Neil Fulwood (great name for a porn star eh?) sides with the far left politically in the United States, and oddly expresses more hatred for war than is typically expressed by the actual opponents in a war.” So there you have it: I’m left-wing peacenik limey who ought to be starring in Bareback Mountain 3.)

These books were published between 2001 and 2003. Although I pitched several other ideas – a critique of Steven Soderbergh’s oeuvre, a study of the Ealing films, something on Powell & Pressburger – no further commissions were forthcoming and, beyond the odd poem or review in the small press, I’ve published nothing since.

Four years ago, I tried my hand at a novel. A crime thriller. Had a blast writing it, but the narrative was swamped with backstory and I struggled with the discipline of maintaining a constant output over the weeks and months it takes to complete a 90,000 word manuscript.

Since then, I’ve had three more tries at writing a novel. I fell by the wayside each time. A couple of months ago, I came up with (in my humble opinion) a fucking great idea. I’m not going to say anything about it because I can see no surer way of jinxing myself. I held off commencing work while I thought it through, made notes, got my head around the narrative arc, let the characters develop in my imagination. I also held off because I was apprehensive about starting. I didn’t want to fuck up again.

Last month, however, I started writing and, with only a couple of lapses I’ve kept to a discipline of working on the project for an hour each evening. This, along with the day job, car problems and (amazingly) a still-functional social life, has left me with little time to write for The Agitation of the Mind (although the brief burst of Hallowe’en activity was fun: I enjoyed dashing off those impromptu pieces).

What I don’t want to do is abandon the blog or let it stagnate. I enjoy it too much. So, for the next few months at least (I’m not confident to speculate on how long the novel will take), I’ll endeavour to post at least one new article per week at some point during the weekend. Ideally, I’d like to feature more material than that, so I’ll end the ramble on an open offer:

If anyone wants to contribute an article – long, short, whatever: I don’t mind if you send me a haiku on an epic – on anything cinema related, please email it, in Word format, to with the title in the subject box. Any editing will be with your agreement, and authorship will be acknowledged (unless you want to do the Anon thing). Over to you.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A rare political interlude

Dear Mr Obama

Congratulations on your election victory. The phrase “making history” is often bandied about in the media, usually out of context and always with the tang of hyperbole.

In your case, however, it happens to be a simple statement of fact.

It is not just remarkable because of your ethnicity and comparative youth; the sheer scale of voter turnout is perhaps unprecedented and represents a laudable pro-activeness on the part of the American public. Your victory represents a massive sea-change in American thinking. Your administration has the opportunity to fulfil an equally positive sea-change in American politics.

I will confess to having always been sceptical about politics. Here in my native England, I have never voted for anyone; I have always used my vote as a vote against. Your countrymen, however, have overwhelmingly voted for.

It has long been my opinion that a politician – however progressive and humanitarian their principles and policies – is still shackled to the huge machinery of government and that by ascending to leadership of a party, or of a country, they have automatically received custodianship of a poisoned chalice; have already become compromised.

I think – I hope – that you have the potential to prove me wrong on this.

You also have the potential to re-represent America to the rest of the world (indeed, you have already begun doing this). You have the potential steer America away from the course your predecessor so ill-advisedly set it on.

Good luck and good wishes,

Neil Fulwood

Friday, October 31, 2008

Hallowe'en Triple Bill

The glow-in-the-dark bats are glowing in the dark, the illuminated pumpkin is trying to disassociate itself from how crap a movie 'Halloween III: Season of the Witch' is, the nibbles are arrayed in bowls on the coffee table, the wine is poured and Paula pulls the first title out of the witches' cauldron.

Way-hey! One from the faves list.

PERSONAL FAVES: A Tale of Two Sisters

Getting the triple bill in and posting before midnight means thumbnail write-ups and this film suits brevity down to the ground. There's almost nothing you can say about it - you certainly can't get into a discussion about director Kim Jee-Woon's genius for misdirection and the keeping of crucial things under wraps - without spoiling the twist.

Although perhaps twist is the wrong word. Twist implies something that's thrown in at the last minute to take you by surprise. What 'A Tale of Two Sisters' has is one fuck-off big hum-dinger of a narrative development; it comes about two-thirds of the way through and forces you to re-evaluate everything you've seen up to this point. But Jee-Woon's not satisfied with that and the last half hour or so takes the film into ever darker territory.

Giving nothing away, I'll just say this: it's about guilt (this applies to more than one character); you might think that one of the characters is a ghost (they kind of are and aren't); pay attention to the cringeingly embarrassing dinner party (it's all about perspectives: who sees what).

It's a beautifully shot, incredibly well acted and infinitely creepy piece of work. It proves that 'The Ring' doesn't necessarily have the monopoly on freaky women with lank black hair creeping slowly towards you. It blends psychological horror with arguably the best take on the haunted house movie since Robert Wise's 'The Haunting'. It yields up its many facets and ambiguities with repeated viewings: think 'Memento' or 'The Prestige', but with the requirement that you shelter behind the sofa to watch much of it.


A short break, the topping up of drinks, a bit of mood music ('Danse Macabre' by Saint-Saens), then the next title is drawn:

Land of the Dead

The most maligned of Romero's zombie sequence (even the decidedly hit-and-miss 'Diary of the Dead' got better reviews). Nonetheless, 'Land of the Dead' is a film I enjoy for its socio-political themes, and one that I see as the logical conclusion of the critique of Americana that spans 'Night', 'Dawn' and 'Day' and pretty much makes 'Diary' superfluous. The zombies evolve, fall in behind a leader, revenge themselves on a surviving core of humanity who have become so inured they treat the living dead as sideshow entertainments. Maybe it should have been called 'Sympathy for the Dead'.

Plenty to love: Asia Argento's tough-chick performance; the 'Shaun of the Dead' stars in an inspired cameo; supporting roles by Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo ("I still prefer him as Chichi," Paula comments*). Then there's the whole post-9/11 American insularity subtext ...

But enough. My musings on Romero's ground-breaking sequence have already been documented on this blog, here, here, here, here and here.


Another short break, another gothic tune (Mussorgsky's 'Night on the Bare Mountain'), then it's heads-down-and-see-you-at-the-end. Here we go: the final title is picked.


The Addams Family

Barry Sonnenfeld: a master of style over substance. Yes, 'The Addams Family' looks great. Yes, everyone's perfectly cast. Yes, it's a pleasant little diversion after the head-fuck of 'A Tale of Two Sisters' and the viscera of 'Land of the Dead', but I find myself wishing it was the sequel, with its gloriously subversive summer camp subplot and expanded role for Christina Ricci's deliciously deadpan Wednesday, that we were watching.

* 'To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar' up next on The Agitation of the Mind? Watch this space.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

All Hallows Eve

Hallowe’en tomorrow, and it’s looking set to be an appropriately cold and frosty night. Nonetheless, the little darlings will doubtless be out and about, done up as witches and wizards, ghosts and goblins, vampires and vegetables (I’m guessing pumpkins count as a vegetable … anything to keep the alliteration going). Kids ringing doorbells, singing out “Trick or treat”, racing happily off with handfuls of sweets and chocolate …

Well, maybe in other neighbourhoods. Round here it’ll be a gang of hoodies wanting money. So the gate will be chained, noises outside ignored, the lights dimmed and we’ll settle down to our own Hallowe’en celebrations:

There will be alcohol (red wine, natch, served in the wineglasses decorated with pewter representations of the grim reaper … a present a few years ago from my aunt*).

There will be nibbles.

There will be a DVD triple-bill. A cheapie plastic witches cauldron has been acquired (along with some glow-in-the-dark plastic bats and an illuminated plastic pumpkin) into which we have placed folded-up squares of paper bearing the titles of all the films in our collection apposite to the occasion. Including spoofy stuff like ‘Slither’ and ‘Eight Legged Freaks’, and is-it-or-isn’t-it hybrids like ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’: is it a crime caper? is it a vampire flick? is it spoof? (answer: who cares, it’s got George Clooney, Harvey Keitel and Salma Hayek doing a snake dance in string bikini …).

Three titles will be drawn at random and watched back-to-back. I’ll be logging on just before midnight with a witches’ brew of a posting.

*You can’t get further from the twin-set and weak-cups-of-tea cliché of a maiden aunt than my Auntie Carole: her taste in films is even more esoteric than mine, she loves horror novels, and thinks Ozzy Osbourne is cool.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Switchblade Romance

After the remarks I made about the likes of ‘Hostel’ in last night’s entry, perhaps a tip of the chapeau is in order to a film that is unapologetically of that ilk … and that works brutally, brilliantly and memorably.

To whit, ‘Switchblade Romance’.

I can only assume that director and co-writer Alexandre Aja set himself the task of bringing to the screen the most extreme, graphically violent, unnecessarily gratuitous, utterly amoral exploitation movie he could possibly envisage. If so, the result is an unqualified success.

Take the home invasion scenario familiar to viewers of everything from ‘Extremities’ to ‘Straw Dogs’; add a dash of vengeful heroine turning the tables (‘I Spit on Your Grave’, ‘Halloween H20’); introduce a homicidal, motiveless truck driver (‘Duel’, ‘Jeepers Creepers’); finish with a facially-scarred monstrosity intent on using a power tool in a most unorthodox manner (‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’). Make no mistake, ‘Switchblade Romance’ is a hugely derivative film. It also boasts at least four sequences which rank amongst the most unbearably tense set-pieces in the horror genre.

What frustrates and delights in equal measure is how schizophrenic a viewing experience it is. For every moment that leaves you digging your fingernails into the nearest available surface (be it the seat rest or your partner’s arm), there's another that’s so contrived and unrelenting in its bloodletting that it makes the House of Blue Leaves centrepiece from ‘Kill Bill’ look like cinema-verite. For every genuinely original touch, there’s a cliche so shamelessly evoked that it virtually has a trademark symbol next to it.

The finale, in particular (as brilliant a spoof of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ as it is) threatens to elicit sniggers when it should make you gasp. The much-vaunted twist ending is self-evident from the outset (three clues: the title, the pre-credits ‘dream’ sequence, the empty swing outside the farmhouse).

So what does ‘Switchblade Romance’ have to recommend it? Plenty, actually: energy, immediacy, iconography, a knowing sense of irony, and a full-tilt commitment to narrative. Whereas ‘Hostel’ sent me out of the cinema feeling slightly soiled, ‘Switchblade Romance’ fucked with my head, kneed me in the solar plexus and gave me a damn good kicking as I crawled for the exit.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


The first time I saw ‘The Exorcist’, I was eighteen. It was 1990 and the film was still a good few years away from its video-ban repeal. One of the cinemas in Nottingham held a midnight screening – the Odeon or the ABC, I can’t remember which. Both closed in the last decade.

At eighteen, my interest in horror movies was at its height. Of late, and I know exactly why (it was called ‘Hostel’ and left me wondering why I’d wasted an hour and a half of my life on it), there has been something of a parting of the ways between me and the horror genre, particularly its vicious offspring the ‘torture porn’ film.

Thus the likes of ‘Captivity’, ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Eden Lake’ have come and gone without tempting me into my local multiplex.

Looking back through over 130 entries on The Agitation of the Mind, horror film write-ups only barely edge into the double figures: Romero’s ‘Dead’ sequence, a handful of gialli, ‘Freaks’, ‘The Orphanage’, ‘Tremors’ … that’s about it.

But I still enjoy a scary movie – there’s at least half a dozen on the personal faves list – it’s just that gore as a raison d’etre doesn’t interest me anymore. In context, as in John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, viscera is a powerful aesthetic tool (oops, I’m straying into the kind of pseudy pontificating I started The Agitation of the Mind to get away from!). But it needs to be backed up by character and atmosphere or by the kind of psychologically-based terror that is so much more effective than any of Eli Roth’s graphic blood-lettings.

‘The Exorcist’ is a gore-free film. Sure, it has projectile pea-soup vomiting and the possessed Regan (Linda Blair) doing something rather irreligious with a crucifix, but the horror comes from its intelligent study of the nature of – and conflict between – good and evil.

And it delivers some memorably creepy scenes that aren’t supernatural:

* The wild dogs in frenzy as Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) gazes at the statue of Pazuzu in the Iraq-set opening sequence.

* Father Karras (Jason Miller) visiting his mother in hospital, lunatics grabbing at him as he enters the ward.

* A group of nuns walking along a suburban street as the wind blows leaves around them and Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ plays on the soundtrack (a combination of atmosphere, music and a sense of impending dread that always creeps me out).

* Regan – her mother still searching for a medical solution to her ‘condition’ – hospitalised for a brain scan. Not a hint of the otherworldly, but the harsh, clinical way William Friedkin films this scene leaves me feeling queasy every time I watch it.

* Merrin stepping out of a cab and pausing momentarily, silhouetted by a streetlight, before approaching the McNeil residence: a deliberately painterly image (the use of light is inspired by the canvasses of Rene Magritte), but hugely iconic.

This is perhaps the key to Friedkin’s genius*: this is a film about possession and exorcism, about the testing of faith by satanic evil, that is shot through with such documentary clarity that you can easily forget it’s a horror film. Perhaps, ultimately, it isn’t. But, importantly, it scared the crap out of me at eighteen, and it continues to scare the crap out of me now.

*Caveat: when I use the words ‘Friedkin’ and ‘genuis’ in the same sentence, it’s in reference to this film or ‘The French Connection’. Catch me doing it anywhere else in the Friedkin filmography and you’re more than welcome to leave a very vehement comment.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Damned

On the night of 30th June 1934, Nazi troops moved against Ernst Rohm’s paramilitary SA (Sturmabteilung) in a putsch that lasted three days and saw over 85 deaths. Hitler’s antagonism against the SA owed to their continued independence; the putsch was also an excuse for striking at his critics, demonstrating the force and deadly efficiency of his own SS troups, and consolidating his power base.

The carefully orchestrated coup was called Operation Hummingbird, but has gone down in history as the Night of the Long Knives.

This nefarious moment in German history provides the 20-minute centrepiece to Luchino Visconti’s ‘The Damned’. Subtitled ‘Götterdämmerung’ (trans. “twilight of the gods”), the Wagnerian reference is apposite. Visconti’s film is operatic to the point of being overwrought, particularly in its increasingly melodramatic last half hour.

The stage upon which this opera of Nazi-ism, power struggles, sexual ambiguities and compromised morality plays out is the Essenbeck Steelworks, owned by a powerful industrial family whose political allegiance is important to Machiavellian SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). ‘The Damned’ opens with a birthday party for the ageing Baron von Essenbeck who announces his retirement, leading to instantly fractured interrelationships inside and outside of the family as the appointment of the new director of the company hangs in the balance.

The rank outsider* in all of this is Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde); however, he has two aces up his sleeve: his relationship with the Baron’s widowed daughter, Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), and the backing of Aschenbach.

Through Aschenbach’s machinations and Sophie’s borderline erotic manipulation of her sexually confused son Martin (Helmut Berger) – whose predilections range from cross-dressing to paedophilia to mother-fixation – Bruckmann is appointed director of the steelworks. But it’s not long before his obsession with complete control over both firm and family – not to mention his reluctance to take the political hard line that his deal with the devil (or rather his suave earthly representative Aschenbach) requires – leads to his downfall.

Bogarde excels as Bruckmann: a vivid, complex study of ambition, fear, moral cowardice, desperation and, finally, abject defeat. Ingrid Thulin goes a wee bit ‘Lady Macbeth’ towards the end, but by this point Visconti’s shovelling on the theatrics like there’s tomorrow. Helmut Berger, Visconti’s homo-erotic camera clearly favouring him over the rest of the cast, gives a memorable performance if sometimes for the wrong reasons; but there’s no doubt that he gets across Martin’s vicious amorality.

Further down the cast list, Umberto Orsini and Charlotte Rampling deliver compelling turns.

But it’s Helmut Griem who eclipses even Bogarde. “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” to quote ‘Hamlet’. Aschenbach smiles, and smiles, and soothes, and coerces and chills. Martin’s demonic ascension and engineering of Bruckmann and Sophie’s fate is nothing but the movement of Aschenbach pulling the strings. Griem plays him with infinite charm and assured understatement. Amidst the emotional excesses of Visconti’s lurid epic, he’s the calm centre of stillness, composure and complete ruthlessness.

*Readers of Sheridan Morley’s book on Dirk Bogarde’s early career will, I hope, forgive the pun.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ill Met by Moonlight

By 1957, Powell and Pressburger were moving towards the annulment of their partnership. It had been an almost decade-long decline.

‘Gone to Earth’ was a slab of melodrama, ‘The Elusive Pimpernel’ a bit of pantomime camp, ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’ a failed attempt to recapture the magnificence of ‘The Red Shoes’, and ‘O … Rosalinda!!’ a self-indulgent flop, audiences showing either a singular lack of interest in operetta or an understandable caution in approaching films with three exclamation marks in the title.

Their last two outings were a return to the war movies that had made their name; but whereas the eight-film run of classics between ‘The Spy in Black’ in 1939 and the ‘A
Matter of Life and Death’
in 1946 were made during the war years (the latter in production just as the war was reaching its conclusion), ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ and ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’ came ten years afterwards: would that curious alchemy which made art of the propaganda film still function in retrospect?

Well, not with ‘The Battle of the River Plate’. Although a decent enough account overall of the sinking of the Graf Spree, Powell’s decision to film the movements of ships at sea resulted a highly cinematic footage utterly at odds with the patently studio-bound falsity of the rest of the film.

Which leaves us with ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’, their swansong, its box-office swelled by Dirk Bogarde in his dishy, matinee-idol prime, and again another account of an actual incident from the war.

The source material was a book by W. Stanley Moss recounting the exploits in Crete of Major (now Sir) Patrick Leigh-Fermor, an authentically individualistic English hero (as T.E. Lawrence to the desert, so Leigh-Fermor to the Mediterranean), and his successful kidnap of a high ranking German officer.

Powell and Pressburger’s take on Leigh-Fermor is romanticism writ large. Bogarde’s swooning performance is entirely in keeping with the sense of hero-worship with which Powell saturates the film. P&P favourite Marius Goring essays the German general with distinctly more gravitas.

And herein lies the enigma (and pleasure) of the film. Goring’s career office is a professional, but courteous with it: a Nazi and a gentleman. (P&P had been daring enough to portray ‘good’ Germans even in the war years: the harmless Vogel (Niall MacGinnis) in ‘49th Parallel’ and the dignified Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’.) Leigh-Fermor, however, is portrayed as a gentleman amateur. Ian Christie, in his wonderful study of Powell and Pressburger’s films, ‘Arrows of Desire’, describes Bogarde/Leigh-Fermor as “dressed as a comic-opera bandit when we first see him”. He goes on:

“… the whole story is framed, not only by its Shakespearean title but by a reference to the Odyssey … If the [film’s] realization does not live up to its promise or ambition, it remains nonetheless an intriguing stage in the military ideology that runs from Blimp … a defiant assertion of the gentleman-amateur ideal at a time when Britain was learning its new role in the world of superpower conflict and the end of Empire” (‘Arrows of Desire’, Faber & Faber, p.78).

Which is absolutely spot-on. Everything from Bogarde’s dashing leading man status to Goring’s good grace in defeat to the studied poignancy of the ending (the German officer tries to ‘buy’ the affections of a local Cretan child, with a view to leaving clues to his whereabouts, only for the lad – his loyalties hitherto in doubt – to be revealed as unswayable in his devotion to Leigh-Fermor). Which only makes the film’s far-and-away best scene that much more effective in its swift, no-nonsense efficiency.

Leigh-Fermor visits his contact, a dentist, in a Nazi-held town. Unbeknownst to him, he is followed. When the Nazi patrol (its sergeant a young Christopher Lee, speaking German like a native) burst in, Leigh-Fermor finds himself hustled into the dentist’s chair, a white bib-like cloth draped around his neck. Terrified of dentists, L-F plays along, not batting an eyelid when the patrol come stomping in, but losing his cool as soon as the dentist, hands shaking from fear, starts up the drill. The Nazi sergeant has his suspicions and pulls the cloth from his neck; L-F is clutching a pistol under it. He summarily executes the German soldiers. There’s nothing do-or-die or remotely heroic about the scene; he does it because he’s scared of dentists.

Seven years after ‘The Blue Lamp’ and just five after ‘Hunted’, and a full decade or more before the darker characterisations of ‘The Damned’ and ‘The Night Porter’, the anti-romantic-hero element of Bogarde’s cinematic persona is revealed in a brief lightning flash. So too the adaptability and menacing screen presence of Christopher Lee. And between them, a scene effective enough to transform what could have been Powell and Pressburger’s death rattle into a respectable send-off.

Friday, October 10, 2008

These Foolish Things

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘Despair’ (1978) was almost Dirk Bogarde’s last film, an experience that soured his already sceptical feelings about film-making. Fassbinder re-edited the film drastically, despite his star’s preference of the original cut. “He fucked up my performance” was Bogarde's blunt assessment during the BBC interview ‘By Myself’ which aired shortly after he received his knighthood in 1992.

He withdrew to Clermont, his house in France (referred to in the autobiographies as Le Pigeonnier) and concentrated his efforts on his writing, only taking the occasional bit of television work out of financial necessity. Directors continued to offer him scripts; Bogarde inevitably politely declined.

Fortunately for cineastes, Bertrand Tavernier tempted him out of retirement in 1990, a full twelve years since he had last appeared before a movie camera, with the lead role in the intimate family drama ‘These Foolish Things’ (or ‘Daddy Nostalgie’ to use the indigenous title).
‘These Foolish Things’ is the better title. ‘Daddy Nostalgie’ hints at a certain sentimentality. Nothing could be further from Tavernier’s aesthetic. There is not a trace of false emotion here.
Tony* (Bogarde) is a well-travelled Englishman living out his retirement in seaside villa in France which he shares with his humourless and emotionally inexpressive French wife Miche (Odette Laure). Following an operation, Tony finds himself almost housebound. As he supposed recuperation progresses, it becomes apparent that the surgery might not have been successful.
The couple’s all-but-estranged daughter Caroline (Jane Birkin) returns to the villa to stay with them and help nurse her ailing father. For the first time in their respective lives, father and daughter get to know each other. The poignancy of their relationship has its counterpoint in Tony and Miche’s fractious marriage.

With its deceptively slight narrative and numerous scenes of marital disharmony, ‘These Foolish Things’ could easily have been tedious, talky and decidedly uncinematic. Three things redeem it: the beautiful widescreen cinematography, effortlessly establishing location and mood; Tavernier’s intelligent handling of a fine, literate screenplay by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan; and Dirk Bogarde, giving his finest performance since ‘Death in Venice’. Waspish, sarcastic and yet, at heart, utterly vulnerable, Bogarde’s characterisation of Tony is multi-layered and completely real.

‘These Foolish Things’ is about a man in the twilight of his years. It is illuminated by one of Bogarde’s most desperately moving performances (kudos to Laure and Birkin, too; the film is, after all, a chamber piece) and stands as a fitting swansong to a great actor.

*And how bittersweet must it have been for Bogarde to play a character with the same first name as his then-deceased partner of fifty years, Anthony Forwood?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: Death in Venice

Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ had already been adapted, operatically, by Benjamin Britten before Luchino Visconti came to film it in 1971. Both Britten and Visconti were gay, which perhaps accounts for the common misconception that the film is about an old man’s obsessive lust for a boy barely in his teens.

Wrong. The film, like its literary source, is about many things, not least the nature of art and beauty and the thorny question of where, between the two, the humanity of the artist resides. There is nothing perverse or cynical about the film. For all of its melancholy it is, in fact, one of the most beautiful works of film art in the history of the medium.

Mann’s novella was inspired by the author’s encounter with Gustav Mahler during a train journey. Shocked at Mahler’s physical appearance (the haggard Aschenbach at the end of the story, powdered, a line of mascara running down his face, is Mann’s fictive approximation). And it was for the purposes of fiction that the character became Gustav von Aschenbach, a writer of books, not of music.

A director whose forte was his immaculate attention to detail, particularly in the observation of social rituals (the minutiae of Mann’s descriptions are captured in vivid and poetic images), Visconti’s film is a faithful adaptation but for one crucial alteration.

The director’s most decisive aesthetic decision was to allay the character more closely with the man who inspired him. Thus the Aschenbach of the film is a composer - moreover, by dint of the soundtrack, Aschenbach is Mahler. Evocative use is made of his Third and Fifth Symphonies, particularly the latter’s adagietto. (Even Karajan, a non-Mahlerian, was taken by the film enough to record the Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic.)

Visconti also adds a series of flashbacks which concern, variously, Aschenbach’s attitude to his art, the death of his beloved infant daughter (viewed in this light, the effeminate young boy Tadzio [Bjorn Andresen], of an age Aschenbach’s daughter would have been, becomes almost a replacement for the composer’s fatherly devotion), and his debasement in the boudoir of a hooker - this last being the event that instils in him an obsession with cerebral and artistic purity and dignity.

A key flashback sees him in heated debate with Alfred (Mark Burns), a fellow composer:

Aschenbach: The creation of beauty and purity is a spiritual act.

Alfried: No, Gustav. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.

Aschenbach: You cannot reach the spirit from the senses. It’s only through complete domination of the senses that you can achieve wisdom, truth and purity.

At the risk of oversimplifying a deep, profound and thought-provoking film, ‘Death in Venice’ is about an artist who, suffering from nervous exhaustion, takes a supposedly recuperative sojourn only to be confronted with a vision of purity and beauty, but one that, by definition of his reaction to it, completely invalidates the principles by which he has tried to live.

The last half hour is shattering. Scenes dealing with Aschenbach’s increasing bad health, played out against a plague-ridden Venice stained with disinfectant and ravaged by fires, bookend the final flashback sequence, which demonstrates Aschenbach’s failure as an artist and public vilification.

Throughout, Dirk Bogarde’s performance as Aschenbach has been perfectly nuanced and intricately mannered, suggesting through the minimum of dialogue (he is onscreen the whole time, but entire stretches of the film pass without him uttering a word) the brittleness and emotional void of a man who has kept his humanity tightly under wraps. The last quarter of the film, however, is acting on another level. Bogarde progressively tears away layer after layer of his character, culminating in a moment of heart-breaking acceptance as Aschenbach finally attempts to reach out to someone only for it to be too late. He slumps back into his deckchair; the man and the artist are dead. It is arguably one of the most moving death scenes that any actor has played.

For Bogarde, Aschenbach was more than just a role:

The five months of work on ‘Death in Venice’ had been the hardest I had ever known for stress and mental strain; daily I had struggled with a personality … who had overwhelmed me to such an extent that every single function I performed in my daily life was as he would have done. I was never without his influence at any time, even in sleep. - Dirk Bogarde, ‘An Orderly Man’, chapter 1.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Bridge Too Far

It's easy to see how Richard Attenborough's 'A Bridge Too Far', based on Cornelius Ryan's exhaustive account of Arnhem debacle Operation Market-Garden, was intended as a corrective to the big-budget, all-star-cast jingoist war epics so popular in the 60s and 70s.

For all intents and purposes, it takes its cue from the likes of 'The Longest Day' - epic running time (just shy of three hours); huge, intricately-orchestrated set-pieces; famous faces all over the shop (Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, James Caan, Sir Laurence Olivier ... the list would be longer than the article itself if I listed everyone); an almost inappropriately stirring score by John Addison. In fact, it differs in only one crucial way.

It's about a fuck-up.

An Allied fuck-up.

This aspect of 'A Bridge Too Far' was never going to be its most popular attribute. And yet, when it was released, the almost inevitable storm of controversy that greeted it centred almost solely around Dirk Bogarde.

Here's Christian Browning, son of General Sir Frederick Browning (the real-life character Bogarde played) on his performance: "... poncing around with white gloves. Those gloves! Dirk played Anacleto in 'The Singer Not the Song' more or less the way he played Dad." (Quoted in John Coldstream's biography.) Here's co-star Edward Fox (quoted in same): "He was impersonating Freddie Browning completely wrongly. It was as if he set out to play him as a poofy waiter."

(The very idea of Edward Fox, whose okay-chaps-what-ho performance isn't far short of parody, criticising a Bogarde characterisation as 'poofy' is hilariously ludicrous.)

So why all the Dirk bashing?

The answer goes back to one of the two reasons Bogarde accepted the role (three if you count the fact that Attenborough, by dint of a holiday home in Provence, was more or less Bogarde's neighbour): (i) a $100,000 salary, and (ii) Bogarde was first billed and his character has 'the Line'.

Discarding the former (okay, $100K is decent chunk now and was a fuckload back in 1977, but it was still peanuts compared to what the American cast members earned), Bogarde's ego was certainly stroked by the latter. Because so many big stars were cast, billing was alphabetical: therefore, before Caan, Caine and Connery, let alone the likes of Elliott Gould or Ryan O'Neal, Dirk Bogarde stands as top-billed actor.

Then there's the Line. Again, a note of explanation: Browning was under considerable pressure from High Command (specifically Montgomery) to deliver an against-the-odds success with Operation Market-Garden. Concerned over the logistics, dubious about taking Arnhem, Browning famously averred that they'd be going "a bridge too far". It's worth bearing in mind that he said this before the operation.

William Goldman's script - in all other respects a clear-sighted adaptation of Ryan's book - indulges in a jarring anachronism. Because Goldman opted to omit the critical meeting between Montgomery and Browning, Browning is essentially cast as the villain of the piece: monomanicially pushing the mission through despite everyone else's misgivings, fixated in true death-or-glory stylee that Market-Garden is infallible. Worse, in order to retain the line that gives both book and film their title, he has Browning foppishly muse, after the operation goes disastrously wrong, "Well, as you know, I've always thought that we tried to go a bridge too far". Which basically makes Browning sound like a pompous dick, blithely stating the obvious after the fact.

The script, however, is the writer's business; in this case an American scribe's take on a British snafu. That a British director happily filmed it is a matter for discussion elsewhere.

As regards Bogarde's involvement .... call me biased (I'm a fan, after all), but wasn't he merely doing what all actors do - reading the lines and taking direction?

And his performance? He plays Browning as aloof, slightly disconnected (attributes I'd imagine are necessary for a high-ranking officer in wartime, who makes decisions, and by extension gambles with lives, coolly and dispassionately). In a film where so many of the other stars just be themselves (Connery is Connery, Caine is Caine) or ham it up (Hackman as a Polish officer) or phone in wooden performances (O'Neal) or play on their established persona (Maximilian Schell and Hardy Kruger reprise their rent-a-Kraut roles from any number of previous outings), Bogarde's performance is definitely not the worst. Far from it. In fact, perhaps only Anthony Hopkins emerges from the whole production as giving a rounded, subtle, memorable performance.

'A Bridge Too Far' has some stunningly brilliant scenes and a fair smattering of shruggingly ordinary ones. Attenborough's direction is often geared to spectacle when human drama needs to be at the fore (I'd love Peckinpah to have made this film, to have given it the sense of waste, loss, brutality, desperation and hard-won, shell-shocked humanity that permeates every frame of 'Cross of Iron'). Peckinpah had been a Marine. Dirk Bogarde, too, had a military background. He served in World War II. His evocative poem 'Steel Cathedrals' is still frequently anthologised in collections of war poetry.

I wonder how many other actors in 'A Bridge Too Far' had also worn the uniform for real, not just as a costume.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Singer Not the Song

In his biography of Dirk Bogarde, John Coldstream infers that the actor’s disinterest in ‘The Singer Not the Song’, his last outing for the Rank Organisation, led to his deliberately camp performance, a factor crucial to the film’s failure.

Although Bogarde was at the height of his fame when it was released in 1961, audiences clearly preferred him as the lovable Dr Simon Sparrow, or as dashing war heroes in the likes of ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ or ‘They Who Dare’.

Bogarde was given his choice of the two main roles in ‘The Singer Not the Song’, indicative of Rank's fears of losing him. Bogarde was already tired of the formulaic fare on offer, and ill-feeling between him and Rank supremo Earl St John had been in the wind for a while. Nonetheless, he was one of their biggest stars, and had already been lured to Hollywood for the Franz Liszt biopic ‘Song Without End’.

So Bogarde, swayed no doubt by a significant paycheque (Rank threw a serious budget at the production), took the role of Anacleto, the Mexican bandit chief who enters into a love-hate relationship with an unorthodox priest. Title as metaphor, geddit? The singer not the song = the priest not the religion.

Clad in black (most notably in the extremely tight-fitting leather trouser department), sneer fixed in place, eyebrow perpetually arched, a white cat on his knee in several scenes - this four years before the first onscreen appearance of Blofeld in ‘Thunderball’! - there can be no doubt that this was miscasting writ large. It says something, then, that Bogarde is easily the best thing about the film.

Equally miscast is John Mills at his most avuncular as Father Keogh, the priest who stands up to Anacleto. The script calls for a dynamic - almost an attraction - between the antagonists. Clearly, a much younger, more energetic actor should have been cast instead of Mills.

Of Mylene Demongeot, the European starlet who plays the girl caught between them (a role which should provide the film’s human centre), the kindest that can be said is that she was no actress.

Another misjudgement was retaining Nigel Balchin as scriptwriter. A writer at the forefront of twentieth century British realism (his best known work, ‘The Small Back Room’, was filmed by Powell and Pressburger in 1948), he was simply the wrong man to adapt Audrey Erskine-Lindrop’s melodramatic novel. Also, the geniuses at Rank saw fit to put the whole thing in the hands of Roy Ward Baker, director of ‘The One That Got Away’ and ‘A Night to Remember’, films which demonstrate attention to detail and emotional distance from otherwise thorny subject matter (a German POW’s successful escape bid in the former; the sinking of the ‘Titanic’ in the latter) - again, obviously the wrong man for the job.

In ‘Snakes and Ladders’ - his only autobiographical volume that deals in any detail with his Rank years - Bogarde includes a publicity still from ‘The Singer Not the Song’, but doesn’t mention the film by name anywhere in the text. No reason for him to; audiences stayed away in droves. Baker took the brunt: his career deflated; it was six years before he directed again, and even then he was reduced to trashy Hammer horror quickies.

Curiously - perversely, even - ‘The Singer Not the Song’ began to find its champions. Particularly in France, where it swiftly became a cult hit. Today it exists as a cinephile’s guilty pleasure, one that’s all the more enjoyable for knowing that Bogarde was in on the joke.