Friday, December 28, 2007

Coming attractions

Between my order for the Dario Argento box set finally arriving and my partner buying me the second Werner Herzog box set (featuring 'Even Dwarves Started Small', 'Fata Morgana', 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser', 'Heart of Glass' and ' Stroszek'), I've got plenty of films to write about.

But between moving house and an imminent mini-break in Scotland for the New Year (Hogmanay with the Scots - methinks some drinking is going to be done), I've not had the chance to watch them, or to update this blog.

Normal service will be resumed (hopefully) during the second week of January.

In the meantime, here's hoping everyone had a Merry Christmas; and my best wishes for a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


There are some films which will forever embody the spirit of Christmas, films which communicate directly the goodness, charity and common humanity we are all, in our heart of hearts, capable of. Films like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and any of a raft of ‘A Christmas Carol’ adaptations.

Then there’s ‘Bad Santa’.

For anyone unacquainted with (or should I say untainted by) this slab of seasonal cynicism, the plot centres around veteran safe-cracker Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton), who spends one month out of the year dressed as a department store Santa while he and his elf-disguised midget partner Marcus (Tony Cox) case the joint preparatory to a Christmas Eve heist.

Willie hates Christmas. He hates kids. Particularly the ones that sneeze chocolate over him or pull his beard off. He boozes on the job. He eyes up women. Prissy store manager Bob (John Ritter, in his last film role) catches him engaging in rigorous intercourse with a portly shopper in the women’s dressing rooms. His romantic homily to the lady in question: “Oh yeah, baby, you ain’t gonna shit right for a month.”

Bob takes his concerns to hard-talking store detective Gin (Bernie Mac), who has Willie surveilled. Worried that the cops are targeting him, Willie moves into the home of Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), an overweight and much bullied kid left in the care of his less-than-compos-mentos grandmother while his father serves a jail sentence for white collar crime.

Thurman’s beguilingly naïve fascination with Santa (he spends most of the film plaguing Willie with questions about the North Pole, reindeer and why his beard is fake*), is mirrored by Willie’s budding relationship with free-living barmaid Sue (Lauren Graham), whose attraction to him is explained by her self-confessed Santa fetish (“fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa” is high on the list of the film’s many jaw-droppingly politically incorrect lines).

Willie’s drinking, professional disenfranchisement and tendency to self-loathing come to a head when his and Marcus’s scam is uncovered by Gin, who demands fifty percent of their haul. Willie borrows Thurman’s father’s car and runs a hosepipe through the window. On the verge of succumbing to asphyxia, he is interrupted by Thurman, sporting an ugly black eye. Willie squints at him. “Who did this?” Cut immediately to Willie, dressed in Santa outfit, repeatedly punching Thurman’s chief tormentor in the face as ‘March of the Toreadors’ rings out triumphantly on the soundtrack**. Another immediate cut: Willie having a heart-to-heart with Marcus: “I feel like I’ve turned a corner. I beat the shit out of some kid today, but I did it for a reason. I feel my life has a purpose.”

Black humour is often the most effective: it shocks you into laughing. This sequence, which raises the bar beyond every bad taste, censor-baiting, downright offensive moment that has come before, is just as swiftly superseded by Willie and Marcus’s attempts to toughen Thurman up by teaching him the rudiments of boxing. Here the humour derives from a foul-mouthed drunkard, a midget and an eight-year-old kid punching each other in the balls ... repeatedly. Like so much of ‘Bad Santa’, it shouldn’t be funny. Really. By any right-thinking, socially-responsible standards, it shouldn’t be funny.

Consider these random samplings of dialogue:

Thurman tells Willie he wishes he could have a pink elephant for Christmas. Willie: “Wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which fills up first.”

Willie and Marcus come across a safe that is considered nigh on uncrackable. Willie cites the case of an expert cracker he once did time with who couldn’t access it. Willie: “They said he could get into anything. Even Margaret Thatcher’s pussy.” Marcus: “And that’s a good thing?”

Willie approached by a mother and child whilst stuffing his face in the department store cafetia. “Why don’t you go tell Santa what you want for Christmas?” the mother urges. “I’m on my fucking lunch break! Jesus Christ!” Willie expostulates, half-masticated food spewing from his mouth.

Consider these random images:

Willie slumped drunk in Santa’s grotto, bottle in hand, pissing himself.

Willie walking to work, again in full Santa uniform, finishing off a bottle of vodka at eight o’clock in the morning and hurling the empty receptacle at the windscreen of a nearby Mercedes.

The LAPD putting eight bullets in Willie’s/Santa’s back as he tries to deliver Thurman’s Christmas presents, the neighbour children screaming and crying at the sight.

Yup, Terry Zwigoff’s film is wrong on every conceivable level. Its hero is a drunkard, a thief and a vulgarian. There’s more swearing than ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Scarface’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ put together. There isn’t the vaguest trace element of a moral imperative anywhere.

And yet it’s the funniest and – in the final analysis – most perversely poignant Christmas movie I’ve ever seen. To slightly misquote Tiny Tim, “God help us, one and all.”

* Willie: “My hair fell out ’cause I went with a woman who wasn’t clean.” Thurman: “Mrs Santa?” Willie: “No, Mrs Santa’s sister.”

** ‘Bad Santa’ boasts the best use of classical music since ‘Battle Royale’ – the safe-cracking scene, perfectly edited to the clanging percussion of the ‘Anvil Chorus’, is a standout.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Canterbury Tale

The first half of Powell and Pressburger’s output consisted, superficially at least, of propaganda pieces. Films like ‘49th Parallel’ and ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’ were funded by the Ministry of Information, while production of ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ – inspired by David Low’s satirical cartoon strip – provoked enough controversy that Churchill fired off memos about it.*

‘49th Parallel’ was an invitation to American involvement; ‘One of Our Aircraft’ a tribute to the indomitable British spirit. ‘Blimp’ fell into the category of “what we are fighting for”, the eponymous Colonel’s gentlemanly, old-school style of soldiering held up as outmoded in the face of the then-contemporary conflict. ‘A Canterbury Tale’ belongs to a smaller, less remembered sub-genre of wartime propaganda: the Home Front film.

A disparate trio descend upon a small village near Canterbury: former sales assistant Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), now assigned to duties as a Land Girl; former cinema organist Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), now a sergeant in the army, his regiment about to be posted overseas; and former coffee-drinking American Sgt Bob Johnson (John Sweet**), now stationed in England and not enamoured of the national propensity for tea drinking.

Local squire Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) strives to retain some sense of tradition and rural identity, giving illustrated talks to the visiting soldiers and expounding on the history and culture of the area. He believes in “pouring knowledge into people’s heads, by force if necessary”. Not that his latest potential converts (or modern day pilgrims, as Pressburger’s sometimes overly literal script paints them) don’t have other things on their mind: Alison is haunted by past holidays in the area with her fiancé, now missing in action. Johnson is cut up because his girl back home has stopped writing to him. Gibbs is looking for something more spiritual. On top of this, there’s the “Glueman”, attacking girls by night, smearing glue into their hair.

The investigation into the Glueman’s identity is the thin peg upon which the meandering narrative is hung. You’ll twig the guilty party from the get-go. The film’s real concerns are an investigation into Englishness: Powell’s camera captures the timeless beauty of the landscape. History and tradition are at the forefront (in a scene that should be twee but is actually quite wonderful, Johnson, a lumberman by trade, befriends a wheelwright twice his age, their mutual respect based on an understanding of how long wood should be aged and when it should be cut; “you can’t hurry an elm” remains my favourite line), with the occasional troop carrier crashing through the woods or Spitfire roaring overhead as a reminder of modernity.

Speaking of Spitfires, the film’s opening sequence offers its most celebrated moment – often cited as a precursor to the bone-to-spaceship jump cut in Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury, some walking, some on horseback. A falconer releases his bird. It soars into the sky, majestically. Cut: a Spitfire replaces it, engine shattering the silence, swooping down over a landscape that hasn’t changed.

Finally, with the protagonists finding their way to Canterbury – to the cathedral itself – the scene is set for a small helping of everyday miracles. It’s here that the script is at its most strained, individual resolutions feeling a little too pat. But after two unhurried hours of pastoral idyll (including an hilarious ‘Swallows and Amazons’-type scene where two rival gangs of children stage their own manoeuvres, neatly mocking those Gibbs and his regiment are engaged on), who’s complaining? ‘A Canterbury Tale’ isn’t the most memorable, most offbeat, most challenging or most indulgent film Powell and Pressburger made, but it’s still a film that only they could have created.

*See the introduction to the published screenplay (Faber & Faber) and A.L. Kennedy’s BFI chapbook on ‘Blimp’ for more information.

**Sgt John Sweet was a real-life American soldier whom Powell had seen in an amateur production. His performance makes it clear that he wasn’t a professional actor, but there’s an unpretentiousness to his screen persona that, stopping just short of “gee whiz” cornball hokum, is somehow endearing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Small Back Room

My thanks to Beyond the Valley of the Cinephile for inviting all film-loving bloggers to contribute to a week-long Powell and Pressburger blog-a-thon, the only excuse I need to wax lyrical about one of my personal favourites.

The Small Back Room’ is an adaptation of a novel by Nigel Balchin, one of the most popular and well-respected British writers of his time. The title refers to the sub-basement office occupied by a research and development team – ‘boffins’, to use the vernacular. Professor Mair (Milton Rosmer) is a man of science, lending his acumen to projects designed to assist the war effort and effect a swifter victory for the Allies. His team includes Sammy Rice (David Farrar), the brains of the outfit but a man with his personal demons, and the walking case of nerves Corporal Taylor (Cyril Cusack), whose cuckolding by his wife is an open secret in the department.

Not that Sammy fares much better. Limping from a wound which has resulted in a tin foot, fighting the pain with beer and prescription drugs that do nothing for him, Sammy valiantly tries to stay off the Scotch – the only thing guaranteed to dull the pain – for the sake of his on-off girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron). Matters are complicated in that Susan is secretary to Sammy’s oleaginous boss R.B. Waring (Jack Hawkins). Waring is more salesman than scientist, schmoozing with government contacts – a scene involving a minister’s visit (the politico, billed as “A Guest” in the credits, is immediately recognisable as Robert Morley) is one of the best bits of political satire that side of ‘Yes, Minister’ – and not really caring about the poor bastard in the firing line who has to use the product.

The narrative centres around several (personal and professional) challenges to Sammy’s equilibrium. Firstly, a new type of unexploded bomb has been discovered. Designed to resemble a harmless thermos flask, but producing deadly results if handled, this is “Jerry’s” latest booby-trap. As the film opens, Sammy is approached by idealistic Captain Stuart (Michael Gough) to give a professional opinion on the device with only the barest amount of information to go on. The best he can offer is to be called to the scene the next time one is discovered. Secondly, he is summoned to give evidence at committee on a new, still-being-tested piece of ordnance, the Reeves gun, which Sammy can see is badly flawed, but which Waring wants to push through to government contract stage.

Sammy’s clash with Waring over the Reeves gun leads to ministerial resignation and potentially negative changes within the research department. It also fuels a stand-up row between him and Sue. She walks out on him. He goes back on the whisky, big time. Trashing his apartment in the throes of a drunken rage, Sammy gets a call – Stuart has tried to defuse one of the new UXBs and died in the attempt. Another device has been found, buried in the treacherously unstable pebbles of Chesil Sand. Frustrated, angry and hungover, an emotionally unstable Sammy presents himself at the scene and begins to defuse the bomb …

‘The Small Back Room’ operates pithily and effectively on three levels: knife-in-the-back political satire, nail-chewing suspense thriller, and character study of an alcoholic. Make no mistake, ‘The Small Back Room’ is up there with ‘The Lost Weekend’ and ‘Withnail and I’ as one of the greatest drinking movies ever made. Take the scene where Sammy, terrified of being alone, agrees to meet Sue at his apartment only for her to be kept late at work. He sits at a bare table and regards two objects: an (as yet) unopened bottle of whisky and a clock. He stares the clock out through the passage of an hour. He begins to hallucinate. The endlessly ticking clock, every tick hideously and surreally amplified, insinuates itself into the pattern of the wallpaper. The whisky bottle swells so that it occupies the entire room, bearing down on Sammy, forcing him up against the wall. Remember the magnificently off-the-wall cold turkey sequence in ‘Trainspotting’? … ‘The Small Back Room’ did it first.

Then there’s Sammy going off the wagon: argument with Sue; exeunt girlfriend; uncertain future at work. He heads for his local and implores barman Knucksie (a pre-‘Carry On’ Sid [billed as Sidney] James) to serve him whisky. Knucksie, well aware of Sammy’s inability to handle the hard stuff, refuses. Sammy starts wrecking the joint. “Knucksie,” he slurs, “has anyone ever given you a thick ear?” The barman stares him down: “Not without paying cash for it.”

I don’t think anyone’s given a more convincing performance of a drunkard violently (and pitifully) losing it as Farrar does here.

All of this makes the climactic scene that much more tense. Actually, ‘tense’ doesn’t do it justice. ‘The Small Back Room’ delivers its payoff in a twelve-minute scene that is sweatily, agonisingly, sphincter-tighteningly unbearable. Sammy treads slowly out towards the UXB, the pebbles of Chesil Bank cascading beneath his feet with every step. He nearly blows himself to shit just latching up supports around the device. Then he takes a couple of monkey wrenches to the cylinder to try to open it … If you’re not watching through your fingers whilst desperately needing to pee by this point, then congratulations: you officially have nerves of steel.

Bomb disposal scenes are a staple of cinema. Bond movies ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Octopussy’ … child’s play. TV spin-off ‘Sweeney 2’ … amateur hour. ‘The Small Back Room’, as I may have mentioned before, did it first and did it best. Its only shortcoming is that Powell and Pressburger directed it. In the all-time P&P greatest movies list, arguably half a dozen features rank above ‘The Small Back Room’ … but that shouldn’t detract from one simple fact: it’s the best film of its kind bar none.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tony Passarelli: too blessed to be stressed

I know Tony Passarelli, a Nottingham-based independent film-maker, through my partner Paula, who acted in his short film, ‘Ignorance is Bliss?’ I talked to him recently about some of his productions:

Before we look at the films, can I ask about your influences? Which directors inspire you?

At this point I should reel off some of the great directors from cinema history, right?

Well, truth be told, I don’t have any one great influence. Not even a list of those I would consider the true greats. What inspires me is a great film. There are so many factors that go into painting a great tale onto celluloid, whether it’s a fantastic performance from the actors or just a script that is almost impossible to fail or a great director working his magic and creating something memorable out of an otherwise mundane tale.

If you had to pick just one director?

Tarantino! There goes my credibility at the start of the interview … lol! I’m just the kid that never grew up I suppose.

What was your first film and how did you come to make it?

At school. It was before fancy things like drama lessons came about. I was pretty much a drop out. I’d turned my back on the whole education thing by the age of 15. The only subject I liked was English, but I got dropped from the O-level group because my spelling and grammar held me back. That was the end of my collaboration with the educational side of life!

It came about one day when I wouldn’t do a damn thing in Maths and my peers followed suit (a rebel without a cause but one who had his followers) and the teacher Mr Booth had a one-on-one chat with me and asked, “What would you like to do?”

I answered, after giving it some thought, in an innocent 15-year-old kind of way: “Make a film”. Sounds really bizarre looking back on it now, but when you’re a kid everything makes sense because you don’t have the time to procrastinate! Anyway, Mr Booth was into filming weddings at the weekends as a sideline. I think he was onto a good screw – about £150 for a weekend’s work! This was back in 1985 when people didn’t have video cameras, but he had one.

So he said alright. Something followed on along the lines of “What do you want to make?” and I said “We’ll make a film about gangsters and prizefighting”. So we made a 50 minute film called ‘Prizefighter’ which he filmed and directed and I told everyone their parts and lines. It involved kids from two Maths groups and it was watched by the entire school. It just happened. I never thought it was an unusual thing to do.

I guess I just didn’t give a stuff, really. Best attitude to have!


‘Ignorance is Bliss?’ is a dark, thought-provoking film. How did you get the idea?

I mulled on the idea of a man who had the worst thing happen to him that could and then had something even worse come upon him. A sort of walking curse. But I wanted the protagonist to be intellectually deaf and dumb to it all. Just a suffering wretch of a human being. Basically the main character, Carl, is the zombie in the movie. He only utters one meaningful line in the film: “You want to know something? Nightmares are God’s way of telling us we’re not in control.”

The title is supposed to be a question to the viewer: Ignorance is bliss? Because the audience sees the nightmare in the end, but Carl still cannot remember it. The nightmares have brought his life to a stop. He can’t get past his loss and grieving because he can’t even get a decent night’s sleep. Would he be better off remembering the dreams, even though in the nightmare scene he goes insane?

I didn’t think I got the pay-off with that film. It’s a learning curve. My inexperience as a film-maker rather than the viewers not getting it.

Obviously, your films are made on a very low budget - possibly no budget. How did you achieve the make-up effects on Paula?

All the credit goes to Adam Poole. I told him what I had in mind and he took the idea and ran with it. I can't remember the cost. I think I said “Just give me the bill.” It ended up being peanuts anyhow. Adam has got a gift. The effects would have probably cost a few grand in Hollywood.

The make up was fantastic. Paula Harrison is a real trooper. As a director you couldn't ask for a better actress to work with. She gave a solid performance throughout the film and never complained about the latex face mask she had to endure. It isn’t easy to give a performance where your mobility is limited and you have to watch how much you can move your mouth or eyes. Too much expression could have made the mask crack. Maybe that’s why Paula was so great at doing scenes in one take. She wasn’t going to have to go through hours of hell again!

Adam Poole gives a very understated, introspective performance. He features in all three of the films we're looking at, as well as doing the make-up effects on 'Ignorance is Bliss'. Would you say that he brings as much to the creative process as you do?

As a package he’s great. Any film-maker would give their right arm for some one like Adam to be on their team. He’s versatile and getting more so as he’s learning what happens behind the lens.

I know I've always got a lead man to fall back on. He can do the pretty boy roles, but can tackle deep characters as well. He’s mucking in and learning to think with an eye for the camera. He’s moved on from being obsessed with the performance and now thinks about the shot composition, how we want it to look on film. Adam really is an artistic person. It comes naturally to him.

Is he more talented than me? More versatile I'd say. We compliment each other very well. He’ll want ‘just one more shot’ for ever and a day. Whereas I'll say “That’s it, I've had enough.” He’ll push me to do a few more takes and I’ll be the one to draw the line and say “That’s it.” That’s the trouble with perfectionists, they’ll go on forever! Adam pushes me and I let him know when he’s gone beyond enthusiasm.


‘Life’s Great’ is the very opposite of ‘Ignorance is Bliss?’ - warm, poignant, life-affirming. I understand you made it to enter a competition. How difficult was it to bring the film it at exactly 60 seconds?

It was for the Orange BAFTA competition. A one minute short based on the theme of ‘Celebrate’. It was Adam’s baby, that one. He came up with three different films, but because Christmas-time is busy for every one, we only made the one. That was the easiest one as well! It’s a feelgood film. Very cosy, not like our usual work. If anyone is feeling down they should take a minute out of their lives to watch ‘Life’s Great’. Sometimes we all need an emotional pick me up.

They're running the competition again this year. The theme is ‘Unite’. I've got an idea, but again it’s whether I get the time to shoot it. The editing isn’t a problem. In fact putting a 60 sec short together is a joy.


‘The Good Shopper’ is different again. This time you use the documentary format to address the importance of Fair Trade products. The closing frames of the film show you volunteering at a Fair Trade stall. Why is this issue so important to you?

I wrote a drama called 'The Good Shopper' a couple of years back. Everyone agreed to play the parts and I gave them the script, but it never got made. The scene at the end is me on the Nottingham Oxfam Campaign group’s Fair Trade stall. I’m still a member of the group, although I do all my campaigning online these days.

Because I had that footage it gave me the idea to do a documentary. The same title but completely different film – different to all the other films I’ve done. I’m not looking for any praise with this one, I’m not taking much interest in what the viewer thinks of the cinematography or direction. I want is for the viewer to look and listen and realise they can make a difference in the world. I have a real passion and I get to show it in this film. Maybe I could become the Chris Martin of the film world. Print out the Make Trade Fair logo on my left hand.

I’d prefer the viewer to watch ‘The Good Shopper’ than for me to talk about it. If you ask me to recommend just one of my films then that is the one. It isn’t about entertainment. It’s about the real world and we’re all in it.

What of future projects? Further documentaries? Any plans for a full-length feature?

I like the documentary format for the reason that post-production is just as creative as the filming. Not as much fun as a one minute film but pretty close. The subject would have to really interest me, though.

I’m looking at a short we filmed last year called ‘Kid’s Talk’ but didn’t fully complete. I’m looking at what we have got and going to try and weave some magic in the editing suite. If I manage to create the finished article you’ll be able to see that we’re getting stronger on the technical side. Some very nice shots. Looking more polished than our previous efforts.

Besides ‘Kid’s Talk’ and the 60 second short for BAFTA, Adam and another mate Nathan Rose are both working on different short films. I’ve got a little gem called ‘Belial’ but I try not to plan ahead, though. Plans can go wrong.

As for a full feature, no way – it’s a back breaker, a killer! I just can’t do it. I haven’t got financing, I haven't got a full crew. I’ve done two ‘Prizefighter’ films and I tried to do another but it was too big. It drained me. I had to quit and that makes me feel guilty for every who gave their time and energy to the project.

If writing came easy to me then I could do a full screenplay or even a novel. The short film ‘Belial’ that I may do is so rich in material. I could take the story to so many places: fallen angels Belial and Satan plus all the other stuff that could be created with that world. I’ve seen the ‘Prophecy’ films and think they’re pretty poor. I guess Hollywood don’t want to upset religious groups or be accused of blasphemy. Maybe it’s a good thing that I just stick to short films.

Thanks for the interview, Tony. Is there anything or anyone I’ve missed?

I’d like to mention Lee Hallam. He’s a great musician and I've used his songs in both ‘The Good Shopper’ and ‘Ignorance is Bliss?’. I don't have to worry about getting music for my flicks. If we do ‘Belial’, Lee has agreed to play the lead role.

I’m happy doing shorts and pretty blessed to have a great pool of talented friends ready and willing to muck in. I'm too blessed to be stressed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Joseph Losey directed ‘The Servant’ from a script by Harold Pinter based on a novel by Robin (nephew of W. Somerset) Maugham. Likewise, ‘Accident’ re-teamed Losey and Pinter for an adaptation of a novel by Nicholas (son of Oswald) Moseley. And, of course, Dirk Bogarde was back in the fold: between ‘The Servant’ and ‘Accident’, he and Losey had made ‘King and Country’ and ‘Modesty Blaise’ together.

‘Modesty Blaise’ is the odd-man-out of their films, a lightweight bit of fluff: fun but forgettable). ‘King and Country’, however, was a shattering anti-war film comparable to Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’, in which Bogarde plays an officer who defends Tom Courtenay’s simpleton private in a court martial for desertion, an offence punishable by execution. As such, Losey’s pre-occupation with class, society and hypocrisy are again to the fore, Losey’s cinematic microcosm being the trenches of the First World War.

‘Accident’, the final Losey/Bogarde picture, is again about class. But the microcosm here is the groves of academe. The dreaming spires of Oxford. Granted, it’s the perfect milieu for an examination of repression, thwarted ambition, staid traditionalism and social hypocrisy, dark emotions lurking behind the leisurely punts down the river, the elegant soirées and the endless games of cricket or tennis … but compared to the more explicit portrayal of social degeneracy and power games in ‘The Servant’ or the brutal backdrop of wartime suffering in ‘King and Country’, ‘Accident’ suffers from the worst affliction that can befall a motion picture (I use this cornball term advisedly: motion = movement; picture = visual): inertia.

Everything about ‘Accident’ is sluggish. With the titular accident happening offscreen, the ‘action’ is limited to book-lined rooms, manicured lawns and the sun-dappled river. Gerry Fisher’s colour-saturated cinematography prettifies everything when the script calls for the starkness of Douglas Slocombe’s crisp black-and-white lensing on ‘The Servant’. Pinter’s script, typically oblique, is heavy with pregnant pauses. Elsewhere in his ouevre this is hugely effective – small pockets of silence which hidden meanings and suggestions seep into – but here they drag on to the point of … well, we’re back at that word again: inertia.

Fortunately, a cluster of great performances hold the attention: Bogarde gives a finely nuanced turn as Stephen, an Oxford don going through a mid-life crisis; Stanley Baker is ruggedly effective as Stephen’s colleague Charley, whose success as an academic, novelist, TV pundit and womaniser throws into sharp relief Stephen’s sense of self-doubt; Vivien Merchant anchors the film as Stephen’s homely wife; and Jacqueline Sassard is luminous as Anna, the student Stephen lusts after.

Two scenes remain in the mind long after the rest of the film has faded: a dinner party which ends in drunken embarrassment, the veneer of Stephen’s home life cracking apart to reveal his desperate insecurities; and Stephen’s less-than-proper attentions towards Anna as she drifts in an out of consciousness following the accident, a scene so suggestive and ambiguous that it finally – at the last post – lifts the film into the realms of the memorable.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Servant

You can see why ‘The Servant’, with its themes of class hypocrisy, sexual politics, role reversal and power games, shocked audiences of 1963 … but with Bogarde in the lead role they should have seen it coming. From the delinquent gunning down George Dixon in ‘The Blue Lamp’ to the tortured Melville Farr in ‘Victim’, the man had already established himself as British cinema’s dark horse, no matter how many ‘Doctor’ films might have persuaded a swooning female fanbase to the contrary.

‘The Servant’ opens with Hugo Barrett (Bogarde) crossing a busy street on his way to a job interview with layabout toff Tony (Edward Fox). Behind him, framed so that it occupies the top third of the screen, is a sign reading ‘Thomas Crapper’ – the business premises of the company named after the sanitation magnate. A popular misconception is that Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet, the word ‘crap’ deriving from his surname. Both were in use before Crapper’s prominence in his chosen profession. But these are asides. Losey may have included the shot to trade on these misconceptions. If so, then it works well. Barrett is a decidedly unsanitary character.

Arriving for his appointment, Barrett finds his prospective employer napping. “Too many beers at lunchtime,” Tony says candidly. Again, a first impression that gets to the heart of the character. Tony’s drinking worsens as the film progresses and his icy society girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) leaves him.

The events leading up to said split occupy the first half of the film, Barrett happily running Tony’s bachelor pad until Susan moves in and threatens his centrality to Tony’s lifestyle. By this point, Barrett has prevailed upon Tony to employ as maid a woman, Vera (Sarah Miles), whom he introduces as his sister. Tony carries on a dalliance with Vera behind Susan’s back.

So far, so sleazy. And ‘The Servant’ could easily have unfolded as an examination of louche, degenerate upper-middle class habits … except that Barrett, against whose working class pretentions Tony’s weak-willed aristocracy is contrasted, is every bit as degenerate himself.

Arriving back early from a weekend away, Tony and Susan find Barrett and Vera in the proverbial compromising position. “She’s your sister, you bastard!” an outraged Tony declares. Barrett swiftly robs him of the moral high-ground: “She’s my fiancée, sir, which sort of puts us in the same boat, doesn’t it?” At which point Tony throws the pair of them out; a case of too little too late as Susan gives him the elbow on the spot.

This, remember, is just the first half of the film. Barrett then inveigles his way back into the (now Susan-less) household, claiming that Vera has left him and taken his money (“she did us both, sir”). What follows is as if scriptwriter Harold Pinter (in the first of several collaborations with Losey) had pre-supposed ‘The Odd Couple’ but with all the New Yoik humour stripped away and laced instead with a dark, perverse, bitter strain of social satire.

Scenes between Barrett and Tony take the form of verbal battlegrounds. Bogarde and Fox strike sparks off each other. A homo-erotic subtext bubbles towards the surface. There’s a reference to shared experiences in the army. Both men have slept with Vera. Come the uber-cynical final scene, Susan and Vera have re-appeared, only to be herded out by Barrett, his dominance over Tony now complete. The last scene is of Barrett and a spectacularly wasted Tony alone together, no women between them anymore.

Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If…’ has famously been described as “a hand-grenade of a film” (Evening News). ‘The Servant’ is a letter-bomb, dropping through the front door of well-heeled society and blasting away the veer of good breeding and elegant manners. “I’m a gentleman’s gentleman – and you’re no bloody gentleman!” Barrett yells at one point, a standout line in a literate, intelligent and acerbic script. Losey’s direction and Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography are perfectly matched, particularly in the never-bettered use of mirrored images, a perfect visual encapsulation of the film’s sense of distortion, duplicity and reversal.

‘The Servant’ is taut, gripping and rewards repeated viewings. Next to ‘Death in Venice’, it is arguably Bogarde’s finest hour.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Much has been made of Bogarde’s five-film partnership with Joseph Losey, but Basil Dearden comes a close second* – he and Bogarde made four films together, beginning with ‘The Blue Lamp’.

‘Victim’ was their third outing and a pivotal film both in Bogarde’s career and in the history of British cinema. At the time of its release in 1961, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. The so-called “Buggery Act” of 1533 wasn’t repealed until 1967. (Four hundred and thirty four fucking years to overturn an utterly pointless law … I’m straight, but I’m damned if I understand why homophobia runs so deep.) ‘Victim’ led to questions being asked in the House, to the law against homosexuality being re-evaluated and – finally – repealed.

Dirk Bogarde and Basil Dearden – along with scriptwriters Janet Green and John McCormick – played a part in changing the law … for the better. I raise a glass to them.

‘Victim’ opens in a burst of energy as Barrett (Peter McEnery), a young labourer on a building site, panicking as he sees a police car pull up outside the site office, goes hurtling along a vertiginously high section of scaffolding, rides a rickety makeshift lift down to the ground, and takes to his heels. He petitions various friends for help in getting out of London, but is rebuffed. He places a call to respected barrister Melville Farr (Bogarde), who brusquely curtails the conversation, hanging up on him. Arrested at a transport café, he hangs himself in police custody.

The lad’s crime? Fiddling the wages on the building site, claiming for non-existent employees. The police note his spartan lifestyle (a flea-bitten bedsit; nothing in the way of creature comforts), and conclude that he was skimming the money to pay off a blackmailer.

From this point on, ‘Victim’ dons the mantle of a taut, moody crime thriller (the guilt-ridden Farr determining to expose the blackmail ring), which it wears comfortably till the end credits. Yet, between the generic set-pieces (including a heavy-handed red herring subplot designed to conceal the blackmailer’s identity), a much more serious film emerges. A film about social attitudes, and about one man’s refusal to live in denial any longer.

Regarding social attitudes, ‘Victim’ is both ahead of its time and very much grounded in its time. It’s ahead of its time because it refuses to portray its gay characters as mincing and effeminate (“cissies”, to use the colloquialism of the day), but as fully rounded and (mostly) sympathetic characters. Indeed, the most ambivalent character is Sandy (Derren Nesbitt), the blackmailer’s hired muscle. Full-lipped, almost lisping, an etching of a male nude on his apartment wall, there’s no doubt that he’s a study in repression, right down to his name (cf. popular British radio show ‘Round the Horne’ in which Kenneth Williams played a camp shop-owner given to exclaiming “Oooooh hello, I’m Julian and this is my friend Sandy”).

It’s grounded in its time in terms of its vocabulary. Farr’s wife Laura (Sylvia Syms) recoils from garage-door graffiti reading “Farr is a queer” – fast forward four decades and the word has been reclaimed by the gay community – and cannot bring herself to say the word when pressed. In a fantastic scene between Farr and Laura (and kudos to Sylvia Syms for a performance that attains glass-shattering intensity by dint of being so controlled), the barrister owns up to “seeing” Barrett even though he realised they might both be compromised; Laura asks why; Farr rounds on her – “Because I wanted him!” Bogarde’s absolute frustration is held in cinematic equilibrium by Syms’s glacial response. Watch the film and you’ll barely breathe as this scene plays out, it’s that powerful.

‘Victim’ achieves true greatness in this scene – and in at least one other (where Farr, taunted that he married Laura out of guilt, loses his professional cool and throws a punch at someone who, all things considered, has basically spoken the truth). In these moments, the film’s subtext breaks cover and eviscerates the screen. Farr is by no means the hero of the piece. He’s a man who’s spent his life denying himself, denying his very nature. By the end, he stands to lose everything just by doing the right thing. In the final scene, when Laura, despite everything, offers her support, Farr finally accepts who he is. Bogarde reins his performance in admirably (oh, the power of understatement). Part way through, he turns away and coughs, as if the very words he is trying to say had become stuck in his throat. That one cough says it all.

*Actually, Losey and Dearden come second and third respectively, since Bogarde’s most frequent director was Ralph Thomas – the, ahem, ‘talent’ behind ‘Doctor in the House’ and its turgid sequels, as well as formulaic but crowd-pleasing fare like ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’ and ‘The Wind Cannot Read’. He and Bogarde made nine films together. For the purposes of this article, though, I’m factoring in artistic integrity and showing Ralph Thomas the red card.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Spanish Gardener

You might have noticed that I title entries after the film I’m discussing. I do this purely for simplicity. It’s been tempting to use other titles – to play on words or quote an apposite bit of dialogue (tomorrow’s review of ‘Victim’ could easily go under the banner “Because I wanted him!”; when I get to ‘The Servant’, the immortal line “I’m a gentleman’s gentleman – and you’re no bloody gentleman” cries out to be used) – but in the case of ‘The Spanish Gardener’ there’s simply nothing else to call this article.

The film’s set in Spain. The nominal hero is a gardener. That’s it.

To put it mildly, ‘The Spanish Gardener’ is a nothing film. There are only two things worth mentioning, and I’ll leave those till last just so I can close on a remotely positive note. For now, let’s examine ‘The Spanish Gardener’ as an exercise in how to make a nothing film:

Employ a journeyman director. That ‘TSG’ is the film Philip Leacock is best remembered for says it all. His only other film of any note is the minor WWII melodrama ‘Appointment in London’, also starring Bogarde. After helming feature films during the 50s and early 60s, he worked exclusively in television up till the mid-80s, seeing out his career helming episodes of ‘Falcon Crest’ and ‘Murder, She Wrote’. Oh dear.

The screenplay, by John Bryan (his only writing credit as far as I know – his usual metier was as producer or production designer) and Lesley Storm, is a static affair which lurches into contrived melodrama in the last half an hour. The source material is a novel by A.J. Cronin. I’ve not read it, but having slogged through his most famous book ‘The Keys to the Kingdom’ a few years ago, I can attest that he’s not the paciest storyteller.

The cinematography, by long-time Powell & Pressburger collaborator Christopher Challis, is sumptuous but a bit too “picture postcard” – immaculate sun-drenched compositions, pretty but lifeless.

The plot involves a minor British diplomat, Harrington Brande (Michael Hordern), sent to an out-of-the-way posting in Spain after falling out with his boss (Bernard Lee) when passed over for promotion. Accompanied by his young son, whom he over-protects (his wife has left him), the boy escapes the stultification of his father’s company by striking up a friendship with local gardener Jose (Bogarde). Brande becomes increasingly jealous, forbidding the boy to talk to him. When the lad’s watch is stolen and planted on Jose, Brande seizes the opportunity to discredit him …

The scenes of Jose’s arrest – manacled, bungled on a train under armed guard – jar the viewer out of an hour’s worth of inertia. All this for a watch? The resolution, played out against a raging storm (whoop! whoop! cliché alert!), is as predictable as it is underwhelming.

So what are the two things worth mentioning? Well, it’s a rare example of Bogarde not turning in the best performance: he sleepwalks through a one-dimensional role that calls for him to do nothing more than look bronzed and handsome while he pushes a wheelbarrow around, leaving it to Michael Hordern to steal the film (his finely nuanced characterisation is far better than the script deserves). Also, the film reunites Bogarde with Jon Whiteley, his young co-star from ‘Hunted’. A cut above the usual standard of child actors, Whiteley made only two more appearances before devoting himself to academia. He went on to establish himself as eminent art historian at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Sleeping Tiger

Directed by Victor Hanbury, according to the opening credits. A pseudonym. ‘The Sleeping Tiger’ was in fact Joseph Losey’s first British film following his repatriation after his Hollywood blacklisting during the McCarthy witch-hunts*.

A melodramatic little number, but notable as the first time Losey and Bogarde worked together – they went on to make five films – and for the pointers it offers towards their most memorable collaboration, ‘The Servant’.

The plot, briefly: young thug Frank Clemmons (Bogarde) attempts to mug stoic psychiatrist Dr Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox), only for the older man to disarm him. Rather than frog-march him down the local nick, Esmond offers Clemmons an alternative: six months as house guest (or, as Clemmons puts it, “a prisoner here”) and guinea pig for Esmond’s thesis that he can reverse the youth’s tendencies to criminality. During his enforced stay, Clemmons begins an affair with Esmond’s wife Glenda (Alexis Smith).

All this malarkey wouldn’t be so bad if the scenes between Esmond and Clemmons attained some degree of psychological depth. However, what little tension there is (Clemmons is too busy making whoopee with Mrs E or sneaking out to further his criminal career to enter into any soul-searching conversation with the good doctor) remains unexplored. Resolution comes in a scene as intellectually facile as the “it’s not your fault” finale to ‘Good Will Hunting’, but without that film’s three-handkerchief sense of catharsis.

Ultimately, Losey becomes too interested in the pressure-cooker atmosphere generated by his three central characters, and in dissecting social mores and class hypocrisy, to bother with the central premise of Esmond’s sociological experiment. In this respect, ‘The Sleeping Tiger’ is certainly a cinematic limbering-up for ‘The Servant’. It’s also frustrating, since potentially interesting material is sacrificed for stuff which is merely formulaic.

It’s stating the obvious to say that Bogarde is the best thing about the film: again, there’s an immediacy to his performance that leaves the rest of cast in the shade. Knox is wooden, while Smith (although mercifully not as screechy as Peggy Evans in ‘The Blue Lamp’) piles on the hysteria in the overwrought and fairly pointless final act.

Still, ‘The Sleeping Tiger’ paired Losey and Bogarde for the first time; better things lay ahead …

*A pithy coda, thirty years on: in the late 1980s, Bogarde contributed frequent book reviews to The Daily Telegraph. His review of Elia Kazan’s ‘A Life’ is reprinted in ‘For the Time Being’, his collection of journalism: “I know he was responsible for ‘On the Waterfront’ … but he was equally responsible for the destruction of a number of good and honourable people … In Paris at the premiere of a film I had made with Joseph Losey [which Kazan attended] … Losey dragged me from my seat … ‘I’ll be damned,’ he said, ‘if I let you sit with an informer’.”

Yay, Sir Dirk – go tell it on the mountain!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


I’ve been leafing through Bogarde’s several volumes of autobiography for a reference to ‘Hunted’, but the great man seems to have had nothing to say about it. Not surprising, really; of the eight autobiographical works he penned, the first (‘A Postillion Struck by Lightning’) only touches on his film career in its closing pages, while a subsequent volume, ‘Great Meadow’ returns to the main concerns of ‘Postillion’ – a nostalgic evocation of Bogarde’s childhood. Other instalments focus on the later, European films under directors like Visconti, Cavani and Fassbinder. Of the decade and a half of British films that made him a star, Bogarde says very little, other than to credit ‘The Blue Lamp’, ‘Victim’ and ‘The Servant’ as milestones in his development as an actor.

John Coldstream, in his biography, calls ‘Hunted’ an “unpretentious drama … notable for its understatement”. True, true. But talk about damning with faint praise! Okay, I’ll admit it: ‘Hunted’ is minor league Bogarde. But it’s still a terrific little movie, with much to enjoy and a memorable ending (advance warning: PLOT SPOILER AHEAD).

Briskly directed by Charles Crichton – the man behind perennial Ealing favourites ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ and ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’, and who proved he could still chalk up a mainstream success at the age of 78 with ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ – from a script by Jack Whittingham, ‘Hunted’ opens with a six year old boy, Robbie (Jon Whiteley), running away from his step-parents’ house after accidentally setting fire to the kitchen curtains. He blunders into the cellar of a deserted, bombed-out building (Eric Cross’s cinematography makes excellent, noir-style use of post-war London) where Chris Lloyd (Bogarde) crouches over the body of a local businessman. He’s just made the rashest mistake of his life. Panicking, he grabs the boy, less as a hostage than concerned that he’s a witness, and flees.

The first half of the film charts Lloyd and Robbie’s flight from London – but not before Crichton has staged a tense sequence in which Lloyd, evading a police cordon, breaks into his own apartment to get a stash of money that will sustain the two of them during their exodus. Things sag a little here with the introduction of Lloyd’s slatternly wife Magda (Elizabeth Sellars, giving a hammy, one-note performance), but then Lloyd and Robbie are back on the run and things pick up no end.

The further they travel, the deeper the relationship between fugitive and child. A perfectly timed scene has them fetch up at a B&B en route to Lloyd’s brother’s house in a small Scottish fishing village. Robbie begs Lloyd to tell him a bedtime story; Lloyd obliges, making up a tall tale about a giant. Part way through, the story segues into a confession as Lloyd helplessly recounts his wife’s infidelity with her affluent boss and his subsequent actions. Unlikeable at first, Lloyd emerges as all-too-human.

Betrayed by his wife, turned away on arrival at his brother’s, Robbie is by now Lloyd’s only friend in the world. And vice versa. Lloyd has found out about Robbie’s maltreatment at the hands of his step-family. Taking the boy with him, Lloyd makes a last gamble for freedom, stealing a fishing boat and setting out for Europe. Then Robbie falls ill. Bogarde’s acting here is spot on – the sense of frustration is palpable. He berates the lad (“You can’t be ill! Not now!”); he storms back above decks to take the wheel again; an internal battle plays out on his face; his knuckles whiten around the wheel. Finally, he wrenches the vessel around and sails back to port. A mob of angry townsfolk line the jetty, waiting for him. The police arrive just as he walks slowly and heavily up the harbour steps, Robbie feverish and barely conscious in his arms.

It’s a moralistic ending, certainly – Lloyd ‘doing the right thing’ even though it means his arrest – and more or less obligatory in British cinema of that era (villains, even sympathetic ones, weren’t allowed to get away with it; other examples: Alec Guinness going quietly at the end of ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’, Jack Hawkins and co. bundled into the police van in the closing frames of ‘The League of Gentlemen’). But it works. And it works because Bogarde is so convincing.

Interrupting the Dirk-fest ...

As a writer on Sam Peckinpah myself, I can highly recommend Tim's 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' article on Antagony & Ecstasy: thorough, lucid, and well-informed. An excellent re-appraisal of what is still a very much overlooked film from one of American cinema's most notorious mavericks. Peckinpah never delivered a final cut of the film due to a degree of studio interference that verged on the intensity of a vendetta. (He only ever made one film that wasn't meddled with to some extent by his producers: the challenging and still often misunderstood 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia'.) Perhaps this is what makes 'Pat Garrett' such a standout: for all the compromises he had to make, every frame is shot through with the end-of-days/death-of-the-old-west/men-outliving-their-time aesthetic that defines Peckinpah's cinema.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Blue Lamp

The TV spin-off is a curious beast. It has evolved from successful films (‘The Odd Couple’, ‘M*A*S*H’), unsuccessful films (‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’) and frankly indifferent films (‘Stargate’).

‘The Blue Lamp’ (1950) has to be one of the strangest examples. Its spin-off, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, features a protagonist who dies halfway through the original movie.
Ostensibly, ‘The Blue Lamp’ is about a young idealistic recruit to the police force, Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley), and the ersatz father-son relationship between him and his mentor, George Dixon (Jack Warner). When Dixon is gunned down, his protégé learns some hard lessons about life and death.

As such, it’s a schizophrenic viewing experience. The rose-tinted protrayal of friendly bobbies on the beat (they rehearse a male voice choir when they’re not busy keeping the streets safe) sits cheek by jowl with the snivelling nastiness of its villain, Tom Riley (Bogarde). In an early scene, Riley terrorizes his girlfriend, Diana (Peggy Evans), by waving a gun at her; later, concerned that she might rat him out, he attempts to strangle her.

The script, by former copper T.E.B. Clarke, opens on Diana, a teenage runaway; a screed of voice-over exposition inform us she is one of many dissolute young people, losing her way in post-war England, the social climate breeding a new kind of criminal: the juvenile delinquent. John Boulting’s Graham Greene adaptation ‘Brighton Rock’, starring Richard Attenborough as straight-razor wielding delinquent Pinkie, was released three years earlier and covers similar territory. (It’s worth noting that, when the films were made, Bogarde and Attenborough were 29 and 24 respectively – older than the teenage demographic to which the expression ‘juvenile delinquent’ broadly refers.)

Riley commits two robberies during the course of the film - at a jewellers and a cinema respectively - coshing a police constable as he scarpers from the former; and bludgeoning a doorman at the latter, for no other reason than the poor fellow’s presence in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Having relieved the picture palace of its box office takings, Riley encounters the granite-faced - and unarmed - Dixon. The scene that follows is a classic by anybody’s standards, shocking to audiences of the time and still powerful today.

Riley, polo-neck sweater pulled up to obscure his face, eyes bulging with fear, faces up to Dixon.

Riley: Get back.

Dixon: Drop that and don’t be a fool. Drop it, I say.

Riley: I’ll drop you! [Dixon advances] Get back. This thing works! Get back!

Two shots ring out and Dixon falls.

Immediately establishing himself as the most hissable villain of 1950, Bogarde proves himself the best thing in the film by a mile. His acting is naturalistic and effectively nuanced. While Warner and Hanley give one-note performances (and Evans is just plain histrionic), Bogarde gets under Riley’s skin. As the actor himself noted:

It was the first time I came near to giving a cinema performance of in any kind of depth: I think it had some light and shade, whereas the work which had gone before was cardboard and one dimensional … It had never, of course, occurred to me before … but the people I played had minds, of some sort of another, and I became completely absorbed in trying to find those minds and offer them up to the camera. - Dirk Bogarde, ‘Snakes and Ladders’, chapter 6.

The second half of ‘The Blue Lamp’ deals with the aftermath of Dixon’s death following a period of hospitalisation. A poster in the squad room announces that the male voice choir concert is cancelled. Riley’s pistol is recovered from a bomb site*. CID – led by Bernard Lee (later to find fame as M in the Bond films) – gets involved. Riley is tracked down to the White City dog-tracks. A sergeant bursts into the canteen and calls for all available men; “Aw, come on, sarge,” someone protests, “we’ve only just got in.” The sergeant dismisses his protestation, saying “They’re onto the bastard that shot George Dixon” (the first time this particular expletive had been used in a mainstream British film). Mitchell, grim-faced, leads a team of officers; they move remorselessly in on Riley.

In these closing scenes, you get the sense that this is more in line with T.E.B. Clarke’s sensibilities than the earlier jocularity, chummily avuncular bobbies and ubiquitous cups of tea. However, British audiences in the 1950s just weren’t ready for the real deal – as evidenced by the unflagging popularity (and ubiquitous cups of tea) of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, which ran for over 400 episodes between 1955 and 1976. Amazingly, the show was in its last year when ‘The Sweeney’ exploded across the small screen and completely revolutionised the portrayal of the police force. Dixon would have turned in his grave at the exploits of Jack Regan and co … but I reckon Riley would still have pulled his gun and chanced it.

*My friend and fellow blogger Mike, of Troubled Diva fame, recalls his mother’s brush with movie stardom as one of the little girls in this scene in a wonderfully entertaining post.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Dirk Bogarde

After the Herzog-fest, I was planning an Argento-athon. A month ago, I ordered two Argento box sets from Amazon with a projected delivery date of between 13th and 29th November. The 13th came and went; Amazon emailed me to say one of the sets wouldn't arrive till after Christmas, but the other was still on course for a timely delivery.

To date, I've received sweet FA.

So, the planned fortnight of horror/giallo related entries has gone by the board. On top of this, mid last week I came down with the dreaded lurgy (translation, for all non-'Goon Show' aficionados: fell ill), but forced myself into work - we were riding a tight deadline for submitting a claim for government funding and having time off sick just wasn't an option. Dead-beat by the time I got home in the evening, I had no inclination to head back in town to the cinema, even with 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' and 'The Darjeeling Ltd' doing the rounds.

Yesterday, crying off the Christmas shopping after just 30 minutes of battling the crowds in Nottingham, I left my partner to her hairdressing appointment, went home and crawled into bed. She rang me post-salon. "I'm in Zavvi [formerly Virgin, and the only megastore that sounds like a bit of Nadsat] and they've got the Dirk Bogarde box set, fifteen quid cheaper than you saw it for on Amazon. Shall I get it for you?"

The girl knows how to make me happy.

Bogarde has always been one of my favourite British film stars. Contemporary audiences, if they've heard of him at all (at work, over lunch, a couple of years ago: "What are you reading, Neil?" "A biography of Dirk Bogarde." "Who?" "Dirk Bogarde. You know, the actor?" "Huh?"), don't appreciate how famous he was. During his matinee idol years, it's no exaggeration to say that Bogarde was the Brad Pitt or Leonardo di Caprio of his day. The man was a heart-throb. Talk to anyone of my mother's generation. Hell, talk to my mother!

At the height of his fame, and having famously spurned Hollywood after one ill-fated Stateside production (Charles Vidor's overblown Lizst biopic 'Song Without End'), Bogarde shucked off the pretty-boy, pin-up mantle and started taking on challenging, provocative roles, from the homosexual barrister facing blackmail in 'Victim', to a sinister butler in 'The Servant', to a former concentration camp officer renewing a sado-masochistic affair with one of his victims in 'The Night Porter', to arguably his most accomplished role - the tragic von Aschenbach in Visconti's heart-breakingly beautiful 'Death in Venice'.

'Victim' and 'The Servant' are represented in the box set, but there are at least two other films which, even from the earliest days of his half-century-long career, demonstrate Bogarde's capabilities as an actor and his ability to imbue ostensibly unlikeable characters, if not with humanity, then at least with recognisably human attributes: 'The Blue Lamp' and 'Hunted'.

I watched these two back to back earlier today. It's not looking like I'll be going into work tomorrow, so I think 'The Sleeping Tiger' and 'The Spanish Gardener' will be the order of the day.

I'll be posting reviews of each of the films in the box set - one a day, in the order in which they were made - from tomorrow. Some are old favourites, some I've not seen in years. I'm looking forward to re-evaluating them.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rescue Dawn

I don’t really need to write about ‘Rescue Dawn’. Tim’s review on Antagony & Ecstasy nails it.

Herzog’s source material – the plight of German-American pilot Dieter Dengler, shot down over Laos, imprisoned by the non-Geneva-Convention-friendly Vietcong and forced to survive inhospitable jungle conditions after he escapes – is something the director has already dealt with in his astounding documentary ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’.

True, re-approaching the story as a Hollywood-backed (and therefore decently budgeted) feature film means that Herzog can tackle it on a much broader canvas. And what he delivers is a compelling, well-made, brilliantly-acted slice of mainstream film-making.

But, as Tim pointedly asks, Who the holy fuck wants Werner Herzog to be a consummate professional?

If all this sounds like I’m gearing up to give ‘Rescue Dawn’ a slating, that’s not the case. There’s much to admire: it’s pacy, graced with terrific performances (Herzog manages to elicit a performance from Steve Zahn that doesn’t involve goofing around and being a wise-ass – and that’s saying something!), and is refreshingly non-judgemental in its observational portrayal of the VC, lifting the film far beyond the usual ‘grunts and gooks’ characterisations that typify American productions of this ilk.

And yet … and yet … this is Herzog in the jungle. This should be ‘Aguirre’ with planes, ‘Fitzcarraldo’ goes ’Nam. What it is, ultimately, is a dichotomy. It’s simultaneously one of the best things I’ve seen in a multiplex this year and arguably the most ordinary thing in Herzog’s filmography.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My Best Fiend

‘My Best Fiend’ is a curiosity in many respects, not least because its translated English title (a one-letter-short corruption of “my best friend”) is wittier and far more effective than the German ‘Mein Leibster Feind’ (purpose of comparison: “feind”/“freunde” … not quite the same, is it?).

It’s a curiosity because I don’t know of any other director (though please feel free to correct me on this) making a film about his alter ego. My imagination takes over at this point. Kurosawa on Mifune: ‘My Best Samurai’. Losey on Bogarde: ‘My Best Repressed Englishman’. Scorsese on de Niro: ‘My Best Italian-American Before I Chucked Him For Leo’ …

Sorry, I digress. How you perceive ‘My Best Fiend’ depends on your definition of a documentary. Should it be an exercise in objectivity? If so, ‘My Best Fiend’ can be disallowed, purely because of Herzog’s relationship with his subject. (By this definition, Michael Moore’s entire output can also be excluded … they’re polemics, not documentaries. But, like ‘My Best Fiend’, they’re also good: provocative, compelling, always interesting to watch.)

In Herzog’s defence, he made the film almost a decade after Kinski’s death. No knee-jerk reaction or quick cash in. Also, he allows for the fact that Kinski can’t, by dint of mortality, have his say by allowing Eva Mattes and Claudia Cardinale (KK’s co-stars on ‘Woyzeck’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’ respectively) to have theirs: both women attest to Kinski’s chivalrous, gentlemanly side. Mattes, particularly, pays attention to Kinski’s brilliance as an actor (the accompanying clip from ‘Woyzeck’ proves her point in fine style). The final scene, archive footage of Kinski, a childish grin on his face, watching a butterfly flit along his hand then alight on his ear, allows the audience to take away from the film a human, likeable Kinski, rather than the ranting egomaniac depicted in so many other scenes.

Scenes like:

Herzog recounting KK’s threatened walk-off during the filming of ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ – Herzog tells him, very quietly and calmly, that he has a rifle and before Kinski reaches the next bend in the river, there’ll be eight bullets in him (“and the ninth will be for me”).

Kinski having a stand-up row (that quickly degenerates into the spectacle of a grown man determinedly throwing his toys out of the pram) with a producer on ‘Fitzcarraldo’. Herzog comes out of this scene just as badly, hovering in the background instead of bringing his errant star into line. The unfortunate producer, it must however be said, throws it back at Kinski in fine style … I’d love to stand the man a pint for his utter refusal to take Kinski’s shit.

Footage of Kinski’s controversial ‘Jesus’ tour, a one-man theatrical revue where he cast himself, in contemporary dress and language, as the abused and suffering Christ … only to abuse his audience vehemently for heckling.

There can be no doubt that Kinski was a victim of his own ego. Yet, for all that he recounts their clashes with avuncular calmness, there’s more than a hint of ego to Herzog’s centrality to ‘My Best Fiend’. At times, it seems less about Kinski than Herzog himself.

My partner, very much a newcomer to Herzog’s cinema and with only the sketchiest notion of who Kinski was, watched ‘My Best Fiend’ and offered the comment: “It’s like they both needed each other. Not surprising, really: they’re as mad as each other.”

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Cobra Verde

I’ve not read Bruce Chatwin’s novel ‘The Viceroy of Ouidah’, so I can’t comment on ‘Cobra Verde’ in terms of an adaptation. I have to consider it, then, purely on its own merits.

And, yes, ‘Cobra Verde’ has its merits, particularly in Herzog’s observational depiction of West African rituals, importance of dance and sense of ceremony. There are at least three excellent set-pieces, even though one of them is more effective in its build-up than its resolution. But more of that later. There are some good performances – although not Kinski’s; the actor was clearly on his way out (he died four years after the film was completed). Again, more of that later.

What is beyond debate is that ‘Cobra Verde’ is the least of the Herzog/Kinski films. Why? Well, I started this blog in order to celebrate the movies I loved, not to knock the ones that don’t come up to scratch … hmmm, six posts in and I can feel my mission statement straining at the edges.

Let’s pause for plot synopsis:

A feared Mexican bandit, Francisco Manoel da Silva (Kinski), is hired unwittingly by a landowner, Don Octavio (José Lewgoy), to oversee his slaves. He promptly gets Don Octavio’s three daughters pregnant. By now aware that he’s a feared bandit, the don dispatches him to West Africa to take care of his interests in the slave trade, quietly hoping that da Silva (nicknamed Cobra Verde by the locals) will be put to death as soon as he sets foot on African soil. What makes him so sure is that the recently appointed King Bossa de Ahadey of Dahomey (played by real-life royal, H.R.H. Nana Agyejfi Kwane II of Nsein) is a loose cannon who hates the sight of white men. Da Silva accepts the commission, sails to Africa, establishes himself at abandoned Fort Elmina, and trades rifles for slaves. Everything is going well until King Bossa has him seized and brought before him. King Bossa orders da Silva put to death (da Silva’s face is blacked up to get around the technicality of not killing white men!), but he is rescued by a rival faction. Da Silva trains an army of topless warrior women (I am not making this up) and leads them against King Bossa, dethroning him. Promoted to viceroy and returned to Fort Elmina, da Silva learns that Don Octavio, having taken delivery of the shipment of slaves, has double-crossed him and da Silva is now a wanted man. He drags a boat down to the shore, intending to set sail, but dies as he tries to haul it the last few feet into the waves.

To say the narrative jumps around a bit is like saying Oliver Reed took the odd lemonade shandy. Narratively and structurally, the film is all over the place. Normally this wouldn’t matter in a Herzog movie – the sheer filmic spectacle of it would be enough. And with its cast of hundreds and locations that included Brazil, Ghana and Colombia, it should have looked awesome. Instead, it’s curiously flat. Herzog’s frequent collaborator Thomas Mauch quit as director of photography after one too many run-ins with Kinski, and was replaced by Viktor Ruzicka. Mauch’s loss is clear in every frame of the film.

Plotwise, major developments are skimmed over or not bothered with at all. Villagers flee from da Silva in the opening scenes, but the biggest landowner in the territory hasn’t heard of him and casually hires him. We’re told he’s doing a fine job, but we never see him at work. He has his wicked way with Don Octavio’s three daughters, but there’s not a shred of sexual tension and only the briefest of scenes suggesting a liaison. I’m not saying acres of exposed flesh should have been the order of the day (although there’s plenty of that in the latter half), but like so many of the necessary plot developments of the first hour, this element of the film just doesn't convince.

The two main set pieces – the restoration of Fort Elmina and the attack on King Bossa’s residence – occupy the mid-section of ‘Cobra Verde’, the film then lapsing into a tedious, conversation-driven final act as da Silva realises the extent of Don Octavio’s betrayal. Only the magnificent death-scene, played out against the silvery patterns of light on water, recaptures what Herzog and Kinski were capable of.

Finally, Kinski himself must shoulder much of the blame. Wasted, crazed, his very presence on set generating a more negative atmosphere than ever before, his excesses behind the camera were, for the first time in his career, not mirrored by a galvanising performance in front of it. He drifts through most of the film in a daze, only coming alive to rant and snarl maniacally towards the end.

His best moment comes as he leads the rebel army. They enter King Bossa’s residence only to find a snake coiling languidly in front of them. “They’ve taken the sacred python from the temple,” someone warns him; “no-one who passes will live.” Da Silva rounds on the man: “They named me for a snake in my country. Attack!” And so saying, he kicks the serpent out of the way (a moment all the more crazily iconic for him being barefoot) and leads the charge … Only for the scene to end, abruptly and bloodlessly, just seconds later.

So what does ‘Cobra Verde’ have going for it? Well, Lewgoy is excellent as Don Octavio, hypocritically leching after his womenservants then lambasting his daughters for sluts when they fall pregnant. Likewise Peter Berling (returning from ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’), who also paints an acidic portrait of hypocrisy as a missionary whose interest in some of his parishioners (notably the bare-breasted “nun’s choir”) extends beyond touching their souls …

Mainly, though, there’s Africa. Its people, its customs, its rhythms. I can’t help thinking that Herzog’s cameras would have been better employed in filming a documentary.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Some films are defined by a single scene or sequence:

‘Bullitt’ – the car chase.

‘The French Connection’ – the car/elevated train chase.

‘The Italian Job’ – bunch of Minis beetling about.

‘Apocalypse Now’
– the helicopter attack/Ride of the Valkyries.

Parenthetically: funny how all these films are defined, essentially, by modes of transport.

Mention ‘Fitzcarraldo’ to any serious film fan – or, more explicitly, just look at the poster – and you’re immediately in “ship gets dragged over mountain” territory.

Watching Herzog’s fourth collaboration with Kinski again recently, it struck me that, for audiences seeing the film for the first time (those, anyway, for whom the game hadn’t been given away by the poster), its central conceit must have been truly astounding. You see, it’s not till an hour and half in (‘Fitzcarraldo’ runs 157 minutes) that Kinski gleefully outlines his deliriously lunatic scheme to circumvent a dangerous set of rapids by dragging his rusting old wreck of a vessel a couple of miles overland at the point where two tributaries run closest to each other.

Up until this point, the film has been about something equally grandiose: the all-consuming obsession of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Fitzcarraldo is the name the natives give him) to bring opera to the jungle. The man engages in business ventures not for personal profit, but so that he can build an opera house in the outer reaches of nowhere and have Enrico Caruso open it.

A German-Irish ex-patriot, at sea amongst the rubber barons and dissipates who have achieved what all white men in far-flung corners of the globe manage to achieve (the raping of the land and the subjugation of the indigenous population), he struggles to make his fortune. His one ally, also his consort, is Molly (Claudia Cardinale), madame of a prosperous brothel. With unerring faith, she sinks her savings into his latest venture, the acquisition of a rust-tub boat and a claim on a chunk of land rife with rubber trees. The only reason Fitzcarraldo’s peers haven’t already exploited the territory is its inaccessibility.

Fitzcarraldo is a laughing stock, principally because of his last failed venture, the Trans-Andean Railway, a project that got no further forward than a station, a waiting room and a few dozen yards of track. Mentioned several times in dialogue, Herzog actually depicts this tremendous folly about an hour in, and it’s the first indication of the scope, madness and resilience of both Herzog’s film and its eccentric protagonist.

Of the films I mentioned at the start of this post, ‘Apocalypse Now’ has the closest parallels to ‘Fitzcarraldo’: jungle setting, troubled production, director lionised by the press as egomaniacal. Also, both are hugely visual and visionary. For want of a better word, epic.

And not just in terms of running time. It’s the sheer concept of what the film-makers went through in order to achieve their vision that leaves you reeling. With the anachronistic exception of a bulldozer that was used to level ground and, on occasion, give the ship a helping tug, everything that Herzog puts on screen was physically effected by his cast and crew.

It’s easy to be blasé about visual effects nowadays: CGI can pretty much give shape and form to anything. But ‘Fitzcarraldo’ was made over twenty-five years ago. No green-screen and digital imagery back then. What there was back then, and what most directors would have opted for, was model work. (Remember the Airfix-kit-in-a-swimming-pool special effects of costly flop ‘Raise the Titanic’?) Not Mr Herzog. He keeps it real. And thank God he does. Even after multiple viewings, ‘Fitzcarraldo’ continues to astound, inspire and delight me.

True, the spectacle, the visuals, the look of the film (a raised glass here to cinematographer Thomas Mauch) are amazing. But beyond that, and for all that Fitzcarraldo’s scheme ultimately fails, the most delightful aspect of the film is its exuberance. Compare Kinski’s character here to his portrayals of Aguirre (crazed, violent, egocentric), Dracula (vampire; ’nuff said) or Woyzeck (persecuted, paranoid, driven to violence). As Fitzcarraldo, he laughs, he smiles (whether he’s in Molly’s arms or being transported by a scratchy recording of Caruso), he embodies jubilation even though his plans come to naught … in short, he never stops dreaming.

Aside, perhaps, from ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film about failure that’s emerged as so gloriously life-affirming.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Unfinished at the time of his death, Georg Büchner’s play ‘Woyzeck’ is nonetheless one of the most widely performed and critically acclaimed theatrical works in the German language. It has been adapted as an opera by Alban Berg and a musical by Robert Wilson and Tom Waits, subjected to numerous TV adaptations, and filmed by Giancarlo Cobelli (1973), Werner Herzog (1979), Guy Marignane (1993), János Szász (1994) and Álvaro Olavarría (2004).

Herzog made his version just days after ‘Nosferatu’ wrapped, using the same cast and with Kinski once more in the title role. (It’s interesting to note that all of their collaborations take their title from the protagonist’s name.) ‘Woyzeck’ was shot in eighteen days and edited in five. The finished product is simultaneously one of Herzog’s most formal and most experimental films.

The reason for this – and also the reason it was made so quickly – is that the film, which clocks in at a scant eighty minutes, consists of just twenty-seven cuts. That’s an average of one cut every three minutes. As opposed to your average Hollywood film which probably cuts every ten or fifteen seconds. (Or every three if you’re Michael Bay and pandering to a core audience with an MTV attention-span.)

This sometimes makes for a very theatrical viewing experience (curious given Herzog’s declaration that he detests the falsity of theatre), such as an early scene where Woyzeck shaves his captain while the old duffer spouts about morality, brow-beating Woyzeck for his lack thereof. Movement is minimal. The captain has virtually all the dialogue and remains a static figure throughout. Woyzeck bustles about him but is ordered to slow down, not to take life so hurriedly. The sequence slips into a strangely compelling torpor.

The contrast, then, is that much greater when, in a later scene – played out in its entirety in one take – Woyzeck confronts his faithless consort Marie (Eva Mattes). Kinski flings himself around the screen like a man possessed (which, basically, is what Woyzeck is), the camera whipping after him, edging in, pulling back, almost seeming alternately to probe towards and then retreat from him. It’s such a dynamic scene, so powerfully acted (and not just by Kinski – Mattes won a richly deserved Best Actress award at Cannes) that you forget it’s unedited.

Woyzeck, a peasant enlisted as a private in the army, supplements his pay by barbering for the captain and undergoing medical experiments for a doctor whose interest in the physical effects of extreme situations extends to throwing a cat out of the window and ordering Woyzeck to exist solely on a diet of peas. While his time is occupied in these pursuits, Marie conducts an affair with the battalion’s unrepentantly macho drum major.

In essence then, Woyzeck is the poor man, the little man, beset on all sides by a society who will always oppress him. The captain, corpulent and self-satisfied, represents wealth, greed, social standing and the hypocrisy that comes with it. The doctor embodies scientific enquiry at the cost of humanitarianism. The drum major, built like a brick outhouse and strutting his stuff before the town’s female populace, is a study in pride, arrogance and superficiality. He’s little more than a gigolo and, as such, complements Marie, whose easy virtue robs Woyzeck of the one thing he tries desperately to cling onto: her affection.

Naturally, it all ends badly. When Woyzeck finally loses his grip on reality, Herzog lifts from the film its structural formalism and renders Woyzeck’s climactic act of violent madness in Peckinpah-like slo-mo. (The opening credits sequence, in which Woyzeck comes sprinting round the side of his barracks, harangued by his drill sergeant, the footage speeded up, neatly prefigures this.)

I found ‘Woyzeck’ difficult the first time I saw it. The film seemed longer than its eighty minutes. I found the dialogue non-naturalistic (Büchner’s fragment was written in 1837) and the catalogue of Woyzeck’s miseries almost depressingly inevitable. The scope and the evocation of landscape that had so enthralled me in other Herzog films were missing.

Subsequently, even though it’s still considerably down the list in terms of my most watched Herzog DVDs, I’ve realised that just as the film opens and closes with a melancholy theme played by a string quartet, ‘Woyzeck’ is essentially a chamber piece. And it’s Kinski – haunted, harried, driven to desperation – who claws at the very fabric of the film with the immediacy of his performance.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic ‘Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens’ (‘Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors’ is basically an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ but with a different title, Van Helsing written out of the story and name of the vampire changed from Count Dracula to Count Orlok. The fact that Stoker’s novel was still in copyright at the time accounts for these changes.

‘Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens’ is still an incredibly creepy film, eighty-five years after it was made; like Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ (1932), it retains an immediacy, a power to shock. The key element in Murnau’s film is the casting of the appropriately named Max Schreck (his surname is German for ‘terror’): bald, hollow-eyed, a rat-like mouth and bat-like ears, fingernails like a prototype Freddie Krueger, his appearance is genuinely unsettling.

There is a tradition in cinema of the vampire as suave and aristocratic. Not in German cinema, though. In German cinema the vampire is the stuff of nightmare. There was only ever going to be one casting option for the remake.
Heeeeeeeeeeeere’s Klaus!

Kinski’s ‘look’ in the film is one of several direct quotations from Murnau’s original: there’s also the iconic image of a deformed shadow creeping across a wall, as well as a scene the vampire rising from his coffin to stalk the empty decks of a ship by night (the fast clipper with its bustling crew has become a ghost ship by the time it makes land).

Elsewhere, however, it’s pure Herzog. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz)’s journey to Castle Dracula is a study in landscapes. His arrival by night is strikingly lit, a visual hyper-stylization that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dario Argento movie. Harker encounters suspicious innkeepers and superstitious gypsies (and with good reason), and finally Dracula himself. These scenes are effective slices of gothic, and contrast well with almost clinical neatness of Delft, where the second half of the film is set.

Herzog restores the name Dracula to the character, as well as bringing Van Helsing back into the picture. Interestingly, though, Van Helsing is portrayed not as a dedicated vampire-hunter but a non-superstitious man of science. Herzog also deviates from Stoker’s archetypes with Harker who, after his against-the-clock race back from Castle Dracula, arrives in Delft delirious and unable to recognise his wife. Dracula, meanwhile, recognises her only too well.

Dracula goes to Delft in pursuit of Mina Harker (Isabelle Adjani), his desire for her terrible yet strangely poignant. He brings with him a plague of rats. The town is overrun. The council flees its crisis meeting. Order crumbles. A group of wealthy merchants, infected and resigned to their inevitable fate, hold a massive valedictory feast in the rat-strewn town square. This scene in particular – reminiscent of the monkeys swarming over Aguirre’s raft in ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ – marks out ‘Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht’ as unforgettably Herzog.

Image is of primary importance in telling the story: Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, a frequent Herzog collaborator, was cinematographer. Cast-wise, Bruno Ganz gives a straightforward performance as Harker, writer and occasional actor Roland Topor steals every scene he’s in as a manic, giggling Renfield, and only Isabelle Adjani seems at a loss, given little to do but look wan and romantic as Mina. But it’s Kinski who stays in the memory, even though he has only twenty minutes’ screen time. Appropriately enough, he casts a shadow that permeates the whole film.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

‘Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes’, to use its stern-sounding original German title, was Werner Herzog’s first collaboration with Klaus Kinski and saddled both of them with reputations that neither ever really shook off:

Fraught production – check.

Inhospitable location – check (Herzog and Kinski would return to the jungle ten years later for the epic ‘Fitzcarraldo’).

Maverick director vs. egomaniacal actor – check.

The conflict between Herzog and Kinski continued across another four films, and was revisited, years after Kinski’s death, in Herzog’s ‘My Best Fiend’, a film that is part-documentary, part-black-Valentine.

‘Aguirre’ is set in 1560 and chronicles the journey, deep into the Peruvian rainforest, of an invading Spanish army in search of the legendary (and determinedly non-existent) city of El Dorado. The film opens with an extraordinary shot of a thousand Conquistadores in full armour and their captured indian guides/sherpas hauling pigs, horses, llamas, provisions and cannons down from the Andes into the jungle. The route is treacherous, the mountainside shrouded in mist. Herzog films their descent almost documentary-style: he’s not trying to impress by directing a big, show-offy scene; he’s simply recording their progress.

And that’s what he does for the rest of the film, recording not only their descent from the Andes, but their descent into treachery, distrust, death and – in Aguirre’s case – madness. But without any melodrama or moralizing. There are no big, actorly, grandstanding scenes. Even Kinski, never the subtlest performer, gives a controlled, gaunt-eyed performance (Herzog has said that he dealt with Kinski’s excesses by baiting him before the cameras rolled, letting him rant himself into exhaustion, then filming the scene).

There are notable performances, too, from Roy Guerra as Don Pedro de Ursua, whose leadership Aguirre overthrows; and Peter Berling as the pitiful Don Fernando de Guzman, whom Aguirre handpicks to replace Ursua. Aguirre takes his rebellion to extremes, declaring that the group are no longer answerable to church or state, and even goes as far as “crowning” Guzman King of the New World. Watch Peter Berling’s face in this scene: he communicates cowardice (Guzman knows he’s nothing but Aguirre’s puppet), misery and helplessness in just a few seconds without a hint of overacting. Guerra, too, effectively suggests the wounded Ursua’s struggle to retain dignity while the expedition – originally under his charge – draws closer to self-destruction the further into the jungle they penetrate.

But the real stars of the show are Herzog himself and cinematographer Thomas Mauch. ‘Aguirre’ bristles with stunning imagery. There’s the fog-wreathed mountainside at the start. There’s a hypnotically brilliant shot which holds on the tumbling brown river, muddy banks overhung with vegetation to either side, before cutting to a close-up of churning water – these two simple shots occupy over a minute of screen time. There’s the jungle itself – forget the lush, verdant expanse of Hollywood productions; Herzog’s jungle is dark, humid, visceral and alive.

And then there’s the unforgettable final image: Aguirre stumbling dazed around a slowly sinking raft overrun with chittering monkeys, delivering a crazed monologue: “I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. We shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God.” His daughter, probably mercifully for her, is dead by this point. So is everyone else. The only thing that endures is Aguirre’s madness.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

By way of introduction (hats off to Herzog)

In August 2004, I started a blog on 20six called MovieBuff. I reviewed every film I saw on the big screen, as well as tossing in the occasional diary entry.

In June 2006, the administrators of 20six changed the operating software: the layout reverted to a bland standard form template, my link list disappeared and I found myself needing a password to access my own blog. Along with many other 20sixers, I jumped ship for Platform 27, setting up the somewhat self-reverentially titled MovieBuff Redux.

I continued posting reviews of everything I saw at the cinema, in the meantime neglecting to write about any number of cinematic gems I’d discovered only on video or DVD. I continued throwing in occasional diary entries, some of them striving for mundanity and just missing. I blogged book reviews, too, just in case the blog wasn’t unfocused enough.

Just over a week ago – with the twin concerns of moving house and an increased workload at the office accounting for much of my time and energy, with the readership and sense of community on Platform 27 rapidly dwindling, with my reviews becoming increasingly by-the-numbers – I posted my last entry. I was intending to call time on any blogging activities until the New Year, once the home/office situations had settled down.

Over the weekend, I started reading the Faber film book Herzog on Herzog, edited by Paul Cronin. I’ve been gripped, challenged and re-invigorated by it. I’m already working my way through the Herzog/Kinski box set, revisiting their fraught but brilliant collaborations in chronological order. These will be the subject of my first entries on this new blog.

Something became clear to me reading the book. To contextualise, here’s a few Herzog quotes:

It is the moving image per se that is the message in these kinds of films [ie. movies that do not try to ‘pass on a heavy idea to the audience’], the way that the film simply moves on the screen without asking you questions. I love this kind of cinema … Someone like Jean-Luc Goddard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film.

The images that surround us today are worn out … The biggest danger, in my opinion is television because to a certain degree it ruins our vision and makes us very sad and lonesome. Our grandchildren will blame us for not having tossed hand-grenades into TV stations because of commercials. Television kills our imagination and what we end up with are worn-out images because of the inability of too many people to seek out fresh ones.

Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of the mind; cinema comes from the country fair and the circus, not from art and academicism.

Blogging straightforward reviews of everything I’d seen meant I’d wasted time and words and blog-space on a lot of films that were at best average if not outright crap. Also, I’d been too analytical. I’d used words like ‘aesthetics’, ‘denouement’ and ‘mise en scene’. I’d been picky and sniffy when I should have been enthusing about the movies that really matter, never mind that I might only ever have seen them on the small screen.

Vielen dank’, Herr Herzog, you have given me a direction for this new project: the appreciation, not the analysis, of film; a celebration of its wonderful idiosyncracies, not a dissection of its mundane failures.