Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Marion Cotillard

The almost impossibly gorgeous - and ferociously talented - Marion Cotillard is 34 today.
Which is the only reason I needed to post this picture.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

When Eight Bells Toll

In the late '20s to mid '30s, huge amounts of "quota quickies" were pumped out to satisfy the terms of the Cinematograph Films Act 1927, which stipulated that a certain percentage of all films shown at British cinemas had to be British productions.

I'm convinced a similar piece of legislation was in force between the early '60s and the late '70s, requiring that a certain percentage of all films produced were Alistair Maclean adaptations. Some were big-budget, big box-office affairs such as 'Where Eagles Dare' (already covered on these pages as part of the personal faves project) and the inexplicably popular 'Guns of Navarone'; others, like 'Puppet on a Chain' and 'Caravan to Vaccares', were interchangeable Euro productions that deserve the "quota quickie" comparison.

Then you've got the mid-tier stuff. 'Fear is the Key' has a plank-like Barry Newman in the lead role, but boasts good turns from John Vernon, Ben Kingsley, Ray McAnally and a gorgeous Suzy Kendall, and a terrific, poundingly edited car chase. 'Breakheart Pass' is a weird conflation of Agatha Christie mystery and wild west iconography which, thanks to Lucien Ballard's sumptuous cinematography, has the look of a Michael Cimino film. Or there's 'Force 10 from Navarone', which I personally prefer to its overlong and self-important predecessor. While no-one's idea of great cinema, 'Force 10 from ~' is less talky and more action-packed than 'Guns of ~', with shoot-outs, knife fights and a blow-the-dam/destroy-the-bridge finale that manages to rise above some obvious model work.

'When Eight Bells Toll' slots into this mid-tier. Etienne Perier's direction is largely pedestrian, much of the action indifferently staged, the romantic subplot shoehorned in and devoid of any frisson, and the story twisted into overplotted WTF-ism the way only Alistair Maclean could.

Basically: naval operative Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) and intelligence bod Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) are despatched by spymaster Uncle Arthur (Robert Morley) to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, to investigate a spate of hijackings which have targetted ships carrying gold (can't you just tell this is a Maclean plot?). Posing as marine biologists, their ship is immediate boarded by "customs officials". Calvert makes them as bad guys straightaway. Later, a couple of locals hand out a beating intended to warn him off. It doesn't work. Uncle Albert, concerned that Calvert's a maverick and contemptuous of his superiors, sends a couple of crack commando types to sneak aboard a ship he's earmarked as the hijackers' next target. When they turn up dead, Calvert wonders if there's any connection to the recent appearance of a flashy yacht belonging to a Greek shipping tycoon (look, I said this was a Maclean adaptation, okay? what were you expecting? subtlety? characterisations that didn't rely on stereotyping?). Unsurprisingly, there is.

It all gets needlessly complicated, with a kidnapping subplot thrown in alongside Calvert's attraction to duplicitous femme fatale Charlotte (Nathalie Delon), whose motives couldn't be more obvious if she had "I'm secretly in league with the bad guys" tattooed on her forehead.

Then Uncle Arthur turns up and the maverick undercover agent and his port-sipping old-school-tie boss are forced to work together.

I guess the intention was that Calvert and Uncle Arthur would provide a sparky comedic double act, but by this time - roughly the mid-way point - Perier has established a fairly dour atmosphere, making brooding use of the rugged Scottish landscape and the dark rolling waves of the North Atlantic, while the action is devoid of heroics or Hollywood veneer (although I stand by my earlier comment about indifferent staging: a fist fight is lackadaisically choreographed, a helicopter crash shoddily effected) and the resulting shift in tone is as out of place as Walter Stott's magnificently over-the-top score.

Striving for the immediacy of Monty Norman's James Bond theme and the urgency of David Shire's 'Taking of Pelham One Two Three' soundtrack, it swerves between them and emerges as a souped-up big band swing-fest. And it kicks in, without any variation or modulation, every time anything remotely actionful happens. A helicopter takes off - BAM! the music erupts. A speedboat zips across the harbour - POW! it's that OTT theme again. It's barmy, intrusive and incongruous - it's genius! The cast is solid. Notwithstanding the ill-judged Calvert/Uncle Albert buddy movie concept, Hopkins and Morley are on fine form. 'When Eight Bells Toll' was only Hopkins' fourth or fifth movie and his first leading role, and he makes mundanity memorable, delivering servicable dialogue as if it were laced with meaning. Lower down the credits, Maurice Roeves as a seat-of-the-pants helicopter pilot, Del Henney as a gun-toting heavy and Jack Hawkins (dubbed by Charles Grey) as the shipping magnate are all value for money.

There's also a brilliantly cold-hearted scene where Calvert, cold-cocking an antagonist, wraps a chain around the man's legs and drops him overboard; a human anchor! Plenty of films would have chickened out and had him dragged back up, still alive, to be handed over to the authorities. 'When Eight Bells Toll' doesn't. The dude gets chucked overboard and stays overboard; he's a goner. Calvert, like Smith in 'Where Eagles Dare', is a typical Alistair Maclean do-or-die man-of-action protagonist. But because the average Maclean hero is utterly predictable doesn't mean he can't be a bit of a bastard.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Alistair Cooke at the Movies

Since Alistair Cooke's death in March 2004, his legacy has passed from the airwaves to the printed page. Reprints of 'Alistair Cooke's America' and 'Six Men' have appeared, as well as a comprehensive single-volume selection of his 'Letters from America', the long presumed lost manuscript 'American Journey', and themed volumes of his writing which chronicle his political commentary and his love of golf.

Now we have 'Alistair Cooke at the Movies', edited by Geoff Brown: 300 pages of film reviews, character sketches on the good and the great, and general musings on moviegoing. The earliest pieces date from his college years in the late 1920s, when he contributed reviews to The Granta; largely written in a florid, gee-whiz-check-out-my-IQ undergraduate style, they contain trace elements, nonetheless, of the erudition and dry wit that would charm generations of listeners across seven decades of radio broadcasts.

Indeed, as Brown points out in his introduction Cooke's inaugural broadcast for BBC radio programme The Cinema "reads almost like a 'Letter from America'. As so often, he's describing a New York Scene - Broadway's riot of electric lights. He's precise, vivid, personal; and he's drawing us in."

As the talks for The Cinema continue - they are supplemented by articles for Sight & Sound and the Spectator - Cooke reveals himself as a proletariat of film criticism. He sees movies, sometimes several times over, with paying audiences rather than form his opinions in the rarefied atmosphere of the press screening. He has no truck with the idea that foreign movies are sacrosanct or should be discussed within different perameters just because they're foreign. He makes no apology for enjoying the mainstream.

It should be noted that the majority of what's collected here dates from the 1930s, and the mainstream of Cooke's preference is the cinema of Charlie Chaplin and Frank Capra, Henry Hathaway and Michael Curtiz, Fritz Lang and Cecil B de Mille; the cinema of Robert Donat and John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert and Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. What Cooke would have made of today's mainstream is anybody's guess. By the 1970s, he's already finding bona fide classics 'The Godfather' and 'Taxi Driver' "appalling.

This, for me, is where the collection doesn't work. As a sparkling, slightly indulgent celebration of cinema in the '30s, the book is a gem. Outside of that decade ... hmmm.

Alistair Cooke always struck me as a man for whom elegance was paramount. For someone so suave and debonair, I guess the edgy, visceral, exciting wave of film-making that swept through American cinemas in the '70s must have been like a slap in the face. The small amount of commentary he affords to Coppola, Scorsese et al demonstrates an anachronistic sensibility.

A quick skim through the index reveals a fixation on Carole Lombard, Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper and Loretta Young. A just as cursory perusal brings up a list of the missing, particularly in the director's chair: Raoul Walsh, Orson Welles, Robert Aldrich, Sam Fuller, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols. Absent, too, are Powell & Pressburger, Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders.

Still, there is plenty that is effective in 'Alistair Cooke at the Movies', notably in a piece where the voice of the refined raconteur recedes ever-so-slightly and a more incisive point of view comes to the fore. Such as Cooke discussing Greta Garbo - not in the context of her prowess as an actress, but in terms of her manufactured image; her status as a commodity: "Hollywood has never made an effort to discover the particular human being that was Greta Gustafsson. Somebody saw possibilities of simplifying that complex creature, of reducing it to the proportions of a gigantic sullen doll. And they called it Greta Garbo. As they planned, she has become every man's harmless fantasy mistress. By remaining a fiction ... she remains the safest and most easily disposable of sirens ... She gives you the impression that if your imagination has to sin, it can at least congratulate itself on impeccable taste."

I can't help but raise a glass to Alistair Cooke's own sense of impeccable taste - not to mention his seemingly effortless capacity for the impeccably turned phrase - even if I don't always agree with him.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


For some reason, when I started out on the Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective, I took to writing italicised plot synopses as preambles to the articles proper. You'll notice there isn't one for 'Mirror'. There's a reason for this: the film isn't about anything.

Well, actually it is. It's about childhood and memory and the intensely personal interplay of the two in Tarkovsky's own life. 'Mirror' was immensely important and meaningful to him. In 'Time Within Time', Kitty Hunter-Blair's translation of his diaries from 1970 - 1986, he repeatedly dwells on the necessity of making it, every reference steeped in the nostalgia of his own past. Even while he's ostensibly busy working on 'Solaris', his thoughts are consumed with making 'Mirror'.

However, for all that I've read 'Time Within Time' and have a slightly-better-than-average working knowledge of Tarkovsky's family history and working life, I must confess that 'Mirror' doesn't mean much at all to me.

Werner Herzog once described the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard as "intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film". Of Tarkovsky himself, the Bavarian maverick had this to say: "[he] made some beautiful films but he is, I fear, too much the darling of the French intellectuals, something I suspect he worked a little bit towards". I'm very much inclined to agree with Herzog on the evidence of 'Mirror'. Every frame of it screams "art film".

As a viewing experience, I find 'Mirror' too insubtantial in its construct and enigmatic in tone - and deliberately so - to engage with it on any level. It never coheres, either narratively (which in itself is no big deal: Tarkovsky was never big on narrative anyway) or in terms of the kind of internal logic which lends, say, David Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive' a sense of structure and completeness in and of itself even though individual set-pieces may be baffling and the denouement less a conclusion than an ouroboros.

I wonder how much Lynch is influenced by Tarkovsky. In its weirder moments, 'Mirror' puts me in mind of Lynch's erratic genius - particularly Tarkovsky's conjuration of a rural environment in which the commonplace is suddenly disturbed by a burning barn, a chicken killed for the pot becomes a statement on the loss of innocence, and gusts of wind through long grass seem mysterious and portentous. He also seems to have influenced Hideo Nakata: the best scene in the film (a black-and-white dream sequence) conjures an image that suggests Sadaka in 'The Ring' has Russian ancestry.

These are images redolent of bad dreams and proof positive of Tarkovsky's ability to achieve a sense of the dream-like on screen. Elsewhere, though, 'Mirror' is curiously flat, Georgiy Rerberg's cinematography bland in comparison to Vadim Yusov's work on 'Ivan's Childhood', 'Andrei Rublev' and 'Solaris'. It's an irony coloured darker by the compromised circumstances in which Tarkovsky made virtually all of his films, and one I'd rather not dwell on. I want to like 'Mirror', believe me. I want to find in its pastoral reveries an evocation of childhood that is timeless and universal, one that acts as a corollary to the too-soon-ended childhood depicted in his first film. But I'm afraid I find 'Mirror' an artily self-conscious and inscrutable film and the irony remains that Tarkovsky's most personal film - the one closest to his own life - is also his most lifeless.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


The future. Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sojourning at his father (Nikolai Grinko)’s country estate when he is asked to undertake a mission to a space station orbiting the ocean planet Solaris to assess the cosmonauts’ mental state and report on the value, or otherwise, of continuing the project.

Kelvin is visited by Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who believes he saw something while flying over the surface of Solaris; however, footage shot from his craft revealed only clouds and he was discredited at subsequent hearings. Kelvin is dubious and Burton departs angrily.

Arriving at the space station, Kelvin finds that crew member Dr Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has died; reviewing a tape Gibarian made before his death, the circumstances are revealed as suicide. The remaining crew members Dr Snaut (Juri Jarvet) and Dr Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) are behaving unusually and Snaut cautions Kelvin not to panic should he witness anything strange.

Kelvin comes to suspect that other people are on board and are being hidden by Snaut and Sartorius. Kelvin soon receives a "visitor" himself – his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Problem is, Hari’s been dead for ten years: she killed herself following a bitter argument with Klein.

If the basic premise of ‘Solaris’ sounds melodramatic – the histrionic ‘Event Horizon’ is basically a fast-and-loose rip-off for the stalk ‘n’ slash generation – its execution is anything but. In Stanislaw Lem’s original novel, the emphasis is on the sheer alien-ness of what the scientists encounter on Solaris and how unprepared they are for it. This was a major theme in Lem’s fiction; he was famously contemptuous of science-fiction’s tendency to depict alien species as humanoid.

Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation focuses on the relationship between Kelvin and his late wife, relying heavily on flashbacks to document their increasingly fragile relationship.

Tarkovsky, though, turns his version into an aloof, cerebral meditation on family, spirituality and conscience. In other words, whereas Lem externalises (the novel is about mankind’s place in, and response to, the cosmos), Tarkovsky uses the vastness of space and the huge impenetrable vistas of the surface of Solaris itself in order to internalise. Herein lies both the film’s genius and its difficulty.

‘Solaris’ was the first Tarkovsky film I ever saw, back in 1991. It was shown as part of BBC2’s "Moviedrome" season, introduced by Alex Cox. I remember his exhortation not to let the slow pacing put you off, that ‘Solaris’ built to a conclusion that was – I think this is more or less how he put it – "on a conceptual level, better than the ending of ‘2001’."

Now, I’ve always been impressed by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – but primarily on an audio-visual level. It looks amazing and Kubrick’s choice of music is inspired. On any deeper level than that … hmmm, not convinced. (I’ve described my issues with ‘2001’ elsewhere on these pages: "I’m still no closer to deciding whether it’s a profound, cerebral, philosophical work of art, or a self-indulgent, egotistical, intellectually hollow con job.") So, with the possibility in mind that I was in for a more satisfying cinematic experience than ‘2001’, I settled down to watch ‘Solaris’.

And was captivated. The snail-like pace became hypnotic. The soundtrack, alternating between J.S. Bach’s Choral Prelude and Eduard Artemyev’s ethereal incidental music, was low-key where Kubrick’s choices were iconic artistic statements in and of themselves. There was something more chilling in Kelvin’s struggle with his own flawed humanity than in Dave Bowman’s conflict with the murderous HAL 9000. And there was that ending. At that stage of my (self-) education in cinema, ‘Solaris’ was a revelation. A science-fiction film where the sci-fi was in hock to intellectualism and not vice versa.

Then I began to discover Tarkovsky’s other works and I’ve experienced a paradigm shift. I still admire the film greatly, but I think that’s the thing: I admire ‘Solaris’ rather than like it. I prefer the immediacy of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, the visceral intensity of ‘Andrei Rublev’, the poetic resonances of ‘Nostalgia’. ‘Solaris’ – brilliant as it is in many ways – is bloody hard work; as hard as ‘Stalker’ with its bleakly earned small moment of hope at the very end; as hard as ‘The Sacrifice’ with its Bergmanesque spiritual debate.

Tarkovsky’s first draft screenplay set much of the narrative on earth, with only the last third taking place on the space station. I think I’d have been happier watching this version. As well realised as the space station is (it’s typically Soviet: utilitarian, characterless and slightly weathered), it’s a bland backdrop to the dark drama being played out. The scenes on Kelvin’s father’s estate contain moments as achingly poetic as anything Tarkovsky achieved. The contrast, then, is brutally evident when the scene shifts to the space station and the visual beauty of the film drains away, no matter that Tarkovsky tries to retain a sense of aesthetics with occasional flashbacks to Kelvin’s childhood (images of earth, water and fire abound: Tarkovsky summons metaphors for life even as Kelvin soul-searches in the sterile confines of the space station) and reproductions of the old masters on the walls of Snaut’s library.

The other thing that troubles me is admittedly a personal issue. My relationship with my father has been a turbulent one that eventually resulted in estrangement. Conversely, my relationship with my wife has been every bit as loving and intimate as my relationship with my parents wasn’t. I won’t labour the context any further – this blog may be called The Agitation of the Mind, but that’s a still from Herzog under the title, not a psychiatrist’s couch – suffice it to say that this colours my perception of the final scene:


Sartorius, convinced the ocean dominating the surface of Solaris is a sentient being responsible for creating the "visitors", devises a scheme to transmit the thought patterns of one of the crew members (he "volunteers" Kelvin) to the ocean in an attempt to communicate. The experiment succeeds. The "visitors" disappear. Sartorius reports, however, that islands are starting to appear in the ocean. Kelvin reappears in the woodland surrounding his father’s estate. He approaches the house and peers through a window. He sees his father moving around inside, but something is "off" about the scene. Rain is falling, but the rain is inside the house. Moreover, his father seems impervious to it. Eventually his father comes to the door and Kelvin falls to his knees before him.

The camera pulls back as mist drifts above the house, across the woodland. The estate is revealed to be one of the islands on the surface of Solaris. Solaris has created, from Kelvin’s thought patterns, the thing he wants most in the world.


Personally, I'd have thought Kelvin would have more business seeking his wife’s forgiveness than his father’s.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Challenge ten people at random to write a synopsis of their favourite western, and I'm betting at least eight out of the ten would start "Deke/Zeke/Jake [delete as applicable] rides into town and ..."

In Sergio Corbucci's 'Django', the eponymous anti-hero walks into town and ...

Whoa. Let's back up a moment. Django (Franco Nero) doesn't even get into town before his misadventures start. Dragging a coffin behind him, Django arrives at a rope-bridge on the outskirts of town where he witnesses a group of Mexicans flogging a woman, Maria (Loredana Nusciak). Before he can intervene, the Mexicans are gunned down by a bunch of Yankees. Rather than rescuing Maria, however, it's their intent to tie her to a cross and burn her. This time Django does intervene.

So: body count already in double figures, a heroine who's earned the disapprobation of rival factions, and an enigmatic outsider about to play those selfsame antagonists off against each other. And we're only five minutes into the movie. Our boy hasn't even opened that coffin yet ...

Once in town, Django encounters the sadistic and xenophobic Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), a man who gets his kicks forcing Mexican peasants to run for their life then shooting them in the back. He commands a private army (their uniform: KKK-style face masks, only red instead of white) as well as holding a post at a nearby US cavalry fort. A bar-room altercation sees Jackson's henchmen dead. Django casually enquires how many men he's got left. Forty-eight, Jackson replies. Django casually invites him to come back with all of them. Jackson obliges.

This is where our boy opens the coffin.

So: body count now pushing three figures courtesy of an off-the-wall shoot-out that most films would have saved for the denouement, and we've still got the little matter of Mexican revolutionary General Hugo Rodriguez (Jose Bodalo), his relationship with Django, their collaboration on a daring robbery at the very same US fort Major Jackson's affiliated with, and acts of betrayal and counter-betrayal that set up a truly excruciating finale where Django, his hands broken in a retributive beating, has to go up against his erstwhile antagonist while he can't even hold a gun, let alone pull the trigger.

Made in 1966, 'Django' was a cheaply and quickly produced spaghetti western, badly dubbed and aimed squarely at the American market. It became a phenomenon, spawning at least thirty sequels (only one of which, the slightly disappointing 'Django Strikes Again', was an official, linear follow-up with Nero reprising the title role). Countless other spaghetti westerns were quickly retitled to include the name Django, even though the character makes no appearance. Takeshi Miike's recent 'Sukiyaki Western Django' sets itself up as a bizarro prequel.

It also established Corbucci as the most popular and influential director of spaghetti westerns after Sergio Leone. Both were admirers of Kurosawa and saw 'Yojimbo' at impressionable stages in their careers. It's no coincidence that their breakthrough films - 'Django' for Corbucci, 'A Fistful of Dollars' for Leone - display similarities to Kurosawa's samurai classic.

'Django', though, ups the ante on even Leone's amoral reworking of 'Yojimbo'. Django is one of the genre's most inscrutable protagonists: he announces himself as Django, but refers to what's in the coffin as Django. He even refers to wanting to bury Django. Of course it's a fucking big gun in the coffin, not a person, so is Django admitting that he's lived by the gun for so long that he's lost his humanity to it, that the gun itself is Django and he's simply the mode of transport that hauls from one town to the next, one killing to the next? He has a grudge against Major Jackson over the killing of a former girlfriend, but the backstory is never revealed. Django saves Maria, but seems to abandon her to Rodriguez later on. The only other woman he takes an interest in, he uses to stage a diversion so he can steal off with a consignment of gold.

But he's angel compared to Jackson and Rodriguez. These two set the standard for corruption. Everyone's dirty. Even the town itself is a feculent mud-hole.

Corbucci ups the ante on the violence, too. There are fist fights, whippings, emasculation, death by pick-axe, a pre-'Reservoir Dogs' bit of ear-slicing and whole swathes of extras mown down when Django cuts loose with the Gatling gun.

And yet it's more than just a cheapie exploitationer. Enzo Barboni's cinematography is exceptional, Corbucci's direction is assured (in addition to the prerequisite shoot-outs and bar-room brawls, he pulls off an extended scene of Hitchcockian tension as Django attempts to abscond with the gold), and the film is rich in ambiguous imagery. Particularly religious imagery. Crosses are everywhere, from the marquetry on the top of Django's coffin, to the burning crosses Jackson's men carry, to the headstones in the cemetery where Django's final confrontation with Jackson occurs.

There's even a striking scene of Django, broken and remorseful, kneeling before a cross.

Umm. No. Wait. He's using it to aim his gun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In a Dark Place

Warning bells tintinabulate from the off: it's a contemporary take on James's original; it's a UK/Luxembourg co-production; it's by someone you've never heard of. It gets 4.3 out of 10 on IMDb and doesn't even score on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer with only two reviews counted. Ladies and gentlemen, let's hear it for the underdog.

I sat down to watch 'In a Dark Place' expecting to dislike it and wonder why I'd bought (oh, all right then: I bought it because it was £3 and Leelee Sobieski's easy on the eye). Come the end credits, I was wishing I could have liked it and fired off a quick 700 words for the blog laying waste to all the naysayers. Truth is, 'In a Dark Place' falls between two stools. It's not great, by any standards, and I'll come to the whys and wherefores and PLOT SPOILERS in a minute. But it's not dreadful either, though I can see why many people think it is. Taken at face value, it's very easy to write the film off. Hmmm, one could say, this is little more than Leelee Sobieski wandering round in a housecoat that doesn't quite close while any number of scenes play out that don't make a whole lot of sense. Entire chunks of dialogue suggest scenes that are missing, and Sobieski's performance is borderline comatose.

Sobieski plays Anna Veigh, an art teacher who is dismissed by her principal on vague grounds. She seems too fragile for the job. The principal (who sexually harrasses her during the exit interview) doesn't get more specific than "it's not working out". At face value, it's a crass scene. However, it chimes with Miles's expulsion (no reason is cited) and sketches in a key component of Anna's psychology. The principal later contacts her, concerned that their "little secret" remain just that, and assuring her that he's managed to find her another job: nanny to Flora (Gabrielle Adam) and Miles (Christian Olson), whose uncle Mr Laing (Jonathan Fox) is a bigshot corporate type too busy with hostile takeovers to bother about two orphaned children. Too busy, even, properly to interview Anna. He gets his personal secretary Ms Grose (Tara Fitzgerald) - whom he's also appointed as the manager of his estate - to take care of everything.

I must admit that Rottuno's adherence to James's original narrative, at least for the first half, is done well, particularly the finessing required to bring things into the twenty-first century. Grose's upgrade from avuncular housekeeper to frosty career woman is effective (Fitzgerald delivers the film's best performance) and sets up a tension between her and Anna which resolves (and then refragments) in a manner that has nothing to do with James's novella. Laing's sprawling estate is isolated (and the power frequently out) enough that the trappings of a contemporary setting don't impinge on necessary scenes of Anna encouraging the children to paint pictures or play hide and seek. Only once did I wonder why Flora and Miles didn't occupy themselves with an X-box or simply plonk themselves in front of the TV ... and then I reminded myself that Anna's an art teacher - of course she's going to encourage them to paint.

Adam and Olson - kudos to both - don't play the kids as overtly creepy. Most of the time, they're just regular kids. Therefore, when they do behave out of character - as when a disturbed Miles emerges from an outbuilding with sackcloth over his head and a scythe in his hands chanting "I'm not Miles, Miles is dead" - the effect is jolting. Fox's brief appearance as the uncle establishes the character as an authentically selfish bastard, the dollar bottom line his only consideration. Compared to Redgrave's lovable performance in 'The Innocents', Fox's is the more believable character.

Leelee Sobieski's performance is difficult. Superficially, it's a tad amateurish at times. Sometimes she wanders along corridors blankly. Other times, histrionics are a-go-go. It all comes to a head in the definitely-not-in-the-novella ending, and this is where a re-evaluation of her performance is demanded: yes, she vacillates between gauche, dazed and histrionic, but once the revelation is out these aspects of the performance suddenly have a context.

If you interpret the ending of 'The Innocents' as Miss Gibbens driving the vile spirit of Peter Quint away but sadly not managing to save Miles (thus establishing her as a laudable but tragic heroine), it's likely you'll foam at the mouth at how 'In a Dark Place' concludes. If, however, your take on it is that the ghosts are purely in Miss Gibbens' head, then Miles's death is something she is wholly responsible for and her suitability as a governess finds itself severely called into question. This is the reading 'In a Dark Place' opts for ... and Rottuno takes things to their logical extreme.

Adopting the reading that the governess is driven by sexual repression (resent at her father; unrequited desire for the children's uncle), 'In a Dark Place' grafts onto it a more darkly contemporary explanation: child abuse, repressed memories, the dark circle of a victim becoming an abuser. Told you there were plot spoilers. Rottuno's handling of the big revelation is only partly successful. He strives for the cinematic equivalent of what would be called the "unreliable narrator" in the novel form. This can work - Christopher Nolan's masterful 'The Prestige' for instance - and make you re-evaluate everything you've just seen even as the end credits are rolling and you're gaping at the screen in amazement. But it can only work if enough indicators, enough in the way of clues and context and comprehensible-in-retrospect giveaways, are there. 'In a Dark Place' doesn't quite make the cut. It relies too heavily on too much being left unsaid, unshown.

It also veers, in its last third, into exploitation territory: Anna's abuse as a child, an eleventh-hour lesbian subplot, Jessel and Quint done up like out-takes from a Lucio Fulci production, an unexplored suggestion of telekenesis, copious quantities of semi-nudity and a soft-core masturbation scene (15 certificate) that makes you wonder if Zalman King had an uncredited guest director slot.

There are plenty of reasons you could cite if you wanted to mark 'In a Dark Place' down as a failure. The fact that it works against all of these things makes it one of the more interesting takes on James's novella. I still hold that 'The Innocents' is a tad too accomplished but there can be no doubt about it: Clayton's film is the better of the two. Rottuno's, however, at least brings some new ideas to the table.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Innocents

Outside of Benjamin Britten's opera, the best-received adaptation of 'The Turn of the Screw' in any medium is Jack Clayton's 1961 film 'The Innocents', with Deborah Kerr as Miss Gibbens, the parson's daughter turned governess. Michael Redgrave adds a touch of first-reel sparkle as the too-busy-being-a-bachelor-to-deal-with-kids uncle to Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). Meg Jenkins is the homely, slightly subservient Mrs Grose, while Clytie Jessop and Peter Wyngarde bring the chills as Jessel and Quint.

Franklin and Stephens are the archetype of creepy kids in the movies: too neatly-presented, too well-spoken, too perky, too damn sure of themselves. Too in tune with each other. Too secretive. Stephens was already a successful child actor, but only appeared in two more films after 'The Innocents'; he turned his back on acting to become an architect. Franklin's career extended into the 1970s, but unfortunately she found herself typecast in low-budget horrors. TV work bulks out most of her IMDb entries. Their influence, however, still reverberates: every creepy kid you've ever seen in the last four decades - from 'The Omen' to 'The Sixth Sense' - has about them something of the prototype established by Stephens and Franklin.

Beyond creepy, the swarthy, menacing figure of Peter Wyngarde (a TV favourite a decade later playing velvet-jacketed smoothie Jason King) as Quint is the film's ace in the hole. With just a few brief appearances and nary a line of dialogue, his presence hangs heavy over the entire production. Without Wyngarde, Deborah Kerr's nervy, brittle performance simply wouldn't work. Kerr, in case those last couple of sentences might seem to devalue her, is mesmerising: her performance is every bit as memorable as her triple role in Powell and Pressburger's 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' and her sultry turn in Fred Zinneman's 'From Here to Eternity'. As a piece of characterisation, Miss Gibbens is arguably the highpoint in her filmography. But without the proper degree of preternatural inveiglement, Miss Gibbens's plight wouldn't inspire the slightest empathy. And it's Wyngarde who brings the scares.

If Wyngarde gets the man-of-the-match award for the cast, the crew member who deserves the most accolades is cinematographer Freddie Francis. 'The Innocents' succeeds on its atmosphere. From the opening frames - Miss Gibbens' appointment by the children's uncle; her journey to Bly - there's something slightly off-kilter about things. Sometimes you can put your finger on it: too-bright reflections of sunlight; vertiginous angles of the tower where Miss Gibbens first spots the shade of Peter Quint; a dove fluttering in slow-motion (preceding a similar shot in 'Blade Runner' by twenty-one years). Sometimes it's subliminal; an indefinable but pervasive sense of wrongness. I have no idea quite how Francis managed to make 'The Innocents' such an unnerving visual experience, but the man sure did a hell of a job.

'The Innocents' is one of those rare films where every aspect gels: Clayton's direction, Francis's visuals, Georges Auric's score, the performances of the entire cast. 500 words into this article and I'm struggling to find much else to say. What works works because it's indefinable; an atmosphere, a feeling, a hair raising on the back of the neck, a shiver slaloming its way down the spine. It's not something I find I can analyse (which is good: film is not analysis, after all). But neither am I compelled to write about the film in any greater detail. There are plentiful set-pieces - the game of hide and seek, Miles's poem, Miss Gibbens' first glimpse of Quint, the appearance of Jessel and Quint by the lake - but there's really no point in my describing them; they define themselves so exquisitely.

Pauline Kael once said "great movies are rarely perfect movies", and I don't think anyone could put it any better. I've always admired 'The Innocents' more than I've actually liked it. I find that it does its job a little too well. I watched it again a few nights ago on Film 4 (unfortunately in a panned-and-scanned format) and at one and the same time couldn't find fault and couldn't get overly excited with it. The following day I decided, as a compare-and-contrast exercise, to settle down with a DVD I'd picked up in a sale a few months back but had put to one side (I'd looked up a few reviews shortly after acquiring it, all of them negative): Donato Rottuno's much-maligned 2006 melodrama 'In a Dark Place'.

It's fair to say that 'The Innocents' remains highly influential (its signature is visible on every frame of 'The Others' and there's more than a soupçon of it in 'The Orphanage') while 'In a Dark Place' is already all but forgotten. Well, it's a level playing field here on The Agitation of the Mind so join me tomorrow and let's see if 'In a Dark Place' has anything to offer beyond Leelee Sobieski's cleavage.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Two turns of the screw

Henry James's novella 'The Turn of the Screw' is about a governess who takes a position at Bly, a big old house in the middle of nowhere. The two children she is tasked with looking after, Flora and Miles, are at first charming and likeable. Pretty soon, they begin to creep her out. Orphans, they are now wards of court to their uncle, a man whose neatly ordered bachelor life is not compatible with the demands of raising two young children. He gives the governess full authority in their upbringing and stipulates she never bother him with anything.

The only other resident at Bly is housekeeper Mrs Grose. Which is why the governess becomes very agitated when she sights two other people - in the grounds, in the house itself; getting, it seems, ever closer to the children - and grows more agitated still when her descriptions prompt Mrs Grose to identify them: Miss Jessel, the governess's predecessor, and Peter Quint. Both dead. Mrs Grose recalls that Quint was a bad 'un, a man who held influence over the children, Miles in particular. The governess fears that Quint and Jessel's malign influence still threatens Flora and Miles from beyond the grave.

Plotwise, there's about enough for twenty-five pages. James, turning the English language into the world's longest paper-chain, constructs elaborate sentences, clauses within clauses, and the whole thing ends up five times that length. It's not an easy read and if you consider it mainly on narrative terms - story structure, development, denouement - it doesn't really go anywhere. It is, however, rich in atmosphere and even richer in ambiguity. This latter is the reason for its enduring status as a classic, both literary and as a work of genre fiction, and explains why it has proved so ripe for adaptation (an opera, theatrical productions, a story by Joyce Carol Oates reworking the material from the ghosts' point of view; four TV adaptations that I know of and at least as many movies). The ambiguities allow other writers - not to mention composers and directors - to bring their own sensibilities, perceptions and ideas to bear.

Having said that, every take on 'The Turn of the Screw' that I've come across has retained the supernatural element. I've yet to see (or read or hear) a version that approaches the material purely as a psychological study of the governess's gradually disintegrating sanity. This is one of the two accepted mainstream critical readings of 'The Turn of the Screw': the ghosts are in the governess's mind. The other reading is to take the genre trappings at face value: the ghosts are real and so is the threat to the children; when you go down this route, speculation follows as to whether some degree of possession hasn't already afflicted them, particularly Miles.

I should add that I'm deliberately oversimplifying the critical response to 'The Turn of the Screw' here, purely to contextualise the point I'm about to take - to whit, that most TV/movie adaptations go for a have-their-cake-and-eat-it approach by cherry-picking the most dramatically exploitable opportunities from both readings and amalgamating them into a melange of barely-contained hysteria served with a side order of sexual repression - but if you want to delve further into James's challenging novella, I highly recommend The Turn of the Screw: A History of its Critical Interpretations, an academic but very readable site that provides an historical through-line of critical thinking on the work.

Over the next two nights, I'll be looking at two very different takes on 'The Turn of the Screw': one all flickering candles and dark corridors, the other in modern dress; one buttoned-down, the other with added nudity. One an accepted classic, the other with few fans ... I'll be turning the screw, but will I be turning the tables?

Friday, September 11, 2009


Posted as part of Cinema Viewerfinder's Brian de Palma blog-a-thon.

'Body Double' is about a man who voyeuristically watches a woman perform seductive dances in her apartment (she follows up the gyrations with a spot of self-pleasuring), graduates to following her obsessively, comes within a whisper of getting sexually involved with her and ultimately witnesses her being murdered in a brutal, protracted and phallocentric manner, and who then immerses himself in the shadowy world of blue movies in order to track down someone who might have a lead on her killer.

'Body Double' - quelle surprise! - annoyed the hell out of feminists when it was released in 1984. Twenty-five years later, I can still completely understand why anyone with even the most lackadaisical involvement in women's rights wouldn't be overly keen on it. Without haring off too enthusiastically into the realms of NSFW, here's a few visual highlights, including the so-classy-it-makes-Jess-Franco-look-like-Carl-Dreyer power-tool evisceration moment:

Would you watch this while your mother was in the room? Or your wife? (Mine took one look at the DVD cover, shook her head sadly and occupied the spare room during the two hours I was watching it.)

It's an even easier film to berate when you examine its place in Brian de Palma's filmography: coming straight after the tense and absorbing 'Blow Out' and the sprawling but iconic 'Scarface', and awkwardly preceding the crowd-pleasing slapstick of 'Wise Guys' and the multi-award-winning 'The Untouchables', it comes on like a throwback to the fetishistic, sexualised violence of 'Dressed to Kill', itself not a big woman's lib favourite.

I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at the first studio meeting. "Hey, Brian! Baby! Loved 'Scarface', loved it! Say hello to my big fat box office returns! Brian, baby, whaddaya wanna do next?" "Well, I was thinking of doing a 'Rear Window' meets 'Vertigo' for the blue movie/video nasty generation kind of thing." "Great, here's a chunk of money. Go make it!"

I know that sounds snide, but I'm absolutely serious: 'Body Double' is a conflation of 'Rear Window' and 'Vertigo'. De Palma's homages to Hitchcock run through his entire filmography, and these are the two films he most frequently references. In 'Body Double' he takes his frenzy for Hitch to its logical extreme and makes unapologetically explicit everything that Sir Alfred left elegantly implicit. There are whole screeds to be written (by someone else) on whether this is a good or a bad thing. All I'll say is take a look at Hitchcock's penultimate film: it contains some pretty grim and graphic material. Had the maestro lived and continued making films into the '80s, how far would he have gone with what he depicted onscreen?

Let's pause a moment and briefly consider what 'Rear Window' and 'Vertigo' are about. In 'Rear Window', "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart) is a photo-journalist housebound after breaking his leg; he begins to take an obsessive interest in his neighbours on the other side of the apartment courtyard, his motives seguing from curiosity to prurience and then to paranoid fascination as he grows convinced he's witnessed a murder. In 'Vertigo', "Scottie" Ferguson is a detective who suffers from the titular fear of heights; he begins to take an obsessive interest in a woman who dies suddenly and terribly, then transfers his obsessions to her lookalike. In short, 'Rear Window' is inescapably about voyeurism and implicates the audience so subtlely that most aficionados of this (in my opinion) perenially overrated film probably don't even realise it. 'Vertigo' is even darker, exploring sexual obsession, troilism (ie. the merging of sexual identities) and - by implication - necrophilia. Once again, Hitch trawls murky waters while giving the impression he's helming a pleasure cruiser. A crucial reveal in 'Vertigo' lets the audience off the hook just as surely as 'Rear Window' finds them guilty.

Come to think of it, if 'Body Double' is the bastard child of 'Rear Window' and 'Vertigo', then it was arguably removed from its parents by social services and - bad call by the case worker - given over to the dubious foster care of 'Peeping Tom'. But back to the Hitch comparisons (Michael Powell's anti-masterpiece can have its day on The Agitation of the Mind some other time) ...

'Body Double' is about Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) - his name almost a phonetic conflation of Jeff Scottie - a struggling actor who suffers from claustrophobia. Jeff works behind the camera, Mike in front of it. Scottie is scared of heights, Mike of confined spaces. Jeff likes to watch, as does Mike. Scottie gets obsessed by a woman and starts following her around, likewise Mike. Jeff witnesses a murder, same goes for Mike. Scottie's phobia prevents him from taking decisive action at a vital moment, ditto Mike. Scottie clinches with Madeleine/Judy as the camera whirls around them; same deal when Mike gets his paws on Gloria.

Which brings us to the ladies of the cast and the analogy breaks down somewhat. Grace Kelly and Kim Novak remain resolutely clothed throughout. Deborah Shelton and Melanie Griffith, however ...

Ahem. Moving swiftly on ... 'Body Double' makes no bones about what it is. It's an exploitationer: the opening and closing credit scenes, playing on the tits 'n' gore B-movie horror tropes that define the shitty low-budget movie Mike is starring in, reinforce the aesthetic to the point of rubbing the viewer's nose it in. But it's an exploitationer in the way 'Inglourious Basterds' is a war movie: it juggles expectations, conforming to some items on the genre checklist while subverting others, and uses artifice to provide a commentary on how the genre defines itself and what the audience bring to the war movie or the sex 'n' violence flick, as well as testing how much directorial trickery and rug-pulling they're comfortable with. Audiences have perhaps been kinder to Tarantino than to de Palma in this regard.

Tarantino certainly demonstrates a better facility with actors in 'Inglourious Basterds'. De Palma, quite capable of eliciting good performances (Travolta in 'Blow Out', Costner in 'The Untouchables'), either doesn't try here or lets his performers mug their way through the shoot knowing he's not going to get much from them. Wasson is singularly awful. Gregg Henry is straight out of the pantomime villain school of acting. Deborah Shelton is radiance personified but not so hot in the acting stakes. Dennis Franz doesn't get enough screen time to make an impression. Which leaves Melanie Griffith. As the much-put-upon but kookily irrepressible porn starlet Holly Body, hers is the best turn in the film. And that, I think, pretty much says it all.

It's a good job, then, that de Palma is clearly saving himself for the set-pieces, of which there are many. Several are patently ludicrous (but then again, so is the baby-carriage/staircase scene in 'The Untouchables' and yet it suckers me in every time!), and as many again are tense, unpredictable and kinetically realised. The visuals are as glossy as the material demands, but compositions are effective and de Palma makes intriguing use of images built around different levels or spatial dislocations: the M.C. Escher-like layout of a mall populated by expensive boutiques; the staggered balconies of the beach house Mike follows Gloria to; the symmetrical blocks of concrete regulating the flow of an inlet channel to a reservoir.

I think this is why I like 'Body Double' so much: it's a film not just defined by, but blatantly revelling in, its surface value; yet its imagery and acknowledgement of the manipulation of said imagery suggest depths and levels beneath that surface.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Leningrad Cowboys Go America

The Leningrad Cowboys are a Ukranian ensemble with a heavy balalaika influence to their repertoire. Their manager Vladimir (Matti Pellonpaa) - a man who gives orders in brusque fashion and wears a fur coat so big it looks like the fucking Yeti gave its life for it - gets them an audience with a producer. The verdict: the Leningrad Cowboys suck. So much, in fact, that the producer's best advice is that they go to America. He puts Vladimir in touch with his cousin who, in turn, books the band to play a wedding gig.

With their deceased bass-player as part of their luggage and their one fan (a demented individual who stalks them even though they beat him off with sticks) in tow, they set out for the US of A. What follows is a freewheeling, eccentric road movie. Think 'The Straight Story' with a stretch limo instead of a ride-on lawn mower and a selection of dodgy cover versions instead of Angelo Badalamenti's haunting score.

The songs range from "That's All Right, Mama" in a redneck bar to "Born to be Wild" in a bikers' bar by way of their one bit of original material, "Ballad of the Leningrad Cowboys"* in a C&W joint called the Club Zhivago - an ideal venue, one would think, for a Ukranian band. Unfortunately, it goes out of business after the Cowboys headline there for a week. Coincidence? Comment on American economics? Satirical rejection of the concept of America as the promised land? You decide.

Likewise, with the quality of the music. A celebration of the rough 'n' ready ethos of rock 'n' roll, in which anyone can pick up a guitar, hammer out a few chords, bawl the lyrics into a microphone and find a valid mode of self-expression? A bunch of random but instantly recognisable tunes given a distinctly Eastern European flavour? An hilariously tuneless and inept showcase for the most deliberately awful phoney band since Cliff Richard and the Shadows in 'Summer Holiday' Spinal Tap in 'This is Spinal Tap'? You decide.

What's for sure is that Aki Kaurismaki's deadpan classic is one-of-a-kind. And when I say deadpan, I mean it. The dialogue is deadpan. The music is performed deadpan. Even the cinematography is deadpan. But of course, it has to be. 'Leningrad Cowboys Go America' is too absurd to be played any other way than dead straight. After all, this is a film whose heroes are nigh on identical, big quiffed and monosyllabic; whose nominal villain (Vladimir) keeps the supply of beer he refuses to share with anyone in the ice-packed coffin of the departed bass player; whose comic foil (the demented fan/village idiot) has the most poignant scene, bonding with a barber over a love of Hank Williams songs; whose wedding gig denouement involves the resurrection of the bass player, the village idiot's induction into the band and a cactus plant rigged up with a tap so that peyote is quite literally on draught!

'Leningrad Cowboys' is the kind of delirious, undefinable and just plain bonkers kind of movie that made me fall in love with movies in the first place. "Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of the mind." Here it's the agitation of the funny bone and the eardrums, as well.

*Chorus: I'm a Leningrad Cowboy / Raising cattle on the Steppes / So pour me another wodka / 'Cause I'm drinking to forget.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Postscript to the Herzog-fest

Hans A. over at Quiet Cool has posted an absolutely spot-on review of Herzog's slab of gothic poeticism, 'Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht'. It's one of the best pieces of writing I've come across on this mysterious, chilling, beautiful and unforgettable film.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner

This is one of Herzog's finest documentaries, in the top tier alongside 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' and 'Grizzly Man'. Like those films, it is defined by the person it's about. Like those films, it could only have been made by Werner Herzog.

The title itself is pure Herzog: 'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner'. Kind of makes it sound like a documentary about woodwork, doesn't it? You'd be forgiven for thinking that the "great ecstasy" of the title referred to a particularly well-honed chisel or a piece of the finest mahogany. Nothing of the kind; the great ecstasy of our titular woodcarver is, in fact, ski-jumping. Which is mentioned absolutely nowhere in the title. Carving, which is, features in exactly one (very short) scene, just after the opening credits, and is never referenced again.

Like I said, pure Herzog.

'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner' documents Walter Steiner's participation in ski-jumping championships in 1973 and 1974, in which he outclasses all and sundry. And not by hair's-breadth distances, either. In his most spectacular jump, Steiner covers 179 metres at a speed of 140mph, 10 metres in excess of the previous best. His landing is awkward, however, and he falls and goes tumbling. Helped up, Steiner seems self-conscious in the presence of the cameras and hurries away, weaving unsteadily. There is some speculation as to whether this is the end of his career as a ski-jumper. However, he proves the doomsayers wrong and completes another jump the same day. In this emotional and gripping sequence, Herzog captures the athlete's moment of crisis. He also captures his passion, his introspection and his quiet humanity.

More so, perhaps, than any other subject, films about sport - documentary or otherwise - depend to a degree greater than their actual quality or success as examples of film-making upon the audience's interest in the sport in question. Herzog is deeply passionate about ski-jumping ("I literally grew up on skis," he recounts in 'Herzog on Herzog'). Me, I've always been more interested in movies and music and literature than sport; short of occasionally watching the snooker, I'm not a sports fan at all. I had no knowledge of or interest in ski-jumping before I saw 'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner'. And yet I find it compelling; fascinating.

This is due entirely to Herzog's decision to film the jumps at speeds of between four and five hundred frames per second (as opposed to the normal speed twenty-four frames per second). The resulting footage is slo-mo to the extreme. A jump of just seconds' duration, Steiner's momentum almost a blur, is replayed as a heart-stopping, awe-inspiring, visually poetic journey of a minute or more. 'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner' is full of these kind of shots, Steiner seeming to hang in the air, body inclined so far forward as to be almost parallel with his skis, trees and the snow-carpeted landscape drifting beneath him, the sky his witness.

This is not the documentary form as an exercise in realism. There is nothing of Cinéma Vérité here. Instead, 'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner' is arguably the first instance of Herzog the documentarist striving for what he would later describe as "ecstatic truth". The sight of Steiner flying through the air in poetic and ethereal slo-mo is blatantly not realistic - speed is critical to momentum and distance covered and therefore a critical part of ski-jumping - but the grace of the man in flight, the emphasis on the magnitude of the jump itself, the look on his face (the great ecstasy of the title): this is the truth Herzog seeks. And finds.

Werner Herzog's most maverick moments

In no particular order, and the only criteria being that I can't imagine these being attributable to any other film-maker, these are my ten favourite, most quinessential Herzog moments:

1) 'Aguirre, Wrath of God' - with the project doomed if its lead actor departed the jungle location, Herzog responded to Klaus Kinski threatening to pack up his things and board the next boat leaving for civilisation by assuring him that he had a rifle and nine bullets; eight of them would be in Kinski before he reached the first bend in the river, the ninth he would save for himself. Kinski decided to stay and finish shooting the film.

2) 'La Soufriere' - a Caribbean island's on the verge of destruction when a live volcano suddenly goes off the seismic scale. The islanders depart. The politicians and the police depart. The scientists measuring the volcano's activity depart. What does Herzog do? Round up a couple of cameramen and fly out there!

3) 'Fitzcarraldo' - shucking off the money men's suggestion that the film's centre-piece be achieved using a model boat in a greenhouse, Herzog has his cast and crew haul an honest-to-god steamship over a freakin' mountain!

4) 'Heart of Glass' - deciding that a dream-like atmosphere best suits this tale of a glass-works going out of business and causing the fiscal ruination of the town dependent on it, Herzog puts his cast under hypnosis.

5) 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' - recreating Dieter Dengler's capture by the VC, Herzog eschews a simple "talking heads" account of the incident from Dengler himself, and spurns the docu-drama route of restaging key points of the narrative in a very polite, formal, more-tea-vicar BBC kind of way. Instead, he takes Dengler back to the jungle, handcuffs him, and has some big bastards shove him heavy-handedly through the foliage. Result: best documentary of the last two decades.

6) 'Even Dwarfs Started Small' - realising he would be putting his vertically-challenged cast through the ropes, he agreed that after the shoot was over he'd jump into a cactus field. The dwarfs did their scenes. The shoot concluded, Herzog threw himself happily into a field full of cactii.

7) 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' - jettisoned any attempt at historical verisimilitude by casting mid-40s street musician Bruno S, as the 16-year-old Kaspar Hauser.

8) 'Woyzeck' - playing the hapless and much-put-upon soldier, Klaus Kinski decided that the opening sequence would benefit from the actor playing his drill sergeant giving him a real kicking. Herzog, making no attempt to dissuade either performer, filmed said kicking.

9) 'Stroszek' - ended this blackly comic tale of alienation and failure (yes, I know I just used "blackly comic", "alienation" and "failure" in the same sentence; trust me on this) with an interminable shot of a dancing chicken that so affronted DoP Thomas Mauch that Herzog had to explain the image thusly: "This is something very big. It looks unobstrusive when you see it with the naked eye in front of you, but don't you see that there is something big about it, something beyond what we are?" Mauch's response is unrecorded, but he filmed the chicken.

10) The Minnesota Declaration - declared war on Cinéma Vérité, describing at as "a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants".

Conquest of the Useless

Can we agree that 'Fitzcarraldo' is Herzog's magnum opus, the most perfectly Herzogian thing in his filmography, and all the proof that one needs regarding the lengths the man is prepared to go in order to realise his vision?

We can? Thank you.

'Conquest of the Useless' (subtitled Reflections from the making of 'Fitzcarraldo') comprises Herzog's diaries, spanning June 1979 to December 1981, and documents the trials, tribulations and tendencies of its director to go native. Early entries see Herzog as Francis Ford Coppola's guest ("Coppola ... is displaying a strange combination of self-pity, neediness, professional work ethic, and sentimentality") while he labours on the script and deals with the moneymen:

"The unquestioned assumption is that a plastic model ship will be pulled over a ridge in a studio, or possibly in a botanical garden ... I told them the unquestioned assumption had to be a real steamship being hauled over a real mountain, though not for the sake of realism but for the stylization characteristic of grand opera. The pleasantries we exchanged from then on wore a thin coating of frost."

This is on page five. By page six (24 June 1979) we're in the jungle. It's not until page 117 (6 January 1981) that Herzog gets the first shot of 'Fitzcarraldo' in the can. 'Conquest of the Useless' is a very different beast to the usual "making of" text. Herzog's extended pre-production and location scouting in the jungle occupies nearly the first half of the book. He dwells less on the film project, writing instead of what he sees around him, of the indigenious population he meets, of lives the way they are lived in the most primitive of surroundings. When he writes of these things he is equal parts documentarist, participant and poet. In his prose as in the images of his films, Herzog brings to life landscapes and people most of us will never encounter, never see with our own eyes; but his account never feels as if it is being written on our behalf (Paul Theroux, great writer though he is, typifies this tendency), nor that he is playing up local colour for its own sake. Herzog is a poet of the extreme because, for him, the extreme is ordinary. Put him in a normal, ostensibly civilised scenario and he codifies it as something alien - evidenced by his slightly surreal depiction of San Francisco in the early entries.

Oh, did I say somewhere in that last paragraph that Herzog shot the first frame of 'Fitzcarraldo' in January 1981? Let me rephrase that. He shot the first frame of 'Fitzcarraldo' Version 1.0. Several weeks' worth of footage were shot with the original cast - Jason Robards as the eponymous would-be rubber baron, and Mick Jagger as his demented henchman - some of which remains, such as Fitzcarraldo's belltower declaration that he will build his opera house, and is featured in the documentary 'My Best Fiend'. It is interesting to speculate how 'Fitzcarraldo' starring Robards and Jagger would have turned out (the belltower scene suggests it could have been inspired and cringeingly embarrassing in roughly equal parts), but it wasn't to be.

Robards emerges as almost terrified by the jungle and appalled at the lack of creature comforts (though we have to remember that these are the perceptions of a man for whom the extreme is second nature; I'd probably have shared some of Robards' opinions). It's clear Herzog had no liking for him, even before Robards absconds, citing medical concerns, and damn near scuppers the production. Herzog's take on Jagger is undecided, admiring him for mucking in and driving fellow cast and crew members to their accommodation, then despairing of him for gloating over how much money he can get for some photos of a bikini'd Jerry Hall taken on set. Herzog sees this as the commercialisation of his vision and isn't happy about it.

After Robards departs, Herzog and co. resolutely remain in the jungle, clinging to what is left of the production. Two months later, Klaus Kinski takes on the role and filming resumes. Anyone who has seen 'My Best Fiend' will know that Kinski was Herzog's muse, nemesis and alter ego all rolled into one. They were bound together by a creative imperative, the fruitfulness of which was only equalled by its antagony. Their previous tropical collaboration, 'Aguirre, Wrath of God', culminated in Herzog forestalling Kinski's announced departure mid-shoot by threatening to empty a rifle into him. Both men must have known 'Fitzcarraldo' would be round two.

Put it this way: the fucking steamship enjoyed plainer sailing!

And yet Herzog is remarkably fair when he writes about Kinski. Sure, there are the expected tantrums, arguments and bouts of egomania, but equally Herzog writes of Kinski like a brother. This aspect of the latter half of 'Conquest of the Useless' proves as affecting as it is compelling. But what really makes the book such a wonderful and unmissable read is that the film, the ship, the crazed actor, the lunatic logistics or the director himself never force their way to the front of the narrative; the real star of Herzog's memoir is the jungle.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

La Soufriere

This is the kind of project that, as Paul Cronin points out in his superb and life-affirming book 'Herzog on Herzog' (Faber & Faber, 2002), cemented Herzog's "public persona as a risk-taking madman".

To contextualise: a Caribbean island is being evacuated as a live volcano rumbles and growls and emits noxious fumes in the background. Scientists, logging extreme siesmic activity, are already packing up their equipment and preparing (to put it bluntly) to get the fuck out of Dodge. The island's main township, nestling pretty much right under the volcano, becomes a relic, a memorial, even though opinion as to how long it still has left is uncertain; perhaps only days. Word filters out, however, that one particular individual is refusing to leave. Do you:

(a) shake your head and think dumb fucking guy;

(b) secretly admire the man, finding something self-destructively romantic about his courage/stubbornness/foolhardiness [delete as applicable];

(c) rope in a couple of cameramen, fly out to the island and see if you can get an interview with him or failing that document the death of a deserted community?

If you answered (a), you're normal. If you answered (b), you're normal but you've got the soul of a poet. If you answered (c), you're Werner Herzog. Dragging DoPs Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein and Ed Lachman along with him, our man goes exploring while the volcano foments above him.

He finds a ghost town, but one that still bares traces of occupation: abandoned buildings, their air conditioners and (in at least one instance) TVs left running. Traffic lights continue to operate. The police station is deserted. "It was a comfort to us not to have the law hanging around," Herzog muses, sounding like a film-making bandit. At large in a town that is otherwise the province of animals roaming wild - some of them starving; even dying - Herzog captures eerily poetic shots of abandonment, emptiness, the evidence of a society. Society's clutter takes on a surreal, even slightly macabre element, once that society has withdrawn.

Leaving the silent streets behind them, Herzog, Schmidt-Reitwein and Lachman drive across country, towards the volcano. Let me just repeat that. Towards the mother-loving volcano! Demonstrating a belated approximation of common sense, they beat a hasty retreat as toxic gases drift their way ... Or maybe not. The wind changes and they merrily head straight back!

Shortly afterwards, they find the gentlemen who spurned the evacuation. He's in the company of two other guys and an heroically unconcerned cat. "I am waiting for my death," the man states, without a trace of melodrama or self-aggrandizement; "where would I go anyway?" It's a sentiment his companions echo. All three profess to being unafraid of death. Herzog cuts straight from his interview with them to a shot of the volcano, its roiling vapours beginning to subside.

In what is both the most comic and poignant moment in 'La Soufriere', Herzog intones "The volcano did not explode." His voiceover takes on a borderline regretful timbre. "Never before in the history of vulcanology were signals of such magnitude measured and yet nothing happened." As Wagner booms with magnificent irony on the soundtrack (Siegfried's Funeral March from 'Gotterdammerung'), Herzog admits the film's denouement must perforce be an embarrassment: "a report of an inevitable catastrophe that did not take place".

How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?

Subtitled Observations on a New Language, 'How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?' is a documentary on a cattle auctioneers' world championship that took place in New Holland, Pennsylvania in the mid-70s. As such, it contains long passages of portly Texan or mid-western types with twangy accents talking very fast. Very fast indeed. So fast that although there's no doubt that actual words are involved the overall effect, certainly for the uninitiated (and by the uninitiated I mean anyone who has never bid on a head of cattle), is that of complete gibberish. But gibberish that carries its own rhythms, its own musicality.

Basically, what an auctioneer does is call the opening figure then work it up incrementally - according to bids that may be placed in the form of a raised hand, a lifted auction catalogue or piece of paper, the drumming of fingertips on the leg, or even a movement of the eyes - until a final bid is made, whereupon the sale is confirmed. I've only ever sat in on an auction once, and that was for used cars in Derby in England. Which is a long way from cattle country, and the auctioneer spoke a lot slower. True, all the words ran into each other - "Whaddamahbidonthisnicelittlemotoranyonestartmeatahundredcanahgeddahundred" - but you could still make out what he was saying and how fast he spoke was modulated by how fast and competitive the bidding was.

The contestants in 'How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?' (the championship was adjudicated at a live auction, each participant getting little more than three minutes to do their thing) seem to reel off sequences of incrementally increasing figures, deeming a sale made almost at random, while the bidders appear almost to be struggling to keep up! Sheer speed of verbal delivery emerges unambiguously as their raison d'etre. "Fascinating and rather frightening," is how Herzog describes it in his typically calm and reflective voiceover. He speculates as to how church liturgies came about, clearly drawing a parallel but making no bones that the liturgy of the auction room is the language of commerce.

In the film's most humane scenes, Herzog juxtaposes the rampant commercialism of the auction house with a nearby Amish community, finding in their rejection of progress, conflict and competitiveness a lifestyle that, though anachronistic, is entirely laudable. Even for a documentary made thirty years ago, though, this is something of a statement of the obvious. Likewise Herzog's meditations on the hypnotic qualities or the musicality of the auctioneer's art: it's almost a striving to impose meaning when the film says all it needs to by simply recording the motor-mouth absurdity of its subject. It helps that Herzog has one of the most calm and reassuring voices a documentarist has ever been blessed with. Whether he expresses himself in German or English, he speaks with a measured, precisely modulated diction. He speaks slowly.

You might consider Werner Herzog crazy for making a 45-minute film about men who talk unrealistically fast in order to sell cows, most of the dialogue of which is incomprehensible, but it's his subjects - with the possible exception of the eventual winner, the rather personable Steve Liptae - who come off as the crazy ones in comparison.