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Sunday, 31 December 2017

Defending Cinephilia (11) - Cinephile Jake Wilson strays off some beaten tracks to find his highlights

Terence Davies
1. In a year of groupthink ― on every side, and at every level―the antidote could be found in two portraits of extreme individualists, who were also two of the best-known recluses in American history: Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion, with Cynthia Nixon all exposed nerves as Emily Dickinson, and Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply, with Beatty tweaking his own progressive admirers as far-right tycoon Howard Hughes. 


Warren Beatty
From a common-sense perspective these films couldn't be further apart: A Quiet Passion proposes that an outwardly tranquil, chaste existence can be as intense and fraught as any other, while Rules Don't Apply glories in Hughes' reputation as a seducer to rival Beatty himself. Still, both are reckless acts of imaginative identification, rooted in the unfashionable notion that the only creed or code worth having is a personal one.

2. While cinema had a lot of competition this year, most of the larger spectacle that gripped us all was more depressing than pleasurable. That said, the continued potency of old-fashioned live TV was demonstrated when a typically dreary Academy Awards ceremony descended into farce―a moment of catharsis to delight viewers across the planet, with Beatty, still in the performance-art mode of Rules Don't Apply, as the instrument if not the deliberate instigator. “To hell with dreams,” the crucial line from Barry Jenkins' subsequent acceptance speech for Moonlight, might be the greatest four words ever spoken at the Oscars.

Donald Trump
Dominating everything, of course, was the tragicomic reality show Trump in the White House,     supple-mented later in the year by Harvey Weinstein's appearance in a remake of Beauty and the Beast less sugarcoated than either Disney version, the pilot of a series destined to run and run. This last development had nothing and everything to do with cinephilia, forcing attention to some unpleasant truths about how movies are made and to the question of exactly what and who might be worth defending. Where Weinstein's downfall is a blessing on all fronts, I hope we're given the chance to make up our own minds about I Love You, Daddy―the last we're likely to hear in a while from the disgraced Louis CK, a major talent whose 2016 web-series Horace and Pete, an unsparing allegory about the inevitable collapse of patriarchy, now resonates more than ever.

The Emoji Movie
3. Hollywood's own collapse is probably still decades away, but there's no doubt the magic is fading: even the most sophisticated new blockbusters, like Blade Runner 2049 or The Last Jedi, depend on spells that lessen in power each time they're cast. For now, most of the liveliness in American pop culture is on the fringes, in parodies that flaunt their cynicism and inauthenticity, drawing one way or another from the online realm which supplies our most plausible glimpses of the future. In this field, everybody's touchstones will be different: mine include Tony Leondis' dystopian The Emoji Movie, Joseph Kahn's playfully de-stabilising Taylor Swift music videos, and Tyler MacIntyre's Marquis de Sade update Tragedy Girls, a celebration of youthful evil at least as audacious as Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama.

Landscape from Lower Parel
4. At the Mumbai Film Festival in October, I spend ninety minutes being ferried across town in heavy traffic and arrive late for CCTV Landscape From Lower Parel, an “expanded cinema” presentation by the local artists' collective Camp―part of the festival's The New Medium strand, which also includes a wide-ranging retrospective of found footage films (or, as curator and Camp member Shaina Anand prefers to say, simply “footage films”). The venue for the presentation is a multiplex cinema on the upper level of a shopping complex in a converted textile mill; Anand and her colleagues take turns reading from a prepared text about the history of the area, while the screen shows live images from a remotely controlled security camera mounted on the roof.

The camera pans and zooms over the surrounding terrain, including the streets and buildings I glimpsed on the drive over: miming trajectories described in the text (like the descent of a hot air balloon), singling out tiny figures on rooftops or in office windows, following birds across the sky. It's a simple but powerful way of highlighting the omnipresence of surveillance in the modern city: when an audience member raises concerns about privacy, Anand points out that each of us would have been filmed by multiple security cameras on our way into the theatre. It's also the realisation of a seemingly impossible cinephile dream: that of simultaneously remaining safe in the theatre and existing inside a movie that comes into being as you watch.

David Lynch
5. At the risk of indulging in groupthink myself, I can only echo the testimony of other contributors to this series: Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks. For all the good writing which the long-awaited third season has already sparked, no critic can hope to illuminate more than a fraction of David Lynch's unfathomable masterpiece, whether they concentrate on the elusive big picture or on the sheer strangeness―in conventional terms, the wrongness―of Lynch's tiniest directorial choices. Almost in passing, the show annihilates all remaining distinctions between film and television, as well as those between high and low culture: quite literally, it's both an epic of avant-garde cinema and a TV soap opera, and almost everything in between.


There is not much I can helpfully add, except that the entire Peaks saga―three seasons to date, plus the 1992 big-screen prequel Fire Walk With Me―demands to be viewed as a single, open-ended work. If you're coming to it fresh, your best bet is to start with the 1990 pilot and keep going right on through, ignoring whatever you may have heard about the supposed weaknesses of the second season. Pack provisions, bring a friend, and try to stay ready for anything. Be warned, though: once you enter these woods, you may not want to get out.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Cinema Reborn - 2nd Selection - THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS (Shadi Abdel Salam, Egypt, 1969)

The Night of Counting the Years is the second film to be announced for Sydney's newest film festival, Cinema Reborn, taking place at the AFTRS Theatre, Moore Park Entertainment Quarter, from 3-7 May 2018.  Details of the first film to be announced can be found if you click here. The complete program and details of subscription tickets will be released in February 2018.

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In 2013, the Dubai Film Festival published the results of a poll from 475 critics, writers, novelists and academics selecting the Best 100 Arab films of all time. At the top of the list, as the greatest Arab film ever made, was The Night of Counting the Years (Momia), the only feature directed by Shadi Abdel Salam and released in 1969.

Shadi Abdel Salam
After initial festival screenings, it all but disappeared with only a few 16mm prints in circulation.  It was restored in 2009 by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project at Cineteca di Bologna /L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in association with the Egyptian Film Center. No Blu-ray or DVD copies have been made from this restoration.





Martin Scorsese, the Chair of the World Cinema Project writes about The Night of Counting the Years:

Momia (The Night of Counting the Years), which is commonly and rightfully acknowledged as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made, is based on a true story: in 1881, precious objects from the Tanite dynasty started turning up for sale, and it was discovered that the Horabat tribe had been secretly raiding the tombs of the Pharaohs in Thebes.

A rich theme, and an astonishing piece of cinema. The picture was extremely difficult to see from the 70s onward. I managed to screen a 16mm print which, like all the prints I’ve seen since, had gone magenta. Yet I still found it an entrancing and oddly moving experience, as did many others. I remember that Michael Powell was a great admirer. 

Momia has an extremely unusual tone – stately, poetic, with a powerful grasp of time and the sadness it carries. The carefully measured pace, the almost ceremonial movement of the camera, the desolate settings, the classical Arabic spoken on the soundtrack, the unsettling score by the great Italian composer Mario Nascimbene – they all work in perfect harmony and contribute to the feeling of fateful inevitability.

Past and present, desecration and veneration, the urge to conquer death and the acceptance that we, and all we know, will turn to dust… a seemingly massive theme that the director, Shadi Abdel Salam, somehow manages to address, even embody with his images. Are we obliged to plunder our heritage and everything our ancestors have held sacred in order to sustain ourselves for the present and the future? What exactly is our debt to the past?

The picture has a sense of history like no other, and it’s not at all surprising that Roberto Rossellini agreed to lend his name to the project after reading the script. And in the end, the film is strangely, even hauntingly consoling – the eternal burial, the final understanding of who and what we are… I am very excited that Shadi Abdel Salam’s masterpiece has been restored to original splendor.

–Martin Scorsese, May 2009


NOTES ON THE RESTORATION:
The restoration of Al Momia used the original 35mm camera and sound negatives preserved at the Egyptian Film Center in Giza. The digital restoration produced a new 35mm inter-negative. 

CONTACT US: If you would like to receive advice about film selections, schedules and other news relating to Cinema Reborn (3-7 May, 2018) send an email to filmalert101@gmail.com  or check in at the Cinema Reborn website 



Friday, 29 December 2017

Tracking down Jacques Rozier - a belated holiday viewing of Du côté d’Ourouët (France, 1969-73).

In 1962 Jacques Rozier released his first feature Adieu Philippine. When we finally got to see it in 1965 or so, courtesy of the then nascent film library being established at the French Embassy in Canberra by the then (first?) Cultural Counsellor Henri Souillac, it seemed a revelation, the epitome of all that the French New Wave stood for – youth, fun, serious meaning, aching romance, French politics, black and white, unknown actors, gorgeous young women, a nod to a deep love for the cinema itself. Adieu Philippine was screened by MUFS, or at least the MUFS Committee insiders who commandeered projectors from somewhere or other, over and over again.

Jacques Rozier (c.1962)
The great man Brian Davies gave a lecture about the film in which he posited the idea that the film represented the last true New Wave film. By the time it came out the key figures with the exception of Jean-Luc Godard had moved into more classical modes, begun making solid commercial movies. (We didn’t know then, because we had seen nothing of his work, that Eric Rohmer would make ‘French New Wave’ movies for most of the rest of his career. Rohmer got older but his comedies and proverbs remained resolutely young and over and over he returned to films about, well, youth, fun, serious meaning, aching romance, black and white, unknown actors, gorgeous young women, a nod to a deep love for the cinema itself. The black and white was abandoned after My Night at Maud’s.)

Davies thought that Adieu Philippine  was a sort of culmination of two strands of the French New Wave, the youthful natural open air comedy and the more rigorous enquiry embodied by the films of Jean Rouch which interrogated both the subject and the process of film-making itself. It was almost intuitive to have worked it out because we knew nothing then of the Rouch experiments in fictionalizing his African narratives. All of Rouch we knew were the remarkable Chronicle of a Summer, a documentary which created its own fictional moments and the director’s short, long-take, documentary infused, contribution to the film à sketches, Paris Vu Par…. Adieu Phillipine remained a coterie taste over decades.

It was many years between those screenings in Melbourne and its re-appearance as one of Barrett Hodsdon’s selections in his monumental series of screenings at the WEA Film Group in the first decade of the 21st century devoted to the history of the French cinema and using the often battered 16mm prints still circulating as part of the French Embassy film library.  For Rozier’s film, all this notwithstanding, the old magic remained. Its reputation was intact, even enhanced. For me it’s the greatest of all the French New Wave films, but it’s still surprising to learn who among the deep cinephile community hasn’t seen it. Rozier is almost a footnote, an oddity.

For most of us it remained basically a one shot. Nobody here seemed to have seen the other dramatic features that Jacques Rozier made. Certainly he never made the leap even to festival screenings or further additions to the French Embassy library.

Rozier shot Adieu Philippine in 1960 and then managed to lose the recordings of the soundtrack. It took another two years to reconstruct it and the film came out in 1962.  It was a major critical success but a box-office disappointment.  Rozier then fell out with his producer Georges de Beauregard and struggled to get another project up. It was not until 1969 that two young TV producers Yves Jaigu and Yves Laumet got him some money to make a small budget 16mm movie. The film didn’t come out until 1973. This was  Du côté d’Ourouët. In it Rozier repeats his frequent trope of sending his characters to the beach for a holiday. (It happens in Adieu Philippine and in his earlier short Blue Jeans.) This time its three young women Kareen (Francoise Guégan), Caroline (Caroline Cartier) and Joëlle (Danielle Croisy) who take off for the Atlantic Coast on the first of September. Note the date. France has taken August off but now returned to work.

Joelle, Kareen, Caroline, Du côté d’Ourouët 
The town the girls land in, after a trip across a stretch of water and after lugging their suitcases up a sand dune/shortcut, is deserted. It’s also starting to get cold. The girls then spend a lot of time giggling and laughing between themselves. They don’t discuss much, certainly no politics, and we rarely see them do the routine things like shopping. They take to eating in a café below their house, seeming to be the only customers, though much of the desertedness may be a function of the budget not extending to paying extras. There are, at various moments, boat trips and a night time excursion to catch eels but you get the impression that the locals in these scenes were probably unaware a real movie was being made.

"Gilbert slowly insinuates himself" Du côté d’Ourouët 
In the opening scene, Joëlle has had to deal with the advances of her young boss Gilbert (Bernard Menez) something she manages to easily resist. Gilbert is close to being a creep. Then about five days into the vacation, Gilbert shows up and asks if he can pitch his tent in the garden of the house. They agree and Gilbert slowly insinuates himself into each somewhat dull day’s routine. The girls still snigger and laugh a lot and Gilbert proves somewhat bewildered and takes to drinking a lot of white wine. Still they dance with him on the sand and the fun they poke is not full of ill-feeling.

Du côté d’Ourouët 
The course of the film is charted by a series of slides with the date. Somewhere after three quarters of an hour or so you hope this holiday is only going to last a fortnight. The weather is getting colder, Gilbert is becoming a pain in the arse, they talk of lighting fires to keep warm. Then they come across a lone yachtsman, Patrick (Patrick Verde) in a very small boat who offers to take the girls out for a sail.  They show up the next day and with documentary exactitude we see the boat launched and two of the girls clamber aboard. The yachtsman deems the sea too rough to take all three. Gilbert wanders off and Caroline takes off her top and sunbathes (no frontal shots). They return and the yachtsman offers to take Caroline out next day.

While he does, the two girls and Gilbert go off for a fishing trip and as dusk arrives they get back home holding a still live huge fish. Fortunately we were spared this sequence though I wouldn’t mind betting it was shot. Gilbert offers to cook the fish and much of the next half hour is devoted to this process including the preparation of potatoes and a sauce. Then the girls aren’t hungry and Caroline hasn’t re-appeared. Then she does and they all go to bed. Gilbert has drunk several bottles of wine during the course of this sequence which takes us to about the two-hour mark.

…so there’s more. Patrick is keen on Caroline and she agrees to spend a day with him but later comes home in a rage and says she’s going home. Exactly what transpired we don’t know. She storms off. The other two girls are enveloped in some sort of chagrin, Gilbert gets morose because Joelle isn’t interested in him. They pack up and return ‘early’ to Paris.

In a coda, Gilbert is lunching with a new female staff member and Joelle is laughing at him from another table. The film ends quietly after 2 hours and 31 minutes. My goodness how the mighty fell….

The film tumbled into deserved obscurity after being released in 1973. It was re-released, blown up to 35mm, in 1996 and re-released again in a Jacques Rozier Box Set on DVD containing  two short films Rentrée des classes  and Blue jeans plus Adieu Philippine, Du côté d'Orouët  and a later film  Les naufragés de l'île de la Tortue. The Box Set is still on offer at Amazon France.

Rozier’s next feature Maine Ocean  was made in 1986. In a piece about Rozier online at Film Comment  Giovanni Marchini Camia noted a screening in New York and said, inter alia, “Widely regarded as Rozier’s best work, it was one of the 30 films the late German critic Frieda Grafe listed among her favorites in Steadycam magazine. The Arsenal cinematheque in Berlin is currently screening all 30 titles, and the turnout for Maine-Océan was impressive (all the more so considering it was shown at 9pm on a Friday), testifying to the importance of a director whose entire oeuvre remains virtually unavailable outside of France.


I have a copy of Les naufragés de l'île de la Tortue  and have just ordered an English-subtitled copy of Maine-Ocean  from Amazon France. Rozier made two more features Fifi Martingale (2001) and Le Bleu Perroquet (2007). More to come…


Jacques Rozier (2017)