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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Film and Politics 101 - A Manifesto for Cinephiles

Editor’s Note: I am indebted to Sydney’s supercinephile Barrie Pattison for bringing to attention this manifesto which went after the cinephile vote at the recent French election.

Alain Penso
At the recent French election, movie critic M. Alain Penso ran on the following program.

1) Add to the financing of French and foreign film to maintain the production of experimental and personal film and guarantee it's availability in theaters.

2) Promote a cultural policy which respects the contribution of seniors (emphasizing scripts and parts for woman over 50)

3) Aid communication with regular open meetings with performers and film makers. Freedom and passion for everyone.

4) Nourish innovative urban surroundings by involving designers and special effects specialists.

5) Enter the rue Champolion and its cinemas (Le Champo, Le Reflet medicis, La Filmotheque) in World Heritage listing.

6) Give tax concessions to cinemas with annual memberships which encourage new and future generations of theatrical film goers.

7) Value highly festivals which do not give prizes

8)  Reduce payouts to media and TV Chains without aesthetic or ethical values.

9) Modify the current system of advances by the Committee National du cinema with a system based on anonymous scripts.

10) Ensure the stability and re-stocking on the liquor cabinet in the Palais Bourbon.

Interior of Cinema La Pagoda
11) Restore and nationalize the mythic Cinema La Pagode, the only movie house classed as a historic monument and identified as "Art and Experimental."

12) Tickets to be paid for by Social Security, a movie ticket to act against depression.

Well he's got my vote.

Editor’s Further Note: Penso is also a film-maker you can watch one of his films if you click this Youtube link

Monday, 17 July 2017

Vale George A Romero - Ben Cho pays tribute to a master of horror

George A Romero
Perhaps most widely known as the godfather of the zombie genre, George A. Romero may have died of lung cancer at age 77 but a legacy of cinematic horror will walk on indefinitely. Sure there were zombie films before his 1968 low budget landmark Night of the Living Dead but none had quite the impact on our popular cultural conception of the zombie today like Night, a raw, unrelenting and claustrophobic thriller with a devastating final punch which given the racially-charged atmosphere of today’s America, still remains powerfully relevant.

Night of the Living Dead
In Night it was impossible to ignore the socio-political dimensions of the film and in the next few zombie sequels Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead Romero would continue to inject horror with a political bite, taking aim at western consumerism and militarism. Dawn is considered his masterpiece (before or after Night depending on who you talk to), a gory ride into the hell of the shopping mall where our lust for consumer junk may not be that far removed from undead’s lust for flesh.

Romero would return to the Dead cycle with mixed results in the mid-2000s with Land of the Dead and later Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead.

By this period the zombie genre was flooded with remakes (Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead), tributes (Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead) and countless cheap straight-to-cable zombie flicks. Later we would see the pop culture behemoth comic series The Walking Dead unleashed on TV screens and video games such as Dying Light and Left 4 Dead tackle the survival zombie genre; films like 28 Days Later (and its sequels), World War Z, Zombieland, Fido, [REC] have all kept zombies at the forefront of the horror genre. All owe heavily to Romero and his pioneering work in the sixties and seventies. 

It wasn’t all zombie flesh-eating though: his seventies horror films The Crazies and Martin were terrific. The former, a high-energy thriller about a town gripped with fear over a biological weapon unleashed upon them; the latter, a superb, grim addition to the vampire genre. His other horror films included Creepshow, The Dark Half and Monkey Shines.

It’s also worth mentioning his eighties biker film Knightriders, a two-and-a-half hour road movie about carnival motorbike jousters. It’s an anomaly in a filmography mainly devoted to horror, but in the spirit of films exploring the nomadic life of workin’ on the road (everything from The Lusty Men through to …All the Marbles) it’s great. The film’s fine exploration of family, the dynamics of corporate structure and the dangerous lure of commercially “selling out” is matched with an excellent cast topped by Ed Harris and FX guru Tom Savini (Stephen King makes a cameo too).

According to the press Romero died listening to the score of The Quiet Man. He is survived by his wife and three children.

Reviving a trace of memory - The Spanish plains and Roger Vadim's LES BIJOUTIERS DU CLAIR DE LUNE/THE NIGHT HEAVEN FELL

I hope my memory is not too far off the mark here...

Back sometime in the 50s and early 60s, the first Brigitte Bardot films started arriving in Melbourne. A couple of them played those venerable art houses The Savoy and The Australia. But the big mama of them all was Et Dieu Crea La Femme/And God Created Woman (France, 1956. Directed by Roger Vadim it was made before the term Nouvelle Vague had been invented and Vadim wasn't regarded as part of that group. He had worked his way through the ranks as a scriptwriter and assistant director before playing his trump card, his wife, the fabulously proportioned BB. It took several years for the film to reach Australia and I recall some of the bolder kids at school sloped off to see it. In those days school kids could get into movie largely thanks to government policy which allowed censors like Richard Prowse, the famously nomenclatured "One Armed Dick", to cut the bejesus out of any film they liked without any explanation at all. It was more than a decade later before Don Chipp cleaned up the mess that the punishers and straighteners were inflicting on us. Et Dieu  played for quite some time at what was then the old State Theatre on the corner of Flinders and Russell Streets. Its now a nightclub downstairs and a home for MIFF upstairs.

Les Bijoutiers du Clair de Lune was Vadim's third feature. Between the two films was the almost unknown Sait-on Jamais/No Sun in Venice, screened once by MUFS back in 1963 and not seen by anybody since. Seems almost lost. It had only French and German actors, a mistake Vadim didn't make with his next film. The Irish actor Stephen Boyd got to star alongside Bardot and the chief supporting role was played by the internationally known Alida Valli. Though a French/Italian production it was filmed in the south of Spain. Vadim and two others wrote the script which was based on a 1954 novel by Albert Vidalie.

Les Bijoutiers du Clair de Lune
Perhaps I can let Wikipedia take over from failing memory to give the background.
Set in rural Spain, Ursula (Brigitte Bardot), is a young girl who has just left a convent and has moved in with her aunt Florentine and her violent husband, the count Ribera (José Nieto). Ribera wants to see Lambert (Stephen Boyd), a young man from the village, dead. Ursula quickly falls in love with Lambert. In a confrontation between the two, Lambert kills Ribera in self-defence.

Stephen Boyd, Brigitte Bardot, Bijoutiers du Clair de Lune
.... and on it goes until (Spoiler Alert) it all ends tragically for BB but not before she and Boyd have had a short but for the day quite steamy scene in the cave where they are hiding out from the law.

But where the memory trace kicks in is in Vadim's photography of the backwoods Spanish landscape. The bare flat hills are perfect for Cinemascope and Vadim isn't frightened to do more than a bit of landscape mongering as he tells the tale of the lovers. Red and brown earth, cloudless skies, baking heat which causes BB to strip down to her underwear for more than a bit of the movie.

Brigitte Bardot, Les Bijoutiers du Clair de Lune
I dont think I've seen the southern Spanish landscape that we've just driven through, taking more than a few Ks on backroads that hardly saw another car, to better effect. For us, almost every town and village seemed to be asleep, no doubt its population staying indoors to escape some of the brutal heat of the day.

So, not Saura or Bunuel or Erice for Spanish landscape. Vadim beat them all and the memory trace of the night way way back in the 2000+ seat Brunswick Padua with an almost entirely male audience kicked in big time.

It should be said that the steamy scene in question mentioned above was in fact far less steamy in those days. One-armed Dick and his fellow censors took out any trace of nudity. It was only when the DVD was released that the full steamy moment was recovered and revealed. 

Friday, 14 July 2017

THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT (Norman Taurog, USA, 1932) - Barrie Pattison discovers the legendary George M Cohan

Like most people what I knew about George M. Cohan derived from watching Jimmy Cagney in in the Warner biography Yankee Doodle Dandy.  I was aware that he had made fitful attempts at being a movie star, which were totally overshadowed by his phenomenal status on Broadway and as a recording star notching up hit tunes that had been inescapable in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Well there is a surprise coda to that career in Cohan’s first talkie and virtual swansong 1932's The Phantom President which proves to be a surprisingly lively and inventive entry in Paramount's Love Me Tonight, Million Dollar Legs, Duck Soup cycle.

Things kick off nicely with the crowd entering White White House and chanting the Rogers and Hart lyrics before we get comments by the framed portraits of former presidents - Robert Middleton’s Lincoln and Alan Mowbray’s Washington included, a device anticipating the Sacha Guitry Le diable boîteux incidentally.

George  M Cohan, Claudette Colbert, The Phantom President
Party bosses Sidney Toler, George Barbier, Louise Mackintosh and Julius McVicker have a problem with their Presidential candidate Cohan. “Mr. Blair has no flair.” Meanwhile balding sixtyish George is proposing to spunky young Claudette Colbert, the daughter of the former President who still lives in The Mansion.

The bosses are distracted by the Medicine Show where George number two performs in blackface, doing his famous dance up the wall in a half-hearted fashion that the thirty years younger Cagney will outclass shortly. An on form Jimmy Durante accompanies George at the piano and, when our hero comes back without make up, the politicos spot the resemblance. “What charming rascality. Just one word - personality.” They hatch a plot to substitute the look alike.

George and Jimmy in their speaker van are chased by cycle cops, meaning that to escape them George’s double swings over the fence, coincidentally the enthusiasm Claudette said he should show to win her, and we’re into The Prisoner of Zenda and - yes folks - the germ of the Kevin Kline Dave.

The bosses send mountebank George on a vote catching tour and we get a convention with singing delegations - blacks from Harlem, cowboys, miners, Eskimos - which captivates the nation. “His lively performance - that man could reform us.” After being thrown out, Jimmy gets tickets from delegates entering the door where his hat covers the word “Men” and makes it in on the third attempt becoming campaign manager

Politician George’s nose is put out of joint and he hires heavies (starts with close up of a blackjack) to Shanghai entertainer George to a safe place in the Arctic Circle. Claudette takes a dim view of that and fingers politician George in his place, last seen on the ice listening to the presidential address accompanied by a seal, after Medicine Show man George has swung the team into running him.

Everyone is right on their game. Over age and in a strange medium, Cohan manages to suggest the charm which got him his status. Durante does his Schnozola number and has gags like the false mustache which comes away with his cigar.  Colbert, totally at ease among people still nervous with speaking on screen, charms everyone in sight. One time opera singer Toler (cutting paper dolls during his conversations) is likewise unexpectedly effective. We've even got Maurice Elvey leading man Jameson Thomas on form as the Presidential butler.

The effects work is exceptional with George one walking behind George two in one shot.

Not hard to see the hand of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart (who old style showman Cohan detested) in all this but it's surprising to find Norman Taurog's name on such a stylish piece of work. I've only glimpsed his silent two-reelers and, knowing his machine made later work, had been amazed to find he was the youngest best director Oscar winner (Skippy) till Damien Chazelle showed up.  Still We’re Not Dressing or even Presenting Lily Mars were agreeable departures from his standard product. I guess we'll never know who to thank here - Paramount, Cohan, the writers or the director.

This one can be glimpsed in murky Youtube clips like this and there are a few ancient bootlegs about.