Sunday 31 May 2015

A Sydney Film Festival blog (1) - First things first - Where and how should the festival show its movies to best advantage

Geoff Gardner:  It’s not easy for festivals to get the image up on the screen right all the time and I’m not wildly interested in constant whinges even though I do have one constant whinge myself this year which is that the shift of weekday day time screenings from the state of the art Event Cinemas back to the 1929 State Theatre is a most retrograde step. Why it was done is beyond me but there you are. Apparently some see luxuriousness where others see a postage stamp-sized screen and mediocre sound.

Max Berghouse: Indeed, the Event cinema is newer and generally has better projection, with a more immediate screen size.  BUT it is a simply frightful area, filled with the detritus of humankind, earnestly trying to get pretty much the worst takeaway franchised food, in the area immediately preceding the cinema entrance. Because seating in the Event is unreserved, to be reasonably assured of a good seating position one has to be prepared to stand in line for an hour or more prior to the viewing – something I was prepared to do, and even then, on entering the cinema (usually cinema 4 or 9) one is submerged into patrons from the previous screening, who refuse to leave the theatre and stand in line for the next screening. On top of that they leave their "hats, gloves,thermoses, sandwiches etc", to indicate that that seat and the next umpteen dozen are reserved for persons yet to arrive.

At least in the State, in the main there is reserved seating although I note that when I secured my seats for the State on the Sunday immediately after purchasing became available, on the prior Friday, practically all the seating in the mezzanine section had already gone, presumably to the great and good (and possibly for free), into which class, unfortunately I do not fall.

Geoff Gardner: I have to admit the smell of Subway which infects the Event Cinema entrance area is one of the more malodourous food smells in this part of civilised society. The State doesn't have reserved seating in the stalls for daytime weekday sessions. I find it hard to believe that the cost of daytime screenings at the State is worth it in additional sales but what do I know. Dont answer that.

AFTRS and after Sandra Levy (Number Three) - Film Alert tackles George Brandis about the issues.

George Brandis answers Film Alert's questions
I'm hearing, possibly several times a week, the name of the likely next AFTRS CEO. Regrettably, its rarely the same name. Insiders and outsiders are coming up with some most interesting thoughts. To cut through this I decided to go straight to the man who holds the instrument of appointment in his hand, Senator George Brandis. But in fact, after initially thinking this was a good idea, I have lowered my sights and sent in some questions to Minister Brandis's Senior arts communications advisor in the hope that she may be able to assist with some answers about what is happening with the appointment process. You will notice that I have not asked for this blog to be given a scoop and the name of the proposed appointee to be provided. Instead, as a result of more than a little interest (judging by the number of page views) in previous items about the matter, which you can find here and here, I have asked some questions about when and how this appointment is being made. Here are the questions.
When does Senator Brandis expect to make an announcement of the AFTRS CEO?
Has Senator Brandis personally met or interviewed the proposed candidate? If not Does Senator Brandis intend to meet or interview the proposed AFTRS CEO before submitting the name to the G-G for the signing of the instrument of appointment?
Is it intended that the Prime Minister will meet the intended appointee before the instrument is submitted to the G-G? Has such a meeting taken place?

I shall keep readers informed of progress, or as some whose counsel I have taken before embarking on this course, the possible total lack of progress.

UPDATE As of the close of business on Tuesday 2 June, I have not had a response to this email above. It has not even been acknowledged, which is I guess the etiquette of modern correspondence when Ministers and their Advisors get hundreds of bits and pieces of communication from every ratbag under the sun. Still, George Brandis and all of his Advisors and officials apparently didn't think the letter he received from the Lindt Cafe crackpot warranted anything other than indifference either. We shall see and continue to report. 

UPDATE As of today Thursday 4 June I have now had a very polite response from George Braandis's Senior Arts Communications Advisor letting me know that she is seeking answers to my questions and that she hopes to provide them by the end of the week, i.e. tomorrow Friday. Looking forward to that.

UPDATE: I received this email from George Brandis's office on Thursday 4 June: 
Hi Geoffrey,
You should have received my automated out of office response – perhaps it was caught by your spam filters or junk mailbox?
 I’ll organise a response for you now – is tomorrow afternoon a suitable deadline?
 Merran Aguilera
Senior arts communication adviser

I delightedly agreed. However, the promised response by the self-imposed deadline didn't happen and I guess it wont at least till Tuesday 9 June when I shall be back on the case.

Saturday 30 May 2015

On DVD (7) Thorold Dickinson's debut feature, The High Command reviewed by Max Berghouse

The High Command, (Thorold Dickinson, Fanfare –Wellesley Films, UK, 1937) is my first detailed study of this English director. He enjoys very high reputation despite a limited filmography . I believe I ignored him for the wrong reasons, principally because a subsequent film, Gaslight (George Cukor, USA, 1940) was suppressed in favour of a Hollywood remake which I have never liked. I think my subconscious reasoning was that if the remake were unsatisfactory, and the original suppressed for practically my entire lifetime, the original must have been poor. As it transpires both bad reasoning and bad conclusion.

I have previously expressed the view that "interest" in the particular subject matter or setting of the film can make a radical difference to one's appreciation. Some subjects simply don't hit the right spot. Expanding on that, I think there are circumstances in the present which can imbue a past film with a different emphasis because we in the present have a knowledge and experience denied those who made films in the past. I shall turn to this later.

The film itself is Dickinson's first feature and on any criteria it is a very worthy effort. The male star Lionel Atwill, although English, was at that time a principal actor in Hollywood who must have had some good reason for returning to the UK to appear in a film by a first-time director. His trust was justified. Atwill plays Gen Sir John Sangye VC DSO, who at the film' s beginning kills a fellow officer in Ireland during the troubles. Sangye has been having a liaison with the fellow officer's wife and she has born Sangye's daughter. The circumstances of the killing are probably justifiable. The military medical officer who conducts the autopsy recognises that the revolver used is an unusual type and indeed is the revolver carried by Sangye.

Some years later and now a major general, Sangye is on post as the military commander of a British colony in West Africa. The credits indicate that it is at least similar to Gold Coast or Nigeria. There is some excellent second unit location work showing the panoply of Empire: native troops in their unusual uniforms including the fez are seen marching on parade with a very well orchestrated military band in the background. Of course none of the second unit work is fully integrated into the storyline because no principals appear. They were still in England. Yet this material is very judiciously used and certainly creates an image which would be immediately recognisable to the market at home.

The medical officer formerly in Ireland is also transferred to the colony and begins to close in on Sangye. Sangye is also the enemy of Cloan (well portrayed by Steven Geray before his subsequent departure to Hollywood), a wealthy businessman whose wife is conspicuously unfaithful, including as it transpires with the medical officer. Although wealthy and commanding in business, Cloan is quite hapless in private life. James Mason who looks extraordinarily young and indeed callow is an impecunious junior captain who stands to benefit from the death of the medical officer who is his cousin. Without going into more of the details, the medical officer is murdered and pretty much every speaking part actor has a motive and opportunity. The film may therefore have developed into what we can subsequently recognise as a "cosy", a neat detective-thriller story set in effectively a "closed room" with false clues regularly dropped until the last moment. It does not do this. Instead information in terms of the conflict between the various characters exposes them all to the possibility of guilt. While one may take pleasure from guessing the guilty party, nothing becomes clear until the very end. I may be an innocent in this regard but I found this very convincing.

Interiors are studio shots in a sort of fictive colonial setting: a sort of Beau Geste fort of protruding wooden beams and whitewashed roughcast walls, something that would do equal duty for India, South Africa and probably colonial Spanish America. The interiors are also largely pale colours and the direction includes very effective photography, particularly of shadow lines against the white walls. For its time and place, I considered this film well-nigh flawless. I had absolutely no difficulty "getting into sync" with the development and acting style.

Turning now to the issue of a better perspective on the past that we may now possess, this relates to the issue of "the Empire". We now know that the British Empire in the setting of 1936 was already extremely shaky and the pageantry of Empire: the troops, the flag, the civil and military servants of Empire far from home were really pretty shabby. But to a viewer in 1938, the fact of a murder within the ruling class/caste, where enormous pains were made to maintain a rigid area of separation and superiority from the "natives" must have made this film much more unsettling. For our part, seeing a court-martial, in which military officers wear the full fig of jodhpurs and high boots, Sam Browne belts with swords and quite enormous tropical hats makes it very easy to see this as purely comic, even if unintentional. To me however it gave an extra resonance. The Empire has passed so far from recollection and from fact, that the film does not appear to be set in 1936, rather it could be as long ago as the time of the Pharaohs!

As an example of this different perception, there is one scene which I found superbly illustrative. The general has required a military band to stay at the club (everyone knows that the British in the colonies always congregated to "the club" at night) after 6 PM and this is objected to by Cloan as chairman of the club. This is an early indication of their enmity. The general replies that he did so in order for the band to play "The King". When the band outside the main drawing room of the club does play the anthem, everyone naturally stands to attention. A sudden gust of wind causes one of the open windows to bang repeatedly and a young native servant moves to close it. The general waves him back into position because, naturally, everyone must stand at attention. I cannot tell whether this was done deliberately to so convey the idea of "duty" or whether it was just happenstance. However it illustrates the nature of the film so well that I think it must be emblematic of the great capacity and subtlety of the director.

At the same time as I was watching this film, I also saw a post World War II film, They Were Not Divided (Terence Young, UK, 1950) which I think also has aspects in which our current understanding can amplify the understanding as perceived by a viewer at first release.

Wednesday 27 May 2015

A Parlour Game - Barrie Patison responds to Sight & Sound's top 250 films

Folks if you go to this page on the Sight & Sound site Best Films Ever  You get the full list of 250 films voted upon at the last Critics’ Poll in 2012. The last films mentioned are a whole bunch you assume got a small number of votes and thus rated equal 235th. Supercinephile Barrie Pattison has cast his own forensic over the list and fired in this note. He writes: Rather than analyze or comment I thought it would be more interesting to list the one’s I haven’t seen. I didn’t include the ones I walked out of or the one the projectionist at the London NFT took off after five minutes. Surprisingly few repeat offenders among the makers.

Three Colours: Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski 1994) @ 235
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr) @ =202
A Tale of Tales, (Yuri Norstein1979) @ =202
West of the Tracks (Wang Bing 2002) @ =202
The Devil Probably, (Robert Bresson 1977) @=202
The Werckmeister Harmonies, (Béla Tarr 2000) @ 154
Out 1 (Jacques Rivette 1990) @ 127
Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty 1973) @ 93
Marketa Lazarová (Frantisek Vlácil 1967) @ 48
Histoire(s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard)

It might have been interesting to play this off against a list of the ones I wish I hadn’t seen but I’m already bored with this. 

Editor's Note If anyone else wants to hit the link, go through the same process and send a list I’ll be happy to post it while waiting for something more to happen. Perhaps that something more will be at the Sydney Film Festival starting next week.

Sunday 24 May 2015

NFSA Update - A Report on the Current Proposals for the Archive's Screen Lending Collection and related matters

Film Society stalwart Leth Maitland has sent in this report on discussions held at the recent Annual General meeting of the Australian Council of Film Societies about the future activities of the NFSA as they affect film societies and other borrowers who use the NFSA’s Screen Lending Collection.
Leth writes: A senior officer of the National Film & Sound Archive reported to the meeting, held in Melbourne on 16 May, about the current status of the NFSA’s Screen Lending Collection. That officer advised that the NFSA has a continuing commitment to maintaining access to the service it provides particularly for regional and rural users. Access would be based on the principle of partial cost recovery.

In future the SLC would be “a smaller, more curated collection”. It would consist of Australian films, in the “public domain” films and selected international films licensed from producers. The Goethe-Institut also licenses films which it places on deposit, currently in DVD format, for use by borrowers from the Screen Lending Collection. There will be a cull of the current collection. There is a possibility of obtaining DVDs from international film archives which are produced to make treasures in their collections more widely known, and there would be other DVD and Blu-ray acquisitions.

16mm collection
The following information about the activity recorded by the Screen Lending Collection was provided to the meeting. The SLC has 1600 feature film prints. Of these, 1300 have life-of-the-print rights. Last year there were 900 16mm borrowings, less than the number of titles with life-of-the-print rights. 16mm prints are rare and are in need of care. They will be available for users with a record of responsible use which have capable 16mm projectionists and well maintained projectors. There will be an audit of 16mm prints. It was recognised that some films, especially avant-garde and experimental films, may be unique copies that need to be treated as preservation material.

Fees will be reviewed each year. For the time being, the fee for use of DVDs and Blu-rays
will be unchanged [$27.50 per item including GST plus return postage paid by user]. Fees for 16mm films will now be $60 per item plus freight each way paid by the user – this is stated to be about half the rate which would be payable for the commercial hire of a 16mm print for a public non-commercial (aka non-theatrical) screening. In 2014–2015, 16mm borrowings account for one-third of borrowings and one-half of revenue.

DVD and Blu-ray
The DVD and Blu-ray collection will grow. There will be a cull of titles available through
commercial distributors. It was pointed out that some of the Umbrella Entertainment titles which societies have borrowed from the NFSA are now being sold on the Umbrella Entertainment website for $5 each, meaning that they may soon be out of print. It may
in theory be possible to license a screening of such a title from Umbrella, but that would not be very helpful if the DVD itself has become unobtainable.

Cost of DCP and the future of 35mm film
The cost of producing one of the Kodak/Atlab project feature film prints as a DCP (digital
cinema package) was stated to be $50,000. Meanwhile, in regard to preserving film as film, the NFSA’s own laboratory can produce black-and-white prints. Now that Deluxe (which acquired Atlab) has closed its Australian film processing facilities and switched to exclusively digital post-production, there is no longer any commercial processing of film prints in Australia, the NFSA would have to rely on an overseas partner to produce a colour film prints (although this partner would no longer be in Thailand, where motion picture film processing has also now ceased).

NFSA resources

The NFSA budget was about $26 to $27 million per annum to cover all activities. About 80 per cent of this sum is spent on salaries and infrastructure. New members of the NFSA Board  are now keen to pursue more active fundraising. Part of the legacy of being in a heritage setting is that about $200,000 must be spent each year to maintain the health of the trees outside the archive building.

Saturday 23 May 2015

On DVD (6) - Ride The Pink Horse - Robert Montgomery's famous noir reviewed by Max Berghouse

Ride The Pink Horse (Universal Studios, 1947) is the first credited directorial role of the star Robert Montgomery. On first release it was unsuccessful at the box office but has since developed a conspicuous following, less I would think than "cult", but nonetheless significant; in many lists it is one of the principal films noir. This following may be to some extent due to the relative unavailability of worthwhile prints. I say this because I am struggling to find a reason for this recent strong positive critical commentary, where I found unfortunately only reasonable returns on viewing.

To the extent of any lack of availability of prints, this is totally rectified by the recent Criterion edition which is both flawless and utterly beautiful. The quality of the print brings out one of the most impressive aspects of the film, namely Montgomery himself who looks drawn and haggard, wary, watchful and suspicious. Of course he was considerably older than his prewar, relatively light, leading man roles and additionally he served in the Navy as an officer in World War II. Sharp lines surround his eye sockets and intensify a haunted look such that, presumably, he brings his own wartime life experiences into the role as Gagin, who we learn saw service in the damp and humidity of New Guinea and now finds himself in the intense dry heat of the town of San Pablo in New Mexico. Presumably, prewar, a petty thief, he arrives by bus at the township, immediately preceding a Mexican/Indian festival, to avenge his dead friend Shorty who was himself trying to shake down a gangster, Hugo (very professionally played by Fred Clark) who has dishonestly enriched himself at the expense of the Federal government during the war. Hugo with his associates is in San Pablo for the festival. Hugo killed Shorty.

The film appears to be entirely studio set with the sets apparently of Mexican colonial village style which I would have thought inappropriate for postwar America – but what do I know. In the early postwar period I imagine most working-class Americans did not travel far and certainly not from, say the heavily populated east coast to the south-west. So to that extent it may have been convincing. Several scenes take place in the hotel where Hugo resides and it is quite possibly a real hotel built in the style that is now recognised as a native American version of art Deco – Pueblo Deco. Although much of the township is artificial with for example papier-mâché walls abutting directly onto a studio wall, the effect is very effective and quite surreal.

Gagin's arrival by Greyhound bus is a signifier, even then, that he was on the very bottom of the economic ladder because only the very poor travelled by bus. He is not merely a man unsettled by the war, unable to find his feet and even more unsettled by going to a strange environment (as described above), he is a loser and as the film progresses, it is clear that he knows is a loser – and predicates all his actions on this self-knowledge. This is a distinguishing mark from most film noir at least to the extent that the resolution/denouement does not provide the protagonist with any degree of insight.

Unable to find lodgings, he ends up effectively in the "native quarter" of Mexican-Americans, all of whom seem to me to be much more Mexican than American. Here he meets the "buddy", "Pablo" played by Tomas Gomez (who was nominated for an Academy award as supporting actor – unsuccessfully) in the Mexican equivalent of a Steppin Fetchit performance of "Feet,git moving". It is all extreme accent and pigeon patois including references to himself as "Pablo". Extraordinarily condescending to a modern viewer.

Additionally he meets the virginal, almost sanctifying figure played by a ravishingly beautiful Wanda Hendrix, who although extremely young at the time, is still rather too old to play the role of "orphaned Indian from the sticks" and dressed in peasant 19th-century costume. This is a modern criticism and as indicated above may well have been acceptable to the audience of the time. Further there is the femme fatale, girlfriend to Hugo, who was quite prepared to sell out Hugo and Gagin for personal advantage.

Ultimately a crucial piece of evidence, a cheque,  proving Hugo's dishonesty, is passed by Gagin to an FBI agent delegated to tracking Hugo. This provides a resolution but it hardly seems purposive in light of our knowledge of Gagin's character. The agent is played by Art Smith, a noted actor from the left-wing Group Theatre who subsequently fell foul of HUAC.

The festival which draws so many people into town is awash with "señoritas" in colonial Spanish dress that probably came from the lot of one of the Zorro films, coupled with horsemen wearing the lurid faux cowboy attire that one associates with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. My modern sensibility couldn't let that pass. Others may be more generous.

The very literate script is by that master Ben Hecht together with Charles Lederer. Everything that Hecht touched was better for his involvement. Some critics have indicated that the storyline is confused, something I did not find and would consider to be objectively unlikely in light of the typically professional involvement of the scriptwriters.

Despite my criticism, this is meant only to indicate that the film is not at the top level of its genre. It remains eminently professional and well worth watching. Only once.

Monday 18 May 2015

AFTRS and after Sandra Levy - Part Two - Ben Gibson moves on

Folks I have just received this announcement in my inbox and I must confess I am more than a bit devastated that AFTRS could not manage to hold on to one of the major personnel assets it has attracted in recent years. I have only met Ben Gibson since his appointment but his energy, drive, support for his students and his passion, with much of that passion springing from a deep cinephilia, was a unique set of attributes. I have a feeling that this is not at all good news for the institution which brought him to this country. Anyway here's the announcement:

It is with regret that I announce that Ben Gibson will be leaving his role as Director, Degree Programs at AFTRS on 30 September 2015.

After nearly 13 years devoted to educating and developing talented filmmakers, first at the helm of the London Film School and more recently here at AFTRS, Ben has decided to pursue his passion for the industry through other avenues.

Over the next few months, until the end of August, Ben will be undertaking a research project for AFTRS Council documenting the nature and use of screen MFA degrees.  As part of this project Ben will examine and benchmark the curricula, structure and outcomes of such degrees internationally.  His report will be considered by Council, as it continues to develop the programs offered by AFTRS.  Ben will undertake this work off site.

I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of the Council and staff of AFTRS, to thank Ben for his contribution to AFTRS and wish him every success in the future.

Professor Julianne Schultz AM FAHA

AFTRS Council

Saturday 16 May 2015

Mad Max Fury Road & Bombay Velvet - This is some week for new movies. Here's some starting thoughts...

By somewhat fortuitous circumstances I saw Mad Max Fury Road twice on its opening day, the first in 3D at the Event Cinema in George Street and then later that night at the Dendy in Newtown in 2D. A day later, after every effort had been made to derail (!) my intentions by State Rail closing down to the Bondi Junction line for the weekend, I got to Hoyts Broadway now badged as Lux  venue, to see Anurag Kashyup's Bombay Velvet. 

For a review that pretty much matches my opinion of George Miller's fourth Mad Max I would recommend you go here to Tony Scott's report in in the New York Times

I reckon his final para is worth repeating: It’s all great fun, and quite rousing as well — a large-scale genre movie that is at once unpretentious and unafraid to bring home a message. Way back in the “Thunderdome” days, Tina Turner sang, “We don’t need another hero.” That’s more true than ever, especially during summer movie season. And Mad Max: Fury Road, like its namesake both humble and indomitable, isn’t about heroism in the conventional, superpowered sense. It’s about revolution. 

Everyone has picked up on the fact that Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa is really the centre of the movie, and its her story that drives the plot forward and then back, which is all that happens. She even takes a rifle off Max to shoot somebody when he keeps missing and is fast running out of bullets. Maybe this is a better attempt at a feminist re-working than it was in the last movie's attempts to put Tina Turner front and centre. 

So let's start at the start. Nobody films a car driving at speed as well as George Miller. I'm sure it starts with the choice of his camera angles, low and from one side so that part of the screen, when he's simply filming a car going fast, is blocked out by about a third of the vehicle. The lowness, maybe a function of the extra daring, bravery and courage of his technicians simply generates more thrill. Its accompanied however by a rock steady camera, notwithstanding that it goes over bumps in the usually unmade or dirt road. David Stratton has picked up the insertion of one intriguing vehicle, a spiky thing that looks like a reffo from Peter Weir's The Cars that ate Paris. Max's only significant contribution to determining the events is his suggestion that instead of the fleeing party attempting a 160 day crossing of the salt lake (that's some mother of a big salt lake even at a single mile a day) he suggests they turn round and attack the undefended Citadel, a place that looks like an outdoor version of what might have been if the designer of Fritz lang's Metropolis had to do an above ground location. Then again, like all of George Miller's tropes, the equipment that does some mysterious drilling or grinding is rusty and mostly operated by hand. For an extended discussion about the filming of Mad Max Fury Road I would recommend Kristin Thompson's excellent report on her Observations on Film Art blog here  (you might need to cut and paste the address.

In the meantime Anurag Kashyup's film is a homage to Raoul Walsh's The Roaring Twenties and to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. It’s even edited by Thelma Schoonmaker into a near saturation of noir and the studio settings, especially in the sequences where its raining are magnificent recreations of Warner Bros movies of long ago. It also contains a couple of brilliant new, I presume, songs performed by the female lead Anushka Sharma who plays a chanteuse who sings in a night club that in itself looks a bit like the place in Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture. It’s close to 150 minutes long and tells a long and twisty tale of two friends who want to be big shots. Those are the exact words they use, taken from the ending of Walsh's film which they watch in awe early on. (There is also a poster of Walsh's White Heat pasted on a wall.) One of course is violent, impetuous, impatientof any restrictions but with a lot of street smarts. He began his criminal career as a child pickpocket. His pal never seems to do anything outright wrong but is always there to mop up his mate’s excesses. As they enter India’s criminal/political demi-monde of corruption and favours, both are generally treated with a degree of contempt by those using their services

I am not an expert in Hindi cinema. Kashyup caught my attention only when Nashen Moodley programmed his near to six hour gangster epic The Gangs of Wasseypur, an Indian Godfather, writ large with more bullets fired per minute than any film I can remember. Sadly Nashen's adventure into major commercial Hindi movie territory hasn't been repeated or maybe the Bollywood sector just hasn't made anything good enough since. Though I must say any festival ought to have been happy to screen Anurag’s next effort, the police procedural Ugly, made in 2014 and dedicated to picking apart police violence and corruption. I digress. Others will have seen all of Kashyup's earlier work and know better how this latest movie fits in. I hope they send some stuff to Film Alert 101 as soon as possible.

Bombay Velvet rambles through a story that starts just after India won its independence and goes on into the seventies. As per usual Kashyup is fascinated by the clash of morally principled crooks and corrupt cops but that's a sidelight. The real story is of the small time hood, duped and used by the corrupt political and business masters. They need his brawn and they exploit him ruthlessly. The only redemming features of his life are his loyalty to his childhood friend Gimman and his love for the conflicted chanteuse Rosie (Anushka Sharma, drop dead gorgeous). More to come.....

Mad Max is screening everywhere. Bombay Velvet screens at selected Hoyts Cinemas. At the Broadway venue ‘ it's on twice a day at the less than convenient times of 3.20 pm and 9.10 pm. 

Since this post went up I’ve come across this far less enthusiastic but quite informative piece in the online Hindustan Times. Then there’s this from The Hindu online. More to come..

Thursday 14 May 2015

George Brandis and Government funding - Max Berghouse comments

All arts bodies suffer from the same problem: backbiting, undermining, personal jealousy – a whole range of genuinely perceived artistic differences, but they were all wrapped up into a ruthless and relentless pursuit by too many for too little.

Even before the Second World War I think there was a class of person (politician) who could be said to be artistically aware and knowledgeable and I think would be genuinely inclined to allocate funds in a fair manner at least as that person saw it, if there were any such funds in such period – which there weren't, although the evidence in Australia is of great conservatism. A random guess would put Richard Casey as someone trustworthy.

Minister Brandis on all the evidence is not such a person. In any event I don't think appointments to boards, whether those boards are intended to be self-governing, should be in the hands of any politician, of any stripe, even if that person is genuinely of artistic sensibility. It's a difficult issue because there is absolutely no guarantee that an appropriate person for such boards or executive officers – call them "artists" - is going to be any more accurate and sensitive than a politician. It is rather like the superintendence that Rupert Murdoch has over his media empire. He certainly calls the shots and if you read anything in his media, you have to take account of his "prejudices". But there is no evidence that his minions, the reporters, if given their head, would be any less prone to prejudices of their own.

If we were to start with a reasoned view as to what funding to the arts is supposed to "achieve" and I acknowledge there may be an argument that it is not designed to achieve anything, it would be, assuming there were some general agreement as to this, at least in theory, possible to construct some matrix as to whether or not funding were successful.

To give a simple example which relates to my own prejudices. I particularly like classical ballet, or at least ballet music particularly the 19th century. Much of this music is very professional but it is second rate. Some of the classical choreography is considered superb by people who have a much greater interest in the dance than do I. But ballet generally (I will reserve comments for such modern groups Bangarra) is an extraordinarily small sliver of interest in terms of the entire arts pie. Thus it could be completely justifiable to exclude it from funding. As a matter of fact I don't know what funding is given to ballet but whatever it is, the relevant group will no doubt say it's not enough.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Mad Max - Scott Foundas's excellent coverage of the movie and George Miller's work is here...but dont forget Anurag Kashyup

Folks this is a fine piece of reportage. Head straight for it. remember that today is also the day that Anurag Kashyup's Bombay Velvet also straight from screenings at Cannes where it may or may not have been seen by all the Oz critics attending. More later on both.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Letting George Do it (2)

George Brandis is becoming a serial interferer. My earlier post about his activities can be found here here  It picks up on stories by Paddy Gourley and Richard Ackland which went into some detail about Brandis's  demand to  ‘approve' the appointment of the person to be appointed as the next CEO of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

From last night's Budget papers we have now been informed that George has reefed $100 million from the budget of the Australia Council and handed it to his Department. The Guardian reports today that "More than $100m will be reallocated from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts in order to establish a national program for excellence.The program, announced in Tuesday’s budget, will focus on attracting private sector support for the cultural sector and will be used to fund endowments and international tours. .....The arts minister, George Brandis, said these programs “will make funding available to a wider range of arts companies and arts practitioners, while at the same time respecting the preferences and tastes of Australia’s audiences”. 

I am not alone in being alarmed. Arts Hub reports today "The ploy to sequester funding from the Australia Council and move it into the minister’s ambit also appears to defy the long-standing convention of cultural policy in Australia, of arms-length funding. The idea of expert panels of artists and creative professionals judging the merits of arts funding applications has been the cornerstone of the Australia Council’s operations for four decades.Minister Brandis has long appeared hostile to the principle of arms-length funding. In 2013, during the debate over the Australia Council’s governing legislation, Brandis attempted to insert a clause into the act that would have allowed the minister to exert discretion on individual funding decisions. The amendment was voted down."

Oh my goodness. This is madness of the first order for it means that George and his motley crew in the private office will be approving and vetoing every dollar of that $100 million. Believe me that's how it will work. They have recaptured a great big pot of money formerly allocated in mysterious ways but then, in a major move for transparency and honesty passed, by the previous Government, to the Australia Council for it to administer according to proper protocols. But now it's back in biased and secretive hands. The zealotry will know no end and favouritism and its accompanying suck-holing to the Minister and his crew's tastes will be the order of the day. Make no mistake this is the intention and this is not good!

Since this above was posted there has been a cracking piece about this issue by Ben Eltham posted at the ABC's online website

Vale Richard Corliss

The fine film critic Richard Corliss died recently. I just found out about this from David Bordwell's blog
David has written a wonderful appreciation of someone who made a great contribution to the cultural life of the cinema.

After posting this link above Don Groves sent in this link with another heartfelt tribute from critical legend Peter Cowie. It's posted on the Criterion website

There has also been a three page tribute in Time magazine for which Richard wrote. Thanks to Adrienne McKibbins for sending in the link here

Monday 11 May 2015

Deadline Gallipoli - Max Berghouse reviews the recent Showcase two-part series

Deadline Gallipoli. Directed by Michael Rymer ,  Writer Hannah Carroll Chapman, two part series screening on Foxtel’s Showcase on 19 & 20 April.

I recorded this two part TV movie for watching subsequently. As I grow older, the knowledge of the carnage of this the first major engagement Australian troops becomes more onerous. I'm sure this is the way history should affect us but this aspect of my "interest" in the history and the film, affects my judgement to the specific filmic qualities. In short I am becoming much more aware as a critic that interest or disinterest can severely affect one's appreciation of a film. In the background I was hoping that there would not be, in this the 100th anniversary of the landings, another superficial diatribe of the brave bronzed Aussies led by supercilious and incompetent British superiors.

First, by way of "back story", some history. By the close of 1914, the Western front was already in stalemate and losses were at an unprecedented level. Russia, Britain's ally, was reeling under offences by Germany and Austria Hungary. If the "Allies" (Britain, the Commonwealth and Empire and France) could find a means to resupply Russia from the south through the Caucasus, it might possibly relieve pressure on the Western front. This meant capturing Constantinople (now Istanbul) and forcing Turkey out of the war. The attack at Gallipoli was designed as the first step although the ultimate aim was incapable of achievement because Britain in 1915 simply did not have sufficient spare armaments and munitions to supply its own forces much less those of Russia. The Greek government gave advice to Britain that a landing could only be successful with approximately 170,000 men. The Allies could only muster 70,000 because of commitments to the Western front.

A very experienced senior British officer, Sir Ian Hamilton, an officer of great physical bravery, distinguished record and considered highly intellectual, was chosen as commander-in-chief. He was not however involved in planning which was rushed in a period of approximately 6 weeks because of fears that if action was not taken very quickly, Turkey would reinforce the peninsula. In 1913 as part of a project by Britain to keep Turkey out of any future war, the Admiralty sent a naval mission to assist Turkey in mining the Straits along which is the Gallipoli Peninsula. They did a very good job such that the Royal Navy could not "force the narrows" in either 1914 or immediately prior to the landings in April 1915. The Navy unilaterally backed out of assisting the landing forces to any particular degree whereas Hamilton was expecting continued assistance.

There were not enough men and they could not be landed sufficiently quickly. Multiple ships' lifeboats carrying several dozen men and pulled by a small steam powered tugboat, were too slow and inadequate in number. The reality is that the campaign at Gallipoli was lost on the first day, quite probably before lunchtime on the first day. Numerous senior officers, British as well as Australian, urged immediate withdrawal. Hamilton was under instructions to hold on – to "dig in" but it is also true that he was fearful of confronting Lord Kitchener, the War minister. Quite some months later Kitchener made a personal visit to the campaign front and recognised that withdrawal was the only option. That withdrawal was completely successful. The net loss of troops, British, Commonwealth, Empire and French (including its colonials) was acute. It is not the case that British commanders were generally incompetent and they certainly did not use Australian troops as cannon fodder. The truth is that  landings of significant numbers of troops was virtually technically impossible until much later and indeed the spectre of Gallipoli hung very heavily over the planners for D Day in 1944. Even then it was thought that the chances of a successful landing were low!

Now to the film. I recognise completely the imperative of dramatic narrative including the arc of development, characterisation which preferably involves suitably opposite protagonist and antagonist, et cetera. That can involve to some extent the distortion of history for the purposes of narrative/drama. Such practices go back as far as Homer and possibly beyond. At the same time an historical narrative must recognise the exceptional power of film to create the impression of accuracy by virtue of the power of visual impressions. In this year, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles, it is well to remember that the picture practically all of us have of William Randolph Hearst is of a tormented and fundamentally unhappy and unfulfilled life. This is the picture from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA, 1941). But it is by no means the truth. Hearst was a profoundly optimistic and happy man, throughout a very fulfilled and long life which included significant financial reversals. Yet this "factual" history is ignored or regarded as inaccurate. Such is the power of film.

The present film involves the exposition of the roles of the significant war correspondents in the campaign. Ellis Ashmead Bartlett (English), C W Bean (Australian), Keith Murdoch and Philip Shuler (Australian) are the correspondents who deal at an exceptionally personal level (almost certainly inaccurate) with such principal characters as the commander-in-chief (Charles Dance in a very solid performance), General Bridges (a totally miscast Bryan Brown, an actor with a very intense but extremely limited range) and sundry others of the great and good. Those at the top have dialogue which consists significantly in "back story" to enliven the interests of those viewers who have little historic knowledge. Things like "we have so many thousand troops to do this that or whatever, and our job is to take X, Y and Z which have the following features......". In short there are too many principal characters. Ashmead Bartlett (Hugh Dancy) who seems to have, at least for the first third of the film, an extremely campy manner despite being vigourously and excessively heterosexual, turns out to be the writer who effectively lionises the brave sunburnt Aussies. This significantly undercuts the apparent hero Bean (Joel Jackson an actor of whom I know nothing but who performs very creditably in a significantly thankless role) who seems to capture the pedantry of the real man. Unfortunately Bean's lifelong commitment to accuracy and the memorialising of Australia's commitment in the First World War, is reflected accurately I imagine in the film in that he appears desperately boring and uninteresting.

Philip Schuler, about whom I know nothing is played by Sam Worthington in a style I found excessively demotic. In this he takes over from Bryan Brown, as General Bridges, who is soon deceased, as effectively the "larrikin". I thought both performances too broad so that they appeared more like buffoons.

There is a great deal to like in much of the construction of the film. Obviously there are limitations in budget so that one could not get a cast of thousands like Ben Hur but scenes on the beaches (South Australia I imagine doing extra duty as Gallipoli) have the same painterly quality as many significant portraits in the National War Memorial. The same for the trenches and the like, where limited numbers of actors and extras are put to very good use. There is no sense of wave upon wave of thousands of troops but there is a strong sense of the immediacy and intensity of battle between enemies who are often just a couple of hundred yards apart from each other. CGI while not extensively used, presumably because of the expense, is nonetheless expertly applied and used to enhanced dramatic effect.

Much of the second half of the film is taken up with the machinations of opposition to the continuation of the campaign and the final resolution by withdrawal. It appears to me to be desperately undramatic and the final decision appears to materialise without specific cause. Was it the correspondents, Bean and Ashmead Bartlett, who turned against the campaign? Was it the senior officers who realised that the game was up? Was it delayed because politicians like the now disgraced Winston Churchill, opposed withdrawal? To me this would have been the heart of the drama: the almost universal challenge to resile from a bad position once taken. However that does not appear to be the intention of the writer and director who appear to be much more concerned with linear storytelling and as such the last quarter of the film struck me as very limp.

There is one I think telling event only half told in this film and also in the competing film shown at the same time on a competing network, Gallipoli . Both start with the disembarkation of the troops in the lifeboats previously mentioned. As it happened, the entire class of 15-year-old midshipmen at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth were immediately brought into active service so that when the land troops climbed down the ropes into the lifeboats, they were met by, essentially boys, who were in command, until the water' s edge and disembarkation onto the beaches, of many young men, perhaps only three or four years older. The fact that so many of these boys and young men died dispels any notion that Australia alone suffered. One hundred years later, to reflect that any nation could send so many untried men into such calamity, is the ultimate poignancy.

I am increasingly of the view that commitment to historical accuracy in terms of the mise-en-scene, even when not appreciated at a conscious level, is very important in establishing an unconscious acceptance of the disposition of events. So although never having dinner service person myself I note the following egregious errors: in the early part of the film: Constantinople is referred to as not having been captured for 800 years. In fact it was captured by the Turks in 1453 or somewhat more than 500 years from the date of the events depicted. In another scene General Bridges at the dinner table wears his full uniform together with his Sam Browne belt. Officers always take this off at table. Sam Worthington appears in a similar scene without his coat and showing his braces. That would have been regarded as grossly improper. In another scene at a quayside, a sergeant wearing his Sam Browne belt crossed from left to right rather than from right-to-left which is improper, intercepts Shuler. Sergeants only wear a Sam Browne belt on parade.

Latterly a "Colonel White" remonstrates with his senior officer, presumably Brigadier General, about White's decision to go "over the top" with the men. Neither of these officers is properly dressed because officers of the rank of Colonel and upwards wear distinctive red patches on their lapels and a red felt surround to their forage caps. Indeed it is a matter of folklore that the red trimmings obtained when reaching the rank of Colonel are referred to as "getting felt". Equally the troops are referred to in a further scene as "gentlemen". Listed men are never gentlemen, only officers. Perhaps all this is arcane but would be readily known to a military adviser.

More to the point is that Keith Murdoch refers to reporting to the Australian ambassador to London. The Australian "ambassador" was then, and is now, a "High Commissioner". That is a real blooper especially as this film can have little relevance outside a traditional "British" market.

Very careless.

Sunday 10 May 2015

Michael Rowe's The Well - Local talent barely above the radar

Two years in a row, an Australian won the Camera d'Or at Cannes, in 2009 and 2010. Warwick Thornton gave the world his Samson and Delilah in 2009 and has made only a very small movie since. That was The Darkside released to very scant attention late in 2013.   Michael Rowe,  seemingly from out of nowhere won the Camera d'Or in 2010 for Ano Bisiesto (Leap Year) a film made on a low budget in Mexico. Rowe has also made one very low budget feature since, Manto Acuifero (The Well) in Mexico. This film premiered at the Rome Film Festival in 2013, the Sargasso Sea of international events, directed that year by the remarkable Marco Muller. It got a little bit of attention most notably a moderately favourable review by Jay Weissberg in Variety

Over the course of 2014 none of the local festivals either wanted to or were able to show The Well (we never know why films don't arrive at these events) so the film finally got here for its Australian premiere at the just concluded Spanish Film Festival. So there it was listed on the very last page of the little booklet produced for the SpFF, modest information as usual suggesting a masterpiece, with as we shall reveal one huge information black hole. An “Australian Premiere”. 

I have to confess that I normally dont take much notice of anything with Gary Maddox's by-line attached to it in the SMH but somehow or other there was a tiny mention of the film by Maddox in last Friday's entertainment guide which reminded me that Michael Rowe was a name to conjure with. It was screening at the same time as North Melbourne was playing Richmond in an AFL match in Hobart, a good reason to find a movie to attend. About twenty punters were in attendance by the time it all got started. 

Rowe has a classicist's approach to filming. One sequence, one shot, the camera motionless, the shot often lasting for quite some time as a long conversation takes place frequently off screen. Everything is designed to show events from the central child’s point of view. It’s a film which whispers its message but does so quite brilliantly. The film is about Caro,  small and uncommunicative,  and her adjustment to life with step-father. The large house she enters contains no magical mystery secret garden, just a riot of colour, movement, overgrown greenery,  hidden places with much animal behaviour to be observed. Most notably, over the course of the movie, a hen starts laying eggs and eventually a crop of chickens are produced. Needless to say its Caro's observation of the new parental tensions, conversations, and sex, overheard, memories flooding back via a book of family photos which eventually build up  to, well,  a just slightly violent conclusion. It’s all over in 78 minutes. 

Goodness knows how many people saw it during the time that the SpFF rolled around. It certainly did not get any pride of place screenings.  And the cheapest admission price was an off-putting $15. What the little program booklet didn't tell, nor did Gary Maddox, was a factor that might have got a lot more bums on seats. Only during the end credits does the information come up that the film is adapted from a short story titled "Secrets" by Tim Winton. I can tell you that for the mostly aging punters left in the theatre when that info come up there was an audible all round gasp "What! Tim Winton". There you are. People in the suburbs will be dining out on that info.

Rowe is supposed to be making a film in Canada with some Australian investment. As for Thornton, who knows... But both should be working full bore, both should be on maximum life support, both should have a Screen Australia minder ringing them up every week just to say let's get on with it or where do I send the money.

Friday 8 May 2015

Gadfly Richard Ackland kicks George Brandis around - more AFTRS CEO comment

The Saturday Paper’s Gadfly, Richard Ackland, follows up Paddy Gourley’s story in The Canberra Times with his own thoughts about George Brandis inserting himself into the process of selecting, or as his Department spokesperson put it, ‘approving’ the appointment of the next head of AFTRS. Read it in the paper, a great read each week or go online here. For my own earlier take on how all this matter got going and what it ‘means’ you can click here

Thursday 7 May 2015

On DVD (5) Ordeal by Innocence - Golan & Globus can surprise you sometimes

It’s been thirty years since  The Cannon Group,  headed up by the cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, those daring entrepreneurs who gave us a lot of fun back in the 80s, produced Ordeal by Innocence.  Having recently acquired a copy for $5 at  Lawsons  (Sydney's best second hand collection) I sat down to watch it. I wondered whether in fact the film was ever released but since this note was published I have been advised by Australia's pre-eminent cinephile that he saw it at a screening at the then Hoyts Cinema in George Street in April 1985. I had no advance knowledge beyond what was on the cover. As usual with anything put out by Shock Video, there are errors everywhere on the cover, including the specs which say it is 16:9. Instead there is this shrivelled image occupying about two thirds of the available screen. Oh well, for $5.

Then the credits roll. "Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence" says the main title and we get the cast - Donald Sutherland, (hair dyed a nice reddish tinge), Sarah Miles, Christopher Plummer, old reliables all and etc etc, "and Faye Dunaway" (who appears only in black and white flashback footage for she is the hapless victim who causes all this kerfuffle). The director is the estimable Desmond Davis. He tries to keep some sort of control over a script that races through lashings of plot, misdirects, flashbacks, heavy-handed coppers interfering for reasons that escape you and large numbers of shots of small boats crossing Dartmouth harbour. Here its renamed Drymouth. Ho ho. There are other ho ho moments as well.A bookmaker is called Archie Leach and a couple of film titles are listed as runners in one of the horse races seen in the background in one scene when Donald Sutherland is tracking down 'evidence' at a race track. Ho ho.

But two other credits are interesting.  The script credit goes to Alexander Stuart who later wrote the most intense novel The War Zone which Tim Roth filmed and the music credit goes to Dave Brubeck for a tinkly score with many drum flourishes especially created by Brubeck and played by his then Quartet which included his son and not Paul Desmond. From the moment it starts, you wonder how on earth this contribution came about except that you only have to think for a moment about the ambitions of the Go-Glo cousins to know that they would have thought this to be the major cultural coup that it was and so they went for it big time.

Orson Welles - Cinephiles Julie Rigg, Scott Murray, Noel Bjorndahl, Ken Wallin & Max Berghouse (so far) remember his centenary

My request for birthday wishes and any other thoughts that you might put to the Great Man on his hundredth birthday has thus far produced some fine responses:

Julie Rigg writes:I'd ask him for one of his cigars, hope we could adjourn to enjoy it, and have a conversation in which, I hope, he could tell me what he thought of continuous travelling shots ( a la Sokurov - Russian Ark, slow cinema a la Kiarostami)  and at the other extreme ,whirling wobblecam a la Von Trier. I'm assuming he's slowed down since becoming a ghost, and has had time to study some of his successors.

Scott Murray writes: I remembered Geoff. I am on my bed reading Orson’s Welles’ Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind!

Noel Bjorndahl writes: (phew, a labour of deep, devoted and long -lasting love coming folks): I love Orson Welles for his largeness in all senses-the extravagance that cost him his career also left us a handful of energetic, bizarre, baroque theatrical masterpieces that display his acting and film making skills and present his fascinating humanity warts and all. Several parts genius and some parts charlatan he was irrepressible and irresistible, Falstaff reincarnated in a range of unlikely 20th century guises (and finally Falstaff himself in his own film); a man of the theatre, he slipped effortlessly into film and with Citizen Kane brought a new intellectualism and realism to the essentially visceral and melodramatic American cinema. The movies would have been the poorer without Xanadu, Rosebud, depth of field and the first-if not the best-of Welles’ ruminations on the uses and abuses of power and power mongers. In the age of Rupert Murdoch’s global empire, the rise and influence of Hearst’s newspaper kingdom is if anything as relevant now as it was in 1941. Welles’ manipulation of narrative structure and viewpoint and control of image motif remains powerful to modern audiences and Kane would be a towering achievement from a mature artist at the height of their powers let alone a jumped-up upstart of a mere 25 years. 

Welles was always presumptuous. He has since proved a man of many parts-actor, conjuror, raconteur, writer/director extraordinaire, master of cinematic and theatrical mise-en-scene and legerdemain. He might well have been a Renaissance artist in a previous life; as a conversationalist alone he is his own greatest creation- witness the volume of recorded interviews with people like Peter Bogdanovich where his sense of mischief is given full play and his teeming anecdotal/narrative gifts weave their enchanting spell. He was a mesmerising, charming, witty talk show guest and could have made a career out of television appearances had he submitted more to quick fixes for his financial problems. But Welles remained the maverick, globe-trotting and jet-setting to drum up patronage and cash to finish his long list of truncated projects and works in progress.

Welles had a deep affinity for that other brilliant theatre luminary William Shakespeare and although his film versions of Othello somewhat (in its various versions) and especially Macbeth are marred by obvious production difficulties and budgetary limitations-the recurring leitmotifs of Welles’ blighted career trajectory-he finally came up with Chimes at Midnight, arguably the most successful attempt to bring the spirit of the Bard to celluloid. This beautiful elegy for Merrie England is several parts high spirits and several parts melancholy. A compendium of various Shakesperian texts, The Merry Wives of Windsor and both parts of Henry IV among them, along with Holinshed’s Chronicles, Welles’ Falstaff film gives him the part he was born to play (or at least literally grew into). Falstaff in this expressive incarnation becomes  a swaggering human mountain full of the spirit of play, a kind of Loki writ large, egging young Prince Hal to sow his oats in grand style across his future kingdom knowing well that the brevity of a  youthful prince’s spring will soon be overtaken by the long winter of a king’s destiny. The tragedy for Falstaff is that while Prince Hal may share the “chimes at midnight” with the riff-raff, King Henry V may not. The King’s rejection of Falstaff as King inspires some of the most melancholy moments ever committed to film.  Falstaff’s swift decline and demise is deeply impactful due to Welles’ rueful but humane and philosophical acceptance of the way things are. Welles’ idol John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance roots for Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), all that’s symbolised in the cactus rose and “printing the legend” rather than the reality of the traditional West so often celebrated by that great Irish-American film/poet. Similarly, Welles’ heart and soul is with Merrie England and everything embodied in the friendship between Falstaff and Hal and the “times that they have seen”.

The tavern scenes are therefore full of very funny slapstick which Welles clearly relishes. Rarely has he let his hair down and his sense of humour to flow so naturally into the fabric of one of his films. The darker  hints of mortality and the precariousness of patronage are always lurking in the background and the film is essentially  another of Welles’ perceptive and penetrating studies of power, but never before have the surfaces of a Welles film been so enjoyable as in the sequences of carousing and highway robbery. Falstaff plays to the hilt his version of the Lord of Misrule, kettle on head holding forth to his “subjects”(cronies) in an unforgettable vignette.

The medieval battle scenes on the other hand  bring together the light and dark poles of this extraordinary work; visual gags of Falstaff trying to mount a horse and running through the mayhem like a beheaded peacock are followed by a stylised combat sequence that captures all the barbaric atrocity and terrible beauty of pre-modern technological warfare.

The performances are dominated by the almost surreally outsize figure of Welles (even upstaging the landscape) but they are uniformly excellent. Keith Baxter brings to life Prince Hal’s uneasy combination of virility and reflectiveness; John Gielgud in a telling cameo shows us just how “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”; Jeanne Moreau’s world-weary Doll Tearsheet carries conviction and poignancy and body language to match; surprisingly Margaret Rutherford’s Mistress Quickly almost steals the film in her “cold as any stone” set-piece. I’m so used to Rutherford as a slightly dotty old mammoth that the melancholy atmospherics conjured up in her speech and performance took me by surprise and left an enormous lump in my throat. I’m quite as blown away by what Welles has done with this impressive ensemble cast as I am with his predictably brilliant mise-en-scene.

My other favourite Welles film is The Magnificent Ambersons. This emasculated masterpiece (RKO cut it by about 40 minutes and tacked on a ridiculous ending shot by Robert Wise) is impressive even in its butchered state. Along with Chimes at Midnight it’s the most emotionally involving of his films. I deeply admire Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil but I love Ambersons. Impeccably reconstructing its turn of the century period, the film immediately adopts an affectionately ambivalent tone as it catalogues changing fashions and the fortunes of the proud Amberson family (through whose deterioration some major turning points in the social and economic fabric of twentieth century American life are observed). The Amberson mansion is dominated by the self-important snobbery of Tim Holt (surprisingly carrying the pivotal role of the spoiled scion) but Welles imbues Georgie’s carryings on  with a degree of tolerance and compassion as the quality of his life flails under the onslaughts of the brave new industrial times, epitomised by Eugene Morgan’s (Joseph Cotten’s) motor car. Welles is partly nostalgic for the strengths of the pre-industrial era (the strong sense of community and more leisurely pace of life) while gently exposing its shortcomings.

As a piece of cinema, it carries consistently superb performances from its costumed cast who are shot in long, aesthetically beautiful takes that make the most out of the awesome (in size and grandeur) central set (the mansion itself); its visual economy takes your breath away-the death of Minafer Senior, for example, is conveyed in a single  terse, brief image and the whole town is exposed in one long tracking shot as lovers Tim Holt and Anne Baxter break up their relationship. The entire cast wrings the emotions dry. Agnes Moorehead’s shrillness is countered by scenes exposing her loneliness and vulnerability as she gets swallowed up in the shadows of the intimidating domestic set; Joseph Cotten’s gentle Eugene is never allowed to consummate his romantic longings for the exquisitely frail Isobel Amberson (Dolores Costello) through the interventions of mother-fixated George (Tim Holt); and Holt himself, in the film’s most unsympathetic role, finally receives his “comeuppance” in unbearably bleak surroundings, his exalted status having been reduced to an historical footnote .

Ken Wallin writes: Well, I remembered. I was reminded a few days ago by David Bordwell's blog which has a lot of interesting comments to make, and steered me to watch the 35 minute edited Too Much Johnson footage today for first time, in celebration. Exuberant and inventive!

What would I say to Orson today? Gee Mr Welles, I'd love to see you follow up the Immortal Story with more  Karen Blixen tales. Will you finish The Dreamers for starters?   (Baroness Blixen pen name Isak Dinesen is a favourite author we have in common).

Max Berghouse writes: Assuming the "great man" were 100 and more or less compus, I doubt there is anything I would have to discuss with him as opposed to being spoken down to from on high. Raddled and senile though he would be, he would still be possessed by overwhelming egocentricity and narcissism.

I'm a classicist when it comes to Welles, namely that his career was one of irretrievable decline from his 1st film, even though many of the subsequent films have "touches", possibly even broad strokes of creative genius. In the latter category I include Touch of Evil.

Had he been able to secure editorial control over his 2nd film The Magnificent Ambersons I believe this would have been his greatest film and I think his greatest success, because, even in truncated form, it shows a warmth and some degree of compassion for frail humanity which most of his work does not have. Perhaps my solitary question would be along the lines of "Do you think any or all of the footage of this film has survived, and what would you do with it had you the chance?".

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Happy Birthday to Orson Welles - May 6 1915

    Who remembered? The Great Man turned a hundred yesterday, or today Hollywood time. Hollywood time being a concept he found difficult to handle. Too impatient to get going, too impatient to move on to the next project light shining just over the hill... Along with Chaplin one of the two genuine geniuses of the cinema in its short history. Happy Birthday Orson, you continue to give much pleasure. The New York Review   has put some pieces up on line but I'm going to ask a few people to send me a couple of dozen words that they might say if perchance Orson were to suddenly be back, looking them in the eye, rolling that cigar around in his fingertips. If I get any answers I'll post them up.