Friday 29 April 2016

Turnbull delivers the goods for the film industry and its constituency - 2016 Budget news

At a 2016/17 Budget briefing for very senior officers of the Department of Communications, Minister Mitch Fifield set out the suite of measures that the Government will be announcing to support the various Federal Government film institutions from 2016/17 onwards. A senior staff member surreptitiously recorded Fifield’s remarks and, because he believed them to be blatant electioneering, has passed them on to industry observers. So from an informed source... Film Alert’s very own Budget leak...

 Fifield paid particular tribute to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull whose desire for the film and audio visual industries to lead the way down new paths of an agile and innovative economy was regarded as the key reason for the film industry to be the subject of specific privileges. Fifield paid tribute also to the CEOs of the various film institutions for their rapid response and their agenda setting when faced with urgent requests from the Government to ‘give us something positive to sell’.

While all the details are not clear and some will require legislation to be passed by both Houses of Parliament, Fifield expressed the view that this leadership by the film and audio-visual industries would prove unstoppable. “Malcolm is especially pleased because a huge amount of this activity will be generated within his own east Sydney electorate. Win, win, win!”

Starting with Screen Australia, Fifield said that the Government had responded to the funding body’s suggestion that, as far as possible, it remove itself from anything to do with any judgement about what films to back. “There will be some films by first and second time directors but we would prefer that projects simply be sent on to us by the various state bodies who also do this sort of thing.”  Otherwise, Screen Australia will remove entire levels of its middle management and simply draw up a list of film-makers who will each be given $10 million to go away and make a movie. “They can spend it all or they can leverage it into something bigger.” The first recipients, none of whom are even aware yet of the offer, are Peter Weir, Jane Campion, Wayne Blair, Rachel Perkins, Rolf De Heer and Catriona McKenzie. Thought had been given to including Ivan Sen in the group but he's just had a go and can wait until next year. Screen Australia’s CEO said the savings on staff will be put towards the funds. Before putting forward this proposal Screen Australia had sought the advice of a former senior Hollywood executive best known for his decision to pass on Star Wars.  He remained convinced he had been right ‘at the time’ and that in the film industry when it comes to judging the worth of any project nobody really knows anything.

The National Film & Sound Archive will finally be freed from the penury and parsimony into which it has been plunged over the course of recent years. After providing the Government with a short, medium and long term agenda the NFSA will have funds provided to:

1.       1.       Establish an NFSA Foundation for the purposes of
.               co-ordinating fundraising with the private sector
.               developing and deepening relationships with practitioners and the film industry; and
.               encouraging research, debate and public discussion on the issues of film preservation, restoration and access
2.       Iincrease the Federal Government’s financial contribution to ensure that the requirements for digitization of the collection is achieved in a timely and efficient manner
3.       Develop plans for a major building to be located in Sydney to house key elements of the NFSA administration in conjunction with all appropriate film-related state government authorities and to include a screening and exhibition venue similar to ACMI in Melbourne
4.       Fund, publicise and actively support a new search program designed to locate key lost elements of Australia’s silent film heritage.

Fifield thought that an annual commitment of $25m a year over the next decade should see the NFSA into a brighter future and enable it to become a world leader in the digitization of national film collections. “The place was in a perilous state until we were convinced that with an injection of money applied to the visionary agenda publicly and relentessly promoted by the NFSA, things could happen to take the place into a brilliant, innovative digital future” said Fifield.

The Australian Film, Television & Radio School will be given a small boost in funding. This boost will be sufficient to enable the school to remove itself from its current many and varied Technical & Further Education activities and allow the school to refocus on its primary task of educating talented would be feature film directors in the practical art of the cinema.  Fifield was very firm at this point of his dissertation:“The School hasn’t produced any directors of note for years. The reason for this is because it stopped trying to do so. Why it did is a mystery that may never be solved. I’ve taken advice from the new team and I’m prepared to back them. If they fail in their task then there will be nothing for it but to formally hand the place over to the NSW Government for integration into the TAFE system. I am informed that the building specs are very good and the addition of Bunsen burners and other equipment will not threaten safety.”

Television Licence Fees will be abolished. This has been done after discussions with the TV majors who have agreed that the entire amount foregone by the Federal Government will be spent on the production of Australian drama. The amount to be spent will reduce by 10% a year until it is exhausted. The allocation of funds available will not remain with the TV majors. Instead the amount will be placed in a pool and be allocated by a specially chosen TV Drama Committee. Applicants will be able to approach the TVDC with proposals and offer the product to all TV stations, including the ABC, Foxtel and SBS.  The Chair of the TVDC is to be Ms Anne Biderman. Committee members will include Mr David Simon, Mr Julian Fellowes, Mr Graham Yost and Ms Deborah Cox. 

Fifield summed up by saying that the film industry had always been a leader. “We have stopped producing quality graduates from our School, once again stopped producing feature films that get any attention in the major film competitions and still not been able to utilise the skills on hand to participate in the international movement for massive digitization, restoration and retrieval of our film heritage. I declare those days over.”

The many Government supporters listening to the speech broke out into a burst of spontaneous and generous applause.

The birth of the auteur wars - Bruce Hodsdon recalls Days of 'word thuggery' at S.U.F.G. in 1965

Bruce writes

While browsing some issues of the Sydney University Film Group Bulletin the other day. I realised that it is 50 years since auteurism, personified by the work and life of Nicholas Ray, threatened BFI-inspired orthodoxy at the Sydney University Film Group. Ray was one of the chosen few, nominated by Andrew Sarris, to inhabit "the far side” of Andrew’s  cinematic “paradise”. I think those days at SUFG worthy of “commemoration".

Nicholas Ray 1950s
Satyajit Ray in 1955
In 1966, with Andrew Sarris and 'Movie' fuelled auteurist fervour, myself and my brother Barrett, both then having a sizeable hand in the shaping of the Sydney University Film Group's term film programs, usually in consultation with our then mentor John Flaus, decided that the twice weekly screenings offered the opportunity to immure members in the work of a chosen auteur. This we saw as a way of both focusing upon and redefining, in film criticism, the creative role of the director in the commercial film industry, Hollywood being the paradigm. In this case the clear choice seemed to us to be Nicholas Ray, we both having recently caught up with Johnny Guitar (USA, 1954) at a suburban “ranch night”.

With John's doubtful assent I had programmed, a double bill of films by the two Rays (Satyajit and Nick) on a Monday night during third term 1965, in the Union Theatre, SUFG's main venue. The former had established himself (quite rightly) from his first film Pather Panchali (India, 1955), as something of a film society and art house icon.

The only locally available print of  Satyajit's Devi (The Goddess, India, 1960) was on rather murky 16mm b&w film, throwing into relief the wall to wall, brash Cinemascope and Eastmancolor spectacle of  Nick's Party Girl (USA, 1958) on 35mm with the accompanying “ Party Girl, Party Girl” theme song behind the credits. Acting as a prologue to the ensuing drama are the sexually choreographed gyrations of  Cyd Charisse which drew an audible reaction, in approval (or otherwise), especially from those sitting in the front section of the theatre where self acknowledged cinephiles tended to sit (and still do), seemingly affirming Mas Generis's much more recent claim in Screening the Past that cinephilia “is a condition of sexual attraction to movies”.

We then programmed four more of Ray's features – Bitter Victory (France, 1957), Johnny Guitar, Wind Across the Everglades (USA, 1958), and Rebel Without a Cause (USA, 1955), to be screened in the course of seven weeks during first term, 1966. The then SUFG President, Brian Murphy, insisted that the four Ray films could only be screened if the series commenced with a 16mm screening of Bitter Victory in a rent-free venue, the large former kitchen of a decaying, soon to be demolished building, aptly called, in the eyes of the philistines, The Blind Institute.

A surprisingly large number of members crossed City Road to the Institute on a Friday night in March, to view, in those austere surroundings, the lingering death by scorpion bite of a Ray anti-hero played by Richard Burton, the setting being the North African desert during WW11.

John Flaus
The President had also resolved to establish a roneoed newsletter in which members could vent their displeasure, or otherwise, at this precocious intrusion on their rights. It took several weeks for the uniformly hostile response (to the films as much as to the theory) from a small number of motivated members to appear in print in the newsletter which ran six issues. In advocating gradualism in the face of what he saw as overcompensation by the so-called 'new guard', Flaus’s claimed disregard for a member's right to expect the honouring of a cultural contract for diversity in programming choices when he/she took out a membership.mise-en-scène had not yet been absorbed into the English lexicon) was not to neglect content (what the film is about) but was central to it. 
Michael Thornhill
Mike Thornhill responded to my defence of auteurism in the newsletter with a charge of  'word thuggery'. Both Flaus and Thornhill were concerned with the priority given to the auteurist notion of 'interior meaning' (authorial sub-text running through the work of a chosen director) which they felt all but ignored the key literary element (the role of the screenwriter). John was adamant that 'the concern should be what the work is, not almost exclusively with the artist's (read director's) intentions'.I rebutted that the new preeminence given to form (the French term mise-en-scène had not yet been absorbed into the English lexicon) was not to neglect content (what the film is about) but was central to it. 

So on it went, intensely but briefly, with a certain rancour lingering. Thornhill, in a chapter on film culture for the book 'Entertainment Arts in Australia' (1968), quoted 'introspective Sydney film buff, John Flaus' and fellow 'member' (there was no formal membership) of the Sydney Push in his essay. John is quoted defining a film buff as 'a compulsive aesthete of the cinema (who is often a secret romantic) caught in one of the cultural traps'
                 His pale ideology ensures that his own life will be a conformist one, but his
                 imagination seeks a symbolic revolt. The Auteur concept of the director makes
                 an ideal sublimate. He is the lone, creative (self enclosed?) talent striving to
                 impose his vision upon an insensitive world, yet he is also the masterful leader
                 whose command is law (on the set).

John does not now have a strong recollection of this controversy that surrounded the emergent politics of auteurism. He suspects that he was more the soft voice while fellow Push members Mike Thornhill and Ken Quinnell were 'the hard cops'. (Does John now see himself, in this respect, as something of a local version of the 'Cahiers' critic and father figure of the French New Wave, André Bazin?)

A suggestion was made at an informal late night gathering after the screening of Party Girl  ('give the new guys a chance') by ex-MUFS provocateur and aspiring filmmaker (Dalmas, Pure Shit) Bert Deling, who was then living and working in Sydney. John opened his response in the newsletter with “the new guard, given a go - albeit restricted - in the first term 1966 programme - have overreached themselves (sic)”. This 'overreach' was our overweighting in film selection of what was being claimed to be the main game in film criticism: the overriding attribution of individual creativity to the authorship of a chosen director, especially in the Hollywood studio system. John saw screening five Ray films with the primary purpose of promoting the claimed directorial talents of a director, at times in creative tension with the system, as promoting 'a new orthodoxy' drawing on Andrew Sarris and Movie magazine in the UK “that promoted Hitchcock and Hawks as the great directors”. For 'the new guard' Sarris opened up a new, engaging way of looking at Hollywood films.

In the terrain of classical Hollywood's 'journeyman director' hierarchy, Flaus did concede a more singularly discernible directorial personality, for example, in Raoul Walsh's work behind the camera, over that of say Henry Hathaway's. John, from his later vantage point as a working actor in films, became an increasingly astute observer, in his criticism, drawing the distinction between the director as the 'setter of the scene' (metteur-en-scène) and the director as auteur. The former  competently but anonymously directs pretty much according to the set rules and conventions, as in much tv drama. In 1992 John wrote that the latter “shapes meaning through mise-en-scène”, the what and the how unified through visual style – “the orchestration of meaning through the actors and assignment of dramatic priorities to pictorial factors”, in other words, “the movie director's province of creativity”.

John's lengthy 1992 essay, “Thanks for Your Heart, Bart”  (now accessible online at  Continuum ),, goes a long way towards redressing the imbalance of those days of auteur theory-inspired angst, standing as an insightful primer not only for aspiring actors but also for cinephiles. The forthcoming book by Barrett Hodsdon, 'The Elusive Auteur', has potential to be something close to definitive, if that is possible, in the final laying to rest of a controversy spanning back at least to 1966 and the shock of those five Nicholas Ray films in the SUFG program in six months.

Sunday 24 April 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Shaun Heenan discovers (via Fandor) Dreyer's Master of the House and Ozu's I was Born But...

As I mentioned last week, I’d already seen the vast majority of this week’s Criterion selections from Fandor, which this week showed classics of silent cinema. The selection included films from Charlie Chaplin, Victor Sjöström and G.W. Pabst, as well as Benjamin Christensen’s quasi-documentary Haxan (1922), which I wrote about here recently. This week I watched the two films on that list I hadn’t seen: one Danish and austere (though described by Criterion as a ‘gentle comedy’), the other Japanese and playful (though heartfelt and soul-searching).

Master of the House (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1925) impressed me with the sophistication and intricacy of its storytelling. Dreyer’s film examines the life of a hard-working woman whose overbearing and cruel husband is making her life a misery. She puts him first in everything, even scraping the butter from her own bread to offer him a better meal, but nothing she does is ever enough to please him. He lashes out at her constantly, and is equally harsh with his children. The wife’s mother and an old friend who helps look after the children see this situation, and try to convince our heroine to leave.

Dreyer spends a lot of time examining the specifics of housework. We watch as chores are carried out, and the time we spend with them helps to make it more heartbreaking when they are ignored or criticised. The plot is more complicated than that of many silent films I have seen, but the precision and clarity of Dreyer make it easier to follow than most. While Dreyer was good at conveying human suffering, he doesn’t wallow in it. Indeed, he swings too hard in the other direction as the film closes, giving us a happy ending which seems curiously naïve. There’s also a truly bizarre statement in the opening title card, which implies that cruel men like this are a thing of the past in Denmark, but they still exist elsewhere in the world. What an optimist.

I was Born, But… (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1932) is a similarly complex silent work, though it offers a good dose of fun before delving into the depths of human insecurity. The film follows a pair of young boys who have moved to a new town, and who get into a great deal of innocent mischief. I was surprised to be reminded of the Beano comics I read as a child, but that’s the tone Ozu used for the first half of his film. The brothers clash with a group of bullies at their new school, but they’re treated as more of a puzzle to be solved than a threat.

The comic tone of the film seemed out of character to me at first, since I am familiar with Ozu from his work in slow and subtle familial dramas like Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953) and Floating Weeds (1959). This side of Ozu appears in sudden and dramatic fashion in the second half of the silent film, as the boys realise their father works for one of their classmates. They confront their father, accusing him of being an unimportant person, and Ozu spends a long time watching the father as his sons’ words strike a nerve, throwing him into a deep and dark existential crisis. It takes a deft hand to weave such glee and such anguish into a cohesive whole, and Ozu was up to the task even in the early stages of his career.

We’ll stay in Japan for next week’s piece, as Fandor’s new selections are a series of films from Akira Kurosawa, focusing on his work set in the 20th century. I’ve seen a number of his films, but almost all of those have been samurai epics. I’m looking forward to exploring another side of his work.

Saturday 23 April 2016

From the Archive - A retrieval following the news of a new adaptation of Highsmith's great early novel The Blunderer

Cover of the Brit first edition
Yet another adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel is heading our way. Its a new version of Highsmith’s third novel (though only the second published under her name). Advance notice can be found in a review in the Hollywood Reporter. If I had had any say in the matter I would have suggested that the money not be apparently wasted and instead a tiny fraction be spent on a set of English subtitles for Claude Autant-Lara’s 1962 version of the book, a Franco German production with the rather good cast of Gert Frobe, Paulette Dubost, Maurice Ronet (his second Highsmith adaptation), Yvonne Furneaux, Marina Vlady and Robert Hossein. If you are really curious you can struggle with a not bad unsubtitled copy on Youtube . Variously titled Der Morder and Le Meutrier, it hasn’t seen the light of day in any legitimate release for decades. But the news did cause me to retrieve this earlier piece published on an earlier Film Alert website. All is vanity....

Hard and Soft-boiled
Donald Westlake
Aficionados and enthusiasts for crime fiction, broadly defined to include a lot of sub-genres like spy fiction, often develop a certain pre-occupation with cinema adaptations of their favourite authors. This pre-occupation frequently presages disappointment. Rarely does the cinema do justice to a crime author’s work. The number of dud adaptations of great works of crime fiction is legion. It is, as a dogmatic friend used to say, not even a matter of opinion but simply a matter of fact. Thus no film adaptation of any of the ten or so Dortmunder novels by Donald E Westlake measures up to what Westlake’s admirers might have hoped for. Only a couple of the many adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s books even get remotely close to the master’s mixture of insouciance and matter of factness about criminal behaviour, the cool calm plotting, the gorgeous characters, the terse dialogue. In fact I suspect that the best Elmore Leonard movie ever put on the screen is Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988) with Robert De Niro as a bounty hunter and Charles Grodin as the somewhat bewildered criminal businessman caught in his trap. The only problem is that it’s not based on a Leonard novel but simply a movie which captures the Leonard spirit better than most.

Patricia Highsmith
In a similar fashion, most efforts at getting Patricia Highsmith’s novels on the screen have dumbed her down, reduced the focus on guilt and suspicion in favour of, well, simply something else far more dull and prosaic. Still there are Highsmithian movies, one of the best being Dominik Moll’s Harry He’s Here to Help and another being Shinichi Nagasaki’s Dogs, a film made on the cheap in grainy black and white video for a Japanese cable company and only ever screened outside Japan perhaps once at a long ago Vancouver Film Festival. The various Ripleys, interesting as some are, have remained as artefacts that never, in this enthusiast’s mind at least, quite got to the nub of aesthetic criminality which takes sheer pleasure at getting away with it. Clement and Delon probably still got the closest with Plein Soleil. Highsmith loved Ripley so much she wrote five books featuring him, relishing outlaw notions placed along side a quiet and reserved demeanour. I’m still unconvinced that she ever conceived of him as gay but I cant confess to being a sophisticate in these delicate and discreet matters of sexual orientation.

Another crime writer from the pantheon, George V Higgins has had even more trouble. His first novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle was quickly made into a very fine movie by the Brit Peter Yates way back in the early 70s. It did a good job of capturing the Boston criminal milieu and the Higgins method of story telling. This latter involved, increasingly as the writer matured, long slabs of conversation which    reported rather than recorded the action. No other Higgins book from the several dozen he wrote in what we might see now as a Balzacian enterprise to chronicle Boston’s high and low, its politics and its society, over thirty years or so, has ever been filmed. But now something’s happening. News reaches us from the estimable reporter/critic for SBS Don Groves that another Higgins adaptation is in the works at last. Higgins’ third book ‘Cogan’s Trade’ is now being readied for release. It is directed by the director of Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the Antipodean Andrew Dominik. It stars Brad Pitt, Ben Mendelsohn, Bella Heathcote, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini and Sam Shepard. One word of warning, the locale has been shifted from Boston to New Orleans.

Never having read anything by Janet Evanovich, I have no idea whether the first adaptation of one of her books, One for the Money, featuring her female detective Stephanie Plum gets to the nub of what makes the series so popular. The books are now up to about number nineteen, each featuring the consecutive number in the title plus there are few in-between stories tossed off as well. The recent movie version starring Katherine Heigl was clearly intended to start a franchise for the actress, who also acted as producer. Whether any more will follow, given the modest box office in the US and elsewhere including here, is doubtful. It may thus join Sara Paretzky’s V I Warshawski as a one off failure to launch another feisty female detective. Regrettably both films were poorly scripted, and directed in a largely lifeless fashion with not an ounce of energy. I’d be surprised if Evanovich aficionados had this movie and character in mind but only Evanovich fans can judge.

You cant however say that Baltasur Kormakur’s Contraband is lacking in life or energy or imagination. This is one of the very best crime thrillers of recent times and what makes it so mostly is the fact that every step, every doublecross and betrayal, every false move and plan gone wrong is perfectly set up. Australians who have taken any interest at all in the acquisitions of our national art collection may well be in a better position to work out the final mellow moment long before it’s revealed but otherwise there is a sense of perfect and intricate staging and plotting that beings every detail tumbling into its logical place. As well as that however, the action set pieces, most notably the Panama-based scene involving the purchase of the fake notes that ends up as a forced participation in a brazen street hold up, a race to escape and meet a sailing deadline and a smart move to beat a customs search, are filmed with the energy and stunt wizardry of someone like Walter Hill at his very slam bang best. In putting the puzzle together I was reminded of the reaction that followed the screening of Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle, a much more sedate crime story but one in which, similarly, every bit of business on the screen finally fits into a perfect mosaic.

Finally, in the context of this extravagant praise what are we therefore to make of a capsule review in the Sydney Morning Herald which is not merely dismissive of the movie but says “that the script doesn’t trust our powers of concentration and it abandons any thought of making sense. Director Baltasar Kormakur is hoping to confuse us to the point that we’ll overlook the ludicrousness of what we’re watching.” Gee whiz, dunno how you could you could come to those conclusions but there you mysteriously are.

So, finally, who is Baltasar Kormakur, the director of this excellent, rather superior movie? I am told he has made other films, most notably an Icelandic movie called Jar City which plays, or at least has recently played on World Movies. He was also the star of a movie called Reykjavik-Rotterdam which it turns out is the original Icelandic film on which Contraband is based.

Originally posted here on March 5th, 2012 

Thursday 21 April 2016

The Duvivier Dossier (52) - Max Berghouse reviews the little-known MARIANNE DE MA JEUNESSE (1955)

French poster
Marianne de ma Jeunesse (Eng: "Marianne of My Youth"), Julien Duvivier (Director), Peter von Mendelssohn (a.k.a. Peter de Mendelssohn) and Julien Duvivier (Script) (based on a novel by Mendelssohn "Sad Arcadia"),Léonce-Henri Burel (Cinematography), André Davan, Georges Louran, Arys Nissetti and Pierre O'Connell (Producers), Filmsonor, Regina Films,Francinex (Production Companies), Jacques Ibert (Film Score). Starring: Pierre Vaneck ("Vincent/Argentine"), Gil Vidal ("Manfred") and Marianne Hold ("Marianne"). France/Germany, 1955. 105 minutes

Note: This film was produced, back to back in both French and German versions, the French probably first. The German version has a change of actors with Horst Bucholz ("Vincent") and Udo Vioff ("Manfred"). This review is solely concerned with the French edition and this reviewer has not seen the German edition. Some reviews indicate that the French version is somewhat better.

Marianne de Ma Jeunesse was produced immediately after The Maurizius Affair (Julien Duvivier, France/Italy, 1954) a not especially good film but which has its moments. It comes immediately before Voici  le Temps des Assassins (Deadlier Than the Male) (Julien Duvivier, France, 1956) which, if one were to see only one of the director' s mature works, this would be it. Both films reflect the Noir sympathies and general pessimism one associates with the director's oeuvre. Marianne has been described as a limpid and languid work, almost fairytale, perhaps a dream, uncharacteristic of this director. It may well be that the subject matter and production reflect something which arrived on M. Duvivier's desk and which he then took on simply as a journeyman director. It is certainly not as overtly pessimistic, nor perhaps as cynical as most of the director's work but it is hardly all "sweetness and light".

The plotline concerns the arrival at a very exclusive boys' boarding school in a castle, beside a lake, presumably in Germany, of Vincent, clearly a young adult (indeed it was the actor's first film) but seemingly intended to be much more of an adolescent. Although originally French, his growing up years have been spent in apparent wealth on an estate near Rosario in Argentina. On his arrival he describes his intense loving feelings for his mother, such intensity being acceptable in a young pubescent male but grossly inappropriate in a full-grown, albeit young man. He meets Manfred and friendship blossoms. Both male actors went on to enjoy very significant careers in France but this film reflects them at the incipient stages of those careers. This raises one quite fundamental problem in the film which is that both men are significantly too old for the roles they play. They are manly in appearance, attractive and quite self-possessed and they cannot thus in purely physical terms, convey the uncertainties of adolescents.

Quite a deal of the storyline is imparted by Manfred in voice-over. Not only at the beginning of the film but continuously throughout. Attitudes to voice-over have significantly hardened over the years since the production of this film but it must be said that much of it is intrusive, possibly unnecessary and distracting in terms of plot development.

There is a significant tradition in European literature to dwell upon the travails of youth. One particularly famous example of this in French is "Le Grand Meaulnes" by Alain Fournier and in German, "The Confusions of Young Torless" by Robert Musil., The homoerotic, indeed homosexual undercurrents in both these works is quite palpable and I believe the same can be said about the current film. It is not that buffed young men, striding about in short shorts, held up with braces, with long socks and stripped to the waist, is at all disturbing in this day and age, but it is distracting in terms of what is described as the plotline. I may be perhaps prudish but I found this quite uncomfortable. Perhaps that was intended!

Vincent, generally described as "Argentine" is a true "son of nature". As evidence of this, forest animals like wild deer come to him as if perfectly tame. The same applies to apparently wild guard dogs. Across the lake from the school and through the forest on either side is an apparently abandoned manor house but which in fact is inhabited by Marianne and her "benefactor"/guardian. Vincent develops a pathological attraction to her but which ends very badly. This has been described in Freudian terms as the growth of a young man from infantile attraction to mother, to mature attraction to an adult woman subject to the constraints that the first great love of a man's life is bound to end in failure. Take that as you will.

Cinematography in limpid black and white, is well night faultless. Mists rising up from the lake, the alluring danger of the lake itself, and the interspersing of shots with wild animals are exceptionally well handled. Some reviewers have compared this to the dreamlike works of Cocteau (indeed some reviewers have thought the film might itself be one long dream) – as if anything by Cocteau is anything other than a solipsistic exaggeration.

Within French literature and cinema there remained at the time of production a strong admiration for essentially "poetic" works. "Cyrano de Bergerac" was written in blank verse in the early part of the 20th century and similar stage works can be found right up to the time of the production of this film. Perhaps as a consequence the dialogue in the film is not merely particularly "stagey", it is more or less directly poetic, vastly more convoluted and self reinforcing than ordinary demotic speech. (So much so that although I can read subtitles quite quickly, I found it difficult to read the titles fully before scenes changed.) That may also be one of the reasons why adult actors were chosen because it is really hard to imagine that adolescents would have been able to manage the dialogue effectively.

As usual with this director, there are a number of matters which are handled extremely well, to create the impression of verisimilitude. Vincent finds Marianne at the village fete and she has come there by luxurious car. It is a just slightly pre-World War II Rolls-Royce, certainly with individual coach built body, probably German. It is certainly not English. M Duvivier seems to me always to get his cars completely appropriate for the class and demographic of his actors. His interior sets are generally purpose-built and convey a sense of intrigue and interest. As in other films of his which feature large spaces, both the main sitting room of the boarding school and the entrance foyer of Marianne's house have mezzanines from which shots can be taken looking down and from the foyers looking up where action is to take place in split positions, rather than in one single space.

French version with Pierre Vaneck (r)
The storyline is presumably taking place at "current time" – this seems to be confirmed by external shots of people in current, 1950’s garb. Yet the headmaster of the school is seen consistently in frock coat and high collar, redolent of the 1890s. The boys, in their formal school uniform wear single breasted blazers with wide front left and right lapels, pinned back down the length of the jacket with brass buttons. I think but am not completely sure that this sort of dress, which I think is Germanic, was well and truly out of fashion by the end of World War II. Similarly seeing Vincent in a long draped cape almost like that of a cleric, seems to me to speak of a much earlier period.

German version with Horst Buchholz (r)
I did not like this film: it concerns a subject matter which does not particularly interest me but more presciently, even on its own terms, I don't think it conveyed what it set out to do, very well or effectively. It remains too much "bits and pieces" rather than a coherent whole. The final scene of the film has Vincent leaving the boarding school chastened by his experience of Marianne but still seemingly determined to try and find her in a place which overlooks the borders of three countries, a quest which as audience we accept is going to fail. So, on the basis that the director did this work simply as a journeyman, he cannot resist his natural instinct to pessimism such that he sees Vincent's future journey as a failure.

Before I started this series of reviews of the director's work, such as my affection for his capacity, that I would have recommended that everyone should see as many of his films as he or she can possibly lay hands on. But I've also been inundated myself with very significant amounts of media, all demanding attention in what is really a very short space of time. So I am falling back on the adage of the late and not particularly lamented English literature reviewer, F R Leavis, that with life being so short we should devote our attention only to the very best. On that basis I think this film can be given a relatively wide berth.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

The Current Cinema - Sammo Hung returns front and centre in THE BODYGUARD

What becomes of aging ‘Central Security Bureau’ agents, men who are trained to act violently upon their instincts in an instant, may be similar to what happens to aging wuxia movie stars. Neither can put on the moves and eventually their bosses and their audiences lose interest and tolerance.  In the case of the mid-60s aged Ding (Sammo Hung) in Hung’s new film The Bodyguard (China, 2016), the pasture he’s put out to, is a small city on the China Russian border where he’s living a quiet life in a small rented house owned by an attractively aging Korean widow. She has a son in the police force.  Ding used to be a star for the Bureau. His legendary expertise and reputation is told in an animated sequence near the start of the movie. 
Hung has been working in movies since he was a child and as a most detailed biography on Wikipedia explains he has worked with and assisted the best in the business as well as making his own individual way. Hung has many credits as a director but dozens more as the ‘action director’ on Hong Kong movies. But there's much similarity between Hung and his alter ego Ding. Perhaps even a franchise beckons.

Wikipedia’s flat recitation lacks sparkle and selectivity. Which is where David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the art of entertainment (Harvard University Press, 2000 and, second edition, Irvington Way Institute Press, 2011) comes into play. [1] The first key reference to Sammo Hung’s work and his influence comes via a compare and contrast exercise between Bruce Lee and his successor Jackie Chan. Bordwell notes:  Aiming at winning real fights, Bruce Lee saw no reason to learn acrobatics. When a scene demanded  leaps and tumbles, he used a double. By contrast, Chan and his school “brothers” Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung were brilliant acrobats. They and other graduates of the Opera Institute sparked a trend toward flashy stunts in the kung-fu films of the late 1970s. Hung became one of the industry’s top fight choreographers and began to give Golden Harvest’s kung-fu films swift fighting, hairbreadth timing, and bursts of comedy. Yuen Woo-ping, son of an expert fight choreographer, developed a comparable style in directing Snake and Drunken Master, and it suited Chan perfectly.

Which is interesting when one is contemplating The Bodyguard. But first I think it’s fair to say, though I can only invite experts to argue, that Hung, like Ding, has not been doing much in recent years.  The Bodyguard thus has a similar feel to a couple of Howard Hawks’ last films El Dorado  and Rio Lobo. Age catches up with formerly top of the heap violent men.

But it sometimes happens that their moral code is offended and they feel compelled to take up battle once again. About half way through The Bodyguard, three young punks burst into Ding’s house seeking to obtain a bag of stolen jewellery. (Yep folks, the McGuffin is only a bag of stolen jewels, notwithstanding the setting on the border and all the possible threats to international order that might be summoned up.) We get the first glimpse of Ding’s martial arts skill when he grabs the clenched fist of an opponent and crunches it. The pain is electric for both victim and spectator and represented as such by a quick shot of the villain’s arm with the sinews inside it turning a spidery neon blue. Very smart effect. Ding fights off two, breaking arms in the process and the third high tails it out of the place. It's intended to show that Ding still has it, a preview of his fearlessness and his capacity to fight notwithstanding age, weight and dementia all kicking in. That ‘swift fighting, hairbreadth timing, and bursts of comedy’ mentioned by Bordwell still serve both the film-maker and his character.

The somewhat perfunctory plot (stolen jewels a moppet separated from her family and retrieved and forawhile made safe by Ding, Russian gangsters and a guest star appearance by Andy Lau) all propel things towards a confrontation between ,Ding and a Chinese gangster played with a lot of villainous zest by Xuebing Wang. The second fight scene, and the film’s set piece, is a long one. Ding shows up in the gangster’s lair and first stares him down and then has him all over the shop with a couple of love taps. This is the signal for the boss’s team of followers to pull out their knives and seek to demolish Ding. Here the bone-crunching resumes, as does the neon x-ray effect signifying breakages.Needless to say the soundtrack materially assists in conveying the impression of massive physical mayhem. The final moment, with the out of breath Ding demonstrating skills assumed long lost involves him in hoisting an opponent in a 270 degree tumble that flattens both. It is spectacular though I suspect that Sammo Hung was doubled for the moment.  By the end, when you add in the three Russian interlopers, there are probably 20 bodies lying round in various stages of illness or death.

Needless to say there is much sentiment at the end as Ding takes his place with three old timers on a bench (one of them is played by Tsui Hark affecting a role where his legs have been amputated below the knee). Ultimately though, The Bodyguard is quite reflective. Ding’s memory is fading along with his physical well-being but his stern moral code remains and prevails. Nice really.

[1] The later version is available for direct download if you go to David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson’s  website  There, David explains what has happened with the second edition thus: "Planet Hong Kong was published in 2000. At some point in 2008, Harvard University Press took the book out of print, a decision I learned about in spring of 2009. The story is here. After finishing other writing commitments, I settled down to revising the book in August of 2010.

"The result, a second edition, is now available as a pdf-based e-book for purchase on this page. The price is $15, and the PayPal Buy button is nearby. Since some people have asked, I should say that you don't have to have a PayPal account to purchase it. PayPal accepts credit card payments without your opening an account.

"The new edition has replaced nearly all the original black-and-white illustrations with color ones, and has added several dozen new stills. The new parts of the text amount to some 40,000 words, with an updated list of further reading."

Go for it.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

On Blu-ray - David Hare reviews the BDs of the classics Suspicion, Only Angels Have Wings, M (Losey) and The Golden Coach

Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1941)
Hitch at his most playful, still having a ball with elegant and witty montage reinvented from his earlier British career, here in Suspicion with Grant in the first of his four roles for the master. The new Warner Archive Blu-ray is another unconditional knockout, following the label's work on I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) earlier this year. It looks like the only remaining Warner Hitchcock properties, Stage Fright (1950) and Mr and Mrs Smith (1941) are now due on Blu sooner rather than later. Meanwhile Suspicion, in this dazzling new 2k mastered image from a fine grain 35mm, itself derived from a nitrate neg delivers the picture in the most sumptuous picture quality I've ever seen. All this is a prompt to examine what at first seems stereotypical role playing and casting, but the leads and the screenplay are given such comprehensively indulgent and thoughtful mise en scene the points of view literally change within shots, and sequences to completely confound either the truth of what's happening to Lina at the hands of Johnnie, or indeed what's going on in her own mind. This is a real subject for re-evalution for me.

Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, USA, 1939)
Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) insouciantly plies into a steak while Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) looks on in horror at what she perceives to be his cold bloodedness, while the group gathered around all respond in their own individual ways to the death of Joe in Hawks' sublime Only Angels Have Wings from that greatest year of movie years, 1939.
The new Criterion Blu-ray from Sony's absolutely stunning 4K remaster (from nitrate elements) is one of the first Blu-rays I've double dipped on. This first came out in the Blu format on a limited release TCM deal over a year ago on a single layer bare bones release. I thought that was pretty wonderful, and was amazed when the new 4K DCP failed to make the cut for last year's NZIFF. I understand it's one of Bill Gosden's favorite movies. But this new Criterion sports nearly double the bitrate and file size (at 35 gigs for the movie) and a knock your socks off uncompressed LPCM audio which all makes you want to go out and buy a 12 grand 4K projector tomorrow just for this.

The movie is beyond criticism as far as I'm concerned and takes top place with Rio Bravo (1959) in Hawks' canon. Even the bad blood between Miss Arthur and Hawks with her tantrum throwing at his direction and his feigned indifference to her on-set self-aggrandising makes its own way into the texture of the movie to shade her initially annoying small town petite bourgeoise prat into a performance she almost certainly was unaware of giving and certainly incapable of creating without Hawks’ methods. Only a very great director like Hawks can risk "challenging" the studio-perfect template of Columbia's then leading lady and shake it up into a far more complex human being. Capra's 30s New Deal deification of her, which I find increasingly tiresome as I get older, is radically challenged here, and was again by Wilder in 1948 in the wildly underrated A Foreign Affair in which the director allows Dietrich to quite visibly shake her down and humiliate her before Miss Arthur and her seemingly worthless lothario John Lund find a kind of Wilder-ian flip "redemption" at the end.

Meanwhile we have this total masterpiece complete with another Hawksian male love story, played by Thomas Mitchell (who surely played more subdued gay parts than any other straight actor in Hollywood), the regular camaraderie of the business, which lights like wildfire throughout the narrative and none other than Rita Hayworth's first major role, a part in which the magnificent young beauty steals every shot she shares with Miss Arthur, or anyone else, one suspects with the gleeful complicity of Hawks.

M (Joseph Losey, USA, 1951)
David Wayne as the child "killer" in Losey's magnificent remake of Lang's 1930 M from 1951. The screen cap shows the killer trying to claw his way out of the iconographic Los Angeles Bradbury Building where the criminal mob closes in on him with their operatically violent justice. This fantastically good new Blu-ray from Sidonis, France comes right on the heels of an excellent French DVD release from late last year on the Films Sans Frontieres label. That DVD looked very good indeed, and while I can find no further documentation anywhere on the new Blu to confirm any new source or further restoration work undertaken, I would simply say the Blu-ray image which is literally flawless is from the same pristine vault quality 35mm triacetate print and displays top end Warner or Criterion levels of stability, gray scale, black level and sharpness with perfectly rendered film grain. Not quite so pristine is the audio which while perfectly clear and in lossless DTS MA sounds at times like it's having moments of PAL speedup, especially noticeable when Raymond Burr speaks his very few lines in a small part. Burr's baritone here sound like the classic PAL semitone rise squeakies. I can't fathom this as the film's running time is the original 88 minutes and visibly doesn't appear to suffer any speedup. The earlier PALDVD runs at 25fps speedup time of 84 minutes which is both visible and audible so perhaps I am hallucinating this extremely minor detail in the new BD.

What I'm not hallucinating is the extraordinary power with which Losey drops sequences with effectively identical montages and camera angles to Lang's into his own film, which then have the effect of creating a kind of meta-cinematic Brechtian dialectic between Lang's film with Losey's own mise en scene, itself rigorously naturalistic yet hysterical and dynamic. Where Lang's film is entirely shot on soundstage Losey's is almost entirely shot in natural light (by Ernest Laszlo) on location, a blessing for the legions of Los Angelophiles among us, with its classic Bunker Hill and Bradbury Building locations. Again, given this is SIdonis I can switch off the French subs on the Oppo but this may not be the case for all players. The two major extras including Bertrand Tavernier's 30 minutes plus to camera piece are sadly unsubbed.

The Golden Coach/Le Carrosse d’Or (Jean Renoir, Fraance/Italy, 1952)

The life force, Anna Magnani is Columbine and Camilla in the Theatre and in Life, and inextricably both in Renoir's hymn to performance and theatre, The Golden Coach from 1952. I've always found the comparison of this and Cukor's Heller in Pink Tights from 1960 irresistible but never had the chance to program them together until now in my own cinematic sanctum.

The screen is from an eye wateringly beautiful new-ish restoration to Blu-ray on the French TFI label, from CNC and PostHouse Digimage re composited from original 3 strip negs, then newly color timed and mastered. I am guessing, given the paucity of information on the disc the resto was performed sometime around 2012. This is a simply perfect rendition of one of the very greatest color films ever made, (photographed by Renoir-bro Claude) and one of the last 3 strip neg Tech productions and it's a revolutionary step up from Criterion's disastrous inclusion of a fatally compromised source from Gaumont in its three DVD "Stage and Spectacle" boxset from ten years or so ago. On my player the French subs on the English language version are removable, and the disc includes the rarely seen French audio version which was dubbed under other hands than Renoir's after the very first release in a third, and now totally unavailable Italian dub which premiered the picture in 1952. Renoir himself always nominated the English version as his preferred and he was right. Almost all the parts are spoken by the players themselves, with quite a bit of wild track running as principal audio, excepting the bullfighter and the BIshop who were dubbed in this and in the French version. Both versions are completely identical with the same takes, setups etc, and only a four second difference in running time but all the French dialogue has been post synched, again by most if not all the actors themselves, including Magnani whose French is as capable as her excellent English. 

This is a movie I used to borrow in a lovely IB 16mm print from the then French Embassy library in Sydney, perhaps like many others here, and play endlessly onto a blank wall for friends and myself, until we had nearly worn out the drum on my old post WW2 Bell and Howell. It's some sort of tribute to encroaching age and the thought of life fading further and further into time that the very timelessness of this masterpiece can be brought back so vividly in such an ideal, premium quality format, in the latter part of one's life, and for a younger audience of cinephiles. Yet, when you watch post war Renoir the concepts of time, ageing and the passing of life itself seem so completely abstract in the face of his boundless reaffirmation of hope and the value of all life. I hope I live forever with Magnani's/Camilla's mantra from the opening scene ringing in my ears ... "is all this worth it for two hours every night?" Yes, it is

Sunday 17 April 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Shaun Heenan retrieves (from Fandor) three French classics from the early 60s.

Serious Young Cinephile Shaun Heenan currently lives at South West Rocks in northern New South Wales. This is his twentieth post on the Film Alert site. He does reviews and reports discovering cinema old and new. His other posts can be found by clicking the links on the side of the site or by using the search engine. More to come....'

Yet again this week I watched from the weekly themed Criterion Collection films at Fandor. I’m not actually going to say what the theme was this time, since it goes some way towards spoiling the plot of every one of the films, but you may very well recognise the trend. It was a complete coincidence that I ended up watching two Palme d’Or winners right after the announcement of this year’s competition, but I’m looking forward to catching up with the new batch over the next two years or so, as they slowly, slowly, slowly make their way into distribution channels.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, France/West Germany, 1964) is an incredibly beautiful film. It’s beautiful to look at, filled with pinks and blues so bright they set the film apart visually from other films of the era. It’s beautiful to listen to, taking the form of a sung-through musical, with even snippets of everyday conversation becoming surprising and creative. Most of all, though, it’s beautiful to experience, using its non-standard format to draw us in and keep us paying attention while it tells a powerful love story, which twists and turns along with the characters’ lives before reaching a reflective conclusion - quiet, but emotionally overwhelming. I could not speak for several minutes after the film finished.

The romance between the teenage Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and a young mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is truly engaging, thanks to two great performances. Anne Vernon is also impressive as Geneviève’s meddling mother, who thinks her daughter would be better off with an international jewelry salesman. Much of the dialogue between mother and daughter would take place as a screaming fight in any other film, but here the anger and sadness flow behind the vivid colours and the calm singing, which just gives them more opportunity to sink in. It’s a wonderful story, and the format helps to prove there is always a more interesting way to shoot even a simple scene. I am not at all surprised this won the main prize at Cannes. It’s the best movie I’ve seen for months.

I’m sorry to report that I was less enthusiastic about Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, France, 1962), despite its status as a classic. The film uses droll narration to lead us through the tale of a long-lasting friendship between Jules (Oskar Werner) - an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre) – a Frenchman. Choosing an example from modern cinema, the narrator reminded me a little of that in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001). The pair are inseparable, and seem unusually slow to jealousy, even when they both fall in love with the same woman. She is Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), fun-loving and joyful in her youth, but less contented with her life after the boys return from opposite sides of the First World War.
The film’s playful tone and unique editing style make it stand out, and it’s easy to see why it was such an important part of the French New Wave. Watching it today, however, the film’s apparent hatred of women was a real problem for me. Catherine becomes a destructive force in the film’s back half, selfish and disloyal in a way which feels out of step with the character we’ve come to know. Most of the other women in the film are portrayed as idiots. In one case, a man at a bar says of his girlfriend, “there’s nothing in [her head],” and knocks on her forehead to prove it, as she stares smiling back at him. Maybe I’m misreading this, since I am not yet greatly familiar with Truffaut, but it felt really ugly to me, and consistently so, which stopped me from enjoying the movie as much as I hoped to.

I closed out the week with a second Palme d’Or winner in the form of Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, Brazil/France/Italy, 1959). This is one of many famous film retellings of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, though it has been reinterpreted to take place in a modern Brazilian favela during Carnaval. It’s an unusual film, full of energy, delivered mostly through the many (very) extended dance sequences. The characters retain their Greek names, and it is even implied that they are the original heroes from myth, reborn to allow the story to play out again. In short, Orpheus loves Eurydice despite his engagement to another woman, who becomes only one of several forces working to keep our leads from a happy ending.

Since the story is adapted from a Greek tragedy, there is great sadness in the inevitability here, as the characters trudge towards the final act they know is coming. They’ve done it all before, but they can’t help themselves. They act as history dictates. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The film is filled with great, charismatic supporting characters, lively music and appropriately gaudy costumes. Orpheus’ Carnaval costume is a golden string vest which looks suspiciously like Greek armour, which is a great touch. The film won the Palme d’Or unanimously in a strong year. The other nominees included Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. I don’t like it quite as much as either of those films, but I definitely enjoyed it.

 Next week’s Fandor films are a collection of silents, but as luck would have it, I’ve already seen nearly all of them. There is an Ozu film in there that I’m looking forward to watching, but apart from that I plan to look elsewhere for films to write about.