Friday 30 September 2016

The Current Cinema - Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Sotiris Dounoukos, Australia, 2016)

Jerome Meyer, Maggie Naouri in Joe Cinque's Consolation
This film comes to us ahead of some fairly mighty expectations. For starters and most especially you imagine that the film is going to have to grapple with the special features of its source. Helen Garner’s books and journalism of reportage have their own cache and much of their appeal derives from the way that Garner places herself into the story. For her these events are wrenching and deeply affecting and they take it out of her. She becomes a partisan but often taking a part that fits only her unique and often troubled view.

So in addition to expecting some rendering of the courtroom drama that was part of the events, you wonder how or if the film-makers, especially writer director Dounoukos and his co-writer Matt Rubinstein are going to try and render, if at all, the subjective Garner presence lurking and poking and prodding into all sorts of areas that otherwise might have escaped attention.

So again.  The biggest surprise is that the film doesn’t enter into this territory at all. That might come as something of a shock to readers of the Garner tome. Instead we get a very simple rendering of what might be seen as some basic facts about how Joe Cinque died after his girlfriend filled him up with heroin after telling a few friends that the couple had entered into a double suicide pact. (She then got off a murder charge and most people believe she shouldn’t have. Oops pardon the editorial but it’s of interest simply because she and her lawyers managed to convince the court that manslaughter was all that was involved in these events.)

Somehow or other the book and the events have been ground down into a very simple narrative. A single long flashback, that runs from Joe and Anu’s first meeting to Anu being lead away in handcuffs. We are supposed to be fascinated by two things. One of them is the egocentrism of Anu Singh, an extreme pathological case. The film charts a course of self-centred behaviour extending over years that mostly takes expression in manipulating her long-suffering boyfriend and her Indian girlfriend, the latter being an apparently odd character prepared most of the time to accept Anu’s word and do her bidding no matter how extreme the request. It ends in Joe’s murder and the poor dopey bugger hardly realises at any stage just what is happening to him.

Is it convincing? Are the characters authentic? Do we feel that these people are more than inexperienced actors delivering lines? Do we get even a modest sense of involvement. Nope.

The second element that the film-makers seem to want to let us know about is the view that the national capital, where these events took place, is like some drug of its own – a mediocre depressant sucked up by the general population that turns the residents of the neat suburbs into desperates trying to get out of it by climbing into the grip of heroin or whatever other drug is going.  Canberra is rendered as featureless in medium and long shot. The film gives over to the current trope, derived I think from those Scandi crime series, where time passing is denoted by a  random long shot of the city which has no discernible bearing on the action.

I don’t think Dounoukos does all that well in getting inside the minds of his protagonists and his mise-en-scene in all the conversations and the intimate interior scenes does little. Cut, cut, cut around a dinner table, cut cut, poorly frame an intimate conversation. The photographer doesn’t help much with dim and flat lighting.

But, as Ronald Reagan said in Kings Row, where’s the rest of me. More ambition was needed and I suspect  it needed a writer with a knack to do some dazzling assembly of the elements which would include the courtroom, a far more extended examination of the effects of it all on the bewildered Cinque parents and some rendering of Garner’s own role in writing and reporting.  Who that writer is I wouldn’t know. But whatever,that was all jettisoned and the result is something far, far simpler than Helen Garner's "Joe Cinque's Consolation".

Thursday 29 September 2016

Remembering Colin Bennett (and Tim Burstall) - Ex-Melburnians Adrian Martin and Rod Bishop recall.

In a previous post, which you can find if you click here, devoted to remembering legendary Melbourne Age film critic Colin Bennett Phillip Adams asked "remember when Tim Burstall was going to give him a knuckle sandwich ..was it over 2000 Weeks? ". Some people have remembered that as well as Colin himself. So things have expanded a little but everything’s related.

Adrian Martin writes: Colin B. was definitely an influence on this precocious teenage cinephile mind in the mid 1970s. When I cleared out my Monash University office last year, I found, in an ancient box, a folder of clippings of his reviews and essays I had compiled back then (I duly donated it to my Monash colleagues for their Australian Film Culture courses!). I have an especially vivid memory of his pretty positive review of Welles' F FOR FAKE, which had a brief cinema run in Melbourne. I think I twigged pretty fast to the sense that he was an 'old school' film buff, neither 'auteurist' nor (god forbid) 'semiotic', but it didn't bother me overly - as you say, Geoff, he was one of the few people in public standing up for important 'film culture' issues of the day. I remember spotting him at least one Melbourne Film Festival (in the company of his teenage/young adult son, maybe?) after his 'last days chez AGE', but I never met or spoke to him personally. When I became a film reviewer on the circuit in the mid 90s, Ivan Hutchinson and Keith Connolly (another heavily 'social issue' old-school character) still reminisced warmly about him. In more recent years, I know there was some interest among scholars such as Deane Williams and Tom O'Regan in looking him up, getting him on record as to his days at THE AGE, etc. But I don't know yet whether any material like this has actually been gathered  ....Another flash: I think he even wrote about some film magazines as they emerged - such as CINEMA PAPERS.
Tim Burstall
In response to Phillip Adams question as to whether Tim Burstall at least thought of giving Colin a knuckle sandwich, Rod Bishop writes: Burstall tried to give everyone a knuckle sandwich, didn't he? Certainly tried to clock me at the AFI Awards in 1973 over an interview I did with him for a magazine called "Lumiere".  Decades later, (Tim’s son) Tom Burstall told me Tim had "revised" his opinion of me and now thought I was a "good bloke". I've been feeling better ever since.

Colin Bennett’s brother David was the founding Principal of the Education Reform Association School (ERA) in Donvale, an initiative of Preshill and the World Education Fellowship. It was based on the educational principles of A.S.Neill's Summerhill and is now referred to by its alumni as "that hippie school". David was Principal from 1970 to 1973 and died young.

More to come.....

Wednesday 28 September 2016

On Blu-ray - Rod Bishop discovers Norman Foster's major noir WOMAN ON THE RUN (USA, 1943)

“If Woman On The Run had been directed by Raoul Walsh or Joseph H. Lewis or Don Siegel, it would have been rediscovered decades ago and heralded as a minor masterpiece” – Eddie Muller, Film Noir Foundation.

 Muller had once seen an intolerably poor VHS copy of the film taped off television, but failed to find any surviving print. Then one day he was shown the distribution agreement between Fidelity Pictures, the producers of Woman On The Run and the distributors, Universal-International. It included a clause suggesting an archival print might be at Universal.

After a search of the studio, the 50-year-old print was discovered. It was pristine, the original laboratory seals still on the reels. After its first screening in 2003, the print made its way to various film festivals. Five years later, however, the print was destroyed in a fire on the Universal lot.
But prescience and illegality - qualities shared by both film preservationists and members of the Sea Shepherd - led Muller to secretly make a digi-beta copy of the pristine print in 2003. This pirated digital version was later used for a French DVD release in 2012. When the British Film Institute archives turned up a 35mm dupe negative and a damaged 35mm master soundtrack, the Film Noir Foundation together with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the UCLA Film and Television Archive set about producing this superb Blu-ray.

Ann Sheridan in Woman on the Run
Directed and co-written by the prolific Norman Foster (Journey Into Fear, 1943) and set in San Francisco, Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan) is asked by the cops to help find her husband (Ross Elliot) who has disappeared after witnessing an underworld murder. With the help of newspaper reporter Danny Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe), she is drawn into a typical noir milieu - bars, waterfront restaurants and Chinatown where little is as it first appears.

Foster and cinematographer Hal Mohr make superb use of the dark and often sinister late 1940s San Francisco locations. A rare noir with a female lead, Sheridan’s finely nuanced performance ranges from an acerbic estranged wife to a woman in grave danger and realizing she really is in love with a husband she barely knew.
Dennis O'Keefe & Ann Sheridan in Woman on the Run

The final sequence in an amusement park with a roller-coaster ride and spooky clown laughter is reminiscent of both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. And then there’s the cop left to walk the dog Rembrandt…one of the best canines in all noir. 

Remembering Colin Bennett - Peter Hourigan and I recall an eminent critic's contribution

I’m moved to write this note after my reading  and reviewing of David Bordwell's The Rhapsodes .

Sometime around 1981 Colin Bennett was eased out of his role as film critic for The Age, Melbourne’s quality broadsheet newspaper. He was replaced by Neil Jillett, until then the Arts page editor. Bennett seemed then to just disappear from the scene. There may have been private farewells for him but there was no public attention given to the man or his departure. The Melbourne Film Festival, of which I was then Director, made no effort at all to mark the passing of a critic who had supported the event for most if not all of its life. I don’t recall any discussion around the Organising Committee table at the time about anything being done. Not good form but things have changed quite a lot where it comes to farewells and retirements. There is much more celebration now.

But from a late teen age, when a copy of the Saturday edition of The Age was home delivered, Bennett occupied a singular place in what may only be seen as the infancy of Australian film culture. (The newspaper wasn’t ordered any other day of the week. The Sun and the afternoon broadsheet The Herald, both published by the mighty behemoth that was The Herald and Weekly Times empire now amalgamated into a single morning paper and owned by Rupert Murdoch, were the newspapers of choice.) But the Saturday edition of The Age was a different being. Packed with advertising for houses and cars it had an expansive remit to publish huge amounts of good writing. Essays, reviews, political roundups and more, the Saturday Age was top of the heap. Without knowing, I suspect its management and editors saw its only rival as being the similar edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, similarly bulky though entirely unread in Melbourne.

Colin Bennett reviewed the week’s new releases in the Friday and Monday editions of The Age. He was a hard taskmaster with a taste for art and for films that attacked tough subjects. His preferences were, and this is all from memory, for the classical dramatic directors Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Wajda, Bunuel. He loved and supported Truffaut (but not Godard) and the new Brit realists. He liked movies that aimed at targets.

Distributors hated him. They thought he was far too tough and far too disdainful of common or garden Hollywood movies. He was. But he supported certain things with a passion and that passion showed up for many years, (I wouldn’t know how many exactly), in a column he wrote, usually at least half a broadsheet page, every Saturday which appeared in the second section of the paper which was called the Literary Supplement.

In those essays Bennett might choose to write a long piece about the key film of the week or he might choose to address issues that affected film in Australia. He was a fearless opponent of film censorship and wrote unrelentingly about the need for change and reform. In those days censors such as the famously belligerent ex-serviceman Richard Prowse (“One-armed Dick” as he was known to the trade) terrorised distributors with demands for cuts and frequent bans. He wrote about the need for Australia to support its own film industry and when the time finally came got involved with work for the early Experimental Film Fund.   He supported the Melbourne Film Festival and for many years added to that support by presenting an annual preview of the event on ABC-TV. He wrote about and as well donated huge amounts of time to the establishment of the Australian Film Institute. He supported, in print, fledgling cinephilia such as the public seasons presented by the Melbourne University Film Society.

Colin Bennett’s Saturday essay was a weekly moment to be savoured even by the immature who thought he had too much authority and his views were too conservative. Colin was a Sight & Sound person and placed alongside the auteurist terrors who wanted him to acknowledge Don Siegel and Jerry Lewis he seemed a stick in the mud. He preferred Jacques Tati and the Italian neo-realists. Oh well. Matters of taste aside, it’s impossible to overestimate just how much he used his position at The Age to champion causes, support film as an art and defend it from the philistines.

I cant say I’m aware of anything that Colin Bennett has been up to since he left The Age. I couldn't find any words nor any pictures. He didn’t write a memoir or publish a collection though those Saturday essays begged for it way back then. Seems like he was just let go and more’s the pity. I understand he’s still alive and have in fact suggested that as a matter of urgency his name be added to those who must be interviewed by the National Film & Sound Archive’s Oral History Program. Something may be happening there though I am not privy to any details.

When I gave this some thought I got in touch with a few confreres from the days back when. Phillip Adams came back instantly: Well done GG.  Totally agree.  Tried to track Colin down decades years ago..heard that he'd retired to a little farm with luck ...remember when Tim Burstall was going to give him a knuckle sandwich ..was it over 2000 Weeks? 

It was indeed. Definitely a story worth telling by Colin himself.

In the meantime veteran cinephile Peter Hourigan dropped everything to send in the following very heartfelt response:
The first film critic I ever read would have been Colin Bennett in Melbourne’s The Age.  I was still in High School, and starting to realise that the pictures (we didn’t use words like movie or even film - and a Cinema was a word we only saw in English books and papers) were more than a Saturday afternoon serial, cartoon and Western.  I was reading about films that would never make it to the small independent chain that serviced the towns around where I lived in country Victoria.

Then I was at Melbourne University in the first half of the sixties, and involved with MUFS – Melbourne University Film Society.  Now, I can look back and see how important he was in creating a receptive climate for films that were not part of the main Hollywood stream of that time

I don’t know his biography in detail. He wasn’t a grand-standing person, but he was certainly proud of his grandfather, Sir John Monash the famous World War 1 commander, very much in public awareness at that time with the opening of Melbourne’s second university being named after him.

Colin had spent time in Britain, I imagine as a journalist and in the period after World War II.  By the mid- to late-fifties, he’d returned to - Melbourne and became its Film Critic. (The request to put these notes together has stirred my curiosity – I’d love to know more about the paper’s coverage of film before Colin.)

You knew that there would new reviews every Friday and Monday. I guess there were no advance screenings for critics in those days,so every Thursday he (and some of Melbourne’s other critics of the time including Keith Connelly for the Herald) would attend commercial screenings on release days and put his review together for the Friday edition, with more reviews early the following week of releases that couldn’t fit in on Friday.

His time in Britain may have developed a strong “Paul Rotha” streak in his approach to films. He valued highly those films that seemed to have overt cultural cachet or tackled social themes. I think I often disagreed with him about films with ‘big’ themes but low on real film-making talent. Think Stanley Kramer.  He was also a keen animal lover, especially horses.  His disapproval was palpable for  any Western where it was clear that horses were being subjected to mistreatment especially in the use of trip-wires to make them stumble and fall.

The films of the British ‘kitchen sink’ were particularly highly praised – films like Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or early Lindsay Anderson.  Or the early films of David Lean. He’d be more likely to like a British film than an American.  And he was sympathetic to most of the films getting releases at the two ‘continental theatres’ of the time, the Savoy and the Australia.

Saturday’s paper had the Literary Supplement.  The forerunner of the culture and life-style supplements in today’s weekend papers, this was mainly book reviews. But Colin had a regular, substantial space. He’d write about a range of things here.  It might be a more detailed review of a release, one with more background. Perhaps a director biography.  He might react to some event in wider film circles. He was very outspoken on censorship, with some strong articles at the time when the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals were banned from showing the Swedish I Love You Love.

In these Saturday articles he also did what he could to advance the almost completely non-existent Australian film industry.  I remember a number of long articles about Giorgio Mangiamele an Italian- Australian photographer who, against massive odds including overwhelming lack of  local interest did succeed in making several feature films in the late 50s and early 60s.

He’d also support the activities of various film groups around Melbourne.  These would include the significant pioneer community screenings of documentary programmes organised by Edwin Schefferle at the State Film Centre.  And here he was a wonderful friend to MUFS – Melbourne University Film Society.

In the early sixties, MUFS had campus screenings on set weekdays during term for the student body. But twice a year – during the Autumn and Spring Vacations when the Union Theatre was not need for student theatre productions, and before the non-academic year period when the fledgling Union Theatre Company (the starting point of the current Melbourne Theatre Company used the theatre) used the theatre under John Sumner - MUFS held a Night Season.
For us, a night season was two weeks of evening screenings, promoted not just to fellow undergraduates, but to the Melbourne community at large. Programmes were built around a theme.  In the fifties, they’d been some very much in Colin Bennett’s comfort zone. One had been on British Cinema.  There had also been rare public screenings of the newly available Ivan the Terrible (both parts) by Sergei Eisenstein which no commercial theatre would show.

But at this time, we young Turks at Melbourne University were coming under the influence of Cahiers du Cinema and Movie. We weren’t so keen on these British social conscience dramas - our heroes were Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford – quite a challenge to the then Sight and Sound line.  We were programming Nicholas Ray and films like Party Girl. Or Hitchcock – at a time when the British line was that he was just a good entertainer. 

Unsurprisingly  Colin didn’t agree with our Cahiers/Movie approach – but that didn’t stop him supporting us.  He’d give us a complete Saturday article, publicity we could never have afforded.  It wouldn’t be a bland puff piece, either.  He would clearly express his differences, but never in a smart, demeaning way.

I remember one time I called on Colin for help.  We had screened The Damned  by someone we didn’t know much about called Joseph Losey.  But we’d really liked the film – really, really liked it. And were curious about the director.  We wanted to know if he’d made anything else we could perhaps screen.  There was no IMDB or Wikipedia in those days, and the handful of film books any of us had access to didn’t mention him.So I went down to Colin’s office in the Age building in Collins St. It was a very pleasant chat, and he gave me a few titles – though he told me they weren’t very good.   Concrete Jungle. Or Time Without Pity.   Quick exploitation titles!  I did have a quiet smile to myself several years later when Accident came out, and had a glowing review from him.  Our prescience was vindicated!

I also had the privilege of serving with him on the panel judging the short films in the Melbourne Film Festival for two years.  He was certainly the presence that steered the group through many harmonious screenings and discussions.  One of our chosen winners was The Inheritance¸ a documentary history of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. (director:  Harold Mayer).  Certainly the subject and its clear pro-union, pro-workers stance was in line to his approach to the cinema.  (But it was a damned good film anyway.  I’d love to see it again. I can still remember the song used throughout it.)

I don’t know all the details about the end of Colin’s period at the Age.  There were stories that his successor Neil Jillett had something to do with it, but I don’t know.  I do know though, that when he left his warmth, his integrity, his depth of cinema knowledge was lost.

When he left, he also left the world of film.  I understand he ‘went up country’ with his new partner and was raising horses – show horses, not race horses.  I saw him again once probably about twenty years ago, at a screening of a silent film. (I don’t remember which.)  He was then seemingly only really interested in old films.  I hope he’s still enjoying being around horses.

To be continued. Contributions welcome. Send them to 

Tuesday 27 September 2016

for the (AFL) Grand Final - Bill Hannan's timely poem

at the Oracle

the bar of the Oracle in Droop Street
seethes through day into night
there’s no doubt the doggies will win it
Sydney won’t put up a fight
not the way we can
they can’t take us by surprise
whoever heard of a bulldog
being beaten by something that flies

the Oracle sits in a corner
and listens to the fans
she knows who’s going to win
she knows they’ll understand
who’s the best team she asks them
we are of course they reply
the best team will win she predicts
I’ll have another gin very dry

Photo Phil Gardner (from the MCG Members Stand)

Monday 26 September 2016

The Rhapsodes - A new book by David Bordwell examines the work of key American film critics from the 30s onwards.

I hope I may be forgiven if there is yet more wallowing in nostalgia on display. However, there are moments that kickstart a lot of memories and opening my copy of this book, with a very nice inscription from its author, triggered much thought. I’ve told part of the story of how film enthusiasts back in the sixties got their fill of film criticism from abroad. Here is an extract from a longer review of a book of Raymond Durgnat’s writing and I cant resisting repeating it. Forgive me: A long, long time ago English film magazines arrived in Melbourne after a journey by boat that often took several months. They could arrive in a rush, several issues at a time. The place where they were sold was McGills Newsagency in Elizabeth Street, near Bourke Street. It was a dim and overstocked shop. The ground floor walls had books on shelves that reached to the ceiling. But the space was dominated by two large flat display cases that started near the entrance and went the length of the room. You could pick up the magazines on display and look at the contents. The Brit film journals, and the locally produced Film Journal would have the current issues on display. A couple of American publications went on sale there as well, though somewhat more sporadically.

In the early-to mid-1960s generally there were five Brit publications – Sight & Sound (quarterly), Monthly Film BulletinMovieContinental Film Review and Films and Filming. Very occasionally there were copies to be found of publications put out under the rubric of Motion but they were hard to track down.  Films and Filming was part of a set of seven publications (Books and BookmenMusic and Musicians, etc) and generally had the raciest prose, written by a set of writers, though not one that operated as a group as far as could be seen. The raciest pictures were in Continental Film Review.

The management of this part of McGills’ shop was in the hands of a young man named Mervyn Binns. He was a conservative dresser who wore a grey knee length dustcoat fastened by a belt. He had an oval face, slicked his hair straight back, held it there with brilliantine and wore thick-lensed glasses. When he left the shop at 5.30 pm at night he wore a hat. He seemed a very dour figure, though later with another far more extroverted man named Paul Stephens he had this act where the pair of them would dress up as vampires and hire themselves out at horror film premieres. One night when Stephens hid himself in the male toilet at interval and leapt out upon the arrival of the first patron, the punter complained to the management that he “nearly had a heart attack”.

Melbourne University Film Society fed off the Brit magazines like the little fish that live in the big fish’s mouth. Many programmes were selected according to the taste-making of that far away London film scene. New magazine issues were flashed around mostly amongst a small inner circle and a consensus formed in favour of the agenda set by Movie. ....

Just to set a scene. The rest can be found here at Senses of Cinema.

Otis Ferguson
Now, moving right along.....From the US we had to make do, tracking our way down to the very same McGills and the owlish presence of Merv Binns, with far more sporadic appearances of The New York Film Bulletin, Film Culture and Film Quarterly. All three featured contributions by Andrew Sarris, who around that time ‘invented’ the ‘auteur theory’ Sarris was also writing for The Village Voice, a career which began with an explosive rave about Hitchcock’s Psycho and ended decades later. The Voice was not easy to track down and at various times sea mail subscriptions were  used.

 In 1965 Sarris consolidated his place in the pantheon by publishing “The American Cinema” a compendium of short critical essays on dozens of key figures, using a set of categories that have survived to this day as shorthand for assessing any particular director’s place in the scheme of things.
The book also had endless pages devoted to lists and quality assessments. For the young and immature it was like the first step into Chartres.

On the very first page of  the Introduction to his book The Rhapsodes:How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2016) David Bordwell mentions Andrew Sarris (and Pauline Kael and Stanley Kaufman) and the contributions they and others made from the 1960s onwards. But his subject is those who came before, the now near totally forgotten figures who pioneered the critical discussion of films, especially American films, through the thirties, forties and fifties. Four names are up for analysis – Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Parker Tyler and Manny Farber. Bordwell calls the ‘group’ “the Rhapsodes, by analogy with the ancient reciters of verse who, inspired by the gods, became carried away” (p5). Very grand. Earlier though we are told: “Taken together, these critics offer us Hollywood without nostalgia, as a sprawling phenomenon trying to innovate, to turn a buck, and to figure itself out” (p4). That's clearer.

Manny Farber
For most of us, even those of a certain age, this is almost entirely unploughed ground. Their names may be known but few would have read even a little of what they wrote. Possibly both Tyler and Farber would have been read by some.. The former wrote some racy if esoteric stuff on gender and some stuff that was reprinted and he was among the first to publish some encyclopaedic stuff as well, most notably  “Classics of the Foreign Film” (1962). Bordwell fills us in pretty succinctly.  “Each of the quartet displayed a fine intelligence trained in the high arts, particularly modernist trends. Yet each bypassed the current debates on mass culture and plunged directly into the stuff itself, unashamed. Each man urged his readers to see things in movies that more overtly serious intellectuals missed. Each cultivated a writing style that evoked a sharply etched personality” (p11).

James Agee
So, with a chapter each, we do get a very rounded look at both the lives and the work of four pioneers whose work and influence, (including on each other), has faded from view. I found it interesting for instance that Ferguson made the effort to study Hollywood’s conditions of productions up close and personal. I found it interesting to read of Tyler’s burrowing into the notion of sub-texts. Agee’s life involved a very individual mix of critical activity, work with film-makers as a scriptwriter and his own novels and other books. It made him a figure of substance far beyond merely reviewing mostly Hollywood’s output. Farber moved in and out of the critical sphere but some of his phrase making is still with us. The wonderful term ‘termite art’ in particular seems to be enduring.

Parker Tyler
My friend the professor from Madison Wisconsin has hardly slowed over many years. His output of books, blogs, public lectures and no doubt more continues apace. He's always heading off somewhere to carry on the task of seeing the old and the new.  For this book there’s been a lot of hard work involved, a lot of delving and burrowing into what has been filed and forgotten. It deserves to find a readership from among the cinephile community who should want to know more of how the art of criticism has developed and the notion of film culture ever so slowly emerged under the informal critical leadership of these four key figures. 

TCM + Criterion = FilmStruck

I’m going to purloin the first single sentence paragraph of David Bordwell’s latest post on his always must read blog Observations of Film Art 

The perennial Silly Season topic, The Death of Film, is back.”

Enough said, just read for yourself some seriously good analysis about the current state of the business. And it’s not what the professional blowhards want you to think....

There is also a kernel of hard news in the story that really got to me, to whit:  TCM and Criterion are launching FilmStruck as a new channel chock-full of classic films from Hollywood and elsewhere.

So click on the FilmStruck link above and find out just what we’ll be missing because you can bet that Foxtel wont be upgrading its local TCM offering and wont be incorporating the likes of FilmStruck into the current feature film program for which it extracts premium prices from what I suspect is an ever diminishing number of subscribers. 

Many once subscribers would surely have long abandoned the former monopoly cable service for the greater flexibility and cheaper costs of Presto and Netflix. 

And I’m saying nothing, not a thing, about those whose feature film collections are now added and extended near exclusively from what has been described as the dark side. 

Then again, I dont expect Presto or Netflix to be thinking along the lines of FilmStruck either...Woe is us...

If you can find a moment between all that downloading and streaming read Professor Bordwell’s thoughts and relax... or you can ponder whether FilmStruck will show the greatest film ever made.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Journey to Pordenone 2016 - Barrie Pattison in Paris

Paris when it sizzles is a new game now. There are still more films than any one person can hope to watch, with specialist cinemas doing children's films, political films and nostalgia as well as the extraordinary spread of  commercial releases. 

I did catch Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama (France, 2016), a Paris terrorist piece which raises more questions that it answers - the terrorists are the good guys. The opening is pretty much non-verbal as the mainly young agents go about picking up parcels from motor bike saddle lockers and parking spaces indicated on the mobile 'phones they sling in the garbage bins before the outrages. The second half is them spending their last night in a grand magasin that they have taken over. It's unsatisfying but has some great images - the steadicam following one of the team on parallel Metro escalators, the group in the bubble at the front of a driverless Metro as it comes out of the tunnel heading for the La Defence arch or the gilded statue blazing away in close up. I don't think it can be considered a success but it is interesting as an opening shot in what will almost certainly be a cycle of these.

I found a disc of L'Attentat (Yves Boisset, France, 1972) which I consider the gold standard on this subject but I pondered who there was would watch it with French sub-titles in Australia and left it where it was

My other cinema release movie to date is a chance to catch the (one) late night screening of Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, USA, 1970) in a so so digital reconstruction. As it always was, it is a daring piece which remains a key piece of the seventies. Curiously, though it confirmed Dustin Hoffman's star status, it's Chief Dan George's "old Lodge Skins" and his monologues which drive the thing. It's a pleasure to find it's still so enjoyable though mixing western, polemic, comedy and hypothetical is a big ask. This one reflects well on everyone concerned and is clearly the jumping off point for Dances with Wolves.

The only time I tried the Cinematheque, the Naruse Older Brother, Younger Sister (Japan, 1953) filled up and I couldn't get in - to my surprise! It's encouraging to find there is still some life in the movie cause at it's heart.

The game has changed however. Rene Chateau who had a lock on putting out old French movies on VHS and DVD, through a deal with the Cinematheque that he came out of better than they did, seems to be in decline. The market is flooded with his fair quality no sub-titles discs ranging from 17 Euros at the Cinematheque Librairie to two at Clignancourt market. 

The way to catch up with Frogfilm is to stock up. I was a bit disconcerted that I had to spell Harry Baur, like a Fritz Lang character, to the helpful clerk in the video store where I invested a hundred bucks but I walked away with Erich Von Stroheim, Michel Simon, Henri Garat, Michele Morgan and Danielle Darrieux from their great days. I scored Paquebot Tenacite, my missing Duvivier, among the Albert Prejean's. 

My guess is that we are witnessing the twilight of DVD and and Chateau lot are milking it before streaming wipes them out.

On DVD (some time ago) - From the Archives - Edward Dmytryk in exile

“You’ve heard of the last straw, well you’re it.” That’s the welcome a fruity-voiced Robert Newton gives to the latest of his wife’s lovers when he catches them as close to in flagrante as you were allowed to get back in the late 40s. That’s pretty much the starting point for Obsession one of two films made by Edward Dmytryk in England whence he had fled after the first of Congress’s attempts to get the communists out of Hollywood. The wife is played by the absolutely delectable Sally Gray, an object of desire who stood out even amongst all the Brit beauties then emerging (Jean Simmons, Wendy Hiller, Deborah Kerr, Ann Todd – the list goes on forever). So its no wonder that Robert Newton as the jealous doctor husband is sick of it. The plot, prefiguring Patricia Highsmith’s early novel “Deep Water”, then takes off into a round of threats and moves into the territory occupied by The Vanishing, imprisonment prior to ingenious murder. It all goes wrong of course and there’s something resembling a happy ending, sort of.

This is not what the purists would call film noir. It’s far too British in its conception. But Obsession is great fun, classic detective story stuff though the harder edge that American directors bring to this sort of thing is in evidence. That’s why the detective, played by Naunton Wayne, all pipe and Harris Tweed gets played for more laughs than is usual. As for Robert Newton, well the old scenery chewer is reasonably restrained here and his scenes at his gentleman’s club where all manner of anti-American remarks are bantered around are particularly good. It’s written by Alec Coppel, who adapted his own novel “Man Bites Dog.” Coppel went on from here to script Hitchcock’s masterpiece, his near to greatest film Vertigo and the quality shows through.

Dmytryk made another film, for the same producers, in the UK, Give us this Day. The influence of Italian neo-realism is apparent. It’s based on a novel by Piero di Donato titled “Christ in Concrete” and set among building workers in New York. When the film was released in the US it was re-titled Christ in Concrete which is the title on the recently released US DVD even though the transfer is clearly taken from a British print which has at the start a British censorship certificate passingGive Us this Day for release.

Though set in the New York it’s clear that only a bit of location filming was done, the rest of it was made on sets and locations in Britain. The look of the British exteriors just doesn’t register as the US. The story, centres on building workers working for low wages and in dangerous conditions in New York, the attempts to join collective forces, the bosses resolve to stop such activity and the inevitable tragedy which occurs which brings both sides to their senses. Good strong left-wing melodrama and Dmytryk handles it pretty efficiently without turning out anOn the Waterfront (I know that’s right-wing melodrama, don’t ring up or email, you should get what I mean). The disc has some good extras including audio commentary tracks from some of the friends and descendants of the principals who included the actors Sam Wanamaker and Lea Padovani and the writer Ben Barzman

These films were made when Dmytryk was at his best I think. I tend to think that as he got older and after being rehabilitated following his prison sentence for refusing to squeal before HUAC, (though he recanted later) his films got more and more stolid. David Thomson describes his period at Fox in the 50s as making “one dud after another…polishing meanings until they were blunt and usually passing on his own solemnity to his players” and I think that pretty much suns up his later career for me.

Editors note: This post originally appeared on some little time ago. I have no idea whether the discs are still available for purchase. Just Google if you are curious.

Kirk Douglas turns 100 - Noel Bjorndahl appreciates the work of a Hollywood star

I'm reflecting on the long career of Kirk Douglas as this brave, risk-taking actor is turning 100, following closely in the footsteps of Olivia De Havilland. A multi-talented man, he published 2 novels (Dance with the Devil and The Secret) and was one of the great film stars of Hollywood's golden years. 

Even early in his career he exhibited his raw power and was nominated for Academy Awards in Champion (1949), a tough boxing film directed by Mark Robson, The Bad and the Beautiful (1953) and Lust for Life (1956, as Van Gogh). He immersed himself completely in Minnelli's masterful biopic and he did some of his best work for that director. Besides Lust for Life, he appeared to advantage for Minnelli in two fascinating films about the film industry itself, The Bad and the Beautiful (1953) and Two Weeks in Another Town  (1962). He was at home in several important Westerns, Along the Great Divide   (1951) for Raoul Walsh, The Big Sky (1952) for Howard Hawks, the excellent Man Without a Star (1955) for King Vidor, The Indian Fighter (1955, for the underrated Andre De Toth, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)and Last Train From Gun Hill  (1960) both for John Sturges, The Last Sunset (1961) for Robert Aldrich, Lonely Are the Brave, (1963) a wonderful modern Western directed by David Miller, and There Was a Crooked Man (1970), opposite Henry Fonda and directed vigorously by Joseph L Mankiewicz. 

His work for Stanley Kubrick produced, in spite of their differences, a powerful war film Paths of Glory (1958) and of course Spartacus (1960), revealed as one of the few intelligent epics in its restored form. Douglas was often effective, too, in non-action films like Strangers When We Meet (1960), an intelligent suburban saga of infidelity in which he becomes involved with Kim Novak, also married. His last good film was The Fury, (1978) directed by Brian De Palma, in which Douglas shared billing with John Cassavetes and Carrie Snodgress It was quite a violent but effective SF film. Happy 100th birthday, Issur Danielovich!!!

Editors note: Not sure how Noel managed to overlook Douglas's work on The Man From Snowy River (1982), an opus which required him to have not one but two roles. I also have a very soft spot for Douglas's work on John Frankenheimer's military/conspiracy thriller Seven Days in May (1964) and for Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951). Douglas also worked with another Oz director, the illustrious Fred Schepisi in the comedy drama It Runs in the Family (2003).

Saturday 24 September 2016

Film Censors - Are they all barking mad? Authentic documents from censors past

Beginning a new series. All contributions welcome. Might be called censors we have known....

Friday 23 September 2016

a wet day - verse by Bill Hannan

a wet day

I would like to write about
things of beauty
that are joys forever
summer days
to which thou art incomparable
sweet showers that make us
long to go on pilgrimage
sounding cataracts
lonely clouds
visions splendid
of sunlit plains extended

unfortunately it’s raining
the birds are plumping their feathers
against the drips in the trees
I consider a pot of tea
and wonder what’s to nibble
dusk is growing chilly
some cars have switched on headlights
the eucalypts are weeping
over lost lands
I am alone in the house
wondering what to write about

Editor's Note: Bill Hannan was my English and French teacher at Moreland High School in the early sixties, He has remained an engaged and engaging figure with active interests across local and Australian history, literature, politics and the arts. 

Thursday 22 September 2016

On all media - Rod Bishop discovers Stromae

Album Cover
Stromae: Racine Carrée Live (dir Luc Junior Tam/Gautier & Leduc, 2015). Blu-ray/DVD/You Tube/VEVO
A singer responsible for a viral music video (“Formidable”) with more than 154 million hits on You Tube should be widely known. But Paul Van Haver, who performs under the name Stromae, is Belgian and despite his multi-lingual skills, sings only in French. Widely revered in French speaking countries, he is left to rue the way English speakers seem only to like songs with English lyrics.
The 31-year-old sings and raps while fusing electronic dance with house, salsa and Congolese samba. He is the product of a Rwandan father (Tutsi) murdered in the genocide and a Belgian mother. A former student at the Brussels film school, he counts Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-Claude Van Damme among the early fans of his music.

Racine Carrée (Square Root), available in HD with English subtitles on You Tube (5,254,488 hits), is a mesmerizing two-hour concert filmed in Montreal a year ago.Using world-class animation and lighting, Stromae and his band, sartorially dressed in bow-ties, knee-length pants, long socks and bowler hats sing about debt, work, Twitter-addiction, a missing Daddy, material consumption, identity dualities, men, women, kids, transgender, mussels, Belgian frites, AIDS, Papuans, the environment, love, peace, violence and cancer.

It might sound heavy but the music has a consistently playful touch and Stromae is a compellingly charismatic performer. And the audience? They don’t come any more involved or energized than this vast crowd of Québécois.

Editors Note: An entire concert seems to be here on Youtube

Journey to Pordenone 2016 - Barrie Pattison reports from his first stopover in London

The idiot who said if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger, must have been thinking of this trip.

Maurice Elvey
Highlight of the London leg was the BFI mediatheque, one of the few services they offer for free, an eccentric to say the least collection probably composed on the basis of knowing how to get the rights for nothing. They have a couple of Maurice Elveys more interesting silents - the Matheson Lang version of The Wandering Jew with the then Mrs. Elvey, Isabel Elsom (the aunt from the Mexican Spitfire series) complete with Mantilla and castanets doing the part Peggy Ashcroft handles in the sound version, and his Bleak House with Constance Collier -  both in decent copies.

Hitchcock is every where of course. (They are doing a season of his silents in a rue des Ecoles commercial picture house. Match that locally Herald guy!) The mediatheque has a reel of what appears to be his first known job as director, a two reeler with Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss called Always Tell your Wife of which the second reel is lost. The theory is that all the Hitch touches are in that lost reel because there is nothing in the material on show to suggest his presence, just unfunny kick in the pants comedy of marital infidelity played in drab studio interiors.

Ten Bob in Winter, Lloyd Reckord,right
However the most intriguing aspect of the BFI operation is that they have a better collection of my English work than I do. Both the Lloyd Reckord films I worked on, Ten Bob in Winter and  Dream A 40 are on offer and there I am talking to Bram Stoker's nephew for his Dracula documentary. However my finest performance must be the NFT session where, with a full head of hair, I can be seen (forty five years ago!) asking the great man Alfred himself a question.

Watching that after this time is a curious experience.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Japanese Classics by Imai and Shindo at the Art Gallery of NSW

The lack of a Cinematheque in Sydney means that events like the Classic Section of the forthcoming Japanese Film Festival have to be played in whatever venue can handle 35mm screenings with the amount of love and care required by the parent supplying film archive. 
Blue Mountains, Tadashi Imai, Japan, 1949
So it’s at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney, (ACMI in Melbourne), and that has the great virtue for the aging and impoverished who regularly attend the venue of being FREE. Not a bad deal.

The program consists of 8 old films, 2 on 16mm and the rest on 35mm. The directors are Tadashi Imai and Kaneto Shindo. Both were major figures in their day. The website devoted to the festival is rather light on information though there’s a little more on the usual excellent AGNSW leaflet produced no doubt by in house film curator Robert Herbert, at least to the extent of having an intro as to whom the two directors are.

In Sydney the venue is the Domain Theatre at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Lower Level 3) Art Gallery Rd, Sydney NSW 2000
The films screen a couple of times each including some evening screenings. Tickets are issued at the Domain Theatre one hour before on a first come first served basis. Films start at the advertised time and doors open 30 minutes before. Latecomers not admitted.

Some additional details  here

From the Archives - Eric Burdon at the Basement in Sydney (five years or so ago)

Eric Burdon (1973)
I went to an Eric Burdon and the Animals concert in the late 60s at the old Festival Hall in Melbourne. He was on a double bill with Roy Orbison. The Big O came out and did a beautiful set and brought the house down with ‘Leah’. Those in the crowd who were there for Orbison were ecstatic. “Better than the record!” screamed one fan behind me, a cheer I have very occasionally since used at other concerts myself, usually to the general bewilderment of those nearby.

The interval between the two groups dragged out. Then on came Burdon and the Animals until someone noticed that the drummer was missing. Off went Burdon and the Animals and about ten minutes later, a sheepish, apparently stoned, drummer appeared along with the rest of the group and the show went on. Burdon tried valiantly to salvage something from the shambles and by the time he got to ‘House of the Rising Sun’ the crowd was in a forgiving mood. By that time the original Animals had mostly all departed, notably Alan Price who was off writing music and becoming a star composer/performer in his own right, contributing famously to the soundtrack of Lindsay Anderson’s  O Lucky Man. The original group got back together once only for a very fine album ‘Before We Were so Rudely Interrupted which has the best ever version, known to this man, of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’.

One thing the original group never managed was a film of its own. Lots of Brit rock groups of the sixties did so but not the Animals - too dour probably and too unlike a pop group. I seem to recall that they did make an appearance in the background of a Raquel Welch picture called The Biggest Bundle of them All. But, memory plays tricks, and it seems, if it in fact happened, that it is an appearance so modest and so distant that they don’t even get credited for it in the IMDB. So Burdon has been left largely to his own devices and for four decades or so he has toured the world giving pretty much the same show each time. He was at the Basement last week and the crowd was mostly blokes and mostly blokes at or near Burdon’s age of 65.

By now the show starts on time and by now the once diminutive Burdon has filled out quite a bit. He’s almost gnomish in his figure, short, squat, hiding behind shades, pudgy little fingers pointing at the band in playful mock recognition as he comes on and launches into the slowest ever version of one of his big hits Horace Ott’s classic ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’. But the slowness has a purpose. It seems to take an eternity to reach the karaoke moment when he can climb up off his stool and begin the

            I’m Just a Soul Whose Intentions are Good…

And allow the blokes, finally, to come back with the reply


He had us in the palm of his hand and there we stayed for the best part of an hour and three quarters including a couple of great encores finishing with Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. There were two more numbers allowing for audience participation, “It’s My Life’ and ‘We Gotta Get Othis Place’. But not ‘House of the Rising Sun’. That belonged to Eric. The Animals had taken it over from Bob Dylan who used to sing it at his early pre-electric concerts until the Burdon/Animals version became definitive. Dylan had to stop singing it because then people thought he was copying Burdon or wanting to be a rock star. Burdon even did a new number ‘The Secret’ which he said was on his new record published by Bush Records. Hmmm. It was nice.

The great man’s voice is still in pretty good shape. He has a band which appears to like him, especially the cute young bass guitarist. The piano player seems as old as Burdon and just as adroit. The others are kids. It’s apparently hard to remember all the song lyrics. Occasionally Burdon resorted to glancing at a book containing the words of the songs. Nothing like Frank Sinatra in his last days standing there with the lyrics coming up from a screen  below him but a sign that it aint easy doing a couple of hundred nights a year on the road as you head towards your seventies. The Basement was a great venue for the night. Close, warm, heady. …just right for aging rockers and their aging coterie of fans.

(First published on awhile ago)