Thursday 26 December 2019

The Current Cinema - John Snadden notes the end of the franchise with IP MAN 4: THE FINALE (Wilson Yip, China, 2019

IP MAN 4: THE FINALE (2019) wasn't the rousing send-off for the series I was expecting. But the screening itself was problematic to say the least, beginning with the fact the cinema ran, unannounced, an English language dub without any subtitles. 

About 30 mins into the film, the screen froze, the lights went on and a gaggle of non-Asian Hoyts employees tried to explain to a largely Chinese audience why this dubbed version was being run - and not very successfully. Eventually, the young manager offered everyone in the cinema a complimentary ticket if they chose to leave at that point - or even if they stayed. The screen then unfroze, the lights went off and the film continued...

I've watched and heard a lot of badly dubbed films in my time and, unfortunately, this would register as one of the worst. Poor old Donnie Yen is given the voice of an uninterested public servant and as his HK friend Kent Cheng sounds like Ray Winstone with a bad cold. The film's grossly over caricatured baddie played by Scott Adkins has the screeching aural appeal of a B-grade Sword 'n Sandal actor. 

The rest of the cast isn't much better...overall this dubbing reminded me of the early Roadshow / Warner Bros videos of Hong Kong films back in the late 1980s, early 90s. 

As a film, IP MAN 4 is simplistic on many levels and seems carefully aimed at the mainland Chinese market. With its unsubtle content it is very racist at times and there's not one American character who is shown to have any moral substance. Most are depicted as gutless gang members or military ogres. 

Even in this sea of cinema swill, star Donnie Yen (above left) manages to remain above the movie's obvious excesses, but his real fight for life is given short shrift. The martial arts choreography by Yuen Wo Ping is, as you would expect, pretty good, albeit not outstanding. 

As the final entry in the IP MAN franchise it was disappointing but considering the money it has already made in China maybe IP MAN RETURNS is a definite possibility.

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Persian Film Festival - Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison unearths some highlights

There are two things to draw us to Iranian Film Events, finding excellent titles like Through the Olive Trees  or Manuscripts Don’t Burn and the fact that in the days of fake news and viral video they are the on the way to being the best guide to what that society is like. They’d be even better if the organisers didn't exclude the popular entertainments which the home public enjoys. That’s not what the film festival audience is buying apparently.

This year’s event would be justified alone by their screening of Les hirondelles de Kaboul/The Swallows of Kabul, from actress director Zabou Breitman and animator Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, which has been drawing crowds in the Paris multiplexes.I’m still a bit confused by a Persian film festival running a French circuit house success set in Afghanistan but let’s not quibble. 

In parched, hand painted images of 1998 Kabul under the Taliban, we see two incidents, a tumbler of water is pushed through prison bars and, on his way through the streets filled with Kalash wielding soldiers and blue burka women, Mohsen a young man voiced by Swann Arlaud passes the stoning of a woman convicted of licentious living. Children are climbing onto a parked tank to watch and Mohsen finds himself joining in. 

Full of self-reproach he comes back to his building where wife Mussarat (Hiam Abbass no less) desperate at being confined to her home in his absence is drawing on the wall and playing an English language song about burkhas, on the cassette machine. Mohsen warns her that the music can be heard in the street or by their Observant neighbour. They briefly recall life before the cinema was destroyed and the book store looted and plan an outing with Mussarat wearing a spare blue burka borrowed from the neighbor.

Across town there is another homecoming. Hard man jailer Atiq (Simon Abkarian) has limped back to Zunaira  (Zita Hanrot) the nurse wife who tended his leg wound and is now herself dying of cancer. They are aware that the regime they serve is incapable of providing them happiness. Don’t ask me what the swallows signify.    

The plot develops into shock value melodrama distanced by being presented in pale water colors and the fact that Afghans are speaking sub-titled French. We know that we are watching special pleading like Captain Phillips or Balzac and the Little Seamstress but none of this stops what we are seeing being disturbing. It arrives with plausible detail - female prisoners can only be tended by gun wielding burka women, white shoes punished by having the husband dragged into the mosque to listen to Mulla’s sermon, public executions in a segregated-by-sex football stadium.

We can only hope that this is not the last we see of this film. 

Parviz Shahbazi’sTalla/Gold (poster left) does evoke the texture of Tehran life. Houman Seyyedi is dismissed from a construction job where he hasn’t been paid for months and has to drive a cab. His lady friend doesn’t tell him she is pregnant and his little girl is likely to develop curvature of the spine. 

In a pub showing a football match on its flat screen TV, he meets a group of friends also leading unsatisfying lives and they decide, like the characters in Duvivier’s La belle équipe, to start a business together with a Soup Restaurant. They hit bureaucratic hurdles and their financing, involving ballet with the books on one girl’s buyer’s job and another’s family business, goes South - at which point the piece turns into a people smuggling

This one has moments of conviction in its picture of Tehran - the musician’s cafe, currency trading, military service cards, obstructive bureaucracy and underpaid workers. The cast do their best and the film-making manages a professional texture. Things are not helped by the fact that women in head scarves and bearded men tend to look the same (that's the idea) making the piece even harder to follow. 

Haft va nim/Seven and a Half  (poster right) is a new Persian language film from the Mahmoudi Brothers whose films are regularly put up as the Afghan entry for the Academy Awards. Their subject is the Afghan-Iranian experience with many Afghans moving to the country, often as a way station to European destinations.

Director Navid Mahmoudi’s film is made up of seven vignettes each one featuring a distressed young woman battling the demands of their society built around an intimidating  concept of marriage. These include the dress shop worker distraught
because her fiancé’s mother insists on accompanying her to a gynecologist to see if she is “still a girl” as the timid sub-titling puts it. Fereshteh Hosseini is found on the table in the indignant woman doctor’s surgery when her husband breaks in to interrupt
her procedure. Anahita Ashar makes her way down an alley to the builder she had paid to marry her so she could get papers and emigrate to her lover in Germany. The man is demanding his husband’s rights before he will divorce her. A trans-sexual interrupts her dad, in front of his work mates in a dairy, to tell him her arranged marriage will be a calamity. In a flower market, the lover of a thirteen year old finds that her father has lost her in a card game. We end with the girls being driven to their disastrous nuptials. 

Each of the seven stories are recorded in a single run of the Arri 4K digital camera which provides a muted colour image occasionally undermined by missing a change in exposure, an extra walking through the shot determinedly not looking at the camera or the question of how they are going to continue when someone closes the door. That’s where the cut comes, curiously similar to John Farrow’s long takes back in1946 for  California.

The film’s earnestness and high purpose mark it as a contender for art film distribution which may be undermined by its seventy five minute length. With several festival films  running  close to only an hour, double features would have been a way
to ease the financial strain.

Kourosh Ataee and Azadeh Moussaka’s 2018 Dar Jostojoy-e Farideh / Finding Farideh (poster left) comes with the official endorsement of being the first documentary that Iran has put up for the best film Oscar. 

Eline Farideh Koning was abandoned as a baby in a Tehran temple forty years back and adopted by a Dutch couple. Unhappy with the loss of identity that has come with
her life in Holland she has used Skype to try to find her birth family, getting three (!) takers. The film follows her preparation, studying language & customs and her journey to Iran to meet them, with DNA testing to establish the real connection.

There are professional production values and a substantial secondary theme in showing the contrast between the urban Iranian families and the one from a rural village where they still practice polygamy and the mother keeps pulling her head scarf over Farideh Koning’s hair. Her presence opens old wounds - four generations of drug addicts, unforgiving fathers, mothers still in grief. It has touching moments and glimpses of Iranian - and Dutch - life. Shots like the quick view of the back of the subject, as she weeps, do involve.

The suspense of getting the test results is effective and it’s appealing that even the rejected families still welcome the subject as their own. 

Unfortunately the stamp of Reality TV is heavily upon all this, as if the lead and contrasted aspirant families had been the result of a casting call, along with “Now I can let my own pain go” first person narration. 

Shouting at the Wind
Also non-fiction (it’s hard to recognise these from the program booklet) was Siavash Jamali and Ata Mehrad’s Shouting at the Wind, another effort in the style of what used to be cinema-verité.

The camera follows teenage boy Meysam, from the impoverished Darvazeh Ghar district. His dream is to be an underground musician in a country where the music his life centers on is frowned upon.  “It’s the land of the dead.”  We see the difficulties of his day to day life in an area used by petty criminals and addicts and his training with a classical singer. Iran’s fractured relationship with the U.S, is inescapable - Obama on TV, “Why were they listening to Pink Floyd?”

The handling is pro and it’s possible to empathise with the subject but a hundred minutes is stretching their luck.

There was no Through the Olive Trees or Manuscripts Don’t Burn in what I saw but as always, I could have missed the highlights. Documentation is scarce and these events are too expensive to explore fully. The advertised three pass ticket proved elusive. That said, Iranian film remains a particularly intriguing subject with its generational gap, tension with authority and it’s struggle for a voice of its own. I’ll be back for another one.

Monday 9 December 2019

Defending Cinephilia (3) - Adrian Martin gathers up Five Cinephilic Things of 2019

Plenty of great things to read in hard, solid print this year, starting with (as I gaze along my shelves) Tom Ryan’s long awaited, magisterial The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (University Press of Mississippi), and Gilberto Perez’s posthumous The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film (University of Minnesota Press). 

There was a bunch of devoted publications on, around and by the late Chantal Akerman, including two separate translations of her anguished memoir My Mother Laughs (The Song Cave in USA & Silver Press in UK); Chantal Akerman: Afterlives (Legenda), an anthology edited by Marion Schmid & Emma Wilson; the Chantal Akerman Retrospective Handbook edited by filmmaker Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir) & Adam Roberts; and a special issue of Camera Obscura titled simply “On Chantal Akerman”. Raúl Ruiz too, was honoured with several fascinating publications in Spanish: Yenny Cáceres’ superbly researched Los años chilenos de Raúl Ruiz(Catalonia UDP), and a collection of his poetry, titled Duelos y quebrantos(“Duels and Defeats”, Mundana) – his devotion to this form of expression is recorded on a sometimes daily basis in his monumental, two-volume Diarios 1993-2011. (Speaking of Ruiz, I also parenthetically recommend a 616-page book to which I contributed: America: Films From Elsewhere, edited by Shanay Jhaveri for The Shoestring Publisher in India.) But the book of 2019 that shook me (and my preconceptions) up more than any other was On Cinema(IB Tauris) by the great Brazilian director who died far too young, Glauber Rocha: a remarkable journey through his youthful critiques in the 1950s (which give anything in the French magazines of that decade a run for their money) to his participant-theorisation of Cinema Novo and his heady navigation through the (very political) globe of film festivals and conferences. What Rocha once made of Visconti, Godard, montage and mise en scene theory, not to mention the cinema of László Benedek, will blow your mind.

Victor Erice
During November of 2019 I had the honour of being a jury member for the ZINEBI film festival in Bilbao, Spain; among the drawcards of that impressively rain-drenched city was the presence of a new digital video installation by Víctor Erice, Piedra y cielo (“Stone and Sky”), at the Museo de Bellas Artes. And what a blast – of a properly meditative kind – it was! Erice, in a wonderful masterclass presentation, expressed his anger and dismay at those journalists who lazily portrayed him as now “swapping” cinema for digital art; instead, his installation was a perfect fusion of the “black box” experience of immersive, cinematic viewing with the pictorial possibilities offered by digital shooting and post-production. Two screens faced another in this black box: one devoted to “day space” (11 minutes) and the other to “night space” (6 and a half minutes); when one ended, you swivelled around in your spot to watch the other – and so the loop went. The subject, or material, was comprised of two sculptural/architectural constructions fixed in the mountain landscape of Navarra in 1959: a chapel designed by Luis Vallet de Montano (1894-1982); and the Memorial Aita Donostia by Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003), a legendary artist-poet whom Erice first encountered when he was a young, cine-club goer. Piedra y cielo studies – with the aid of some truly magical technological interventions – the movement of light and darkness, the stars in the firmament, the passing of time; nature is echoed in the human creations of the artists, but that art, in turn, redefines our experience of nature, in all its multi-media poetry. An essential gift!

Cristina Álvarez López
This choice might be considered “close to home” – it is, in fact, right inside my home – but of all the blogs, podcasts and websites (my own included!) online today, none gives me deeper sensual pleasure, poetic enchantment or intellectual satisfaction than my partner Cristina Álvarez López’s Laugh Motel, subtitled “on, with, around film”. Cristina launched this project (in September 2018) because she had grown tired of the deadlines, word limits, editorial suggestions and “house styles” of traditional publication venues; she needed to express herself more freely, to her own calendar of inspirations and encounters. Although there are some general reflections on criticism, and departures from cinema (into drawing, music, literature …), Laugh Motel, as a loose and ongoing “project”, always returns to what Cristina refers to as “working the particulars”: describing, evoking and analysing (in words and in screenshots) the smallest sparks of a gesture, cut, music cue or image-flicker in films that she loves (by Bellocchio, Piavoli, Kieslowski, Haynes, Skolimowski, Renoir, Garrel, Sotomayor, Godard, Miéville, Wenders, Makavejev, Resnais, Bergman, Lynch …). In a moment, after writing this, I shall stride into my loungeroom and begin singing Prince’s classic song to Cristina: Nothing Compares 2 U.

The principal cast of Years and Years
TV continues to bring us some splendid stuff; but it is also, even more than cinema, subject to instant amnesia on the part of its viewers and pundits, due to its fast turnover of deluging “events”, one atop the other. So, one of 2019’s best series that came at the very start of the year, Natasha Lyonne’s prodigiously inventive Russian Doll, already feels like it happened a few years ago. There was the grimly powerful Chernobyl; the beyond-Black Mirror-ish Years and Years from UK; the wind-up (a little anti-climactic for me at the very end) of the sublime post-musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; Australia’s own sub-Scorsesean Mr Inbetween(I found myself more eager than I expected to devour the second season of this inspired elaboration of the 2005 feature The Magician); the gripping investigative drama Unbelievable, with great performances from Toni Collette & Merritt Wever; the maddening but unshakeable Too Old to Die Young, where a relatively young auteur (Nicolas Winding Refn) gets total artistic control, and takes every conceivable license with it; Now Apocalypse, another nutty, outrageous, go-for-broke effort from Gregg Araki; The Crown, wearing a bit thinner in its 3rd season, but still effortlessly captivating; the bizarre New Age mind-game of The OA; and, above all for me,  Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, as moving as it is daring.

Timothee Chalamet, A Rainy Day in New York
I can get pretty fed up with the incessant demand for critics’ Best Films of the Year lists – requests that usually begin in October, but specify that you must begin from what was released in January, thus effectively eliminating six months (3 from the year before and 3 from the year you’re in) out of every 12! So, my film list(s), with accompanying commentary, can be found elsewhere: Film Comment (I hope), Roger Koza’s annual La International Cinéfila poll (Online if you click here), and (if you’re buying print magazines from South Korea) FILO. Uniquely for Film Alert, however, let me note a few fine things I caught up with near the end of 2019, or otherwise went missing from any of my other, official list-versions: Woody Allen’s delightful A Rainy Day in New York; the absorbing sport-analysis John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection; Rita Azevedo Gomes’ amiable essay-documentary Danses Macabres, Skeletons and Other Fantasies – it was a prime year for her, with the haunting narrative feature The Portuguese Woman (adapted from Robert Musil) also appearing; Lendita Zeqiraj’s lively debut Aga’s House, from Kosovo-Crotia-Albania; and Lucrecia Martel’s Viennale trailer AI, a short but dense response to the identificatory technologies of our digital age (Click here to read it). Plus a few discoveries from older days: Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment(1935), Edith Carlmar’s Death is a Caress (1949) and Michael Gordon’s Woman in Hiding (1949). Lesson: you can never be done with old film noir!

© Adrian Martin, 9 December 2019

Adrian Martin
Editor’s Note: Adrian Martin is Adjunct Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies, Monash University, Film, Journalism and Media

He is Co-Editor of LOLA and SCREENING THE PAST and contributes to many other film periodicals including Sight and Sound and Film Comment. 

In 2019 Adrian also provided audio DVD commentaries on the THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (Wilder, Arrow), HOLD BACK THE DAWN (Leisen, Arrow), THE FAR COUNTRY (Mann, Arrow), THE BIG CLOCK (Farrow, Arrow), PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (Siodmak/Ulmer/Wilder, BFI), BLONDE VENUS in STERNBERG/DIETRICH box set, (Indicator), re-released: FIXED BAYONETS! in FULLER AT FOX boxset (Masters of Cinema)

Adrian also wrote booklet essays for Sternberg's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Arrow), Joseph H. Lewis' MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (Arrow) and the recent American independent film NOTES ON AN APPEARANCE (Grasshopper) by Ricky D'Ambrose.

Previous 2019 entries in this series by Rod Bishopand the editorcan be found if you click on the names. Contributions welcome. Send them to 

Friday 6 December 2019

The New Australian Cinema - Mike Retter draws attention to the work of composer Luke Altmann

Editor's Note: Adelaide-based film-maker Mike Retter produces podcasts on indie Australian films and film-makers and his latest is devoted to the work of composer Luke Altman. You can access it on Youtube if you click here  As an introduction Mike has written these following notes.

Luke Altmann (left) is the composer for feature films Fell (2014) and The Leunig Fragments (2019). But before this success within the establishment, his artistic journey was deep in the underground, immersed in Netherlands Kraak, basically a thriving underground scene of squatters performing avant garde music in Holland. 

Michael Leunig, The Leunig Fragments
Altmann came back to Adelaide with great energy and started his own experimental music venue called De La Catessen, which served the city for three years with regular live gigs, later becoming the ballast of knowledge and experience he would move forward with as a film composer.

But apart from composing music for live chamber orchestras and the movies, his intimacy with sound, working in an Adelaide musical instrument shop has lead him to be an importer of fine Italian-made violins and close collaborator with master craftsman Roberto Cavagnoli, featured in the Scott Hicks documentary Highly Strung (2015). So it's an appreciation of music on many fronts which makes up this complex figure.

Altmann's past, running the underground music speakeasy would live on a little further with his involvement in Film Buff Central, the alternative video rental shop that ran for three years in Port Adelaide. His 4 year old son often rented the Australian auteurist and music-driven slapstick comedy Young Einstein (1988) directed by Yahoo Serious. 

Kasimir Burgess, Fell
Youth on the March
From my perspective, I'm not sure where I would be without Luke Altmann's consultation on my own 2017 film Youth On the March, because the Henry Purcell classical score came from Altmann's own record collection.

I probed Luke about what it's like to sit and write every meticulous note of music by hand - only for others to eventually have the pleasure of playing it, scoring movies, his recent AACTA Awards "Best Score" nomination and being inspired to compose music as a child after viewing 2001: A Space Odyssey  (1969) on VHS.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Defending Cinephilia (2) - Rod Bishop's best and worst of 2019

Debut: Burning Cane
Philip Youmans was just 17-years-old when he completed principal photography on his first feature. He finished Burning Cane before graduating from high school. 
The 77-minute drama, set in rural Louisiana, is a highly compacted mix of religion, addiction and domestic violence. A multihyphenate creator, Youmans was working on a beignet stand in New Orleans when he met the inestimable Wendall Pierce (TremeThe Wire) and convinced the local actor to take on the role of an alcoholic pastor. 
Youmans also took a punt on Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), contacting him on Instagram and convincing Zeitlin to come on board as an executive producer. Youmans has cited influences from Wong Kar-wai, Terrence Malick, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Barry Jenkins and Paul Thomas Anderson. There are also touches of Robert Minervini, Charles Burnett and Zeitlin. 
At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Burning Canewon Best Film (Founders Award), Best Cinematography (Youmans) and Best Actor (Pierce). Youmans’ next film is based on the New Orleans Chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Funniest dialogue: Dolemite is My Name 
Rudy and his film crew sit stony-faced in a packed cinema as the all-white audience laugh uproariously at Billy Wilder’s The Front Page:

“This shit ain’t funny”
“I don’t get it”
“The fuck they talking about?”
 “Who is Herbert Hoover?”
“And it ain’t got no brothers in it, either”

Outside the cinema:

“What the fuck was that, man?”
“That was some bullshit”
“Nobody even got naked”.
“Was that even a real movie?”
“I told him let’s go see Blackenstein
“Why do these creaky old people get to star in movies?”
“White folks get all the breaks”.
“This movie’s playing across the whole county”
“And it ain’t got no titties, no funny and no kung fu.”

Turkey: The Goldfinch
Kevin Maher in The Times writes: “The Goldfinch is the kind of movie that you want to pick up and cuddle, and stroke its befuddled head, and say: ‘There, there, it’s alright, you did your best.’”
And that’s being kind. There’s not much evidence of anyone doing their best.
A best-seller for 30 weeks on The New York Times list, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize winning novel The Goldfinch (2013) has one of the best literary hooks of recent times. 
Wikipedia defines the “hook” as: “the nucleus of both a film and its screenplay. It is what grabs the viewer’s attention, preferably in the first 5-10 minutes, as a reader might expect to find a literary hook in the first chapter of a novel”.
In the first 50 pages of Tartt’s 850-page novel, 13-year-old Theo and his charismatic mother set out one day in New York City for Theo’s school to discuss his recent suspension. Caught in a downpour, they detour into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and view an exhibition of Dutch Masterpieces, including the small but remarkable The Goldfinch painted by Rembrandt prodigy Carel Fabritius in 1654.
Without warning, a terrorist bomb explodes. Galleries are destroyed, many are killed, including Theo’s mother, and the 13-year-old is left concussed and in shock. Searching through the smoke and rubble for a way out, he takes a ring offered by a dying man and thinking the poor soul is also pointing to the still intact The Goldfinch, he takes the painting as well. These two objects will define Theo’s life as he grows into adulthood.
As hooks go, it’s as good as it gets. So, who had the bright idea to drop it entirely from the opening of this film version of The Goldfinch
Fingers should probably be wagged at screenplay writer Peter Straughan, but you’d also have to hold the director John Crowley (Brooklyn) responsible along with those guardians of the purse-strings who greenlit this 149-minute travesty to the tune of $45 million.
The Met bombing does crop up in several blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments 90 minutes later, but by that time so much has gone wrong, the film is beyond hope. The casting, with a few exceptions – notably Finn Wolfhard - is atrocious. The dialogue feels like the actors are eternally self-conscious of their Pulitzer prize winning lines and the direction so devoid of momentum that Tartt’s work is reduced to little more than a series of lifeless vignettes.
Makes you feel sorry for the one genuine contributor, the estimable cinematographer Roger Deakins. 
But imagine being Donna Tartt? For two-and-a-half hours she had to endure the trauma of watching this unmitigated train wreak version of her exquisite novel.
Best Third Act: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Smart. Tarantino smart. Keyser Soze smart.

Unseen and Underrated: The Death and Life of John F Donovan

Xavier Dolan’s first English language film copped criticism at its most vitriolic. Two scathing pieces (in Variety and TheHollywood Reporter) published during the film’s debut at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, probably cost Dolan worldwide theatrical distribution. So far, DVD and Blu-ray releases only in France, Canada, Italy and, in January, the USA.

“No Worries”: the colonization continues
Wikipedia (again), this time on the spread of the Aussie ‘no worries’: “Its usage became more common in British English after increased usage in Australian soap operas that aired on television in the United Kingdom. Linguistic experts are uncertain how the phase became utilized in American English; theories include use by Steve Irwin on the television program The Crocodile Hunter and usage by the United States media during the 2000 Sydney Olympics”.
This year it cropped up in work from big names Jim Jarmusch, Xavier Dolan, Steven Soderbergh, Jed Mercurio, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It could also be heard - or read - from countries including France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, South Korea, Canada, Poland and Turkey. 

Beautiful Boy, USA; Call My Agent, Season 1, France; Cosmos, UK; The Captain, Germany; Dark Money, Season 1, UK; Derry Girls, Season 2, Ireland; The Dead Don’t Die, USA; Dogman, Italy; The Good Son (novel), You-Jeong Jeong, South Korea; Heartbeats, Canada; The Laundromat, USA; The Left Overs, Season 1, USA; Line of Duty, Season 5, UK; Luther, Season 5, UK; The Mule, USA; Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, USA; Rocketman, UK/USA/Canada (where Bernie Taupin says “no worries” in the late 1960s. I don’t think so.)The Rooster Bar (novel), John Grisham, USA; The Spy Gone North, South Korea; Squadron 333, Poland; Succession, Season 2, USA; The Virtues, Season 1, UK; The Wild Pear Tree, Turkey.

Caroline Proust, Spiral
I excluded the SBS subtitling on Spiral 7. Too many “no worries” and “mates” to be believable from the Parisian mouths of les flics and les malfaiteurs.

Other films:

Border(Ali Abbasai), An Elephant Sitting Still (Qian Hu), Ash is the Purest White (Zhangke Jia), Burning (Chang-dong Lee), Capernaum (Nadine Lahaki), Donbass (Sergey Loznitsa), Edge of the Knife (Gwaii Edenshaw, Helen Haig-Brown), Parasite (Bong Joon Ho), The Spy Gone North (Jong-bin Yoon), Transit (Christian Petzold),Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson). Documentaries: The Great Hack (Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim), Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle), Kedi (Ceyda Torun).

TV Series

The Bureau Season 3, Chenobyl, Derry Girls Season 2, Escape at Dannemora, I Love You Now Die, Spiral 7, Years and Years.

There was also one remarkable TV restoration. The BBC’s superb clean-up and digitization of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979), arguably the proto-type for today’s ubiquitous television series. Smiley, Connie, Guillam, Esterhase, Haydon, Bland, Control, Alleline, Prideaux and Jumbo have never looked and sounded this good.

Tuesday 3 December 2019

John Baxter's Adventures in the Movie Trade (8) - Fowl Play in Academia and a passing mention of Barbara Steele

In the nineteen-seventies, I found myself Visiting Professor of Film and Theatre Arts at a small college in Virginia. Essentially Hollins was a finishing school for the daughters of the rich. The stepdaughter of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller took my classes, as did the daughter of the president of Standard Oil. It was considered ostentatious to run more than one car but permitted, though not obligatory, to also keep a horse. (Stables were available.)        

Chairman of the English department was an amiable Virginian named Richard Dillard. A widely published poet, he was also a cinephile, and admitted without shame to having worked on the script of the 1964 Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, selected in 2004 for The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made.

He called one of his poetry collections The Night I Stopped Dreaming About Barbara Steele. I mentioned this to the slinky star of Mask of the Demon and The Long Hair of Death, not to mention 
8 1/2,  when we met at Curtis Harrington’s Los Angeles home some time later. 

“Yes. He sent me a copy,” she pouted. “There’s hardly anything in it about me.”

At the same party, the actor Paul Sand told her “I was in Rome a while back. A friend said you lived in the apartment block next to him, and sometimes sunbathed on the roof. We went up with some binoculars, and there you were – wrapped up, I seem to remember, in something large and brown.”

Barbara Steele, Fellini's 8 1/2
Lowering her eyelashes, Steele said, with impeccable timing, “A man, I hope, dahling.” 

Every year, Hollins admitted a small group of male post-grads in a one-year MFA program. Among them during my tenure was Jon-Stephen Fink, a Los Angeles native with more street smarts than were good for him. His novels such as Storm in the Blood, Further Adventures, Long Pig etc. were still to come. While waiting, he lavished his creativity on becoming the campus cut-up. When Richard Adams, author of that epic of rabbitkind Watership Down, visited the college, Jon-Stephen and a companion greeted him at the airport in rabbit suits, he carrying a copy of Playboy, she a handbag full of carrots. 

Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins The Third Man
He also published a straight-faced parody of the college literary magazine devoted to the work of Holly Martins, the fictional pulp writer played by Joseph Cotten in The Third Man. Among the preoccupations Fink claimed to perceive in Martins’ The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, The Oklahoma Kid and Death at Double-X Ranch  were “lost innocence, conflict with the Self, the closing of the range, and the dangers of smoking loco-weed.”
In addition to his literature classes, Richard Dillard taught a cinema course, Film as Narrative Art, made up of his favourite Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini films. 

To each incoming class, he told the same story. A Peace Corps group in Africa, instructing some tribal people in the importance of mosquito eradication, screened a film on the subject, then asked for comments.

None were forthcoming. In fact, nobody could remember a single thing of interest.

Until a woman diffidently remarked, “There was a chicken.”

Lionel Stander, Cul de Sac
At this, there was instant agreement. Yes, of course! The chicken!.

Re-running the film, the visitors noticed that there was indeed, barely glimpsed in the background of a single shot, a chicken.

Extrapolating from this anecdote, Richard suggested that every film, be it ever so obscure, contained some sort of chicken, somewhere. He had located them in Lawrence of Arabia, even Citizen Kane.  Now it was up to his students to spot them in The Seventh Seal and 8 1/2.

It was, of course, a stratagem. Young women who might otherwise have drowsed through Vargtimmen leaned forward eagerly during even its most lethargic sequences, alert for an avian inclusion. When it appeared, they erupted in jubilation, to the astonishment of anyone unaware of the screening’s subtext. (Richard sometimes set as a final exam subject Roman Polanski’s Cul de Sac, which takes place entirely on a chicken farm.)

After graduation, Jon-Stephen re-located to Great Britain, where he launched his literary career in 1981 with Cluck! The True Story of Chickens in the Cinema. Various directors were invited to propose their favourite  appearances, which Jon-Stephen augmented with citations of everything from Tyrone Power biting the heads off live chickens in Nightmare Alley to Charlie Chaplin manifesting to Mack Swain as a giant rooster in The Gold Rush. He also introduced the concept of “subtle chicken”, exemplified by the chicken car race in Rebel Without a Cause or John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.  So impressed was John Landis with these scholarly efforts that he gave Fink a cameo in his admittedly cameo-riddled film Into the Night. Completists will spot him as Don, companion to Bruce McGill’s Elvis impersonator.* As for that film’s cockadoodle-do component, the game begins now, and any number can play.                              

*For true completists, this clip contains the relevant scene.