Wednesday 28 August 2019

On Charles Boyer in Hollywood - John Baxter writes on ARCH OF TRIUMPH (Lewis Milestone, USA, 1948)

Spanish poster, Arch of Triumph
Editor’s Note: This is a section of a forthcoming biography of Charles Boyer currently being researched and written by Paris-based expatriate Australian author, John Baxter. John is an all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry  details the many books he has written which include the first  ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure." John Baxter welcomes comment and would be pleased to receive any material or thoughts on Charles Boyer which readers may wish to offer. 

         As an emblem of misery, it would be difficult to find one more despairing than the opening shot of Lewis Milestone’s 1948 adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Arch of Triumph.
         The rain that drizzles out of the Paris night may fail to extinguish the flame burning on the tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier but a scatter of sodden wreaths around the grave and the looming bulk of the Arc de Triomphe mock its heroics.  On the soundtrack, a portentous reprise of the first few bars of La Marseillaiseunderscores the message that, although France in 1938 may not yet have suffered military defeat, its moral defeat was already well-advanced.
Charles Boyer as Ravic, Arch of Triumph
The next shot introduces Ravic – we never learn his first name -  the refugee doctor played by Charles Boyer. Expressionless in sodden hat and overcoat, he’s an interloper in a world in which he has no place. Prowling a Paris artfully recreated by production designer William Cameron Menzies, he becomes the embodiment of this moral and spiritual bankruptcy, 
Any filmgoer watching these first scenes and knowing nothing of the film’s theme might reasonably anticipate, from the setting of dark wet streets and desperate men, a crime drama of the kind critics would soon characterise as film noir.  Boyer, however, has none of Humphrey Bogart’s arrogance, nor the feral menace of John Hodiak or the belligerence of John Garfield.  Instead, his affectless passivity and refusal of emotion suggest the philosophy to which, in Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre was even then giving the name Existentialism. Arch of Triumph is not so much film noir asfilm nul. 

Louis Calhern, Charles Boyer, Arch of Triumph
A gifted surgeon living illegally in France but unable to work there, Ravic moonlights for French doctors, performing the operations they find too complex or unprofitable. The fees pay for his room in the ironically named Hotel International, a hive of the stateless. His neighbours include a former Russian colonel (Louis Calhern), now doorman at a nightclub (and Ravic’s only friend); a clique of Spanish fascists, eager to return home to fight with Franco, and a miscellany of Czechs, Germans and Austrians, alike only in their misery.  Memory drags on them like a ball and chain. One man can think only of having had his fingernails torn out. Another is feared as a harbinger of death; each time he moves to a new city, disaster strikes the one he leaves. Ravic too struggles with memories of seeing his wife tortured to death. The prospect of wreaking revenge on her murderer is the only thing in his life that passes for an emotion. In pursuit of a sinister verisimilitude, Milestone cast these roles with such veteran German and Russian actors as Willy Kaufman and Emil Rameau, themselves refugees from Hitler’s Europe. 
Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Arch of Triumph
Into this community drifts Joan Madou, whom Ravic meets as she tries to jump into the Seine from the ancient Pont Neuf bridge. Against his better judgment, he helps her, finding himself, despite the warning of friends, increasingly involved in her aimless self-destructive life. 
Arch of Triumph catches Boyer at a crossroads in his career.  The performer who, at thirty, had electrified the Paris stage with what admirers called his regard de Venus – bedroom eyes – was, at fifty, balding, a little plump, and slightly cross-eyed. Of only average height, he had ceased to be credible as the romantic figure of such films as The Garden of Allah and Algiers, made a decade or more before. Anyway, the market for these was dwindling in the chill of post-war austerity. 
After a shaky start in Hollywood, Boyer enjoyed a successful and varied Hollywood career in a variety of genres; suave gangster in Algiers, the emperor Napoleon in Conquest, a murderous Edwardian bourgeois in Gaslight, a playboy in Love Story and History Is Made At Night. However, his credibility as a leading man was under threat.  For stars such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, grey hair and wrinkles added to their authenticity as men of action.  But for Boyer and other romantic leads, particularly if they were foreign, age led inexorably to character roles as priests, croupiers, and the occasional ageing head of state. Boyer would play all of these in time, but for the moment he was ready to fight to keep his name above the title.  
Arch of Triumph seemed an ideal vehicle to do so. Remarque’s novel had been a best-seller, his biggest since All Quiet on the Western Front. Moreover, he was writing the screenplay. The production company, Enterprise Pictures, was a new independent group committed to tough realist films, two of which, Body and Soul and Force of Evil, had already won acclaim for the company’s biggest star and principal investor, John Garfield.

Nor did Boyer need to research the Paris of 1938, since he had been acting there in Orage for Marc Allegret at the time when Arch of Triumph is set. Some technicians and actors of that film would relocate in Hollywood in 1940, helped by the French Research Foundation, set up by Boyer to promote French interests in wartime America. 
Since Ravic is Austrian, Boyer took lessons from Dr. Simon Mitchneck, an expert in accents, “My job,” said Mitchneck, “was to rid him not only of his own very famous accent but of certain American undertones he had picked up in Hollywood.” Though, to the casual listener, he sounded much the same, those who knew Boyer noted a cynical, even bitter edge to his murmuring baritone, suggesting a mature man who had put casual seduction behind him.
But the film industry was not about to relinquish a romantic hero without a struggle. As costs mounted, Enterprise attempted to shoehorn Remarque’s grim story into one of the standard Hollywood categories. They turned the relationship between Ravic and Joan into a bitter-sweet love story with more than a few echoes of Casablanca. In hopes of repeating its success and that of the 1944 Gaslight, in which she played opposite Boyer, winning a Best Actress Academy Award, Enterprise hired Ingrid Bergman to play Joan. 
They also cut the projected running time from four hours to two. Boyer andRemarque fought the changes, as did young novelist Irwin Shaw, who worked on the project for five months without credit. When Remarque and Shaw resigned, Harry Brown, later to pen A Place in the Sun  but in 1948 a newcomer, performed the surgery in collaboration with Milestone. 
The revisions radically altered Remarque’s vision. He had written Joan as a fellow victim whom Ravic only half-heartedly discourages from killing herself. Romance is the last thing on his mind. “He did not listen to what Joan Madou said,” writes Remarque in the novel. ”He knew all about that and no longer wanted to know about it. To be alone – the eternal refrain of life. It wasn’t better or worse than anything else. One talked too much about it.” 
All set to dump her, Ravic becomes entangled in her life not out of love but from expediency. Learning that she has left the body of her lover in their hotel room, and realising, as she doesn’t, that by sheltering her he risks being implicated in a police enquiry, he hustles her back impatiently to her hotel, establishes that the lover died of natural causes, faces down the greedy proprietor, retrieves Joan’s luggage, encourages her to empty the dead man’s wallet, sends for a doctor to sign the death certificate, and slips away just as the police arrive. 
Charles Boyer as Ravic, Arch of Triumph
In these scenes, Boyer is in his element, peremptory, commanding, effective, but they are the exception. The expanding romance pushes other themes aside, in particular Ravic’s revenge on Ivan von Haake, the Nazi officer who tortured his wife to death and left him with a scar on his cheek. The protracted murder of his torturer, von Haake, would have climaxed the four-hour version, with Ravic luring the German out of Paris with promises of sex with Joan, then brutally despatching him, leaving behind his naked and mutilated body. Enterprise was warned that the Breen office would look unfavourably on such an episode. The censor finally accepted a drastically truncated version, and rewarded the studio for its cooperation by allowing Ravic to go unpunished for the murder, which they chose to view not as private revenge but as an act of war.    
Of the revenge sub-plot, only fragments remain, notably a café encounter in which von Haake, not recognising Ravic as one of his many victims, enlists him as a pimp to secure Joan for sex. He then suggests Ravic become an informer on the emigré community. His slightly indignant refusal convinces the Nazi that Ravic is a man of honour, probably, like himself, a former member of a Prussian corps or military fraternity, and his scar the result of a duel. Unfortunately, the subtleties of this slyly cynical encounter would be over the head of all but the most sophisticated filmgoer.
Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Arch of Triumph lobby card
Shortly before the end of location filming in France, Michael Chekhov, who was to have played von Haake, became ill, to be replaced by Charles Laughton. As Bergman was by then acting on Broadway, new scenes had to be shot in Hollywood on expensively recreated sets, including a ten feet high four-ton plaster model of the Arc de Triomphe. After its use in a fund-raising parade for war orphans and failed attempts to install it in a New York park as a symbol of Franco-American relations, Enterprise broke it up at a loss of $35,000 without it having appeared in the finished film, since the censor insisted on cutting almost all the scenes in which Ravic entraps and murders von Haake.
Lewis Milestone
The widely-reported problems of disposing of this enormous object added to the air of improbability that accompanied the film’s release. Reviewers commented on its variety of accents, with the French Boyer playing an Austrian, Swedish Bergman an Italian, British Laughton a German, and American Louis Calhern a Russian.  Milestone’s gloomy direction also attracted criticism. Writing in the New Yorker, John McCarten noted that “almost every time the characters...get low in their minds, it starts to rain. Since they’re a grim bunch, the film is one of the moistest that have come along in years.” He acknowledged the effectiveness of Boyer’s performance but agreed that it showed up the inadequacy of Bergman’s. “In their scenes together, [Boyer] tends to make Miss Bergman look very brash and immature, for his effective underplaying reduces her bouncy histrionics to the level of girlish antics.”
In retrospect, Arch of Triumph  reflected a malaise that was already insinuating itself into world politics, leading to the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and, in the United States, the anti-Communist hysteria with its witch-hunts and blacklists. Its financial and critical failure hastened the demise of Enterprise Pictures, and blighted the Hollywood careers of both its stars. Within two years, Bergman would launch her controversial relationship with Roberto Rossellini and work increasingly in Europe, while Boyer, after three more small-budget Hollywood films, returned to France, and thereafter worked only sporadically in America. 
Neither was to know that, by relocating in Europe, they had prolonged their careers, cutting ties with a Hollywood that would soon be brought to its knees by the rise of television and the enforced dismantling of the studios’ production and distribution empires.  In particular, Boyer would achieve one of his greatest successes in 1953 in Madame de..., playing not a romantic hero but an ageing general deceived by his philandering wife – a film made in France for German director Max Ophuls, who was retreating, like Boyer and co-star Danielle Darrieux, from an unsuccessful Hollywood career. In fact, the cast and crew of this film resembled in many respects the polyglot society which Arch of Triumph so signally failed to depict.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

For one night only in Sydney - PLEIN SOLEIL/FULL SUN (Rene Clement, France, 1960) - At the Golden Age Cinema on Wednesday 4 September at 8.30 pm…

Out of the blue..ho ho, the first, albeit  solitary, commercial cinema screening of a personal favourite, Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil, a wonderful movie from way back in 1960 when it’s release was mixed in among all those French New Wave movies flooding the miniscule number of art houses in Sydney and Melbourne.  For the untrained eye it seemed part and parcel of youthful anarchism, a devil may care view, tilting the nose at authority. 

It started my lifelong admiration for Patricia Highsmith’s writing which was something that I wrote about way back in 2000 in an early issue of Senses of Cinema. Here are the opening paras:

Sometime early in the ’60s I saw the poster image (left) of Alain Delon, stripped to the waist, impossibly handsome, at the wheel of a sailing boat, over the bold title Full Sun (not Purple Noon, as it was called in America). Then there was the film – a sleek glossy thriller, unlike any American film I knew, which to the innocent eye looked like a New Wave movie. It was a film whose characters have American names (like that of Charlie Kohler in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le Pianiste [Shoot the Pianist, 1960]). There was luscious location shooting, lots of slippery handheld camera work by Henri Decaë, loads of white and blue natural light. (Colour wasn’t a feature of the early New Wave pictures but I could not distinguish the films from each other then. After all, we were denied A Bout de Souffle [Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959] and any films by Rohmer or Rivette or Varda or Demy. For a while, those three little sex comedies with which Phillipe de Broca launched his career were, so were told, the essence of the French New Wave.) Full Sun (Plein Soleil, René Clément, 1959) featured an amoral hero of complete fascination. If ever a film turned an actor into a star it was this was one. Alain Delon as Tom Ripley seemed to epitomise so much beautiful grace, despite playing a character who was gauche and out of his depth socially. But his darting watchful eyes served a character who wanted to get inside other people’s skin. Delon was the epitome of the romantic bad boy at a time when amoral heroes in Chabrol’s films and Truffaut’s films were all the go – even without Belmondo’s Michel.
The source material only registered on a second viewing, a novel titled The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. I started reading Highsmith at a rapid rate. At that time she had published seven or eight novels which she once described, very simply somewhere, as books in which she studied the effects of guilt on her characters. Whether her characters had committed a crime or not, did not make much difference. One of the exquisite ironies of her narratives was that sometimes the most innocuous and innocent act would have the most devastating consequences. In others, elaborate facades, inevitably leading to murder, were erected by people whose psychology was so far off the rails as to render them impervious to any thought of apprehension. The Blunderer, which had already been filmed in 1953 by Claude Autant-Lara (as Le Meurtrier, a film I’ve never seen), featured as its hero a man who buries a carpet in an attempt to simulate the feeling of burying his errant wife. This trivial stupidity leads to his doom. This Sweet Sickness, directed by Claude Miller in 1977, tells of a man who constructs an extraordinary separate existence for a woman who knows nothing of his infatuation.
Then there was the character of Tom Ripley, almost an antidote to the other Highsmith creations. Ripley is the street smart, smooth operator who feels no guilt at all, a man who can rationalise deceit, lies, criminal behaviour and even murder in a way not even the sharpest politician could equal. Highsmith’s opening lines of The Talented Mr Ripley quickly establish two things. Ripley is fearful of apprehension and he is already involved in a minor but elaborate piece of criminal confidence trickery.
 You can check out the whole piece if you click here.  

It was an admiration that actually caused me to call in on Highsmith after a letter to her publisher brought a response from a village somewhere near Fontainebleau outside Paris. I wasn’t there long but I still wonder whether I was the only Australian she ever met.

Now there’s a Sydney revival, a solitary screening at the boutique Golden Age Cinema, gthe former Paramount Pictures screening room in the depths of Darlinghurst. The cinema’s website has the details but doesn’t say just what exactly is being screened. You would hope it’s a restored digital copy but no claims are made for it in this respect.

It wasn’t the first Highsmith adaptation, that honour was snapped up by Hitchcock when he made Strangers on a Train. There have been many more, including a remake of “The Talented Mr Ripley” by Antony Minghella in 2000. Highsmith wrote five Ripley novels and there have been many screen Ripleys. He was the quintessential pushy, envious, American and it required a major leap of faith to accept Delon as Ripley and for the whole tale to be transposed into French acting and the French language. But Highsmith loved Delon in the role and even suggested to Wim Wenders that he should not bother with casting an American in the part just get Delon again for his adaptation of the second Ripley story, “Ripley’s Game”, re-titled to The American Friend.

If you have never seen this movie then go see it for a treat – a cinema de papa movie by an old wave master at the top of his form and served brilliantly by his cast and especially by the silky photography of Henri Decae. As I said, from out of the blue… 

Sunday 25 August 2019

Streaming or on cable or TV at some stage and now on British DVD - YEARS AND YEARS written by Russell T Davies (BBC/HBO, UK, 2019)

Click on this link for the trailer
A six-part series made by the two behemoths of modern day English-language drama, HBO and the BBC, Years and Years sets itself in the near-future following the chaos caused by someone unknown nuking one of those artificial islands China is building in the South China Sea.

The chaos is not just the physical, which soon comes to be mostly ignored, but the political in Britain where the government responds in a way that would make it seem they have got hold of the Scott Morrison Peter Dutton Michael Pezzullo Handbook of how to exploit people's fear of the unknown, the strange, the exotic.  The countries of Europe are bunging ever more refugees and immigrants into concentration camps. Soon, in a lot of places, the age old hatreds of gays comes to the forefront and illiberal nations are persecuting that minority as well, to the apparent general approval of the populace.

More background comes in the form of  general employment conditions closely akin to those regularly exposed at 7-11, Domino's Pizza, Uber, Deliveroo and others. There are no labour unions, Ph.D's are working on factory floors and banks regularly collapse. A few rebellious and subversive spirits survive.

All of these impact in some way or other on a family of four brothers and sisters, their partners and lovers, a grandmother and two teenage daughters, one of whom has implanted her telephone into her fingertips. Fingertips are in fact a common feature of the series for they are the required form of identification along with breath, the latter being able to avoided by some unspecified dental work and the chewing of mints. The family are forced into closer contact as events, personal and political, overwhelm them.

Early on each of the four brothers and sisters has faced a disaster. The eldest son Stephen loses his house in bank collapse. The second son, following his same sex marriage, then falls for a Ukrainian refugee who is breaching his visa conditions by working in a gas station; the eldest sister sailed too close to the nuclear explosion and is slowly dying from the radiation and the youngest sister, a spina bifida sufferer and mother of two by different absent fathers, loses her job but is rejuvenated when, unlike the rest of the family, she joins the ten per cent of the population who support a plausible but ignorant populist politician, played as far more likable by Emma Thompson than Pauline Hanson can play her own idiotic and vulgar public persona.

The recognition factor is high and you might easily suspect that Russell T Davies has a big collection of newspaper  and video clippings of a host of egregious and self-serving acts performed by current politicians, bureaucrats and intelligence agencies all over the world, all the better to cower and intimidate the citizenry.

At one point someone remarks on the golden age of democracy and how its now gone, replaced by a far more malevolent and repressive system of politics and government. No one seemed to notice it happening until it was too late.

The series went out on the BBC in May and is now out on DVD in Britain.

Friday 23 August 2019

On Vintage Film Buff DVD - Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison tracks down a rarity, MARIE-LOUISE (Leopold Lindtberg, Switzerland, 1944)

An oddity, Leopold Lindtberg‘s (1944, suspect date) Marie-Louise was curiously the first foreign film to win a U.S. Oscar - for script - apparently a landmark for Swiss film making. While it has an appeal in its own right, it is more notable for rare glimpses of neutral Europe during WW2.

Opening in 1940 Rouen under German bombing, this one covers the Swiss holidays arranged for French children to get them away from hostilities for a month. Teenage Josiane Hegg, devoted to her little brother, shepherds him into the cellars when sirens sound. A wiz bang destroys the next house. There’s dialogue about the mother working in a factory making shells like the ones which are destroying the city.

A large numbered ticket round her neck, Hegg joins the train for the Alps. When she gets there, the family she is to stay with has had an outbreak of measles. French-Flammand charity worker Margrit Winter takes her home to the large house of her father Heinrich Gretler (glimpsed in the Lang M) the manager of a local textile mill. The women are worried about the reaction of the controlling patriarch but Gretler takes the surprise calmly and warms to the girl.

However, news arrives that Hegg’s beloved little brother has been killed. There is an out of character flourish that doesn’t really work at the Rouen funeral with the dead speaking over their head stones. 

When planes fly over her new home, young Hegg goes into shock, recalling the bombings. She has to be hospitalised and the mill workers are moved. “A child shouldn’t have nervous attacks.” They come up with a plan to do an extra quarter of an hour a day to build a fund to aid war victims. One Bolshy tradesman objects that the bosses will now expect it but fatherly Gretler smooths out the details.

No one says "The Swiss work for the Germans during the week and pray for the Allies on Sunday." It’s not that picture.

When it’s time to rotate the children, Hegg doesn’t want to leave, jumping the return train and removing her ticket. The train is an element that Lindtberg’s production team rise to - tearful farewells, the shot of the girl standing filmed through the passing bogie wheels as it pulls away from her, or the final twisting rails.

The family find her and with some more tender loving care she’s up to going back to her mother in Rouen. This element of the plot will be worked over as The Search which Lazar Wechsler & Oscar Duby produced for Fred Zinnemann post-war, the director’s first major film and Montgomery Clift’s screen debut. 

Marie-Louise is a particularly interesting comparison to The Search. It shows the shift from simple, comforting humanist contemporary European films like Blasetti’s 1942 4 passi fra le nuvole/Four Steps in the Clouds or Becker’s 1943 Goupi Mains Rouges, into the savage depiction in Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns/The Murderers Are Among Us and  Rossellini’s Paisà, both made in 1946. 

Marie-Louise is a slighter achievement but it is still touching and derives impact from its unfamiliarity. Details probably observed from experience register - the light bulb in the shelter dimming as power fails, the refugee children washing their picnic dishes in an outdoors tub, the basket of apples a stranger distributes among them. Post-war film societies cherished films like this. It is an exceptionally accurate representation of the optimism that would be crushed. 

Now forgotten, Wechsler and Lindtberg, together and individually, were the visible face of Swiss film-making for years to come. Cameraman Emil Berna later did Winnetou films.
The cover of the official Swiss DVD. (Not under review here)

Streaming on SBS On Demand - SPIRAL series 5 ("Series concu par Alexandra Clert", France 2014)

Spiral (French title Engrenages) is up to seven series.  The latest, having gone out earlier this year in France, will presumably go on BBC4 and SBS as soon as SBS knocks out the English subtitles. An earlier post by Mark Pierce dealt with three major series Spiral, The Bureau  and Fauda.

Mark nailed it with this description: “the constant element is frailty, full-frontal frailty, red in tooth and claw. Not only do events go horrendously awry. The protagonists doubt themselves, their causes and the powers that be they represent. They have reason to. The three series slyly imply that some of our systems of governance might be, if not actually corrupt, at least rickety and bid’able.  In Spiral, for instance, judges, prosecutors, police officers on the beat, detectives, Ministers and their staff, all are persuaded that rules may be bent or broken, lives might be wagered or squandered, laws and those who make them can be defied or thwarted.”

So catching up with Spiral after series 4, when a bomb went off in the station killing Captain Laure Berthaud’s (Caroline Proust) lover it was obvious that the cliffhanger ending would have us slavering for more. SBS On Demand is allowing catch-up. The date for the subtitling says 2016 so it must have been around for awhile. I’m told that I’ve missed series 6 as well.

Caroline Proust
But making do with a binge watch on the SBS On Demand treasure trove brought me closer to up to date. Laure discovers she is pregnant. A woman and a child are fished out of the Seine. The cops in Criminal Investigation - Laure, Gilou, Tintin, DP, Tom (new?) and Nico - are still at loggerheads with their cunning boss Herville. The Magistrate Roban is back. The lawyers Clement and Karlsson are still an item. By the end much has changed, characters have been killed off but the killers of the mother and child have been tracked down. Not without collateral damage. We’ll know more when I track down series 6.

Series 5 won the  2015 Emmy for best International drama.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

On John C Murray - Ken Berryman adds some further thoughts on the life and contribution of the scholar, critic and cinephile

The young John C Murray (ph: courtesy
Kristen Murray)
Editor's note: This further contribution to the celebration of the life and work of John C Murray (right) was just sent in by the historian, scholar, cinephile and former Manager of the NFSA's Oral History Program, Ken Berryman. Now read on....

I have just read the tributes to John C Murray (click here for the website link)  - very eloquent and very moving, and further proof if needed of the great and supportive film culture Melbourne has cultivated for decades. Talk about ripple effect! Let me add my few cents worth, prompted by a couple of recurrent references in the tributes, albeit I never had the good fortune to actually cross paths with the man himself...

Ten Lessons in Film Appreciation

A modest but oh so timely work. Like so many others, when I started teaching on the back of a common or garden arts degree and a dip ed, your subject choices were invariably English and History. The gradual widening of the curriculum at the time did however provide opportunities for rookie teachers like me to dip their toes in the water and have a crack at including film study as part of senior English courses. Country secondary schools though were not exactly resourced to facilitate such endeavours, so I did two things. 

Ken Berryman
The first was to send a copy of a draft film study course I'd mapped out for comment to the Film Studies Officer associated with the then ATFA (Association of Teachers of Film Appreciation), the precursor of ATOM. The officer in question at the time was Richard Franklin who kindly responded, encouraging me to give it a go, and - unsurprisingly - suggesting I give thought to including some work on genre or auteurs, such as Hitchcock!

The second was to dig out my copy of 'Ten Lessons'. There just weren't to my limited knowledge at the time accessible but still challenging texts on film appreciation written for the local market, aside perhaps from the work of Bill Perkins. But John Murray's little book struck an immediate chord and convinced me that I could extrapolate from it without being laughed out of the classroom. It was a well thumbed tome by the time I'd finished with it and moved on...

The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar 

I was delighted to find not one but two references to this 1968 Canadian short feature in the tributes on your site. I couldn't agree more with the sentiments in relation to this film of both Tom Ryan and Geoff Mayer. Tom rightly also acknowledges the work of Ed Schefferle in building up the film study component of the State Film Centre collection over the years. In a comparable position buying for the Vic Education Department's 16 mm Film Library, I was equally determined to do the same - and again the time was propitious in this regard. 

The Department's buying strategy, if that's what it was, had traditionally been to purchase multiple copies of single titles to cope with teacher demand for 'visual aids' for core curriculum subjects. But purchasing for the by now burgeoning media studies courses in the 70s and 80s gave one licence to buy far and wide - and justify it as needed by the use of film appraisal panels to select appropriate titles for addition to the 16mm library. Convening such a panel for media studies purposes was too much fun altogether. Among the many talented teachers who frequented this group over a number of years were John Benson and Imre Hollosy, based at Maribyrnong High at that time. It was that dynamic duo who suggested to me that we should consider viewing The Best Damn Fiddler at one of the appraisal sessions with a view to its purchase, if selected - which it was, quite rightly. I was grateful to John and Imre for bringing this film, which I didn't know, to my attention - and pleased to buy a 16mm print for the Ed Dept library in due course. 

With the advent of video and the downturn in film use in schools, and eventual closure of all but a few of the network of govt film libraries over the next decade, I wondered what became of all those film prints we had so enthusiastically procured for use by teachers. A large number of them ended up with ACMI but without checking I don't know whether that included the print of 'The Best Damn Fiddler'. But what I do know now after reading the tributes to John C. Murray is from where the fan club for this otherwise little known film emanated! The loan stats for this title were always modest during my time with the Ed Dept film library but I would like to think that some of its users were teachers who were similarly inspired by the teachings and writings of John C. Murray.
Margot Kidder, The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar

Tuesday 20 August 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare extols "John Ford's greatest film" WAGON MASTER (USA, 1950)

Two of my favorite things from Ford's greatest film Wagon Master.
Ben Johnson (above, click on any image for a slideshow) and his magnificent savour faire, with those superb thighs sprawled over his horse, as he stares down the local con artists. 
And the wagon train dog (below) captured here in the credits, who, noticing Bert Glennon's camera comes right up to it before sniffing and barking at us, while the credits roll on implacably. 
From the gorgeous new Warner Archive Blu Ray, in all likelihood sourced from the superb 35mm interpos they used for the now five plus year old DVD.
If you don't love this film you may as well give up on life.
The first apparition of Joanne Dru
Wagon Master's trajectory is a majestically directed and "handled" picture that plays like it is literally improvising itself as it runs for its 86 minutes. Even though every single characterization begins as one of Ford's trademark vignettes which present each character in turn. 

Like Stagecoach which ends the 30s, Wagon Master begins the 50s with a journey, not to Lordsville (or the City of God) this time, but to an incredible final shot by Bert Glennon of the landscape of Paradise, which becomes steadily illuminated by blinding light to the final credit. 

I am only sorry Tag Gallagher didn't get a chance to do a vid for Warners on this occasion.

Friday 16 August 2019

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison reports on the Japanese animation PENGUIN HIGHWAY (Hiroyasu Ishida)

Add to the off-the-chart screenings that are well on the way to being the major source of my film viewings, a Japanese Culture Center screening at Event George Street of Hiroyasu Ishida’s Penguin Highway/Pengin Haiwei the first time out for its Studio Ghibli graduate director. 
It’s off kilter story line derives from a book by the author of “Walk on Girl, the Night Is Short” and this one asserts itself on all levels a whole lot better than the film of that did. 

Ten-year-old Aoyama-kun is first seen in a downwards track in his hyper-organised room with the sign “Research Lab” on the door. He has calculated the three thousand days plus it will take before he’s an adult and can’t wait. His life is already complicated enough with student bullies, his fixation on dentist’s receptionist Onee-san and her big boobs, and his competition with Hamamoto, the chess player girl in his class who has studied the theory of relativity.

Then the black blobs that appear in the field turn out to be Adelie penguins, despite the fact that these are not found in Japan. Not incomprehensibly, this phenomenon intrigues him and he sets about applying researcher tools to account for it ... and he has a loose tooth.

Along with his best mate Uchida, our hero starts exploring the dark woods with the rusted-out car (notably Miyazaki) discovering that the chess girl has already found a mysterious hovering globe of water that reacts to their presence. Dentist lady gets him loose from the soft drink machine the bullies have roped him to, yanks the tooth and gives a logic defying demonstration of managing to fling a cola can that metamorphoses into a penguin.

And then the bully catches a Jabberwocky and the summoned scientists, including Hamamoto’s dad, get together with him to examine what the kids considered to be their property while a tsunami phenomenon threatens. 

I don’t know that it would all qualify as anime - no spacemen, no explosions, no princesses - Japme definitively.

The piece is full of unexpected, endearing detail. The penguins’ appearance is greeted by a hissing cat, ants track the foliage, one bird swims upstream in the drain thwarting the angry domestic pets and the lead’s big brother (?) provides an account of the effect of including the world in a pouch by turning it inside out so that what was inside is now outside - kind of zen this. 

The climax is a surreal scene of the lead duo on a blackbirds raft traveling the world they know re-assembled in gravity defying arrangements, an example of what make animation the right choice here. 

We are not what used to solemn pre-teeners faced with their adult world or the determinedly not cute penguins. The only one they try to make a pet explodes when taken on one of those nice toon trains.  There’s a different tone to this still child-friendly piece.

It has an acceptably simplified but recognisable Japme finish with bit of Tezuka in the character design, along with off-kilter touches like the absence of  music on the titles. At near two hours the piece is too long but even at this length it deserves a place in the Japanese cartoon repertory which is moving closer to a central place in our experience of movies - think Gorô Miyazaki’s 2011 Up from Poppy Hill/Kokuriko-zaka karaor Hiromasa Yonebayashi & Giles New’s 2017 Mary and the Witches Flower/Meari to majo no hana.I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this one.

Thursday 15 August 2019

WOMEN OF STEEL - A new Australian documentary made by a director returning after forty plus years

Editor's Note: industry stalwart, producer, director and photographer Martha Ansara writes about Robynne Murphy's return to film-making after a career as a steelworker. 

Robynne Murphy at work at the BHP hot strip mill
In 1973, Robynne Murphy was one of only two women chosen for the first Interim Program of the Australian Film & Television School (AFTRS). The other was Gillian Armstrong. Gillian pursued her brilliant career as an Australian filmmaker; Robynne found herself in Wollongong and in 1980 became a career steelworker at BHP.  Now, nearly forty years later, she is returning to film with a landmark documentary about a landmark win for women’s rights — WOMEN OF STEEL an inside, personal story about the 1980-1994 Jobs for Women Campaign.

The Jobs for Women Campaign confronted seemingly impossible odds in its fourteen-year long bid to win jobs for women in the steelworks of Australia’s largest and most powerful company, BHP. The campaign mobilised hundreds of migrant and working class women, attracted broad support from the community and unions and mounted unrelenting direct action at the BHP factory gates. Making use of Labor government reforms of the 1970s and a great team of lawyers, the women went all the way to the High Court of Australia and set important precedents in equality as they won jobs, financial compensation and changes in workplace regulations. 

The story of the success of these women makes for an exciting, emotional and sometimes humorous tale. Without being simplistic or didactic, WOMEN OF STEEL aims to be an inspiration for others who face seemingly insurmountable challenges today. 

Initially Robynne Murphy raised over $100K from trade unions and other supporters to get the film to rough cut stage. She has now been joined by veteran filmmaker Martha Ansara (Life Member of the Australian Directors Guild/Hall of Fame of the Australian Cinematographers Society) to find the final $60,000 completion finance. This money will be primarily for the costly archival footage and for the recording of a music score by celebrated film composer Jan Preston, whose work includes the music for Bastard Boys, the ABC series on the MUA waterfront dispute. 

The pair are now seeking the support of anyone who wants to see a crackerjack of a tale about indomitable women!

WOMEN OF STEEL patrons are ACTU Secretary Sally McManus, former Illawarra MP Jennie George and distinguished historian, Professor Emerita Ann Curthoys. Donations to the film are tax-deductible and all donors will be publicly acknowledged and invited to screenings and previews.

WOMEN OF STEEL invites your support — 

You can see the trailer  if you click here

For more information and to make a tax-deductible donation, click on this link to the Documentary Australia Foundation.

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison tracks down new movies from Russia and Thailand YOLKI 7 (Egor Baranov, Anna Parmas, Alexander Kott, Russia, 2018) and FRIEND ZONE (Chayanop Boonprakob, Thailand, 2019)

The weeklong, or more, events which have dominated local non-mainstream exhibition here, seem to be fading. 

The Japanese and Hispanics are doing one offs. The Russian Resurrection Festival is still headed towards us but they are doing monthly Sunday shows of popular movies at Event George Street (a more digestible way of delivering product)  as well.

Last week’s Yolki poslednie (Yolki 7) proved to be an intermittently entertaining and determinedly feel good addition to the Russian annual "The Last Six Degrees of Celebration" series with Timur Bekmambetov credited among the producers. It cuts among five interlocking stories of events on New Year’s Eve across the country, complete with a light-up map to locate them.

We jump into an impressive police car chase on frozen roads with dumpy blonde Valentina Mazunina at the wheel of her vehicle and the TV celebrity hand cuffed in the back. 

Flashbacks link into the story of her video consultant doctor husband’s alienation from his aged father to whom the girl in the bank returns a passport arousing his suspicions that she is a scam artist. Recurring character buddies Ivan Urgant & Sergey Svetlakov are at odds because Svetlakov is off to Yakutsk with his extended family whose so many acres a head land grant (praise for Russia) will be big enough to start a native animal zoo. 

Elena Yakovleva has given up hope that her military suitor Dmitriy Nagiev, who is building their dream home, will propose and her son intervenes dragging him back to the family flat. 

A winning station kiosk attendant is swept away when a star actor flirts with her and, after giving him the wrong number (“I’m an actor - of course I will remember”) overtakes his train driven by a local motorist with his own agenda and the young skier attempts to set up his snowboarder chum as the nervous suitor of a counter girl in supervisor Ekaterina Klimova’s local McDonalds (!) 

Narrator Konstantin Khabenskiy makes a surprise last minute on screen appearance.

These stories vary in conviction but good ‘scope production values with onion dome drone scenics for insets and the winning, unfamiliar players carry things along.

Popular cinema like this is a long way from the more sombre material we are usually served to represent Russian production. 

The entertainment cinema of Thailand is even harder to come by. I just checked a Thai local’s idea of the hundred best of the country's movies and was hard pressed to recognize six - the nice  Bad Genius, the turgid Jan DaraCemetery of Splendour, Chocolate, Tears of the Black Tiger  and  Ong Bak.

Now, along with their usual Chinese and Korean material, Event Cinemas are running a teenage romance piece called  Friend Zone.

Chayanop Boonprakob’s movie pivots on the strained proposition that the fresh faced young couple retain a friendship over ten years without actually getting it on, all in gleaming wide screen. 

We kick off with school girl Pimchanok Leuwisetpaiboon dragging her friend boy, rather than boyfriend, Naphat Siangsomboon off on a flight (close up of his credit card going into the ticket machine) to follow her father Chertsak Pratumsrisakhon on what she is convinced is an affair. What happens to him?

Over the next ten years Siangsomboon, sustained by using his points as an airline cabin attendant, squires her through failed romantic excursions in tourist destinations in Myanmar, Malaysia or Hong Kong announced in screen filling captions. The climaxing footage in Krabi (Thailand) is particularly scenic.

Their activities are monitored by his three dorky friends Benjamin Joseph Varney, Nutthasit Kotimanuswanich and Sukhapat Lohwacharin similarly unable to actualize their romances as they stand, two tall beers in their hands, in the different locales. 

Throw in a thinks inset of Siangsomboon breaking his friend zone friend’s boy suitor’s guitar over his head, comments from shaven headed monks crosslegged in temples, karaoke, Siangsomboon simulating bearded lover Jason Young by spreading chocolate desert on his face and a hotel porter wheeling her around on a luggage stand with her broken leg.

The last of her failed affairs, has Young needing to record winning local girl singers around Asia for his multi language commercial jingle. Our heroine flings his top of the line product placement gift watch into the surf in pique. 

 We get spotless five star hotels and spotless complexions. (it’s a welcome break when they finally manage to find a couple of extras with eczema scars) Even the Hong Kong bus on which Leuwisetpaiboon does her Jackie Chan stunt, is impeccable. 

Friend Zone is pitched at teen age Asian girls. I don’t meet any of those criteria so it outstays it’s welcome with me. Occasionally involving or funny but mainly an implausible exercise in wish fulfilling, this one exceeds its quota in tourist attractions and will they or won’t they. 

It all leaves you wondering if we couldn’t have been better served by the other ninety-four titles on the list. On the other hand, by their nature films like these are unlikely to hit festivals and broadcasters and any attempt to ring up the celluloid curtain is welcome. We could do worse.