Wednesday 29 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (24) - On YouTube - Barrie Pattison grapples with PLANET OF THE HUMANS (Jeff Gibbs, USA, 2020)

I watched Planet of the Humans with more than a little curiosity finding it treated questions that troubled me forty years ago when I researched a local solar power documentary. All I had was two days in the library and a chat with a West Australian academic. My colleagues laughed my concerns off and blazed ahead with the project. The new film comes from possibly the most respected brand name in non-fiction film and they deployed serious resources to their production. It is already stirring up controversy. I wonder how many of the attacks on IMDb come from fossil fuel PR?

Planet of the Humans (title lettering styled after the Planet of the Apes series) is co-produced by Michael Moore and directed, part-edited and part-shot by his longtime associate Jeff Gibbs.

After some unremarkable personal appearances by Gibbs we get a clip of Frank Capra’s 1958 TV Movie The Unchained Goddess already on about fossil fuels and climate change and a quote from the same period by Rachel Carson followed by a clip of Barak Obama announcing his Green Energy Stimulus.

It mainly is a glummer affair than the documentaries that made Moore a top seller though there are touches that show the old style, like the beleaguered science fair hand saying that the organisation rep will have all the facts, cut to her saying she doesn’t have all the facts and the film crew off at Earth Day finding that the conspicuous solar panels are for show while the event’s current comes off the fossil fuel grid.

It’s not long before we get to Moore’s Michigan home state and start seeing electric vehicles gulping down grid current.

The notion the piece hammers is “It’s not possible for industrial civilisation to save us from Industrial Civilisation.” Biomass (think wood chips), the hope of the side, comes off as a feeble if profit making response. One commentator says that if they cut down all the trees in America to produce it, it would only power the country for a year. They get stuck into the carbon foot print of wind and solar farms saying that “You’d be better off burning the fossil fuels.” Deeply disturbing images show giant wind turbines collapsed after only twenty years and desert areas devastated by displacing Joshua trees and cacti for solar mirrors. One interview subjects sees the pattern of extinction of species in the partnership of science and capitalism. “Infinite grown on a finite planet is suicide.”

The film aims to blow the notion of sustainable development out of the water and it gets a long way towards it, taking celebrated ecologist heroes like Richard Branson and Al Gore down in the process. On TV John Stewart skewers Gore by pointing out the money he got from his TV deal comes from the Emirates’ petro dollars. Of course familiar villains like Goldman Sachs and the Koch brothers get another serve.

The makers have added captions to the end naming Eco celebrities who have scurried to distance themselves from projects treated in the film.

I don’t know all that much more than I did forty years back and critics have pointed out that the piece doesn’t cover reformed nuclear energy (can they get rid of the waste yet?) or for that matter hydro, thermal and tidal. They hold back from advocating the logical demand - fewer people using less. Me, I’m inclined to believe Michael Moore and Frank Capra.

Moore has put this one up on YouTube thirty days for free (don’t know how many are left). I can’t see Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Scott Morrison tuning in but I think you should. It holds attention and at very least it can’t be a bad thing to shake up an orthodoxy which already looks like turning into a religion.

Editor's Note: This movie has also been noted by Peter Hourigan in an earlier Plague Times Diary which you can find if  you click here 

Tuesday 28 April 2020

FILMSTRUCK - A LIFE IN THE MOVIES - John Baxter's memoirs now published as a e-book

In an earlier post (click to link)  I mentioned renewing acquaintances with Paris-based Australian expat John Baxter and making plans for his participation in Cinema Reborn 2020. I went on to pay some tribute to  a newly self-published book of his memories of his life in film from early viewing, to his work at the Commonwealth Film Unit, trials and tribulations with the Sydney Film Festival and meeting such luminaries as Josef Von Sternberg, Don Siegel, Henri Langlois, and most notably Federico Fellini, about whom John wrote the only authorised English-language biography. 

If you read the piece above it gives you a link to buy a hard copy of the book from its local supplier (Moi). Details are simple and only require a transfer of funds into the Cinema Reborn bank account to get it done.

John has now put the book onto the internet for sale as a Pdf download, payable via a simple Paypal transfer. If this (cheaper) method of acquisition appeals then all you need to do is click on the following link for some details about the book and how to get it. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Here is the link

Monday 27 April 2020

Adam Bowen's Talkie Talk - Free to Air TV - Powell & Pressburger, Joseph Losey, Ang Lee all prominent


from Adam Bowen


Monday 27th
7.30 pm SBS WORLD MOVIESHyde Park on the Hudson (2012) It’s 1939, WW2 is brewing, the King and Queen of England (Samuel West & Olivia Colman) are visiting the USA, while FD Roosevelt (Bill Murray) is having an affair with his cousin (several times removed), Daisy (Laura Linney). It’s a bit of an under-developed muddle, but its attempt to conjure up the illusions, delusions and self-education of its characters is of interest. It looks lovely. Photography by Lol Crawley; Production Design by Simon Bowles
[Repeated 3.45am Tuesday & 1130pm Tuesday]

Wednesday 29th
1030am  SBS WORLD MOVIESIt’s back! The Red Shoes (1948) - about a ballet troupe (including Australian dancer, Sir Robert Helpmann), run by the autocratic Lermantov (Anton Walbrook), who makes a star of Victoria - a hopeful young ballerina (Moira Shearer). Trouble is, Victoria is in love with a brilliant young composer. Lermontov doesn’t like that, and it gets very bumpy – especially when Victoria dances a ballet, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes. Compellingly directed by Michael Powell, beautifully (Technicolour) photographed by Jack Cardiff; Production Design by Hein Heckroth; plus an Oscar-winning score by Brian Easdale.
[Repeated Thursday 3.30pm & Friday 7.30am]

Friday 1stMay
730pm 9GemHD: The Rainmaker (1997) Good old-fashioned entertainment by masters of the craft. Francis Ford Coppola directs and scripts (from a John Grisham novel) a drama about a rookie lawyer (Matt Damon) who takes on a powerful insurance company. The excellent cast also includes Claire Danes, Danny de Vito, John Voight, Mickey Rourke and Teresa Wright (in her final movie). It looks great, courtesy of John Toll’s subtle cinematography and Howard Cummings production design.

Saturday 2ndMan
9.30pm SBS WORLD MOVIES: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was the great cross-over hit of the year 2000. Millions of people who’d never seen a martial-arts movie, flocked to this exciting, wonderfully old-fashioned adventure story, set in Qing China. The plot is basically about a stolen sword, and its pursuit by male and female warriors who float through the air, skim across water, and indulge in breathtaking balletic biff, in trees and on rooftops. There’s also a beautiful love story; and Oscar-winning music by Tan Dun.

Sunday May 3rd

12am 9GemHD: The Servant(1963) – creepy story of a servant (Dirk Bogarde) taking the reins from his upper-class master (James Fox). Directed by Joseph Losey, brilliantly written by Harold Pinter (apart from some stagey sillinesses), and photographed in steely black and white by Douglas Slocombe. Also stars Sarah Miles and (a miscast) Wendy Craig.

Adam Bowen Productions

Plague Times Diary (21) - Charles Band Chronicles - the story continues....advice from Film Club and Ben Cho

The subject that keeps on giving. 

One of Sydney's last remaining DVD rental stores, Film Club in Darlinghurst which reasonably describes itself as "The last, best video store" was asked about its Charles Band holdings. 

Proprietor Ben Kenny responded: "I’ve done a bit of searching and found 3 Charles Band produced titles in our collection - Ghoulies, Puppet Master Castle Freak

"I’m afraid we don’t have any of the films he’s directed, as much of his 80s output has never come out on DVD in Australia (sadly the fate of a lot of straight to video schlock)." 

A sad tale but if anyone wants to hare down the byway of Charles Band's 290 productions then Film Club's store at 136A Darlinghurst Rd Darlinghurst NSW (Phone: 02 9331 8105) is the place at least to start. 

Open 7 Days  11am - 9pm  

For collectors, Film Club usually has an offering of titles for sale as well.

Meanwhile, cinephile Ben Cho advises:"Can confirm I’ve got this (left) but have only ever watched the first one... I’m sure you could get in contact with Charles through Full Moon.....his brother Richard wrote the theme music for the great REANIMATOR"

Sunday 26 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (22) - Peter Hourigan survives Week 4 from the Lockdown - Rediscovering Bo Widerberg, THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1917), and a Michael Moore-produced doco.

               If there was any defining characteristic feature of my viewing for this fourth week of lockdown it was reaction. If I had had any plan, or thought of what I’d probably watch that evening, an email or Facebook recommendation sent me in another direction. This also had me exploring a little more exploring Netflix, Stan and my now shrinking pile of unwatched DVDs. 

For example, I have probably seen lots of comments about the website Rarefilm (click to link) from time to time, but never looked at it. I did this week, and it’s both a treasure and a junk trap. They boast 1886 films, with the next update happening when they reach the 2000 mark. There are undoubtedly some treasures, many rarities, films you’ve probably never heard of (and some you probably don’t want to). Some wonderful films to put high on your schedule, others in such poor condition they’re unwatchable. 
When I did go on the site this week, I chose to watch Francesco Rosi’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold from 1987, a film I have fond memories of, but one that has practically vanished. But this copy was unwatchable.  Probably sourced from some old VHS tape, colours had almost vanished from who knows how many dupings, and the ‘scope images were mutilated into the old TV box shape.  So, I went looking for a substitute and chose Raven’s End (Kvartaret Korpen) Bo Widerberg’s 1963 film. Similarly, one that has practically disappeared.  There was a time when Widerberg’s reputation was high, now he’s almost forgotten except for the trivia that one of his films gave its name to a Mozart Piano Concerto. (Elvira Madigan.)
This print was in its original Academy ratio, and in a really lustrous black and white. Set in Malmo, in a bleak working class block of units, during the even bleaker 1930s with the first stirrings of right wing agitators, Thommy Berggren is an aspiring young writer looking to break away from this area and his family, or at least his father who has  been crushed by the depression.  Berggen would play Elvira Madigan’s dashing Lieutenant Sixten Sparre for Widerberg several years later. His performance here is nuanced and involving.  Absolutely worth chasing.
A couple of other viewing choices were also reactions to something read on the day. David Bordwell’s blog is always inspiring. This week on his blog (click link)) he was writing about a film from 1917 The Woman in White (aka The Unfortunate Marriage). I’ve always had more fun with the novels of Wilkie Collins than with those of his contemporary and friend, Charles Dickens.  And Bordwell always writes about films in a way that makes you see so much more in them. As he says, this is not a great film. But it’s fun, and his comments are so insightful as to how the film is constructed, and your appreciation of how advanced cinema language was already by 1917. It’s on Vimeo.
And now for something completely different. Earth Day 2020 was on Wednesday, and so there were feeds of events or postings. One of these events was the appearance of a new Michael Moore film on that day, Planet of the Humans. So, on the spur of the moment I chose to watch that. Except it is only loosely a Michael Moore film – he’s the executive producer, Jeff Gibbs is the director.  This means we are spared those ‘Gotcha moments’ and set-up moments and it is a straightforward journalistic documentary.  But its material is powerful. The take  on the environmental issues is also one that is new to me as Gibbs explores how the green movement is being captured by the very forces that it is attempting to expose and impede from their destruction of the planet. 
I’ve had a personal little tradition for some years of always watching something Shakespearean on April 23. This year it was Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It. It’s ok – after all he does have great source material. But it’s by no means his best, and it’s not really surprising it has not had the life of some of his other Shakespeare adaptations. 
Lastly, a few comments on Dracula which Geoff Gardner wrote about enthusiastically last plague week. I’d been less enthusiastic when I first watched this earlier in the year, and gave up on it early. Inspired by Geoff’s endorsement I gave it another go, finding the ‘resume watching’ bar showed I’d only watched about ten minutes. Perhaps something else came up at the time and I never went back. I have one episode to go, and my response is still a bit mixed. I loved the tongue-in-cheek (better than teeth-in-neck) humour of it in episode 1. But I felt this wearing a bit by the second episode. At this point I will finish episode – but this isn't the equal to Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes!

Saturday 25 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (20) - Back on deck Barrie Pattison reports on hospital viewing

Notes from a Captive Audience.

I found myself doing a week in St. Vincents  but that’s another story. 

A curious by-product is that I was faced with the hospital’s free to air TV round the clock. I’ve been making theatrical one-off screenings and DVDs my major sources of viewing material and I’d begun to wonder where all the romcoms, silly ass comedies and cop movies had gone. In this context Long Shot, which proved to be by Jonathan Levine who also directed the presentable Warm Bodies, had been an agreeable surprise. I’d all but lost touch with popular main stream films and suddenly they were all there was on the TV.

I could have just sopped up re-runs of Star Trek, Danger Man and The Simpsons (including the one with the Bill Plimpton opening) however I gravitated to the movies I’d dealt with over the last fifty years and which I wouldn’t normally have revisited.

I watched Michael Crichton’s 1979 The (First) Great Train Robbery, the pick of the movies the author of “Jurassic Park” directed. This is uncharacteristic being a jokey British (well Irish) costume caper comedy, smaller in scale than my recollection which was mixed up with The Seven Percent Solution.  The elaborate Boer War London setting intrigues - the doss house where the customers sleep on ropes, an obviously back cloth St. Pauls, Newgate and a public hanging with the crowd chanting derision at the woman victim. It’s fun to watch the leads compete engagingly as with soot covered Sean Connery entering into the rail baggage compartment to be greeted by Donald Sutherland ("the best screwsman in England") in his typhoid make up. “I look a mess?” The film never quite redeems the killing of Wayne Sleep but that Jerry Goldsmith main theme is still running round between my ears. This one made a welcome return to my memory bank.

More substantial was the surprise inclusion on NITV of Ken Burns’ 2004 Unforgivable Blackness - The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson of which I have a disc that I’d never gotten around to watching.  Interesting to find Victor McLaglen, Jack London and Rushcutters Bay Stadium figuring. This is one of Burns’ best offerings and pulls the same trick as Pride of the Yankees, making a sporting event seem to be shaping the character of the entire American nation. I don’t think you could find two films more different in their style and aspiration which makes the comparison intriguing.

I’ve never paid serious attention to NITV having seen some of their less than impressive local drama but having time to watch their talk shows made me aware of a welcome, less pushy presenter style and some of their imports like the animated Miyazaki-like City of Gold proved remarkable. I really should put in more time with them.

More confronting however was being faced with 9 Gem’s old British movies - possibly the last black and white films in regular supply on TV. They really are as bad as I thought in my now distant youth.

Roy Boulting and Jeffrey Dell’s Carlton-Browne of the F.O. is headed up by Terry-Thomas who could certainly deliver, along with Peter Sellers no less, who is dismally unfunny.

The plot has privileged class twerp Thomas shipped out by the British Foreign Office to the fictional Pacific Island nation Gaillardia when they suspect the place has valuable resources. We get the contrast of gouty dithering British Consul Miles Malleson and vigorous young heir to the throne Ian Bannen back from medical school in Britain, all informality and progressive ideas. He is pitted against his unscrupulous uncle John Le Mesurier in league with seedy prime minister Sellers and the Russian menace.

The solution is to partition the island (scene with a large tennis court marker crossing a river and entering a rail tunnel) but a couple of couple of British boffins have found cobalt which is the stuff they make bombs out of and the deposit is in the other lot’s half.

Most of it is laboured. The best gag is a military march past where the Medical Corps  stretcher-bearers carry patients who sit up and salute in their bandages. Back in Whitehall Raymond Huntley, doing proto Yes Minister, launches a military action only to find the Russians have sent a battle ship and he’s sent Terry-Thomas.

They stand on a few good lines like Nicolas Parsons learning that there’s enough Cobalt to destroy mankind and saying “That’s terrible” only to be told “You always look on the bad side.”

The film throws in a hoochie-coochie dancer who is handy for the poster but registers as a dim attempt to introduce a bit of smut. Best British studio production values of the day (Max Greene on camera) fail to disguise the fact that what is supposed to be funny is mainly tedious.

This one is a reminder of the decline of British movie comedy from its great music hall roots in the thirties - Jack Hulbert, Cicely Courtnedge, Will Hay and that squad of great second bananas : Robertson Hare, Albert Burdon, Bobby Howes, Alistair Sim, Moore Marriot and Graham Moffatt. The only thing comparable now is Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison crew - long may they reign. The pre-war zanies shade into the antics of The Crazy Gang and Margaret Rutherford who will be succeeded by Cecil Parker, the Boultings and the Carry Ons. How’s that for a precipitous decline.

The Carlton Browne copy looked as if it had been knocked off a poor sixteen millimetre print but Ealing’s Train of Events, though a bit on the dark side, was represented by a splendidly textured and sharp transfer.

There post WW2 Britain and the Great British ugly come demonstrated in four diverse but unappealing stories.

John Clements and Valerie Hobson, who must have spent their time off-camera trying to convince people they had been Korda stars, appear in what is meant to be a society comedy about an unfaithful orchestra conductor. It’s directed by Charles Crichton, the most talented of the directors they collected - not that it shows. Basil Dearden did two capital “D” Dramatic episodes "The Actor" and "The Prisoner-of-War." In the former a barely recognisable Peter Finch stuffs the body of mean wife Mary Morris into a theatrical trunk while rehearsing Shakespeare and in the second and least memorable Displaced Person Joan Dowling ponders abandoning Laurence Payne.

More striking is the Sid Cole episode "The Engine Driver" where paternal loco man Jack Warner (“I was in this engine when we came out for the General Strike”) tries to deflect trouble headed the way of daughter Susan Shaw’s fiancé Patric Doonan. This one gets attention from extensive filming in rail yards with Warner at the throttle of a range of imposing locomotives. Director Cole, a vocal union man, had clearly taken on the Grierson documentary tradition with a bit of La Bête Humaine thrown in. The people are much less interesting than the trains. It fields the Warner - Gladys Henson couple and Doonan who will all turn up in The Blue Lamp.

Blue Lamp, The Guinea Pig and maybe Seven Days to Noon were the films that shaped my idea of a contemporary Britain, bleak and divided by class in a way that was much less visible in the Australia where I watched them. This was there again in the René Clement Knave of Hearts/Monsieur Ripois in 1954 but the Frenchman had a less forgiving take on Britain, quite De Maupassant.

And that same environment was waiting for me when I made it to London in the sixties. However, the real thing had an element which was missing from the films - people’s determination to introduce the excitement absent from their lives through out of hours activities. A few movies tried to show it -  the “The Kite” segment of Quartet, the Huggets in a holiday camp or the musical society in High Treason.Maurice Elvey’s The Gay Dog is probably his worst film, making fun more oppressive than dull routine.

The film society movement was a prominent part of this hobby culture, though it was depressingly unadventurous. What should have been a process of exploration, as it was in Paris, in Britain became one of endorsing existing judgements not challenging them.

It is only as the sixties roll on that we get English passive resistance to their society's gloom breaking through in the films of Dick Lester and Michael Winner. The critics and possibly their audiences didn’t get this but I was living with it - and now I’ve been reminded that I can observe the whole process again on 9 Gem -  if I really want.

Friday 24 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (19) - Rediscovering the Bands (father and son) and their contribution to film culture

Charles Band
In a recent Film Alert 101 post (click on the link)  Rod Bishop drew to attention his discovery of the first coronavirus movie, Corona Zombies  directed by a man described  by Rod as “veteran schlocker Charles Band”. Rod mentioned as well that “68-year-old Charles Band has directed 43 features and has producer credits on over 290 films”.
This prompted the inveterately enthusiastic cinephile David Donaldson to wonder whether two and two should be put together and came up with the confirmed info that Charles Band, veteran schlocker, “is the son of Albert Band who was in the production of The Red Badge of Courage. That is an arc for a story.”

To which Rod asked;
Albert Band

How would somebody ever know that?

To which David replied, channeling Victor Hugo, "Just a hunch, confirmed by of all things  on IMDb (Click for the link)"

David went on to say:"I had remembered the Band name from Lillian Ross's book 'Picture' (1953 Gollancz) as assistant to John Huston, persisting through the whole mind and career searing debacle of The Red Badge of Courage at MGM. Band is credited for Adaptation on the Warner DVD released in Australia perhaps as a print-on-demand (I have a spare for someone).

"Albert Band produced and directed FACE OF FIRE in 1959 in Sweden with some elements linked to The Red Badge of Courage. It obtained critical favour then and now has an enthusiastic following in IMDB. It was released in New Zealand, (though evidently not in Australia), presumably by Paramount who handled Allied Artists "product" at the time. It is now on DVD in US from Warner. Band had a long and interesting but not notable career in the movie business. Thus we come to Charles Band the son."

"The Ross book was named in the Top 100 Works of U.S. Journalism of the Twentieth Century chosen by the New York University Department of Journalism. It is still in print. Anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker had already written 'Hollywood the Dream Factory' (1951), also about MGM (and also still in print). Together, they tell us how the once-mighty MGM was ready to fall into the convoluted corporate convulsions that have persisted to this day."

Rod was impressed. He passed the exchange to his friend Philip Brophy, esteemed film-maker, teacher, musician and writer who responded further:

"Ha! That movie sounds pretty awful – not because of B-Grade Band, but because it’s a complete cliché to even mention the word “corona”.  Charles Band definitely made better films back in the golden heyday of 80s exploitation, as my column for Video Age then attested"

Philip’s column is indeed informative and contains much on Charles Band’s career that I for one was totally unfamiliar with, similar I suppose to the fact that until I saw Dolemite is my Name  I had no idea who Rudy Ray Moore was.  

If anything more comes to mind about Charles or Albert Band or if someone is prompted to use these plague times to write up Charles’ career, or even his career highlights, the Film Alert blog stands ready to publish. …and if anyone knows how to pass on this excited chatter to Charles Band don’t hesitate to do so. It may be more publicity than he has had in quite awhile.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (18) - In Paris during lockdown John Baxter remembers the great humorist S J Perelman.


S J Perelman
         To the illicit pleasures with which the lockdown has reacquainted us (in my case, spending the whole day in pajamas, and occasionally prowling the Paris streets in a mask, like Fantomas), we can add that of spending the afternoon watching old movies.
         The cinema in the country town where I was raised screened only at nights, so I first experienced this particular distraction vicariously, via a series of articles in The New Yorker called Cloudland Revisited and written by the incomparable S.J. Perelman.
         If anyone knows Perelman’s name today, it’s probably as the Marx Brothers’ screenwriter on Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, which is rather like celebrating Albert Einstein for his skill on the violin. (Perelman once excused his Hollywood experiences as “No worse than playing piano in a whorehouse.”) He manipulated the English language with an acrobatic skill that, from an early age, left me breathless. As Dorothy Parker wrote in the introduction to The Most of S.J. Perelman, the bulky anthology a copy of which I wore to tatters as bedside reading throughout adolescence, “before they made S.J. Perelman, they broke the mould.”  
         In the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties, Perelman took his scalpel to a dozen novels popular during his childhood, ranging from Tarzan of the Apes to The Sheik. He then turned his attention to silent movies; specifically those shown in afternoons at the Museum of Modern Art. Among the titles to appear in his crosshairs were A Fool There Was and Foolish Wives.
Erich Von Stroheim
His characterisation of screen villain Erich von Stroheim, “The Man You Love to Hate,”  in Foolish Wives, which he also directed (and which is available, like so much else these days, on YouTube) remains a model for the description that combines scorn with reluctant admiration. “He was a short man, almost squat, with a vulpine smirk that told you, the moment his image flashed upon the screen, that no wife or bankroll must be left unguarded.”  Stroheim’s Count Sergius Karamzin lurks around Monte Carlo, accompanied by two women with whom he lives in “a languid state of what appears to be concubinage, switching about in negligees and exchanging feline gibes.” Vulpine? Concubinage? Who writes like that any more? 
Perelman’s masterwork of demolition is probably The Wickedest Woman in Larchmont, which skewered – you see, he has me doing it – the 1915 melodrama A Fool There Was, a production so dire that no director would take credit. (Frank Powell was the guilty party.) Perelman dismissed the film as a whole but was mesmerised by the girl playing a character identified only as The Vampire. Born Theodosia Goodman, she made her name under the pseudonym Theda Bara – an anagram, it was pointed out, of “Arab Death.”  For her, Perelman rolled out the big guns. 
Theda Bara
“If you were born anywhere near the beginning of the century and had access at any time during the winter of 1914-1915 to thirty-five cents in cash, chances are that, after a legitimate deduction for nonpareils, you blew the balance on a movie called A Fool There Was. What gave the picture significance, assuming it had any, was neither its story, which was paltry, nor its acting, which was aboriginal, but a pyrogenic half-pint named Theda Bara, who immortalized the vamp, just as Little Egypt at the World’s Fair of 1893 had the hoochie-coochie.” 
(I remember feeling smug at not having to look up “nonpareils”, since my father, a baker, used these multi-coloured sugar beads, known colloquially as “Hundreds and Thousands,” to decorate cakes. “Little Egypt” and “hoochie-coochie” took a little more research.)  Once again, through the generosity of YouTube, we can view A Fool There Was in its seedy glory, and relish the sight of Ms. Goodman having her way with a variety of solid citizens, all of whom succumb to her peremptory demand “Kiss me, my fool!”
I never expected to meet Perelman, which made it all the more pleasurable, browsing one afternoon in New York’s Gotham Book Mart, to recognise the short man with the moustache standing next to me, searching among the books on cinema.
“Excuse me,” I stammered, “but are you...?”
These chance meetings seldom go beyond the polite exchange of banalities, but this was different. First, I was able to help him find the book he wanted: John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio, his account of a year spent watching such Twentieth Century-Fox productions such as  Doctor Doolittle crash and burn. Second, I had enough of his bons mots by heart to quote some; in particular, his description of a Dutch businessman encountered in a voyage through the south seas. “My heart,” he said, “laying a moist strangler’s hand on the chest where that organ lurked.” 
My bona fides established, we chatted for twenty minutes, a conversation of which I remember in particular his careful choice of words, even in such a casual situation. For example, Bert Lahr in his play The Beauty Part was “protean”.  He also explained the rag trade source of the title. (The “beauty part” of a dress is the front section on which style and decoration are concentrated.) And as, happily, there were a couple of his books on a nearby shelf, I had him inscribe both. I still remember the surprised look on the face of proprietor Francis Steloff (the portion one could see above his biblical white beard) as he cashed me out. “S. J. Perelman. The Ill-Tempered Clavichord. First edition. Inscribed by the author.....fifteen dollars?!!” 
Sadly, Perelman’s is no longer one of those names which, dropped into conversation, evokes recognition, admiration, even delight. But I’m not the only one to have fallen under Perelman’s spell. The New Yorker’scurrent film critic, Anthony Lane, a self-confessed acolyte of P.G. Wodehouse, has an occasional turn of phrase in which I detect an echo of S.J. What can one say but abracadabrant, effulgent, even splendiferous?

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (17) - Viewing Guide to the TV Backlog

When you have the luxury of time…Found on DVDs you buy at places like the much mourned Lawsons in Pitt Street and then you eventually watch. plus…watched on Netflix….plus watched on the ABC… It takes a plague…

Dracula (Sc: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffatt, Dir: Jonny Campbell, Damon Thomas, Paul McGuigan, UK, 2019)
The guys who previously gave us the extraordinary Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman Sherlock series turn their attention to Bram Stoker. Claes Bang’s Dracula is quite something but it is Dolly Wells (Who???) as Van Helsing in various guises over the centuries who is the standout performer. There are three full length 90 minute eps in the series and the middle one, set on the sailing ship Demeter is probably the best of them, tight, tense, superbly constructed with a fantastic ending that sets up Ep 3 brilliantly. When I see these things I think who in Australia could make a movie or TV series like this. Seen on a Brit DVD but readily available on Netflix.

Charles II (Sc: Adrian Hodges, Dir: Joe Wright, UK, 2003)
A curiosity purchase for sure. Made in 2003. Five parts. I may have had a moment when the name Joe Wright came up on the credits. I shouldn’t be so repetitive but Joe made a film called Hana,  starring Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana, which opened the Sydney Film Festival back in the 2010s. I remember calling it not merely the worst Opening Night at the SFF but quite likely the worst ever film screened at the SFF. Joe could hardly ruin a great story about the Restoration king made by the BBC. One of those series where great Brit actors (Rufus Sewell, Martin Freeman, Diana Rigg, Shirley Henderson, Rupert Graves) strut their stuff.

Southcliffe (Sc: Tony Grisoni, Dir: Sean Durkin, UK, 2015)
Grim Brit drama already mentioned by Peter Hourigan. Rory Kinnear’s rant in a pub during a small town crisis following a mass shooting by a local psychotic sets it up for great drama. More great Brit actors…Made by Channel 4. 

Wormwood (Errol Morris, USA, 2017)
Netflix series in which the quiet probings of Errrol Morris are elaborated by dramatised elements. An investigation of the chaos created by the CIA’s experiments in LSD and their effects on the unwitting participants. Morris is one of the unsung heroes of modern cinema or maybe his work should be sung much more than it is…

Black Mirror (Series 4, eps 1 & 2, Directors Toby Haynes, Jodie Foster, USA, 2019)
I’m not sure how many eps  there in this series. The first ep by Toby Haynes has the remarkable Jesse Plemons as a computer game coder who manages to trap his own work colleagues in a giant Star Trek like computer game. Very funny. The Jodie Foster ep is grim and doesn’t come at a good time when the plague-ridden community is faced with proposals by liars and deceivers like Scott Morrison, Christian Porter and Peter Dutton who want us to sign up to an app which tracks our movements allegedly for our own good.

Empire Falls  (Fred Schepisi, USA, 2007)
Made for HBO with an all-star cast (Ed Harris, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Helen Hunt, Robin Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Theresa Russell, Aidan Quinn) directed by Fred Schepisi. A rendition of a novel by Richard Russo about small town life. Here it’s heavy on intertwining relationships, twisting curly story lines and some really nice sentiment.

Sofia Helin (as Saga Noren)
Mystery Road, Series 2 (Ep 1, Sc: Steven McGregor, Dir: Warwick Thornton)
That’s episode one. The surprises started about a week before it went to air. That was when the SMH TV Guide had a photo of Sofia Helin on its cover. In case you need reminding, Helin was formerly Saga Noren in those four (I think) series of the Scandi crime series The Bridge.  Second surprise came when the writer and director credits came up. Script is by Steven McGregor, one of that group of AFTRS blackfella film-makers who came through in the time when Rod Bishop was the head of the school. The director is Warwick Thornton, another of that famous AFTRS cohort who, as they say, needs no introduction. This second series is again set in the red earth of WA and Aaron Pedersen returns as Jay Swan. Fortunately someone has made the decision not to bring Judy Davis back as the police sergeant. She, or at least those who wrote and created the part of a female cop lording it over a small town in the deep north, put in a shocker, throwing the whole series off-kilter. Here the female cop side is played by a lower level character, much more believable, who chafes at the strictures placed on her….. Looking forward to eps 2 and more…

Monday 20 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (16) - Peter Hourigan reports on Week Three with rarities from Eastern Europe

Movies in the Plague 3
        A couple of times this week, I had to really stop and check to be sure I knew what day it was, as one day merges into another without the usual kind of markers – Release day at the cinemas, entertainment guide day in the newspaper and so on.  At least the rubbish was collected on the regular day.
       Again, no pattern or consistency in what I was watching – decisions often made on the spot.  This week, Stan provided some of the best stuff, including one I strongly recommend. This was THE LOAD, by Ognjen Glavonić(b. 1985). Still not a year old, this surely should have had more of a Festival impact here and overseas. Some of the sparse reviews want to compare it to Clouzot’s Wages of Fear.  Sure, it is about a person driving a truck with an unknown load. But apart from this the two films could hardly be more different.
    Set during Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999, the action takes place on a single day. There are many moments where you’re tempted to read a cop in the rear-view mirror, a hitchhiker, an opportune theft from the truck cabin and more as harbingers of some dramatic showdown. Wrong. In a way, nothing seems to happen, at least not in the usual dramatic sense. And at the end do we know for sure what the cargo was? But, this is not a weakness in the film, quite the contrary. 
   It’s winter, so the landscapes are drained of colour, misty, almost threatening, yet perhaps ultimately benign. This film is a gripping, hypnotic 98 minutes. This is Glavonić’s first fiction feature. May we see many more in the years to come.
    Another discovery on Stan was also from Eastern Europe, this time Russia. And what other subject could you have but official corruption. Again, this also takes place in a time span of less than a day. The eponymous character of Yuri Bykov’s The Fool hasn’t earnt that name because he’s a simpleton. No, Dima is a plumber who tries to report a large apartment building in danger of collapse when he’s called there to fix a leaking water pipe. And he’s a fool because he should know this could expose a lot of officials who’ve been on the take from the building stage itself right through to maintenance and routine inspections. At times you’re not sure if the story is piling on too many levels of corruption and slippery slopes and melodrama. Then you’re persuaded it really is as rotten as this in the state of Russia. The film is held throughout by a wonderful, restrained performance by Artyon Bystrov as Dima.
   And then if you’re still thinking it was perhaps a bit too much – I’m currently watching Dirty Money, a Netflix doco. series about corporate corruption, securities fraud and so on. The day after watching The Fool I watched the episode on Jared Kushner “Slumlord Millionaire”, and there in the US was even worse appalling behaviour. I should not be surprised.
  I usually have one drama series on the go. This week I finished Caliphate a Swedish series on Netflix. Such a change from crime to have this one about radicalised kids, and adults who have gone to Raqqa where Islamic State is not really what they’d expected and want to get home.  Refreshingly, female characters are more focus of events – on both ‘good’ sides and ‘bad’ sides, as well as victims. Quite gripping.
 Looking for a new series,  I picked up Geoff Gardner’s hint from last week about Southcliffe on Stan.  Again, it’s back to the crime/mass killer genre.  But this is refreshingly different in that it’s not a whodunnit – that is clear almost from the start.  Nor is it really a “whydunnit”. Rather, it explores the impact of the killings on a small town, and some of the people who varius levels of connection with the event. I enjoyed it. 
  A couple of repeat viewings of fairly recent films.  When Julio Medem’s The Tree of Blood debuted on Netflix last year, I was new to streaming, and didn’t realise I could dodge the English dubbing.  I was a bit less than involved but put some of that down to the alienation of dubbing. So I watched it again this week, definitely selecting the original language and sub-titles. This was a better experience – but I realised that the film really does have problems. Largely I think Medem adopted a structure that was over-ambitious and confusing. Past and present intermingle – sometimes in the one shot, you’ll have a character from one moment watching action happening in the same space but years earlier or later. Not necessarily a bad idea – but it just didn’t work clearly enough for me here. In the different time periods I couldn’t always work out who those people were in terms of the scenes  we’d seen of them when they were older. It’s stunning to look at, and there are some worthwhile thoughts floating about.  But not his most successful work.
  A happier repeat viewing was Laszlo Nemes’ Sunset. Last week I mentioned re-watching his earlier Son of Saulbefore moving on to this. Sunsetis still a wonderful film – and certainly with subject matter that is easier to sink into than his Concentration Camp film. 
  I haven’t explored many of the extra sources coming online as different archives and cultural groups start streaming their collections.  After some urgings from a friend, and problems with buffering from the source,  I did get round to watching Maurice Tourneur’sBroken Butterfly from 1919. It’s a bit of a cliché story line – a lonely girl raised by an unfeeling woman in the Canadian wilds meets handsome rich young man. But discovering her true pedigree can solve class issues – though will it be in time? The satisfactions and pleasures in this little film come from its glowing camera work, beautifully restored by The Film Foundation.
  And my last bit of viewing was a bit out of character for me – a film about a sportsman. My friends know I’m hardly interested in sport at all. But that hasn’t stopped me appreciating good films about sport or sportspeople. I was really interested in Asif Kapadia’s Senna about a racing car driver – perhaps the sport I am almost aggressively uninterested in. And his Amy interested me in another field I’m not really into. So I had hopes for Diego Maradona.They weren’t fulfilled.  Maradona certainly has a very interesting life story. But this one just didn’t come together for me. 

Sunday 19 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (15) - Legendary Sydney Cinephile Tina Kaufman has some thoughts of films to return to.

I am NBN-less at the moment (long story!) so I am without streaming services or a decent internet.  I do have wireless internet which is weak and drops out often.  Hoping all this will be rectified soon.

Anyway, I drew up a list inspired by serendipitous things. 

A Brighter Summer Day– A Taiwanese stage director was talking on radio, mostly about theatre and music, but mentioned his old friend Edward Yang's "best film". I think his best film is Yi Yi, but I do like this one.

Blood Simple and Fargo- Because I heard Marta Dusseldorp talking to Jason De Rosso On Screen about her most inspirational actor, Frances McDormand.  I haven't seen Blood Simplefor ages, and after all the Fargocable TV series I'd love to go back to the original.

Withnail and I - SBS World Movies showed this the other day; I missed it, and although they usually repeat films several times at different time slots, they didn't with this one, for some reason.

Beneath  Clouds - Jason de Rosso, talking to Wayne Blair about the new season of Mystery Road, mentioned Ivan Sen, and I suddenly thought that I'd love to see this again.

Still Walking- I saw Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister for probably fifth time the other day - I think it is the loveliest film.  I'd love to see Afterlife again, but that was already on Geoff Gardner’s list, so I chose this as the one I'd next most like to see.)

And just because . . .

Nostalgia for the Light; The Gleaners and I; The Night of the Demon.