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Loser (2000)
5/10
the most unnervingly honest film to come from Hollywood in ages.
17 August 2001
'Loser' is Amy Heckerling's 'Candide', in which a naive optimist is sent out into the world, only to discover that it is unjust, exploitative and brutal. The best thing about 'Loser' is its casting and the expectations it creates: where 'American pie' was a sweet romantic comedy disguised as a scatalogical exposure of man's basest instincts, 'Loser' is a scatalogical exposure of man's basest instincts disguised as a sweet romantic comedy. The ironic references to Mena Suvari's most iconic role - 'American Beauty' - expose the paedophilia driving that work's sentimentality. This is a film of unimpeachable integrity, as ugly and unpleasant as the characters it satirises, 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' in Hell. So much integrity, in fact, it's virtually unwatchable.
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Nadja (1994)
2/10
Elena Lowenstein is enchanting.
17 August 2001
There are some people who try to reclaim 'Nadja' - along with Abel Ferrera's 'The Addiction' the most stultifyingly pretentious film ever made, bludgeoning the audience with Wim Wenders-like globs of pseudo-philosophical gabble and supposedly 'arty' screes of visual incoherence - by suggesting it is comic. But laughing at what, exactly? Horror films? You have to know what horror films do before you can mock them, and director Almedeyra hasn't a clue. American indie films? Probably, but it replicates that mind-numbing mindset so faithfully, it forgets to be funny about it. Students, whose existential angst and elevated notions of 'beauty' find expression in My Bloody Valentine records? Definitely. Elena Lowenstein as Dracula's Daughter (and Breton's Nadja?) is so gorgeous in her designer Grim Reaper cape, she may even replace Death from 'The Seventh Seal' as my iconic nightmare of choice.
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Barry Lyndon (1975)
10/10
A film worthy of the superlative superlatives - Kubrick's masterpiece, best film of the 1970s, one of the 20 best of all time...Etc. Etc. (spoilers)
17 August 2001
Warning: Spoilers
Like the sustained cinematic fugue it is, 'Barry Lyndon''s opening scenes provide a theme that will be treated to increasingly virtuosic variations throughout. Barry's father is killed in a duel. Barry lives with his mother who refuses to remarry. Barry loses his virginity to a woman playing a role while playing cards. These are the great threads - Fathers, Duels, Mother, Sex, Women, The Unattainable, Masks, Games, Gambling - weaving into the web that will eventually trap Barry Lyndon, Fate like a spider picking him off sadistically limb by limb.

'Barry' is structured around duels - the film begins and climaxes with one; key plot points centre around duels and 'organised' brawls. These duels are not just of the fencing/shooting type - they can be a stand-off in gambling; the deceptive games men and women play; the punishment meted out by fathers on stepsons, elder brothers on young half-brothers; a summons to redundancy; the phlegmatic defiance of a crippled cuckold; the attempt to hoodwink an officer. it doesn't even have to be negative - Barry's introduction to the chevalier begins with tacit antagonism, ends in a moving and genuine friendship. these duels are tests Barry must pass, traps he must avoid in his forward movement towards status and wealth.

But this duality has more thematic resonance than that, signified in the name-change form Redmond Barry to Barry Lyndon. It is a conflict between the individual and society, between that individual's genuine self, if there is such a thing, and the masks he adopts to hide any defects that self might have. The moral significance of the duels change as Barry moves from being a passionate lover to a ruthless schemer. For all Thackeray's ironic wit, there is a moralising streak in his novel, not necessarily of the 'Don't rise above your station' variety, but suggesting the unhappiness waiting for anyone who will forsake their true character for glittering, but fake baubles.

Kubrick takes this material and makes it his own, framing another story about a criminal outsider and a rigid, immovable social structure far more powerful than its individual constituents. Masks for Barry aren't necessarily a fragmentation of his identity, a degeneracy of his values. They are his way of beating the system, of infiltrating the fortress and destroying it from within. Far from becoming a monster, Barry is deliberately shown as both a debauchee and a loving father (the theme of fathers, from Barry's dead one, to his two benevolent father-figures; his replacing Bullingdon's father and his relationship with his own son, contrasted with the figures of mothers, is a powerful theme throughout)

It is a cliche that Kubrick is a bleak misanthrope and 'Barry Lyndon' doesn't suggest otherwise, with its farcically horrifying vision of war, and the more lethal machinations of society. The film deliberately sets in conflict (another duel) two 'times', a historical time of war and Great Powers, linked to Barry's journey from fugitive to aristocrat, and a circular time, in which events simply repeat themselves, and nothing ever changes. This is the Age of Enlightenment, where 'progress' was the soundbite, the idea that the sum of human knowledge and hence the sum of human happiness could be improved.

kubrick, bleakly, counters this - visualised in a film of staggering beauty, a successful attempt to fuse all the progressive art forms of the of the era (painting, theatre, sculpture, architecture, landscape gardening, music etc.) into a blinding whole - with scenes, especially the climactic duel with Bullingdon, suggestive of regression, primitivism, a reversion to tribalism (which, in effect, is what happens, a social order regrouping and expelling the outsider). The Church is now a henyard covered in straw, dark stage for a primitive rite, one that has been repeated throughout the film, denying all progress. the ritual, tribal drums make this overpoweringly apparent.

Barry ends up back where he began: worse, with the loss of a leg. Decades on, nothing has changed for Lady Lyndon either, signing cheques for her new 'husband', her son. The last date we see is 1789, that famous date of Revolution in France, spiralling out everywhere else, but not here, and Kubrick implies, not really anywhere. the old cliche, 'Plus ca change...'

Call me sentimental (or Irish) though, but in that final duel, when Barry refuses to kill his enemy, the light shining behind him through the narrow slits, the white doves flapping around him, suggest a religious interpretation, a suggestion that Barry may lose the world, but is somehow saved, redeemed: condemned to repetitious purgatory on earth, but beyond, who knows? Because this is Kubrick's second duality, his own, a miraculous balancing act between a film of pure abstraction, and a moving, funny, horrifying character study. Throughout Barry is made ridiculous, the dupe, the victim, and yet always retains our sympathy (largely through that heartbreakingly pained face) making even us atheists desire some salvation for him.

The film's greatest scene - the gambling table, where Barry and Lady Lyndon stare at each other in the candlelight like clockwork figures forced into humanity, is a masterpiece of cinema translating minimalist acting into genius - Ryan O'Neal in this film gives one of the great performances thanks to Kubrick, worth a thousand of yer celebrated hams.
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10/10
Bergman's rich, deceptive masterpiece (spoilers)
17 August 2001
Warning: Spoilers
'Wild Strawberries' is the account by a 78-year old man of a day spent on the road with his unhappy daughter-in-law and three young hitch-hikers, as he travels to receive an honorary doctorate for 50 years service as a doctor, scientist and inventor. The film is full of bitterness and unhappiness - Marianne has left her emotionally congealed husband because he refuses to inflict a baby on the world (that old chestnut); they crash into and give a lift to a married couple who seem like refugees from a latter Bergman movie, lacerating in a sado-masochistic relationship. Isak Borg has a series of dreams and memories pointing out the emotional failures of his life. And yet the movie ends on a note of tranquillity and tentative reconciliation. all the old doom and gloom stuff that riddled earlier Bergman movies - God, death etc. - is wonderfully parodied in the figures of two male hitch-hikers whose metaphysical boxing matches sublimate frustrated desire for the third.

With hindsight, we can refract 'Strawberries' through the lens of its sister picture, Bergman's last masterpiece 'Fanny and Alexander'. In 'Strawberries', and old man looks back at his life, filmed by a young man; in 'Fanny', Bergman himself is the old man looking back at his youth. As with 'Fanny', not everything in this film is as it seems, and as with all Bergman films, what seems to be narratively transparent is actually a labyrinth strewn with mines for the unwary viewer.

We should remember at all times that 'Strawberries' doesn't unfold on an objective 'realistic' level, but is a memoir shaped by an old man with certain vested interests. Early on, his daughter-in-law accuses him of being an egoist behind his old-world charm, and we should remember this when faced with a resolution that seems to be brought about by his good offices. It is significant that Borg's reputation - for either goodness or failure - is not shown or proven to the audience, but discussed and analysed by other characters, both in the real life story and in the dreams and memories (i.e. he is analysing himself). In the very process at which he is supposed to be enlightening himself about his life's failure, he remains absent from life, a detached observer, not reaping emotional reward or pain because he has put himself mentally above them (literally, as a man lying alone in bed).



The movement of the film is actually quite negative. The film is that rare thing, a European road movie. Whereas the American variant is usually a journey into the unknown, the future, a journey of progress, Europe cannot offer that freedom, it is too small, too cluttered, too marked by history. So a European road movie, while seeming to go forward, is actually a journey backwards into the past. The physical landscape through which Borg drives is also a mental landscape, as he passes crucial personal landmarks, the summer house in which he was 'betrayed' by his fiancee, his mother's house, the petrol station whose owners he once helped.

Bergman is used to playing with layers of narrative reality, muddying the boundaries of dreams, wishes, reality etc. At the first stop, the summer house, Borg transforms, through memory, a physical landscape into the world of the past, as he watches his fiancee seduced by his brother, the key moment in his life that seemed to deaden him emotionally. This isn't even memory - he wasn't there - it is a projection, an imposing of his fantasy, his will on a truth he will never access. He is brought back to 'reality' by a young woman. Except this woman is played by the same actress as the one who played his fiancee, and they share the same name. this may be coincidence, or it may be part of the defence mechanism of a man who killed human contact with logic, the very logic with which he is writing this memoir we're watching, providing the redemption in which we're expected to believe (later, the petrol shop owners, in a real-world scene, are far too young to remember kindness from decades previously, suggesting narrative boundaries well and truly erased). This is before any of the 'official' dream sequences.

There is a logic, a progression. The film begins with a dream, where an old man sees his own death, having ordered his life in such a way that he remains alone, like his dad (Oedipal resonances not just in his dad's handless watch, but the blind eyes as a sign under it), and ends with a dream, with an old man returning to his birth, the sight of his father and mother, his younger self non-existent. The point before betrayal, before the messiness of life. Borg finds tranquillity in a dream of non-being. if this is happiness, reconciliation, peace, than God help us.
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9/10
Dark, intense, violent, brilliant Mitchum Western.
17 August 2001
there should be a sub-genre in the Western called 'the Robert Mitchum Western'. Mitchum's brilliant, idiosyncratic, usually undervalued Westerns import his film noir persona to etch some compellingly dark character sketches, and bring an elegiac world-weariness more familiar from the films of Sam Peckinpah. 'Man with the gun' is one of his best. Directed by Orson Welles protege Richard Wilson, it is a stark, monochrome beauty, full of chilling silhouettes and terrifying outbursts of savage violence, as Mitchum comes to tame a town terrorised by a monopolist with a private army. Mitchum's regression from soft-spoken stranger to deranged murderer, with a host of dark emotions in between, is a marvel of expressive, physical acting.
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Code Unknown (2000)
7/10
Haneke is probably the best thriller director we have.
15 August 2001
There is a scene in 'Code Unknown' in which a young boy nearly falls off a high-rise, watched with impotent horror by his parents. It reminds us, as with 'Funny Games', that Michael Haneke is a major suspense director, as alive as Hitchcock or Polanski to the voyeurism, violation, manipulation and eroticism inherent in the thriller genre. However, Mr. Haneke rejects this talent as lacking high-mindedness, and instead produces State-0f-The-Nation/Continent lectures whose insipidity of content is only matched by breathtaking formal excellence. Resist the wagging finger, and enjoy the supreme confidence of a director with the most exciting facility with the punishing long take since Godard.
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Galaxy Quest (1999)
5/10
The most intelligent (and yearning) Hollywood film in ages.
15 August 2001
I guess you would need to have seen at least one episode of 'Star Trek' to even begin to get this - I haven't, and so was slightly bewildered as to what was going on, why many people already consider it a classic. I enjoyed it because some of it was funny - the silly accents of the Tertians; the moving bravado of the washed-up Nesmith; the performance of Sam Rockwell as Guy, his name signifying his function as a kind of everyman link between the different layers of reality the film portrays. The visual effects, supposed to be tacky, still rise to some spectacular moments: the desert ghost world where the crew seek berillium, intensely orange after all the uniform grey; the climactic scene where Nesmith and Gwen must run through a corridor of huge rapidly punching lever-things.

As the film moves towards its climax, it is difficult to gauge the tone. It clearly starts out satirising the imagination-defeating banality of nerd-conventions - the fans dressed as aliens unable to tell the difference between a tacky show and reality, or who have willed it into a reality, are mirrored by the aliens who mistake the show for historical documents, and despite their scientific brilliance (like their human counterparts) are dubiously figured as mentally retarded, with their stupid laughs and jerky movements.

If we have gotten reckless or intellectually threadbare enough to call 'Being John Malkovich' Borgesian, than the same epithet can more validly be applied to 'Galaxy Quest', where a whole series of times, realities and representations, initially separate, conflate, leading to the bizarre finale, as the space heroes return to another Convention, this time genuine adventurers - the difference between actors and roles; actors and their roles of 20 years ago; actors who must play, and indeed become their roles of 20 years ago; fans who create an actual reality from a non-existent fantasy; fans from the real world who become indispensible figures in the fantasy which is now a real world (phew!).

The end is quite mind-boggling, where it is impossible to untangle the boundaries of reality and fantasy. So what began as satire of a phenomenon synonymous with being a loser, and almost fascist (the military parade that first greets the actors in the Star port), becomes a celebration, not really of losers redeeming themselves, but of the place of fantasy in everyday life, and its power to transform it. I don't mean politically restructure society; just the old post-modern ideas of reproduction and illusion. After all, we live in a 'real world' where a non-existent, fantasy language, Klingon, can now be studied at universities, as a 'real world' mode of communication. The real world has no place for heroes and goodness, but we can still pretend these things exist.
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Vertigo (1958)
10/10
Unfathomable.(spoilers)
15 August 2001
Warning: Spoilers
It has become one of the cliches in talking about 'Vertigo' that it is Hitchcock's most personal work, a naked confession of his desires for blonde actresses in general, for Vera Miles (who was originally intended to play Madeleine/Judy) in particular. In this model, Scottie Ferguson who makes over Judy Barton in the image of another woman and destroys her in process, is Hitchcock making over Kim Novak in the image of a pregnant Vera Miles.

This is all well and good, if a little facile, but isn't the true Hitchcock altar-ego in 'Vertigo', a man whose place of business is introduced by Hitchcock's cameo, Gavin Elster? The seemingly stolid, amiable craftsman creating mad, mind-bending murder plots, and then disappearing for ever, just as Hitchcock creates in 'Vertigo' a truly Borgesian labyrinth without a centre, lets generations of critics loose in it, and vanishes with the map? The plot of 'Vertigo' is pure illusion, a phantom narrative starring a possessing ghost, formerly an actress; in trying to recreate a phantom, to become Gavin Elster, to possess a possessed woman (in both senses - by Carlotta Valdes; by Elster), Scottie merely duplicates and proliferates more and more phantoms until he wanders around in a world that doesn't exist.

There is a school of thought that presuasively argues that 'Vertigo' is a Surrealist film - one critic even suggests that Scottie dies at the beginning (and how on earth was he rescued from a rotting gutter; by the criminal?), and that the rest of the film is a dream. this is convincing because the film follows a dream logic, in its repetition, overlaying and transformation of scenes, characters, motifs, colours etc. When Scottie has the famous nightmare after Madeleine's death, the nocturnal view of Scottie, with 'SP' blazing in neon that began the film, with Scottie and the policeman pursuing a miscreant, is repeated here. Why?

One thing is for certain, this nightmare sequence is the key moment in 'Vertigo'. There is a pattern in the film where characters take on the characteristics of other characters, like ghosts, most obviously in the case of Judy and Madeleine. In the film's second half, Scottie begins with his mind blasted, emptied of his own personality. He begins it leaving a mental institution. He is ready to become someone else. He wants, both unwittingly and, after the discovery of the necklace, consciously, to become Elster, the creator of the film, the potent God who created a world and convinced his actors it was the real one. The man who got away.

Scottie fails to become Elster because he becomes Madeleine, another of Elster's creations. Madeleine tells Scottie the imprecise details of a recurring dream she has - Scottie in his nightmare enacts her dream and her fate. The end of the film will see him trying to extricate himself from his role and his Creator, but he will only repeat it, once again causing an 'innocent' woman to die for his own masculine vanity.

The film is full of blatant visual imagery expressing male and female principles, but it is Scottie who is feminised, who ends the film paralysed in a vaginal arch, just as earlier he stood in his doorway and Elster's actress stood with (the sardonically named) Coit Tower behind her. These arches are not just the female principles Scottie gets lost in, they are the proscenium arches of master playwright Elster, whose signature is found throughout the film, right from their first meeting, he relating his plot on a stage, Scottie the audience listening.

'Vertigo' was recently shown at the Irish Film Centre on 70mm. Some clown fouled up the sound. Normally this would be a vandalism punishable only by torture, but this time it gave me a chance to do something I'd always wanted to do, but was always prevented by Hitchcock's narrative intractibility - follow the story through the paintings. There are so many paintings in every room in 'Vertigo' (and in Scottie's is one of those scientific patterns of the opening credits, linking him again to the female object).

In Midge's study, the images of the female are fetishistically Surreal, fragments of the female body and their clothes (just as Scottie is decapitated/castrated in his nightmare) - in one painting above her sofa, where Scottie lies, surrounded by pictures of women, is an abstract study of fragments as if an explosion has just taken place. In Elster's room, ships naturally predominate, especially a storm scene where light on the left where Scottie stands meets the dark turbulence on Elster's, the side Scottie will cross into. The sound, I'm afraid, came back, and I once again got lost in the labyrinth, but I'm determined to do this properly some day. I did like the child with the code in the gallery behind Scottie (Carlotta's child? The child none of the characters have?), and the forest scene in the mental hospital, reminding us of the sequoias.

Still the greatest.
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8/10
Flawed, but frequently brilliant, Kubrick classic.(spoilers)
15 August 2001
Warning: Spoilers
'Paths of glory' is considered by many to be a Kubrick masterpiece, especially by those disenchanted with the later works, and their seeming abandoning of humanism. 'Paths' is a very humanist work, not so much an anti-war film as an anti-authoritarian film. It is a timely work, an implicit critique of a 1950s, conformist America ruled by a military hero President. It takes the idea of order - military order as a metonym for social order - and shows how it is paradoxically used to create an Absurdist universe, where a General fires on his own men, where drunken cowards are put in positions of life-determining power, where a man dies not for any logical reason but because he drew lots.

In this way, the film is very much of its cultural time, the post-war world of the existentialists and the Theatre of the Absurd - the closing weeping at a song the soldiers don't understand can be seen as an equivalent to the Nietzchean laugh that closes Sartre's famous short story 'The Wall', a pointless affirmation of a universe where order creates disorder, and man must die, as these men will as they march to the Front in a few moments.

This philosophical underpinning serves to reinforce the critique of Eisenhower's America, the cowing of men into mindless, slobbering beasts at the mercy of their capricious masters; an anti-Semitic world (something the Jewish Kubrick would have been responsive to); a world where the apparatus of law and culture, those great Enlightenment forces of humanism, join forces with the military to validate and conceal the profound subversion, by authority, of natural justice. Visually, this is most powerfully expressed in the obscenely beautiful, symmetrical scene, where Saint-Auban, the army and the mansion behind him, reads out the death sentence.

There are many pointers to the later Kubrick here, in particular the exciting use of cavernous interior space to alienate the individual from himself, his environment, his status, his fate, as well as to visualise a kind of mental deterioration or decadence, in this case the mind of the army, the State, the decadent West. One must admire Kubrick's integrity in a vision of unremitting brutality - he sadistically tantalises us with possibilities of Hollywood-style redemption (the parodic religious symbolism - the mud on the barracks walls like three crosses, the floods of divine light pouring into the cell; the hopes of a deux ex machina when Bax finds about General Mireau's murderous intentions).

With great subtlety, as he would do throughout his career, the camera, supposedly the viewer's guide to the truth, is put in the service of authority, leaving us with the near-impossible task of disentangling what it shows, how it moves (those awesome tracking shots moving at the behest of officers) and what it represents. The scene where the army try to take the anthill, soldiers dying all over the place, literally unable to move, caught by a a freely, relentlessly mobile camera, like the generals urging them on, is an astonishing case in point.

And yet I don't think it's a totally successful Kubrick picture. There are concessions to audience sensibilities - Mireau is punished - too late, but punished; the singing scene, though ultimately pointless, does affirm a humanity in a world Kubrick has shown has very little. The caricatures of the Generals are too easy, if very funny, the case is too one-sided: how can we not sympathise with the innocent victims (although, being men, who must die anyway, they are not really innocent). When Camus wanted to explicate existentialism in 'The Stranger', he chose a murderer. Later Kubrick films would centre on paedophiles, rapists, criminals - it is how we cope with the moral ambiguities they throw up that true argument lies.

Dax shows the possibility of integrity and human decency in such an absurd world. Even here, through, Kubrick's intellect is not static. Like must Kubrick heroes, Dax's unity, his sense of masculine power and capability, is diminished not by his defeat by authority (his speech to Broulard means he remains morally powerful and unified for us), but by his Kubrickan split between his feelings as an individual, and his social (in this case, military) role. When the condemned men walk to their deaths in that amazing scene of death-ritual (like 'Barry Lyndon', super-civilised Western society is underpinned by the most barbaric rites), Colonel Dax's monumental impassivity and his uniform, condemn the men and legitimise their death. As Ionesco warns 'Arithmetic leads to Philology and Philology leads to Crime'.
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7/10
Entertaining, unusual, comic early take on the film noir universe.
15 August 2001
This little known entry in a minor series might ring a few more bells when it is known that 'the Falcon takes over' is the first adaptation of Raymond Chandler's wonderful novel 'Farewell my Lovely'. And rather good it is too. Unlike its more famous successors - Edward Dmytryk's 1943 'Murder my sweet' and Dick Richards' 1975 remake, both the very definition of earnest film noir and neo-noir - this film has a vein of parody, irony and wit, that brings it closer to Robert Altman's iconoclastic 'The Long Goodbye', or, at the very least, Eddie Constantine's Lemmy Caution series of films in France.

Of course, this has largely to do with the fixed needs of an already established series, to which any source material was fitted - Chandler was clearly just another hack writer towards whom little respect need be paid. There is none of Chandler's profound disillusionment here, no attempt to trace a society or analyse its corruption. this is the noir equivalent of a Broadway musical comedy, with background strictly a setting, like a ship or a drawing room, in which familiar types do their routine.

There is no angst-ridden, isolated, defeated knight Philip Marlowe here; in his place is the Falcon, a heavy, louche, even leery amateur of dubious sexuality (like Lemmy he is clumsily eager for the ladies, and tends to bed them as soon as he meets them (or in such a way as Hollywood code could at the time suggest); but he lives a determinedly bachelor life in a large house with his 'bit of rough' sidekick Goldie, who likes to wear incongruously svelte dressing gowns in the morning (another kind of Hollywood code), his unseen fiancee fortuitously miles away).

It is important to stress that in the very early days of noir, there was an in-built awareness of the need for parody. Noir is a powerful vision, especially in a culture of such blinding, gaudy brightness as the US. But sometimes, in its macho fatalism and frightened misogyny, it can be an exhausting vision - too much straight noir can be bad for your mental health.

But this is not to say that 'Falcon' is just a big joke. Like that other great serial film that transcended its modest origins - 'Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death' - it is closer to the horror film than the detective genre. Moose Molloy's lumbering, unthinking violence is similar to Karloff's Frankenstein. The scene where the Falcon, impersonating a drunk, first meets him, is filmed with mock-horror sensationalism, as is O'Hara's creeping up on Goldie's neck later. There is an attempted murder in a fog-wafting cemetary. The scene at Jules Amthor's exotic haven has the feel of those Egyptian horrors like 'the Mummy' Universal used to churn out in the 1930s, while the soundtrack has the mysterious anxiety of horror rather than the strident fear we expect from noir.

In a genre which centres on the detective, on knowledge, on the possibility of explaining and repairing breaks in the social and moral order, the intrusion of horror will be disturbing. It asserts the opposite - the limits of knowledge, darkness over the light of reason, the vulnerability of bodies, the point of breakdown. the Falcon in this mystery is singularly inept, and is only saved from death by a singularly unconvincing deus ex machina. He is utterly exposed, his reason and detective status irrelevant faced with the cold fact of Death in a lonely forest, a very horror milieu. In this way, the amiably silly 'Falcon' is actually closer to the spirit of Chandler than more 'serious', faithful versions (Despite the scriptwriters' brave efforts, though, the plot is typically intransigent!).
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Brother (I) (2000)
8/10
Uncompromising.
3 August 2001
Of all the directors who have plundered the legacy of Jean-Pierre Melville for superficial treasure, Takeshi Kitano has always been the most intelligent, the most alert to his metaphysical drive. 'Brother', Kitano's mostly marvellous new feature, is imbued with all things Melville, from the opening silent wandering of Yamomoto, like Jef in 'Le Samourai', to the muted blue colour palette, faceless glass buildings and grey ritual beach of 'Un Flic'

Most pertinent, however, is Melville's under-rated 'Deux hommes dans Manhattan', which also starred the director. Like that film, 'Brother' is Kitano's first American film, his first cultural work in the country of origin of the urban genre he has made his own. And like Melville, instead of dealing with this country, Kitano seems to have become more obsessively Japanese, more interested in ritual, nation, Eastern philosophy. In other words, Kitano has taken foreign money to make an uncompromisingly personal film which, like 'Boiling Point' and 'Kids' Return', turns the gangster film into a rite of passage.
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Bread Day (1998)
7/10
Traditional documentary looking at forgotten people.
3 August 2001
A throwback to the methods and assumptions of Robert Flaherty, 'Bread Day' is a documentary recording a day in the life of an isolated snow-crowned former Soviet settlement, now sparsely populated by testy old people and some mangy animals. The title refers to the day when a supply of bread is sent to the settlement - the old folk must push the carriage themselves for the final miles of the journey. There are very few scenes in the film, the rigid camera focusing relentlessly on the tableau in hand, be it a vicious row in the bakery, or the methodical munching of a goat. We are supposed to pretend the camera isn't there, but drunks and animals keep drawing attention to it. This contrived 'unmediated' style is supposed to give us a genuine taste of the life of a community abandoned by the powers that be - all I could think was, why doesn't the cameraman help the old people push the carriage?
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Choir Works (1998 TV Short)
6/10
A guide to the modern state of the choir from the man who sang 'Blackadder...'
3 August 2001
choirs are the most basic expression of any community, a coming together of classes, gender and races, a transcending of life's everyday conflicts through the artificial medium of song. Well, that's the theory anyway. So, in this era of high-capitalism, where Margaret Thatcher could plausibly claim that there was no longer any such thing as society, where communities are increasingly fragmented and displaced, where new media and popular art-forms have threatened the more 'artisan' modes, whither the choir?

In this four-part Channel 4 series, Howard Goodall, immortal composer of the Blackadder theme tune, attempts to find out. He visits four far-flung corners of the world - gospel in the American South, Zulu escatia (my phonetic rendering of a word never spelt!), folk/national singing in the post-Soviet countries of Bulgaria and Estonia, and traditional choirboy singing in England.

In these programmes, Goodall traces the social and historical context of these choral forms and their enduring visibility in their respective countries - slavery in the South; Communism in Eastern Europe. Frequently choral singing was a means of expressing communal spirit in conditions of great oppression - the fall of Bolshevism in Estonia, for instance, was precipitated by hundreds of thousands of people singing national songs in the streets. in South Africa, the choir's function of expressing tribal self-confidence has given way to economic necessity, as poor blacks perform in marathon song contests for money and status.

Goodall is an amiable guide, with a predilection for rolling his 'r's. there is some amusing pomposity-pricking, as when he eyebrow-raises an 'enthusiastic' American academic obsessed with Bulgarian singing. Every programme seems to centre on food and the kitchen. Nevertheless, the narrator's presence is frequently intrusive, interrupting the music for facile asides, resurrecting unwelcome spectres of 'Graceland' in South Africa.
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6/10
Painfully real.
3 August 2001
'J'entends plus la guitare' is dedicated to the memory of Nico, the Swedish model and actress who was director Garrel's muse, most famous as the blonde Marcello meets at the castle party in 'La Dolce Vita', and the singer with the haunted monotone on the Velvet Underground's extraordinary 'Banana' album. the heroine of the film is a blonde German who, like Nico, turns to drugs - her last appearance is marked by a pun on heroine/heroin (the Velvets' most famous song), and the Velvet-esque guitar of the title is no longer heard by the hero, or the director. The female is usually signalled in Garrel's films by music, as if music itself was somehow a feminine principle - the 'Je', therefore, is plausibly the director's, offering the film as a mea culpa, blaming himself for a death triggered by pure male egotism. Gerard is one of the least likeable characters in European cinema, an emotional vampire who needs to suck the emotional blood out of countless women, leaving them diminished, empty, to save himself from a similar fate.

Perhaps, again in tribute to Nico, Garrel's usual stylistic austerity is filtered through a Warhol-like sensibility. this is one of the most gruelling films I have ever squirmed through, in terms of style - long, punishing takes in shabby, bare environments of people either talking self-serving philosophical twaddle, or, worse, little at all, the peeling of the walls against which the characters are framed speaking more eloquently for the emotional and imaginative inertia; takes that are so long and unadorned that the characters (or actors) arent' allowed to hide, and the various mannerisms or tics or little theatrical heightenings are exposed for what they are, not as accretions to be stripped away to reveal some real 'truth', but as part of the truth that we can never strip them away, never truly give ourselves to another - and in terms of content.

the film begins as a stereotypical French film, with two couples frustrated in love: one is in love with another but won't give him a child; one refuses to tell his lover he loves her because she doesn't know what the word means. The men begin the first of their discussions about their relations to the women, one grounded in culture, the other in experience. One could argue this as the philosophical base of the film.

In any case, things go from bad to worse, people start leaving each other, losing their children, sleeping with prostitutes or older, abused women. What is unusual in this film is that 'seedy' subject matter usually treated luridly or with too much downbeat detail, is here represented in a flat, monotonous visual style, and through a disarming ellipsis that doesn't warn the viewer that five minutes or five years have passed. This is the closest cinema has gotten to the numbed, unsensational texture of life itself. To even ask entertainment of it is besides the point.
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7/10
Haunting film about politics and old age.(spoiler in last paragraph)
3 August 2001
Warning: Spoilers
'Liberte, la nuit' is not really a political film, or, at least, a film about politics. Its central figures are an aging revolutionary helping Algerians in the anti-colonial war against France, his separated wife, a dressmaker who gives them guns, and his mistress, a French Algerian emigree. Such a set-up might offer opportunities for allegory - white Algeria returning to the aging bosom of the fatherland, and all that. The film's most dynamic sequence is pure political thriller, an assassination by the OAS, confusingly shot and edited on grainy stock that evokes both documentary immediacy and the whirring of a surveillance camera, complete with exciting car chase. The human relationships - especially the drawn-out separation of Jean and Mouche, are said to be caused by his political activity, while his contact with others has some basis in his 'work'. Even, as I say, his final escape with an apolitical menial has political overtones; and their idyll is ultimately no escape from history.

'Liberte' is shot in monochrome, a consciously artificial act in the context of 1983, allowing for the artificiality of talk, movement and composition throughout the film. Unlike most contemporary films that use black and white, for its shadowy Expressionist/film noir effect, Garrel privileges gleaming white over murky black. This, together with its concern with dream, memory and the past, connects 'Liberte' to another elegiac film about an aging revolutionary living past his moment, Resnais' 'La Guerre est finie' - the gleaming white contributes to the dreamlike effect Garrel gives his static, mostly empty exteriors; near the end, there is an astonishingly beautiful silhouette of a pier and buoys in shadow against a sea that looks like it was lit from underneath. 'Liberte' can't help recall that other famous, and famously banned, French classic about the Algerian War, Godard's 'Le Petit Soldat', another black and white, dialogue-driven film in which political violence mingles with personal dilemmas.

The film is called 'Liberte, la nuit', and frames two types of liberty, the struggle for political freedom, and the more personal freedom within relationships (and in the conflict with one's aging, one's reputation) against the central scene of Mouche's assassination. This pattern sees Mouche gravitating unwillingly towards political action, and Jean in the opposite direction. It's never quite clear what Jean's precise political activities are - when we first see him he is talking to a friend, their children in the back seat, about a retired film director. When they meet a group of Algerians, Jean could as easily be a drug dealer as a revolutionary - he speaks in a language which is not translated, emphasising the presumed audience's outsider status and Jean's sense of belonging or negotiating between two groups. However, this sense of being two seems to make him less of a man - throughout are interspersed sketchy, incomplete pictures that provide a kind of commentary.

This crosscutting of Mouche and Jean, is also figured in the move from interiors or cramped exteriors to wider vistas, mountains, lakes etc. But there is another movement that suggests Garrel's true interest: a gendered one. His film features two realms, a male and female one. The male one is one of action and history, one that speaks, analyses and moves with ease between realms. the female one, by contrast, is marked by immobility and silence, their inner selves signalled by the music that plays over their activities. If they do speak it is to mouth their husband's lines (the puppeteer's wife), or to react to their husband's decisions.

Mouche's movement into the male world of action results in her death. Jean's move into the female world of reaction, where he longs to be consumed by apathy, results in his. In a marvellous closing shot, literally so. Jean finally tracked down and executed, his death signals the film's end, freezing the rippling water and breeze, confirming that it was a film or world made in his image, which would die with him. that there can be no real connection between these realms is suggested in tense compositions that imprison characters in frames at the mercy of their unseen interlocutors.
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8/10
The best of Truffaut's late films.
3 August 2001
Francois Truffaut follows in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Melville by adapting a popular genre as a serious allegory for the darkest period in French history: the Nazi Occupation. Just as Melville used the gangster film to examine notions of legality, legitimacy, authority and criminality in a period when the Resistance were outlaws and the police rounding up Jews for the death camps, so Truffaut takes the beloved putting-on-a-show warhorse, and uses it as a metaphor for the conditions of life in Occupied France: the need to act, adapt and continually discard roles. When Depardieu's character leaves to fight for the Resistance, he puns about exchanging his make-up (maquillage) for the maquis.

What Truffaut is most interested in, as in all his films, is the effect this need for constant dissembling has on individual identity and relationships. This wonderful romantic comedy plays like a mature update of 'Casablanca', richly stylised, bravely open-ended, with Truffaut's moving camera wrenching spirit from the claustrophobic confines.
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9/10
A perfect adaptation of Shakespeare's most perfect play.
25 July 2001
Quite simply one of the best ever Shakespearean adaptations, because it achieves the near-impossible balance of comedy and melancholy that makes 'Twelfth Night' the favourite Shakespeare play of the discerning. More than either, 'Twelth night' makes tangible a feeling of longing, the exquisitely fine puppetry, the richly detailed mise-en-scene, the haunting Elizabethan pastiche score, all frame characters alone and desiring unrequited. this courtly anguish is satisfyingly countered by the cruel, physical humour of Toby and Aguecheeks' world, but even here, Malvolio's mirroring humiliation returns us to sadness.
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9/10
As essential as any Bergman film.
25 July 2001
Most 'The Making of...' documentaries are barely concealed extensions of the publicity machine, a glorified advertisement that purports to demystify the industrial production of cinema, to bring the audiences closer to actors and directors who are presumed to be engaged as real people creating a fiction, rather than a fiction. When really, the carefully stage-managed featurette reveals just as much as the filmmakers want, tantalising the curious punter without ever enlightening, and developing an extra facet of a star persona, rather than normalising it.

As you might expect, a 'Making of' an Ingmar Bergman film is a little different. Recording the shoot of his swansong and crowning masterpiece, 'Fanny and Alexander', 'Dokument' is essential viewing for Bergmanophiles. Framed by explanatory, often flippant intertitles, the film follows, in detail, Bergman at work, painstakingly, methodically, often tediously shaping each scene, the precise movements of camera and actors, the details of the composition, the timing and delivery of dialogue. There is no frivolous chumminess here, no meet-the-backroom-boys boffinry.

Bergman disclaims at the start any pretensions for this documentary, suggesting that it can never capture the inner journey that is the act of creation: this is of course true, but 'Dokument' is more than the entertaining peek backstage Bergman affects to offer us. With 'Dokument', Bergman performs two very serious functions. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, he educates the viewer. It many seem dull to watch take after take of each scene, with little of the 'hilarious' bloopers TV programmes and Hollywood end credits delight in (although there's some wonderful business with an intransigent cat). There may not seem to be any real difference between takes, or any reason why we should be shown rehearsals for takes followed by takes.

What this repetition does, though, is accustom the viewer to nuance, to the aesthetic reason for the most functional set-up, or why a character is in this particular position, why this shot is in close up, while the next is an elaborate long take. it alerts us to the use of colour, light, framing; it makes us aware of the details of the decor. The documentary may not show the creative inner journey, but when we see the process from rehearsal to take to final act, we do glimpse something of Bergman's art, something that is clearly going on in his head while the shoot takes place, but remains, until then, unspoken. Trust me, if you watch this documentary just before the film itself, as I did, your mind becomes more receptive, and the work's rich magic becomes even more clearly apparent.

Secondly, and relatedly, 'Dokument' is in a sense a Bergman film. Despite its light, seemingly loose form and tone (Bergman, far from being the anguished dictator of legend, is amiable and constantly braying with childlike laughter), the creative journey I spoke of becomes in a sense a spiritual journey. Like 'Fanny and Alexander' itself, a recreation of Bergman's childhood, the documentary is framed around dinners - in between comes a revelation of the artist, in this case at the end, rather than beginning, of his career.

There is a truly painful sequence here, among the most emotionally powerful in Bergman's work, where Bergman rehearses a cameo with his long-time collaborator Gunnar Bjornstrand, doing a piece as the clown Feste in Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'. If the intertitles didn't suggest that Bjornstrand approved the scenes being shown, you would think they were exploitative and humiliating. Bergman may be near the end of his career here, but he is still intellectually and physically formidable, handling the demands of a big-budget, three hours plus costume drama with a large cast and difficult narrative strands with ease and grace.

Bjornstrand, on the other hand, seems nearly senile, tired, forgetful, plainly not up to the job, shown in his scene's non-appearance in the movie. The sight of Bergman trying to keep his friend's spirits up, encourage and compliment a giant of acting like he's a baby, for around 20 minutes, is something you'll never see in 'The Making of Pearl Harbour'. It says so much about Bergman's art and his themes, and how even at his most artificial, he was clearly, obstinately true to life. It's uncanny.
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8/10
Bergman remakes 'The Divine comedy' as a melodrama. (possible spoiler)
25 July 2001
Warning: Spoilers
the story of 'Music in Darkness' could, with little difficulty, be transposed to Hollywood in its more sentimental attitudes - a handsome, wealthy, artistic young man becomes blind after an accident during military service; after harrowing experiences of humiliation, exploitation and degradation, he learns to live with his disability, guided by love. And the young Bergman was not averse to manipulating the melodramatic tricks of Hollywood, although his use of them are satisfyingly sadistic - the tense attempt in the opening sequence of the hero to rescue a puppy who has strayed into the line of an army firing practice - so much sentimental weight is attached to the cute liddel doggie that we barely register what actually transpires, the shooting of a human being; the near-Hitchcockian sequence where the hero, abandoned by a blind acquaintance, stumbles onto a railway line, with a train approaching behind him.

Hollywood films dealing with disability have two functions - to wrest easy tears from an audience that generally, thankfully, doesn't have to deal with that kind of trauma in real life; and to chart the process of socialisation of an unwitting outsider, to bring a model citizen alienated by experience back into the fold. Bergman isn't really interested in either of these things - his snobbish hero is not easy to warm to, and the promised socialisation at the end is distinctly ambiguous, and not sanctioned by many of the community members. Where a Hollywood film might close with the exultant union of the disabled person and his lover, Bergman ends with an uncomfortable coda, where the lovers must put their decision to the social test, and where the future stumbling blocks are disconcertingly laid out. It is anxiety we feel for the lovers and their uncertainty, not a rosy, complacent glow.

Even at this stage in his career, Bergman has other interests. It is remarkable, in a genre film, how many of the themes, figures and motifs of his later masterpieces are present - the artist hero, whose journey with his art paralells a kind of spiritual or interior struggle; the difficulties of even the best-intentioned heterosexual relationships, battered not only by external circumstances, but by pride, whim, cruelty, self-pity etc.; the obstacles of family and organised religion; the mirroring of a physical disability with interior deterioration.

Bergman's most characteristic work is identified by the tension between (emotional) excess in content and extreme austerity in form. His early melodramas, conversely, are expressionist extravaganzas, with their heavy use of twisted camera angles, shadows, deep focus and obtrusive music. Expressionism is generally a projection of interior states on the external world - what is interesting here is that the hero has no vision of any sort to colour the real world, so that the expressionism is a genuine interior projection, and the play of light and darkness in the mise-en-scene, the heightened artificiality of certain scenes (e.g. his reunion with Ingrid in a fogged wood) all attest to his journey in a more honest way than the conventional plot.

Bergman charts this journey as a kind of spiritual pilgrim's progress - in his first dream/vision after his accident, as well as meeting big fish and sirens, Bengt is dragged down into a hellish slime, by disembodied hands - if we remember Dante's 'Inferno', Hell is defined by darkness.

The film's central section, where the hero's blindness is tested in social situations, where he is rejected as an artist, forced to find employment with thieves and grotesques who rob him, where, through his own class idiocy he loses the girl he loves, is a kind of Purgatory, where he must purify himself of the moral flaws the world had inculcated in him, where he becomes genuinely humble and selfless.

Heaven is concentrated in the marriage - there is a genuine spiritual bond between the two lovers, from encouragement Ingrid gives him at the funeral even though he doesn't know she's there, to her sense that he is in trouble with the train. After all, the woman who brings them together is called Beatrice! Needless to say, Bergman is less religiously ecstatic than Dante.
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Crisis (1946)
8/10
Fabulous early Bergman melodrama with many pointers to later masterpieces.(possible spoilers)
25 July 2001
Warning: Spoilers
Like much of his pre-'Seventh Seal' early work, Bergman's 'Crisis' has been called a melodrama. One can see the attraction of the label - the largely cramped theatrical settings; the plot, with a prostitute coming to a sleepy provincial town for the daughter she abandoned 18 years earlier, taking her back to the big city and a young lover-coded-pimp; the squalls of over-emphatic music at key moments; the accumulation of narrative tension finding release in sexual violence and death; the contrast between the sophisticated, but corrupt ethics of the city, and the decent, but dull values of the country, coded in costumes and architectural space; the 'doomed', morally impotent young anti-hero.

But if 'Crisis' is a melodrama, it belongs to the work in that genre by those great directors who, like Bergman, began their careers in the theatre, Max Ophuls and Douglas Sirk. Like them, Bergman takes a form dependent on moral certainties to create a world where such certainties have cased to exist. This is not to say Bergman has contempt for the genre he works in - like all great melodramatists, he gives vivid dramatic form to oppositions, for instance, the cramped, interior world of Ingeborg, and the fresh, location shooting in which we first find Nelly; or the young people's jazz intrusion of a fusty mayor's ball. He respects the melodrama's focus on women, their stifling in set social roles - prostitute, mother, spinster, lover, daughter, illegitimate child, ideal, whatever.

But what Bergman cleverly does is milk the expectations of genre, only to totally confound them. When Jenny comes to abruptly collect a daughter she simply dumped on Ingeborg, followed by a young man clearly coded as a pimp, we imagine the sordid horrors into which Nelly will be flung, especially as she's seduced by Jack with drink, fine words and jazz. Her mother, dressed in black, and shamelessly free with her body as she takes a foot bath, all suggest a licentiousness into which the 'innocent' will be trapped. The huge elision between her leaving Ingeborg, and the latter's visit to the city, marked only by a letter of dubious provenance, contribute to the bad omens. And yet, as Ingeborg discovers, Nelly is quite respectably working in the beauty salon as her mother had promised; she has new clothes and friends. The young man is no pimp, but an aimless sponging egoist.

This isn't mere leg-pulling on Bergman's part - it's a way of forcibly shaking us out of lazy assumptions. The supposed haven of the village is shown to be repressively conformist and culturally dead, while Nelly's aunt's house combines lassitude with penury. The location shooting that seems to express Nelly's authenticity become a Skakespearean stage, where Jack seduces here, and the prosaic Ulf beats him up, in a heavily stylised and brilliantly artificial masque.

Bergman from the opening narration emphasises the fictiveness and theatricality of his story, where his marionettes are continually placed in transposed theatres: his framing, as with Ophuls and Sirk, is elaborately intrusive, capturing characters in boxes or behind bars; the sequence shot at the ball, the camera moving from the kids jiving to the old folks' pretentious horror is a masterpiece of concise visualising of themes, catching these two seemingly disparate groups in the one trap.

The heavily contrived finale is not only introduced by a glaring narrative elision, but is soundtracked to the noise from an adjacent theatre. Add to this the dreams and anxious visions of Ingeborg, which, like the young hero's in 'Fanny and Alexander', seem to seep into the narrative itself, so that it is difficult to tell whether what we are watching is objectively happening within the narrative, or the subjective projection of a lonely woman's nightmares, and you have a structural ambiguity, with which Bergman not only transcends the limitations of traditional melodrama, but points forward to the impulses of his finer later work.
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5/10
The serious flip-side to Garson Kanin's comic genius (possible spoilers)
25 July 2001
Warning: Spoilers
'They knew what they wanted' fits in very well with Garson Kanin's most famous films, the romantic comedies 'Bachelor Mother' and 'My Favorite Wife': a cynical view of the pieties of marriage, family and friendship; a larger-than-life paterfamilias who must rethink his most complacent assumptions: a spineless male hero who would rather run away from trouble he's caused than face up to it; a plot involving crossed-wires, mistaken identities and performances intended to deceive.

It's good to remember the Kanin familiarities, because in many ways this is the above-mentioned films' polar opposite. It is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which not only means that the dialogue is stilted, the characterisation caricatured and the themes morose, but also means a combination of self-consciously 'heavy' issues (race, promiscuity, adultery, unwanted pregnancies, mail-order marriages - despite gaping plot euphemisms and ellipses) and lachrymose piety, in the noxious person of Padre McKee, an Irish priest whose status in the community is that of a luggage carrier, and yet who insists on sticking his oar in with a mixture of cruel jibes and other-worldly homilies.

Tony Patucci is the larger-than-life Italian immigrant who has worked so hard in his new country that he now owns a huge vineyard ranch in Nava County, run by his foreman and trusty friend Joe, a migrant worker who spends his nights hustling women by the quays and is afraid of becoming too attached to his boss.

On a vacation to San francisco, Tony catches sight of a life-hardened blonde waitress, Amy, and decides to marry her. He gets joe to write her a letter, and soon a correspondance ensues, resulting in Amy accepting Tony's proposal of marriage. Afraid that she will reject a fat Italian, Tony sends a photo of Joe, and so all the trouble starts. Even after the initial mix-up is cleared up, there is an obvious, though hate-filled, attraction, between Amy and Joe, and on the festive night before the wedding Tony drunkenly falls off his roof in an attempt to impress his new bride, leaving her and his friend wide open to temptation.

Tonally, 'They knew' is a strange film, moving as it does from gentle rural comedy to sub-Eugene O'Neill tragedy. It is made with Kanin's customary skill, and he manages to made the material watchable for most of its running time. He skillfully captures the sun-cracked Eden of Tony's ranch, and the intimations of temptation, and it's a rare Hollywood film of the period that shows any kind of ethnic community positively, even if these Italians predictably sing, drink and perform dangerously macho feats.

Some people think that 'They Knew' is racist, and that Charles Laughton's performance as Tony is not an intelligent attempt to reveal his character's inner-life, but a self-indulgent collection of stereotypical texts, perhaps on the level of ''Allo 'Allo'. It would be mean-spirited to accuse the film-makers of racism - they are clearly sympathetic to their hero, and presumably think his climactic act of violence does reveal character, rather than being the generic climax for all 'serious' American drama.

Tony is never allowed go beyond being a naive, infantilised, figure of fun - he has no sexuality, he doesn't even seem to truly understand what Amy and Joe have done. This is deliberate - when Tony is on the roof trying to prove his masculinity, he falls, just as the friend he calls his 'son' is making progress with his bride: his act of sacrifice is his way of being a husband and father, without having to become a sexual adult, retaining his Christ-like innocence. We would now call this racist, or at least not thought through hard enough - as an Oedipal drama it lacks true physical weight, although Joe's exit into a dawn wasteland is visually powerful.

But there is a strange scene where Tony is listening to 'Amos and Andy' on the radio: we, the audience, find ourselves watching a media representation of a racist stereotype listening to a media representation of racist steretotypes. Not for the first time in his career, Kanin's prickly intelligence forces us to rethink what we've been watching.
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9/10
A Shakespearian masterpiece of farce.
25 July 2001
Garson Kanin's best films are so bright, fast and funny, and have been plundered by so many pallid, feel-good imitators, that it's easy to overlook how courageously critical they can be, of prevailing social norms, for instance, what society takes to be normal - 'natural' - about crucial concepts like family, gender, marriage etc. In 'My Favorite wife', Kanin takes the idea that a particular social order is natural, and tears it apart, by putting civilisation on one side, nature on the other, and revealing that there's nothing remotely natural about civilisation, or our places in it; that these things are man-made, and so can be questioned, negotiated, even changed by man (or, as is more usual in Kanin's world, woman).

'Wife' opens with an elaborate sequence showing the structure of civilisation at work in its most intrinsic form - the legal system. The hero is a lawyer, and is trying to declare his missing first wife dead so he can marry another. There are a few things we notice here: the judge is hilarious, a cantankerous old buffer, testy, capricious, and not at all rigorous, or even knowledgeable in his application of laws which, after all, structure people's lives, and which, we learn, are constantly overturned by the Court of Appeals, so that something that should be inviolable is shown to be provisional. there is room for manoeuvre, but there is also room for corruption.

More important for Kanin's purposes are two incidental details. The wife has been missing for seven years, a fairy-tale or mythical number in a site of legal process, undermining its claims to ultimate, 'official' reality. The hero's name is Arden, which might remind us of Shakespeare's Forest ('As you like it'), and the spirit of play that will inform the film, with people assuming and discarding roles, putting on costumes, using props, putting on 'plays' or performances to deceive, enlighten or outmanoeuvre others.

On one level, this warns us against accepting appearances in a civilised world that depends on appearances (all the talk about respectability); on another, it shows that certain roles - like being a mother, or husband - aren't God-given, but roles which have to be constantly rehearsed and refined. Play can be subversive - the way Ellen Arden dresses up as a man, breaks up a marriage, or tries to conceal a possible adultery - but it is also seen as a necessary process of socialisation: the children learn to imitate their parents, as they theatrically make their lost mother 'perform' her confession. They learn that society is fluid, not fixed; they also learn to lie. (the hero winds up in an Attic (as in Greek comedy), but that might be taking the analogy to far!)

Hitchcock once said that he often used Cary Grant because he wanted to work against his established image. But the figure of masculine immaturity and insecurity so richly realised in Roger O Thornhill ('North by Northwest') is already fully-formed here in a 'hero' who jumps at any chance to avoid making difficult decisions. Kanin, like Hitchcock later, makes brilliant, ironic use of Grant's most famous previous roles: 'Topper', another story about a professional flustered by a 'ghost'; and, especially, 'Bringing up baby', not just in the comically ghastly leopardskin bathrobe his second wife buys him, but in the animal imagery used throughout (kids going to the zoo; Steve as Tarzan etc.), contrasting with his civilised world that is making him desperately unhappy, his identity and masculine certainty fragmenting. (knowledge that Grant used to live with Randolph Scott adds further comic potency to their scenes)

This conflict between Nick's civilisation and the 'natural' order is typically complicated - Nick clearly married Bianca for her sexual prowess; Ellen and Nick are compatible because of their intellectual superiority to everyone else (which gives a streak of cruelty to their games, and makes one feel genuinely sorry for BIanca).

'Wife' is a masterpiece of farce, of shared rooms, opening and shutting doors, frustrated sexuality, mixed identities - but what makes it a true classic are the flashes of whimsy - the Steve diving sequence that results in some the most bizarre, incongruous, and sidesplittingly funny visions ever seen on film.
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9/10
A dark animated classic.
19 July 2001
One of the surprise Irish films of the last decade, 'Rat', was a surreal concept in a realistic urban setting about a man who one day turns into a rat. Here is an earlier look at rodent life, but one that belongs to a different cinematic tradition. It has many precursors, some literary (Kafka, Dickens, Orwell, Saki etc.), some cinematic (David Lynch (the Gothic recreation of Victorian England in 'The Elephant Man'; the monochrome nightmare of 'Eraserhead'); the short 'Franz Kafka's It's a wonderful life'; Gilliam's 'Brazil'; 'Mousehunt'; the animation of Svankmajer and Starewicz.

The film combines live action, animation and animatronics. Set in an unspecified Victorian locale, it tells the tale of a rat caged in J. Haddock's rodent emporium, where horrific 'scientific' experiments are carried out. When Haddock discovers our hero has mastered the alphabet, he decides to cut off his head to measure his prodigious brain. The rat makes an ingenious escape, but finds the outside world as uncongenial as the laboratory, where a mob nab him and force him into a gruesome rat-fighting contest (having seen 'Amores perros' in the same week, I've had just about enough of this sort of thing). A second escape leads him back to the laboratory, and his doomed rodent comrades. He realises change is not going to come from running away, but by confronting the monster in charge.

This potent short is wonderful for many reasons. Its mastery of the vast mise-en-scene, the creepy laboratory, the teeming streets, the violent pubs, the scientific inventions; its evocative monochrome photography, creating an appropriately Gothic aura; its flitting between genres, tones and styles, from different points of view, all bespeak an exciting new talent. This is one of the great films about the Victorian age, about various kinds of anxieties - the 'progress' of science, where reason and the animal were not so distinct as they might have been; the fear of the mob, and the growing economic and social power of the working class; the joy in new inventions ('Tale' is a dark flipside to the Wallace and Gromit films).

The neat parable-like narrative, has a pleasing Dickensian moral purpose. In an Irish context, the shadow of the Famine over a film set in an era where the Irish were caricatured as beasts to be repressed and exploited, give the film an added resonance, while contemporary issues, such as cloning and animal experiments, are referred to, but with an admirably light touch.
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American Playhouse: Journey Into Genius (1988)
Season 7, Episode 10
5/10
A docudrama exploring the early life and work of Eugene O'Neill.
19 July 2001
Most TV biographies of notable writers follow a predictable format: a linear history of the artist's life; a side glance at the historical background; a superficial analysis of the work and personality by experts, 'friends' and fellow authors. 'Eugene O'Neill: Journey into genius' shows moderate inventiveness in choosing to dramatise the famous dramatist's life, not in the Hollywood biopic sense, but as a series of discrete tableaux revealing various aspects of his life and work - a modest precursor to '32 short films about Glenn Gould'. Maybe this method is more common in the States than Britain; I certainly can't think of many examples from the latter.

The film deals with O'Neill's literary apprenticeship, from being thrown out of Princeton for generally deviant behaviour, to his winning his first Pulitzer Prize for 'Beyond the Horizon'. It is framed by O'Neill's vigil at the deathbed of his father, an Irish ham actor he contemptuously nicknames 'Monte Cristo' after his most famous barnstorming role; an actor so renowned in his day that O'Neill's Pulitzer was announced in the papers as an award for James O'Neill's son.

This Oedipal struggle shadows all the events of O'Neill's life, from his Princeton expulsion; his developing alchoholism in dead end clerical and newspaper jobs; his first, stumbling attempts at poetry; his secret marriage; his contracting TB and decision to become a playwright; his travelling the world as a sailor; his putting on his first play with a provincial acting troupe, creating a new, genuinely American theatre in the process; his growing celebrity, and involvement with the socialist intellectual circle of John Reed; his affairs and second marriage. Appropriately, he wins the Pulitzer in the year of his father's death, and the film comes full circle.

Director Skaggs adopts a number of styles to tell this story - straightforward historical recreation; symbolic tableaux; stills montage; monologues of reminiscence, etc. There is no attempt at realism here - the intention is to tell of O'Neill's development in the mood and style of O'Neill's plays, with lots of stilted talk, atmospheric portentousness, silence, darkness etc. Fans of O'Neill who can recognise the allusions will probably enjoy this most; there are no concessions to the beginner.

For someone who hooted her way in disbelief through the 'classic' Anna Christie, and who has always considered the author a parodic Tennessee Williams, I found this film a little trying, the risible conversations with a tubercolic colleen; the 'significant' meeting with a fisherman; the pretentious debates about Art and Politics in New York bars; the supposedly harrowing sequences of medical operations and injections.

Matthew Modine, refuses the sinister charisma Jack Nicholson brought to the role in 'Reds', and is quite appealing as the arrogant, reckless, young O'Neill, faring less well with the rather embarrassing contemplative Art bits.
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6/10
Third outing for the brawny FBI agent later to be immortalised by Godard.
19 July 2001
Or, as the more appropriately hard-boiled English title has it, 'Dames Don't Care!' This is the third Lemmy Caution adventure, the real thing before Godard spliced him in a post-modern blender for 'Alphaville' in the 1960s. Lemmy is a hard-drinking, lascivious, violent FBI special agent who operates in France solving relatively mundane crimes. He has the build of John Wayne, and his films are full of extended, masochistic brawls, the fist-fighting equivalent of swashbuckling. What saves Lemmy from the neanderthal fascismo of Mickey Spillane is his charming gaucheness as an American in France.

The opening sequence is emblematic of the pleasures on offer in a Lemmy Caution film. After credits of an almost atonal jazz scree drowning more familiar Latin rhythms, a sports car blunders through an eerie, desert-like space up to a nightclub, the Casa Antica, emitting a loud, tottering drunk, who insults the usher, lunges into the club, demanding the best table, the best whiskey, the best chair. The nightclub is a gloriously kitsch affair, recreating ancient Greek ruins, with broken columns, and discreetly Nazi-like statues.

Our American alco spots a man he doesn't like, dancing with a beautiful lady. He coarsely heckles him, and goads him into fighting. So begins, in these archly theatrical surroundings, the first of many ritualistic pummellings. The lush, though powerful, eventually concedes defeat, and offers his rival a drink as peace offering. It turns out this enemy is actually a contact, and the inebriate is Lemmy Caution, stiffly sober although we've seen him drinking most of a whiskey bottle.

The contact in involved in a case involving the apparent suicide of a banker, and compromising letters to his wife, who was recently found with a large amount of counterfeit banknotes. Lemmy searches her house, and on returning surreptitiously to the closed night-club, finds the murdered contact stuffed in a fridge. Continuing his investigations with the help of the French police, Lemmy discovers the suicide's adultery, his ex-chauffeur's rise in power with designs on the wife, and decides all the clues point to the lubricious Henrietta. Not before bedding her, of course.

'Les Femmes s'en balancent' is a strange hybrid of a film. The murder-mystery plot is straight out of Agatha Christie, complete with red herrings, suspects and a final gathering where the great detective reveals the solution. The milieu of night-clubs, jazz, fraud, sexual intrigue, class tension and brutal violence is more familiar from hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir. The irrepressible Lemmy, easily foiling all resistance, and irresistable to women, is more of a comic book proto-James Bond figure than a sour private eye - Godard wanted to call his Lemmy Caution adventure 'Tarzan versus IBM', which sounds about right.

Aesthetically, the film's style is as flat and functional as a modest American B-movie (the low-budget extends to trips to Rome, but not very convincing sets): few stylistic flourishes; set-ups and situations propelling the narrative. The strikingly aggressive use of jazz, however, looks forward to 'Touch of Evil' (Welles was in Europe at the time); the exterior scenes have a mysterious, almost surreal feel; and the acting is so knowing (Lemmy and Henrietta frequently wink to the audience) as to make the potentially offensive cheerfully camp. Sociologists will probably see something in the FBI agent usurping power from the local police, but Lemmy is more brawns than brains.
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