Film


A Sight & Sound poll of directors and critics has revealed what they perceive to be the greatest films of all time…

1. Vertigo
2. Citizen Kane
3. Tokyo Story
4. Rules of the Game
5. Sunrise
6. 2001
7. The Searchers
8. Man with a Movie Camera
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc
10. 8 1/2

I don’t wish to analyse their choices because the time one spends considering the greatest films is time one could have spent watching a great film. It surprised me, though, that while the masterworks of Coppola ensured that the 1970s are represented the highest film made after 1980 is Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which clocks in at 29. While art forms such as the novel and the theatre might have degenerated in modern times, the cinematic mediums, despite the rot that obscures one’s view of them, have offered marvellous things. Here, then, are my favourite films released after 1980…

1. Raging Bull
2. In the Mood for Love
3. Spirited Away
4. A Prophet
5. Infernal Affairs
6. Brazil
7. Mulholland Drive
8. Paris, Texas
9. Three Colours: Red
10. Dumplings

All are recommended. Except the latter if you’re eating.

The Guardian is compiling peoples’ opinions as to their favourite Hitchcock movies. The trouble is that people generally choose one of a small handful of classics: Psycho, naturally; Rear Window, The Birds, Vertigo or North By Northwest. Nothing wrong with that, but a more interesting question might be which of his films have been underrated.

Rope, for example, is one of the more impressive failures in cinema. James Stewart was as miscast as his namesake Corden would be in the role of their namesake Bond, and his character’s bombastic epiphany as he grasped the implications of his teachings seems contrived. Yet the tension and morbid comedy produced by the little function it observes, aided by Hitchcock’s manufacturing of the illusion of seamlessness, which never lets the tone drop, makes for a great experience. I’d bet a young Joe Orton was looking on.

Frenzy, despite being a tale of rape and murder, is a faintly sentimental depiction of the English capital that Hitchcock had left behind but it remains a great thriller. The tension of an unexceptional story is magnified by Hitch’s directorial interventions – such as when the camera retreats along the hallway as Barry Foster leads Anna Massey’s charming “Babs” to her death. There’s also a richness to the incidental characters that’s generally absent from plot-oriented films. The scenes with Alex McCowen’s Chief Inspector and his unfortunate wife, whose ambitions for her haute cuisine are as grand as her talents are minimal, are beautifully conceived.

I’m also a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, though it’s liable to leave you pointing at your sky box and screaming, “See! The DVD player can do that! Why can’t you?”

Was I the last person to see Man on Wire? Anyway, the closing sentiments of Philippe Petit – who, in case you haven’t watched the film, crossed a rope strung between the twin towers – seemed a little odd…

Life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge – and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope.

This seems to imply that life should be a frantic whirl of spontaneous risk-taking. But that’s absolutely not how Petit carried out his stunt. As the movie illustrated in fascinating detail, his ambition was nurtured over many years and actualised after months of planning that involved countless hours of reflection, ruthless training sessions and experimenting with means to bridge the gap, anchor the rope and so on. These mad bastards built scale models. A moral, it seems to me, is thus that one should find an ambition that’s worth risking one’s comfort to fulfil and concentrate oneself on establishing the conditions under which one’s most likely to be successful. This might well involve a lot of drudgery and repition but if something is worth risking one’s health or even life it’s worth enduring boredom for.

It’s been assumed that shark-based B-movies are in decline. They said you could never surpass Shark Attack 3. They thought you could never equal Sharks in Venice. They claimed you could never match Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. Well, ladies and gents, the doubters hadn’t reckoned on Christopher Ray – who readers doubtless know as first assistant director on the classic Bikini Jones and the Temple of Eros – who’s directed a barnstormer titled 2-Headed Shark Attack.

Ray’s casting is one of the most impressive features of the movie. Carmen Electra, whose prominence in such a film is a glorious affirmation of the rightfulness of her place as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent, is cast as a doctor. I have to say: I’ve seen her in her previous roles in epics like Meet the Spartans and Cheaper By The Dozen 2 and none of them screamed doctor so I applaud Mr Ray’s imagination. (If there’s one quibble you could make it’s that of all the features of Ms Electra that the camera delights in showcasing “intellect” isn’t prominent.) Elsewhere we’re treated to a performance by Brooke Hogan – for whom acting was a natural progression after brief but memorable careers in music, modelling and reality TV. It might be presumptuous to call her “the next Paris Hilton” but she’s just a sex tape away from such heights. It’s just a shame she couldn’t talk the Hulk into coming along to drop a leg on the big fish.

Ah, yes, the shark. The director had thought it would be a shark with a head attached to its other head but the special effects artist talked him into creating the beast with two separate heads. (Would that such wisdom had prevailed during the creation of Zaphod Beeblebrox in Garth Jennings’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) It’s a truly formidable beast. Imagine two of the decorative amphibians you often find at swimming pools had been defaced by a crowd of GCSE art students with a few bits of white card and jars of dolmio and you’re there.

After a girl-on-girl snog that was as relevant as it was tasteful the beast made short work of the jock, the black guy and the nudists. (I know! I was as shocked as you are.) I won’t divulge other plot details as you’re doubtless keen to watch it for yourself but I will say that the extent to which you’ll be emotionally invested in the plight of brattish college students who are as distinguishable from eachother as weevils in a biscuit defies calculation.

On a semi-serious note, it seems that B-movies have become so indistinguishable from so-bad-it’s-good films that the directors are appealing to the latter market. That’s a shame. While low-budget schlock is often more amusing than anything else, genuinely creative and intriguing films have been produced as well. And, funny as crap like 2-Headed Shark Attack can be, a joke is never as amusing when its target is deliberately seeking mockery. The real humour lies in the grandiose theatrics and po-faced sincerity of far more reputable productions. So, sad as it is to write, perhaps it’s time that mutant sharks succumbed to extiction.

In the closing scene of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson salutes the crowd from his position atop the turnbuckle, waiting to hit an enormous splash on his prone competitor. Robin Ramzinski, meanwhile, is on the verge of an enormous heart attack after being ordered to stop contacting his daughter and seeing his potential girlfriend walk out on him.

These are, of course, two sides of the same man. Ramzinski has found that once the official’s palm has slapped the mat three times to mark the end of his last fight “Randy” – the charismatic, hair flickin’, ass kickin’ superhero – will cease to exist in any meaningful form and “Robin” won’t mean a tinker’s damn to those who’d cheered him. The beautifully rendered portrait of his identity crisis is grimly close to the reality of the business. Some old champions like Ric Flair drag their tired bodies through matches because they need to pay the creditors they’ve acquired but others, one suspects, prefer the exalted internal world of kayfabe to the neglect and boredom of reality. Yet, of course, their bones grow stiff, their muscles wither, their skin puckers and their real selves can’t match the ideals of their characters. Fans of the business should look beyond the spectacle once in a while and respect the sacrifices such men have taken to actualise it. Everyone should know the risks of building one’s identity on insecure foundations.

One thing I’ll say about this film that isn’t positive: as much as I liked Marisa Tomei’s portrayal of Pam how many fictional strippers have there been with hearts of gold? From Mary Magdalen to Sonya Marmeladova to the lass in Boogie Nights all sex workers seem to be warm, compassionate people. For once I’d like to see a black-hearted ecdysiast. Well, outside of Zombie Strippers, anyway…

So, I watched an offering from the geniuses at Red Letter Media: an interview with the creator of The People vs. George Lucas. It’s a film that studies the relationship between the creator of Star Wars and the fans of the original film, whose devotion for him shifted into disgust once he released The Phantom Menace – which, as experts have documented, was rubbish enough to embarrass Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau. One question that struck me, as I watched it, is why George Lucas is the object of so much dislike for ruining Star Wars but Matt Groening faces none despite ruining The Simpsons.

Well, I answered it for myself. As much as people love The Simpsons few have invested as much of themselves in the programme as the fanboys did in Star Wars. Its fall was marked by a slow decline, provoking gradual disaffection, rather than a sudden failure after great expectancy. George Lucas, autocrat at the head of his filmic empire, was the natural focus of ill-feeling while Groening is just part of a corrupt democracy. And, besides, it’s dumb to feel personal animus towards people who’ve given so much happiness and are, as far as we’re aware, doing their best. In truth, it was a dumb question.

Yet the artistic declines of the films and the programme do bear similarities. The creators of both debased their work by choosing to adopt the trends of genres they inhabited. Lucas smothered the bland narratives of his prequels in special effects while Scully, Jean, Maxtone-Graham and co. resorted to the gag-based formula so prevalant in TV nowadays; that which seems to assume that all viewers suffer from attention deficit disorders and will nod off if they aren’t barraged with aimless, unhinged and ephemeral wisecracks, sight gags and bodily expulsions. In an episode where Homer, Marge & co. travel to Italy they find a collection of “wanted” posters. Under “plagiarismo” is Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin. The irony, though, is that while Seth MacFarlane pinched the bases of his characters from The Simpsons the latter have been ripping off the style of his show: where characters and storylines are mere platforms for jokes. But just as lightsaber fights in grandiose settings remains tedious if we’re not so invested in the combatants as to give solitary shits about their outcomes, a joke will be far less special if it bears no relation to a character or narrative.

A further similarity is how both Star Wars and The Simpsons have been marked by the degradation of much-loved characters, as their creators seem to have misunderstood why they were liked in the first place. The thoughtless, reckless but essentially well-meaning Homer has become a malicious lunatic who kills women, frames his wife for federal crimes and otherwise exists to scream, get hurt and meet celebrities. Continuity, meanwhile, isn’t simply disrespected but outright scorned. Lucas goes back to edit the original films while The Simpsons put out contradictory storylines so frequently that it has to be an in-joke. There have been so many different re-tellings of how Marge and Homer met that I fully expect that in Series 25 we’ll learn it was at Obama’s 2012 inauguration ceremony. The makers both openly deride people who think that shattering the suspension of disbelief more thoroughly than a collapsing set might blemish the experience.

I know I said I don’t blame Matt Groening but I think he bears a measure of responsibility nonetheless. He’s responsible because he didn’t end the show after, say, the 11th series like a farmer euthanizing a blind, incontinent sheepdog before it urinates on all their happy memories. I guess the question is how much responsibility artists have to their audience; whether ownership is transferred to supporters of creations that – while only figurative – should be a consideration as they’re furthered. And, frankly, the answer is yes. If people want their viewers, readers or listeners to invest themselves in the adventures of the characters they’ve formed they can’t expect them not to react emotionally if they don’t live up to expectations. This doesn’t mean storylines and characters shouldn’t progress – I’m cool with being introduced to the unfamiliar – but artists should treat the work that has preceded it with respect its audiences feel it’s due. Unless, of course, they loathe everything they’ve achieved and feel contempt towards the people who’ve appreciated it; in which case they could at least be honest enough to come out, admit it and allow them to move on.

People often ask me, “Ben? What the hell are you doing up at 1.50 in the morning?” “Good question,” I respond. “Deep-seated psychological disorders, I guess. But also to catch the late-night movie on Film4.” The best films seem to be broadcast after midnight, because, I guess, they aren’t too bothered about viewing figures. Here’s a couple of examples from the last few days.

Gabriele Salvatores offered I’m Not Scared – a film based in Sardinia during the Years of Lead. I’ve done a bit of reading on the recent history of the Italians, after a blithe reference to the pleasantness of their society was challenged in the comments. What’s struck me, from reading about mobsters in Palermo and bombings in Brescia, is how, while things like terrorism, gangsters and conspiracies summon to mind images of dark, cheerless wastelands that befit the horror of the deeds, this brutishness and paranoia characterised outwardly idyllic landscapes. This eerie contrast was nicely reflected in the film, and the sweeping richness of the world and tortuous convolutions of the human soul made for a suitably bewildering backdrop for an exploration of the half-formed moral senses of a growing boy.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s startling Days of Wrath was a drama set among the witch-hunts of the early modern era. Anne, a young woman forced to wed an elderly priest, falls for the son his late wife bore and finds her affections returned. After a tragic death, the passion she’s expressed is widely interpreted as being a demoniac fervour. A film of near unrelenting sadness, it’s a fascinating exploration of the human fear of our own – and, especially, females’ – desires and the threats posed by misreadings and subversions of them. In the cowardliness of the weak but well-meaning priest and the desperate selfishness of the inhibited woman there’s also an alarming portrait of the ways cruelty reproduces itself. What makes the film even more extraordinary is that it was made in occupied Denmark in the 1940s. The Nazis were so troubled by its generally downbeat portrayal of repression and distrust that Dreyer had to flee to Sweden to live out the war.

Ian Palmer’s Knuckle explores the feuds between different clans of Irish travellers. The families’ men face one another in “fair fights” – bareknuckle punch-ups strictly mediated by elders of neutral families. There were, it seems, serious grievances that inspired their feuding – a man was killed; another died in the resultant brawls – yet now it seems more like a perpetual struggle to maintain bragging rights among the travellers; the old men fight to uphold their reputations and the young to prove themselves. Grim as it is to observe, there are things to be said for this tradition. If the young men understand that their disputes are to be fought out (and their manhood manifested) under organised and moderated conditions they are, perhaps, less likely to resort to more dangerous battlegrounds in alleyways and pubs. And, convenient as it would be to say that “violence doesn’t solve anything”, it’s probably untrue: a mutual display of courage, passion and resolve may well have inspired respect between different fighters. Yet these cases are, I’d guess, exceptions to the rule.

[Update, 2014] I suspect my fascination made me too forgiving. Most people can teach their children not to fight without the need for violence, however organised and whatever their conditions, and these families could be no different. If it were ever a good means of solving disputes they would not be so very disputatious.

What intrigued me was the families’ exchanging of tapes – and, later, DVDs – that contained monologues in which the big, bombastic fighters would proclaim their own brilliance and sneer at their rivals’ failings. Good God! It was like professional wrestling. I wondered if these guys had been inspired by the WWF, but if they’d watched pro wrestling they should have been aware that violence, even if it can be a solution, is a really inefficient one. Fights, more often than not, only provoke new ones: the boasts of or on behalf of the victors tempt other opponents into pursuing their scalps while the losers return to combat, desperate to find triumphs to soothe their wounded egos. And, so, it continues.

One difference, of course, is that pro wrestlers – and I know this will come as a shock to you – inhabit fantasty worlds where brutal violence rarely leaves physical or emotional wounds that can’t be patched up by next week. The other and the more important difference is that wrestlers embody cartoon characters who live to do nothing but fight. Real humans are capable of a lot more than that and by defining their self-worth by their ability to box they’re not just endangering themselves physically but depriving themselves emotionally. And, as was sadly evident as two kids sparred with eachother in the film’s closing scenes, they’re liable to endanger and deprive their children.

Lance Duerfahrd takes a class in bad movies – which, of course, refers to films that are “so bad they’re good”. Rod Dreher’s got a point in questioning the value of the subject in the academia but, hell, I’m such a fan of these cringeworthy classics that I don’t begrudge the man the chance to watch and share them. At the least they’ll instill good humour in his students and that’s more than you could say for a lots of classes. He’s been chatting with the BBC…

Lance Duerfahrd screens old science fiction movies, 1950s health-and-hygiene films and other poorly produced films. They come complete with bad special effects, actors forgetting their lines and props missing from one scene to the next.

These obvious flaws can provide viewers with a different experience from that of a well-made movie.

“There’s some room for play and room for unexpected delights,” Mr Duerfahrd says. “Most films force-feed us.”

Mr Duerfahrd worries that the pressure to make box-office hits with a wide appeal is taking a toll on both bad and good movies.

“Ambition is being dimmed by the effort to conform,” he says. “We’re not getting ecstatic bad movies very often, just boring failures.”

He’s got a point. The formulas for efficient if uninspiring movies have grown tighter; there are special effects to plug the gaps in narratives and scripts and, as he says, there’s too much riding on the things for them to become ludicrous in the manner of, say, Battlefield Earth. Yet crummy films that bear hallmarks of sophistication – the really polished turds – can be the funniest. Take a film like Tiptoes – the touching story of a girl who realises her ideal man is from a family of dwarfs. It was competently produced and performed – Gary Oldman was a little person in what the narrator earnestly described as “the role of a lifetime” – which makes the film’s ridiculous conceit and risible script seem all the more hilarious. It’s akin to how a statesman’s trousers fallings down would be funnier than a tramp’s. The latter scenario is too pathetic to be cause for giggles but the former, which contrasts so beautifully with their stature, cynicism and pretensions is – or, well, would be – glorious; akin to the feeling that’s inspired by watching Nick Cage desperately cry “KILLING ME WON’T BRING BACK YOUR GODDAMN HONEY” as the money drains from Neil LaBute’s investors’ pockets.

There are other splendid forms of “so bad they’re good” films. The Room was a, perhaps the, classic of the amateur auteur genre: films of absolute sincerity, delivered by people of total self-belief, which offer recognisable imitations of classic movie tropes but completely fail to match their standards. It’s a bit sadistic to laugh at these, I guess, but it’s also impossible not to. They are to films what William McGonagall was to verse so many years ago. Then are the camp classics: delerious medleys of horror, farce and satire in the mould of Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Still, and with respect to Duerfahrd, a film that’s so bad it’s splendid is only appreciable once it’s been viewed. Like a hippopotamus. Or a toupée.

I’m not going to watch the Oscars. Perhaps this year’s crop of nominees is richer than the presence of Extremely Bad and a Little Bit Gross suggests but each year, as the rash of awards ceremonies spreads across the face of public life, I wonder if this self-congratulation is the product of artistic achievement or an attempt to blind eachother to the slump of it. (What’s anybody done to deserve 650kgs of maine lobster? And who’s going to eat it? Aren’t they all vegetarians?)

Still – you won’t find me bemoaning the state of today’s cinema. No sir. In recent times I’ve watched a string of magnificent films: A Prophet, Of Gods and Men, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Hidden, Good Bye, Lenin!. All were brilliant. You may note, however, that their quality is not the only thing they have in common: they’re all the work of furreners. This is not to say there aren’t great filmmakers at work inside the Anglosphere – Lynch, Scorsese, Cronenberg, Los Cohens – but more often than not the films I’ve really enjoyed have been subtitled. It annoys me that “foreign” films are often bunched off at the side of our culture. One finds them in shops or rental stores in their own category: “world cinema”. They’re thought of as a bit pretentious. Strange. Intimidating. (When I was a kid I’d see the fronts of things like Satyricon and assume it was odd porn.) But this is nonsensical. All manner of filmmakers are thrown into this strange class; enigmatic wierdos, sure – and brilliant weirdos at that – but also people whose films are as uncomplicatedly thrilling as anything of the West. I mean, did we need The Departed? It was fun, sure, but Infernal Affairs had better acting; preferable cinematography and no Jack Nicholson. This could sound like a plea for *sigh* diversity but my point is more that great films transcend their contextual trappings. The time and place of some is more relevant than of others, and they’ll have stylistic traits peculiar to different cultures, but you needn’t know or care about Japan to love Ring; about Korea to enjoy Mother; about Spain to get into Timecrimes or about Uzbekistan to like, er – well – okay, I’ll grant my knowledge of the Uzbek scene is limited.

There’s no reason to peculiarize them. The only thing that sets them apart, in many cases, is that you need subtitles to grasp what the actors saying. That can be a pain, I know, but, then, they mumble so much nowadays that that’s often the case with English movies too.

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