EXPLORING THE ALCOVES OF CULT CINEMA …

Archive for February, 2009

Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956)

a-man-escapedFrance, 1956  Dir: Robert Bresson

Starring Francois Letterier, Charles La Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, Roland Monod.

Based on the real-life memoirs of World War II Resistance fighter Andre Devigny, A Man Escaped is the most rewarding escape-from-prison drama ever made. Far more affecting than the sentimental The Shawshank Redemption (1994), although both films are similarly affirmative of the indomitable human spirit, Bresson’s masterpiece makes the viewer live and breath every desperate moment of POW Lt. Fontaine’s ordeal, from his initial capture to his final joyous getaway (I don’t feel this gives away any details of the ending, given the film’s explanatory title!)

Robert Bresson’s austere and contemplative approach to film-making, famously compared to Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer by writer/director Paul Schrader in his book Transcendental Style In Film, is given it’s fullest expression here. The bleak, claustrophobic nature of events, combined with the dull routine of day to day prison life, allows Bresson to extract the maximum amount of compassion for our protagonist through the film’s stark detail. Every creak, crunch, squeak and crack of Fontaine’s attempts to carve through his cell door are magnified to heart-stopping effect against the deathly silence of the prison. In fact, the whole film is a masterclass in less-is-more sound technique. Apart from Fontaine’s narration, the soundtrack mostly consists of a restrained stillness, punctuated by noises of digging, scratching, cutting, footsteps etc. This technique is particularly effective during the film’s tense final half hour.

a-man-escaped-still1The only instance of music is the occasional yet powerful use of Mozart’s Great Mass In C Minor, played each time the prisoners collectively emerge outside to clean out their slops and then finally as Fontaine manages to make it over the wall and to freedom. Perhaps Bresson is choosing to use the music as an expression of shared experiences and liberty, as opposed to the silence of loneliness and confinement. Whatever the reasons, this selective use of music, rather than a blanket effect throughout, is just one aspect of A Man Escaped which raises it above the standards of most prisoner of war dramas – indeed, most dramas full stop.

A richly profound and spiritual cinematic experience, A Man Escaped is clearly informed by the director’s deep religious convictions (he was a lifelong Jansenist Catholic) which inspired themes of redemption and salvation in his work, as well as his own experiences as a prisoner of war. Bresson’s influential style was an expression of pure cinema, stripping away any theatrical illusions and capturing on camera the raw essence of human existence. A Man Escaped is Bresson’s great poem to the best and worst of humanity.

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The Slumdog Effect

oscar-statueThe huge success of Slumdog Millionaire at last night’s Oscar ceremony is not only a triumph for Danny Boyle and the British Film Industry, but also a triumph for the judgement of the Academy voting panel. A film showered with Oscar success is all too often nothing more than a big slice of Hollywood confection – that is, a film which is by no means bad but is all too interested in the apparent fascination of a flawed main character, (stand up Forrest Gump and A Beautiful Mind), or the hammering home of a particular social message (take a bow Ordinary People and Crash), or in a general style-over-substance (give it up for Titanic and Lord Of The Rings). You’ll not find a more back-handed compliment in film than the term ‘Oscar-worthy’.

But every now and then, the Academy gets it just right and chooses to praise a film on its own artistic merits, even if the film is not traditional mainstream fare. When Midnight Cowboy clinched the Best Picture and Best Director statues in 1969 it became the first (and only) X-rated film to achieve this accolade. A brave choice for an academy that only the previous year had given the Best Film Oscar to Oliver!, a great film nevertheless and incidentally the only G-rated film to get the award, but a clear demonstration of the Academy’s varied approach to prize-giving. In the 1970’s, Best Picture nominations for A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver and The Conversation, as well as wins for The Godfather and The Godfather Part Two, show the Academy at least recognising the unsparing attitudes of the American New Wave film-makers. In fact, the only two movies to claim the full set of five major awards (Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) in the last 60 years are One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), films that could hardly be described as lacking ambition.

The choice of American Beauty for five awards in 1999 was the last time until 2007 that the Academy went for broke with a film that challenged and attacked the American way of life, rather than praising it. Last year’s Best Picture and Director trophies for the Coen’s No Country For Old Men showed a return to a bold selection from the voting panel, after years of frothy and unconvincing choices (the flashy Chicago, the dull Million Dollar Baby, Scorsese’s The Departed, not bad but not his best film by some distance). This year, Slumdog Millionaire surpasses all previous decisions by being possible the most audacious award tally at the Oscars, with the film garnering no fewer than 8 trophies.

slumdog_millionaire-1Slumdog is no gentle ride and certainly not the ‘feelgood movie’ the advertises seem to have labelled it as. It’s a tough, uncompromising film that allows for a feelgood ending only by subjecting the viewer’s emotions to all the pain, suffering and heartache of it’s characters. For a film with a comparatively low budget entirely financed in Britain, a bleak tone and a harsh subject matter, and many sections in subtitles, it’s all the more miraculous that it should dominate the awards in such a way. Any other year, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button would have swept the board. It’s not a terrible film but it’s perfect Oscar fodder – it has the flawed character, the syrupy message and the style. But this isn’t any normal year and thankfully Slumdog Millionaire has tapped into the international mood. It’s a film for the moment and for prosterity and undeniably the right choice at the Oscars.

Although having said that, I was rooting for Frost/Nixon.


Orson Welles’ F For Fake (1974)

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France, 1974. Dir: Orson Welles

Starring: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Francois Reichenbach, Gary Graver, Joseph Cotton.

At one point in F For Fake, whilst discussing his career, Orson Welles says “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.” Although just a glib line from the director, it nevertheless points to a general attitude towards Welles’ career – that he never lived up to the expectations generated by the creative heights of his first feature, Citizen Kane (1941). If this assertion is to believed, the fact that F For Fake is Welles’ final major feature may signal that it’s not likely to be amongst his best work. In actual fact, looking at his later films only emphasises the fact that, far from never making another Citizen Kane, Welles simply wasn’t interested in retreading old ground, instead choosing to make each new film a daring and unique picture (which ironically was exactly what Kane had been in the early 40’s, therefore maybe Welles was always maintaining the same creative heights). The films of Welles european period are amongst his very best – the claustrophobic Kafka adaptation The Trial (1962) (Welles’ own personal favourite of all his films), the acclaimed Shakesperian anthology Chimes At Midnight (1966), and finally F For Fake.

Described by Welles as a “new kind of film”, F For Fake playfully combines interviews, stock footage and experiments in editing with bogus fictional segments, hidden camera stunts and film trickery into a spellbinding kaleidoscopic movie, with Orson’s mischievous narration pinning seemingly unconnected strands together. It began life as a straightforward documentary on Elmyr de Hory, the world’s most famous art forger, who had been the subject of a recent biography, Fake! by Clifford Irving. At this point, the film was just a BBC arts documentary directed by Francois Reichenbach, featuring interviews with both Hory and Irving. But during production, events took a unexpected turn when Clifford Irving, having written about the life of a great faker, found himself at the centre of a scandalous fraud. In 1972, Irving had sold the rights to a sensational autobiography of notorious recluse Howard Hughes, which after denouncements from Hughes himself, he admitted to being entirely faked (this whole episode was later the basis of it’s own film, The Hoax in 2006). Fascinated by the deception, Welles took Reichenbach’s footage, expanded it and wove together segments on Hory’s forgeries, the Irving fraud, Hughes’ life and Welles’ own career of artistic duplicity, into a meditation on the general art of fakery.

Welles, the master conjurer of film.

Welles, the master conjurer of film.

The film also indulges in its own flights of fancy, relating a completely false story about a series of Picasso portraits. But those paying attention will notice that Welles states only the first hour of the film will be concerned with the facts (another lie however – the film is still sprinkled with fallacies throughout). All the narratives are perfectly intertwined, from the relationship between Hory and Irving, Welles’ reflection that Hughes was the original basis of Charles Foster Kane and the fact that Welles’ own career was built on a series of untruths (firstly, how he cheated his way into an Irish theatre company and secondly, how his infamous radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds (1938), fooled and terrified an entire nation.)

F For Fake is a dizzying, captivating piece of documentary film-making and, far from showing a director whose creativity is on the wane, proves that Welles was capable of being as ingenious and adventurous as when he first stepped into Hollywood.

F For Fake is available on Eureka’s excellent Masters Of Cinema DVD collection.


James Mason: Suave And Sinister

james-masonApart from his distinctive and much-imitated delivery, James Mason has always stood out for me in films because his performances evoke a conflict of interests – his characters are at the same time fascinating and charismatic whilst also mysterious and unsympathetic. It makes him all the more unlikely as a Hollywood star and, looking back at his career, few actors could claim such a number of polarizing lead roles. Even when playing the archetypal British villain in Hollywood, notably in The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952), Julius Ceasar (1953), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), and North By Northwest (1959), there’s a depth of character that stands out as something mysterious and sinister. In Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, there are hints that the villain Phillip Vandamm is in a relationship with his henchman, suggesting hidden depths of guilt and pretence under his suave and controlled exterior.

Once established as a reliable supporting actor in America, his first significant leading role was in A Star Is Born (1954), where he played opposite Judy Garland as a violent alcoholic who ultimately drowns himself – a pretty demanding role for any film, let alone a Hollywood musical! Mason was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and won a Golden Globe for the film.

His definitive film role came with Lolita in 1962 and it’s hardly surprising that Mason was Stanley Kubrick’s first choice for the role of the sophisticated paedophile Humbert Humbert. About as controversial as a mainstream film could be in 1962 (even though Kubrick raised the age of Lolita from 12 in the novel to 14 for the movie) Mason still won plaudits for his intense portrayal and it’s now impossible to imagine any other actor successfully tackling the dark complexities of this part. A similarly obsessive role came in Michael Powell’s Age Of Consent (1969), playing a jaded painter opposite a young Helen Mirren.

A few interesting collaborations with Sidney Lumet followed, including the bleakly atmospheric spy thriller The Deadly Affair (1966), Chekhov’s The Seagull (1968) and the acclaimed courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), but Mason’s later films were largely supporting roles, offering neither the depth or intrigue of his 50’s and 60’s work. His last great film was The Shooting Party (1985), which put Mason at the centre of an impressive cast including John Gielgud and Edward Fox and, appropriately enough, concerned a landowner whose very existence and way of life were becoming obsolete. Mason died in 1984, before the film’s release.

Mason casts a shadow as dark as his character in Bigger Than Life

Mason casts a shadow as dark as his character in Bigger Than Life

Of all his Hollywood roles, perhaps the most interesting was that of Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956), a family man who agrees to take part in an experimental drug treatment for his life-threatening illness, the result of which turns him into a dangerous psychotic with serious delusions of grandeur. The character serves to critique the dangerous trappings of conformist suburban life, a topic that may have been close to Mason, given that he also co-wrote and produced the film. A remarkably scathing movie for its time, Bigger Than Life took a typically perverse view of 1950’s suburbia from director Nicholas Ray and it may have been too much for contemporary audiences to take because the film was a flop, although it’s now increasingly being recognised as a masterpiece. It stands as a fitting monument to Mason’s bizarre career as Hollywood’s ultimate un-romantic lead.


Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

abominable_dr_phibes1

GB, 1971. Dir: Robert Fuest

Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Peter Jeffrey, Terry-Thomas, Virginia North

“Love means never having to say you’re ugly”. And so the poster tagline sets the tone for this hilarious little British horror from the early seventies. Vincent Price stalks around his art-deco jazz club, dragging with him a gramophone wired to his vocal chords and harbouring a peculiar grudge against nine people who tried to save his wife from dying. It’s that kind of film.

From an era when horror films were designed to be tremendous fun as well as being gruesome and frightening, Dr Phibes features one revoltingly elaborate death after another, but is done with such enjoyable panache you may well find yourself laughing at the bits that are meant to be funny. Yes, there’s no ‘so bad it’s funny’ awfulness here – Dr Phibes is a rollicking slab of comedy horror that knows exactly when to play it for laughs (which is actually for 90% of the film!). In one scene, Terry-Thomas is desperately trying to get rid of his old maid in order to watch some twenties-style porn (which, if you’re interested, involves a woman trying to swallow a snake!) before being interrupted by a girl who drains him of all his blood.

Price’s performance oozes delicious melodrama, remarkable considering he never speaks once in the film, all his lines are instead pre-recorded and played through the gramophone. And any film which has the line “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.” has to be worth your consideration.


Gilliam’s Three Ages Of Man

The recent BAFTA fellowship awarded to Terry Gilliam reminded me of just how wonderfully imaginative a body of work he has directed, none more so than his loose trilogy from the 1980’s, collectively named the Trilogy Of Imagination, comprising Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985) and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988). The films, representing childhood, the middle years and old age respectively, show Gilliam at his most lavishly ambitious, yet also charts the most tumultuous filmmaking chapter in Gilliam’s famously problematic career. Do your senses a favour and dip your mind into these three fantastical masterworks.

timebandits-warner1

Time Bandits is a joyous concoction of childhood fantasies – the terrifying and the beautiful, the hilarious and the heart-breaking. Backed by George Harrison’s Handmade Films and armed with an exceptional cast of acting and comedy talent, (John Cleese, Michael Palin, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Ian Holm, David Warner, Sean Connery, Katherine Helmond, Shelley Duvall, Peter Vaughan, Jim Broadbent) Time Bandits is the definitive kids movie for adults.

The short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance was a supporting feature to 1983’s Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life and featured a crusty old British assurance firm taken over by The Very Big Corporation Of America. When the white-collar workers rebel against their employers they become pirates, sailing the company building out of the city and off towards the end of the world. Although a brief folly by Gilliam’s standards, the themes of escapism and the unleashing of ones imagination clearly pre-empted his next feature film.

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Brazil is widely considered Gilliam’s greatest work (and one of my all-time favourites) and it’s little wonder. A crazy, ambitious, visually stunning take on dystopian sci-fi, appropriately made in 1984 considering the Orwellian overtones, the film had an eventful production. From an original screenplay by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, Tom Stoppard was brought in to give the script some clarity although in fairness he probably added to its complexities. Gilliam had to fight Universal tooth and nail for the final scene he wanted and he won, (a luxury denied to Ridley Scott on Blade Runner’s initial release) but it may have bolstered his reputation as a difficult director (from the studios point of view, not the critics or the audiences). Few films are crammed with as many ideas and, like Orwell’s novel, Brazil will only grow in stature and importance as each new generation discovers it.

munchausen

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, again co-written by Gilliam and McKeown, meditates on the fantasies and illusions of old age. Told by the world’s greatest liar, Baron Munchausen, the adventures blur the lines between truth and reality. Life strangely imitated art during the making of the film, with Gilliam spun a yarn by producers who convinced him to film in Italy for 40% of the original cost, which proved to be disastrous. Eric Idle described it as the worst experience of his life and Sean Connery dropped out of playing the King Of The Moon before filming, to be replaced by an uncredited Robin Williams (whose representatives were worried his appearance in the film might damage his reputation!) One production issue after another meant the film wound up costing three times as much as originally planned. Twenty years later, none of this really matters and we are left with an incredible visual feast of a movie. Perhaps Munchausen’s status as a financial flop has prevented it from becoming the fantasy film classic it deserves to be.

Gilliam’s next feature, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, due for release in June, is his first collaboration with Charles McKeown since the 1980’s, only this time round there’s no sign of studio warfare. However, no Gilliam production is without its problems and the death of Heath Ledger in early 2008 robbed the film of its leading man.

Recommended reading: The Battle Of Brazil by Jack Matthews; Dark Knights And Holy Fools: Art And Films Of Terry Gilliam by Bob McCabe.


Best Of 2008

To kick off the voyage, my favourite films from the few I got to see last year –

There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson
‘I Drink Your Milkshake!’ With its scathing attacks on capitalism, religion and the American Dream, and its brave and remarkable cinematic techniques, this film has all the makings of a Citizen Kane for the 21st century, although like Kane it probably won’t be recognised as such for another 20 years!

No Country For Old Men Joel & Ethan Coen
Gripping thriller from the Coen’s, possibly their best film ever, depending on one’s mood. It’s certainly their bleakest and least humourous.

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street Tim Burton
The score is fantastic, the gore is revolting, and Johnny Depp sings like Anthony Newley. Bliss.

The Orphanage Juan Antonio Bayona
Creepy and atmospheric Spanish horror, along similar lines to The Innocents and The Others, but much scarier.

Wall-E Andrew Stanton
Dystopian sci-fi romance from the good people at Pixar, who increasingly seem to make kids films just for adults (or grown-up kids, as we all are.) And I have to agree that if Hello Dolly were the only film left in existence, things really wouldn’t seem quite so bad.

Honourable mention: The Diving Bell And The Butterfly Julian Schnabel