Tuesday 28 December 2010

Lego on film

When I was a young boy, Lego was one of my favourite things to play with. Well, not necessarily to play with, but to build with. Once I had built something nice, a car or a house, I would either demolish it and build something new, or, if I was particularly pleased with it, I would put it on display on a shelf. Had I been more precocious I might have called myself a Lego artist...

Nowadays Lego is not what it once was. It's less about imagination and free-spirited building, but franchises and commercials. Star Wars Lego for example. And it's less about building things than playing with already pre-built things it seems. I don't particularly like that I have to say, it feels like they've completely sold out. Maybe it tells us something sad about the world we live in, I don't know.

But an interesting trend is to make short films using Lego figures. Sketches, classic film scenes and other things have been remade using Lego. Youtube is full of them. My own favourite is one based on a fantastic stand-up number by Eddie Izzard about the Death Star Canteen (yet more Star Wars).

What's even more interesting is that Lego seems to have caught up with this trend and incorporated it in their own thinking. Just look at this film on Lego's website, clearly inspired by Heat (1995) and the armoured car robbery it opens with.

This slightly frivolous post is the last post of the year. But I'll be back next week, next year.

And here's Eddie Izzard. Happy New Year!

Monday 20 December 2010

More on Blake Edwards

I suppose my first contact with his work was the Bruce Willis/Kim Basinger comedy Blind Date (1987), about, well, a blind date, with Willis taking Basinger to an office party, which eventually leads to general mayhem and humiliation for both of them. I haven't seen it since it came out so whether or not it is any good I can't say, but I remember it vividly, partly because I saw it on several occasions, first at the cinema and then home on the VCR.

And then there were the Pink Panther movies, my favourite of which was The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), at least back then, when I was young(er). I saw all of them, but the later ones were not any good. And eventually, I saw Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and was completely smitten by it. Despite the fact that I watch it at least once a year it still hasn't lost any of its tremendous appeal (although it has one problem, that I wrote about last year).

Edwards of course does comedy, and an integral part of his kind of comedy is cruelty, bordering on the sadistic, and often in so-called bad taste. Even films which are not comedies have elements of the farcical and vulgar. The western Wild Rovers (1971) has a scene when the two main characters get drenched in urine, thrown out of a window by a woman. I'm not necessarily a fan of this kind of humour, but Edwards almost always manages to pull it of, partly because he uses it consistently and cleverly, so it takes on an additional meaning. He was something of a misanthropist, depressive and suicidal, and you get the feeling that he was using his comedies as a way of exorcising his demons, tormenting his characters.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that he also did some truly frightening films, including the steely Experiment in Terror (1962 aka The Grip of Fear).

But the thing about Edwards was that he had such an exquisite style. Not always, he could be tired and sloppy as much as the next man, but his best films have such an elegance, finesse and panache. Sometimes, as in the first Pink Panther, The Pink Panther (1963), and Breakfast at Tiffany's, it goes hand in hand with the subject matter, but even other films usually revel in the smooth camera work and the long takes, with beautifully lit and composed images. It's not elaborate as Minnelli, or complex as Wyler, perhaps the expression would be deceptively simple, albeit beautiful. But you often feel that he was a man who worked long and hard on every shot.

And he was often his own man, writing and producing as well as directing. Although occasionally he had studio interference, especially after Darling Lili (1970) became a colossal flop, and lost millions of dollars. In the mid-70s he therefore moved to Europe, and he also restarted the Pink Panther brand, ten years after the first two instalments. But it's those two early ones that are the best. It's safe to say that he did loose his way a bit there, in the mid-70s. But he had a great commercial hit with 10 (1979), and in 1982 he made one of his very best films, Victor Victoria (1982). It combines elegance, slapstick, tenderness and music. Here, everything works beautifully together, and, as was so often the case in his films, Julie Andrews shines in the leading role.

I will end this post with the music. Edwards worked almost exclusively with Henry Mancini from 1959 onwards and together they became an intricate whole. It's impossible to separate the music and the films, and the films usually had wonderful musical numbers, some of which are very famous. The other day I posted Audrey Hepburn singing Moon River, here are some other favourite examples:

This is from Darling Lili, with Julie Andrews singing, in one long take, Whistling Away the Dark:

This is from The Pink Panther:

I should perhaps add that, despite Darling Lili being such a total fiasco, I like it, and in many ways it is the very essence of Edwards. But I think that Wild Rovers is his best film, even better than Breakfast at Tiffany's. Perhaps.

Sunday 19 December 2010


The other week I wrote about Africa and cinema. Here's an article about Nigerian cinema, i.e. Nollywood, and its economic and cultural impact in and on Africa: http://www.economist.com/node/17723124?story_id=17723124

Thursday 16 December 2010

Blake Edwards RIP

Just got the news that Blake Edwards has died. He did some great films, and some less good films which still had amazing scenes in them. He combined slapstick with detachment, sometimes being vulgar, sometimes being sad. As I have written before, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) is probably my favourite, because it has all of the things that made him great. I also have a few films left to discover, some of which holds great potential. Will wrote more soon.

Monday 13 December 2010


Since I have worked in an archive (the Ingmar Bergman Archives), it shouldn't come as a surprise that I feel very strongly about them. Many are badly looked after, and the space in which the material is being kept is not always suitable. But they should be nursed tenderly, because there are real treasures out there, waiting to be discovered.

Archival research hasn't always been considered really OK, not necessarily something film scholars should belittle themselves with. But there's something in archives for pretty much everybody. It's not only about the cult of the great artist, a comprehensive archive will have material of economic, cultural and industrial, as well as artistic, relevance. Letters between producers and financiers, between directors and censorship boards, between production companies and agents. Financial reports, salaries for actors and technicians, recording schedules, all of this things can help bring order and clarity to the history of cinema. It can also help answer many questions of authorship and influence, challenge some held notions and put a lot of conventional wisdom in perspective.

But there is no denying the fact that one of the biggest thrills in going through archives is the discovery of information about individuals, and their thoughts and comments, their behaviour and their struggles. Sometimes a particular letter might change your whole view of somebody. Background information might disappoint you, or it might enrich your experience of watching a particular film.

I cannot quote here from letters I've read, you'll just have to take my word for the potentials they possess. But students of film history and theory should at one point be introduced to the world of archives, and hopefully get the opportunity to visit one for a social call. In Scotland, there are for example the wonderful archives of Lindsay Anderson, John Grierson and Norman McLaren at University of Stirling. I was there last Thursday, having a wonderful time. I was mainly looking at the connections between Anderson and John Ford (since my love for Ford runs deep), but that was just the tip of the iceberg. I will go back soon. And there are many more archives out there, just waiting to be devoured.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

Meet Me in St Louis (1944) is in many ways a fantastic film. It's perfectly structured, wonderfully acted, has excellent music numbers, and, above all, the cinematography and the compositions are breathtaking and exhilarating. It's an early Vincente Minnelli, and the cinematographer is George Folsey, and even though it isn't Minnelli's best, it's still a prime example of what he does so brilliantly. Pitched emotions, lush mise-en-scène, elaborate and complex camera movements, and a touch of hidden darkness behind the merriments. I will soon write a longer blog post on Minnelli, who is one of my favourite filmmakers, but today, due to lack of time, I'll just provide some clips from Meet Me in St Louis. My favourite is a long take of Esther (Judy Garland) walking through her house, turning of all the lights, together with the object of her affections (Tom Drake). It's an astonishing sequence, from a technical point, and so very sweet and moving on top of that. But I couldn't find it, so you'll have to settle for this one instead. It hasn't the magnificent camera movements I love, but I like that it's reflexive, and acknowledges the fact that singing out loud might be annoying for some people, even if it happens to be a musical:

Here's another scene, which I can only link to, not embed. Here you get both the mise-en-scène and the camera movements. It begins with a long take, starting outside in the snow, moving in through the window, sweeping through the entire ball room, until it finds the main characters, Rose and Esther, after a minute or so. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsYazm2jzCw

Monday 29 November 2010

African cinema

What do we mean when we talk about African cinema? Well, once upon a time it was perhaps something like this:

What's interesting about the trailer, apart from the weird tone of voice of the narrator, is that the selling point is Africa, with its animal and its people. The actors are mentioned more in passing, and even though the director is as famous as John Ford his name is not mentioned. But the setting is emphasised again and again, in spoken words, written words and in the images.

Today, African cinema thankfully means something different. For some, especially younger audience, it might still mean a Western film set in Africa, such as Blood Diamond (2006), but for most it would mean films made in Africa, by African filmmakers. But the questions then become, what is Africa, who speaks for it, and what are they saying? And why are films from Africa called "African films", instead of Senegalese, Malian or from whichever country they might come. We do after all, call Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain 2001) a French film, and Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv 2009) is seen as part of the Romanian "New Wave", and not an European "New Wave". Well, perhaps it is, in non-Western countries. I don't know.

A case could perhaps be made that since African films are usually co-productions, it becomes only relevant to call them African, just as there is a term for European co-productions (Euro-puddings). To take one example, Ousmane Sembene's last film, the very impressive Moolaadé (2006), had at least five countries involved in the production.

Some say that films made by filmmakers born in Africa but making films in other countries, about Africans in that country, should be seen as African films. That too could be problematic though. If somebody from Senegal makes a film in Belgium about Senegalese people, what has that got to do with people in Egypt or Zimbabwe? And if you're a second, or third, generation immigrant filmmaker making films in France, are they still African films then? Are people with African roots "condemned" to always make "African" films?

It is of course always the case when you want to define something, at least outside hard science, that it is damn hard to do so. At best, it creates as many problems as it solves, and maybe it is unfair, or unnecessary, to focus to much attention on these difficulties. In any event when people talk about African cinema, it's relevant to ask the question, "Ah yes, but what do you mean by that?". In this blog post, when I use the expression "African cinema" I mean films made in Africa by people who see themselves as Africans, but only because it is convenient, not because I think that there is some kind of special African kind of filmmaking, that is true for all films made in Africa

African films do not get much distribution, neither in their own countries or around the world. Partly to compensate for this, there is now a number of African film festivals spread around the world. They usually have two laudable aims, to help spread African films, and to counter the image in massmedia of Africa as being all about crime, poverty, war and social strife. However, it becomes ironic since most films that they show are, well, about crime, poverty, war and social strife. You will not be as likely to see comedies about young, rich and successful people having cocktails in Lagos or Khartoum as you are to see films about rural people being oppressed. As much as I like Moolaadé, it could be argued that it caters to Western ideas about Africa, with its depiction of cruel ancient customs, harsh patriarchal societies and feisty, colourful women who sing and dance.

Most African films made outside Nigeria are financed in part or completely by France and/or the EU. Is it possible that it is easier to get funding for films which, as I suggested, caters to Western ideas, and that if these films were wholly independent, and locally funded, they might be very different, and deal with different concerns? I'm certainly not questioning the late Sembene's earnestness in wanting to address, in Moolaadé, the horrendous practices of female circumcision or genital mutilation. But if the film festivals were really interested in portraying a different aspect of Africa, then that is not the kind of film that will do the job, no matter how good it is.

I guess the main problem here is that, with these films and these film festivals, it is still mainly the outside world which gets to decided what is good, proper and worthy as African films. The people of Ghana, Uganda and Kenya and so on watch Hollywood films, cheap Nigerian films (from Nollywood), South American telenovelas and Bollywood films, the kind of films the (often elitist) audience of the African film festivals in many cases would avoid at all costs, instead going to watch films that make them feel good about themselves, such as films about those that are poor and suffering.

The point is not to discourage people to go to film festivals and watch what they've got to offer on African cinema, or to belittle the many great artists making films in Africa, it's just to point out some problems and possibly to some instances of hypocrisy. You should flock to the African film festivals, but not because the films are African, but because they are good.

To round things up, here's a trailer to a Nollywood film, Passions:

Sunday 21 November 2010

Tobacco Road

I saw a documentary once about amateur Iranian filmmakers, and at one point somebody said that what he wanted was to make films like John Ford. At a film festival in São Paulo I once met a young filmmaker from Argentina whose great idol was John Ford. Once in Canterbury I met an undergraduate who was studying film history and she complained about the fact that today there was no longer any art in filmmaking, just business, complaining that there was no one like Ford any more. "I'm sorry, who?" I said, finding it hard to believe that a young girl in Britain would have John Ford as a role model as well. But she actually meant that Ford.

There is no denying the tremendous global influence and importance of Ford, and he is one of those filmmakers of which I feel I need to see every single thing they have made, because even the lesser films have moments of greatness in them, and by not seeing them all, I will miss out on something. As far as Ford's sound films, I have covered most of them, but I still have many of the silent ones left to watch.

Last week I saw Tobacco Road (1941) for the first time, which is one of his lesser known sound films, and also one of his most idiosyncratic. It does not have a proper story, it is a mood piece, about a few days in the life of a desperately poor family in the countryside. It is not all that good, mostly because some of the characters are so obnoxious, and acted in a rather hysterical style. A comic style that does not work for me. But Ford is such a forceful personality, with such an immediately recognisable style and tone of voice, and was such an exceptional filmmaker, that even a small, cheap, eccentric film such as Tobacco Road has scenes that are extraordinary.

In one such scene the husband (played by Charles Grapewin) is being told by the man from the bank that he will be evicted from his house if he does not pay rent, and since he has no money he cannot pay. The old man just stands there beside the car in which the bank man sits, and is pleading with him, while his wife (Elizabeth Patterson) is seen in the background, her hand clasped.

But it is a later scene, the last day before they are being evicted, that is the true highlight of the film. Since they have to leave the woman is picking up some things in their ramshackle cabin, quietly, done with the camera at floor level, looking up at her, taking in the whole of the cabin, and the only sound is the song "Shall we gather by the river" playing softly in the background. Then her husband enters, looking at her. "I guess there isn't much to take with us." she says, while the husband is unable to speak. Then he just says "I'm sorry Ada." It is such a delicate, understated scene, it can bring tears to anybody's eyes. The combination of the music, the composition and the humbleness of it is both what makes it so beautiful and what makes it so essentially Fordian.

That scene with her in the cabin has the camera at floor level, looking up, with the inner ceiling clearly visible, which makes it the kind of shot Citizen Kane is celebrated for. Tobacco Road was released before Citizen Kane, so it is perhaps yet another example of the profound influence Ford had on Orson Welles. And it was not the first time Ford had used such a shot in his films. It should also be remembered that the cinematographer of Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland, had worked with Ford on two films the previous year, The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath. In 1941 though, Ford worked with Arthur Miller, on this one and How Green Was My Valley.

2015-07-31 Some corrections were made and some sentences amended. A photo was added.

Sunday 14 November 2010

The People vs George Lucas

The other day I saw The People vs. George Lucas (2010), a both exceptionally conventional and unusual documentary. It's a film about George Lucas, Star Wars and the Star Wars franchise, but told through the perspective of the audience, or rather, the obsessed fans of the films. The conventional part is that it consists mainly of talking heads, with the filmmakers cutting from one head to another, the unusual part is that it is a collaborative effort, with the filmmakers first setting up a website and inviting people to share their views, encouraging them to send films, either of themselves talking about Lucas and Star Wars or their own film versions of Star Wars.

The film raises a couple of questions, and one of them is who has the rights to an art work, in this case a series of films. Another question is how George Lucas should be regarded today, as a genius or a corporate sell-out.

The questions are not easy to answer. On the one hand, Star Wars is Lucas's idea, his baby, and he has any right to do with the films what he sees fit. But on the other hand, he wouldn't be anything today if his films didn't have this massive, global fan base, and he should be both grateful to, and respectful of, them. The issue the fans have with him is partly that the later three films are not as good as the first three films. But this is a matter of personal opinions, and it's not really fair to be angry with someone because you don't think his films are good enough. (The anger felt by many is often times baffling, and has very little to do with Lucas or the films, but a lot to do with the fan mentality.)

The other charge against Lucas is that he is messing with the old films, re-editing them, putting in new stuff and removing other things, and digitally polishing them up. The argument from Lucas's perspective is that he had to compromise when making the old films, due to technical difficulties, economic concerns and lack of time, and that now when he has the money and the ability to make them exactly as he wanted them to be, why shouldn't he? The counter-argument from the fans is that it's a shame to tamper with them, because it won't be the same, it will not feel genuine any more. They're also upset with the fact that Lucas is suppressing the original versions, so that they are not available anywhere any more. It is even said that the original negatives has been destroyed. This is particularly what they find upsetting, and comparisons were made with for example Blade Runner (1982/1992) which has also been tampered with, and re-edited to be more like the director, Ridley Scott, originally wanted it to be. But the old versions are still available, even included in the DVD-releases of the new versions.

One thing to consider, and which was not mentioned in The People vs George Lucas at all, is that Lucas might have come up with the idea, and created the worlds which Star Wars consists of, but in the first series he had collaborators, including the script writers Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, and the directors Irvin Kershner (who is great) and Richard Marquand(who is less great), and neither of them were involved when Lucas made the later three films. Maybe that is one reason why they fall far short of the quality of the earlier ones. And maybe, as Lucas did grown old and became comfortable and more conservative, he forgot the warmth and wit that the earlier films had and the new ones desperately lacks.

Maybe a fact that needs to be acknowledged is that Lucas was perhaps never much of a director, but more of a visionary. But that's OK.

What was also discussed in the film were the four films about Indiana Jones, as part of the Lucas franchise. They are of course directed by Steven Spielberg, but Lucas came up with the concept and was executive producer, and he was involved in the whole process. This though, interestingly enough, was not mentioned in the film either. Neither was it mentioned that the first Indiana Jones-film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was also written by Lawrence Kasdan and that Philip Kaufman came up with the idea and the characters together with Lucas. But the point in The People vs. George Lucas, though, was that the last part, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), was a horrible film. That, as they say in South Park, Lucas and Spielberg raped Indiana Jones. I don't really understand this. There isn't much difference between the old and the new. They've always been rather silly, and occasionally borderline racist, but have had tremendous visual flair and inventiveness, and the last one is just as bad and as good as the previous ones in my humble opinion. When you begin, as some did in the film, to criticise the new one for being unrealistic, then it becomes laughable, because what were the previous ones if not mythical supernatural adventures, far removed from anything remotely realistic. Incidentally, in the Lucas oeuvre they fit in rather nicely, but they don't compare favourably to Spielberg's best films, as far as I'm concerned.

Here's a link to the originating website: http://www.peoplevsgeorge.com/

Leigh Brackett, it should be remembered, lend her wit to many of Howard Hawks's best films, and both Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman are great writer/directors in their own right as well.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

In the bubble, and some new films reviewed

There has been much work lately and no time to write. But now things are more relaxed and there's more time to communicate.

I live in St Andrews, which is a very small place, with a very small cinema, which shows a very small selection of what the world has to offer in terms of films. So I have seen depressingly few new films this year. Since summer I've only seen The Social Network, The Switch, The Other Guys, Certified Copy (Copie conforme), Inception and Alamar. It's a bit pathetic really, six film during two and a half months. Of course I've seen many older films, on DVD, like some Cuban films, and films by Douglas Sirk and Raoul Walsh, and the odd Hasse Ekman, so I'm not starved for cinema, it's just that by living here I miss out on what's new, the cinema of the here and now. Reading about new films is of course not the same as actually watching them. But I suppose I'll just have to watch them on DVD at a later date.

Since I've only seen six films I thought I say something about all of them. I actually liked them all, although The Switch was often-times slow and dimwitted. I wacthed it because I like Jason Bateman, and he didn't disappoint, other than for his poor choice of script. It (or at least Jennifer Aniston's comments about single motherhood) also upset Bill O'Reilly, and that has to be a good thing.

The Other Guys lacks on the visual side, but it more than makes up for it when it comes to the writing. It had some of the most outrageously funny and bizarre dialogue I've heard in a long time, and the story was on some levels pure genius, in its set-ups and twists. It's written and directed by Adam McKay, who previously has made the even better Anchorman - the Legend of Run Burgundy (2004), the less great but still good Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and a lot of stuff for TV. He obviously has a golden pen, and a very good actor partner in Will Ferrell.

Alamar is perhaps the least known among these six new films, and it is also to most challenging, in that it has very little to offer in terms of plot, story or acting. It is more a meditation on nature and colour, in a sense it's like a film by Terrence Malick with only the lyrical parts kept. Alamar takes place in Mexico, on the coral reef Banco Chinchorro, where a man is taking his son out to fish before they will part, the son leaving for Europe with his mother. The film, written, directed, photographed and edited by Pedro González-Rubio, is deceptively simple, and makes for a very moving hymn to parenthood and nature, in all its unspoiled glory. The most beautiful part of the film involves a bird, a bird which becomes for a while a member of the family, and then suddenly disappears, leaving the boy devastated. It can stand as a symbol of how fleeting life and happiness, and possible nature in its pristine form, might be.

Inception is without doubt one of the most talked about movies of the year, not necessarily because it is better than other films but because it plays around with the viewer, self-consciously leaving us to ponder its games, levels and meanings. I don't want to dwell on it but I found the first hour somewhat boring, since there's far too much superfluous talk and too little gravitas. As the film progresses though it gains a lot, even though it moves into zero gravity. About its meanings and levels, I don't think it matters whether or not it ends with a dream, what matters there is that he is happy for once. I also think it is a mistake to think about it in a linear way, with five separate levels. Like the maze that Ariadne (clever name isn't it...) creates to impress Cobb in the beginning, the film's structure is circular I would say, and it's quite possible that all various levels are dreams, that there is no "reality" whatsoever at play here.

Certified Copy is also a film that plays a lot of games, and where there is talk all the time. It is also a film with many levels, and a film where it is not altogether clear what is real and what is not, and whether or not it actually matters. It is also a film of staggering visual beauty, filled with elegant use of off-screen space. It also, unfortunately, has William Shimell as the male lead. I don't exactly know what he did and why, but it felt like he thought he was in a zombie film, and acted accordingly although Juliette Binoche was radiant as usual. But sometimes I wondered if the film, and Abbas Kiarostami, weren't a bit too clever for their own good.

The Social Network is often referred to as "David Fincher's The Social Network", but with a writer of such esteem and recognisable style as Aaron Sorkin, I think we should ease up on the director-as-default-auteur and if we need to put names to it, say "Fincher/Sorkin's The Social Network". And as such names would suggest, it is a very great film, possibly the best American film I've seen this year. Sorkin's dialogue and structure and Fincher's use of composition, framing and focus are dazzling. It is both a display of supreme craftsmanship and a good snapshot of the world today, as well as a portrait of Harvard. And all the actors are flawless. As soon as it was over I wanted to watch it again. And again. Much like Mark Zuckerberg updating his facebook profile again and again in the last, moving, shot. Someone likened it to All About Eve (1950), and it is possible to see Sorkin as a modern day Joseph L. Mankiewicz. But I think Fincher has more style and passion as a director than Mankiewicz had, great as he was.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Of interpretations, Hitchcock and misogynism

In the Guardian the other day Bidishia wrote an article about women in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The argument was that Hitchcock was a misogynist, and that women are treated deplorably in his films, while the men are "innocent folks, acting up because they got caught in a tricky situation".

Now, there are so many problems with this article it is difficult to know where to begin. But I will not debate Hitchcock's alleged misogynism (it is after all a topic that has been discussed for several decades now). Instead I will treat the article as a perfect example of common flaws when talking and writing about films, and other art forms as well.

The first flaw is that Bidisha is only using six films, from the 1950s and early 1960s, for her example. Hitchcock made some 60 films. Do they all treat women the same way? Does the treatment differ from his film in Britain versus his American films? Does the treatment differ depending on which decade they are made? Such questions are left out of the discussion, despite the fact that they are relevant if you want to discuss Hitchcock and women.

The second flaw is that Bidisha only talks about the women. But what of the men in the films discussed. How are they treated? Men are being ridiculed, killed, maimed, taunted and fooled, and often shown as being lying, homicidal and devious. Maybe Hitchcock was a misandrist? Bidisha writes that "Hitchcock's women are outwardly immaculate, but full of treachery and weakness." but does that not describe the men equally well (or equally wrong)?

The third flaw is that Bidisha doesn't see any nuances or make room for different interpretations. Surely there is more ways of interpreting a film than just one. And if there is room for several interpretations, then maybe we shouldn't accusing filmmakers for having this or that opinion. Her readings of for example Lisa Fremont in Rear Window (1954) and Eve Kendall in North By Northwest (1959) are just too simplistic and narrow minded to be really meaningful. To say that Lisa Fremont is "full of treachery and weakness" goes completely against my own reading of the film, and that she's reading a fashion magazine in the last scene is hardly evidence of treachery or weakness, as Bidisha seems to imply.

At one point, with regard to Eve in North By Northwest, Bidisha writes "Only in the mind of a true hater can these contradictory qualities come together in the nasty piece of work that is Woman." That is auteurism in absurdum. Even if every single film by Hitchcock was blatantly misogynistic (if such a thing was possible), we would not be able to deduct that the director himself was a "true hater". It's tempting here to quote Hitchcock's famous line "My dear, it's only a movie." What I mean is that a film cannot be read as a diary. The work and the man behind it are two different things. Besides, there are also script writers to consider, among other contributors.

To sum up, by doing simplistic readings of a few films, Bidisha is trying to make an argument about a man, his views of women and his complete body of work. But it's a ridiculous endeavour, and the result is by default without merit. And yet, how common it is, this approach.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

In the Mood for Love

Maggie Cheung, Chris Doyle, Wong Kar Wai and Shigeru Umebayashi. This is cinema.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Theory canon

In About a Boy, Will (in the film played by Hugh Grant) had the good fortune of having a father who wrote a popular Christmas song, and Will has been able to live well ever since on the royalties of that song.

Sometimes in the world of film theory, there's occasionally something similar going on. Laura Mulvey wrote the essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema, Tom Gunning wrote the essay The Cinema of Attractions, Roland Barthes wrote (admittedly not in film theory, but it's still used there) The Death of the Author. And they're forever deeply connected with these essays, despite having written a lot of other things. These three examples are just a small sample. One thing about this is that what they wrote in those essays is not necessarily something that they later felt was really accurate, or something they had really thought through. I'm not saying that Tom Gunning is wishing his essay was removed from the market, he might still swear by it, but it's only reasonable that as you progress and expand as a scholar, you get new ideas and new impressions, and perhaps even feel that the essay you once wrote is today somewhat embarrassing.

Another such essay is François Truffaut's A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. Truffaut wrote it when he was 22 years old, and needed to make a name of himself, so he tried to be as provocative as possible, and not really writing what he actually believed, but rather what would get people's attention. And attention it got. And still gets. And it's basically just a young guy harassing two older scriptwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, blaming them for what ills French cinema, and for making French cinema vulgar. Yet two years later Truffaut wrote a review saying that Aurenche and Bost were indispensable.

But still all the world's film students have to read these essays. There's a well established canon of film theoretical texts, even among scholars and departments that deplores the very idea of a film canon. There's something contradictory here.

And these texts are not only read, indiscriminately, but they are also quoted and references ad nauseum. Probably since they and their fellow canonical texts are the only texts people have read to any large extent, so not only do they know it themselves, but they also know that everyone else will know about it, so it's a safe thing to quote. I recently read an anthology about cinema and nation but when the fifth essay used the phrase "as Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities" in the first paragraph I throw away the book in desperation. I've got nothing particular against Benedict Anderson but surely there's been something else written somewhere, at some point, on the subject. That book (Imagined Communities) is 27 years old, has nothing happens since then?

Robert Ray at University of Florida once wrote, in 1988 to be precise, that since everybody in film studies, from graduate level and onwards, are pushed to publish as much as possible "the inevitable happens: a catchy malleable idea like Lacan's 'mirror stage' suddenly crops up as the basis for hundreds of articles and conference papers, only to be replaced by a new fad, the race/class/gender template". (Reprinted in "How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies") When I studied Film History and Theory at Stockholm University in the 1990s I made a solemn promise not to quote Foucault in anything I wrote, since that was the only person everybody were quoting, or so it seemed at the time. Now I've mellowed a bit, and he is actually quoted in my thesis. But very briefly.

So what is the problem then? Well, it is that the study of film theory so often is monolithic and canonical, that many theoretical texts are read and re-read even though they either are well past their sell-by-date, or were bonkers to begin with, and that it so often happens that those that read the theoretical texts, be they essays or books, somehow becomes absorbed in this or that theory, and treat it as gospel. Whenever I happen to meet such a person I'm reminded of what John Maynard Keynes said after a meeting with some other economists: "I believe I was the only one in that room who wasn't a Keynesian."

A lot of the theoretical stuff also happens to be written by either French Marxists or by writers very much inspired by French Marxists, and occasionally psychoanalysis (i.e. Jacques Lacan). That is another conundrum (or spectre) which we can discuss some other time.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Missing parts

In my on-going Raoul Walsh-retrospective I yesterday saw The Big Trail, his epic western from 1930. But what exactly did I see? Well, certainly not all of it. The version I saw was a measly 105 minutes, whereas the 70mm version that was released in 1930 was at least 150 minute long. Why was the version I saw just a condensed version? And is it really accurate to say that "I've seen The Big Trail"? No. The best I can say is that "I've seen part of The Big Trail."

During the summer I once again saw Ingeborg Holm (1913), and after I learned that it, too, was shorter than it should be, with some scenes missing. So all these years I've been under the impression that I've seen the whole of it, when in fact I have seen only part of it, albeit most parts.

This might seem like a semantic discussion, but it is important, or at least should be, for film historians. New films, we might generally assume at least, are shown in their original length, if by "original" we mean the length the makers of it intended for it to have. But old films, perhaps especially "silent" films, might just as well be shorter than they once were, due to wear and tear, or the scissors of censors, or other things that have interfered with the print. And this is of course relevant because the impact that a given film has on the viewer, the interpretations that are done, the emotional response the film arouse, might be very much different were those missing scenes there. The viewer might get a completely false impression of the film. This is perhaps not the case with Ingeborg Holm, but it most certainly is the case with The Big Trail. The restored version, in its widescreen glory (or Fox Grandeur as it was called), which was released on DVD in the US two years ago, is still only 122 min. When and where will I be able to see the real thing?

When talking about new films, I'm not forgetting the common occurrence of films to appear, soon after their cinema release, on DVD in "the director's version" or something like that. But that's another story.

Monday 20 September 2010

The More the Merrier

I'm back, and eager to get back in the film blogging game. I'll start of easy though.

One of the best love scenes I know, and one that is surprisingly erotic, is to be found in The More the Merrier (1943). It's between Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, two of my favourite actors from the 1930s and 1940s, and they play room-mates who are drawn to each other, but she's engaged to another man. The film is rather brilliant, and besides being a romantic comedy, it has unusual depth, for one thing it's about life in war-time. The reason they're living together is because of the lack of accommodation, despite the fact that most men are away, being killed at the front. With all the men away, McCrea's character gets a fair amount of attention from the women. In fact, some scenes are remarkable example of the "female gaze". In this particular scene, notice the way McCrea puts on and takes of her jacket, and the sprinkling of lovers along the street the walk on. It's very stagey, almost like a tableau from a musical.

The film was written by Robert Russell and Frank Ross, who hasn't written much else. In fact, Frank Ross's involvement might be due to the fact that he was married to Jean Arthur. But Garson Kanin is listed as uncredited writer, and that might have something to do with the quality of it.

The cinematographer is Ted Tetzlaff, who photographed a lot of suave comedies in the 30s, but perhaps made his best work on Notorious (1946). That was his last film as a cinematographer, he became a director after that, specialising in film noir and crime dramas.

And the director is George Stevens, and although I never was a fan of his, I've always admired his shooting style, which is invariably complex and unorthodox. Long takes, elaborate compositions with a lot of blocking, and plenty of dissolves are among his trademarks. In this scene there are no dissolves, but the rest is there. And it's absolutely amazing, in short, this is Stevens's best film, and one of the best American films of the 40s. It should also be said that the great Charles Coburn is in it, although not in this scene.

Monday 6 September 2010


I'm going travelling and taking a break from the film blog. But not to worry, I'll be back in two weeks and I've got plenty of things to say.

Until then, two things to ponder:

Most of written film history is just a mythical abstraction.

No film is predictable until after you've seen it.

I googled the word Ponderabilia to see if it existed. Apparently it's big in Poland.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

An Ekman connection

In 1940 Hasse Ekman made a film called Swing it magistern, together with Schamyl Bauman. Ekman also wrote the lyrics for the songs, the best of which is probably the following:

This song became a real classic, and 60 years later Robyn performed it. Here's her take on it:

This will not necessarily be a part of my thesis (for newcomers to this blog, the thesis is about Ekman) but it's a good song. That's all I'm saying.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Joseph Biroc

The other day, as I was writing my regular DVD-column (for the Swedish film magazine Filmrutan), I did some research on the cinematographer Joseph Biroc. As it turned out, he was the link between several films that's been on my mind lately. I knew he shot Emperor of the North Pole (1973), which was my starting point, but as it turned out, he also shot Airplane! which celebrates its 30th birthday this year and which I tweeted about the other day. He also shot, much earlier, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), together with Frank Capra's regular DP Joseph Walker (I always confuse the trio Joseph H. August, Joseph A. Valentine and Joseph Walker) and a whole range of films in between. He did some 12 films with Robert Aldrich, including Emperor of the North Pole, and also several films together with Samuel Fuller. It would seem that most of his films were along that line, tough and violent. Or, as in the case of Airplane! and Blazing Saddles (1973), absurd comedies of the more hilarious type.

So what is my point exactly? Well, two things actually. One is that I sometimes associate a particular cinematographer with a particular style, even though they may have worked in many different styles. Mention the name Joseph MacDonald (yet another Joseph...) and I immediately think about the exquisite beauty of My Darling Clementine (1946), crisp shots of open skies and empty streets. And yet he also shot one of the most beautiful of noirs, Call Northside 777 (1948), responsible for the heartbreaking shot of a little woman scrubbing a seemingly endless floor. Mention Gunnar Fischer*, and I think about the shot of a happy girl in a row boat in Summer Interlude (Sommarlek 1951). Vittorio Storaro equals The Conformist (Il conformista 1970). And so on and so forth. But sometimes it might actually be correct in associating a particular cinematographer with a particular style, a particular type of film.

My other point is that studying a cinematographer over a long career could be a fun and instructive way of looking at how films and the look of them has changed over the years, and how the technical equipment has changed as well. It could be a way of structuring the historical research.

I don't know much about Biroc, but I know that he was with the Signal Corps during World War 2, and filmed the liberation of Paris, and that he won the American Society of Cinematographer's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988. He also lived to be 93 years old, which is not bad at all.


Joseph H. August shot, among other things, two of the most beautiful films ever made, They Were Expendable (1945) and The Portrait of Jennie (1948), his last film.

Joseph A. Valentine shot, among other things, three films for Hitchcock, Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Rope (1948).

Joseph Walker also worked with Hawks on two films, including Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940), besides being DP on 18 of Capra's films.

*Corrections 2011-07-09. I initially wrote that Göran Strindberg was cinematographer for Summer Interlude. Not sure why, he's good enough to be given credit for his own films...

Sunday 22 August 2010

2 x Forman

At long last Milos Forman's Taking Off (1971) is soon available on DVD. At least in Sweden. UK, US and France apparently have to wait a little longer.

There's reason to cheer this because during the 1960s in the Czech Republic (which was called Czecoslovakia in those days) and the US in the 1970s and 1980s he was one of the very best of filmmakers. Poignant, funny and serious. I've seen all but two of his films and only once was I disappointed, Goya's Ghost (2006) was dreadful. But I'll write more on Forman at some later point. Today I just wanted to celebrate the good DVD news, and show a clip from Taking Off, which might actually be my favourite of all of Forman's films. But I will show two clips, one from Taking Off, the other from Forman's first film, called Audition or Konkurs, which was released in 1964. Spot the similarities...

Thursday 19 August 2010

CSI: Miami

I'm intrigued by CSI: Miami (2002 - ). I'm not pretending to be any kind of expert on it, but I've seen episodes here and there, and also of the other two versions, CSI: Las Vegas (2000 - ) and CSI: NY (2004 - ). Why intrigued? Because it's so breathtakingly effortless. There's no acting, there's no writing and there's no direction. It's got the most elementary story possible, and the various mysteries the teams have to solve are neither clever nor mysterious. There's no thought involved on the part of the crew members, all they have to do is spray, scratch, look in the microscope, run the DNA found on the crime scene on the computer and there's your suspect. And with so little effort from the makers of the series, there's no effort involved on the part of the audience either. No complexities and no anxieties.

At first I thought that the main appeal for its large audience, well, the only appeal, was the scientific approach. That what the audience wanted to see, and which the makers knew that the audience wanted to see and so provided, was the technical wizardry involved. That this was the very essence of a "cinema of attractions". And that is probably a large part of its broader appeal. But after doing some research, and looking at online CSI-forums, I've realised that a large group of people do have an emotional investment in the show, and its characters. They argue about them, the root for them and they pity them. So for them this show is something it could never be for me, the casual observers. It's like a family member, which you go and visit frequently.

What I've also noticed in the series is a rather harsh and conservative attitude to the criminals. This is not a TV-series of forgiveness and repentance. Here the criminals all deserve to die, and are not showing any remorse (and apparently no suspect in this world of CSI has any rights, or needs to be told that they have a right to remain silent and such legal niceties). This almost biblical morality stands in contrast with the very modern and very scientific approach to the actual solving of the crimes. The crew members quotes Newton, calculate with elaborate mathematical equations and use the latest technological equipment. It's a far cry from the poor policemen in The Wire (2002 - 2008) who makes do with just typewriters.

For me though, the greatest appeal, perhaps the only appeal, of CSI: Miami is the visual style. It's all glass and transparency, fluctuating lights and fancy camera movements. It's close to intoxicating, especially all the glass and see-through materials.

But what does it all mean?

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Patricia Neal 1926-2010

I've long been a fan of Patricia Neal (when I wrote a review, over a decade ago, of Cookie's Fortune (1999), it was very much about her and very little about anything else), so the news are sad of course. But according to some press information before she died she said "I've had a lovely time." And so have I, all those hours I've spent watching her doing wonders on the screen.

Here's a scene from The Breaking Point (1950), with John Garfield. Possibly Michael Curtiz's best film, and with a final scene so heartbreaking it'll haunt you forever. And she's magnificent, as she usually was.

Sunday 8 August 2010


When I was young I watched conspicuous amounts of TV. It's fair to say my life was organised around my school schedule and the TV schedule. But at some point, in my late teens, I just stopped. My interest in cinema took over, and if I watched anything on TV it was movies. Also I didn't really feel that TV was dignified enough for someone such as myself. Weirdly enough all that changed in the summer of 1997, because the movie Fools Rush In (1997) opened, and as its male star it had Matthew Perry. When I saw the trailer with a friend she said "Oh, it's the guy from Friends!" I had no idea what she was talking about and suddenly I felt left out, even though it was a movie we were talking about. So I decided that I had to watch TV again. This was at a time when sitcoms ruled the roost, the likes of Friends* (1994-2004), Spin City (1996-2002), Frasier (1993-2004), Dharma and Greg (1997-2002) and important series such as ER (1994-2009) and Ally McBeal (1997-2004). And in 1998 Sex and the City (1998-2004) appeared, followed the next year by The West Wing (1999-2006) and The Sopranos (1999-2007) and many other series. It could be argued that in 1998 we entered a whole new era, the age of HBO (even though HBO had already been around for some time).

But the development of modern TV is to be a subject for further blog posts. The point now is that TV suddenly became culturally acceptable, not only for me but in general, in a way it hadn't really been before. Part of the reason for this is probably that TV got better, in the sense that a lot more complex and intelligent TV-series than was the norm appeared. And another reason is probably a generational thing.

One example of this is that when Friends began no "real" stars wanted to to be seen in it, but in later seasons stars were lining up to appear, either playing themselves or just doing bit parts.

If you want to study cinema properly, you need to study TV as well. They crossbreed and influence one another, and actors, writers and directors move from one media to another. It used to be that directors began doing TV and once they left it for the cinema they didn't move back, or that movie stars ended their careers doing TV-shows. It's not like that any more. Of course, TV has always had a huge influence on TV, not least in the sense that in the 1950s, when TV had its big breakthrough, it took away large parts of the audience from the cinema, and cinema had to develop new technical novelties in order to compete, such as CinemaScope, Cinerama, 3D and Smell-O-Vision (which admittedly never really caught on). TV also lead to changes in narrative patterns and the use of colour. (It also coincided with the "birth" of the teenager, but that's another story.) And cinema has of course influenced TV as well over the years, but I would still say that things are different today. And if you want to understand what's going on in the world of moving images, and perhaps also to understand what's going on in the world in general, studying TV is vital.

However, when people today are writing and talking about TV, they often talk as if good TV was born at the beginning of this century. That's of course bonkers. One of the most important TV-series ever is Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), created by Steven Bochco, who in the 1980s had a standing similar to HBO's today, as a source of brilliance. And there are a number of other great and ground breaking shows and series, and of course not only from the US. Britain for example also has a long tradition of doing good, solid and challenging TV. Z-Cars (1962-1978) is an example of a cop show, and there's also the many adapted books, such as Brideshead Revisited (1981) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). And of course the magnificent Fawlty Towers (1975-1979). Other countries with which I'm less familiar probably did good work as well.

But, as I said, the development of TV history will be discussed later, this post was only meant as a rallying cry for giving the study of TV and TV-history an equal footing with cinema studies in the academic world, and as a starting point for writing about TV here, at Fredrik on Film.

*It's debatable whether Friends qualifies as a sitcom, or if it should be regarded as something else, a cross between a soap and a sitcom, a soapcom perhaps. But now, enjoy this classic scene from Fawlty Towers.

Tuesday 3 August 2010


I don't want to get all Harold Bloom on you, but thoughts about canon appears every now and then and I'm fascinated by it. Usually they give birth to fierce discussions, and questions are raised such as, what are they for? who decides what's in them? do we really want this kind of elitism? since there are no objective truths in art, are not canons by definition bad?

But a canon, i.e. a selection of works deemed to be of special value, is in itself neutral, and can be whatever you want it to be. If we just keep to the art form at hand, hundreds of thousands of films have been made over the years, and it's simply impossible to see them all, or even keep track of them, and the older they are, the more anonymous they become. For me, that's when a canon can be an invaluable help, as a starting point, for the budding student of film history, or the young eager film enthusiast who wants to get ahead in the game and watch some seminal films on a rainy day.

And canons, just like any other lists, are almost always stimulating and thought-provoking. But if they don't come with a clear definition and an argument, they can easy become pointless, and the debates they bring about equally pointless. Like when Woody Allen mentioned his six favourite films last month. We only knew what films, not why and how they were selected, and then we're none the wiser.

When I was teaching last semester, we ended the course with discussing canon, and my students was wondering which films I would myself put on a list. I thought about it for a while and came up with the following list. It should, as I said, be seen only as a starting point for exploring film history, but with these films I believe that you get both a very good idea of all the possibilities that narrative feature films have to offer, as well as a bunch of brilliant films. (But if you asked for a list of my favourite films, it would be a rather different selection.) Among the films here you get early cinema and modern cinema, colour and black and white, polyester and digital, English and Iranian, fast and slow, short and long, conventional and modernist, comic and tragic, complex and simply, but all of them artful and essential.

Ingeborg Holm, Victor Sjostrom 1913, Sweden
Sherlock Jr, Buster Keaton 1924, USA
Ten Days That Shook the World / Oktyabr, Sergei Eisenstein 1928, Soviet Union (Russia)
Our Daily Bread, King Vidor 1934, USA
The Great Illusion / La grande illusion, Jean Renoir 1937, France
You Only Live Once, Fritz Lang 1937, USA
Only Angels Have Wings, Howard Hawks 1939, USA
Meet Me in St Louis, Vincente Minnelli 1944, USA
A Matter of Life and Death, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger 1946 UK
Summer Interlude / Sommarlek, Ingmar Bergman 1951, Sweden
Ugestu Monotagari, Kenji Mizoguchi 1953, Japan
Illusion Travels By Streetcar/ La ilusion viaja an travia, Luis Bunuel 1954, Mexico
Flowing / Nagareru, Mikio Naruse 1956, Japan
The Searchers, John Ford 1956, USA
L'eclisse, Michelangelo Antonioni 1962, Italy
The Battle of Algiers / La battaglia di Algeri, Gillio Pontecorvo 1966, France/Italy
The Spider's Stratagem / Strategia del ragno, Bernardo Bertolucci 1970, Italy
The Adversary / Pratitwandi, Satyajit Ray 1972, India
Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah 1973, USA
Je, tu, il, elle, Chantal Akerman 1974, Belgium
La belle noiseuse, Jacques Rivette 1991, France
In the Soup, Alexandre Rockwell 1992, USA
The Truman Show, Peter Weir 1998, USA
The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami 1999, Iran
Beau Travail, Claire Denis, 1999 Frankrike
Delbaran, Abolfazl Jalili 2001, Iran
Prize of Forgiveness / Ndeysaan, Mansour Sora Wade 2001, Senegal
Lovely and Amazing. Nicole Holofcener 2001, USA
Collateral. Michael Mann 2004, USA

Monday 26 July 2010

On endings

One of the things I like with the Bourne-series is that it has a wholeness to it, it's a round circle, visually. It begins, in the first film The Bourne Identity (2002), with the body of Jason Bourne floating in water and it ends, in the third film The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), with the body of Jason Bourne floating in water. The first time it signals his appearance, the last time it signals his disappearance. (And the fact that it ends thus makes the idea whether or not to make a fourth film so wrong, at least artistically. But it seems now that neither Matt Damon nor Paul Greengrass want to continue.)

This is one way of ending a film, buy repeating the beginning, albeit with a difference. This is by the way often how Hasse Ekman ends his films.

The reason I'm writing about endings is that David Bordwell brought it up as a topic at the already mentioned SCSMI conference in Roanoke. The question was how do we know that a film is ending? He told about a young girl he was watching Snow White (1937) with, and in the last scene she shouted "More!", even before it was actually over and the words "The End" were seen. Bordwell's question was "How did she know the film was over?".

I'm not going to go deep in the cognitive science part of the question, but it's interesting to note that there are different ways to end a film, and I think that it would be possible to list a set number of endings, let's say 10, and that almost all films will have an ending that is related to one of these 10. And in order to answer the question, we need to look at these different types of endings and see if they all signal clearly that this is indeed "the end", as does Snow White. It would also be interesting to interpret the various types of endings and see what they tell us about the films and/or the filmmakers philosophical and ideological outlook.

I haven't done enough research on this so I'm not in a position to list all possible endings, but I can give some examples. We've established two ending patterns already in this blog post, the, let's call it, "circular ending", which links the first and the last scene, and the, let's call it the "classical ending" from Snow White. (If you haven't seen the following films and don't want to know how they end, then read carefully...)

A third pattern are the more "modernist" ending, where the films often doesn't really have an ending, but just fades out in a critical moment, or, as in the end of Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962), shows a series of shots of empty streets and buildings. The endings of many films by Howard Hawks also have these "modernist" endings. The Big Sleep (1946), arguably Hawks's most narratively daring film, ends with Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge (Bogart and Bacall) waiting together in a darkened room for the police to arrive, and neither they nor we know what's going to happen when the police does arrive.

A fourth ending is the sudden and abrupt one, which even when we've seen it might leave us dangling. "What? That's it?" Like The Candidate (1972), the brilliant political drama with Robert Redford as a candidate for the senate. He runs, not to win, because nobody expects him to, but for more let's say political reasons. But in the end he does win after all, and he leaves the celebration and goes in to his dressing room. An aide follows him, and the candidate turns to him and says "What do we do now?". "The End".

It's clear already that sometimes endings are easy to spot, sometimes they're not. I just watched the second film in the Lord of the Ring-series, The Two Towers (2002) and there were several times I thought the end was near, due to the use of music, dialogue and editing patterns, but it didn't come. It's importance here that what I was expecting wasn't a definitive ending, but just a fadeout, because I knew it was only the second instalment in a trilogy, and the end of a film which is to be followed by another film continuing the story, is usually done in yet another different way. A fadeout I eventually got, but only after a much longer time then I'd thought. It's difficult to explain in a few words what I mean by the special "the end is near"-feeling, but it's likely that you've already experienced the effect. See also the second (or fifth if you like) Star Wars-film The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for the same thing.

So, the research around endings will continue, but first a side note.

At Dave Kehr's blog there was a debate last week about "spoiler alerts" and whether or not it's OK to reveal the endings in comments and reviews. Jonathan Rosenbaum has also written on the subject. For some, the very idea that people don't want to know the ending before having seen the film was somehow almost offensive. Those that do not want to know the ending, it was said, are apparently not interested in style and atmosphere, but somehow shallow and should be ridiculed. But that's just arrogant if you ask me. Most people do after all enjoy watching the story unfold, and being surprised and amused by it, and there's of course nothing wrong with that. It doesn't mean that they're not interested in anything else. It's only common decency to warn (or ask permission) before revealing how a film ends.

One of the arguments was that there's to much emphasis on plot and story in film criticism and reviewing, and very little attention is paid to style. This is something I very much agree with, and something I find annoying. As I've said before, the story and the plot is only one part of the film, perhaps half of it, and not talking about the rest is just lazy. Cinematography, music, art direction, editing and so on needs to be given its dues as well.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Swedish films in South Africa

Should you happen to be in Durban the coming weeks, you'll have ample opportunity to watch five new Swedish films, as well as five of Bergman's most well-known films. It's the 31st Durban International Film Festival which has a special focus on Sweden, and the festival runs from 22 July to 1 August. Beware though that it's not a particularly cheerful selection. Doom and gloom seems to have been what the festival was looking for. But among the Bergman films they're showing Wild Strawberries (1957) is of course of exceptional beauty.

More information is to be found here: http://www.cca.ukzn.ac.za/DIFF_newsSwedish.htm

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Harvey Pekar

One of my favourite scenes from modern cinema is from the film based on Harvey Pekar's comics American Splendor. The film came out in 2003, and Paul Giamatti plays Pekar. Now the real Harvey Pekar has passed away, only yesterday, age 70. He was one of the great names in American comics, and perhaps graphic novels. He was a good friend of Robert Crumb, and this is how Crumb described him to The Plain Dealer, a newspaper from Cleveland, Ohio, Pekar's hometown: "He's the soul of Cleveland. He's passionate and articulate. He's grim. He's Jewish. I appreciate the way he embraces all that darkness."

I wonder how he was during his last days. It doesn't really feel right to say rest in peace. Would he be happy, resting in peace?

Here's a more informed posting about him, including some clips from when he appeared at David Letterman.

Here's the scene from the film version of American Splendor.

Monday 12 July 2010

Alfred Hitchcock and kangaroos

British Pathé has a web site where you can watch old newsreel footage, some as old as from 1896. I just registered today and one of the first things I found was this delightful piece. I did not know that Hitchcock was also a director of the Los Angeles Zoo.


Saturday 10 July 2010

Woody Allen's six films

Ah, the modern age of blogging and social networks. A week ago in an interview with the Times (of London), Woody Allen talked about his life and his career. He also, apparently just in passing, named his six favourite films among his own:

Zelig (1984) 7,7
Husbands and Wives (1992) 7,4
Match Point (2005) 7,8

And a surprisingly large amount of people are getting worked up by these choices, because they are the "wrong" films. One example is the Guardian's film blog which says that Allen "misjudge" his films "spectacularly" and finds his "cluelessness" "weirdly endearing". Vanity Fair and New York Magazine are two other publications that are getting involved, as are of course bloggers (like myself).

But what is the problem with the list? Yes, neither Annie Hall (1977) nor Manhattan (1979) are among the chosen ones but for starters we have no clues as to what were Allen's reasons for choosing these particular films. He might have chosen them because they were the films which came as close to what he wanted to achieve as possible. Or because he had a particularly happy time when making them. Or because, today, these films are closest to Allen's view of life.

And there is nothing horrendous about those six films. I myself like all of them, they all got on average good reviews by the critics and they all got roughly the same ratings on imdb (that is the figure after the titles above). Why not compare imdb's list with Allen's:

Annie Hall 8.2
Manhattan 8.1
Match Point 7.8
Zelig 7.7

Purple Rose of Cairo comes in on 8th place, followed by Bullets Over Broadway and with Vicky Cristina Barcelona at 11th place, followed by Husbands and Wives.

It would appear then that Allen actually is a tune with the public mood, rather than being completely bonkers, as has been suggested by some commentators.

This is just a silly thing of course, and there is no need to waste a lot of time with it, but I think that the reactions reveal some things.

One is the way that people get emotional about it. This is a testament both to the power of films, and to the fact that it is personal. "I love these films and if you love those films, then that just proves that there is something wrong with you."

Another thing is that making lists is always a foolproof way of getting people aroused and upset. And it is probably partly due to the above mentioned reason.

Another thing is perhaps related to the phenomenon with people getting so attached to films (and books, comics, songs and so on) that they feel that they own it, that they have rights concerning those films. So when somebody, Allen in this case, is not giving due credit to these films, maybe people feel let down, betrayed even.

What is different with this list though, is that usually people complain because what are on the lists are conceived as being clichéd and ordinary. This time around the commentators are bending over backwards to be as conventional as possible.

If I had taken a guess as to what six films Allen would have chosen, I would have gone with the following:

Life and Death (1975) 7.6
Purple Rose of Cairo
Hannah and Her Sisters
Sweet and Lowdown (1999) 7.2

(I cannot link to the article in the Times since Murdoch prefers to hide behind pay walls. Here is a link to the Australian instead, which admittedly is also a Murdoch paper. For an example of fans making demands on the films they love and the filmmakers who made them, why not check out the documentary The People vs. George Lucas (2010))

Monday 5 July 2010

Mohsen Makhmalbaf and family

The Makhmalbaf family definitely has cinema in their DNA. Father Mohsen has been a filmmaker since the 1980s, after he sat in prison for sometime for having tried to kill a policeman. His wife Marziyeh Meshkini has made three films, one of which is the extraordinaryThe Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam 2000), and their daughters Samira and Hani has also made several films, Samira's being the most well known, including her first The Apple(Sib 1998) and Blackboards (Takhté siah 2000).

Last week I had the opportunity to talk with Makhmalbaf and his wife (see my previous posting), who were visiting St Andrews. He was, and still is, active in his support for the Green Movement in Iran. Although very much disappointed about what was going on in his home country, and the reactions from the West, whose only concern is the nuclear issue, he still had hope for the future. But what was needed he felt was a cultural shift, a move away from the religious mindset of the present. In a sense you might say that what he wanted was for the country to do what he himself has done.

When I said that it seemed almost impossible that there could be so much filmmaking talent in one family, he said that it wasn't a question of talent. Talent is not important, what is important is passion and dedication, that you're serious about what you do. I'm not sure I agree with that, in the sense that if you don't know how to make a film, it doesn't really matter how dedicated you are, the audience will probably not understand, if they even bother to try.

Makhmalbaf has a poetic, perhaps naïve, belief in the importance of the purity of the film. He contrasted the "vulgar" Bollywood musicals with the early films of Satyajit Ray, films which, he said, captured the soul of India. I don't even know what that is, but arguably the Bollywood films of today will tell you more about India than Ray's films, even if I, like Makhmalbaf, much prefer Ray's work. (Ray is after all one of the greatest artists in cinema history.)

Now the Makhmalbafs live in Paris, and he travels around the world to fight for Iran's future. He was name dropping the likes of Bernard Kouchner and Barack Obama, and I think that he both enjoys it and finds it exasperating to have become a politician. Even though he was always political.

Among Makhmalbaf's most interesting films are Salaam Cinema (1995), A Moment of Innocence (Nun va goldoon 1996) and Kandahar (Safar e Gandehar 2001), so check them out if you haven't already done so.