Monthly Archives: June, 2010

The Films of FILM1002 #1

In between watching endless games of football during the FIFA World Cup and getting a full time holiday job, I managed to fit in some study for my Intro to Film Studies uni exam. A bunch of the films on the course feature on the 1001 list, so I thought I would take the chance to share some thoughts. So here we go, in no specific order other than the order I re-watched them in, the first set of three.

The first film I checked out was Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) which I missed in class so was watching for the first time. Like Rear Window (1954), another film on the course, this film features a photographer as its central character. Where Hitchcock’s film focuses on the voyeuristic aspects of the profession; Antonioni’s addresses philosophical ideas regarding photos themselves like the manner in which they capture a moment in time, if once this moment is committed to film it can be changed and whether they are inherently ‘true’. I think that given the symbolic nature of photos and the huge role that they play in everyday lives and society more generally it is unsurprising two of the period’s most prominent director’s chose to have photographers as their protagonists. Our main man in this film, is not a particularly likeable character for a lot of the film. He orders his assistant round, yells at models and generally just carries on like a bit of a tosser. He is a photographer after all. So as an audience our sympathies are not really geared toward him. In fact they are not really geared toward any character. This works in this film as it allows one to sit back and enjoy being transported back to another time and place with having to become particularly emotionally involved.

For a film that moves predominately in ‘arty’ circles, this is relatively simply shot. But it is also very well made. Even the photo shoot scenes that were so clearly mined by Mike Myers for Austin Powers (1997) material, are not completely overshadowed by their comic offspring that they themselves become comical. This is down to the fact that they are excellently filmed with some interesting editing that makes them a joy, and an interesting one to watch. The other area where Antonioni really shows his stuff is during the scenes in the park. Notably the first (and only) glimpse of nature we are treated to in the film making for a stark contrast with the London streets we have been journeying through. Our photographer friend obviously does not spend too much time getting in touch with nature, evidenced by his rather comical chasing of the local birdlife in an attempt to snap a good shot. The film probably hits his highpoint near it’s midpoint with a couple of consecutive sequences. One shows the photographer developing his photos from the park in much detail. In the age of digital photography, it is great to see the process and art of developing a film explored in such loving detail. This is followed up by him surrounding his studio with the images, stalking around them like a private detective looking for that one clue that will break the case and sweating profusely. The long takes, and the fact that we are not really let in on what it is the photographer thinks he has found makes these scenes really interesting as we the audience are gradually let in on the secret – that he appears to have caught a murder on film.

Blow Up is an exceedingly cool film. It shows a lot of very chic people swanning around and doing very cool things like marching for a cause, taking photographs, getting a little threesome action and drinking at all hours of the day, all whilst wearing some pretty darn hip clothes. And they do it all to a very very cool soundtrack contributed almost entirely by Herbie Hancock. Hancock became a bit of a cool buzzword musician amongst a certain style of hip music fan a few years ago so is still pretty popular. Despite some of my friends getting into him, I must admit he totally passed me by. But he is the right dude to provide this soundtrack, matching the ultra-hip aesthetic of the film perfectly. Pretty much the only non-Hancock music comes in the form of a late cameo from The Yardbirds playing in a club in one of the film’s stranger scenes. Aside from Hancock’s great tunes, the other notable feature of the soundtrack is it’s deployment of long periods of silence used to enhance tension. This is used to admirable effect when the photographer is stalking the couple in the park, when he is looking at fine detail in the photos of the murder and again when he returns to the park to search for the body. The lack of a soundtrack makes the viewer focus solely on the visuals, and imagine the possible ramifications our protagonist’s actions could have for himself.

With around half an hour to go I was thoroughly enjoying this film. It did take a long time to get into the meat of the plot, with a lot of dithering before our man becomes certain that he has captured a murder on film. But I felt that it was really picking up in this regard and was anticipating a satisfying conclusion to the central mystery. I definitely did not get a satisfying conclusion. No doubt there are some who would disagree, but I think the movie really loses its way here. You could say it loses the plot. It became to me nonsensical. I’m not the kind of viewer who demands that everything be explained and finished up in a nice neat package. But the succession of scenes the film ends with added nothing to my viewing of the film, except a sense of annoyance.

So overall a dynamite first two thirds is let down by a woeful ending. Maybe I have just missed the point of said ending, or it went over my head, but I was incredibly disappointed with it. Still a worthy watch, there is much fine detail to pore over such as the significance of colour or silence, but as a piece of entertaining art it fell a little short for me.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988) raises a number of controversial questions regarding the fundamental nature of the documentary film. The VHS case of the copy I watched praised Phillip Glass’ “hypnotic score.” They are right, the score does add a hell of a lot to this film and is indeed hypnotic. But if documentaries are just filmed presentations of facts, surely they do not need the help of a score to influence opinion. Similarly the dramatically filmed recreations, apparently rather revolutionary for the time, surely through the use of camera angles and lighting among others distort the presentation of the memory’s of those present. Herein lies the conflict of making a doco for the screen. Present an unadorned account of events, no music, no attempt to influence the opinion of the audience, or make something that is entertaining and risk losing some level of integrity along the way.

Essentially the film deals with the murder of a police officer in Dallas, Texas. Following evidence from a teen runaway called David Harris, an older man who had befriended him in the days preceding the crime, Randall Dale Adams, is sentenced to death for the deed. The suggestion by Adams’ lawyers that he was pursued instead of Harris simply because he would get the death penalty whereas the juvenile Harris could not, is a chilling one. The way in which a man’s life is something to be played with and bargained for is a sickening one, even if ‘justice’ is the motivation. As a person incredibly passionate about abolition of the death penalty, I think this film is as good an advertisement for these views as any. Despite the ethical eye for an eye arguments, the fact that the lives of people are put in the hands of people with seemingly zero regard for the truth, rather just looking for another notch on the belt, for me shows just how heinous the fundamental concept of the death penalty is. The film obviously presents a one-sided view of proceedings. Clearly the intention is to convince the audience that Adams was innocent and that it was in fact Harris who committed the crime. Spectacularly in the films final scene, featuring dialogue over a still of a tape recorder, Harris more or less confesses to the crime. This is possibly the most stunning scene in this, and pretty much all documentaries. I think it would be interesting if Morris had set out to make a film to prove Adams’ guilt. What evidence would he have focused on? How would the re-enactments have differed? It could be argued that a lot of this film’s notoriety comes from what it brought about rather than its actual artistic merit. Following the film’s release Randall Adams was eventually released from prison. Whilst David Harris was never convicted of the murder, he was executed in 2004 for an unrelated 1985 slaying.

And the stunning conclusion, featuring dialogue over a still of a tape recorder, alone makes the film worth a watch. Similarly Glass’ score is fascinating, interesting and nuanced; the type of score that one doesn’t really expect to be exposed to while watching a documentary. But despite being well made and enjoyable, the film is not hugely different, except from the score, to a lot of TV docos you may have seen over the years. Its inclusion on the list is probably due to it being revolutionary for the time and influencing these numerous docos rather than being an absolutely mind blowing experience in its own right.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) borrowed heavily from Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire novel Dracula (1897), so heavily in fact that Stoker’s estate successfully sued the filmmakers for plagiarism and all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Fortunately for modern viewers, some copies managed to slip through this destruction order and the film remains available today. In my view borrowing from Stoker’s book can only be a good one, it is one of the undoubted classics of English literature. Story wise, Nosferatu is the Dracula tale stripped down to its bare bones – a real estate agent goes to Transylvania to finalise a deal with a count, in the film renamed Orlock, comes to realise that the count is a supernatural presence, realises the lives of his loved ones are in danger, and finally dashes home to try and save them from the count’s advances.

One of the issues with watching silent films in general in a modern setting is their quality. I saw two different copies of this film and they both differed quite substantially. For some reason DVD distributors feel it is their right to amend intertitles, credits (in this version both of these were a garish and distracting lime green) and sound at will. Even the tinting used, which has a great impact upon the effect of the film was very different between the two copies. The copy I saw for the purpose of this film used a lot of tinting, a bright yellow tint in the early love scenes (sunshine?) and blue tinting in the Transylvania night scenes (the supernatural?) to give just two examples. The frustrating thing for all of this is that it is impossible to know what the original director’s intention was in regards to this. Would he have approved this use of tinting? Was the other DVD copy that did not include tinting, closer or further away from his vision? In the end I just tried to put these questions to one side and focus on the cinematography and storytelling where the director’s original vision was able to be shown without later, outside interference. But at times this is difficult, and is hopefully something that distributors are aware of. For example the intertitles in this film look ultra-modern which snaps the viewer out of the age-old story every time they are shown.

The term melodramatic is generally a put-down in modern day parlance. The acting in this film is definitely melodramatic, but this is in no way a put down as it is both necessary and expertly done. Obviously without the benefit of dialogue, the need for actors to convey emotion physically is much higher in a silent film, meaning body language is dialled up to 11. The early scenes of this film which show the love between Hutter and Ellen show how well this can work. Their over the top facial expressions and embracing tell us everything we need to know, without words. Aside from these general thoughts, Nosferatu contains what must surely be one of the most iconic film depictions of a vampire, actually probably one of the more iconic performances in world cinema full stop. Max Schreck physically embodies the dreaded Count Orlock to perfection. His gaunt face, long bony fingers, massive hooked nose, sunken eyes and those teeth make him a spectacular incarnation of our greatest fears. Schreck does not simply rely on this physical image, but embodies the Count with an extreme creepiness that chills the bone. So good was this performance that it inspired the film Shadow of the Vampire (2000) which at its core the thesis that Schreck was in fact a vampire which is the reason he was able to give such a phenomenal performance. Technically, the acting is more than matched by this film’s cinematography. The landscape scenes in Transylvania with the craggy mountains looming ominously high above are beautiful on a basic and a symbolic level. In fact many scenes here are so beautiful they surpass even any modern day BBC doco you’re likely to see. The scenes of rafting down the river then the seafaring shots late in the film for example. These make wonderful viewing and these shots were not what I was expecting to see in a 1920s horror film.

With this film Murnau also proves himself a master of both modern and old school technique. What must have been cutting edge special effects are fused with a masterful use of shadow and silhouette. The best thing about the use of special effects in this film is that they do actually enhance the experience of watching it. A lesson many modern filmmakers could learn a lot from. The wagon racing along at incredible speed, the castle gates opening by themselves and the apparition of Orlock walking straight through a closed door enhance the atmosphere of the film greatly. And they look incredibly cool – my personal favourite sees Orlock loading his carriage high with coffins at great speed, climbing in the top one and then using his Jedi mind power to pick up the coffin lid from the ground and place it on top of him. Battling with some of these special effects shots for the film’s most iconic, is one that relies on a simpler technology. Toward the end of the film Orlock mounts the stairs to the room where Emily is. Instead of seeing him we see his giant, shadow puppet- esque silhouette with the use of shadow emphasises the long fingers and face of the villain. This is a wonderful image as Orlock creeps to what he thinks will be his triumph but what is in fact his demise.

The film is somewhat slow going for a modern audience. But the enjoyment comes from witnessing the technical mastery and nuance rather than being bombarded with plot and scared by scenes meant to shock. Indeed the horror in this film comes from Schreck’s performance and the dread felt so keenly by Hutter along with the fear of what will become of his beloved. And rats. If you have a phobia of rodents you will find parts of this shit scary as well. This is a pioneering and wonderful film. As someone who is an avowed non-fan of horror, and who has seen very little silent cinema I can recommend this even if you’re in the same boat. Schreck’s performance is an iconic one and the cinematography and special effects make this well worth a look-see.

Nosferatu due to its copyright status is available on Youtube for free. The quality of this one is really quite good. Take a look:

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 7/1001

Goodbye Lenin!

Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! (2003) is one of numerous films that deal with the period surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However unlike most of this bunch, this film chooses a humorous approach to subject matter that is anything but (not just the wall, but familial abandonment, terminal illness and death of loved ones).

The film follows Alex, a teenager in the last days of the GDR. When she sees him being dragged off by soldiers at an anti-socialist rally, Alex’s loyal to the cause mother collapses. She has had a heart attack and as a result spends eight months in a coma, missing the fall of the wall and the accompanying social changes and opening up of the East. Interestingly for a film chronicling this time period in German history, the fall of the Wall itself is actually dealt with very fleetingly. Rather than dwelling on it Becker instead briefly flashes up some news footage accompanied by a joke referring to a new “recycling campaign.” In a way this is unsurprising given that what is important is not the physical barrier that falls, but the ideology of the East that falls with it, an ideology Alex’s mother believes in passionately. As a result of her heart attack, doctors advise that Alex’s mother should not be subjected to any great shocks. So Alex takes it upon himself to build a microcosm of the GDR in their apartment and deceive his mother regarding what has taken place while she was in her coma. It is really a wonderful premise. I am sure similar ideas have been seen in films both before and since, but I think what this plot has going for it is the sheer magnitude of the event they are trying to hide. This is not just trying to cover up the massive party you had on the weekend when your parents were away. To attempt to cover up such a monumental societal shift takes a lot of commitment. This all unfolds as a series of amusing vignettes, with little coherent linkage besides the common purpose they serve. But these also provide some of the film’s loveliest scenes. In one of my favourites which illustrates the depth of though Alex has to go to, he goes about finding old jars for his mother’s favourite pre-fall brands, and fills them with the new imported produce which is all that are now on sale.

Any film that uses humour to address subject matter as serious as this risks making light of it. Fortunately Goodbye Lenin! Is able to tread this rather fine line well and never comes across as trivialising the human rights abuses perpetrated in the socialist state (although it must be said these are dealt with pretty sparingly). As Alex goes further and further into creating a socialist dream world for his mother, he does seem to become more sympathetic to the society he lived in before the fall of the wall. Whether the film has any pro-socialist sentiment, especially toward the end is a question for individual viewers. Whatever the view on that formed, I think the focus is on the strange sense of melancholy and displacement that must have been felt by those from the East when the Wall fell. Outside of a more competitive football team, all the West seems to bring to Alex’s life is Burger King, Coke and a more accessible source of whipped cream related pornography. This does simplify it somewhat in that the freedom now allowed the characters is welcomed, but again is not a central focus of the film. There is an inner conflict within Alex, which is not really developed through the film in that whilst he comes to yearn somewhat for the pre-fall past he also has a hope for the future with its increased freedom and new girlfriend. It would have been interesting to how he reconciled these two differing ideologies going forward. The film however takes an almost universal light touch, with the only two scenes being exceptions to this are one brief, early appearance by the Stasi at the family home, and also the briefly confronting riot scenes.

When I heard this was a humorous take on the fall of the Wall, I was expecting subtle humour. That is not really found here, I found the humour trades predominately in quippy one-liners and slapstick (for the latter, see a plastered up Alex trying to get out of the bath after helping Lara practice for an upcoming exam). Some subtlety is injected into proceedings when Alex is forced to create fake newscasts to continue to trick his mother. These Be Kind Rewind (2008) esque set pieces are not as overblown or obvious as many of the other attempts at humour in the film. Alex’s partner in crime in creating these fake television newscasts is his work colleague Denis with whom he builds up a strong friendship throughout the film. Denis also delivers the films biggest laugh out loud moment when referencing probably the most famous film cut of all time from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Or maybe I just perceived this as the film’s biggest laugh out loud moment because I watched the film at uni with a bunch of like-minded film nerds who gave the joke a rather rapturous reception. The relationship between these two young men making their way in the new unified Germany is really interesting, especially given Denis hails from the West. Along with these the other aspects of humour which really worked for me were the scenes of Alex’s mother helping her friends draft complaint letters to the appropriate authorities regarding the quality and appropriateness of toasters, maternity wear and most memorably underwear. This humorous highlighting of East/West tension was both funny and illuminated this tension, whereas many of the other attempts were happy to settle for lowest common denominator belly laughs.

Another disappointment I did have with the film is that the supporting cast of characters are somewhat under drawn, with very little back-story. Apparently Lara is a trainee nurse from the U.S.S.R. But this is just mentioned and never delved into. I really wanted to no more about this fantastic woman who woos Alex and enjoys both death metal clubs and romantic sleep-outs under the stars. I wanted to know whereabouts in the U.S.S.R she was from, what she thought of the place, why she was in Germany and where she saw herself in five years. But unfortunately I got none of that. Obviously a film cannot be all back-story and there is a limit to how much delving can be done, but I would have been a lot more satisfied with a bit more. Technically I found the film rather run of the mill. Not every film needs to dazzle with technical flourishes but whilst reasonably done, its just all a bit average. This is strange seeing that Becker shows himself to have some real style when he opens up a couple of times toward the end of the film. This is best illustrated in the scene where Alex’s mother’s condition deteriorates and she is rushed back to hospital. The shots of the ambulance rushing through the streets and tracking shots of Alex’s ailing mother being rushed down hospital corridors; are intercut with ones of Alex’s sister frantically searching for the letters from her father that have been hidden from her all these years in a wonderfully affecting scene. I just wish that Becker had have trusted himself and been more willing to loosen up the filming style a little more throughout.

The ending of the film suggests that the whole charade has become much more important to Alex than to his mother. In filming a fitting farewell for the GDR he does do it out of love for his mother, but also ignores the effect that the whole exercise has on the other women he loves in his life. Both Lara and his sister warn Alex repeatedly against his ongoing crusade to deceive his mother. And it does appear that no one else is as passionate about it, or as desperate to make it work as him. The ending is also somewhat strange in the fact that it is a feel good one, whilst definitely not being a conventional ‘happy’ ending (I can’t really say more than that without giving away a big spoiler). However the reappearance of Alex’s father and the revelations it brings with it adds some intrigue and emotion into the last third of the film. I suspect that overall I have taken a rather shallow reading of this film. And no doubt there is deeper meaning here. I am not sure if it was too subtle, or my cultural background too lacking for me to quite grasp it. And I don’t mean to be too critical of the film throughout this review. This is still a very competently made film, and if you are looking for a fall of the Wall film to watch with your mates and some beers on a Saturday night this is probably your best choice. But if you want to be challenged, confronted and effected by similar events then give Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar winning cinematic tour-de-force (I’m pretty sure I once made a commitment never to use that term) The Lives of Others (2006) a shot.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

Progress: 8/1001