History Lesson

Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Pompous)

 You know when you go to a museum and they show you a video of a historical event, like the Great Fire of London or whatever? Dunkirk is like the best one of those videos ever made. If the maker had some real talent and was given $150m to play with.

Christopher Nolan has always been praised for his filmmaking facility and interest in playing with story structure. But doubts have been raised over whether his films are too ‘cold’, valuing the technical over the emotional. There are also people who spend their time arguing over whether Nolan measures up to their chosen cinematic deity, Stanley Kubrick. (Maybe one day they’ll grow up and watch some Mizoguchi.)

Dunkirk is Nolan’s 10th feature, and therefore I think we can say conclusively that the jury’s back. And the verdict is inescapable: Christopher Nolan cannot do character. I suspect he’s just not that interested in people. He’s far more interested in what format he’s shooting on.

Sam Bowles

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In Memoriam: Kiarostami

Taste of Cherry (1997, Abbas Kiarostami)

The Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami passed away yesterday aged 76. He had been making films almost continuously from the early 1970s up until his final work, Like Someone in Love (2012). He didn’t just direct; he wrote, edited, and produced. When not making films, Kiarostami was known to dabble in poetry, painting, photography, graphic design… Basically, he was one of those bastards who appear to be able to do anything they put their minds to. I hated him. And I loved him.

Taste of Cherry was the first Kiarostami film I saw, and it changed the way I view cinema. Usually, filmmakers who thrill us (Welles, De Palma) do so with their virtuosity – a flashy camera move here, a cute editing trick there; Kiarostami instantly blew me away with what he didn’t do. No conventional shot-reverse/wide-medium-close-up coverage, no big dramatic moments, no simplistic good/bad characters, no easy resolutions, no music… After watching Taste of Cherry, a friend’s immediate reaction was, “You can tell he’s good because he doesn’t give you anything.”

The tale the film tells is so simple you could barely call it a plot: the protagonist, Mr. Baadi, drives around Tehran asking various strangers if they will get in his car to assist him with something. Is he after a good time? Just some company? It turns out he’s looking for someone to help him with his suicide. He plans to dig a hole, get in, and then kill himself. And he wants someone to fill in the hole afterwards. Seriously. It’s so straightforward, yet totally compelling. And the pared-down style, the completely non-bombastic telling of this potentially melodramatic material, only adds to its fascination.

No one but old Abbas could have created this masterwork. Nevertheless, credit should also go to the lead actor, Homayoun Ershadi. He is in every single scene and for much of the film the camera is trained on his face. Yet we never tire of him. Ershadi doesn’t resort to easy actorly tricks. There are no dramatic vocal shifts or mournful gazes to hold our attention or engender our empathy. The quality of the performance is such that we barely notice it.

Taste of Cherry is not an easy watch. This film requires a bit of effort and a bit of patience. Does that mean it’s pretentious to make that effort? Perhaps. But it’s easier to flick through a copy of Heat magazine than to read a great novel. Does that mean we shouldn’t put in the time reading George Eliot or James Joyce for fear that others may see us as jumped-up, affected wankers? And maybe a bit of affectation is a good thing anyway; it means we’re pushing ourselves and our experience.

After watching Taste of Cherry I sought out more Kiarostami films, discovering that he went on a run in the 2000s where he seemed to be reinventing the medium every time he picked up a camera: ABC Africa (2001), Ten (2002), Five (2003), 10 on Ten (2004), Shirin (2008). The only comparable period of sustained creativity I know of is the sequence of films Hitchcock put out in the 1950s.

Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. In the age of Michael Bay, the fact that an artist like Kiarostami was able to make it into the almost-mainstream should be cherished.

 

Samuel Bowles

 

 

 

The Best Film currently on Netflix

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

You’re a photographer, one who rarely stands still. You shoot action and drama, travel to places unheard of in the 1950s. You’re courting a stunning socialite; “hot” is tame for this dame. But she wants you grounded and she’s got her wish. A crash at a rally track saw to that. Now you’re stuck in your apartment for a couple of months with a broken leg, an acerbic masseuse, and too much time on your hands. You spend your days trying to ignore the New York summer heat, and gazing out of your rear window…

There’s a whole courtyard of mini dramas for this Tom to peep at: differing neighborly tales of love and relationships. Some have just got together. Some are drifting apart. Some are at each other’s throats. It’s diverting more than compelling. If only this place would liven up a bit. Maybe a row? A fistfight? How about a murder?

Sam Bowles

 

Easter Special

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese)

Christian fundamentalist terrorists. Yes, they do exist. And in 1988 a group of them weren’t too happy about the release of The Last Temptation of Christ, which dares to depict Jesus on the cross imagining a ‘normal’ life with Mary Magdalene. (They have sex and everything.) The fact that the film begins with a disclaimer saying it is not based on the Gospels and is a work of fiction didn’t dissuade these morons from chucking Molotov cocktails in a Paris cinema. (No one was killed, but there were many injuries.) I’m sure Jesus would have approved.

What of the film itself? The Last Temptation of Christ is definitely the Scorsese I’ve found the toughest to get into. It’s long, I’m not crazy about Willem Dafoe as Jesus (he’s a little bit dull for a conflicted Superman), and it can be hard to take this religious stuff seriously.

It is worth the effort though. Scorsese films always give you strong images and performances, and moments of profound intensity that most directors could only dream of creating. An example would be an early sequence where Jesus assists the Romans in crucifying another poor bastard. The sound of the nails and the guy’s screams hit you before you see any blood. The fast cutting includes a brief image of the crowd reaction: a split-focus shot with a woman’s pained face in close-up on the left of the frame and other horrified people watching in long-shot on the right. The juxtaposition of images and the rhythm of the cutting are unmistakably the work of Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

The Peter Gabriel score should be incongruous but somehow works. There’s also a weird, but very Scorsese, opening shot: an unmotivated camera move that could be seen as a visual representation of Christ’s inner struggle.

Of course, what those fundamentalist geniuses were forgetting was this crucial point: it’s only a bloody film. Superman II had basically the same plot. And no one got worked up over that.

 

Sam Bowles

 

 

 

MORK CALLING ORSON

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014, Chuck Workman)

Is it possible to love the cinema and not love Orson Welles? It would be like loving Christmas but not rating Santa Claus; he’s the guy who provides the magic. And they’ve both got beards.

The documentary Magician is not Welles-level filmmaking, but it’s a decent overview of the man who lived a fuller life than Charles Foster Kane. The main drawback is its length – only 96 minutes. Separated into chapters covering 10-20 year periods, each of these would have enough material to fill an hour and a half and then some. Welles’ life was not exactly without incident or creative endeavour. The dude just never stopped doing – acting, writing, directing, shagging, bullshiting…and eating. Lots of eating.

Like Harry Lime, Orson Welles had many lives…

You could make a documentary just about young Welles, the Boy Wonder who dazzled the worlds of theatre and radio and thought it would be fun to make a movie.

Or just about just about Welles as an actor, in great roles such as Kane, Hank Quinlan, Falstaff etc. and whoring himself in some often quite dodgy films to finance his own productions.

Or about Old Welles, dressed up like a magician and pulling F For Fake out of his arse.

Of course, the man was a cinematic conjuror. Arguably the best film director of all time. Look at Welles’ filmography – every work is like a first film, in thrall to the medium and its possibilities. Citizen Kane is the one everyone bangs on about but the artistic (if not commercial) hits just kept on coming: The Magnificent Ambersons, Macbeth, Othello, Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight. Even later on in his life, and to be honest not looking too hot, Welles made F For Fake, one of the great achievements in cinema. But that’s a blog for another day…

Magician is available on DVD from the BFI.

Sam Bowles

The Inimitable Ken Ravingbone

“Well, actors are just pigment in my canvas. They don’t have the sensibility. The vision. You can quote me on that. Which rag are you whoring yourself for?”

“The Inquirer.”

“Oh, God. Their head critic is an embarrassment. The man might as well be reviewing radio plays.”

“I’ve only met him very briefly. I’m freelance.”

“Freelance prostitution.”

“I suppose you’re a freelance director.”

“I don’t call myself a director. I’m a conjuror. And a questioner. Are you going to the bar?”

“I think there are drinks coming round.”

“I’ve got very specific tastes. Furnish me with a beverage and I might answer one of your tedious questions.”

“What would you like?”

“A glass of Langlois.”

“OK. Back in a minute.”

I can’t believe I have to fawn over this tosser. At least it’s a free bar.

 This queue looks fun… Oh, fuck – it’s Pascal Merryweather. He seemed a little threatened the last time we dialogued.

“James.”

“Pascal.”

“Read your Mizoguchi piece. Not bad.”

“Arigato.”

“Didn’t agree with all of it, of course. He’s never been my favourite of the Japanese auteurs. Always been more of an Ozu man.”

“Comparing Mizoguchi and Ozu is like comparing Peter Greenaway and Ken Loach. It’s only because they’re both Japanese that it would occur to you.”

“Well, I’m not sure I’d agree with that. Anyway, I’d better get back to my conversation.”

“With whom?”

“Jeff Poole – he’s over there.”

“That ginger twat. He’s not a real person; just writes a blog.”

“Bit bitchy.”

“I’ll get back to my conversation as well.”

“Who’s that with?”

“Just that tosser Ravingbone.”

“Ah, you’re his bitch for the evening, are you?”

“I’m hoping the bastard’ll give me an interview.”

“Good luck with that. In the meantime I’m sure he’ll enjoy his delightfully subtle red. If only his films were as delicate on the palate.”

“Have a great evening.”

How has that arsehole got a career? Better get back to the Conjuror. Wait a second – he’s putting the moves on that hot waitress! Looks like Ken has got a raving boner.

“Ah, my vin rouge. Merci.”

“You’re welcome.”

“This is Irena. She’s an actress.”

“There’s a shock.”

Irena leans over to me in aside…

“Fuck you.”

Looks like I won’t be sleeping with her later. Ravingbone probably will.

“I think Irena could be perfect for my new cinematic expedition. Of course, we need to get to know each other better first.”

“What’s it about?”

“Haha After an exclusive, are we?”

“Just something good to come out of this evening.”

“It’s based on a Flaubert novella. That’s all I can reveal at this stage.”

“Well, I can’t get 500 words out of that.”

“Are you familiar with Gustave’s work, my dear?”

“I’ve read most of it.”

“Excellent. We should discuss it at length one evening.”

“I work most evenings.”

“Surely you can make yourself available? This could be a great opportunity.”

“I’m not sure the film would be for me.”

“And why is that, exactly?”

“I’ve always found your stuff highly derivative.”

“Of whom exactly?”

“Tinto Brass mainly.”

“I see.”

“But without the same level of sophistication.”

Is she really doing this? I don’t know if she’s an idiot or my new hero.

“I think I might have a word with your manager later, my dear.”

“Why not right now? He’s just over there.”

Off goes Ravingbone. More than a little aggrieved.

“Do you think he’ll sack you?”

“I doubt it. I’m only an agency staff. And my shift finishes in 3 minutes.”

Sam Bowles