Saturday, 29 September 2012

Aki Kaurismaki on not using storyboards....

"After all, I don’t have any storyboards. The first shot leads to another, and so on. Only when the previous shot is finished I start to plan the next. And I don’t believe storyboards would help. You can lose something because you can’t react to what the scene itself produces. Shots mechanically prepared in advance turn against themselves. The film ends up feeling too well made."


Originally published in an interview for Film Comment

The Face Of Another: "Roger Duchesne in Bob Le Flambeur"


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Great Acting Blog: "Keeping Your Independence"

Gielgud as Hamlet


"To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Ot take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them..."


Actors are idealist types functioning in a pragmatic world, they are dreamers in a real world. So, for the actor, life is about balancing off the dreams which fuel him, against dealing frankly with the reality placed before him. Not easy to do in the lifestyle of an actor, where fortunes may fluctuate dramatically – one minute sat home alone, ignored and underemployed, the next, a phone call or meeting which could literally change the actor's game, and when that meeting or phone call doesn't change the game, then it's back to being at home, until the next thing comes along which may not change the game but may offer an exciting opportunity, and so on and so forth …. you catch my drift.

So how to survive this emotional roller coaster? Of course, learning to adapt one's mindset would be a useful but not infallible system to use, and not infallible because we cannot always control what we think. No, the way to handle the situation is to acknowledge that the effect certain events may have upon us is superficial, the effect quickly vanishes, the effect is not real, we need not give it too much meaning. Instead of letting the rollercoaster throw us into a state of flux, or cause us to behave rashly, we should recourse to those things which are permament in our lives, which are profound, which never desert us no matter the situation, but which improve us and make us stronger – we should recourse to aesthetics, ie – to the system of art we have chosen to operate by, to the technique of acting which has become a way of life. Commitment to this technique, means that every single moment of the actor's life is contributing to his growth as an artist, because eveything he does becomes a practice of the technique, thus refining, thus strengthening and improving the technique, which naturally impacts performance – and the improvement itself, aswell as the act of improving will provide the actor with an endless source of joy, and a healthy self-respect to boot. This commitment will help the actor to endure, over the long term, the slings and arrows which may come his way.

So the next time an almost certain victory is usurped by defeat, or you get demoralised by an unforced error, or you receive an outrageously good piece of news, rather than allowing yourself to be ravished by the feeling created in the moment, gently place your mind onto those things which are important to you, and will still remain with you regardless of the situation you find yourself in, and all will be placed in healthy perspective, and you will keep your independence.


Saturday, 22 September 2012

TONIGHT!! Free screening of Aki Kaurismaki's I Hired A Contract Killer, @ The Gallery Cafe, Bethnal Green! Hope To See There!

(NB - the film is in English, although this clip from Youtube is dubbed in Finnish).


Dear Friends,

I am delighted to announce that our next screening will be Aki Kaurismaki's I Hired A Contract Killer

I don't know if you've seen I Hired A Contract Killer before, but it is a fabulous, absurd film noir, with Jean-Pierre Leaud and Margi Clarke, and there's live music by Joe Strummer. Most of it was shot in Stoke Newington but the film is hardly known at all in the UK, and although Kaurismaki got some note recently with Le Havre, I still think his work is criminally under-appreciated in this country, and I want to set that right.

The screening is free, & will be on Saturday, September 22nd, @ 5pm, at The Gallery Cafe, 21 Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green, E2 9PL

I've posted a link below for directions to the venue, plus some words about the film.

We have an open house policy, the more the merrier, so I hope to see you there!



I Hired a Contract Killer (1990)- 79 mins (Aki Kaurismaki)
Starring; Jean-Pierre Leaud, Margi Clarke, Nicky Tesco, Serge Reggiani, Kenneth Colley, Joe Strummer.

After fifteen years’ service, Henri Boulanger is made redundant from his job. Shocked, he attempts suicide, but can’t go through with it, so he hires a contract killer in a seedy bar to murder him at some unspecified time in the future. But almost immediately he meets and falls in love with Margaret, a flower-seller, which makes Henri realise that his life has some meaning after all. But when he goes back to the bar to cancel the contract, he finds it has been demolished – and there’s no way he can get in touch with the killer…


Thursday, 20 September 2012

Persistencies Of Sadness & Still Days (Feature Film), Is Now Complete

James can next be seen in "Persistencies of Sadness & Still Days", a four hour feature film by Maximilian Le Cian and Rouzbeh Rashidi. Structured in two sections or "takes" of two hours each, this dream-like, experimental project offers two complementary explorations of cinematic form that skirt around possible narratives, ducking through a series of fluctuating audio-visual categories and intensities.


For more information about the filom, please visit:




Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Joe Strummer, Burning Lights - Music from Kaurismaki's I Hired A Contract Killer

The Great Acting Blog: "Mindboggling - Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler"


Tony Curtis plays Albert DeSalvo, who is picked up by the cops on a breaking and entering charge, but when the judge rules Albert is not of his right mind, he is institutionalised where psychiatrists diagnose him with a multiple personality disorder. Chief Detective John S Bottomly (played by Henry Fonda) discovers him there, and all the signs are that Albert is infact the perpetrator of the 13 murders Bottomly has so far failed to solve. Bottomly wants to interrogate Albert,  to prove conclusively that he is the murderer, and put him behind bars. Trouble is, Albert's disorder means that he has literally two totally separate people enclosed within his one body – the vulnerable, simple,honest, blue collar family man, and the cold, serial killer, with each taking it in turns to use the body. Albert the family man has no knowledge or  rememberance of the murders, and further, his survival depends on his absolute certainty of his innocence. If he is interrogated, the doctors say, and Albert the family man is forced to acknowledge Albert the strangler, then this may “just push him over the edge”, and keep him institutionalised for the rest of his life, probably catatonic. Bottomly decides that this would be the next best thing to putting Albert behind bars, and sets up a series of interviews with him, to get to the truth.

During the interviews, Curtis begins to explain what he was doing on the day of each of the murders, and here the film employs flashback, to show us what Curtis is telling us. Curtis' false memories are innocent, however, they are gradually invaded by the true memories of the murders; on one occasion he hears a disembodied scream while his memory tells him he's at work, on another, he thinks he was building a dolls house for his daughter but this is intercut with a strangled corpse. So these flashbacks become a mish-mash of what Curtis thinks he remembers happening, and what actually happened (ie – the murders). Scene by scene, Fonda pushes harder with his questioning, and Curtis digs deeper within himself to arrive at the truth.

Of course, there are the plastic elements which aid Curtis' perfromance; the false nose, the brown contact lenses, the distinctive, working-class, Boston accent (more recently employed in Scorsese's Departed). Then the directorial conceit of using flashback does a lot of the heavy lifting for Curtis – he need only show us intense concentration, and the visuals will do the rest. However, Curtis' performance really becomes very special in the final scene, when he at last comes face to face with who he really is. The memories of past murder begin to flood Curtis' mind, dominating  the false, innocent memories. However, the film, at this point, eshcews the use of flashback, and the whole thing is expressed through Curtis' performance. At the first flash of realisation, Curtis whimpers and leaps out of his chair, moving to the wall and leaning his whole body against it, as if to prevent himself from falling into an abyss. Then, he walks  while still leaning against the wall, and feeling his way across it with his hands, as though blindfolded. There is a moment when Curtis makes one last attempt to deny the truth; he clenches his hands to his head, as though trying to refuse the memories entry to his mind, repressing them. However, all this effort is to no avail, as Curtis is finally consumed by his muderous past, and begins to relive it, re-enacting each murder, the victims are invisible this time of course.

The miracle of Curtis' perfromance here, is that by using his body, he reveals the inside of his mind.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Face Of Another: "Jean-Pierre Leaud in Kaurismaki's I Hired A Contract Killer"


I am delighted to announce that we will be screening Aki Kaurismaki's I Hired A Contract Killer.

I don't know if you've seen I Hired A Contract Killer before, but it is a fabulous, absurd film noir, with Jean-Pierre Leaud and Margi Clarke, and there's live music by Joe Strummer. Most of it was shot in Stoke Newington but the film is hardly known at all in the UK, and although Kaurismaki got some note recently with Le Havre, I still think his work is criminally under-appreciated in this country, and I want to set that right.

The screening is free, & will be on Saturday, September 22nd, @ 5pm, at The Gallery Cafe, 21 Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green, E2 9PL

I've posted a link below for directions to the venue, plus some words about the film.

We have an open house policy, the more the merrier, so I hope to see you there!




I Hired a Contract Killer (1990)- 79 mins (Aki Kaurismaki)
Starring; Jean-Pierre Leaud, Margi Clarke, Nicky Tesco, Serge Reggiani, Kenneth Colley, Joe Strummer.

After fifteen years’ service, Henri Boulanger is made redundant from his job. Shocked, he attempts suicide, but can’t go through with it, so he hires a contract killer in a seedy bar to murder him at some unspecified time in the future. But almost immediately he meets and falls in love with Margaret, a flower-seller, which makes Henri realise that his life has some meaning after all. But when he goes back to the bar to cancel the contract, he finds it has been demolished – and there’s no way he can get in touch with the killer…

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Peter Strickland's Giallo Recommendations

A lot of people might be tempted to seek out Giallo films after seeing yours. As an aficionado, which films would you recommend?

I would go for the classic one The Bird With The Crystal Plummage by Dario ArgentoSuspiria obviously also by him, Don’t Torture A Duckling by Lucio Fulci. There’s a very nice one called Footprints On The Moon by…I can remember the composer, but not the director (Luigi Bazzoni)…it’s got Klaus Kinski in it and Florinda Bolkan who’s in many of them. Oh my favourite one isLizard In A Woman’s Skin – Lucio Fulci again. It’s beautifully psychedelic and it’s got a brilliant Morricone soundtrack – one of his best. I like The Beyond, it’s got a great Fabio Frizzi soundtrack. It’s a little bit trashy, but that’s part of its charm. Bava – Blood And Black Lace. That was one of the first Giallo films. I think a lot of the soundtracks are fantastic. Bruno Nicolai – The Cry Of The Prostitute soundtrack is phenomenal, it’s better than Morricone, it’s so so good. Some of the Giallo films are a bit… you know… but the good ones – likeThe Bird With The Crystal Plumage look so ravishing and the soundtracks, particularly those that use the eerie wordless vocals of Edda Dell’Orso are some of the strongest things about the films

Originally published in an interview on BombTV

Friday, 14 September 2012

Drifting Clouds Cinema Blog: "Nuts4R2 on Jean Rollin's The Iron Rose"


The Iron Rose (La Rose De Fer)

Thorn Of The Dead

 The Iron Rose (La Rose De Fer)
France 1973
Directed by Jean Rollin
Redemption Region 1

Well this is going to be a pretty short review.

I’ve noted on more than one occasion my respect for the writer/director Jean Rollin, who is perhaps best remembered for the spate of surrealist French lesbian vampire movies he gave the world. A true under-appreciated poet of cinema. I recently reviewed his film The Nude Vampire here and discovered it to be another little gem. I’d never seen that or The Iron Rosebefore and I expressed how much I was looking forward to seeing it.

Well, now that I have, it has to be said that I thought it was the least interesting of the works I’ve seen by him and, frankly, I found it a hard movie to watch. Starting off with a strong scene which made me groan because, once again, it uses a quite strikingly beautiful actress, Françoise Pascal, on Rollin’s favourite beach (yeah, you know the one), and a credit sequence set to a beautiful shot of a young couple kissing on the front of a train, the film then takes us to a crowded wedding reception where a thin, young man recites poetry to catch the eye of the aforementioned, beauty.

After this, the two go on a date and it pretty much, apart from the occasional passer by (such as a clown) becomes a two hander as the protagonists go into a cemetery to eat their picnic, which mostly seems to consist of chocolate, and then descend into a tomb to make love. When they come up for air, night has fallen and it’s here that the film takes on a certain Bunuelian flavour... and when I say that I’m thinking specifically about the impossibility of trying to find a way out of an artificially induced situation like the guests not being able to leave the house in The Exterminating Angel (reviewed here). For, once our sexed up couple leave the tomb, they find it impossible to find their way back out of the cemetery. They are not just locked in, they are caught up in a recurring loop of M. C. Esher-like proportions, coming across the same terrain again and again, even when they go over the wall.

Okay, I admit the movie sounds really interesting, but for some reason this one just didn’t appeal to me. Perhaps it’s because, unlike most of Rollin’s films, it has a storyline (no matter how simple and one note) that you can follow... whereas I’m more used to seeing a Jean Rollin that is mostly impenetrable and which has great and beautiful surrealistic shots which you will remember forever. Here though, I think the shots are merely both really colourful and competent... but with very few standout sequences, apart from the girl naked on a “beach representation” of the cemetery near the end. That’s quite striking but a minor oasis in a desert of dullness as far as I’m concerned... and I really don’t like to say this about Rollin’s work.

There’s an interesting vocal, experimental piece on the soundtrack reminiscent of something György Ligeti or Edgard Varese might have done at some stage in their careers but this really doesn’t give the visuals the lift they need and, in the end, I have to admit I was just waiting for it to finish (I may have started to nod off at some point).

At the end of the day, it’s a well shot but not great Jean Rollin movie. If you’re a fan of this director’s work, and I really am, then you’re going to want to watch this one anyway. This is the first time I had a truly, less than stunned reaction to his work, althoughTwo Orphan Vampires came close. I’m not going to let this put me off tracking down some of the movies I still haven’t seen by him though... but I would warn you to not expect too much from this one and approach cautiously. It’s been called, by one reviewer I respect a lot, Rollin’s first true masterpiece. I disagree with that one, I’m afraid, but that doesn’t mean that you would. Rollin is always worth a look even when he’s churning out stuff like this, is my view. But if you’ve never seen any of his movies before... I really wouldn’t start off with this one.

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The Face Of Another: "Laughton"


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Face Of Another: "Ambition - Rainer Werner Fassbinder"

"I'd like to be for cinema what Shakespeare was for theatre, Marx for politics and Freud for psychology: someone after whom nothing is as it used to be." 

The Great Acting Blog: "The Actor's Life Should Be A Challenge"


A challenge is a thing which is difficult but doable, it must be within your control to do it – ie; if you knuckle down and apply your skills and apply the tools at your disposal, then, mixed with a bit of hard graft, you may accomplish the thing. The thing should be tough enough so that at the point of commitment, one thinks twice and would rather do anything other than the thing being committed to. Similarly, the task should be tough enough so that at intermittent times, it invites you to quit - “hard luck kid, you gave it your best shot”, and the kid goes back to wherever he came from. So a challenge is a test of nerve, a test of will, how you respond when the going gets tough. A true challenge invites us to improve ourselves and is rewarding when we knuckle down and dig a little deeper within ourselves, and even when we finally do accomplish the thing, even though we may be exhausted, it makes us stronger, and we feel that sense of accomplishment. Why? Because we applied ourselves to the task, falling short sometimes but coming back at it nonetheless, and, piece-by-piece, we got the thing done.

We love a fluke because it means somebody up there loves us, but nobody would want to live their life by them. Would they? In gambling you can study the form but it doesn't mean your numbers will come up, because ultimately we have no control over that. If the result is out of our control then, why do we feel anguish? Because we failed to get that momentary feeling of ecstasy, and we have lost what we have gambled, ie; money, time, self-respect.

Something which is impossible is not a challenge, it is merely impossible. What is not a challenge is trying to implement preposterous acting notes: relive that moment your puppy died, project your energy from your knee-caps, become Hamlet. Try and try and try as we might, we may never accomplish any of these things, or perhaps, like the lucky citizen who wins a tenner on the lottery after years of playing, we manage to delude ourselves, if only for a fleeting moment, that we did actually become Hamlet, that we forgot who we really were, and this moment generates an excitement all out of proportion with the actual accomplishment (if it can be called an accomplishment), as does the £10 lottery win. However, when the dust settles, and we are due to go on stage the following night, we may find, just before we are about to make our first entrance, that we cannot become Hamlet – but what happened to last night's magic, that glorious moment when we literally transmorphed into somebody else (if only for a fleeting moment)? Of course we never did transmorph into Hamlet, it's impossible, and when that dawns on us, we feel as empty and as worthless as the gambler who placed his chips on red, only for it to come up black. We invested ourselves in the gods, and they failed to deliver on our behalf. Was that moment of ecstasy worth it? No because it was hollow and superficial, whereas the deliberate, hard-fought victory is rewarding.

Transmorphing into Hamlet is no more a challenge than winning the Lottery is a challenge, but at least with the Lottery you've got a 12 million to one shot, although nobody ever lived their lives by those odds. Who knows what the odds on the survival of each individual actor are. Why not eradicate the odds and the gods altogether, and give yourself over to those things which are challenging but doable. It's nice to have a bit of luck sometimes, when something out of our control goes our way, but we cannot wait around hoping that will happen. The thing to do, is to knuckle down, decide what is within our to accomplish, and set about our task.


Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Boston Strangler: A literally & metaphorically mind-boggling performance from Tony Curtis....


Great film, full of wonderful irony and bone dry humour, as Henry Fonda and his noirish cops hunt down The Boston Strangler, a literally and metaphorically mind-boggling from Tony Curtis, who seems to show us the inside of his character's schizophrenic mind without histrionics. Great film.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Drifting Clouds Cinema Blog: "Nuts4R2 on Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio"


Berberian Sound Studio


The New Berberians

 Berberian Sound Studio  2012 UK 
Directed by Peter Strickland
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: There are going to be some big spoilers here, including the ending... in as much as you could consider it possible to spoil a movie of this nature.

I told myself, and anyone else who was prepared to listen, that I wouldn’t brave London while the Olympics and Para-Olympics were on. This would give me a) time to write more and b) help me save some cash for far more tawdry and unspoken pleasures (that’ll be a book buying spree then). Well the first benefit seems to have been shot down in flames (I’m still only getting three or four blog reviews up a week) and the second option... yeah, maybe, if they’re not expensive books.

However, in the end, a new movie I’d heard only good things about, Berberian Sound Studio, forced me into the busy heart of London while the Para-Olympics were on because, frankly, I could only find one chain of cinemas in London showing the thing and none of those screens were local to me (so much for my Cineworld card, then). On the positive side, I would be seeing it in one of the better cinemas in London... which just goes to show how much I am missing the era of the Lumiere and Metro cinemas these days. So I saw it in possibly the best sound and vision equipment I was likely to have an opportunity to see it on and, also, with a crowd of like minded people instead of the usual coke gargling, popcorn munching heathens who adorn my local multiplex (I promise you... you’d have to see some of them to believe them... and that’s just the staff).

So... was my trip to London worth all the effort in regards to this film?

I’m sorry to say it, and I know I’ll probably get shot down for this but... no, not really.

Berberian Sound Studio is quite confounding in it’s own way because it is at once one of the more interesting films screening at the cinema this year but also, I feel, terribly dissapointing. Dissapointing both in it’s failure to live up to it’s hyped up expectations, which is only partially it’s fault and I’ll get on to that in a minute, and in its failure to really deliver any bite to its metatextual explorations. On the upside, it’s got Toby Jones in it as the main protagonist and, frankly, any film which has that has to have some measure of coolness to it. Hey, just found out he’s Freddie Jones' son, that’s even cooler.

Okay, so the first thing which got me interested in this was everyone referring to it as an homage to either the genres of Italian Giallo or Italian Horror.

For starters, these two genres, despite sharing some major directors working in both (and a fair few other genres), are not interchangeable and rarely cross over because, when a film starts slipping into the realm of the supernatural... it ceases being a giallo and slips into being a horror movie. A giallo is a giallo and a horror is a horror... let’s leave it at that. It really is that simple.

Now, just because I’d heard this stuff word of mouth is not the film's producer's fault, for sure... except that it does use Italian horror as its subject matter (but not it’s own composition) and thetrailer (which was the next thing I watched after reading a good many tweets) is, to be fair, cut like it’s a horror movie. The fact that it was premiered at this year’s FrightFest probably does help set up expectations that it’s somehow going to be some kind of horror film too and... it so isn’t. 

It also doesn’t help itself in setting up fake expectations by advertising itself with a poster that is, at least in the UK poster design’s case, a whole lot more than just a little reminiscent of one of the more famous poster campaigns for lionised giallo director Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet (see images above). Great poster for sure (both the Argento and the Strickland movie) but it does itself a bit of an injustice when it comes to representing the movie I feel. I thought it had a vague surrealist feel about the movie and I think comparisons to the worlds of David Lynch might be a more pertinent comparision to make, if comparisons are your thing.

The film is about, if indeed it could be said to be about anything, a British sound designer who has been called over to Italy to work on an Italian horror film called The Equestrian Vortex. After he arrives at the studio, within the first few minutes, we are then treated to the full opening titles for this movie within a movie (the actual movie titles for the film you are actually watching are saved for the end credits) and this was my favourite part of the film, it has to be said. The Equestrian Vortex credits are scored in funky 70s horror style and they have a more “British Horror” vibe to them rather than Italian, I would have said. It wouldn’t look out of place on a 70s UK TV anthology show like Hammer House Of Horror, for instance.

There are, it has to be said, sequences in the film which are a direct homage to Italian horror/giallo, but only in that the lighting style is similar to two directors who were/are key exponents of both genres, Mario Bava and Dario Argento. So there are some scenes which are lit in the kinds of bright greens and reds that you would expect from these two directors and their succesful band of imitators. But this stuff is only used for scenes which have a dreamlike quality and as the narrative (or what I shall stubbornly refer to as a narrative, at least) continues, the director starts to play with the format of the film in the good old “medium is the message” kind of way. There is (dare I say it again in another review, bearing in mind I know a review going up next week forThe Girlfriend Experience will also be pushing this angle) a very deliberate and repeated use of a Godardian distancing device intended to pop you out of the movie at various scene transitions by way of a flashing “Silenzio” subtitle and scenes from earlier in the film are also replayed, but this time in an Italian dub which, perhaps less than subtly, shifts the viewer into an enquiry of the nature of the footage viewed thus far.

Toby Jones’ protagonist is disturbed by a ringing doorbell one night and after getting scared, he runs through his door, carving knife in hand, only to be confronted with the interior of the screening room of the studio, and we watch as he watches the footage of him being disturbed in the night... the same footage we just watched, of course. The main protagonist starts to disintegrate as a real character for us and, as his character is slowly eroded by repeated scenes and dialogue coming out in the script for the movie he’s working on, which we are familiar with as letters from his mother in England, it’s a temptation to say that some of the more surreal sequences scattered throughout the picture are purely dream sequences. However, the clue in the text comes when the reimbursment via the receipts he turns over for his flight to Italy doesn’t ever get paid to him. His avenue of enquiry leads him to the brick wall of his employers not being able to find any evidence that he has actually been on a flight to Italy.

The end of the film provides no real answers unless you take it for what it is. Toby Jones is merely playing a character you are watching and at the finish, this character just fades out of existence in much the same way that David Hemming’s main protagionist in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up just winks out of existence. This is not a film about narrative closure and it’s very much a spiritual cousin of the aforementioned Blow Up and some of the more subtle works of David Lynch (such as the hit and miss crowd pleaser Blue Velvet). Experimentation is much the order of the day but, alas, this old reviewer has, I think, seen it all before. There are some very well trod clichés (such as the film stock burning up before your very eyes in the projector... which I’m also pleased to be able to say I’ve actually seen happen in real life too, as it happens) and call me jaded but I was hoping to see something new or maybe even shocking/thought provoking contained in this movie. Overall I found it entertaining but less than mind-blowing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great moments here in this movie... but I just don’t feel the movie adds up to being more than the sum of those great moments and it leaves a very unsatisfying taste in the mouth of this blogger. However, the acting, cinematography and music are all great, or at least interesting, and my dissapointment shouldn’t stop you from scurrying off to see this movie. You may get a lot more out of it than me, I suspect. I found it to be a little over-rated but certainly of a high quality of movie making and I’m looking forward to seeing what this director does in the future... as well as catching up with what he did prior to this film. Let me know what you think of it... I’d be interested to hear.


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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Great Acting Blog: "Exquisite - Tony Curtis In Monte Carlo Or Bust"


Monte Carlo Or Bust is a wonderful, light fluffy affair, and contains an ensemble cast which includes the delights of the likes of Terry-Thomas, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. It's about an international car rally, where the drivers must reach certain check-points stationed across Europe, and of course, all sorts of chicanery ensues, on and off the track so to speak. Curtis plays Chester Schofield, an energetic, idealistic, if slightly nerdy, American, set in contrast to Terry-Thomas' spoilt, upper class trustrafarian, who prefers to knobble the opposition rather than compete with them fairly and squarely.

Curtis' performance is an absolute joy – when we first see him he is wearing spectacles and a dandyish check coat, listening to jazz as he bops his way towards an exasperated Terry-Thomas - we are charmed straight away. But crucially, he is not commenting on what he is doing, what wins us over is his total commitment and honesty, and that he seems to have made an acting choice he genuinely relishes. With Curtis here, the character is always present, this is mostly because he is doing some old school characterization work which we don't see very much anymore because too many actors these days think they something to say, or if we do see it, then it's done in an oh-so ironic way, the actor appears to separate himself from the characterization, as though mocking it. Curtis is living it, and having a good time too, which in turns creates an enriching experience for the audience.

Curtis' performance however, is at it's most sublime in his scenes with Susan Hampshire, who plays his love interest. There is a moment when he sees her for the first time, and he clumsily removes his glasses, and then the camera cuts away to Hampshire, and when it comes back to Curtis, he is holding his glasses in his hand and sort of pressing them against his chin, as if he is trying to masque the embarassment his immediate feelings for Hampshire are causing him, but it also shows us the awe in which he holds her. Curtis is able to express complex feelings simply, and all in a brief moment. Throughout his scenes with Hampshire, Curtis nevers indicates to us how “sensitive” and “deep” he is, he never tries to find a little moment near the end of a scene where he lets his lip quiver so we can feel sorry for him, that loathsome practice which seems to be so common these days. There is no cutsiness from Curtis (nor from Hampshire, to be fair), he simply plays the scenes, commiting to the actions, doing them as fully and honestly as he can, and consequently, his relationship with Hampshire becomes moving and fascinating to us, and all this in what is apparently a souffle comedy.

Tony Curtis is an exqusite actor, if I hadn't written about Monte Carlo Or Bust, I could easily have written about The Defiant Ones or Sweet Smell Of Success (and I may still do so) to name but two. Sure he has movie star charisma, but he also has generosity, he wants to give the audience something. He's honest. He is totally commited to the scene he is playing, and this is turn energises him, and helps him to use his personality fully. He also enjoys acting, and enjoys the acting choices he makes in scenes. Tony Curtis acts from the heart, and, as they say, what comes from the heart, goes to the heart, and I for one am thankful that.

Tony Curtis, what an example.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Drifting Clouds Cinema Blog: "Nuts4R2 on The BFI/Sight And Sound 100"


The BFI/Sight And Sound 100


Great Expectations

 The BFI/Sight And Sound 100

A few weeks back, when the British Film Institute’s Sight And Sound magazine made public the results of it’s “once every ten years” poll of, and I quote, “The Greatest Films Of All Time”,there was a much greater backlash from people about the choices that were on the list than I remember ever hearing about before in my spell of being a regular, yearly subscriber. My understanding was that the “en masse”  link clicking to the site after the list was officially “released” caused a lot of trouble for the BFI servers and, kind of, broke them for a while (something I read at Ain’t It Cool News before I’d even tried the clickety-link myself). This was followed, from what I saw of the celluloid battlefield that took place digitally on the internet during the aftermath, was a fairly large, almost collective condemnation of the list by a great number of people. Maybe it’s just the crazy kinds of people I follow. ;-)

I first started subscribing to Sight & Sound magazine around about 23 years ago, so I’ve now seen three of these polls published in fresh issues of the magazine over the years... but there’s never been the technology in place to reach these levels of audience figures before. There could, in fact, be various reasons for this “en masse” criticism of this decades list, but I suspect the biggest problem this year is that the reporting and subsequent reaction to this has been so much more easier and all encompassing than it has for previous lists (not that many would see that as a problem, of course). You have the reactions to the list hitting you from all the social media sites and blogs on the internet, which is one factor in the incredible “buzz” on this year’s poll... but there’s also the fact that the list itself was now freely available to anyone with a web connection... and not just confined to us poor, traditional souls who dutifully renew our yearly subscription charges or buy the magazine over-the-counter.

What this meant was that, for a couple of weeks, the internet became full of people running to the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Wordpress and Blogger to air their opinions and generally make the most silliest comments about the list they could think of which ranged from complaints as to why their favourite films weren’t on the list, accusatory questions as to why the “bunch of academics” who had contributed to the list were watching such “old timey” films like Vertigo and Citizen Kane rather than “newer stuff” and, for me the capper, why isn’t Roger Corman’s Deathrace 2000 (reviewed here) at the number one spot. I promise you I’m not making that one up... I saw someone tweeting it.

So I thought I’d like to take a stab at defending the 2012 BFI/Sight & Sound List from some of the sillier criticisms and maybe get people to think a little bit about why some of those same films are up there on these lists, decade after decade. Also, I’d like to take the opportunity to air my own little criticism of the list because, although I prefer Vertigo as a movie over Citizen Kane (although I’d happily be watching either), it throws up the question of when and why does a personal favourite film suddenly become, in one person’s eyes, a “great” movie. I love Vertigo to bits but there’s no way, I feel, that it should be placed aboveCitizen Kane. More on that later, though.

If I hate one thing about late 20th and early 21st Century magazine and blog writing it’s the popularisation of the “list article”. When people first started doing them they used to be quaint and addictive and people could have fun with them... but then everyone and their dog started doing them. The downside on these kinds of articles is that they’re damned easy to write and they’ve become, for the most part, just a lazy summation of personal opinion in an easy to swallow format. I even did one myself on here once (see here) and I can’t deny the popularity of these articles and their power to garner more readers (as the BFI web server found out too late, I fear... although I’m sure they’ll benefit greatly from the popularity). It probably won’t be the last one I do because I, too, want readers, just like the next blog waiting in line, but I try not to make a habit of concocting them like some websites seem to do. Lists are pretty impossible to compile honestly anyway... and the fact that they’re based solely on the subjectivity of the writer (in the case of non-voted lists) means that not many people are going to agree with it 100%... which is often the point when a thoughtful list comes to light, to provoke discussion.

Sometime in either the late seventies or early eighties, in my early teens, I decided to do a top 20 favourite films list and I think this demonstrates the intransigent and changeable nature of these kinds of dubious attractions. As I started writing down a list of all my special favourite movies I couldn’t live without, it started growing extremely long. After an hour or so I realised I’d written down over 700 “absolute favourite” films and was still going strong. I gave up on it there and then as a waste of my time and never looked back when it came to making lists... even the list of my top 30 favourite movies on the right hand side of this column and down a bit was questionable as soon as it went live. How could I, I thought to myself, write down all those movies in my top 30 without even putting one of my all time favourites, It’s A Wonderful Life, somewhere on there?

This incident from my formative years serves to demonstrate two things when it comes to compiling lists. One is that a person can keep going on for pages and pages, whittling down to a number of favourites that are always going to be too long a list for people to comfortably look at and consider anyway. Secondly, of course, since this list I made as a kid was a snapshot of my mind at the time, it’s unlikely that all the same titles would come up again... especially with all the fantastic toot that’s being released on DVD and other home video formats since I first tried to compile one. It’s a changing landscape and so not much use to anyone as more than a quick summary of someone’s mind at the time of writing.

Of course, the regular one-poll-per-decade approach adopted by Sight & Sound for its lists means that the editors are, at least, acknowledging the constantly shifting tide which represents the celluloid battlefield, as the tastes and range of the nearly 1000 critics who got their personal top tens to the magazine before their deadline (846 critics, this year, to be precise) is changed by constant exposure to new (to them) celluloid masterpieces. It also, one would hope, means it’s forcing those same critics to distinguish as to what they think a great film is, as opposed to their favourite on-screen entertainments. I think that this is a very important distinction to make and, in my opinion, a critic should not base a review they write solely on whether they like a film or not, but rather on the various technical skills and criteria met or exceeded by a film too. This should help bring a certain amount of balance and credibility to a review and will hopefully instill enough trust in a reader to use the review in the best possible way... whatever that use may be to a specific reader. I personally, for instance, sometimes recommend films on this blog to readers which I didn’t personally enjoy. However, I make it clear if I don’t like a film and try my best to convey, when I am having a good day and am skilled enough to do so, the difference between my gut-reaction to a film and the technical merits of it. Just because I didn’t like, doesn’t mean to say it isn’t worth watching.

So lets have a look at a couple of the backlash complaints I’ve seen about the list and figure out if they have a valid point or not.

Why aren’t “my” favourite films on the list?
Well, to be fair, you weren’t asked to supply a list were you? Well yeah, alright, some of you reading this might have been but ultimately, just because your “personal” favourites aren’t on there... it doesn’t in any way invalidate the films that made it to the top 100. This list wasn’t compiled by voting from a selection of nominations, don’t forget. That would then give you all the problems of a person or a team of people limiting you to a specific selection of movies that they think are worthy. It’s just not the case here, thankfully (or I wouldn’t even be giving this list the time of day, quite frankly). What you have here is various critics (and also directors) sending in their lists and the frequency of films appearing repeatedly generating a score for that film... at least that’s my understanding of it.

Why are all these old-timey films like Citizen Kane andVertigo on the list?
Seriously? Old timey? The art form of the motion picture has only been  around for a little over 100 years. Some of you might reach that age before dying if you’re lucky (or unfortunate, depending on your view). Criticising the age of a movie is stupid on all kinds of levels, not to mention the fact that the age of a film doesn’t in any way play a factor in the quality of the final product. Unless, perhaps, you just like themes and trends which are fashionable toyou right now on the silver screen, and damn anything you’re not personally in tune with. Is that it? Well... if that’s the case then I do feel sorry for you but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it because you’re obviously not really into the art of film. Go eat your popcorn.

As far as the people polled for this survey go... nobody has told all these people to put films like Citizen Kane and Vertigo on their list. They love these movies, and rightly so (because they’re damned good movies), but they also (one hopes) admire them on a technical level and feel inspired by them to the point where they believe this makes them among the greatest movies out there. And these people all come from different walks of life here... it’s not like they’re all in the same club or something. People respond to art in a very personal manner (on some levels) and these kinds of movies, the ones that have made it into the poll, are well loved and well watched pinnacles of motion picture history. So the obvious question I’d have to ask any of the people making these kinds of criticisms here are... “Have you actually seen these movies? If not, try watching one before complaining. You’re in for a treat.”

Okay... so now that’s off my chest, I’d like to just like to say something about Citizen Kane, since people seem to be so incredulous and non-understanding as to why it would even be on the list in the first place, let alone dominating the top spot for all but two of those “once a decade polls” (the first poll and the most recent one where Vertigo broke its winning streak and knocked it off the top spot). Citizen Kane is a great film. It might not entertain a certain segment of the population but, even if it doesn’t, it still has to be acknowledged as a great film. The reason for this is that there is so much “hidden ingenuity” to be found lying just beneath the surface, that one can’t help but applaud the technical brilliance of just what is going on here. 

For example, there are shots in this where the camera goes places where a camera just couldn’t go... especially when this movie was made. Parts of a set or model were designed to break away once the camera eye had passed them so the operator could keep going past a place where the “real world” would not let him go.

Or, as another example, what about that shot where Welles is sitting in the office typing and in the background, opposite Welles and watching from afar, is Joseph Cotton... and both are in sharp focus. Oh sure. A great example of a deep focus lens being used to keep everything nice and crisp right? Wrong! A deep focus lens wouldn’t be able to handle that shot... at least not then it couldn’t. So what did they do... yeah, they ran a matte split mask and spliced two shots together so it looks like one shot. And the majority of viewers, myself included, wouldn’t even notice it was two seperate bits of footage spliced together. Good grief people! They were inventing stuff just to get the shots in the way they wanted them. And when they weren’t inventing them...

 Well... I’m not saying that every single dash of brilliance in this film was an original, technical innovation. There were some, but a lot of this stuff goes back to the days when D. W. Griffith was inventing (some say stealing) the DNA of cinematic syntax. The visual shorthand which everyone almost immediately picks up from their earliest days of watching films and which is forever branded into the braincells as the absolutely most instinctive way of decoding the moving visual image. You know what I’m talking about... stuff like two people individually framed, saying a line and then cutting to the other saying their line as a visual shorthand for two people having a conversation. It grew very quickly from there in terms of innovative and subtle manipulations of the human brain and a lot of it is to be found all in one place by 1941... and that place is Citizen Kane.

Every technique in the book, it seems like, was used for Citizen Kane and the movie is a summation, a showcase if you will, for all the brilliant ways of depicting a story through film that had ever been seen up until this point. And that’s why it’s so brilliant... it’s a text book of delights from which people can take inspiration and learn. It deserves every accolade it gets.

Which is why I’m kinda upset myself that Jean Pierre Jeunet’sAmelie (aka Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain) didn’t also make it into the top 100... preferably the top ten. Because, like Citizen Kane before it, Amelie also showcases the absolute state-of-the-art of the technical possibilities of its time and I would have thought that for this reason, it would have rated a bit higher in the general critical consciousness (if there is such a thing). Also, like Welles esteemed treasure, Amelie has some very innovative ideas in it which I’m not aware of being done before this film. One of them involves the way sound is used in two sequences a different points of the film which relies on the viewers subconscious memory of the audio sections of one point to make a hidden connection. And the other involves a visual echo of something which isn’t really happening. I don’t want to go into too much detail as I want to review the film on this blog someday, but I will point out that these innovations probably wouldn’t even be noticed by 95% of an audience who are there to be engrossed in a movie. They don’t deliberately draw attention to themselves in any way and are used purely as a way of moving the narrative forward... this is a brilliant way to use film. And, of course, there’s other more standard stuff going on with the CGI effects, of which there are a surprising amount in Amelie... not that many people realise it though. Things such as lamps being added and changed a different colour to balance the tone of a different, dominant colour in the scene. Object and props which could easily have been real, found items for a set but which were added in post production. Stuff like this shows a true mastery of the form and I think Amelieshould be somewhere on that list... but that’s just me griping now. Although I’d like to think I’ve backed up my reasons somewhat.

And what of Vertigo? Well, as I said, I love it. It’s my favourite Hitchcock and, yes, it does have some great innovations in it. Like that kiss in Kim Novak’s hotel apartment near the end where they had to build a split set and put the camera on a turntable with the actors so the scene could completely change behind them as they kiss to a completely different environment and return through a full 360 degree pan. Or, of course, the famous shot in Jaws of Brody on the beach where the camera is pulled back from his face while simultaneously zooming in on it at the same speed the camera is being pulled back. That was invented for those wonderful, downward looking shots in the bell tower during the two climbs in Vertigo... actually done with a model set too, no less. So you would never had got that shot in films ike Jaws (and dozens of other movies) if Vertigo hadn’t done it first... I suspect.

So yeah, Vertigo should be on there but, should it be at number one? Well I could watch it all week (something I couldn’t do forCitizen Kane I suspect) but I have to admit that Welles opus is a much greater showcase of innovation and art than Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece... although, as I said earlier... personally I prefer Vertigo, so I can’t be too upset that it’s now number one.

All in all, it’s not a bad list they’ve come up with. I look forward to the next one in the hopes that NIghts Of Cabiria will find a place above the Fellini movies that already appear on it. And it’s good to see, also, that 6 of those movies on the list were all scored by the same composer... my favourite composer, the remarkable Bernard Herrmann. Not only that but the top two films, Vertigoand Citizen Kane were both scored by him... so that’s something to shout out about. But the list also reflects his achievements at both ends of his career. Citizen Kane was the first actual film he scored... he was the regular composer for Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio show (including the mentioned conductor on the notoriousWar Of The Worlds transmission) and Welles brought him with him to Hollywoodland to work on the film with him. Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which is also in the list, was Herrmann’s last score. He died within hours of the final, extended recording session on the approach to Christmas 1975.

I’m grateful that Bernard Herrmann has been, quite serendipitously, honoured in this way. It makes the list something very special for me as a die hard Herrmann listener. This is a good list, the 2012 BFI/Sight & Sound List and, to paraphrase one Mr. Travis Bickle from the 32nd spot... “those were good choices.”

The BFI Sight & Sound Poll can be read here. 


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