Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Last Year At Marienbad (France, 1961)

Alan Resnais was something of an over-achiever. Night and Fog, his thirty-minute examination of the aftermath of the Holocaust, has serious claims to the titles of both finest short and finest documentary ever made; Mon Oncle d’Amerique, which Resnais shot in Montreal, is frequently cited by Canadian critics as the best film ever to emerge from their country; Hiroshima Mon Amour became a monument in cinema history and sacred text to the French New Wave; and Last Year At Marienbad managed to be better than them all.

During my abortive college career, I once spoke to a friend about Marienbad, which we had both seen on TV the night before. Overhearing us, another student asked, ‘What’s Last Year At Marienbad?’ As I readied myself to reel off some pretentious claptrap about a haunting investigation into the ambiguity of memory that eschews conventional narrative and reinvents our expectations of the movie, my friend said simply, ‘A beautiful film.’ That, I realised instantly, was the perfect answer.

The geometric precision, what Ian McEwan might call the ‘mathematical grace’, of Marienbad’s set design and cinematography is astonishing. If you’re at all interested in photography, you could have a hell of time just watching this movie with the sound off. (And you’d probably understand as much of what’s going on as you would if you watched it with the sound on.) But beyond just being beautiful, this faultless photography is as important to the film as anything said or done by anyone in it, and moulds the mood and tone of the work as effectively as, in a novel, does perfectly crafted prose. The brilliant clarity of Resnais’s images (particularly notable when watching the digitally re-mastered DVD), doesn’t, as you would expect, make the scenes it shows us easier to comprehend. Instead, the clearness of what we see contradicts the fuzzy uncertainty of what we think about it, and further undermines the faith Hollywood has implanted in us that all films will be unchallenging to watch and easy to understand.

Alongside this, the jarring organ sounds (to call them ‘music’ would be stretching the definition) and stylised performances – which somehow seem both impassioned and emotionally distant – combine to create an onscreen environment unlike any we have seen before. It’s through them that, just as Brazil and Der Cabinet Des Dr Caligari manage to recreate on film something of the experience of dreaming, Marienbad manages to recreate something of the experience of memory.

If you’re suspicious of art house cinema and like your movies to have a gripping story, characters you can relate to and a neat ending that won’t leave you with more questions than answers – or any questions at all – you probably shouldn’t read the next sentence. Marienbad doesn’t really have a plot, it barely has a setting, and we don’t really learn much about its three main characters, who are identified only as A, X, and M. The beautiful A seems to be married to the stern M, and the peculiar X spends most of his time trying to persuade her that she had an affair with him a year ago in Marienbad. After introducing these quasi-characters the film then presents string of unanswerable questions about them: were X and A lovers? Is he lying? Is she? Were they ever together at Marienbad? Were they ever together at all? If you’d never heard of this movie before reading this, then ‘Do we care?’ might seem a more pertinent question. The answer, amazingly, is yes. Few art films are as captivating as this one, and very few are anywhere near as good.

As I’ve no doubt demonstrated, it is difficult to write anything worthwhile about Last Year At Marienbad. The film is so purely a work of a cinema that trying to describe it in words feels like trying to paint a picture to describe a piece of music. In fact, the only words really worth writing about Marienbad are these: watch it.

Austere yet enjoyable, difficult yet exciting, open-ended yet satisfying, Last Year At Marienbad is a treat you should allow yourself at least once. If all that sounds like pretentious claptrap, then just remember that Marienbad is, above everything else, a very beautiful film.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Sholay (India, 1975)

In 1999, when the BBC held an online poll to determine ‘The Superstar of the Millennium’, the winner was not Charlie Chaplin or John Wayne, or Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise, but the Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan. Though a surprise, the result was far from unjust: Bachchan – whose status in India is something between megastar and demigod – may well be the most popular movie star on the planet. This is his most famous work, and probably the most famous of all Bollywood films.

While many cinemagoers in the West may never have seen – or even heard of – Sholay it is safe to call it one of the world’s favourite movies: aside from being the highest grossing film in the history of Indian cinema, it is also perennially voted both the country’s best, and best loved, movie, and has topped polls of favourite films in countries as diverse as Britain and Iran.

Jai and Veeru (played by Bachchan and fellow Bollywood idol Dharmendra) are a sort of sub-continental Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, adorable rogues and master thieves known to every jailor in India. Summoned by a former police inspector who, having once arrested them, has first hand knowledge of their bravery and derring-do, they are hired to capture the murderous bandit chief, Gabbar Singh (a marvellously loony Amjad Khan). Precisely why the erstwhile lawman (Sanjeev Kumar, giving what must be the single most sour-faced performance in the history of the silver screen) is so keen to have Singh captured alive, but literally won’t lift a finger to help, is a tantalising mystery that runs throughout much of a film that is, at times, an Eastern Western, an action movie, a thriller, a comedy and, I suppose, a musical – but always a top-drawer entertainment.

Just as Seven Samurai is, for English-speaking audiences, the most accessible masterwork of Japanese cinema because of the vast influence Western movies (in both senses of the term) had upon it, so Sholay manages to feel at once exotic and familiar because of the obvious inspiration cowboy films provided for its creators. There are direct references to Once Upon A Time In The West and One-Eyed Jacks, and the spirit of Butch Cassidy, The Magnificent Seven and The Searchers runs throughout. (It’s unsurprising, given its colossal box office success, that the film gave birth to a genre known as ‘the curry Western’.)

There’s a great deal more to Sholay, though, than the influence of Sergio Leone and John Sturges. As almost always with a Bollywood movie, the music is as integral to the film’s appeal as the screenplay, and here R.D. Burman provides a thumping score and five fine songs. The staging of these musical numbers – particularly the Festival of Colours and the final song, ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’, during which the heroine is forced by bandits to dance over broken glass to prolong her lover’s life – is unforgettable.

There are film fans, and even film critics, who love world cinema but just don’t seem to watch Bollywood movies. I’m sad for them, because they’re missing some tremendous films. There are as many great Bollywood movies as there are great Hollywood movies, and Sholay may just be the greatest of them all.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Yojimbo (Japan, 1961)

A nameless warrior happens into a windswept, godforsaken town over which two criminal gangs are at war. Believing the world would be better off without either of them, and that he could profit from the process, he plays each against the other. If you’ve never heard of this film and yet that seems familiar, you’ve probably seen Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars or Last Man Standing starring Bruce Willis, both of which are remakes of Yojimbo. While Dollars is a classic in its own right and Last Man Standing is an enjoyable movie, neither can compare to Akira Kurosawa’s original: a picture so exciting, and so brilliantly made, it is perhaps the only film that holds equal appeal to the most po-faced art house audiences and beer-sodden students in search of an action movie.

As usual, playing John Wayne to Kurosawa’s John Ford (or rather, Clint Eastwood to his Sergio Leone) is Toshio Mifune, possibly the greatest of Japanese film stars and certainly the most popular in the West. His performance – comic, frightening, violent and heroic –is just as central, and just as intensely entertainingly, as Marlon Brando’s in On The Waterfront or Alan Ladd’s in Shane. Mifune was one of the greatest stars of 20th Century cinema, and if you’ve never seen one of his performances this is the one with which to start. Equally memorable is Masaru Sato’s score, which – percussive, persistent and brilliantly foreboding – is one of the finest I’ve ever heard, and easily the equal of Ennio Morricone’s equivalent, and iconic, music for A Fistful Of Dollars.

Impressive as the contributions of Mifune and Sato are, the star-turns in Yojimbo are given by its director and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa. What’s most striking about this film, after just how much fun it is, is the amount and clarity of information Kurosawa manages to put onscreen at one time. In my favourite shot, a moment before the film’s eruptive climax, we see (from left to right): the hanging feet of the friend whose capture has drawn Mifune out of hiding and into battle; the imposing semi-silhouette of Mifune himself; the ruins of a building destroyed in the violence he has set in motion; and two of the henchmen who, if previous skirmishes are anything to go by, he is about to relieve of their limbs. The shot creates in seconds a level of tension other films would require whole scenes to convey – and it is because every shot in the film is just as intelligently assembled that the script can be so deliciously terse, and yet never confusing. Certainly, the plot is complicated, and unfurls rapidly, but we never feel we have to work to keep up with it.

This is not Kurosawa’s best film, but to be included in this or any other collection of classic films it doesn’t have to be. If there are such things as ‘must see movies’ – and much as I love great films, I don’t think there are – then Kurosawa directed at least six of them. If you only ever watch one samurai film, make it Seven Samurai – but if you watch two, make the second Yojimbo.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Shoah (France, 1985)

One of the most moving scenes in cinema simply shows a man, middle-aged and unremarkable, standing in a field. The field was once the site of the Chelmno concentration camp and, of the 400 000 Jews shipped there by the Nazis, the man, Simon Srebnik, was one of only two who survived. ‘No can describe it,’ he says. ‘No one can recreate what happened here … and no one can understand it.’

In this excruciating scene, the first in the film, Srebnik expresses the ethos of the whole picture: no one can recreate the Holocaust on screen, and no one can comprehend it sitting in a cinema – but, that said, it’s vital we try. ‘I’m not in the mood to see a 4-hour documentary on Nazis,’ says Annie Hall when her boyfriend suggests they take in The Sorrow and the Pity. You have to wonder how she would fare in front of Shoah, a 9-hour documentary on the Final Solution.

Shoah contains no re-enactments, no archive footage, and little authorial narration. Instead, the film consists almost entirely of interviews with those who survived, witnessed, or perpetrated the Holocaust. As they talk we sometimes watch them, and sometimes footage of the sites where the events they describe took place: now-innocuous sections of the Polish countryside, the train tracks over which hundreds of thousands were driven their deaths, and the ruins and relics of the death camps themselves. (Even more unsettling than images of the disused concentration camps are shots of the places where life has carried on. Auschwitz, at least, has become a museum and an eternal reminder of what went on within it; far worse are the streets that now have no Jewish residents, and the towns where the locals are no longer sure if there was ever a synagogue.)

Because of its style, there is some debate over whether this is actually a documentary, with its director, Claude Lanzmann (who is, incidentally, professor of documentary film at the European Graduate School in Switzerland), chief among those who insist it isn’t. To me, the argument is irrelevant: whether we call this a documentary, a non-fiction film or an anthology of oral history is immaterial. What matters is what is onscreen – and what is onscreen is a miraculous picture, one that has the potential to alter anyone who sees it.

To create such a work Lanzmann employed a number of practices that would draw criticism had they been used to educate us about any other subject. He promised contributors (admittedly former Nazis) that not even their names would be mentioned in the film, and then secretly filmed them; he badgered interviewees (many of them Holocaust survivors) until they broke down and described experiences they were clearly beyond uncomfortable talking about; and he door-stepped people who categorically had no wish to be filmed. Few would argue that he shouldn’t have used these tactics: it’s through them that he manages to paint, better than any other filmmaker, a portrait of industrialised evil on an international scale grounded in the rawest experiences of the individuals involved.

Take, for example, the moment when Abraham Bomba, a Jewish barber put to work in Auschwitz, is hounded out of his tearful silence and delivers, with Lear-like intensity, a description of the fellow barber forced to cut the hair of his wife and sister without telling them that, moments later, they would be gassed. Now consider how much would have been missed had Lanzmann complied with Bomba’s request that he stop shooting 5 minutes earlier.

Of all Lanzmann’s debatable methods it is the secret filming that produces the most affecting material. At one point, convinced that no one beside Lanzmann can hear him, a former concentration camp guard named Franz Suchomes sings an upbeat anthem penned about Treblinka by one of his fellow guards. I would call it the most chilling moment I’ve ever seen on film, were it not for what follows immediately afterwards: Suchomes relaxing into his seat and announcing cheerily, ‘No Jew knows that [song] today.’

If you don’t fancy 566 minutes of the most unremitting horror you’ll ever hear about, I don’t blame you. But if you decide not to seek out Shoah ask two questions of yourself:

1) How many movies have you seen that genuinely had the power to readjust your perceptions of both modern history and the human condition?


2) Can you afford to pass on one that does?

Whenever I watch Shoah, I’m overcome by the idea that any other film I’ve ever called powerful or important is insignificant by comparison. That notion is nonsense, but it does indicate how overwhelming an experience Shoah is. I’m sure anyone who’s ever sat all the way through it (and I warn you: as 9½ hours of nothing but the naked realities of the Nazi death camps it’s as much of an ordeal for the emotions as it is for the arse) has at some time felt the hyperbole they usually throw at great films to be suddenly, and startlingly, insufficient.

I don’t believe in the concept of ‘must see’ movies. I could never suggest someone’s experience of cinema, or of life, could be invalidated simply by not having seen La Grande Illusion or Casablanca, much as I adore them. Subsequently, I’m not going to say ‘everyone should see Shoah’ – but I will say that I cannot imagine anyone who would not benefit from doing so.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (USA, 1965)

Russ Meyer claimed the success of his movies was entirely due to the oversized breasts invariably attached to the actresses he cast in them. If that were true, his work would have no more appeal than the banal nudist films it rendered all but obsolete. Meyer was no lowest common denominator pornographer; he was master of his material, father of a genre, and perhaps the most cheerfully perverted mind ever to be allowed to make movies.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is the Annie Hall of his oeuvre, made in the sweet spot between the earlier films in which he honed his style, and the later work in which his snowballing fixation with hot air balloon bosoms would unbalance his movies just as the bosoms themselves unbalanced the actresses whose backs struggled to support them.

Three Zeppelin-breasted beauties take a break from go-go dancing and drive across the desert looking for kicks. Their leader, played by the architecturally eyebrowed Tura Satana, is Varla, an amoral, karate-chopping psychopath so fearsome she could – and soon does – snap a man in two. (Satana, who was gang raped aged nine and then sent to reform school for supposedly tempting her attackers, admits to having a good deal of anti-male anger to channel into her performance. And it shows. Were there an award for the most kickass anti-heroine in movie history, Varla would stride nonchalantly over the bloodied corpses of Lady Snowblood and Beatrice Kiddo to claim it.)

Soon, the girls have kidnapped the ultra-innocent Susan Bernard, learned of a wealthy, wheelchair-bound recluse living 5 miles from a phone line, and set off to help themselves to his fortune. Rolling up at his rundown farmhouse they discover that said recluse is a sexual sadist set on revenging the railway accident that crippled him on all womankind – and, from here on in, events play out in an orgy of inter-gender violence, man against machine violence, and racing car versus wheelchair violence. (The key term here, as Alvy Singer would say if he overheard me in a cinema queue, is ‘violence’.)

Although atypical among his work in that, for one thing, it doesn’t feature any frontal nudity, Faster, Pussycat! is now universally acknowledged as the greatest of Russ Meyer’s films, and one of the finest of all exploitation pictures. And so it is. The plot, never a necessity in a Meyer movie, is tightly adhered to and so the tension never slackens; the camera work and composition seem to fetishize everything onscreen; and, as ever with R.M., the editing is a cut above superb.

John Waters (director of Hairspray and Pecker) famously kick-started the cult of Faster, Pussycat! by calling it both ‘beyond a doubt the best movie ever made’ and ‘better than any film that will be made in the future’. Did he genuinely believe that? I doubt it. But the point he was making, and the point made by all of Meyer’s admirers, is that this movie is so overwhelmingly wonderful that anyone who has ever sneered at it, or dismissed it as beneath consideration, should be immediately disregarded as an imbecile.

When the work of other auteurs of exploitica has long since fallen from memory, Russ Meyer’s movies will remain. When (and if) Meyer’s other films should themselves be forgotten, Faster, Pussycat! will endure as the ultimate cult movie – one of the trashiest, and most entertaining, films ever made.