Ong-Bak (2003)

Director: Prachya Pinkaew

This was on SBS2 after Crouching Tiger, and it made for a fairly instructive double bill; if Lee’s film inspired the making of a lot of bigger, more expensive wu xia, the Thai film seems blithely unconcerned by such competition, clearly convinced there was still a market for unsophisticated but jaw-dropping B-grade mass destruction of people and things. Ong-Bak is so enamoured of star Tony Jaa and his frankly implausible athleticism that we get to see most of his stunts from at least two angles; mind you, the phenomenal how-the-fuck-is-that-even-possible skill with which he goes about his work means you’d probably do the same thing if you were the director to get your value out of him. The action scenes are pretty much on a “fucking hell” level throughout—not least the bit where Jaa’s pants are literally on fire—as is the general ludicrousness of the whole thing… The plot revolves around the theft of the head of Ong-Bak, the ancient Buddha statue belonging to a rather nondescript little rural village in Thailand; Ong-Bak’s head has forcibly parted company with his body courtesy of a Bangkok drug dealer looking to sell it for cash from a local crime boss with a taste for old Buddhas. Little did either of them count on the village’s favourite kickass son, Ting, coming after it. What follows is, as I’ve indicated, overkill. There’s something oddly old-fashioned about the plot, however dressed up in modern camera and editing tricks, to the point where the modern-day setting of the story is almost a bit incongruous; it’s the sort of thing that might’ve been made in Hong Kong (probably with a period setting though) three decades earlier. Given the film seems to have been made to try and sell Tony Jaa as a modern-day successor to Bruce Lee—the same sort of damn near invincible warrior, albeit without Lee’s charisma—I’m sure that feeling of throwback was intentional. Ong-Bak is certainly relatively primitive compared to the Ang Lee film we saw earlier tonight, but there’s something appealing about its sheer brutal vigour and it’s rarely dull as such; terrific late night viewing.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Director: Ang Lee

As the 1001 Movies tells it, Lee’s intention with this film was to make the best martial arts movie possible. The extent to which he achieved this is, obviously, is a matter of individual judgement, but the ambition cannot be faulted, and—at least in my opinion—neither can much of the execution. Obviously a shitload of people felt the same back in the day, when it became a surprise megahit in the US where it soon became the highest-earning foreign film ever (is it still?) and took out Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (plus a Best Picture nomination, among several others), although I do recall back then some people were sniffy about its success; they were hardened Asian action fans who’d been watching films like this for years, and while the uninitiated were oohing and aahing at the flying swordfights and stuff, they were grumbling that Lee wasn’t really doing anything they hadn’t seen before. Which isn’t actually entirely unfair, I suppose, Lee wasn’t really doing much that was new even if most of the people watching this film hadn’t seen it done before. But he was doing these things with probably more resources than any wu xia film had ever had thrown at it before, plus the film did have the relative novelty of an already internationally recognised arthouse filmmaker being the director… indeed, on rewatching it tonight, I got a real sense of self-consciousness about the film, as if it knew it were the martial arts film (cf. what I said recently about Stagecoach and the western), which I suppose is how many people must see it. But also I was struck by how much of the story I’d forgotten, probably because there’s an awful lot of story to keep track of. In some respects you can sum it up as “sisters doing it for themselves”; Jade Fox has killed Li Mubai’s master for refusing to teach a woman his sword skills, and now her disciple has taught herself many of the skills in order to outdo her own master. But there is obviously more to it than just that, and CTHD excels where a martial arts film really should, i.e. the frequency and quality of the fights. Beautifully photographed, well choreographed, it’s not really surprising the film was the hit that it was; the time was obviously right for this sort of thing to go big, and I won’t complain about this being the one that did.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven

As you may observe, it’s not all documentaries and factual stuff this month, it’s also cinema visits to fill holes in my horror film knowledge… yeah, I’ve never actually seen this until now for some reason, which baffles me as much as it may baffle you, my legion of readers. Is it ironic that I’ve seen Wes Craven’s Scream, which rips on the slasher genre, but hitherto not his own major contribution to the genre itself? Anyway, young master Steven Savona announced the other day he’d be going to see it tonight, cos Dendy Newtown were showing it as part of this year’s cult classics series, so I decided I’d go along as well. I suspect I was distinctly in the minority in the not awfully large crowd, most of whom I assume would have been well acquainted with the film already. What sort of experience would it be for me, the newbie on Elm Street, among all these other folks? Steven, at any rate, seemed slightly let down by it, which is interesting considering he has it as one of his top 20 films, but we both pondered how much of the other audience members’ reactions to the film affected ours. Cos as the film progressed, just about every appearance of Ronee Blakley (the then-Mrs Wim Wenders) and her bottle of vodka caused the crowd great mirth despite not really being, you know, inherently funny. (Neither is the “introducing Johnny Depp” credit, but I found that quite funny for some reason.) It’s interesting how other people’s reception of something impacts on your own, which is why I normally prefer to watch films by myself.

If Steven’s fondness of the film was perhaps dimmed slightly, I’m actually not sure of my own response. I was actually a bit surprised by how, well, undeveloped Freddy Krueger actually is in this film (IMDB says he only has a total of seven minutes actual on-screen time); there’s not actually much here to suggest an icon in the making. It was some of the other effects work—particularly the astounding geyser of blood following Depp’s murder—that really struck me more than Freddy’s own limited on-screen presence. Steven’s said on Twitter that he felt for the first time Nightmare hadn’t aged well, and to some extent I feel he may be right; it’s very obviously an 80s film in many respects, and it occupies a very particular place in 80s horror (and cinema in general, having basically saved New Line Cinema from implosion in its infancy), revitalising the already tired slasher film and giving Craven the big box office hit he kind of badly needed by this time. It’s good. I just don’t know that it’s the great classic it’s usually hailed as… mind you, I still liked it a lot more than most of the other big horror franchise initiators I’ve seen; maybe a second viewing at home by myself might be what it needs…

In the Year of the Pig (1968)

Director: Emile de Antonio

This film still seems to get criticised for being anti-American, which is, in my opinion, only a valid reason to judge a thing negatively if you believe being pro-American is the only acceptable position to take. Which I do not, and therefore I won’t criticise it on those grounds but on others. This makes for interesting comparison material after Point of Order, in that de Antonio is still taking pre-existing material and shaping it to a particular political point without adding explicit narration, but this time the political point is much more blunt (if you’ll pardon the expression) and the range of material—which also includes this time a fair proportion of newly shot interview footage—far wider. Because the topic is a lot wider, i.e. the Vietnam War and how America got involved and why hadn’t it got out yet; the US army vs the Viet Cong is a different proposition the US army vs Joe McCarthy. There’s another fundamental difference: when de Antonio made the earlier film, he was dealing with a closed chapter, a piece of recent history with a definite end, but when this appeared in late 1968 the Vietnam War was a long way from being resolved. There’s an old issue of Jump Cut in which de Antonio himself characterises it as “an organising weapon”, so evidently it was meant as a kind of rallying point for political activity against the war, to inspire people to get actively involved. And as such, that probably makes the film appear more dated now than Point of Order does, more of a period piece. The specific circumstances leading to the Vietnam War may or may not ever arise again, but McCarthy’s paranoia is a much more universal prospect; governments always need someone for the people to be afraid of, and all that changes there is the specific target of that fear… communists in the 1950s, Muslims in the oughts. Plus, being still an open topic, Year of the Pig doesn’t have the same sense of dramatic structure as Point of Order; while the approach is essentially chronological, there’s less sense of drive and direction. Not really de Antonio’s fault as such, of course—it’s hard to build to a climax when none is in sight—but it’s still probably the key thing that makes Point of Order the better film for me; I think I’d rather see that in the 1001 movies list than this.

Point of Order (1964)

Director: Emile de Antonio

If the Soviets were right about editing being the defining characteristic of cinema, then I’ve long felt this was especially true of documentary, which is really about taking raw material and cutting it to shape it in a way that isn’t quite the case even with fiction. This film illustrates that principle in spectacular fashion, comprised entirely as it is of kinescoped TV footage; Emile de Antonio had some 188 hours of the stuff to work with, and it evidently took a few years to actually boil down to its final 97-minute condensation. The footage in question was of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, which played a key role in the fiery destruction of Senator Joe McCarthy’s corrosive political career. I don’t suppose McCarthy’s fixation on communists needs any introduction; suffice to say he bit off a bit more than he could chew when it came to taking on the US Army. The story is all in the Wiki entry so I won’t repeat it; what matters is the film de Antonio made of it, which is far more interesting and less dry than it might sound on the surface. The remarkable thing is how much it felt like a fiction film, despite obviously not being one, but the entire thing was shown on TV and the participants were well aware of this fact; not only were they playing to the people actually at the hearings, they were playing to an audience of up to twenty million at any one time. At times I got the impression some of the people involved were almost acting like they’d seen people act in films; perhaps ironically, the Army’s special counsel Joseph Welch actually scored an acting role as the judge in Anatomy of a Murder on the basis of this “performance”. De Antonio shapes all this business with a pretty strong feeling for the dramatic, too, which kind of adds to the “fictional” feeling; initially feeling a bit random and artless but gradually building until it reaches the famous showdown between Welch and McCarthy (don’t you love how Roy Cohn does everything but outright facepalm as McCarthy refuses to give up on a point after Welch has already torn him a new one?), and culminating with McCarthy’s bitter enemy Stuart Symington getting the final word before McCarthy sputters into irrelevance as proceedings end. De Antonio lets all this footage speak for itself, with his only narration being a concise outlining of the case at the very beginning, though some might argue his loathing of the by-then deceased senator from Wisconsin comes across in his editing choices even without needing to be explicitly said. By the same token, of course, it’s not like McCarthy himself gave him anything better to work with. Amazing.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Director: Godfrey Reggio

Quoth the IMDB description of the film: “A movie with no conventional plot: merely a collection of expertly photographed scenes. Subject matter has a highly environmental theme.” Well, that’s damning with faint praise if ever there was. The scenes are certainly expertly photographed; cinematographer Ron Fricke had a gift for capturing this sort of imagery (given the latter’s later work in IMAX and 65mm, it’s kind of amusing that he had to start out in 16mm here). Still, surely there’s more to it than just that. A bit like A Tale of the Wind from the other day, Koyaanisqatsi defies easy description: if it’s a documentary, what is it documenting? If it’s an essay film, what’s the thesis of the essay? Not until the credits roll at the end do we even get an explanation of the film’s title… and what on Earth would people have made of the film if Reggio had gone with his initial idea to release it without a title at all?

The first time I saw the film on VHS, I remember being impressed without being blown away. Later revisits on digital media have been a lot happier experiences, particularly this evening’s high-definition encounter. Technically, it relies on two of the oldest cinematic tricks there are, i.e. slow motion and time lapse (the latter seems to have been the key discovery for Reggio and Fricke in deciding what they were going to make). I found a review I did for my old radio show a number of years ago when I checked out the old MGM DVD, at which time I said the film’s combination of specially shot new footage and carefully deployed stock “it all adds up to an overriding sense of obliquely existential horror”. I’ll stand by those words, cos I got the same feeling tonight, and largely because of those same old techniques; the slow motion stuff is kind of exultant but also implacable, while the time lapse business is so frenetic at times it actually becomes kind of frightening. Especially when the film abruptly jumps from one to the other (you notice how little of it seems to have been filmed at normal speed). And the rocket-exploding climax isn’t the most uplifting end. Reggio has said he was fairly hands off during the production, trusting in Fricke to get the images and later editing the film around Philip Glass’ music, which is of course the other most notable thing about the film. The whole thing is quite stunning; as an attempt at taking avant-garde cinema “mainstream”, Koyaanisqatsi is remarkable.

Deseret (1995)

Director: James Benning

I don’t know much about James Benning, other than that a lot of his work seems to involve landscapes has certain structuralist qualities as well, though he apparently denies actually being a structuralist as such. But both of those tendencies are pretty easily discerned in this, which seems to be regarded as one of his best (it’s on the 1001 movies list). It’s kind of a celebration of the centenary of Utah’s admission to the United States, albeit a pretty backhanded one in some ways; over a period of 18 months Benning shot a whole bunch of both rural and urban landscape footage of Utah (which was originally called “Deseret” by the early Mormon settlers at the end of the 1840s, and was the name they wanted to enter statehood with but Washington refused to accept it for some reason), which he then cut and timed to the narration, exactly one shot (of whatever duration) per sentence, with one shot between each “paragraph” of same (there’s your structuralist element, I suppose). This narration is taken from various New York Times letters and articles and the like from 1852 up to 1992, each boiled down to a few key sentences (I think one bit is only a single sentence, while the longest was probably the vituperative obituary of Brigham Young, and the whole thing charts a fascinating history of the state, from the early antagonism between the union and the Mormons, to showing how the union eventually let them in, how Utah obviously tried to be a good part of the team and assimilate into the greater good of the whole country, but also the considerable problems they faced in doing so—the federal government basically using Utah as a bit of a test site for nuclear weapons, chemical warfare, etc, and a dump for toxic waste and the like, but also the church’s own problems with things like racism (only allowing blacks into the priesthood in the 1970s after spending decades denying black people’s spiritual suitability; excommunicating their only Native American priest), dubious right-wing political connections (particularly with those psychos at the John Birch Society; LDS church president Ezra Taft Benson—who served in government under Roosevelt—seems to have been particularly close to them) and, of course, the polygamy thing (some of the church’s members being more vehement about their right to practise it than others). Quite intriguing to watch and listen to; I may actually invest in the Filmmuseum DVD, which I presume will be better than the YT copy I got (watchable but of clearly illegitimate provenance).

A Tale of the Wind (1988)

Directors: Joris Ivens, Marceline Loridan

I suspect this gets classified as “documentary” largely because, you know, Ivens made documentaries all his life, and surely he wasn’t going to do any differently this late in his life (the film was released shortly before his 90th birthday, making him the oldest filmmaker in the world at that time). Except he did, although I’m damned if I quite know what it was he did; I suspect it’s also classed as “documentary” largely because other people don’t know what else to call it either. I’m filing the film here under both documentary and fantasy, because it really is both of those things, sometimes simultaneously too, and trying to untangle the threads of each mode is tricky at times. It’s not really documentary but it’s also not exactly narrative either. I’m sure I’ve seen other films like it, though surely not many, and I’m damned if I can think what any of them are right now. Maybe compare it to the “non-fiction novel”? I don’t know.

One thing seems to be reasonably certain: most of the film actually seems to be the work of Mrs Ivens, his co-director Marceline Loridan, who this blogger rightly observes shouldn’t be left out of the equation. It seems the film began as a sort of film-about-a-film deal, in which Ivens and his crew would make their film about the wind and Loridan and her separate crew would film them doing so… except Ivens fell ill during shooting so it had to be rethought. As such, I’m presuming that—the obviously fully scripted scenes aside—a certain amount of what we see is re-enactments (to varying degrees) of things that actually happened, maybe even the actual things themselves; the amusing scene of Ivens and Loridan being harassed by officials who won’t let them film the terracotta warriors has more of a ring of truth to it than some others—i.e. it doesn’t look acted, which is not to say that it wasn’t, of course. Mr Honeywell invokes phrases like “magical realism” and “a sort of cinematic interior life or mental construct”, and that really seems to be the best way to describe whatever the hell A Tale of the Wind is, along with Loridan’s own reference to it occupying a sort of “no man’s land between Lumiere and Melies”. Quite perplexing, but fascinating and full of attractive things.

Three by Joris Ivens (1931-1963)

A trio of shorts by the Dutch communist gadabout.

Philips Radio (1931): Notable as the first Dutch sound film—apparently the decision was made to add sound late in the production despite Ivens’ own misgivings—and as a kind of odd man out in the Ivens filmography to some extent, being a commissioned job by the former lightbulb manufacturers turned general electronics corporation (parenthetically, did you know Gerard Philips, who founded the company, was related to Karl Marx? I didn’t until just now. Hugely amused for some reason) as a PR exercise to make them like all high-tech and stuff. Noted communist taking the company coin? Hmm. Anyway, there have been various attempts to read the film as a critique of the production line it depicts, and yet I’m not 100% convinced; the film’s really an exercise in late 20s avant-gardism, and it kind of revels in the pictorial potential of the technology on show more than anything, how it gives rise to particularly interesting imagery. Not sure about what political message to take from it. In 1931, though, there seems to have been less trouble deciding about that: some critics found its focus on the machinery rather than the people using it objectionable, and Philips themselves seem to have been a bit alarmed that it had backfired, even though Ivens had pretty much given them what they wanted… Continue reading

The Imposter (2012)

Director: Bart Layton

I knew the story behind this before actually watching it tonight (it’s been on my to-view list of stuff I’ve got from Youtube but it was on TV tonight so I just watched it that way). I thought it was bizarre then and I think it’s even more bizarre now that I’ve actually seen the film; it seems incomprehensible in theory, and even more so when you hear the people involved actually telling the story, especially when a twist in the tale comes in the last third or so that I hadn’t known about before… Anyway, said story revolves around a 13-year-old American boy, Nicholas Barclay, who goes missing in 1994, then reappears in 1997. In another country. So far, still plausible. There’s just the little matter of him not actually being the missing boy at all, not even looking or sounding that much like him. That’s not exactly a spoiler, of course; just look at the title. The said imposter is one Frederic Bourdin, who, as we discover, already had quite a history of impersonating other people (and would continue to do so even after this debacle), and to be honest I spent a large part of the film kind of irritated by how the film seemed to be presenting… maybe not positively as such, but certainly with some degree of sympathy for the most part; he comes across not as innocent exactly but certainly tossed about at the hands of a destiny that was out of his control. But the real victims, obviously, were the missing boy’s family who Bourdin deceived into thinking he was their lost Nicholas. And therein lies the real problem with this entire story: how could they possibly have not known this man was most definitely not their missing boy? It doesn’t make sense. But therein lies the more interesting question the film throws up: what if they DID know? In the last third of the film a private investigator following the case grows suspicious of Bourdin and ultimately helps bust him, whereupon he points the finger at the family for killing Nicholas themselves. In other words, they knew damn well he was an imposter and had a vested interest in welcoming him “back” into the family to cover their own tracks. There’s no particular reason to accept Bourdin’s tale, of course, him being an obviously chronic liar, and the family obviously deny it, but so much of the whole story makes so little sense Bourdin’s claim certainly doesn’t seem any more unlikely than the actually documented events. I’m thoroughly perplexed by the whole thing; The Imposter kept reminding me of an Errol Morris film on various levels, although unlike The Thin Blue Line I think the case it depicts is going to remain a murky one for a long time to come.

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