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.

Trances (1981)

Director: Ahmed El Maanouni

As I may have said before, I like Martin Scorsese for his love of other people’s films far more than his own films, and his World Cinema Foundation’s restoration work might be his real legacy for me; this was the first film they restored, about Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane (or “Riwane”, as the opening titles spell it; an oddity of transliteration or what?), and it’s apparently one of Marty’s own favourites. As for me, as you hopefully know, I have a number of blank spots when it comes to cinema, and African cinema (in its various flavours) is one of the biggest; for no really good reason, it has by and large just been one of those things I’ve never looked into much. So I made a tiny step tonight, and I will confess to being aided somewhat in my appreciation of this film by the Masters of Cinema DVD booklet essay (plus the online version of its Criterion equivalent). I was particularly struck by the information about the particular form of Moroccan Arabic they sing in, and by something band member Omar Sayed says about “eastern music”, implying there’s also something different about Moroccan music to the stuff coming out of, say, Egypt at the time. Is there also a perception that Moroccans see themselves as separate from other Arabs? I don’t know.

Anyway, our subjects had played in Paris for the first time about three years earlier, at which time the film’s producer had also just distributed in France a documentary on Bob Marley. So director El Maanouni was drafted in to make a concert film, but he decided he wanted to do something a bit more interesting; as such, the concert footage (which mostly seems to come from two sources, one a small indoors show and the other a much bigger stadium-type deal) is interspersed with other stuff which El Maanouni happily admitted to be “re-enactments”; it’s not quite Werner Herzog but the “documentary” footage kind of, you know, isn’t really. Does it make a difference? I doubt it. The real point is the music, of course, a sort of highly poetic protest music which is remarkable stuff, and obviously anyone with a passing interest in north African music should see the film just for that; someone says in the film Nass El Ghiwane are less a band than a theatre group which sings, which is an interesting perspective, but either way the band have a remarkable effect on their audience (who look like they’re tripping out just on the music at times) despite only playing acoustic instruments; the crowd just wanders on and off the stage with some abandon. Indeed, this behaviour kind of leads to the film’s slightly disquieting climax; the soldiers providing security finally get fed up and start laying into someone in the crowd behind the band, who evidently don’t know what’s going on and keep playing. It’s not exactly the Hell’s Angels at Altamont, but it’s still a bit unnerving; a reminder that just because the band’s songs may be advocating peace, that’s evidently not enough to actually stop trouble happening around them…

Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989)

Director: Wim Wenders

This certainly feels more like a “Wim Wenders film”—it has that somewhat ponderous quality his films seem to incline to—than Room 666, in which he basically had to work with what his interviewees gave him; certainly it’s rather literally “by” Wenders, in that he took the project on with the intention of doing something entirely by himself (barring a few bits shot by Robby Müller). The subject of said film was suggested by someone at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris who said “why not make a film about fashion”… and Wenders is upfront about his lack of enthusiasm for that subject, so he decided to focus on one particular figure, designer Yohji Yamamoto, and consider the parallels between his art and Wenders’ art. Now, the latter’s desire to work without a crew kind of dictated the nature of the film that would result, a fairly literal mix of film and video, which actually makes this an interesting follow-up to Room 666 in some respects; Wenders’ DVD commentary notes that his 35mm Eyemo film camera was only good for shooting very short rolls of film and was so noisy he couldn’t record live sound, so he had to use a Hi-8 video camera most of the time. This actually results in some kind of complex images. e.g. video footage filmed in 35mm off a monitor with Wenders holding up a Hi-8 player in front of it showing something else, or a rehearsal of one of Yohji’s fashion shows filmed in 35mm but the lower half of the frame contains two different video monitors, all shot simultaneously rather than optically composited. The problem, though, is the sound; conceding that the Hi-8 camera was the only way Wenders had to get live sound without dragging a professional sound recorder along, the sound of Yohji’s interviews is as rough as hell, not helped by his own hesitancy in English. That’s actually a lot more distancing than the visual tomfoolery, and combined with the rather slow pace of things it makes the film more than a little trying. Mind you, it was a useful follow-up to Room 666 in some respects; that film was about the future of cinema and the visual image, this one is Wenders taking certain steps into that future himself and considering the merits of the image in its various forms (he says something about feeling like the stuff he shot on video was insubstantial, and only became real after he transferred it to film and could physically cut it). Undeniably difficult viewing, or listening at any rate, though not without some pleasures.

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