Apollo 11 (2019)

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

I couldn’t let Gibson’s gorefest be the only film I watched in 2019, and I thought it was high time I actually watched something new, given that I haven’t watched any new films since 2016, hence tonight’s viewing. Of course, tonight’s film was actually shot entirely in 1969, so… so much for “new”? Whatever.

Anyway, Todd Miller had apparently just finished making a film on Apollo 17 when someone suggested he tackle 11 as well, and while preparing it a bunch of never-used 65mm film footage was unearthed. Alongside the normal 16 and 35 film plus video, this gives an added sense of awe to an otherwise fairly straightforward film. Don’t know why but the launchpad footage in particular and the shots of the many and varied spectators watching (and recording—the only difference between these people and our generation, clearly, is that they used actual cameras, both film and still) the event put me in mind of Koyaanisqatsi for some reason.

I say straightforward because that’s what it is; Miller opted for the Senna approach of sticking only to the original video and audio and not adding new interviews or narration; all he adds is some diagram animation and captions (which I only wish he’d made a bit larger; they weren’t easily read on the TV screen). It doesn’t really need anything else, though, does it? There’s other documentaries about the space program that do that; I like Miller’s decision to just let the original footage tell the story and watch it unfold without comment. And at 93 minutes it’s finely proportioned and never dull.

And OH how good is that original footage? Scrubbed up beautifully (the video footage from the Apollo cabin and the closed-circuit TV cameras around the launch site looks genuinely remarkable for its age, quite apart from being impressive that it exists at all), the whole film looks amazing, glad I got it on blu-ray. The film might be fairly and straightforward with what it does, but there’s also something thrilling and moving about it as the flight moves through its various stages, from leaving the Earth to landing on the Moon to the lunar module rejoining the command module and the final splashdown.

And also terribly saddening in a way. Cos with hindsight we know now that, in many respects the whole Apollo program was a bit of a Cold War stunt by the Americans to finally actually beat the Soviets at something in space, though obviously that doesn’t take away from the American achievement (the joy at mission control was well-earned). And I grew up in the 80s when there was still some excitement about that… I mean, yeah, there was also the very real threat of nuclear annihilation before we got back into space, but there was also the feeling that we would actually do so nonetheless. We had probes going to the outer planets, and if we hadn’t returned to the Moon since 1972, not to worry. We’d be back there soon enough. There was a vision there.

Not any more. I mean, even at the time there was criticism (not unjustified) that the money spent on the Moon mission could’ve been better spent improving conditions on Earth, but there was still the sense that the knowledge we would gain from the mission was important however much it cost, that the science was worth it in and of itself and would, you know, actually make humanity better. Not any more. In just half a century we’ve slumped into an age where science doesn’t matter to people any more, blowing up the Middle East is more important than anything, and shit like the flat Earth has staged a comeback. However much it may have been driven by political ambition in real terms, there was still a vision to the space race and a sense that it would take us somewhere. I haven’t felt that for a long time, it’s not like people—at least not the ones in a positiont to do anything useful—even seem to care about making this world better instead. Enjoy this film if you watch it too. It’s good to remember that at least at some point this sort of thing mattered.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

So I haven’t watched a film in over a year. I haven’t really had the interest or the desire, and the handful of films I did watch between my last post here and this one I just wrote cursory notes about on Letterboxd. Not feeling like writing either.

This was on TV for Christmas night. Counter-intuitive programming from SBS, marking the alleged anniversary of Christ’s birth by showing a film about his death… And for some reason I felt like watching it, and writing about it like I’m now doing. I saw this on the day of its cinema release back in 2004, and I saw it with my Mum. Mum was a far better Christian than I was or am, insofar as she actually was one, so we made an interesting pair going to this movie… and, remarkably, we both came out of it with much the same negative opinion of it. It did as little for her as it did for me.

As I’ve said elsewhere on here, I felt the fears that it would promote antisemitism were overstated, but all the reports of how excessively violent it was? It lived up to those. After this rewatch nearly 16 years later, I’m not quite so sure about that first point. With the dubious benefit of hindsight, we know now what Mel Gibson evidently really thinks of our Hebraic cousins, and it’s hard to watch the film without that knowledge; and we do know he leaned quite heavily on the “work” of Anne Catherine Emmerich (and/or of Clemens Brentano, who may or may not have faked her “visions”) which is apparently quite anti-Semitic. Accordingly I felt a lot more antipathy going on towards Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin, to say nothing of what the hell’s going on at Herod’s palace. Equally, though, I doubt the film would serve to actually make anyone an anti-Semite if they weren’t already one, and the film is just as horrible with its Romans; I’d forgotten just how psychopathic they were.

Equally, though, I can’t imagine that the film would make anyone a Christian, either; if you haven’t already read the gospels or otherwise have some familiarity with the stuff that happens before the film’s story starts, some of it’s going to be kind of incomprehensible. It presupposes a lot of its viewers in that respect, so it hardly works as a tool for evangelising to prospective converts. Which raises the question: who and what the hell is this movie for? What’s it about, really?

Because The Passion of the Christ is certainly not about Jesus’ resurrection, which is passed over a few seconds before the end; I mean, I’m not a Christian but I do understand that the whole point of Jesus kind of is the resurrection, you know, he dies and comes back to life and that‘s the important thing about him if you do subscribe to his newsletter. The film cares so little about this detail it may as well have left it out entirely. Similarly, it has only marginally more interest in Jesus’ actual message and teachings, which are also kind of important if you’re into that, and that makes it theologically useless.

So Gibson doesn’t care about the resurrection or the teachings of Jesus, he’s fundamentally interested in spectacle much like Cecil B. DeMille was with The King of Kings 80 years earlier. But this is a far more vicious spectacle than DeMille’s, not just because the latter couldn’t have got away with depicting this much violence in 1927 (and the violence isn’t the only thing even DeMille would’ve found unnecessarily vulgar). There’s no religious feeling underlining this film like there is in King of Kings; this is purely Gibson getting off on extreme violence. Gibson could talk all he liked about how he played the hands that nail JC to the cross cos “[his] sins put him on the cross”, but I don’t buy that for a second. He’s enjoying these atrocities being perpetrated against his putative lord and saviour—remember, this isn’t a fictional character to Gibson—so much so that he just had to take direct part.

Who and what is this movie for? It’s for Mel Gibson, as a kind of pornography. The Passion of the Christ is frankly the work of a ghoul, and I hate it now in a way I didn’t upon that first viewing on Ash Wednesday 2004. Like I said, I thought at the time the film lived up to the reports of its violence, but on rewatching I found I’d actually forgotten just how wildly excessive it really is (e.g. even when Jesus is finally up on the cross, Gibson has to have one of the other men being crucified—the one who mocks Jesus—be attacked by a crow that picks his eye out). David Edelstein famously christened the film “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre”, which sums up the splatter aspect of the affair nicely, a chainsaw being about the only thing not used on Jesus; the miracle that the film really depicts isn’t that Jesus returned from death at the literal last minute, but that he didn’t die before he could even be crucified. I used to say I was afraid for anyone who claimed, as many did, that their religious faith had been strengthened by this grotesque nonsense; now I’m afraid OF anyone who would say that. How any of it was ever supposed to serve someone’s religious faith is beyond me.

Anyway, we’ve been promised a somewhat belated sequel in recent years, which is apparently currently scheduled for April 2021, and which will supposedly cover the period between the death and the resurrection and may be set at least partly in Hell. Which means it’ll be even less biblical than Passion but we can probably at least expect spectacle again, and though I’ve no desire to see Passion ever again I could be tempted to see just how Mel handles the underworld…

 

Police Academy (1984)

Director: Hugh Wilson

On TV tonight, haven’t seen in I don’t know how many years. Possibly not this century. I wrote on here some years ago that I might actually still like this (though I was and am nonetheless kind of embarrassed to admit I’d seen the series up to the fifth film—remember, even Steve Guttenberg didn’t go that far—and had actually seen four and five at the cinema when they were new), and tonight I had the opportunity to find out… And I think it’s been long enough between drinks and enough water has gone under the bridge, and my use of metaphor has clearly become sufficiently debased, that I have a much better idea than I once did of just how bad it is, really… all the subtlety and sensitivity of a Tsar Bomba to the testicles and about as much intelligence, vulgar and crass but still weirdly afraid to be quite as vulgar and crass as it could be if it just tried a bit harder, and just… well… eighties. If the year 1984 could be summed up as one film, this could be the one. MICHAEL WINSLOW, for fuck’s sake. And having watched it again for the first time since I don’t know when, yeah, I actually did kind of like it. I mean, it’s not really that good, it’s fairly average, but it’s well enough done that it’s also kind of painless. I don’t regret watching it again, in a way I’m sure I would regret watching the sequels…

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

Oh hi, fancy seeing me here… Anyway, long time since I last watched this, and even longer since I watched this version… there being so many versions of this film, of course, that part of the fun of watching it on TV tonight was wondering exactly which one we’d get. Lo, it was the actual original cut from 1982 with Ford’s infamous voiceover, which I’ve not seen since probably the late 80s… Back in the 90s when I was doing film studies at UNSW we watched it in class once, i.e. the 1992 “director’s cut” that wasn’t really, and the lecturer asked if any of us had seen both versions. I was the only one who had, so she asked which of them I preferred, and I said neither, and the ensuing gasp of horror from my classmates was something to hear; I half expected someone to burn me as a heretic. Still, ask me a question, run the risk of getting an honest answer; I didn’t think either version could be called “better” than the other, cos frankly I didn’t really like either. It did nothing much for me in either form (I’ve not seen Scott’s proper director’s cut) and I never really understood why people thought so highly of it; I mean, it was perfectly adequate and technically accomplished but not that much more.

I last saw it about a decade ago thanks to my erstwhile radio colleague Evan when I saw the 1992 version at his place, and I think I liked it for the first time pretty much… but I didn’t love it, and on rewatching the original version tonight I still don’t. I’ll obviously concede its visual splendour (if nothing else, seeing it in a proper widescreen version only reminds me yet again how inadequate pan-and-scan VHS editions of films like this were back in the pre-digital dark ages), cos I’m not that stupid, and it’s an excellent illustration of Isaac Asimov’s theory that science fiction is less a genre unto itself than a flavour you apply to other genres; basically Blade Runner is really an old-style film noir tarted up with androids and other “futuristic” details. I’m actually less offended by Ford’s voiceover than most people are, cos that’s just another thing noir does. I still don’t love it, though. It’s perfectly good, eminently watchable and well-made (though with hindsight the unicorn business is just even more obscurely handled than in the director’s cut), all of that. And it still feels kind of cold and empty and it still doesn’t fully connect with me and I still don’t entirely understand why it’s supposed to be one of the greatest films of all time.

Red Christmas (2016)

Director: Craig Anderson

I don’t often engage in “Christmassy” things, cos I’m not particularly into Christmas itself, but eh… thought I might make an exception and watch this (which is itself something of an exception to my general rule this year of not watching stuff of any sort). And, yeah, I probably shouldn’t have bothered… I was expecting a bit more in the way of comedy for some reason, possibly because director Anderson’s background is TV comedy (things like Black Comedy, Maximum Choppage, Double the Fist), and partly because the premise is fucking deranged; basically we’re dealing with a slasher film in which the killer is an aborted foetus that somehow survived, grew up, and is now out for revenge on mummy dearest. (And the foetus is called Cletus. Amazing.) That idea is so brilliant that it’s such a shame the film is, really, just a slasher film after all (it’s also one of those old school-style Ozsploitation films that evidently brings in an American lead actor—Dee Wallace in this case—mainly if not solely to help sell the film in the US). A perfectly competently made one (the rather strident and bold use of colour in the second half of the film is really striking), but that’s all.

As a study of the ramifications of abortion, it’s obviously lacking in subtlety, though the question of whether it swings pro-choice or against it isn’t terribly clear-cut… you can’t really call any of the characters particularly sympathetic—apart from Jerry who has Down’s Syndrome; this is a quite lovely performance (much the best one in the film) by Gerard Odwyer, and he gets probably the best scene in the film when he discovers just why mother dearest chose to terminate her youngest child—and that includes Cletus; unlikable as the rest of the family kind of is, it’s weirdly hard to feel for him when he’s slicing them up just for having the temerity to have, you know, lived (the first victim, too, is the adopted daughter). Basically I think I just wanted something kind of epic trash from Red Christmas, mostly because of the berserk central premise, and I didn’t really get it; obviously you can take a berserk central premise and play it fairly straight and do so effectively, but here I think a more excessive and black comedic approach might’ve served it better.

Woman of Tokyo (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Wherein we can see Ozu starting to become “Ozu”, if you know what I mean, playing with the sharp scene changes his later films would be full of, and doing so in a particularly startling way at one point when, without warning, the credits for the 1932 American film If I Had a Million abruptly appear on screen. For one horrible moment I thought there was something terribly wrong with my copy of the film, but no, we soon see the characters are actually watching the film at a cinema and Ozu just decided to be cheeky and cut bits of the American film directly into his own (in a manner I rather doubt Paramount would’ve actually given him permission to do) rather than show people looking at it on a screen. I’ve been amused before by the way Ozu inserted film posters and the like into his early films, but this was clearly taking that to the next level…

Otherwise, the story seems more like Mizoguchi than Ozu, revolving around a brother and sister, Ryoichi and Chikako who co-habit in a small flat; he’s a student and she’s pretty much the wage-earner, working in an office by day and, well, doing something else by night. Something else that’s attracted police attention for some reason that the film is oddly vague about (it hints at prostitution while also hinting at something apparently worse, but what?); Ryo’s girlfriend’s brother happens to be the officer investigating her, and when said girlfriend goes to warn Chikako, complications ensue. Ozu seems not particularly involved in all of this, and perhaps the film’s origin indicates why; for whatever reason the studio needed a film from him very quickly and he certainly delivered, tossing this off in just eight days and starting shooting before the script was even finished, so that doesn’t really bespeak a strong connection between him and his material. The ultimate bleakness of the thing just seems a bit pointless too, and the brevity of it (not even 50 minutes long) doesn’t give much opportunity to get close to the characters. OK, but not one of Ozu’s strongest works.

The Mysterious X (1914)

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Is there any truth to the old claim that, in the very early days of cinema, close-ups were frowned upon because audiences were supposedly paying to see the performers’ whole bodies rather than just parts of them? If so, I presume the person who first said that would’ve had conniptions at this film, in which the audience would’ve been paying to see performers they couldn’t actually see… Benjamin Christensen is best known now, no doubt, for Haxan, but this, his debut, also offers points of interest. It has to be said the plot is not exactly one of those… basically, war breaks out and our main character (Christensen himself), a naval lieutenant, gets sent off to fight; meanwhile, Mrs Lieutenant has become the object of infatuation for a certain Count Spinelli, who takes an opportunity to break into the lieutenant’s sealed orders (Sealed Orders being the other, more immediately understandable English title for the film) and steal the info therein, which eventually results in the lieutenant himself being arrested for spreading said info to the enemy (whoever they are; the film is oddly reticent about who the other side is supposed to be. How ironic, too, that a film released just a few months before the actual outbreak of actual war should’ve been made in a country that would then stay neutral during that war…)

So this is all so much melodrama, and JESUS FUCK how excessive does it get at times, too… and just how does Spinelli manage to survive so long trapped in the old mill without food or water given that the film seems to take place over quite a number of days? Anyway, the narrative and the handling of same aren’t really the point, it’s Christensen’s visual presentation of his material that is. The staging is largely in fairly standard early cinema tableau form, very minimal cutting, but there are some nice moments of camera movement (the house interior set is revealed to be surprisingly large) leading to some borderline abstract compositions at times, and then there’s Christensen’s use of darkness as much as light. In 1914, I imagine this would’ve been particularly striking, and some of the silhouette business still is. It’s a better film to look at than it is a story to follow, but it’s not bad all up and the whole thing culminates in a last-minute rescue that Griffith might’ve liked.

A Serbian Film (2010)

Director: Srdjan Spasojevic

Well, HERE’s a bit of a change in pace from our last couple of items… a film I’m pleased to finally wipe off my ever-increasing backlog (just because I’ve hardly been watching anything for months doesn’t mean I haven’t stopped accruing new things to watch, even if it will take me the rest of my useless life to do so) and will be even happier to wipe off my hard drive and never see again. WHAT A PIECE OF SHIT, and that also goes for the people who made it. By now I suspect this film’s many and varied censorship woes around the world (obviously including this crappy country, where it’s banned not only uncut but in two separate censored versions, one of which was actually passed and nearly released before the OFLC review board stepped in) don’t really need to be recounted here, the film’s Wiki entry will do that just fine… let’s just say it both does and doesn’t earn its reputation for hideousness.

I’m willing to bet that director Spasojevic took at least some inspiration from Gaspar Noé, even if it was only to set about making something even more fucked and extreme than the latter’s work, and, if you believe him, he was also motivated to make some sort of political commentary on the state of modern Serbia. Which is as may be, but any such commentary the film throws up—basically, the rape/snuff film our former porn star “hero” finds himself roped into making is supposed to be a metaphor for how the country fucks its people or something—is hammer-handed enough to make Cannibal Holocaust look subtle and sincere. As for the actual content on screen… yikes. Actually, while most commentary on the film brings up such obvious things as, you know, the “newborn porn” business and the climactic skull-fucking, I was personally more repulsed by the opening business where the child is watching one of his dad’s old starring efforts and, frankly, it has a certain effect on him. Serbian authorities apparently investigated the film over crimes about protecting minors, and I’m not entirely sure I disagree with them for doing so.

But it’s so BORING. And I probably should’ve expected that; in my experience, self-conscious censor bait such as this, especially in the last couple of decades, generally proves to be hugely tedious once you get past the shock value. Indeed, I actually probably found Serbian Film more repugnant in theory than in practice, and was kind of surprised by how comparatively not extreme it is. I’m not saying that just to sound like some jaded aesthete of extremity who can only get it up these days to actual death footage or something; the vile stuff is clearly there but the actual on-screen depiction of it was actually not as explicit as I’d expected. I mean, there’s no actual peen shown in the excerpts from our hero’s porn career that we see, that’s more about the off-screen sounds. Actually, there’s not a lot of overt cock in general, and the aforementioned climactic skull-fucking just looks… kind of ridiculous. And once you strip away that sort of thing, there is fuck all else going on it.

Unlike this reviewer, with whom I am otherwise in broad agreement, I have no problems attacking Spasojevic personally for making this; I suspect the man is an absolutely complete scumbag and moral vacuum, and if he were to meet the fate of the filmmaker character in his film, I for one would not exactly be sorry to see him go. Shitty, vacuous exploitation of the most cynical sort; fuck this film and everyone involved in it.

Artists and Models (1955)

Director: Frank Tashlin

For reason that I can’t work out, Jerry Lewis died today. I mean, we can probably guess the reasons for that, but it’s how he managed to live so long that has me perplexed… we’re talking about a man who had an assortment of health woes throughout his life and suffered his first heart attack in 1960 when he was just in his mid-30s. He did fairly well to make it into his 90s, all things considered. And, for reasons I also can’t work out, I’ve never actually seen an actual proper Jerry Lewis film until now; I’ve only known him as a sort of pop culture figure usually invoked in bafflement about French tastes in film comedy, but never actually seen him at work. I mean, I’ve seen The King of Comedy and Funny Bones, both of which he’s in but neither of which I’d exactly call a “Lewis film” as such… so I suppose the time is right? And there’s a few Lewis films in the 1001 Films list, so also an opportunity to make another dent in that…

Anyway, he was still with Dean Martin when he made this, though not for much longer (a line Dino’s character has early on about them needing a divorce is weirdly prescient); I’ll take the 1001 Films book’s word for it that this was Martin & Lewis’ finest hour cos I obviously have no other experience. It’s… curious, isn’t it? Frank Tashlin, of course, began life as a cartoonist and animator, and I’ve seen it said that even when he moved into live action in the 50s he never entirely left that cartoon background behind. That seems like a fair summary of this film, with such details as Lewis dressed as a giant mouse and terrifying a cat, Martin’s reflection in a mirror duetting with him, that sort of thing… but also the way the plot develops from the romantic foursome of the first two-thirds of the film into the frankly weird spy thriller of the last third, which revolves around Martin writing a comic book based on Lewis’ dreams, but the dreams somehow contain part of an actual secret government formula which attracts the interest of the Russians and OY. Never quite as wholeheartedly bizarre as it could and perhaps should’ve been, but reasonably funny on the whole, blessed more by Shirley MacLaine as one of the female love interests than it is by Lewis, whose appeal I found kind of baffling. Maybe I need to see Jerry solo instead? I don’t know. At some point I’ll be doing that for the purposes of this list anyway…

This is Not a Film (2011)

“Directors”: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

Which kind of begs the question “well what the hell IS it, then?” One thing I’m fairly sure it’s not, at least not entirely, is a documentary, at least in a conventional sense; apparently it was filmed over a number of days rather than actually being the “day in the life” it purports to be, for one thing. So what is it? Well, basically, it’s a filmmaker making a film he’s not supposed to be making… Jafar Panahi is now one of the most famous cases (outside of Soviet-era eastern European cinema) of a government (Iran) cracking down on one of its national artists; in 2010, after years of run-ins with Iranian censors, he was not only sentenced to six years in jail but also banned from making films for 20 years. In the meantime, he’s under house arrest, which is how we first meet him, and I have to be honest and say house arrest for Panahi frankly looks… not uncomfortable (I mean, I don’t have a wall-mounted flat-screen TV). But, obviously, it’s still a narrow and limited world for him. So what’s a filmmaker to do when he can’t make films? Make a non-film…?

There’s a key moment early in the film where Panahi watches a scene from one of his earlier films, Mirror, in which the child actress ostensibly has a bit of a freakout and refuses to act any more, whereupon that film suddenly turns “real”. Which I gather it wasn’t, but anyway it opens up the question of how much of This is Not a Film can necessarily be called real. Cos there’s an undeniable air of artifice to proceedings, which the film partly acknowledges when Panahi declares his unhappiness with the shots of his daily routine at the start of it. But what about after that? How much of the film becomes “real” once co-director Mirtahmasb joins Panahi? Well, one thing at least: Mirtahmasb jokes at one point about falling foul of the authorities himself, which would in fact happen to him a few months later on another production… and there’s one hilarious bit where Panahi’s neighbour asks him to babysit their dog for an hour or so and the dog goes into a clearly unscriped rage at being on camera… A certain portion is taken up by a real film that isn’t, Panahi describing the script of another film he was banned from making, but it’s hard to tell if even this is 100% authentic or contrived to enhance the point about censorship.

It’s the last scene, however, when Mirtahmasb is leaving and the garbage collector comes in to collect Panahi’s waste, and the latter decides to follow him down in the lift. Something about this seems so natural, partly because most of it plays out in one extremely long uncut shot, that it’s hard to believe it’s not an actual moment of reality… at least until it gets to the bit where the young man encounters the aforementioned dog, and something about that felt just a little too neat. Maybe it was, maybe not. On the whole, a strange and not entirely satisfying experience that I clearly don’t know how to fully process, though one helped by its brief runtime…