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…

Batman (1966)

Director: Leslie H. Martinson

SBS recently announced that they’ve purchased the 1960s Batman TV series, which announcement comes… unfortunately timed to coincide with the death a few days earlier of series star Adam West. Not SBS’ fault, I’m sure, cos I’ve no doubt the negotiations to buy the series would’ve begun some time before West’s passing (I don’t think you just casually do that sort of thing even these days), but still. Anyway, to warm us up for the series ahead of it starting next month, they gave us the movie tonight, which I may not have seen since, well, the 1980s, which was probably also the last time I saw the series (I have the latter on DVD but haven’t watched it yet)… Basically the film was produced as a sort of introduction to the series (filmed after the first series had completed shooting), but then the series launch date got moved way ahead of its original schedule so the film had to be held back, rendering it a bit useless for its intended purpose. Still, on its own terms it’s a huge lot of fun… I know the series copped flak for years for being an exercise in camp rather than evincing the pulp grittiness of the original comics, but let’s face it: the comics by that time were hardly masterpieces of noir, even before the CCA neutered comics generally in the 50s, DC were taking their own initiatives to tone Batman down within months of his first appearance and wouldn’t toughen him up again until the 70s. So the film is really just of its time in that respect, and it knows the basic strangeness of the whole superhero/supervillian narrative and it runs joyously with its own ridiculousness; everyone involved hits the right comedic pitch (the bomb scene is an outstanding setpiece), and West’s ability to keep a straight face is genuinely admirable at times. Much fun, and though I’ve got the series on DVD like I said, I’ll probably watch it on TV anyway…

Life of Brian (1979)

Director: Terry Jones

This film contains one of the most outstanding silences in any film (well, any sound film, obviously) I’ve ever seen, i.e. the bit where Brian shouts “NOW FUCK OFF!” at his suddenly acquired mass of followers, and they pause before, about eight seconds later, John Cleese’s disciple asks him how they should fuck off. It’s one of the most beautifully timed jokes in a film that swarms with them; watching it again tonight for the first time in several years (the first film I’ve watched in months, obviously, except for repeats of Flash Gordon and Heavy Metal which obviously didn’t need to be reviewed again here) was a great reminder of just how thick and fast the comedy comes, and how absurd baffling the controversy the film generated back in the day (still does? Apparently the town of Bournemouth only lifted their local ban on the film as recently as 2015, and even in this country it actually got upgraded from an M rating—which is the one my DVD copy bears—to an MA for its blu-ray reissue. Unless that was on account of the bonus features?) was. Even allowing for changes in attitudes over time, it seems bizarre that people could seriously accuse it of blasphemy; it clearly doesn’t have a go at that Jesus fellow in any way, the one scene in which Jesus appears—i.e. the Sermon on the Mount—plays him straight and the humour comes from the crowd who mishear what he says. And that’s the real root of the film’s satire; it’s not taking the piss out of Jesus, it’s taking the piss out of his followers, as witness the speed with which Brian’s disciples not only attach themselves to him for no good reason, then become divided as to whether the gourd or the shoe (and indeed whether it’s a shoe or a sandal) is his true sign, and finally not only misunderstand but actively ignore what he actually says… Come to think of it, maybe that’s really why people took such offence to Life of Brian back then, cos they recognised it was about themselves rather than their Lord…

As a final thought, how good is Graham Chapman as Brian? I only discovered tonight John Cleese actually wanted the role, and had to be talked out of it with difficulty by the other Pythons. What a piece of potentially terrible miscasting that could’ve been; considering Cleese’s general Python persona and the other parts he plays in the film, I just can’t imagine him working as Brian. Chapman was so determined not to fuck it up that he overcame the alcoholism that had plagued him for years, and you can see that commitment in his performance. I mean, all the Pythons are good in their many and varied parts, but it’s Chapman’s film, really. Absolutely top stuff.

The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979)

Directors: Chuck Jones & Phil Monroe

Look, I know there isn’t much point in me watching this. I’ve got the big DVD box set with all the original cartoons on it (barring, notably, Hare-Way to the Stars, incomprehensibly excluded from the Golden Collection series) remastered and uncut (the editing performed here on Long-Haired Hare damages one of the best gags in it). It’s kind of outlived its usefulness in some respects, and there’s not a lot of point to watching it now, unless you really want to be faintly disgusted by the absence of Bob Clampett and Ben Hardaway among the list of Bugs’ “fathers” (the latter—who only gave the bunny his name, after all—seems to have been an honest mistake on Jones’ part, but the former was a deliberate act of spite by Jones, who had a notable grudge against him). And yet, when I was looking through the TV guide to see what was on today and I saw TBB/RRM listed there… how could I not watch it? Cos it’s great. The component parts are all great, some of them among the very best things to come from Warners’ animation department (and I’ve said for a long time now that the best of the Warner cartoons are among the best films made by anyone anywhere at any time), and it’s still a pretty amazing highlights package, markedly better than the other recycled compilations that followed it in the 80s, cos Jones and Monroe were careful to (mostly) leave the originals alone and limit the new material to essentially introductory links rather than trying to embed the old stuff as stock footage into a new story (cf. 1001 Rabbit Tales). I’ve loved this since I was little, and it still works for me now. It’s a joy to watch, basically, and I suppose that’s really all the reason you need to do so.

Gladiator (2000)

Director: Ridley Scott

So I previously mentioned the ongoing challenge at ICM forum for films of this decade, and now there’s one for films of the oughts, so I’m doing both in conjunction with that vague plan I have of finishing off the 1001 Movies list now I’ve got almost all the films on that… As such, I’ve finally got around to this, and OY do I have problems with it. I mean, it’s an OK film, albeit one that is vastly and unnecessarily overlong—nothing really justifies it being nearly three hours in length—and technically adequate, that sort of thing. It’s just… the history. And historical subjects almost always have some sort of problem with historical fact… you know, there’ll be anachronisms of some sort (which Gladiator is apparently full of), or else characters have been invented or maybe even created out of more than one actual person (which Shakespeare himself did), or events have been invented or otherwise distorted (cf. Matthew Hopkins getting killed in Witchfinder General as opposed to the actual Hopkins dying of TB at home). I’m not usually bothered by that sort of thing. A problem arises, though, when something like this film wants to sell itself as history but is basically predicated on something that never happened…

In this case, Russell Crowe and his variable accent play Roman general Maximus Meridius, fighting under the emperor Marcus Aurelius at Vienna in 180 AD; the venerable Marcus wants to appoint him his successor rather than his son Commodus, who he thinks is unworthy, and he wants Maximus to restore the old Rome. Commodus takes this… badly and kills the old boy, taking the purple before Maximus can; the latter escapes execution but gets captured into slavery, being trained as a gladiator and readying himself for revenge. In other words, it’s basically a modern knock-off of Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, and that’s fair enough… except, like I said, it’s predicated on something that didn’t happen. Commodus was, well, a bit of a commode as emperor; I don’t know if he was the weaselly git with daddy (and sister) issues who just wanted people to love him that Joaquin Phoenix presents him as, but he wasn’t one of the great emperors. But he was already emperor before Marcus Aurelius’ death, co-emperor with his old man in fact, who he didn’t actually kill either. And that’s a bit of bad history that hangs over the entire film and made it difficult at best to fully get into it. Unfortunate, cos, apart from the sluggish first hour or so, it’s not too bad for the sort of thing it is; Crowe and Phoenix are outshone vastly as performers by some of the secondary cast (most notably Oliver Reed), but on the whole it’s OK, and by the end I think I liked it more than I’d initially expected. It’s just… the “history”.

Merantau (2009)

Director: Gareth (“G.H.”) Evans

Well, clearly I haven’t watched anywhere near as many films for this “smaller Asian countries” challenge at ICM, but at least I’m signing off on a fairly good note… since we have a while yet for the third Raid film to appear, this seemed like a good opportunity to finally pull this one off the watchlist. Having invoked the Raid films, of course, I should probably add that I might have enjoyed this a bit more had I not seen those films first, cos I now know what he’s capable of, and, well, he doesn’t quite pull it off here in the same way. That said, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it or anything (well, except for some of the post-synced sound, and I don’t think that was just my copy at fault), it’s just that it was Evans’ first film of this sort and it’s a bit more derivative and not as tightly controlled. The plot revolves around an old Sumatran tradition called merantau, where the young men go on a sort of walkabout (yes, way to mangle not exactly identical cultural references together, Russell) from their rural communities to the big city to prove themselves as adults; this is the situation our hero, Yuda, is in. Things kind of immediately turn to shit when he finds the place he’s supposed to stay in Jakarta doesn’t actually exist, but then a series of encounters leads him to brush up against a human trafficking ring. Like I said, not the most original narrative, but with the sort of action on show, who cares about that? I know bugger all about silat—the Indonesian martial art on display—but it looks amazing on screen, and the action choreography (really, Hollywood needs to make Iko Uwais a big star and I don’t know why they haven’t yet) is incredible at times… there’s a few particularly berserk bits of stunt action where I can’t believe the performers didn’t sustain serious injury, including some falls from heights onto… well, solid ground with nothing to stop them. There are some right “fucking hell” moments throughout. Like I said, not as good as what Evans and Uwais would pull off in The Raid, but a worthy enough bit of action entertainment in its own right nonetheless…

Ashes of Time (1994)

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

This is, specifically, the “redux” version we’re dealing with, cos that seems to be the only one easily available; the original international version, to say nothing of the original original version from the Venice Film Festival, may still be out there in dodgy form, but this seems to be the one Wong himself wants out there. Apparently it came about because he got a call from the film lab storing the film materials, advising they were shutting down the very next day, so if he wanted his stuff, he’d better get it right there and then… and the materials were apparently in such a mess that a complete overhaul was the only way to go. Which involved recutting, making the seasonal structure clearer, new music, and a completely different colour grade (which, apparently cinematographer Christopher Doyle isn’t thrilled by). Bordwell has a whole piece on it, and on the connections between the film’s various characters. The film was notorious for baffling its original audiences, and I can see why; you actually can piece the relationships together, but Wong doesn’t make it terribly easy, and the loose, semi-episodic structure makes everything just that little bit more remote. It’s kind of an anti-wu xia film in some ways, determined to take the usual sword-slinging characters and make them more recognisably human than mythic… although the extent to which it succeeds at doing so is, I think, arguable, and the film’s general approach is a highly aesthetic and artificial one that kind of further undercuts that. It’s so self-conscious in its “artisticness”—a tendency I’ve always gathered was kind of frowned upon by the Hong Kong film industry at large in those days; Wong might’ve been playing with big stars but he was never really accepted at home as one himself the way foreign critics fawned over him—that it becomes quite teeth-grinding. I may find more in it on a second watch, but that might be a while in coming.

Revenge (1989)

Director: Ermek Shinarbaev

Well, wasn’t THAT awesomely difficult to love. When you boil Revenge (also known as The Red Flute for no reason that I can discern, since I don’t recall any such object even appearing in the film, let alone being relevant to the story) down to its basic plot—a rural teacher kills one of his students in a rage, the child’s father gives birth to another son so that he can take revenge for him—you do it a genuine and amazing injustice. I mean, yeah, that is what happens, and yet there’s more to it… Revenge occupies an odd place both as a story and a production, appearing near the end of the Soviet Union when perestroika was inspiring a new wave of sorts in Kazakhstan, set mostly in Korea and starring Kazakh actors speaking Russian. Which I suppose is not really different from, say, Hollywood films set in foreign lands where everyone speaks English, but it was weirdly disconcerting here… plus, although the film is actually concretely set between 1915 and the mid/late 1940s, there’s a strange abstractness to the film’s apparent temporal setting; indeed, almost the only thing I can remember that really grounds it in the 20th century is a scene near the end with a truck. Otherwise I can’t recall any mention of either war that took place in that timeframe; you’d almost swear it was meant to be some piece of timeless folklore or something. Revenge is far from immediately ingratiating, being more inclined to a sort of poetic indirectness—had the director not specifically stated the film is at least in part about the forced repatriation of the Korean population of Sakhalin after WW2 I’m not sure I would’ve guessed that fact—and a few moments of animal cruelty are wince-inducing. It is, however, frequently stunning to actually look at—it has one of the most astounding crane shots I’ve seen, and really beautiful use of natural light. I liked the film more than otherwise, I think, but I’m going to need at least one more viewing to get more from it, cos I’m sure there’s more to get.