Saturday, 31 December 2011

Films of the Year

I didn’t see many films at the cinema this year, partly because there wasn’t a great deal to tempt me out. I did enjoy Richard Ayoade’s debut feature Submarine, a wry coming of age tale set in an isolated coastal town in Wales told by a pubescent narrator who is perhaps not as smart as he thinks he is. Howl mixed colour, black and white and animation to capture the kinetic energy of Allen Ginsberg’s reading of his poem, and of his tumbling speech in general. The film lent visual rhythm to Howl’s biblical cadences and breath-length proclamations. James Franco was excellent as Ginsberg, capturing his blend of loquaciousness, exhibitionism, and endless, agonised self-analysis. Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In was an uneasy horror story, akin to George Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage in its tale of an obsessive surgeon turning his skills to terrible ends in the name of his daughter. Almodovar uses to the full the generic elements lightly touched upon in Broken Embraces, once more playing provocatively with ideas of gender. Antonio Banderas was coldly calculating as the surgeon, his passions kept firmly under check where once they would have been put on uninhibited display, when both he and Almodovar were younger men. We saw the film at the Duke of York’s Picture House in Brighton, a fabulous Edwardian cinema established in 1910. It’s still there in all its unpartitioned glory, with an option to sit up in the stalls, elevated above the hoi-polloi in the main gallery. A real architectural treasure. We inadvertently happened upon the premiere of Francois Ozon’s Potiche at the bfi Southbank, having become aware of a small crowd gathering around a hastily erected hoarding outside. Thus we had the delightful pleasure of seeing Catherine Deneuve in the flesh (Ozon was there too, but was inevitably in her shadow). La Deneuve lingered only briefly, as it began to rain and she wasn’t about to let her coiffure be dampened. An umbrella was swiftly produced and she was ushered inside. The film displayed her light comic talents, her characteristic coolness set against the broadly farcical antics unfolding around her. She proved an effortlessly elegant jogger, and her disco routine with Gerard Depardieu, increasingly stout and barrel-like, was priceless. We Need to Talk About Kevin saw the return of director Lynne Ramsey, and thankfully her poetic cinematic eye was still very much evident. The camera hazed in and out of focus, and bathed in deep reds from various sources, capturing the subjective viewpoint of Tilda Swinton’s constrained, passively suffering mother. She was excellent as ever as a woman trapped within other people’s notions of motherhood as a sacred and natural female state with which she feels absolutely no affinity. Like The Skin I Live In, it was really a horror film in respectable clothing, Kevin himself a complete blank, a malevolent and manipulative monster who might as well be the child of the devil.

The Duke of York's Cinema, Brighton
Elsewhere, I revisited some classic British horror. Death Line took us down into the underground, branching off into the abandoned tunnels purportedly branching off beyond Russell Square tube station. Actually, the film was largely filmed at the recently closed Aldwych station, as one of my father-in-law’s many railway books reliably informs me, with further scenes shot at the Bishopsgate Goods Yards just off Brick Lane. The animalistic figure who haunts the tunnels, last of a line of navvies buried in a cave-in and left for dead, emerging to feast on the flesh of hapless late night travellers, elicits our pity and disgust in equal measure. There is a neat parallel drawn between worlds above and below, and Donald Pleasance’s bigoted, class-conscious copper is a wonderful character – loathsome and yet strangely likeable in the same paradoxical way as the subterranean cannibal. The Wicker Man was enjoyable as ever, as much a fictional anthropological travelogue, detailing the colourful facets of a pagan community, as a horror film. Christopher Lee seems to relish his role as Lord Summerisle, glad to cast aside his cursed Dracula cloak in favour of a hardy tweed and, at the end, a colourful frock, in which he cuts a merry caper. It struck me this time that Sergeant Howie is not entirely the hapless fool that he is made out to be. After all, he retains his faith to the bitter, burning end, whereas Summerisle’s paganism is demonstrably a fiction, cobbled together by his ancestors to keep the islanders in line; An opiate if not for the masses, then for the remaining duped feudal subjects of this very traditionally minded Lord. Blood on Satan’s Claw marries some glorious framing of the English countryside, a brilliant score by Marc Wilkinson, underlined with woozy ondes-martenot, and a depiction of 18th century rural life as harsh and unforgiving, the cruel atavistic behaviour into which the young villagers fall a product of environment as much as the influence of a sketchily depicted devil. There’s a double Doctor Who connection here, too, with Anthony Ainley, the Master of the late Tom Baker and Peter Davison eras, playing the pallid vicar, and Wendy Padbury, Patrick Troughton’s brainy companion in the 60s, as the unfortunate Cathy.

There were a couple of entertaining Amicus omnibuses which I hadn’t seen for some time: Torture Garden, with Burgess Meredith as the gleeful, fortune-telling fairground huckster (the fortunes all turn out badly, of course), and Tales from the Crypt, with the heavyweight luvvie presence of Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper – a far cry from the EC comics depiction of a demented, bulging-eyeballed skeleton. Peter Cushing’s performance as the gentle old man Arthur Grimsdyke, persecuted by his upwardly mobile neighbours, is quietly hearbreaking, and his vengeful return from the grave is grimly satisfying. Hammer make-up maestro Roy Ashton’s creation of the shambling, hollow-eyed revenant is a brilliant piece of work on a tight budget. Patrick Magee is also wonderfully eccentric as the leader of a group of blind men in an institution which, under its new, ex-military head, becomes more like an internment camp. His repeated, uninflected ending of every sentence with ‘Major Rogers’, appended as a sullen afterthought, makes the script sound like it comes from a Pinter play, or piece of absurdist theatre. The Major’s final fate is an ingeniously nasty piece of poetic justice, quite extreme for an Amicus film. Another film familiar from 70s BBC horror double-bills (of the sort which the Classic Horror Film campaign is trying to bring back) was Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, an unfeasibly entertaining adventure from Hammer’s late period. Brian Clemens blending of the romanticism of gothic and swashbuckling forms seems entirely natural (unlike the later attempt to dovetail gothic horror and martial arts in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires). The film has its tongue lightly in its cheek, but not so much that it becomes mere hollow camp. John Carson is excellent as Kronos’ old compadre Dr Marcus, nobly undergoing a variety of tests to determine the particular manner in which the strain of vampirism with which he has been infected can be destroyed. And Caroline Munro is as quietly bewitching as ever as the gypsy girl who becomes embroiled in the good Captain’s search for the source of the local vampiric plague, inevitably falling for his steely Scandinavian charms.

Daughters of Darkness - Delphine Seyrig as art deco vamp
More Hammer came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, with Ingrid Pitt imperious as Carmilla, imbuing her with dreamy allure, fierceness and pathos. It was one of a number of films featuring female vampires which I saw. Frisson des Vampires and Fascination (well, not vampires in this one, although they do drink blood) served to pay tribute to Jean Rollin, who died this year. They both have the usual blend of dreamlike poetic imagery, crude exploitation and clumsy action, but are always worth watching for their occasional and unforgettable surrealist scenes. In Fascination (for which I had to try and ignore the German dubbing with which my copy was lumbered), this includes a cloaked Bridget Lahaie advancing across the bridge over a castle moat sweeping a scythe before her. How did Rollin find, and gain access to, all these fabulous ruined castles, I wonder. He certainly made the most of them, bathing them in purple and green light and lovingly framing them, with his characters moving through their corridors and down their staircases with measured step. Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness centred upon a sensuous and knowing performance by Delphine Seyrig, and art deco vamp with a decadent sensibility as much as a thirst for blood. The grand out of season hotel in which she and her current chosen partner reside, with its great empty lobbies and sweeping stairways, and the deserted, windswept beaches of Ostend over which it looks out constitute a setting which could have been imagined by Paul Delvaux or Rene Magritte. I also saw a lost Hammer classic which I'd never come across before, Joseph Losey's The Damned, this one imbued with the spirits of Elisabeth Frink (whose sculptures are featured) and Paul Nash. Oliver Reed's dandyish thug, striding through Weymouth with furled umbrella swinging in a jauntily menacing manner, anticipates Malcolm MacDowell's Alex in Clockwork Orange. With big science hidden away in ancient landscapes, this conjures a very British apocalypse, haunted by Porton Down and Aldermaston.

There were ghosts, too. Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black remains terrifying. Its haunted house is not merely remote and ramshackle, but cut off each night by treacherous tides and chill estuarine mists. The spectre’s sudden appearances, and the doom which they effect in the world, are carefully spaced throughout the story, and create an atmosphere of overwhelming dread, culminating in her screaming, close-up rage as she hovers inexorably towards the poor lawyer, lying sick in his bed. I belatedly got around to seeing Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, a Spanish supernatural tale with underlying strains of Catholic guilt. The Awakening was almost like a direct response to that film, the female protagonist’s potential entrapment as mother within a ghostly family viewed as a chilling prospect rather than some kind of spiritual fulfilment. Andy Robinson conjured up spectres closer to home in the houses, streets and parks of Exeter, appearing in half-glimpsed edge spaces and reflective surfaces in his assured and long laboured-over debut feature The Forewarning. I also managed to see some of the MR James Ghost Stories for Christmas, broadcast by the BBC in the early 70s, and repeated at various times thereafter: The Stalls of Barchester, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and, best of all, A Warning to the Curious (briefly available on a bfi dvd a few years ago, and still in the Devon Library system). Peter Vaughan’s portrayal of a quiet, reserved man who has recently lost his clerk’s job after many years of hard work, and who turns to his lifelong hobby of archaeology to try and turn a much-needed profit (the innkeeper looks disapprovingly at the worn soles of his shoes, which tell the tale of his poverty), makes his final fate all the more affecting. It is so undeserved, and the revenant spirit so mercilessly and malevolently vengeful. These films were playing on the screen in the bfi Southbank bookshop over Christmas, but in an Australian edition. For some reason, the BBC refuses to release, or license for release by another company, these quintessentially English ghost stories in this country. Which pointless intransigence frankly makes downloading them an entirely reasonable option. They are also available to watch at the bfi mediatheques, if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.

Fantasy of different and more gaudy nature came in the films of Guy Maddin, several of which I saw: Archangel, Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and Cowards Bend the Knee. Pastiches of silent movie appearances (the softened borders, intertitles and coloured tinting) are shaped to serve Maddin’s own inflamed ends. Melodramatic tales of thwarted passions, incestuous desires and incipient madness are played out against fantastically artificial landscapes. Both camp and sincere, intoxicating and absurd, they create their own self-enclosed worlds. Cowards is one of his pieces of utterly unreliable autobiography, with exotic hairdressing salons staffed by wise and erudite barbers, domineering mothers, and ‘Maddin’ himself as an ice hockey hero led astray by a sly temptress. Also revelling in its artificiality, and with additional knowing asides to camera (a level of self-referentiality which Maddin never indulges in), and with a similar love of colourfully eccentric costume and elaborate set-dressing was Sally Potter’s Orlando, her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time-hopping, cross-dressing and gender-shifting fantasy. Perhaps a little overlush in parts, and tipping a wind at the audience once too often, the scenes set on the frozen Thames in Elizabethan London were undeniably gorgeous. A different approach to historical film was taken by Ken Loach in his adaptation of Leon Garfield’s Black Jack, which seemed to think that period authenticity and a feel for character lay in draining the people of all expressivity and the story of all drama.

There were plenty of films set in London, from the ersatz East End of Oliver to the real one of Sparrows Can’t Sing; the Soho of Espresso Bongo (a really great Cliff film, perhaps because Cliff is largely peripheral and his character a bit of a berk) and of The Small World of Sammy Lee (with Anthony Newley authentically clammy and desperate); the swinging sixties London of Smashing Time, Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London and The Pleasure Girls (with Anneke Wills, William Hartnell’s ‘swinging’ Dr Who companion Polly, and, rather more implausibly, Klaus Kinski as a coolly flash underworld kingpin); the demented end of 60s meltdown of Herostratus, whose wild and uncontrolled experimentation was more miss than hit, and the post 60s reflection and self-questioning of Barney Platts-Mills’ Private Road, with Bruce Robinson in his acting years. Meanwhile, the Ealing classic The Lavender Hill Mob offered fascinating glimpses of the bombed out rubble of post war London.

Eastern European and Russian films formed another theme. Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Legend of the Surami Fortress were brilliant Georgian conflations of myth, spectacle and psychodrama. Alexsandr Dovzhenko’s 1928 silent film Zvenigora also excavated the myths of Ukrainian land and history, to sometimes magical and sometimes numbingly propagandistic effect. Two lighthearted comedies from the Czech new wave of the 60s, Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde and Jiri Menzel’s rubbish dump-set Larks On A String were subversive through their very concentration on human rather than political values, as well as in their gentle mockery of the pomposity of officialdom. Szindbad and Morgiana were colourful films, the one impressionistic the other expressionistic. Szindbad was a Hungarian story collaging the subjective impressions of a life looked back on by a dying Casanova. Morgiana was a Czech horror story centring around two sisters of diametrically opposed character – one fair and seemingly innocent, blessed with good fortune; the other dark, bitter, and full of murderous schemes. It’s a riot of over the top colour and costume, a sinister fairy tale with an all-seeing cat (whose low-level perspective we sometimes share) which seems possessed of a calculating intelligence of its own. It also boasts a score by Lubos Fiser, who composed the music for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Finally, Katalin Varga was made by an English director, Peter Strickland, but was clearly inspired by Eastern European cinema. It made atmospheric use of leftfield music by the likes of Stephen Stapleton’s Nurse With Wound, and of the rural Romanian landscape to tell its dark, fable-like story of bloody revenge and its inevitable price.

Mamoru Oshii's Angel's Egg
I saw a number of Japanese anime films, including The Secret of Mamo, featuring the irrepressibly amoral and apelike superthief Lupin III. Here, he ends up in a supervillain’s city-sized lair which seems to be furnished with many of the great art treasures of the world, and through whose classical, gothic and baroque passages and stairways an aging Hitler seems to be wandering. The anthology film Memories was a mixed affair, with the outstanding story being the first, Koji Morimoto’s Magnetic Rose, set in another internal, artificially created world, found this time inside a drifting spaceship. The best of these anime films were directed by Mamoru Oshii. Angel’s Egg was an early effort, a beautiful and largely wordless exploration of a surreal landscape, filled with chequered plains, ranks of stone statues, flying fish and old, crumbling European streets, and through which a small girl in Victorian dress runs with a translucent blue egg. Innocence: Ghost in the Shell II unfolded worlds contained within worlds in dizzying succession, the artificial and the real becoming indistinguishable and meaningless distinctions. Straying occasionally into tiresome scenes of the blowing things up with big guns variety, it was nevertheless worth it for the stunning parade float sequence and the gorgeous design of the palace floating on the lake – and for Kenji Kawaii’s brilliant score. The Sky Crawlers was an existential tale of eternally youthful air aces, lost and bewildered and lacking any purpose or real sense of what’s going on in a world predicated on constant corporate war as all-consuming spectacle. Always, in Oshii’s films, the love of a good bassett hound is at the heart of it all – simple and unconditional.

Three Hitchcock films spanned his British and American years and showed how diverse and yet how thematically consistent he was: The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent and To Catch A Thief. The latter was Hitch at his most inconsequential, but also probed the easy Cary Grant charm as he had done previously in Notorious and Suspicion. My Ingmar Bergman fixation was satisfied by watching Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night and Summer With Monika, all of which formed a fitting tribute to his first great collaborative cameraman Gunnar Fischer, who died this year. There were also lesser but still enjoyable efforts, Three Strange Loves and All These Women. The latter is an out and out slapstick farce, a corrective for those who think Bergman is unremittingly gloomy – although it has to be said, it does open and close at a funeral. I caught up with two recent films by favourite directors of mine: Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. Me and Orson Welles was an old-fashioned putting on a show movie, with all the trials and tribulations leading up to the rise of the curtain on the opening night and the triumph of art and toil over all the odds. Jarmusch’s film attracted a good deal of negative press when it came out, but I absolutely loved it, far more so than Coffee and Cigarrettes and Broken Flowers. It was a film of classical restraint, beautifully framed and composed and full of haunting visual and verbal rhymes and correspondences. It worked as a dreamy travelogue of its Spanish locations, picking out odd and peripheral details, and also as a study of its star, Isaach de Bankole, much as John Boorman did with Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Basically setting an elliptical artistic approach to the world against a materialistic, controlling one embodied by Bill Murray and his followers, it shared the mystical mindset of Dead Man, possibly another reason why it was disliked. Boris’ miasmic guitar noise replaced that of Neil Young in Dead Man to great effect.

In How I Won The War, Richard Lester began to use his kinetic, madcap pop style to serious moral ends in an absurdist depiction of the follies of war, although it was a little too scattershot and unfocussed to be wholly effective. O Lucky Man was Lindsay Anderson’s sprawling, modern day picaresque tale. It followed Travis, possibly unrelated to the revolutionary schoolboy of If…, although still played by Malcolm MacDowell. He goes out into the world, compliant, eager, anxious to please and make his mark. Anderson uses the same mixture of realism and fantasy as he did in If…, with Alan Price and his band acting as chorus and providing an oblique commentary with their songs. Finally, having started the year with the all-singing Dickens-lite of Oliver, we ended it with a fine adaptation of another classic – The Muppet Christmas Carol. As Matthew Sweet succinctly puts it in the current issue of Sight and Sound, ‘anyone who remains unmoved by the sight of Michael Caine accepting the gift of Beaker’s scarf is surely some species of psychopath’. A fine way to anticipate the Dickens bicentenary year.

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