Beyond happy that they have produced a documentary of this fantastic book which I read a couple of years ago. It’s an apt reminder of what cinema can do in difficult times, and the influence the experience had upon the five when they returned to the industry is fascinating as a historical and artistic document – their work and the world they operated in was never the same;
Right until the end of post-production Melville wrestled with the placement of the striking tableau of the Arc du triumph, isolated in long shot, with a long snaking line of Wehrmacht officers proudly goosesteeping their way to Hitler’s drumbeat of genocidal European conquest. It’s a striking image that opens Army Of Shadows, Melville’s third and final entry to his occupation trilogy of films, begun with Le Silence de la mer in 1949 and buttressed with Léon Morin, Prêtre in 1962. Shot in perpetual, gloomy rain this adaption of Joseph’s Kessell’s 1943 book is presented without mercy, without glamour or exciting derring-do, a somber recreation of the suicidal operations, furtive failures and cold victories of the resistance movement in occupied France, so let’s just say that Allo, Allo this is most definitely not. Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is spirited away to a remote, decrepit prison camp, incarcerating a mosaic of insurgents in 1942 occupied France, forcing Franco loyalists, Trade Union agitators, communists and loyal French terrorists to rub shoulders as common criminals by the omnipotent, occupying Reich. Like Melville’s stern criminal constellation the setting is different but the game is essentially same, a sense of moral stricture in a cold netherworld, a nest of violence and nihilism which can quickly be silenced by a final bark of a luger or thrust of a bayonet, of trenchcoated men with their collars turned up against the elements traversing sparse, dispassionate environments, like wraiths hunted through some Sisyphean maze. Informers and infiltrators are even more deadly here as the stakes are more lethal than a simple spell in the joint, as the slightest digression from full and complete devotion to your cause will have you facing a squalid firing squad and a shallow ditch out in the wilderness, a relatively comfortable fate in comparison to the prolonged torture and mutilation of not only you but also your family, should you dare to resist your oppressor. All you need to do to sense just how serious and committed Melville was to telling this story as realistically and respectfully to his own experiences and those of his comrades is to compare and contrast with the contemporaries, the Second World War films of the late 1960’s. These were the preserve of boys-own adventure yarns like Hannibal Brooks, Where Eagles Dare, The Bridge At Remagen or The Guns Of Navarone, fun rainy bank holiday viewing to be sure but not exactly accurate musings on the cold mechanics of a ruthless life and death struggle for liberation under a remorseless and brutal occupying force, with Clint singlehandedly mowing down faceless swarms of gormless Wehrmacht redshirts while Oliver Reed made friends with an elephant.
The tempo and temperature of the film soon becomes clear, as Melville’s posture is set a diametric dimension away from the active mission statements of the war movie. Army of Shadows is grim, as cold and precarious as the knife edge lives lived by the warriors resisting the Gestapo ghouls, with torture and death lurking as a near certainty behind every mission, every dead letter drop, and every friendly and non-friendly interaction. As we have seen Melville is a keen minimalist and his craft is honed to perfection here, there is virtually no soundtrack so the soundscape is primarily a diagetic dirge, a tense echo chamber which informs the keen fly on the wall vérité of clandestine meetings and risky laden reconnaissance. Mostly studio bound the locations are sparse and simple in appearance, kept under Melville vice like grip in his private shooting boudoir, erecting a somewhat artificial framework to the drama but not distractingly so. The various theatres of operations does shift across nations and cities however to provoke the sense of a countrywide network, even if the attention remains on one cell of insurgents and their individual intertwined fates. What do two of the resistance members do when they find themselves with some precious R&R time? This is a brief respite between operations after their secret submarine sojourn to London to lobby for more weapons and logistics, so how do they set their mind against the existential terror of the nightly black-out of the pulverizing blitz? Well, they go to the cinema of course, and joke that when they’ve won the war they’ll be able to see all the films restricted by Goebbels wretched censorship control of the occupied territories. The structure of the film is a linked series of vignettes, task after task mapped to incident and incident, a slow chain of drama and threat which slowly builds a picture of resistance as a psychic entity, as a state of mind, the French body politic bent to liberation rather than a mere collection of sparsely effective agents, assassins and provocateurs. The minimalism extends to the terms of emotion, dialogue and performance, with the cells struggle amberfied in a diluted cold teal color palette, as bleak and unforgiving as the canvass of his more expressionistic crime films.
A spare, near dispassionate voiceover briefs us on the mechanics of the missions, a linking thread which The fidelity to the genuine activities and risks of the insurrection are fascinating, the film feels extremely realistic and insightful into how it really must have been, unvarnished with any false heroics and draped in the constant threat of discovery and betrayal, never knowing when the Gestapo could have got to colleagues or family members them and flipped them to save their own skins. The commentary of the French authorities colluding with the enemy was extremely controversial of course, but Melville presents as is facts which have since been accepted as documentary fact, gendarmes manning roadblocks and apprehension of so-called enemies of the state, the continuation of day-to day enforcement of legislation and criminal suppression which now speaks to Berlin instead of the Palais Bourbon. Army Of Shadows most memorable and disturbing scene concerns the killing of a former comrade who has been forced into collaboration, a Judas who circumstance dictates he must be made an example of in order to deter other offensive breaches of the resistance’s protective omertà. Melville stages this in a carefully controlled procession of shots, moving from tableau to close-up to make it clear that the perpetrators are not trained killers, maybe civil servants, or accountants, or businessmen before the war now plunged into literal life and death struggle, forcing them to shed blood in a rather clumsy and confused operation. It a rather pathetic and dingy execution that is quite difficult to watch, with zero in the way of moral judgement or dramatic posturing, just another moral pitfall which is the price of their brave and sustained struggle. In fact the violence throughout the film is staged for realism and uncomfortable consequence, an arbitrary, swift and remorseless fact of life, presented with an absolute minimum of detail to make the point, not expanded or celebrated for dramatic heft or excitement. This sword of Damocles shadows all the members of the resistance, as they seem to operate as an isolated solitary cell rather than a node in some countrywide network, adrift and fragile to interception and infiltration which saturates the film with a smothering sense of paranoia.
From the single thread the narrative flowers to encompass the experiences of an individual cell of fighters and their furtive day to day struggle, including a small but significant role for Simone Signoret of Le Diabolique fame. The episodic narrative pushes into some strange roads such as a tense caper when the team infiltrate a Gestapo facility in order to prevent a captured colleague betraying his connections under brutal and sustained torture. In another scene the quiet support and appreciation of the general populace is expressed when a fleeing warrior is given refuge and succour from the prowling eyes of the occupying ogres. These vignettes and asides slowly drain to an anguishing moral nexus, when one of the key members of the group is forced to collaborate in order to defend their family from a mortal threat of sustained torture, despite their child’s individual innocence – the sins of the mothers being laid to the daughter in this case. This is the final mortal quandary of the film, where comrades whom have risked their lives to save each other are trapped into making the most lethal of recriminations without hesitation, knowing that their former comrade would expect and deserves no less. At two hours and twenty minutes Army Of Shadows is a long, sustained experience which earns the attention, supported with a solid tranche of extras including a making-of documentary, a five minute behind the scenes featurette, a BFI newsreel of the Paris liberation with some graphic battle footage and a superior commentary from Professor Ginette Vincendeau, one of the world’s leading Melville scholars. It’s interesting that like Kubrick (and both only made 13 features during their long careers) Melville was something of a telephone addict, he would keep colleagues and potential collaborators on the line for hours and hours, bleeding them dry of information and ideas to feed his voracious intellectual appetite – I always ponder how those great minds would utilize todays communication media in order to sate those insatiable instincts. This is crucial Melville, one of the key films of his long and distinguished career, and this leaves us with just one final entry to close down this season before shifting our caméra-stylo to the land of the rising sun during the feudal sengoku period. But until then and our final foray into Melville’s muted universe Army Of Shadows is as cold and unforgiving a treatment on the moral and mortal cost of war as the cinema has had to offer, with resistance as much a state of mind as a physical, fragile reality;
здравствуйте comrades. For my second free BFI screening of the year a number of strategies struck me on how to open a review. First of all the distinct lack of Russian cinema I’ve managed to cover over the years sprang shamefully to mind, I mean apart from a couple of stabs at Tarkovsky it’s not exactly been Kino-film 101 around here, right? Soviet film figures such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovshenko and Vertov are powerful dormant bears of film culture, ushering in and developing critical cinematic syntax such as montage and shot to shot relations, while more recently figures such as Alexander Sokurov have prowled the world stage, regarded by many as among the greatest living filmmakers. Then of course I thought about the Second World War film, a genre which broadly speaking has been treated cinematically as an action filled romp, of boys own adventure and glorious men-on-a-mission movies, until the likes of The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan detonated a new assault of blood and entrail drenched realism, illuminating the full horror and sacrifice that such inhuman conflicts ignited across both the European and Pacific theatres. But then after last Thursdays horrific events here in the UK there really was only place to begin discussion of Elem Klimov notorious 1985 film Come And See, and that is the harrowing tableau of a human face frozen in absolute horror, all reason and sanity obliterated by the sights and atrocities it has witnessed, a scene akin to both the peasant boy Flyora witness to the brutal blitzkrieg Barbarossa campaign and my reaction to the results pouring in from the constituencies across the country.
The film is frequently cited in the same breadth as Passolini’s Salo, Haneke’s The Seventh Continent or Zukawski’s Possession as among the most harrowing art-house of the period, rest assured it’s a tough watch both sonically and psychologically, with some brutal imagery which fully unleashes the four horsemen of the apocalypse which are referenced in the films biblically plundered title ‘And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see! And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth’. The films stomach churning center-piece is the 45 minute obliteration of a Belarus village by a division of Wehrmacht psychopaths. It’s an unendurable, extended assault of forlorn screaming, of barking dogs, of indiscriminate explosions and gunfire, as the frenzied occupants of the doomed hamlet are corralled in the village church and burned alive – men, women, children, infants. Klimov frames this almost as some horrifically distorted bacchanal, with the Nazi’s (and let’s never forgot their sympathizers and accomplices) bawdily drinking, singing, dancing and carousing as they indiscriminately slaughter entire generations of families, with the lucky ones succumbing swiftly to the cleansing fire – you really don’t wish to know what happens to the survivors.
I suppose I should explain the ‘Epiphanies’ sobriquet, as this is a series of screenings that the BFI host for artists or scholars as works that they champion as having changed their artistic lives. This was the choice of theatre director Katie Mitchell who was interviewed prior to the screening, and no I’d never heard of her either as I’m such a pathetic philistine. In terms of technique Klimov was also a decade ahead of his peers on the other side of the Iron Curtain, as he assaults the viewer with a trident of techniques that firmly situate us in the disintegrating headspace of poor, orphaned Flyora. In one sequence empathic identification is forged when a barrage of artillery deafens our protagonist, causing the soundtrack itself to warp to garbled and discordant tones for the next twenty minutes of screen time – Spielberg truncated and ‘homaged’ that ideal at 0:42 here. The film is also notable for a generous disbursement of Steadicam use. After Kubrick’s profile raising deployment of the method in The Shining five years before it still hadn’t quite infiltrated the industry as a popular filming method, so Klimov’s ordering his camera to prowl POV style through the nightmare gets us directly into his Floyra’s headspace, where a minefield, an enemy or atrocity could be lurking around the next corner. This fluidity is punctuated with severe close-ups of grimy, trembling, tear streaked faces, the literal face of war with humanity ebbing away as the horror warps into a numbing spectacle of grotesque mangled bodies, indescribable cruelty, the relentless laceration of metal into soft flesh and bone. Finally, in a quite brilliant touch which is all the more pertinent now the film frequently cuts to Flyora’s terrified glances to the omnipresent Luftwaffe spotter planes circling the battlefields, providing a constant drone as literal agents of death that scuttle across the smoky graveyard smeared sky. If I was being a little bit flippant I’d liken the overall effect to Hieronymus Bosch crushed in the tank tracks of Sven Hassel, a constant assault of misery and mayhem on all fronts of cinematic representation – Come And See being an invitation to voyeuristic evisceration.
Elem Klimov never made enough film, and although it’s romantic to think that this was due to him having nothing left to say following this ultimate statement on warfare in cinema I think it was more to do with tussles with the Soviet Goskino film-board, whom of course sanctioned or suppressed material at the whim of the prevailing political winds. They loathed the film for its ‘dirty aesthetics’, yet despite the challenge it found its way to the international festival circuit, and curiously managed a staggering 30 million admissions in Russian territory alone. As for the screening itself, well, I’m sorry to say this was one of the poorest experiences I’ve endured at the BFI. They did announce that the 35mm print they had acquired had been tested and found to be of such despicably poor quality that they had to make alternate arrangements, cannily securing the Super VHS master loops from Channel 4’s transmission of the film in the 1990’s. This quality was fine for the first twenty or so minutes, then some interference became apparent from the source master and the digital projection which resulted in blocky glitches populating the screen like a ‘snowstorm’ aerial failure. A very apologetic curate came out and explained the issue and that they would continue the projection so I stuck around – it was physically still watchable just immensely distracting – figuring that once they changed tapes the problem could be rectified and thus my patience was rewarded. Still, at the end of the day this was free to members so I can’t complain too much, and the glitches only blighted about 30 minutes of the two and a half hour film. For sheer metaphysical horror of what we deluded creatures feel justified to inflict upon each other in the name of nationalism, of prestige or of power or pride Come And See is an equal to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing vision of hell literally let loose upon the Earth, all encapsulated by Flyora’s shattered, weeping face as witness for us all;
You can probably imagine my shell-shocked reaction when the May schedule for the BFI marched through my unprotected letterbox a few weeks back, heralding the news that the BFI had assembled a lovely new digital print of what can be argued as Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece – the 1958 anti-war classic Paths Of Glory. Although technically this was Stanley’s fourth feature it was his second studio commission after the breakthrough clockwork noir The Killing, a quietly acclaimed picture which didn’t exactly embezzle the box office but did detonate that all so important cultural cache – a critical calling card displaying innovative skill and ambition, marking the 27-year-old as a new recruit with a career worth watching. Enter Kirk Douglas whom with his reconnaissance of promising young directors initiated a turbulent yet mutually beneficial two picture partnership, his seeking out a young, pliant yet talented director that he assumed he could manipulate around the set resulting in on-set combat and manoeuvres which have still not be satisfactorily resolved – we’ll get into that a little later. Although the relationship was tempestuous Douglas’s respect for Kubrick’s final devastating visual acuity, for his thematic marriage of image and message was enough to hire him for the Spartacus gig a year or so late, at that time the project was one of the biggest Hollywood productions in history, so this wasn’t a bad promotion for the barely 30-year-old who would find himself directing theatrical titans Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton. I’ve never read Kirk’s autobiography The Ragman’s Son which is an oversight I really should correct in order to see just how he recalls his collaborations with Kubrick (not to mention the other fantastic films he was in, with Ace In The Hole, Out of The Past, The Vikings to name just three), although I’m sure there is a sense of grudging respect as this film remains one of the key appearances of his long and distinguished career, with his portrayal of the fundamentally decent Colonel Dax grappling with the reprehensible sneers of the vain glorious military hierarchy being one of those star building struts, the protagonist as the moral authority of the audience, coaxing them through a bewildering battlefield.
Based on a true incident culled from the novel by Humphrey Cobb and illuminatingly banned in France for over thirty years – we all know if a government outright bans a picture then it’s gonna be good – Paths Of Glory is a choking descent into a turgid quagmire, of human civilisation being perverted by the emotional hubris of the upper class, of capricious sacrifice polluting those hollow human constructs of honour and duty in the face of insane and indiscriminate slaughter. General Dax is a junior level officer whom is respected by his men due to his even-handed treatment and willingness to lead them into mortal battle, but the superior echelons of the division General Mireau (A blusteringly imperious George Macready) and the more suave and poisonous Major General Broulard (an acute Adolphe Menjou) are career officers aligned with all the constitutional callousness of the upper class, a sense of moral and intellectual superiority and a shameless disregard for the inferior subjects beneath them. After his men refuse to conduct a suicidal, direct machine gun roaring charge on a heavily fortified position three of Colonel Dax’s men (including the great Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey and Joe Turkell) are selected as cowardly examples and sentenced to death by firing squad, resulting in a second act legal courtroom melee where Kubrick fully exposes the insanity of the military hierarchy, marking this as an early assault on some of the same radioactive territory that Dr. Strangelove nuked a mere six years later.
It’s obvious that the BFI have commissioned this digital polish in tandem with the centenary of the First World War, an acute restoration of organisational, devolved hubris, of nationalistic pride and a blinkered moral superiority which recent events have thrown into a desert blasted relief – this film’s camouflaged criticism echoes louder than one mere global conflagration from the last millennium. With Kubrick’s screenwriting partners Calder Willingham and the savage noir wordsmith Jim Thompson the film treats the corpse choked trenches as a fulcrum to craft an emotional purity, glimmering within the overwhelming military structural insanity, a moral shriek which is drowned out by the sonic avalanche of munitions raining down with their ceaseless metallic drone. To begin with the simple form and craft of the storytelling technically this film was a monochrome tour-de force, the prowling camera rendering the trenches as a palpable Gehenna not seen on-screen before, incrementally pulling the audience into the warfare and claustrophobic diagetic space – the first full iteration of Kubricks trademark tracking shot technique. As the film punches the gut then the head the cinema style follows a precision engineered duopoly, as that grim intimacy is broken when we are hurled over the top and the emphasis switches to a detached deep focus panorama, with planned ‘kill-zones’ that Kubrick’s special effects artists grid-rigged with explosives to massacre the harshly drilled German army military extras – it’s quite a spectacle;
The compositions and controlled camera movements are astounding for the period, relentless in its tempo and the chaos bursting throughout the frames, an evident huge influence on the cinema spectacle of war and battle which found its most recent apogee with Spielberg’s storming of the Normandy beaches which was similarly celebrated this month, not to mention the almost identical homage seen here.
In chrysalis form you can detect many of Stanley’s musings and obsessions which over-run the latter work, while The Killing has something of that detached and impersonal assemblage associated with all things Kubrickian that emphasis on the tarnished notions of a social and civilising infrastructure finds it’s first victorious purchase in Paths Of Glory. With an aseptic assurance the subjects of the film are dissected and dissembled with the meticulously cold and calculating rigour of a celluloid field-surgeon, exposing the fragile hypocrisy and infallible idiocy of our venerable institutions, in this case the military hierarchy where privileged officers dine in impeccable opulent surroundings, discussing their campaigns with the studious detachment of superiors moving pieces around a chessboard. This cuts and contests cruelly with the lower class grunts and infantry choking, bleeding and screaming in the mud, blasted to smithereens by the relentless insanity inducing shelling, or torn to pieces by the relentless metallic bark of an almost bureaucratic machine gun fire. The compositions frame the doomed servicemen as flies trapped in a patriotic amber, literally moved as chess pieces across the checkerboard floor of General Mireaus carefully production designed château, with any pleas for clemency or jejune justice falling on the deaf unyielding ears of the implacable governmental majority. That said it’s certainly more heart on its sleeve than Stanley’s increasingly frigid statements to come, with more devoted characterisation to the unfortunate trio which emphatically pays off when their unavoidable fate finally falls. General Dax as an ambitious career officer struggles with the twin imperatives of his own social aspirations and decent moral horror, marking Paths of Glory as more manipulatively emotional than Kubrick’s later work which moved abstractly toward observing and recording broad, immaterial and ethereal queries on intelligence, of submerged sexual desire and social fidelity, of the family unit, of social control and ambition.
Some of the stories recanted by Douglas claim that he was horrified when Stanley approached him with a rewritten ‘happy’ ending to the picture in which the condemned are blessed with a last-minute pardon – the very definition of the Hollywood pandering cliché – as Kubrick apparently blanched at the massacred box-office potential of a war-picture ending on such a realistic downer. This would of course disrupt the entire films carefully calibrated nerve centre of shock and outrage, whilst I’ve always maintained that Kubrick always had a very keen eye on the commercial prospects of his movies I doubt this was ever a serious consideration, as movies are constantly revised through their lengthy production phases as new avenues of narrative are explored and rejected. As for the rest of the cast Kubrick selected character actors to support his central understanding of star presence box-office draw, with a few true cult favourites appearing in this picture. Firstly we have Ralph Meeker as one of the three cursed souls, his crushed demeanour being employed a few years earlier as the grizzled Mike Hammer in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. Timothy Carey is a real cinephile figure, a notoriously difficult spirit he worked with Cassavettes in The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie as well as appearing in The Killing, although Kubrick finally fired him from this movie after one transgression to far. Joe Turkell was hired by Kubrick again a mere 22 years later as the worlds best bartender from Portland Maine to Portland Oregon, he’s also best known as the Pharoah Tyrell in Blade Runner – the film quiz question par excellence should anyone ask you for two connections between that film and The Shining. So I think that assembly frog marches us to the final scene of the film and a crucial moment in Kubrick lore, as it not only introduces us to Christiane Harlan whom would soon become the third and final Mrs. Kubrick, but it was also this sequence with its humanist restoration that provides an odd aftertaste to the previous carnivore cruelty. On the night of Kubrick’s death, when the news had reached LA this is what Spielberg screened for his dinner party guests out of Stanley’s entire oeuvre as a tribute to one of the greatest film directors in the mediums history, apparently not always that cold and mechanical logician of lore;
Another month, another Kubrick rarity unearthed, it seems as if the 50th anniversary and the renewed interest in the film is paying radioactive dividends. This is quite a find for we complestests, as this showreel features alternative takes and glimpses of missing scenes from the final picture, with the added bonus of narration from the legendary man himself – here’s part one;
A rather stilted delivery from Stanley don’t you think? Must be a temp track to cut the images to whilst he sourced a professional to replace the audio. I’m assuming that this is the type of extended peek that were (and indeed are) used to shop round for distributors at trade fairs and conferences, rather than designed for being seen by the general public. Anyway, here’s part two;
Or maybe it’s something he cut together for studio executives or th marketing department to give them inspiration for the publicity campaign? So many questions, so little time. I’ve also sourced perhaps the most illuminating and instructive essay on Eyes Wide Shut yet published, it’s a piece which comes closest to penetrating that enigmas numerous & mysterious layers – enjoy….
When you think of the Phantom of the Opera, I’m guessing most people would conjure up a vision of Andrew Lloyd Webbers lavish West End musical, a truly terrifying visage from years gone by. The silver screen however has been kinder to the Gaston Leroux novel, indeed in this season alone we’ve already plundered the crypt by exorcising the 1925 original movie version.This Second World War era iteration of the vengeance and lust fuelled musician is quite a different beast – photographed in lavish Technicolor, abundant with opulent production design, with a distinct emphasis on the musical rather than the macabre. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone passingly versed with War era Hollywood product that although there were some dark edges to certain fare the studio’s emphasis was clearly on sheer escapism and entertainment to distract from the conflict in Europe, the mogul’s diktat that they should be raising and preserving morale at home, with the odd propaganda piece thrown in for good measure to remind us why we were fighting*. In that light I’m quite surprised to see this film included in the Blu-Ray Box-Set we have been incanting as part of this series that is finally limping into the final stretch, although technically this is a Universal picture and features a monster I wouldn’t necessarily have lumped this picture in with the rest of the ghoulish pack, and frankly it feels like something of a quota raising inclusion to up the numbers. We’ll get into that shortly but this was nevertheless a fun and brisk 90 minute viewing, the only film in the box-set I hadn’t seen before and its unfamiliarity has actually prompted me to conduct a little research for a change, so let’s tread the boards one more time…..
Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) has been a violinist at the Paris Opera House for twenty years, slightly meek and unambitious he fatally assumes that his comfortably quiet and slightly lonely life with continue to meander along. Recently, however, he has been slowly losing the use of the fingers of his left hand, a condition which is beginning to seriously affect his performances, an early harbinger of the fracture to come . He is coldly dismissed from his post due to his withering performances, the director of the musical troop incorrectly assuming that he has enough money to support himself given two decades pay and Claudin’s modest lifestyle. This is not the case however, for the furtive Erique has anonymously been funding the music lessons of Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster), a young soprano with whom he has secretly fallen in love. Facing a bankrupt future Claudin desperately tries to get a concerto he has written published, submitting the piece to the leading publishing house Maurice Pleyel & Georgette Desjardins. Calling on their offices and demanding a response our antihero discovers that have sold the piece and pocketed the funds, a melee ensues and Claudin is terrifically scarred by the cruel deployment of a conveniently placed beaker of acid. Driven insane by lust and jealousy the disfigured wretch retreats to the Parisian sewers and plots a terrible vengeance on all those who have wronged him, and to spirit away the only pure and holy creature to have touched his shattered life….
Whilst I have a smattering of interest in the Phantom ’cause, y’know, monsters n’everything, from a horror genre perspective it doesn’t quite stack-up, the illegitimate bastard child of the Universal Monster cycle. It’s a musical which happens to have a few horrific flourishes , the scene of Claudin’s disfigurement for example is a little shocking for the period but the film is much more concerned with the operatic musical pieces of Dubois than it is lashing at the tortured soul of a man scorned, physically and socially outcast. It does enjoy some lavish Technicolor photography and graceful sweeping camera moves around the auditorium, indeed it opens on a five-minute musical piece before the first snatch of dialogue is uttered. It is a glowing transfer of the original decaying print which sizzles on the screen, the crimson costumes and ivory tinted finery of the Parisian aristoratic class shimmering in almost hallucinatory brilliance. It’s pure escapism, purposely evading the unfolding horror in the Europe and the Pacific theatres, rather than looking closer at a psychological case of a man wrecked and ravished by injustice seeking an arguably justified vengeance. The film pivots on the love triangle between the leading soprano and two warring suitors, banishing the lurking id of the Phantom or any fidelity to a disfigured romance, the only film in the entire Universal movie cycle to win Academy Awards for Color Art Direction (John B. Goodman, Alexander Golitzen, Russell A. Gausman & Ira S. Webb) and Cinematography (Hal Mohr & W. Howard Greene).
In terms of the film’s plot or storytelling design I really don’t have anything else to report, it’s very much a standard period movie in terms of flow and cause and effect which happens to be blessed with higher production values that normal, maybe it was also seen as an attempt of the Universal Executives to break out of their inferior industry position and obtain a little prestige for change, challenging studio behemoths for the crown of the most glamorous and opulent production factory of the ‘big five‘. The quotas and demand for product were so high back in the Golden period that a resourceful director or producer could loosen purse-strings by appealing to an Executives vanity, bewildering them with promises of award allocation for productions that were not necessarily seen as ‘commercial’ at a script stage. As I said have conducted a little research on this picture for a change, leading me to unearth this fascinating chart from Standford on Hollywood’s curiously slow adaption to colour which took three decades to finalize (as opposed to sound which took three years to become the prevalent format), it even has a ‘Correlation Matrix Of Residuals’ table – hmm, sexy. As well as film stock chromosome another facet that my analytical mind detected was the so-called classical framework of cinema of that time, the close-up deployment the prevalent story punctuation tool of character introduction and emitter of emotional turbulence, illuminated by the traditional schemata of back, key and fill lights, and in Phantom the orchestration of heavy aperture filters to enunciate a warm glow pulsing throughout the candle festooned crypts. Those looming and obscuring shadows of the earlier entries in the cycle, the angular expressionist designs have been almost obliterated and exfiltrated by this turn in the franchise circle, although the sewers that serve as the Phantoms realm are foreshadowed in the constrictive design of Claudin’s l’intérieur de l’appartement glimpsed earlier in the picture. As this ghoulish series oscillates within the wider technological and aesthetic evolution within Hollywood cinema its instructive to see how the films wax and wane with the audience, as the horror movie is exiled into the primordial B movie swamp in the next and final installment of this eighteen month season – let’s go fishing….
* This has been doing the movie website rounds as it’s just been published, sounds fascinating….
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, so goes the cry, but if you’re a fan of excitement, inspiration and heroic derring-do then film history is littered with tough little numbers set against the backdrop of the 20th centuries second world war. There’s the caper movies like Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen or The Guns Of Navarone where a misfit group of reprobates are set on some suicidal mission, there’s the historical epics such as The Battle Of The Bulge, Midway or The Longest Day which zero upon crucial conflicts in the war’s evolution, and then there’s personal favourites such as Where Eagles Dare, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line which take more unusual approaches to the civilisation threatening conflict, not to mention brilliant films made as the war was actually raging such as Colonel Blimp and a geographical piece called Casablanca. Director and actor George Clooney has rather brazenly thrown his helmet into the melee with his new film The Monuments Men which also treads the path of a mission being undertaken in occupied Europe, based on the non-fiction book non-fiction book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel the initial dossier on this suggested a potentially entertaining star-laden and unusual approach to the material, but I have had my intelligence officers summarily executed by firing squad as they couldn’t have been further from the truth, if you thought the Robocop reboot was bad then there’s a new abomination in town….
In 1943, sustainable progress is being made by the Allies in denying Hitler the victory of his poisonous Third Reich, as the Axis forces are pushed back into Europe and the imminent landings at Normandy signalling the beginning of the end. Despite the optimism Frank Stokes (George Clooney) persuades the US President that any victory will be hallow if the art treasures of Western civilization are vaporized in the melee, either lost through bombing campaigns, through theft and simple greedy looting, or specifically destroyed on Hitler’s insane orders. Pleading the case of a specialist group of servicemen to mitigate the potential cultural catastrophe Stokes is sanctioned to enlist a unit known the “Monuments Men” comprised of art specialists Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) and Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) , architect Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and displaced Parisian museum director Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). In occupied Paris, Claire Simon (Cate Blanchet) is also a curator who is forced into collaborating with Nazi officers whom are assembling the highest pedigree of material for the proposed Führermuseum in Linz,when they’re not diverting pieces to the personal estates of senior commanders like Herman Goering, much to her embittered disgust. Frustrated by the good guys refusal to adopt their tactical options for the sake of preserving architecture Granger and his crew’s mission becomes more urgent as the war escalates and German units retreat to the homeland, with vengeance laced orders from the Führer himself to torch every item of artistic merit as the Allies slowly set their sights on Berlin….
Cutting to the chase with the efficiency of a Luftwaffe blitzkrieg assault I’ll open up remarks by stating that this is a terrible film, from its unstable structure through to its lacklustre script, from screaming tonal distortions to doodlebug deadly dialogue deficiencies. Crucially it can’t decide whether it wants to be a rompish guys on a mission caper movie or a serious muse on the role of art as a buttress of civilisation, the former is always difficult with the spectre of the holocaust hovering every World War II picture, the latter simply beyond Clooney’s directorial prowess as it clumsily shoves speeches into characters mouths and quite frankly treats the audience as idiots. If someone can explain to me how you can cast someone as intrinsically funny as Bill Murray, give him a reasonable volume of screen time and not elicit one, I repeat one single gag then I’d love to hear it, he is completely wasted as is any sense of camaraderie or honor among the fighters or indeed any sense of threat, peril, excitement or animation. Also torturous was Alexanders Desplatt’s invasive and grating score, its one of these intrusive pieces which occupys the ears and tells you what to be feeling, complete with mournful strings and twinkling piano dirges at the sad bits which are almost laughably overwrought. Sacrifices are made but to zero emotional effect, all illustrated by a strafing run of barely radioed-in performances from a cast whom look as disheveled and uncomfortable as their ill-fitting khakis.
The storytelling is scattered like a storm-tossed paratrooper brigades landing pattern, flitting from one character to the next across the theatre eliciting zero tension or excitement, so with one Macguffin art-piece exception aside there is no idea of any mission, or what this unit was formed to achieve and the stakes that are involved, if you’re aiming for comedy then you need an ammunition of gags, if you’re scoping for drama then you need some emotional investment in character and situation. Toward the end of the piece the dramatic crescendos are reached by I kid you not discovering a mine, a dramatic achievement roughly on par with opening a door or painting a wall, when you’d think that an event with the scope of a world goddamn war might have more to offer in terms of drama and conflict. There is one moment, at a push, where the film came alive, when Blanchett is interrogated by a SS goon in her apartment and you see the calibre of her acting as the sheer terror of her situation crosses her face, but that aside she like all the other characters is fundamentally underwritten, a thin gruel of commitment in this sloppy, choppy mess. Clooney has proved his mettle in the directors chair before, but usually with character driven, modest scale pieces such as Good Night & Good Luck, and one senses that the sheer of a sprawling World War II epic was simply beyond his prowess, and he has singularly failed in every facet of his campaign. Like an Anne Frank request for drumming lessons, this is one to avoid at all costs;
It doesn’t take long does it, to return from a holiday and get back into the grove of everyday life, it’s all bit like going from the starstruck purlieus of a Sofia Coppola picture into the stark tedium of a Mike Leigh drama – welcome back to local government. Still, at least my staff have made some strides with some projects in my absence, and I get to ask Boris for £7 million squid for a scheme I’m leading on next week, the chaotically coiffeured cretin. Until then movie visits are looking sparse so tonight’s entertainment will be of the home variety;
The phrase ‘amongst the best Russian action films ever made’ doesn’t get bandied around a lot, but I’ve good things about this evocative tale of a ghostly German tank which haunted the Western front back in 1944 – something a little different, comrade.
Then I figure it’s time to revisit an old friend, partially inspired by that BBC4 Soundtrack series I thought it was time to take a wander down to an early Scorsese joint, a film I haven’t seen in years. it’s been pretty slow trailer and news wise over the past week or so hasn’t it, but I guess I should link to the full preview for one of the best of the year – we shall speak no more of this until the end of the year.
Honestly, the things I do for you people. I’m not sure how to start this report from Tuesday’s curious evening at the BFI, other than to say that I loathe John Travolta. Now I have nothing against John Travolta as a human being of course, I’m sure he’s exceedingly generous with charitable donations, loves his wife and kids, and hugs puppies and promotes equal rights for all, what I’m referencing is of course ‘John Travolta’ the screen persona, the actor who for reasons I can’t quite logically articulate or justify I can barely watch on-screen without feeling an indistinct stirring of irritation and mild hatred. I’m not sure why this is, I’m certainly not proud of the antipathy, but I think we all have for some horrible reason an aversion to certain people and public personas who just wind us up for intangible reasons, as I’m betting there is some celebrity figure from the realm of media, entertainment, politics (actually scratch that one, most of them are irritating aren’t they?) whom also riles you up and makes your skin crawl, and you will actively go out of your way to avoid a movie, a TV series, a chatshow appearance or interview which includes this frustrating figure. It was therefore with a mild sense of nausea that I attended the UK premiere screening of his new film Killing Season followed by an exceptionally rare Jonathan Ross hosted Q&A on Tuesday evening, and already the event had irked me as it clashed with a screening of Herzog’s Stroszek which I had to cancel, as in the interests for the blog I thought that this might be of a slightly higher film culture visibility than one of Werner’s suicide inducing screen ballads. In any case it was quite a curious event, so let’s begin with the trailer and a capsule review of the film;
As you may have gleaned from that the trailer the film was terrible, a supposed cat and mouse game between retired US veteran Benjamin Ford (De Niro) and the hilariously incomprehensibly accented Emil Kovac (Travolta) twenty years after De Niro’s UN platoon discovered a massacre during the Yugoslavian war, and decide to take justice into their own hands and summarily execute the Serbian marauders led by Travolta. This ludicrously offensive films begins with a portentous context setting crawl about how serious and solemn the conflict was before hard cutting to an exciting twitchy-cam combat sequence – and this tonal repulsion is only compounded by a script which then meanders through the most pedestrian route of character development and conflict interaction between the slumming leads. You know a film has rejected any semblance to credulity or emotional engagement when in one scene one of the characters instructs the other to stake himself to the ground by inserting a steel rod and tassel through the void created by an earlier arrow wound, and this is just one of the early problems of tis deeply tedious and tawdry film which increasingly obeys the simple ‘I’ve got the upper hand, no a-ha now I’ve got the upper hand’ model of so-called tension and suspense. You can pretty much chart the entire trajectory of the mercifully short 90 minutes directly through to the final shot, and as usual Travolta is just hilariously serious and studious with an approach to acting which finishes with plastering on some make-up, adopting some ridiculous facial features and emitting the worse accent since Don Cheadle’s Ocean’s 13 cockney rhymed Jeremy Hunt. In short, avoid at all costs.
I do like Jonathan Ross as a UK movie culture figure (I haven’t watched any of his chat show stuff in decades) as he clearly has a genuine breath, knowledge and passion for the artform from obscure B movies and exploitation pics out to the established and revered classics, we all remember the fantastic shows he fronted and commissioned back in the 1980’s don’t we? On stage you can see just what a brilliant interviewer he is, he’s quite disarming and isn’t afraid to prick that self-important celebrity bubble when the occasion demands (‘John, exactly what accent was that you were using in the film?’) and he asked the more serious instructive questions on Travolta’s collaborations with De Palma and Malick alongside the inevitable attention lavished on the likes of Saturday Night Fever and of course Pulp Fiction. I thought Travolta was quite a guarded persona despite his batting away Wossy’s most direct questions – ‘You’re seen as something of a remote figure, do you take refuge behind any screen persona? – with a simple ‘This is me, what you see is what is get’ reply, although of course he did shy away from any Scientology queries or indeed any reference to the classic Battlefield Earth which curiously was also omitted from a ten minute context setting montage that the BFI threw together to inaugurate the interview.
There were some reasonably smart questions from the audience as well, one asking his insider opinion on the current state of the industry which he lamented for the move toward spectacle and away from character driven pieces. Well, this is course a perfectly fair point and it’s all very well bemoaning the lack of character based vehicles in todays American marketplace but when you’re actively producing unimaginative, formulaic dreck like Killing Season which from its script stage must have blatantly obvious that it isn’t delving into anything other than Hollywood archetypes of conflict equaling character, of violence eclipsing any other solution to progress (which is exactly the point the film is so wistfully and therefore hypocritically espousing) then you really don’t have a wounded leg to stand on, not to mention how you’re devolving an incredibly complex array of social, historical and political forces which led to the conflict down to two guys violently fucking each other up for an hour without any real consequence or physical cost. Still, I did warm to Travolta a little when he got on to the fun they had shooting Face Off between Nick Cage and John Woo impersonating each other, I must give that another watch as that was a fun action movie and there was a fairly amusing running gag about how Richard Gere essentially wouldn’t have a career if he didn’t seize upon the parts which Travolta had rejected like discarded crumbs from his table (American Giglio, An Officer & A Gentleman, Days Of Heaven), although I was surprised to hear that with the latter Travolta was Malick’s first choice for the male lead, and it was studio machinations to award Gere the part which heavily contributed to his disgust with the industry and self-imposed Paris exile for the next twenty years. I was also just as intrigued to see Travolta’s wife Kelly Preston in the audience a few rows from me, she’s an actress in her own right which you may recognise from the likes of Jerry McGuire, Twins and the yuletide ‘classic’ Jack Frost, I have some slightly more formative adolescent memories of her from the movie Mischief which I’m sure some of you hairy palmed perverts will also fondly remember…..
You can imagine my reaction when perusing the weekly film listings to plan the cinematic treats ahead and my eyes alighted on an exceptionally surprising inclusion – Fear & Desire, Stanley Kubrick’s 1953 non-fiction film debut. At the precocious age of twenty-four Stanley quit his job as staff photographer at Look magazine after directing two shorts Day Of The Fight and The Flying Padre, closely followed by his first colour film The Seafearers in 1952, a rather unimaginative industrial film which you can see here. I was of course fully aware that Fear & Desire had been given a revitalising digital scrub and was being treated to a new Blu-Ray re-issue for this long suppressed film which Stanley withdrew from circulation throughout his almost half century career, but the prospect of this being given a theatrical airing was beyond my wildest imagination, and of course I quickly snapped up a ticket and headed over to the Stratford Picturehouse for the another step forward of my longstanding ambition of seeing all of my favourite ever directors fiction films on the screen that is silver – mission accomplished.
Opening with a clunky voiceover the metaphorical scene is set – trapped behind enemy lines four soldiers of an unidentified affiliation must make their way back to safety through a wilderness seething with enemy forces. After a few incidents involving an assault on an enemy outpost to seize some weapons and the capture of a local woman who could potentially reveal their position the quartet spy a distant prize – a general of the opposing forces holding court in a remote farmhouse, an asset whose removal may just enable their colleagues to establish an efficient beachhead in this sector of the long raging, allegorical conflict. A dangerous operation is planned when one of the team offers to assault the position from the river in order to draw away the generals bodyguards, enabling the two remaining warriors to conduct a dangerous assassination mission and potentially turn the tide of the war….
What is so remarkable about this debut is just how unremarkable it is, to be brutally honest it isn’t difficult to see why Stanley suppressed any screenings of the film as it actually isn’t very good. I feel bad raging on films when I haven’t the talent, tenacity or intellect to pick up a camera myself but there is no escaping the fact that with two rare exceptions there are no glimmers of the genius to come, and this frankly rather amateurish production is for cinephiles only who may wish to complete a viewing gap in the career of one of the all time great film directors. It’s not surprising really, filmmakers basically taught themselves how to make films on the job as there was no film school or courses back in the forties and fifties, and Stanley effectively read a couple of directing books and famously the Stanislavski bible on acting and then proceeded to craft a career completely from scratch in his own, unique, idiosyncratic fashion One of the interior scenes with the enemy general is handsomely lit with some brooding high-key lighting, and one brief sequence toward the end of the film with a warping, breezing mist enveloping two of the soldiers has a visual dexterity that lightly prefigure the incredible visuals to come, so perhaps not a bad result from a twenty-four year old finding his way on his first feature.
I first got my hands on a copy of the film a dozen years ago thanks to the collectors corners of the Internet, it was a fairly poor quality tenth generation VHS rip which arrived announced on an unadorned computer friendly disk, it cost me about a tenner which I purchased as an inquisitive completest rather than expecting any quiet revelation of an early masterpiece, thus I knew what to expect with this screening rather than the slightly confused looking punters I passed as I exited the cinema. But for the Kubrckophiles there are a few things to treasure, like many of Stanley’s films it has a voiceover which he always treated as an effective cinematic tool to avoid unnecessary exposition, and Paul Mazursky’s psychologically fractured soldier prefigures Private Gomer Pyle’s psychotic deterioration in Full Metal Jacket some thirty-five years later. The film also represents Kubrick’s first collaboration with the composer Gerald Fried who went on to score his first two ‘proper’ films The Killing and Paths Of Glory, and it is the first example of Stanley using war as a fulcrum to examine our human foibles and failures, an effective tool to dissect our species remarkable capacity for cruelty and insanity with his surgeons celluloid glee, at the very least it was a pleasure to see a new polished print of the film unadorned with those shimmering glitches or degraded veneer, as you can discern below. At 72 minutes it doesn’t particularly outstay its welcome, it has some value as the inception of his career long fascination with combat and conflict that storms his career through a quartet of films if you also include Dr. Strangelove, now all I need to do is track down a future screening of Killers Kiss and this long gestating challenge will be finally achieved – a pretty good start to the year, retrospective wise eh?