324.D: A River Runs Through It, widescreen, stereo, 1993

Since his first directing venture, ominously-entitled ‘Ordinary People,’ Robert Redford has been pitching for an imagined mainstream, middle-American, family-oriented audience of the kind which everyone said had stopped going to the movies. He is producing cinema for people who find the world a little fraying and hope to find in the darkness of the movie-house something mildly uplifting. Redford does not tackle any cutting-edge issues but keeps returning to the question of how America has lost its way, approaching it from a variety of different angles, none of them likely to produce anything so disturbing as a reply.

I can’t pretend to have a detailed knowledge of Redford’s directorial corpus. I doubt if it is meant to be examined closely at all. They might all bear the strapline, “You could do a whole lot worse, admit it!” And so you could. They are not the noisy adolescent fare which chokes the multiplexes; Redford has kept faith with big caps, old cars, sepia photographs and ragtime.

‘A River Runs Through It’ dates from 1993 and is based on a quiet seventies novella about fly-fishing and life which had found a certain market. It was published in several different formats and was attractive to illustrators, a little grass-roots success. Redford is said to have “stalked” the author Norman Maclean for years to obtain the rights*. You often hear of old people being mugged for small change so nothing surprises me there. The end-titles assure us that no fish were harmed during the making of the movie; they don’t mention that Mr Maclean died.

Two well-brought up Christian boys of the lower middle-class undergo a very photogenic combination of stern but loving instruction from their minister-father and the freedom to run wild in the idyllic landscape of twenties Montana. One achieves all his educational goals and looks set to enter the teaching profession and marry a nice white girl. The other follows his inner demons, drinks bootleg liquor, dates a half-breed Native American girl, plays cards and goes to hell in a handcart. There is another character - the nice girl’s dissolute brother. He has lived in Hollywood and proves it by being a liar, a boaster, a lush and what is worse, a damn poor timekeeper. He has LOVE tatooed on his arse but some vices don’t really appear to have entered into his head or even read the word on his welcome mat. Let’s just add cowardice to the list then.

As the brothers, Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt in peroxide mode, grin at each other with disconcerting intensity for most of the movie. You really feel that if these boys had a sister it would be just two generations to banjo-time.

Essentially the story is a version of Cain and Abel in which Cain destroys himself, despite splendid rôle-models and good advice from everyone. That would make for a shorter Bible but it seems to have provoked an awfully long movie. The Stoics and Zen Budhists have, no doubt, contributed their streams to the peculiar West Coast desert where movies grow but they are essentially undramatic. Audiences really need to be in a state of grace before they go in and calm films tend just to make unquiet minds ever more impatient.

*Richard Gere wants my gerbil story but I’m treating him mean till the project hardens.

322.D: M. Gorris: Mrs Dalloway, 1997, widescreen, stereo, 93′

Be Afraid

Materialists . . . are concerned not with the spirit but with the body . . . they write of unimportant things . . .they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring . . . Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us . . . Modern Fiction, Virgina Woolf, 1925

The name of Virginia Woolf sounds cinematic enough but when we look closer, it is mainly an illusion. The Hours, 2002*, took the theme of Mrs Dalloway and expanded it as a trans-continental meditation on suicide. Before that there was Sally Potter’s anaemic and androgenous but art-house pleasing Orlando of 1992. A Dutch version of The Waves - Golven, 1982 - seems to have had little impact even in Holland. That leaves two television adaptations: To the Lighthouse, 1983 and A Room of One’s Own, 1990.

Her name was famously in the title before it showed up among the writing credits. Before we start brooding on the injustices done to women writers, we should reflect that writing for the screen was actually an area in which female participation was common. The historic association of women with melodrama and the relative ease with which the medium could capture the domestic scene ensured a flow of pictures from the dawn of cinema, more or less, which focused on women’s lives and adapted the work of women writers for the screen.

Nor was it just the classics which benefitted: contemporary material was constantly bought up during the thirties and forties and authors such as Daphne du Maurier, Kathleen Winsor, Helen Simpson and most famously Margaret Mitchell were regarded as good providers. It is no coincidence that this group was known essentially for purveying historical material, where adventurous and maybe scandalous heroines could range abroad without rocking the contemporary boat.

Woolf disdained the externality of such fustian stuff. Her art was contemporary, internal, stream-of-consciousness and impressionistic; she followed and to some extent defined the Bloomsbury values which elevated themes such as the cultivation of taste, personality and relationships above all noisy masculine plotting. Now the genteel cinema of hats has turned to her work in the wake of innumerable adaptations of Henry James, E. M. Forster, Edith Wharton and the rest, those unwatched DVDs which friends press on me as some sort of cruel and unusual punishment for being over-polite in company.

Bette Davis and James Mason proved to be afraid of her name in the title and passed on the opportunity to star in Mike Nicholls’ 1966 picture of Edward Albee’s play. If they had signed up, maybe the title would be classed with those other question-mark movies of the sixties which prompted us to be concerned with the fate of Baby Jane or Auntie Roo? When actresses reach a certain age, the honeyed rôles stopped coming; the canny stars kept their engines running on vinegar. The home life of these vitriolic harridans was not exactly the domestic scene as envisaged by Virginia Woolf but the underlying frustrations were not entirely unrelated.

The path not taken, the female lover missed, the risky male turned down on the path towards a settled and outwardly successful life. An emotional ripple caused by a suicide: a case of belated shell-shock. That is the theme of Mrs Dalloway. All of it. More a situation than a plot.

If the novel seems to ache with ennui at the safe options chosen, the film of Mrs Dalloway reeks with the sweat of location-finders, set-painters, warbrobe mistresses and vintage car suppliers. It dashes around the cinematic highstreet and brings home the goods in bags marked Laura Ashley. Instead of questioning the material world, it celebrates it. I think Ms Woolf would have regarded it as unspeakably vulgar, exposing her world in its full material horror. To be hoist by your own teaspoons so thoroughly is bitterly funny, not that people who enjoy films like this enjoy jokes at all.

It’s not that the job can’t be done. We have one perfect example of it in English cinema: Brief Encounter. The story of a path not taken, the ache of an affair that drains the blood out of the comfortable life. The foolish chattering friends, the awfulness of a dull loving husband and a needy child. It’s ironic that such a story should mark the highpoint of David Lean’s career before he took those fatal steps which lead towards the stultifying opulence of Zhivago. In my odd sympathetic moments, I picture him there, looking down on all those freshly-painted railings, the Mrs Dalloway of cinema. We must laugh and press on though.

* I haven’t seen The Hours, which was written by David Hare but I recall Wetherby, a 1985 picture, written and directed by him. There, Vanessa Redgrave was disturbed by a suicidal stranger after a dinner party.

Watching movies shouldn’t just be about fun. From time to time we like to hang out with our girlfriends and challenge all our man-prejudices by bunging in a chick-flick.

Q: When do we start?
A: Who the hell are you?

Q: Your inquisitor and I’ll ask the questions.
A: OK.

Q: Are you sure you want to go through with this?
A: Do I have to eat all these chocolates and drink this terrible Lambrusco?

Q: Choice of anaesthetic is up to you. You paid real money for this?
A: One pound fifty from ASDA. The DVD was tenpence from the Blind Home Charity Shop.

Q: Better than buying the Mail on Sunday, I suppose. So where are all these girlfriends then?
A: Did my mother send you?

Q: Shall we blow them up now?
A: That sheep was sent in error. Now hush, the picture’s starting!

Fannie Flagg Night

Q: What is the name of this picture?
A: Fried Green Tomatoes was its name at birth. Someone in the UK added At the Whistle-Stop Café.

Q: But that’s a really bad title. Were people expected to say all that at the multiplex?
A: I think they were intended to skip up to the box-office singing it but they probably lost their nerve and blurted out Jaws IV instead.

Q: Yes, why does the artwork show all these women displaying their dentures?
A: Alimentary, my dear inquisitor.

Q: Doesn’t that cover also show Norman Bates’s Mother?
A: No. That is to confuse two Hitchcock moms. The grey-haired one is Jessica Tandy. She was the possessive matriarch in The Birds. The Bates on the cast-list is Kathy Bates, she’s probably a relative of Norman.

Q: Oh, her! Does she hack off any feet?
A: She has a few axe scenes. I don’t want to spoil things.

Q: So that Café is not a good place to eat?
A: Real neighbourly home-style barbecue stylee.

Q: We are talking about the Deep South then?
A: I guess. What’s the Northern limit of the KKK?

Q: I’m asking the questions!
A: Sorry. Well?

Q: These other people of the female persuasion, are they good women?
A: It depends what you look for in a woman. I’d say if you expect to see a part of yourself in them, they’d be a waste of good liquor.

Q: Are you hinting this should be one of those films with fishy titles?
A: Not really. I can see why they left it pretty vegetarian in that department.

Q: Are there any men in the movie?
A: A few. Present day man is married to Ms. Bates. He’s a fat oaf who just lives to watch the ball-games on tv. Depression Man is also an oaf but he goes out with his mates more. Sadly in a white sheet and hood. But I’ll say this for them: it’s the only time I’ve seen the Klan ride out to adopt a baby.

Q: Not that nice Tom Sellick in a hood?
A: We’ll have to wait for the sequel: Three Klansmen & A Baybee.

Q: Are the black folks a credit to their race?
A: Rather! They perform with looks of pained dignity throughout, as if to say, “We didn’t write this crock, people, but we’ve got to eat!”

Q: Are there any points to take into consideration?
A: There’s a sweet but very dumb laddie who manages to get his foot caught in a set of points.

Q: Did that teach the men-folk any lessons?
A: Men are all slow learners in that county.

Q: Did you learn anything useful from this two-hour feast of fun?
A: That you can take your own Bible to court to swear on in Alabama. Maybe.

Q: Anything else?
A: Never to race Ms Bates to a parking space. Never to leap from a moving train after lobbing canned goods at the destitute. Never to come between two women in a food-fight. That Fried Green Tomatoes actually seem to be fritters of some kind. That sticking your hand in a cleft can be sweet and sticky. Don’t go into a care home in the US, or they’ll demolish your house. That the first step to raising consciousness is to take a good look at your quim in a mirror.

Q: Fannie Flagg?
A: About eighteen minutes in. I’m assuming you mean the American kind.

Q: Are you picking a fight with all those posters on the imdb who rate this ten out of ten?
A: I don’t punch women.

Q: But it made you want to, didn’t it?
A: No comment.

Q: Are we done with the chick-flicks now?
A: No, Mrs Dalloway is coming. Try to look busy.

Friday, 19th January

From time to time, when I was a boy, it would be said within my hearing that Mrs So-and-So had been to see Doctor Zhivago. As when someone had been to Lourdes, you felt it wasn’t appropriate to ask whether they had enjoyed it. Nor did you usually hear tell of anyone who had gone to see Doctor Zhivago more than once. To my tender ears, the name Zhivago held a certain unpleasant threat which wasn’t to be matched until the works of Harold Shipman became generally known.

Zhivago was a super-production of 1965, garlanded with three Oscars, despite competing with The Sound of Music, which suggests its brow was trailing dangerously close to the ground. None of the principle actors was even nominated for an award - so it was thought to be a jolly good thing, in general but without the sort of particulars which anyone in the Academy really wished to encourage. I was nine and had an early musical task entrusted to me: extracting the top line of Lara’s Theme for the school recorders to play. It’s one of those tunes that is pretty once but, heard daily in rehearsal, it was about as endearing as school disinfectant. Some notes were impossible on recorders so they were modified by the music master. Having heard the whole score tonight for the first time, I think I may have been over-critical about that three-minute school version.

Let’s not forget that the Bolshevik Revolution was also, no doubt, a horrible thing, impossible to sit through. David Lean took his revenge by directing this cinematic counter-revolution in which a moral victory could be snatched out of the ruins. It would be a monument to the middle-class, middle-brow, and middle-aged. It would celebrate poetry in terms which even the English could understand: a pot of ink, an icy desk and a flock of golden daffodils. Tactfully, it would avoid quoting a single line of the poet’s verses. This, after all is poetry as commodity, flourished like a passport and likely to inspire respect even in one’s sworn enemies. On its own, it won’t impress the groundlings much, so our poet must also be a doctor, glimpsed at regular intervals tying a splint around a broken limb or closing the eyes of a corpse. The doctor as bourgeois individualist has more fun in Altman’s MASH. Come to think of it, Gary Cooper had more fun in A Farewell to Arms. Zhivago must be seen doctoring as much as possible and Lara must dash away with her smoothing iron; you see, these are not decadent bourgeois, but the real workers in a country where the workers did nothing but whinge, protest and act nasty.

This is a film in which about half a dozen characters count and the tides of extras are part of the scenery. Hostile scenery, for much of the time. You can tell it’s an epic from the scene where Zhivago is caught stealing wood on the same day as the Bolsheviks ransack the last room left in the house. A wisp of a scene that should have been handled with irony and intimacy. Instead, the screen fills with grey hordes and the moral lesson is read at great length by Alec Guinness, playing a half-brother whose rôle in the drama is disturbingly surplus. He opens and closes the thing, to be sure, but he feels like an expensive luxury, one that was ordered and needs to be used, even if only as a door-stop.

Julie Christie is pretty but in a sixties way. When Rita Tushingham makes an appearance, it seems a pity that we couldn’t also have had Dora Bryan show up as a Babushka in a shawl to claim her and drag her back to Salford. Omar Sharif is handsome but can do nothing to remedy the emptiness of his part. Rod Steiger has too many lines, in contrast, but his playing is as near human the temperature gets in this waxwork world.

Old VHS copies are not a bad way to catch up on films you feel a duty to view once. This was in OAR & goodish stereo. Yes I know they were meant to be seen in a deluxe theatre in 70mm but this sort of viewing should establish if the picture has anything but spectacle to offer. I endured Lawrence of Arabia last February. I’ll see if I can get a note to excuse me from Ryan’s Daughter.

Sunday, 10th December, pm

163.V: I. Svabo: Mephisto, 1981, colour, full screen, from BBC2 broadcast, November 1999, 138′00″

I saw Mephisto down in London when it first came out. Even then, I remember feeling that the early dancing scene was anachronistic in style and featured the most unsettling use of leg-warmers since - oh, all those other leg-warmer films. Once over that little hurdle, the film is alluring, though nearly a one-man show. Klaus Maria Brandauer is Hendrik Hofgen, an ambitious actor whose inner emptiness makes him an arch manipulator. Rather too schematically he comes to a late realization that the purity of his art was a delusion and he is an empty husk to be tossed aside by the Nazis, now he has served their cause.

As a story, it is pretty much painting-by-numbers, from a novel by Heinrich Mann, the weaker more despairing brother of Thomas. Brandauer’s performance is showy in the extreme; every thought, every mood, every vanity passes across his countenance, as if to say to the world that it must love his playing with it. The power of this film derives from the fact that the same spell is worked on us and Hendrik’s self-conscious vice steals the show.

The film’s theme corresponds remarkably with that of Il Conformisto, especially notable in its toying with lesbiansim as the icing on a decadent cake. Both films also use dance as a symbol of social corruption, here with a memorable influx of white-faced demons. Though Brandauer plays an exhibitionist, he is mocked by his lover as a man who cannot even drink a glass of beer without turning it into a performance. Trintignant’s poker-face may seem the polar opposite of Brandauer’s flamboyance but they are empty vessels both.

As Hofgen’s dark lady, Karin Boyd gives her part a tigerish wildness and otherness which ultimately proves more touching when her vulnerability in the society is exposed. Otherwise the most powerful impression is made by Rolf Hoppe as a truly terrifiying Nazi General, relishing his sudden power. As if to ensure its success with the critics, Svabo cast English film critic David Robinson in the rôle of an effete English critic. That should not have been too difficult but it is pretty hard on the audience!

The picture won an Academy Award in 1982 as best foreign film. Leg-warmers apart, it is beginning to look like a classic. This was a slightly fuzzy old tape from analogue telly. It would be good to see this from a better source.

Thursday, 7th December, pm

176.V: B. Bertolucci: Il Conformisto, 1970, colour, wide screen, mono, from BBC2 broadcast, January 2001, 107′18″

The Conformist has recently been issued and acclaimed as a DVD. America is seeing the film uncut for the first time but I think it is true to say that Europe has always seen it complete. Despite some misleadingly long running times cited, I think 111 minutes in the cinema and 107 on PAL is as long as it gets.

I had remembered the picture as extremely stylish but had forgotten quite how dazzlingly stylized it is. Memory suggested a perverse and serious drama but on this occasion it felt more like a very black comedy. Trintignant, as the nobody who hopes to become more real by devoting himself to the Fascist cause, sits somewhere between Delon’s Samouraï and the hapless victims of 1984 or Brazil. Storaro’s exploitation of monumental architecture has never been surpassed: it would be a crime to omit the contribution of the cinematography to this picture. Not art concealing art but rather serving to underline and undermine the brittle surfaces of that art deco nightmare.

One odd detail seems to nudge us into an awareness that we are witnessing a comedy: a post-card of Laurel & Hardy is fixed to the window of the Parisian dance-hall. Why Laurel & Hardy, though?

Monday, 20th November, pm into Tuesday, 21st November, am

213.V: K. Russell: The Devils, 1971, colour, widescreen, mono, from Channel Four Digital broadcast, November 2002, 106′42″

Considering how few screen-credits he rang-up for all his years in Hollywood, it is ironic that the name of Aldous Huxley features in those of Ken Russell’s Devils. Huxley’s book was, like Miller’s Crucible, a product of the HUAC years. Yet he was puzzled by some of the reported phenomena, while seeing the affair in the light of politics. Russell spells out the politics in effective, comic-strip style but his delight in the pleasures as well as the torments of the flesh disqualifies him from making the serious criticism of spectacle which the subject demands. The debate about the picture was entirely focussed on sex and violence.While Friedkin went for a bileous green, Russell chose the more neutral shades of Heinz tinned vegetable soup for his vomits. His possessed nuns at least appear to enjoy themselves in this confused spectacle.

Seeing it at the time was something of a rite of passage but not, I think, much of a political education. Grandier is a tiresome hero and the podgy Reed seems unlikely to have inspired many fantasies, unless we take into account the aphrodisiac of his power and station. But he smoulders nicely at the stake. It was only after writing the Devils of Loudon that Huxley took to mescaline but I suspect Russell found his downward path to enlightenment before The Devils.

Taken as a dose of grand guignol, The Devils is generally well-acted and impressively staged; the city imagined as a vast tiled toilet is probably Derek Jarman’s most impressive contribution to screen history and lurking somewhere behind the design must be some residual film-school memory of Dreyer’s Saint Joan. Though the Horrible History vein was soon to be stamped with the name of Monty Python, Russell’s vision of lime-pits, book-burnings and the destruction of art seems drawn from the mid twentieth century. I still wonder what might have been if the French forces at the start of the picture had ever actually reached Bamburgh Castle!

Monday, 20th November, am

140.V: H. Burton/G. Vick: Verdi’s Falstaff, colour, full screen, stereo, from BBC2 broadcast, December 1999, 143′30″ (124′52″ music)

Musically fine and cast from strength, this was an ugly production which becomes progressively more inadequate with each scene. The white costumes of the masqueraders in the final scene were well got-up but rendered feeble in the deadly context of a living tree concept. It was the first proper production of the reopened Covent Garden. The terrible reopening event had better be forgotten. Verdi’s last opera is too dry for some tastes, lacking, like Gianni Schicchi, many expansive lyrical moments. It needs a rich, ripe and humanizing production to add richness to the sparkle. Those qualities were lacking here, though the Fenton, Nanetta and Mistress Quickly were least hampered by the business or their costumes. In the title rôle, Bryn Terfel triumphed over his prosthetic impediments and Haitink’s pacing was sympathetic to the singers. The orchestra played splendidly throughout. In fact the quality of the music-making was on a very high level and the tape is one worth preserving; to be honest, a sound-tape might have been a better idea.

Wednesday, 22nd November, am

052.V: Gill & Brownlow: Harold Lloyd, The Third Genius, Part II, 1989, b & w/colour, full screen, mono, from Channel 4 broadcast, February 1995, 56′01″

A nice video-cling-on, from the days when you could set the machine to capture a movie and later find you had also hauled in an extra worth watching. This was the concluding part of a two-hour study of comedian Harold Lloyd. His dare-devil stunts, such as clinging to the hands of clocktowers came to be iconic: I’ve just noticed that this very image adorns the spine of the 1995 Variety Movie Guide. Driven and perfectionist, Lloyd survived the introduction of sound and lived to take a personal interest in the revival of his films in the sixties. He lived in the grandest Hollywood manner in a Villa d’Este-style mansion. There were plenty of clips from the movies, warts-and-all memories from colleagues and relatives and many incidental insights into the whole business of comedy.

There were precious few laughs, however and maybe that was why he faded from the screen. The owlish star always played characters on the make, a persona which lost its popular appeal in the hungry thirties, according to the commentary, delivered by Lindsay Anderson. Ingenious and distinctive though they appear, I was left with little desire to seek out or sit through the movies themselves. Possibly the earlier part of the career would have inspired more enthusiasm. It has to be said that Anderson’s voice-over sets a scholarly tone to the project and sticks to it without a glimmer of humour. It stands, however, as a valuable master-class, a pleasing thing to rediscover lurking uncatalogued on an old tape and a reminder of the days - not so very long ago - when Channel Four was worth watching in the wee small hours.

Wednesday, 22nd November, pm

289.V: A. Cooke: King Lear, 1982, colour, full screen, mono, 182′11″

Recorded on a tight budget in December 1982, this American video staging moves swiftly but suffers from some jarring accents. The actors do not project the poetry and the microphone picks up more consonants than vowels. When the Caedmon company set out to record the plays of Shakespeare on LP, around the celebrations of 1964, they cast from strength and used English thesps. It is difficult to raise much enthusiasm for this home-grown video Lear, though David Groh as the wicked Edmund stood out for investing his performance with real presence. This was otherwise a stolid show which suffered from being done by the book.

Putting the Fool in white-face and traditional costume subtracts much of his force. The madness of Edgar is always problematic but it was too histrionic here, showing up the woolly and generalized fury of Mike Kellen’s off-the-peg Lear. The blinding of Gloster was handled with such discretion that it might just as well have happened off-stage. His imagined suicide can be a magical play-within-a-play but it was unimaginitively handled here. Throughout the sound and visuals were only of a semi-professional order, while the video-duplication had also been cheaply managed.

At this point I should add that this tape, distributed in the UK by a firm called Quantum Leap, was picked up in a bargain emporium for a pound. I doubt if its quite the sort of thing which would find itself in the basket of a casual pound-store customer; if it did, I doubt if it would do much good missionary work on behalf of the Bard. The Antony & Cleopatra in the same series, featured Lynn Redgrave and Timothy Dalton and was rather a better show in this bargain line.

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