First confession, I’m still trying to finish a list from two years ago so I’m going to ask other writers here to call me out on Twitter when I don’t manage to do one of these a month. I’m going to be flexible with this updated list and amend it depending on what’s available or if there’s something else I want to write about. Right now there’s a distinctly Italian flavour, but for the moment this will be my twelve.
- Blithe Spirit – Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean. Enough said.
- Berlin alexanderplatz – Making my way through Fassbinder’s TV series right now and by Christ does it feel prescient with its story of an embittered middle-aged failure embracing the rise of Nazism in 30s’ Germany.
- Roma – Big fan of Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and people mention this as an influence so this I must see.
- One Man Down – Speaking of Sorrentino I’ve never seen his debut movie so it goes on the list.
- Daisy Miller or What’s Up Doc? –Depending on which one I can get hold of there will be a Peter Bogdanovich film present.
- Quartet – Merchant-Ivory are unfashionable today. Tarantino publicly dissing them in the early 90s’ probably didn’t help their reputations with younger audiences, but I’ve more time for their best work than his. Besides Quartet has Isabelle Adjani in it
- Police Story 3: Supercop – I thought I had seen this because there was a Michelle Yeoh movie titled Supercop for its UK release in the early 90s’ featuring a Jackie Chan cameo but that is apparently a completely different movie.
- Wings – Bloody hard to find but I really want to see this 1966 war film by Larisa Sheptiko about a female Soviet fighter pilot
- Unnamed Pasolini film. Seen Theorem & his Jesus film but very little else so must make amends.
- Hell Comes to Frogtown – I have no idea what this is.
- The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead – Favourite band as a kid. This documentary came out three years ago and I still haven’t seen it.
- La La Land: Was going to see this but went to see XXX: Return of Xander Cage instead.
- Tuff Turf: adding this to the list as well. 80s’ teen movie with James Spader as the new kid in town falling out with a local gang of punks. How the hell have I not seen this but I have seen director Fritz Kiersch’s Cannon produced Italian time-travelling barbarian movie Gor ?
My initial choice for a Cinema Shame confession was Robert Altman’s Nashville, but it led me instead to Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. which I liked so much more. Rudolph worked with Altman on Nashville and he in turn helped produce this movie. Altman’s style of filmmaking is clearly an influence. Both films feature interweaving narratives, music by Richard Baskin, and some of the same actors. Welcome to LA. is also an ensemble piece, but these characters are representative of the city they live in, rather than what’s going on in the country as a whole.
There’s Carrol (Keith Carradine), a musician returning from London to work with Eric (Baskin) on a new album. Somehow he’s a successful womanizer despite having an appalling proto-hipster half beard which makes him look like Scooby Doo’s pal Shaggy. Carrol takes his music seriously and considers himself “authentic” which almost certainly means he’s a fake. His millionaire businessman father Carl (Denver Pyle) set up the record deal as part of a ruse to get him back home so he can persuade him to take an interest in the business. Carrol is more interested in reaching out towards his dad’s much younger girlfriend Nona (Lauren Hutton), a photographer who dresses like a 1940s’ private eye in a trilby and trench-coat.
Carrol also puts the moves on Anne (Sally Kellerman), the realtor for the house he’s renting. Her husband Jack (John Considine) is obnoxious before he even has a drink in him and has his lecherous eyes on young housekeeper Linda (Sissy Spacek). Linda also seems to have a prior relationship with Ken (Harvey Keitel), who works for Carl and feels put out that the old man intends to hand over the keys to his empire to a returning prodigal son. Carl is a consummate businessman and expects his wife Karen (Geraldine Chaplin) to play the role of the dutiful wife but she’s complicated and maybe a little damaged. She’s given to wandering the city cadging lifts from strangers and delivering monologues straight-to-camera about the impossibility of really knowing another person. “People deceive themselves don’t you think?”
I can certainly see why some critics at the time found it to be pretentious. Richard Eder in the New York Times called it “a fashion pose masquerading as a position.” I liked its artfulness though. These characters are pretentious. They’re all selling themselves or trying to present a version of themselves they would like the world to see, but they can’t hide their pain from us. There’s one moment, a close-up of Lauren Hutton which is held for longer than is necessary until she directs her gaze right back at the camera forcing the viewer out of the narrative for a moment and to observe an actress playing a part. Baskin’s music recurs throughout the film. Sometimes it’s the same song but played a little differently and the repetition gives the impression everybody is moving to the same rhythm and feeling the same way. What really sold me on Welcome to L.A. though is Rudolph being one of the few American directors use Geraldine Chaplin as well as European filmmakers like Carlos Saura or Jacques Rivette did in their movies. She’s the main reason Welcome to L.A. goes on my list of Cinema Shame confessions.
Of all the Cinema Shame confessions I’ve made this is probably the most embarrassing. Up until a couple of years ago I didn’t even know Bill Forsyth’s comedy That Sinking Feeling existed. To make matters worse I’m Scottish, so I have no excuse for not having even heard of his debut feature. In my defence while growing up in the 80s’ Forsyth’s most famous films Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (83) aired regularly on television. Occasionally Comfort and Joy (84) would appear in the early hours on STV but I can’t recall That Sinking Feeling ever appearing in the schedules.
It probably didn’t help That Sinking Feeling has only recently become available in its original form on DVD through the BFI’s Flipside series focusing on little seen British movies. Prior to that the only previous release featured the awful re-recorded audio track used for the film’s international release replacing the actors thick Glaswegian accents with middle-class voices and dubbed with all the skill and care usually reserved for kung-fu movies. For a long time this was the only version available.
A tongue-in-cheek disclaimer at the start of the film claims any similarities to the real city of Glasgow are coincidental, but it’s clear Forsyth is making a serious point here about the bleak prospects facing working class youngsters at a time when Scottish industries were in decline. That Sinking Feeling wears its social commentary lightly though and gives audiences a first taste of the understated often absurd humour of Bill Forsyth. Essentially the film is a series of comic set-pieces utilising Forsyth’s wonderful use of dialogue, and setting up sight gags that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the silent era.
Unemployed teenager Ronnie (Robert Buchanan) reflects on his place in the world and decides drowning himself in a bowl of cereal is no way to go out. Instead he decides he can make a small fortune by robbing a warehouse full of stainless steel sinks. Ronnie enlists his equally unemployed mates to pull of an elaborately planned albeit eccentric heist. There’s Vic (John Hughes) and Wal (Billy Greenlees), wannabe master-thief Andy (John Gordon Sinclair), and Bobby (Derek Millar) whose homemade chemistry experiments have led to the invention of a drug which causes suspended animation. It is to Forsyth’s credit that Bobby’s scientific breakthrough never feels incongruous even though it’s essentially science fiction. “Just think, waking up to start a new life in the Glasgow of 2068. The ring road will be finished” says a doctor later in the film and this mixture of absurdity and melancholy runs throughout Forsyth’s early Scottish films.
People often compare Forsyth to Alexander Mackendrick for obvious reasons but there’s a hint of Michael Powell in there as well. Powell made two great films in Scotland The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and both have great affection for its people and a sense of the landscape defining their place in the world.
Very glad to have finally seen That Sinking Feeling and might well follow up by re-watching Bill Forsyth’s later American films which I haven’t seen since they came out. Particularly his last Hollywood movie Being Human (1994) which flopped spectacularly despite the presence of Robin Williams but I remember being an interesting if flawed epic.
No idea why I avoided seeing New York New York. A musical paying homage to the Golden Age of cinema sounds like something I’d really like but somehow I just never got around to it until now.
VJ Day celebrations, New York, 1945. Despite her reservations Francine (Liza Minelli) spends the night with obnoxious jerk Jimmy Doyle ( Robert De Niro). Both turn out to be musicians. She’s a big band singer, he plays the saxophone. For reasons even Francine does not seem to understand she begins a long term relationship with this joker. Their destructive romance contrasts with the success their musical partnership brings them professionally.I sat down to watch New York New York with with high expectations because I tend to prefer Scorsese’s more atypical movies than the gritty violent dramas people consider his default setting. I’ll take After Hours (1985) or The Age of Innocence (1993) over Goodfellas (90) any day of the week. New York New York a fine film beautifully shot by László Kovács and fuelled by nostalgia for the classic musicals of the 40s’ and 50s’. Boris Levan’s set design perfectly recreates the artificiality of studio built sets, which were meant to look better than real life ever could. The excellent musical numbers are a mixture of jazz standards and new tracks by John Kander and Fred Ebb, writers of the stage-play Cabaret. I wish I could really love it, but there’s just one problem.
This guy.De Niro gets a lot of stick for his career choices over the last twenty years but this is by far his worst performance because it diminishes an interesting film. For a practitioner of an acting style which supposedly encourages ‘authenticity’ De Niro is unbearably mannered here. Minnelli seems naturalistic in comparison and wears a barely concealed look of astonishment in every reaction shot to her co-star’s over-acting. The lack of chemistry between them is obvious from their first meeting during the VJ celebrations when Jimmy sits down uninvited at Francine’s table and pesters her for a date. These early scenes are meant to echo the first meeting between lovers in a screwball comedy who begin their courtship by hating each other but the attempt at witty repartee falls flat partly because De Niro is about as charming as cement.Casting actors with two very different acting styles is deliberate. Minnelli is showbiz royalty, the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, while De Niro honed his technique at the Actor’s Studio. This contrast between the magic of old Hollywood and the grittiness of Scorsese’s work is there in the story too. New York New York might stylistically recreate the crowd-pleasing escapism of the Hollywood musical but at the movie’s heart is a troubled volatile relationship and it’s as tough as anything Scorsese has made. While I’m ashamed of not having seen New York New York until now I don’t feel as guilty as DeNiro should for gurning his way through it.
I am not that familiar with Cecil B. DeMille’s output apart from his Chuck Heston movies The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (56), which I can remember watching on television as a kid some Sunday afternoon years ago. I’ve always regarded DeMille as being a pious old bore but it seems I misjudged him. Cleopatra is hugely entertaining. A mixture of grand spectacle and Hollywood melodrama. Despite the historical setting Cleopatra feels modernistic in tone. Claudette Colbert’s smart and sexually confident Cleopatra is a fast-talking dame who wouldn’t seem out of place downing cocktails in a speakeasy. Instead of faux Shakespearian dialogue Colbert engages in the kind of repartee she would swap with her leading men in films like It Happened One Night (34, Frank Capra).
This may seem incongruous to anybody who expecting a historically accurate period piece but DeMille is more interested in entertainment. Like the Liz Taylor Joseph L. Mankiewicz 64’ version it’s about visually stunning set-pieces and the allure of beautiful movie stars. It does however manage to get beyond the myth of Cleopatra as a gold digging man-eater and sympathetically presents the lack of choices available to her in the face of Roman expansionism.
The film begins in 48 BC with Cleopatra’s exile. Fearing she will cause problems at a peace treaty with the Romans, the Prime Minister of Egypt has Cleopatra abducted and left to die in the desert. Julius Caesar (Warren William) agrees terms for her younger brother Ptolemy to become King of Egypt albeit under Rome’s rule. That is until a scantily clad Cleopatra is snuck back into Alexandria and delivered to him in a rolled up carpet. Though she tries to seduce the ageing Caesar it is by offering Egypt as a route towards India that wins him over rather than her womanly charms. It’s more of a business relationship. They both see the mutual benefits in her being Queen of Egypt and an ally of Rome.
Cleopatra and Caesar travel to Rome as a sort of Ancient World celebrity power couple but the Romans are suspicious of her motives and turn against them. After Caesar’s murder she seduces one of his killers Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) as a means of defending her country but rather than being a pragmatic alliance this time it’s a wild ruinous affair. Wilcoxon is remarkable. Not for his acting talents which are limited but for his machismo. This guy is one of the manliest men ever to grace the screen. He makes Franco Nero look about as tough as Charles Hawtrey.
From here the film moves from a lavish costume drama to romantic tragedy as their hedonistic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Caesar’s vengeful heir Octavian and his army. Demille throws everything and the kitchen sink into the second half of Cleopatra. There’s a massive battle sequence which is thrillingly orchestrated and surprisingly violent. Though the censorious Hays Code was in place Cleopatra was already in production meaning its ridiculous rules didn’t apply. During the battle there’s a close up of a spiked chariot wheel going through a soldiers leg. The very first image seen during the opening credits involve full frontal nudity, albeit discreetly filmed. There are plenty of allusions to sex and one blatantly S&M sequence as a herd of women in leopard costumes are lightly whipped during a feast.
It makes you wonder what kind of movies DeMille would have been free to make if that wee ferret Will Hays and his supporters hadn’t put Hollywood on a leash. I will definitely be taking a closer look at DeMille’s filmography. It seems historical epics were his chosen genre. He followed up Cleopatra by casting macho man Henry Wilcoxon as King Richard the Lionheart in a movie about the Crusades and that’s now high on my must see list.
My excuse for having not seen this before is it felt like I had already. At university Pickpocket would come up a lot during film classes. Paul Schrader essentially remade it twice with American Gigolo (1980) and Light Sleeper (92), which are two of his best movies. Both deal with protagonists operating on the margins of affluent social structures. They are loners by nature limiting their interaction with other people to work. Somehow they think this gives them freedom but they have made the world they inhabit small. Nobody really cares about them except for one person and they realise too late they feel the same. Both films share an ending, which I know from the interviews Schrader has given and articles he’s written is lifted straight from Pickpocket so I was never really in any great hurry to see Bresson’s movie.
Having watched it now it’s very much as I thought it would be. Spare, understated, and thematically interested in ideas from the existentialist movement which were becoming increasingly common in French cinema at the time. “Ce film n’est pa du style policier,” says a disclaimer in the opening credits and what follows must have seemed groundbreaking at the time. Plot becomes incidental to character and theme. Its influence on the emerging French New Wave is clear and it reminds me a lot of Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally influential Bob le Flambeur (56) which broke with convention by filming on location and making the setting part of the story. Melville’s film is lighter in tone though. Its world-weary protagonist gives in to his obsession. Michel (played by Martin La Salle) in Pickpocket however is a bit of a wet blanket.
We first see him stealing money from a woman’s purse at a horseracing event. The police arrest him but do not have enough evidence to charge him. Michel gives the money to a pretty neighbour Jeanne (Marika Green) to give to his mother. Later we learn she’s the first person he stole from. The police keep an eye on Michel with one of the officers even strikes up an odd acquaintance. He is mentored by an older thief who shows him the trick of the trade. The money seems incidental. Michel lives quietly in a sparse apartment. He philosophises about whether he is a thief at all. The answer to that is a fairly obvious yes to anybody other than a French existentialist. Michel isn’t as fascinating as he thinks he is. Less of a defiant non-conformist than a waster, he shows all the signs of addiction, the compulsion to steal, the excitement in the moment before he gives into his desire.
Pickpocket seems very much the archetypal Bresson film with its protagonist trying to find some kind of grace in a harsh indifferent world. A recurring theme in his work. I can appreciate its importance and its influence but I like other films by this director more. The Trial of Joan of Arc (62) with its screenplay gleamed from the remaining transcripts of the actual trial, his odd moving deconstruction of Arthurian romance Lancelot du Lac (74), and his final movie L’ Argent (83) which updates a Tolstoy short story and follows the descent into criminality of a young man falsely accused of laundering money.
Bit late with my March post but I finally saw Downhill Racer, the excellent feature debut of Michael Ritchie (1938-2001) and he followed it up with two equally impressive movies, the prescient political drama The Candidate (70) and the offbeat gangster versus rednecks thriller Prime Cut (72). I’d seen the latter two of those films but never Downhill Racer which is quite hard to come by in the UK so I had to import the Criterion release from the States which is no bad thing given how well they treat their releases. Ritchie has long become one of the forgotten men of American cinema which is a shame because his first three films seemed to promise more than the eclectic output which followed his early success. Like an athlete Ritchie did his best work as a young man.
Sports dramas Bad News Bears (76) & Semi Tough (77) are entertaining enough but not quite in the same league. It’s hard not to like a film as utterly deranged as The Island (80) with its tale of a long lost tribe of pirates abducting Michael Caine but it seriously damaged Ritchie’s reputation. I’m an 80s’ kid so I’ll always feel fondly towards The Golden Child (86) and the Fletch movies. Boxing movie Diggstown (92) is the closest Ritchie showed to recovering his early brilliance but instead his career petered out in the 90s’with the sentimental sports drama The Scout (94) and the unwatchable Martin Short comedy A Simple Wish (97).
Gene Hackman plays the coach of the struggling US skiing team forced to bring in a replacement (Redford) after one of his stars is badly injured. Despite his misgivings about his attitude. Back in the 60s’ the US team were considered outsiders so Downhill Racer would have felt more like an underdog story back then. It’s understated though with James Salter’s subtle screenplay more interested in the cost of winning than sporting heroics. It’s a fascinating character study of a driven, opaque, unreachable figure. Talented but set apart from other people by his dedication to his sport and his lack of understanding for other people, particularly the sophisticated European beauty (Camilla Sparv) who rejects him.
I noted with interest Ritchie’s first credit was making a film about Joan of Arc for the BBC’s documentary series Omnibus. At that time Omnibus was doing ground-breaking work pioneering the drama-documentary notably allowing Ken Russell free reign with his dramatic interpretations of the lives of composers and artists. Ritchie seems to have taken some of these stylistic touches back to the US. Something Robert Redford picked up on as he searched for a director for Downhill Racer after Roman Polanski departed the project for Rosemary’s Baby (68). Redford noticed a tendency towards filming scenes in interesting ways despite the limitations of the otherwise generic material. Ritchie brings the same naturalistic approach to Downhill Racer with dialogue scenes seeming like filmed conversations rather than the actors delivering lines from James Salter’s excellent screenplay. Point of view shots as the racers hurtle down slopes gives an idea of the adrenaline rush of competing and the danger involved in such a high risk sport.
Really pleased to have finally seen this. And with its focus on a lone figure battling against the elements Downhill Racer it makes a great companion piece with Redford’s recent All is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor).