Trevor Nunn’s movie Red Joan, starring Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench, claims to be ‘based on incredible true events’, namely the life of Melita Norwood. But the story told by the film is so far from the truth it’s nonsense.
When I began working at the Freie Universität Berlin last September, I put up on the door of my office a photo of Bernhard Trautmann, captioned with Lev Yashin’s remark: ‘There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester, Trautmann.’
The reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Homs in February 2012. A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s movie based on her life, begins with archival footage of Colvin being asked by an interviewer what she would want a young journalist to know about being a war correspondent. Her answer comes in two parts: first, that you should care enough to write in a way that makes others care; second, some tough-sounding advice on not acknowledging fear until the job is done.
Every generation gets the scam artists it deserves. To a list that includes Elizabeth Holmes, Dan Mallory and Billy McFarland, should we now add the name Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the Russian film director responsible for Dau, which finally opened in Paris at the end of January, and closes this weekend?
Lorenza Mazzetti now runs a puppet theatre for children in Rome. But in London in the 1950s, when she was in her early twenties, she begged, borrowed and stole camera equipment to film K, an adaption of Metamorphosis, in a storage space in Notting Hill and a fabric shop in Soho with no script and a non-professional cast who had never heard of Kafka. Her next project, Together, the first publicly funded British fiction film directed by a woman, portrays the friendship between two dockworkers. Both characters are deaf; there’s no dialogue. Filmed in the streets, wharfs, pubs and fairgrounds of the bombed-out East End in 1956, Together woke British audiences up to a different kind of cinema.
Fascism in fiction has been in vogue for a while now: the television versions of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle, Penguin’s republication (on the day of Trump’s inauguration) of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, people scurrying to the bookshelves to note all the pre-echoes of Steve Bannon’s politics in Philip Roth’s The Plot against America. I don’t know what emotional need these might-have-beens and could-it-yet-bes serve, unless it’s a version of ferreting around in Nostradamus for strings of words that might be contorted into a prediction of something that’s just happened: things feel more manageable when you can tell yourself that someone saw this coming.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell, who died yesterday at the age of 91, wrote a piece on the Marx Brothers for the LRB in 1993: Movies magnify, so when pictures began talking they magnified words. Somehow, as in the case of opera’s magnification of words, this made their words mostly ignorable, like the ground, as if the industrialised human species had been looking for a good excuse to get away from its words, or looking for an explanation of the fact that we do get away, even must.
On 30 May, when the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, reported dead the day before, appeared at a press conference in Kyiv, the Russian-language internet responded with the meme 'Tsoi lives'. The rock star Viktor Tsoi and his new wave band, Kino ('cinema', 'film') – with their simple but powerful lyrics, fresh tunes and the frontman's low, casually drawn-out, artfully accented baritone – were hugely famous in the 1980s. A university friend of mine lost much of his street cred when, on hearing someone say, 'Let's put some Kino on,' he replied: 'What film?' Tsoi died in a car crash in 1990, aged 28. 'Tsoi walls', covered in slogans and lyrics, have since sprung up in several cities, along with a number of sculptures, including one of Tsoi on a motorbike (he never rode one).
The Washington Post has acquired the Pentagon Papers, the New York Times is gagged, powerful men are against her – will Katharine Graham do it? Will she risk her newspaper’s future, her friendships and allegiances, her family’s legacy? Most important, will she find her voice? The climactic scene in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated The Post gets the full Meryl Streep treatment. So far in the movie we have seen Graham ignored, interrupted and silenced. She hesitates, fumbles, is uncomfortable in her clothes. The scene suggests that we are witness not only to the victory of a free press, but also the coming into being of a powerful woman.
All the frocks at the Golden Globe Awards this year were black, bar three. The unofficial dress code was to publicise Time's Up, a new organisation campaigning against sexual harassment, workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap. Its founders are a mix of A-listers from film and TV, and A-listers from politics and law (including Christina Tchen, Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, and Roberta Kaplan, who brought Edie Windsor's case to the Supreme Court and thereby the Defence of Marriage Act to an end). The red-carpet blackout was a spectacle. Time’s Up’s muscle is a crowd-sourced legal defence fund to support working-class women pursuing harassment cases. The money isn't only for lawyers. Recipients will get help with filing fees, travel, and the other hidden expenses that keep poor women from seeking justice in the courts. After three weeks, the pot is $16.5 million.
On 13 December, the New York Times published an article on the scrubbing of Kevin Spacey’s performance as J. Paul Getty from final prints of the film All the Money in the World. A fast reshoot had slotted Christopher Plummer into every scene that included Spacey; the dazzled reporter, Brooks Barnes, paid homage to the genius and alacrity of the director, Ridley Scott; and they called it in the print edition ‘Daring Act to Save Face’ – a sort of sick pun, and the matter is not so cute when you think about it. Scott was prompted by his recognition that the accusations against Spacey, from unwanted touch to groping to rape – which may turn out to be true, false or exaggerated, in unknown combinations – would damage the box-office take of All the Money in the World. Accordingly, he reworked the film against his original vision, in order to guard against a boycott. The boycott, however, was only speculative; the expunging and substitution were real.
Some reviewers of the film Goodbye Christopher Robin are saying that A.A. Milne had post-traumatic stress disorder. Yes, he was at the front during the Battle of the Somme; in August 1916 he was a signals officer there, and worked in no man’s land. But PTSD didn’t send him home. He was brought down by trench fever (bartonellosis). A bacterial infection spread by body lice (not those of the head or pubes), it causes a high fever, which repeats itself a few times every five days. It doesn’t kill, but sometimes leaves its victims feeling weak for many months. This happened to Milne. After being invalided home, he lost weight and developed fatigue, said to be caused by ‘overwork’, but much more likely due to the persistent effects of Bartonella quintana. In the early autumn of 1917 he spent three weeks at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, then a convalescent hospital for officers.
It is a political cliché that tails sometimes wag dogs. The metaphor isn’t instantly decipherable though. Politics has no shortage of figurative fauna – from snakes in the grass and stalking horses to big beasts and dinosaurs – but a wagged dog is more complex than it sounds.
Margot Hielscher, the German TV actress and Eurovision star, died on 20 August, aged 97. A singer and general forces’ sweetheart during the Second World War, she was also probably the last surviving woman to have had an affair with Goebbels. She had been working in the film studio at Babelsberg as a costume designer when she caught the propaganda minister’s eye. Her first role was as a handmaid to Mary Queen of Scots in the anti-English Das Herz der Königin (‘The Queen’s Heart’, 1940); she went on to star in Frauen sind Keine Engel ('Women are no Angels', 1943), singing the title song which became her signature tune. She was still a large-eyed, striking and very well-preserved brunette when I interviewed her in the early 1990s.
Ten million people in South Korea, one-fifth of the population, have watched Jang Hoon’s movie A Taxi Driver (Taeksi Woonjunsa) since it was released on 2 August. When I went to see it in Times Square, there were seven of us in the audience. The film is set in May 1980, during the mass democratic uprising – and ensuing military crackdown – in the southwestern city of Gwangju. A German reporter, Jürgen Hinzpeter, was one of the few foreign journalists to witness the events. In the movie, Song Kang-ho plays a cabbie who drives Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann) the two hundred miles from Seoul to Gwangju. The story is real, though greased with sentimentality as well as the bbong jjak pop music and fashions of the era.
On my first visit to Algiers, in 2002, I met a friend for dinner in the abattoir neighbourhood. The city's great slaughterhouses are among the oldest in North Africa. ‘There is nothing like the meat in the abattoirs,’ my friend insisted. We ate skewers of grilled lambs’ kidneys: rich, salty, succulent cubes of meat served with nothing but baguettes to wrap them in. The abattoirs are now the site of a future ruin, slated for destruction to make way for a new national assembly. In 2013, a group of artists circulated a petition calling on the government to turn them into an arts centre that would preserve their memory as part of Algeria’s cultural heritage. Hassen Ferhani, a young filmmaker, spent two months inside a slaughterhouse. The result is an oddly beautiful film, Dans ma tête un rond-point (‘A Roundabout in My Head’), which Ferhani presented last week at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
Reading interviews with Paul Verhoeven on the publicity trail for his latest movie, Elle, you get the sense he might be disappointed at the relative lack of outrage over his ‘psycho-thriller’. The film, based on Philippe Djian’s prize-winning 2012 novel, Oh…, stars Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc. It begins with her being raped by a man in a ski mask, who has broken into her house.
It’s one of the most memorable close-ups in film: Madeleine LeBeau, as Yvonne, tears streaming down her face, shouts 'Vive La France!' after joining the patrons of Rick's Café Americain in the ‘Marseillaise’ to drown out the Nazis’ singing of ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’. LeBeau died on 1 May, at the age of 92; she was the last surviving cast member of Casablanca.
One of the earliest movies on which Alfred Hitchcock is known to have worked is the 1922 British silent Three Live Ghosts. The original is gone, together with Hitchcock’s intertitles, but last year a copy was found in Moscow. When the organisers of the British Silent Film Festival asked me to translate the Russian intertitles back into English, I wondered how to go about trying to recreate Hitchcock’s style, but I needn’t have worried: the Russian intertitles have little in common with the lost originals. ‘The film treats of the consequences of the World War in a positively dangerous and unacceptable manner, promotes friendship between socially antagonistic classes, and should therefore be banned,’ the Soviet censor concluded in 1925. But it wasn’t banned; it was re-edited instead.
Judi Dench’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel describes India as ‘an assault on the senses’. It’s a view shared by most British and American films set in India, from Slumdog Millionaire to The Darjeeling Limited and Life of Pi. Movies that look beyond the tourist guide book, especially independent Indian films, tend to disappear from UK cinema screens more quickly. Chaitanya Tamhane's ambitious first feature film, Court, goes on general if limited release in the UK tomorrow (it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2014).
Maurice White’s death on Thursday brought back memories of his brilliant music and put ‘September’ on repeat on millions of stereos. It also conjured, for me, some odd family history. In 1975, when I was eight, a film called That’s the Way of the World was released in America. Harvey Keitel starred in the story of a hotshot record producer’s struggles with art and mammon. The screenplay was written by my father, the sports journalist and fiction writer Robert Lipsyte, and the soundtrack was by Earth, Wind and Fire, who also appear in the movie as the Group, a band with a groundbreaking sound but not enough commercial appeal. Keitel is ordered by his music biz bosses, who answer to mob heavies, to concentrate his formidable knob-turning prowess on some Carpenters rip-offs.
At the Jules Ferry refugee centre in Calais on Saturday there were hundreds of men clamouring to get in to listen to Handel’s Messiah but the gates were closed, with 700 people already inside. I was there with Play 4 Calais, an offshoot of the Lexi social enterprise cinema in North London, spearheaded by the actress Alix Wilton Regan. The aim was to bring four days of film screenings to some of the Jungle refugee camp’s estimated 6500 inhabitants, including children who are waiting to be reunited with their parents in the UK.
Chantal Akerman’s films don’t have conventional plots with a beginning, middle and end. Yet nearly all the obituaries, following her death at the age of 65 this month, described how Akerman was inspired to make her first film at the age of 18 after watching Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, and said that Gus Van Sant cited Akerman as one of his major inspirations. Over and over, we were given her genesis as a filmmaker and the promise of her reincarnation, bookended by two credible male auteurs.
Orango hated communists. Part man, part ape, he was the product of a French biologist’s experiments in inseminating monkeys with human sperm. The human overcame the animal in him and in the early 20th century he rose to become a star journalist and media mogul, using his power to attack the fledgling Soviet Union. But the more he ranted about the evils of the working class and communism, the more ape-like he became, both physically and psychologically, descending into violence and finally madness. By this point a world cataclysm had brought down the bourgeois order, and Orango was sold to a Soviet circus: shown off at Red Square parades as the ape who could blow his nose like a human being. This is where Shostakovich’s opéra bouffe Orango opens. Indeed it is the only scene we have.
When Vittorio De Sica was looking for funding to make the film that became Bicycle Thieves, the story goes, David O. Selznick offered to put up the money on condition that the lead would be played by Cary Grant. Film historians tend to take this as an instance of Hollywood crassness, though maybe it should be classed as one of cinema’s lost opportunities.
In his film Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako shows a traditional Muslim society overrun by outsiders claiming they have the God-given authority to tell everyone what to do. The film is inspired by the 2012 takeover of much of Northern Mali by jihadist and other rebel groups. It is both specific to its setting and raises questions about struggles playing out across the Muslim world. I can't think of another creative work that takes such an imaginative, subtle, assured look at Islamist militancy and its effects.
Looking around her apartment in the Dakota above Central Park, Lauren Bacall saw ‘my several lives’ surrounding her. ‘Going from room to room,’ she writes in her 1994 memoir, Now, ‘I am faced with one or more of my collections, my follies: books, pewter, brass, Delft, majolica, tables, chairs, things... how did it happen, the acquiring of all this, the accumulation of it? Now that I have it all, what do I do with it? Who will want it?’ Quite a few people, it turns out: at the auction of Bacall’s belongings at Bonhams last week, every lot sold, from the Henry Moore sculptures to the Louis Vuitton luggage to the Ted Kennedy lithograph of daffodils (the auctioneer joked about the ‘collective gasp’ in the crowd when he announced that this one had ‘lots of pre-sale interest’), to the miniature bronze statue of Bogart in his gumshoe get-up (14 inches high; $16,250).
Dior and I, a documentary following Dior’s new creative director Raf Simons as he prepares his first haute couture collection (autumn-winter 2012), tries to summon up the fashion house’s ghosts while ignoring several elephants in the room.
In January 1983, police in Los Angeles arrested frogmen bringing 400 pounds of cocaine ashore from a Colombian freighter. But they missed their main target, the drug importer Norwin Meneses, who may have been tipped off by officials. In August 1986, a US Customs informant, Joseph Kelso, told his handlers that Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Costa Rica were sharing profits from Meneses’s LA drug shipments. The Costa Rican police arrested Kelso.
On Christmas day at 3.05 p.m. I managed to see The Interview. It was not so easy. It was playing at the Cinema Village, a pocket size three-screen theatre in Greenwich Village which specialises in obscure foreign films and other exotica. When I showed up at 2.30 all performances were sold out except the 1 a.m. but I joined the standby line and just at 3.03 managed to get in and find a seat in the very back of the theatre. There were some TV people outside both when I entered and left. What they expected I have no idea.
'Wild' would be a generous way to describe the use of historical detail in The Imitation Game, the movie about Alan Turing. 'Based on', 'sourced from', so they say, but what in The Imitation Game isn’t invention? And why? Anyone who's read Andrew Hodges’s biography of the mathematician, or Mavis Batey’s book about Dillwyn Knox, with whom Turing worked at Bletchley from 1939 until Knox's death in 1943, will ask themselves why the movie made up so much when the tales of Turing and his colleagues are unbeatable stuff.
Beauty, acting, stardom: we do and don't want to think it all takes work. Jennifer Lawrence is a gift to both points of view: a disciplined pro with a bow and arrow, who really did skin that squirrel for Winter's Bone, and who already at 24 has three Best Actress Oscar nominations (and a win) behind her, she's also the pointedly low-maintenance everygirl who drinks too much and throws up, trips over her dress when accepting her Academy Award, announces on the red carpet that her strapless Dior dress is giving her ‘armpit vaginas’. Stephen Colbert riffed on her reputation for earthy authenticity when he suggested that, like Katniss Everdeen, her character in the Hunger Games movies, she was plucked from obscurity to become an eventual role model, and that Kentucky, where she was born and grew up, is ‘a little District 12-y in places’.
‘Do you really like movies?’ a weary Lindsay Lohan asks another woman in The Canyons (2013), Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’s languid micro-budget thriller. ‘Maybe it’s just not my thing any more.’ Widely considered uninsurable, Lohan has had a hard time getting cast in anything for years: the footage of her social life and legal troubles has been far outstripping her film career for a very long time, and she’s still only 28.
Last week someone on Twitter sent me a photograph of the late German iconoclast Rainer Werner Fassbinder, decked out in the crisp white livery of FC Bayern Munich. Ach, der einzige Fassbinder! A waxy faced slob who worked harder than anyone alive; a queer and dreamy aesthete who necked Bavarian beer by the steinful and counted German league football an all-consuming passion. (All Fassbinder’s passions were all consuming: this was both his song, and his downfall.)
When that I was and a little tiny boy, or at any rate about 14 years old, I was deeply disconcerted by J.G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, set in a London submerged by the melting of the polar icecaps under a tropical swamp. Now I see it for the utopian dream it was – tropical? We should be so lucky. Hey ho, the wind and the rain.
Publicity materials for The Room, an independently financed ‘emotional drama’, began to appear in Los Angeles in the spring of 2003. Postcards turned up in restaurant toilets, there were late-night TV ads, and on 1 April a poster featuring a giant mugshot of Tommy Wiseau – the film’s writer, director, producer and star – went up on a billboard on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, where it stayed for five years.
‘One of the most wonderful places you can find anywhere,’ Will Rex wrote in Picture Play in April 1916, ‘is Fort Lee, that magic New Jersey town across the Hudson from New York City where murders, robbers and Indian chases take place while the police force – his name is Pat – leans, yawningly, against a convenient lamp post.’
Johnathan Gurfinkel’s movie S#x Acts, which opened last month in Israel and the US, begins with a teenage girl (played by Sivan Levy) taking selfies on her laptop, her sometimes smiling, sometimes pouting face periodically illuminated by the flash of the computer’s camera. Gili has just transferred to a new high school in a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb, and is trying to attract the attentions of Tomer (Roy Nik), a richer, more privileged, more popular boy in her class. In the next scene, Tomer and his friend Omri (Eviatar Mor) are leaving a cinema in a mall. Pulling out their phones, they see Gili has posted one of the pictures on Tomer’s Facebook wall. ‘Look what a loser this girl is,’ he says. But Omri soon convinces him to call her.
Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Square still hasn’t been screened in Cairo. It was scheduled to play at a local film festival but pulled at the last minute; the Censor’s Office has still not approved the movie’s general release. It’s not hard to see why. The scenes of revolutionary fervour and army and police brutality are at odds with the prevailing version of events here, in which generals are saviours and all protesters suspects.
Leviathan – showing in (a very few) cinemas in London from tomorrow – is a portrait of a commercial fishing trawler, its crew, their haul and the ocean that surrounds them. Made by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, Leviathan strands its audience at sea, hurls you around and then slowly drowns you – first in fish guts, then in a dark watery abyss. The directors, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, were inspired by Moby-Dick; they read aloud from the novel on deck while filming.
Not many adults will know about the Tobuscus riot of September 2012, by the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, but it makes for one of the best sequences in Beeban Kidron’s documentary film about teens and the internet, InRealLife. Tobuscus, the hideously hyper, pretty-as-a-pony YouTube performer, tweeted his followers to suggest a ‘meetup’ when he was visiting from LA. About a thousand turned up and lots of them got hysterical. Tobuscus had to escape over iron railings, impaling his hand as he did so. ‘Did you die for our sins, man?’ a follower wrote on Instagram. Police came and broke it up. ‘YouTube is a beast,’ Tobuscus says in Kidron’s movie, mugging and sniggering in a way that makes it difficult to tell if he’s upset or only acting, which is what he’s always like. He films himself so much and so often, he probably doesn’t know for sure himself.
When I was fifteen, my form teacher, to punish me for my ‘unladylike shrieking’ in the school corridor, made me write out a quotation from King Lear a hundred times in my neatest handwriting: Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman. Never mind that Lear speaks the lines over Cordelia’s corpse. The episode came back to me recently when I saw Lake Bell’s film In a World..., about a female voiceover artist struggling to break into the male-dominated movie-trailer scene.
A.O. Scott in the New York Times called The East a 'neat little thriller about ends and means and ethical quandaries'. Betsy Sharkey in the LA Times said it's a 'dizzying cat and mouse game with all sorts of moral implications'. Richard Brody in the New Yorker called it 'absurdly superficial and tendentious'.
The young French journalist at the next café table was moaning disconsolately into his iPhone. ‘C’est idiot! C’est superficiel! I came here for serious cinema – but there’s nothing here but le showbusiness!’ It was his first visit to the Cannes Film Festival, and two days in, he was shocked at the preponderance of glitter. I don’t normally make a big thing of playing the seasoned old hand on the Croisette – although this year was my 21st visit to the festival – but I couldn’t help leaning over and reassuring him that there was plenty of seriousness to be found in Cannes, despite the opening days’ obsession with glamour. In fact, there could hardly have been a more misleading opening film than Baz Luhrmann’s bling-laden 3D version of The Great Gatsby.
During the Istanbul Film Festival last month, police used water cannon, tear gas and batons to disperse a crowd, Costa-Gavras among them, who were protesting against the imminent destruction of the Emek Theatre. Built in 1924 as the Melek Sineması in the former Club des Chasseurs de Constantinople, the cinema closed in 2010. It has been an object of contention ever since plans were announced that the state-owned building would be torn down and replaced with yet another shopping mall, as happened to the nearby Saray Sineması. The government and the construction firm they leased the building to, Kamer İnşaat, say that the Emek will be preserved and moved to the mall’s fourth floor. This seems unlikely, considering that it’s an 875-seat, single-screen theatre.
Michael Wood on Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (LRB, 20 December 2012): The film would be worth seeing for this performance alone. All the apparatus of a Lincoln portrait is in place, as it would have to be: the beard, the stoop, the hat, the long coat. It’s a bit like putting together a kit for dressing up as Groucho Marx.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is consciously restrictive, concentrating as it does on how the vote was manipulated and the 13th Amendment passed, but Mrs Lincoln is not exactly missing from the movie. So why didn’t the scriptwriter Tony Kushner, a staunch gay rights activist who ‘personally believe[s] that there is some reason to speculate that Lincoln might have been bisexual or gay’, include any of that speculation in the film? There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Lincoln slept with a number of men. In an interview with Gold Derby, Kushner said:
Like many of my contemporaries I saw Emmanuelle in its much-censored British version at the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square. I went with my first long-term boyfriend. We were both working in Foyles in our gap year, commuting in from Sevenoaks or thereabouts and I suspect that beneath the somewhat laconic discussion afterwards we were a bit shocked by it. I know for a fact that I was. It must have been almost exactly ten years later that I met Sylvia Kristel when she opened her front door to me in Ghent.
A few years ago I wrote to Chris Marker about Staring Back, a book and exhibition of his photographs. Many of the two hundred images, made across half a century, were of political protest: from demonstrations against the Algerian and Vietnam wars to marches in response to the electoral success of the National Front in 2002 and the liberalisation of French labour laws in 2006. I was hoping – rather against hope, given his well known attitude to publicity – for an interview on the subject of his portraits of protesters, maybe even a meeting at his legendarily crammed studio in Paris. A reply came back within minutes; Marker was simply too busy: ‘crushed under my present grind’. He was happy to reminisce by email about his visits to Ireland, but if I needed a thread through his imagery I would have to unspool it myself.
A very long trailer for the very long film version of David Mitchell's very long novel Cloud Atlas, directed by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, and starring multiple Tom Hankses and Halle Berrys, is propagating across the internet, with Warner Bros' lawyers in hot pursuit. It would be nice to think they're trying to repress the trailer because it makes the film look utterly terrible: lots of dreary CGI, clunking explicatory voice overs, bombastic score, intertitles announcing the themes as 'death life birth future present past love hope courage everything is connected'. 'You've saved me twice,' one of the Berrys says to one of the Hankses. 'You fall, I'll catch you,' he replies. Barf.
Since 2003, the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna has included a section of 100-year-old films; last month, 89 movies from 1912 were projected, with scattered additions from just before and just after. No other initiative has so vigorously forced scholars and archivists to rethink cinema’s first years; words like ‘primitive’ or ‘static’ have had to be discarded in the face of the breadth and invention of the films shown in Bologna.
On Sunday night, the Cannes competition jury got it right. It can’t have been a hard decision: the competition this year was filled with acceptable rather than outstanding films, and one work that was so clearly a great achievement that it would have been perverse to award the Palme d’Or to anything else. In recent years, I’ve grown slightly weary of the august, knowingly assured maestria of Michael Haneke. But in Amour, he has not only revealed an unsuspected tenderness, but also broken a significant cinematic taboo: old age.
From Amsterdam Centraal it looks as if a flying saucer crash-landed on the other side of the IJ. But as the ferry leaves the railway station and crosses the water towards the EYE Film Museum, designed by Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, the building seems to shift form, and there’s a pleasing, if baldly angular, aerodynamism to it that doesn’t lessen the retro-modernist aesthetic but makes the shape more interesting. However, like so many recent museum designs this one seems intent on rivalling, if not overshadowing, the works inside.
At many major film festivals, there’s a significant gap between appearance and reality – perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in Berlin. On the surface, this is as showbizzy an event as any.
Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist has been nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It was produced in France but got out of Best Foreign Language Film jail because, being silent, it doesn’t have a ‘predominantly non-English dialogue track’. It’s always described as a silent film, but it’s more closely related to movies of the sound era about the transition from silence to sound:
It was all set to be grand night out. A special preview of Coriolanus at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford, to be followed by a Q&A with the film’s director and star, Ralph Fiennes. But he failed to show up. Fortunately I had brought a bag of Revels with me. They kept me going for the first ten minutes, during which Coriolanus, set in modern war-torn somewhere, is unrelentingly khaki.
Near the end of Steven Soderbergh’s epidemipic Contagion, as the bodies pile up around the world, a scientist goes to visit her dying father in hospital. She takes off her face mask. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks. ‘It’s OK,’ she says, and kisses him on the forehead. In a previous scene we’ve seen her inject herself with an experimental vaccine, and now she's testing it. ‘Do you remember Dr Barry Marshall?’ she says. ‘He thought that bacteria, not stress, caused ulcers. Gave himself the bug and then cured himself. You taught me about him.’ The New York Times journalist Lawrence Altman called his history of self-experimentation in medicine Who Goes First? When I got home from the cinema I found a flyer with a jaunty space-invader graphic lying on the floor among the kebab-house menus and cab-company cards. ‘Help us beat cold and flu bugs!’ it said. ‘Help save extra lives.’ I read on:
The Venice Film Festival still trades on its glamorous reputation, but the truth is a little more tawdry. The Lido’s legendary Grand Hôtel des Bains, where until recently stars would lounge on the verandas, is now boarded up, pending refurbishment as luxury apartments. The festival itself takes place in a decidedly unswanky enclosed compound, much of it sectioned off as a building project in never-ending progress. Nevertheless Venice sustains its prestige through stars.
The figures are impressive. In December 2009, a poll of 217 drivers in Formula One, past and present, voted Ayrton Senna the best of all time. Three-quarters of more than 12,000 readers of Autosport agreed. Senna held records long after he was killed on the Imola circuit in 1994 and no one has yet matched his six wins at Monte Carlo, arguably the trickiest track of all. He devoted a good part of his $400 million fortune to a children’s charity in Brazil, the crowd at his funeral in São Paulo was the largest ever in the city, and on the sort of count that the medieval Church used to keep of shrines, it is said that his grave is visited by more people than those of John Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley combined. ‘Nothing,’ his headstone says, ‘can separate me from the love of God.’ And he was pretty. If ever there was a subject for film.
It wouldn’t have been my choice, but I can’t really argue with the Cannes jury’s decision to award the Palme d’Or to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I found its overarching cosmic aspirations indigestible – the film felt like an attempt to refit the Sublime for the IMAX era – but Malick was undeniably determined to challenge narrative cinema’s traditional limitations. The film that I hoped would win outright was Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia.
Some people – and this is very evident in Cannes – like to think of the cinema as a church. But the church can be a cathedral, as in the case of Terence Malick’s hyperbolic cosmological statement The Tree of Life, or it can be an austere, draughty chapel with hard benches, which is what you get with Bruno Dumont. I’m more of the Dumont persuasion, personally, although I couldn’t help gasping in awe at much of the Malick film, just as it may be hard not to gasp at a church organ being played extremely loud.
Pious as it’s tempting to be about Cannes, the European shrine of world cinema, you just have to look around to be reminded that this is a town for sale. The front of the Hotel Carlton is decked with lavish advertising for forthcoming Hollywood product such as Cars 2, Cowboys and Aliens and the next Transformers sequel. The lawn of another hotel, the Grand – formerly the town’s one oasis of green open space – is covered with gleaming white pavilions emblazoned with the logos of Grey Goose and Audi. Yet cinephiles continue to persuade themselves that we come to Cannes to prostrate ourselves at the altar of le septième art at its most rarefied. Moviegoing here is attended by something close to religious belief. French critics will talk of waiting for ‘des révélations’; we’re all after cinematic miracles, hoping for a film that will either shine from the screen or, at least, change some of the rules and sweep away some of our preconceptions.
On the same day that the architect of the Gherkin announced the death of the skyscraper, it emerged that Little, Brown have paid a ‘high six-figure sum’ for a romance, set in 2008 just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, between an out-of work-architect and a recently retired banker. So while we live through the consequences of the credit crunch – the Sure Start centres closing, the paramedics being sacked, the libraries disappearing – it seems we want to relive the moment in a cosy rom-com mode.
As a child formed by classic studio films – I didn’t realise when I was six that The Philadelphia Story was made and took place in the past – I spent a lot of time wondering what colour the black-and-white stars’ clothes were. Edith Head had glasses with blue lenses to give her a sense of the way colours would look in shades in grey, but there was no magic device to reverse the process. (From 1948, when Costume Design was added to the list of Oscar categories, until 1957 there were separate awards for black-and-white and colour films.) Costume was one of the many areas where realism went out the window: actors on screen wore whatever photographed well. No matter how delusional Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond gets, when she snakes towards the camera for her close-up at the end of Sunset Boulevard, she’s wearing a black dress with a pale beaded shawl draped across her right shoulder: the craziness of the effect comes from the way it's worn, not the outfit itself.
When the Lumière brothers filmed workers leaving a factory in 1895, one assumes their subjects were clocking off at 5 p.m. – but it would be nice to know for sure. If the Lumières had thought to include a timepiece somewhere in the frame, Christian Marclay could have used it in his new video work The Clock (showing till 13 November at White Cube Mason’s Yard).
The entry on Heath Ledger was inadvertently dropped from the fifth edition of 'The Biographical Dictionary of Film', out next month. It will be included in the sixth edition. In the meantime, here it is. Heath Ledger was only 28 when he died, so he was four years older than James Dean at that unexpected moment. Yet he feels less of a loss than Dean. Unless you loved Ledger, and only love inspires true loss. Perhaps we have to admit that no one now really loves movie stars as people did when Dean died in 1955. But if Dean had lived – he’d be close to 80 – would all of us have become dismayed by a boredom that settled on him? Isn’t that what happened with Brando? I don’t mean Brando was boring in person, but he had wearied of being Marlon Brando and lost faith in acting and pretending.
Hollywood loves a movie about a maverick individual taking on the might of a giant corporation – think of films like Erin Brockovich, Public Enemy or The Insider – but one breed of behemoth is unsurprisingly immune from scrutiny. Hollywood's ‘big six’ studios – Paramount (a subsidiary of Viacom), Twentieth Century Fox (News Corporation), Columbia (Sony), Warner Brothers (Time Warner), Universal (General Electric) and Disney – may have their principal place of business in California, but they’re all incorporated in Delaware.
When my father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer twenty months ago, the first thing his doctors decided to do was fit him with a stoma, which turned out to be a less dispiriting term for giving him a colostomy. He had private health insurance, so he was booked in at a small hospital outside Brighton with a view of the sea and, he was assured, a functioning wireless network. He bought a new laptop to take along – not for working on a book he’d always meant to write or even, primarily, for sending emails, but for playing Scrabble against opponents on the internet while convalescing. My brother and I visited him soon after the operation, and I remember thinking, on the way in, about the scene in Blue Velvet in which Kyle MacLachlan visits his father in hospital. As I remembered it, the father’s horribly trussed up, with a respirator pumping and an oxygen mask on his face, as a result of his heart attack in the opening scene. My dad, post-surgery, looked healthier than Kyle’s, but he did have a transparent oxygen mask on, and after I kissed him he indicated it and said: ‘It’s like Blue Velvet!’ I think he meant Dennis Hopper's more memorable gas mask, and I admired him for joking about that then.
The highlight of the April issue of Cahiers du Cinéma is an interview with Slavoj Žižek. Following up on a piece he wrote about Avatar, reprinted in the March issue of Cahiers, he confesses to his interviewers that he hasn’t seen the film; as a good Lacanian, the idea is enough, and we must trust theory. Žižek promises that he will see the film and then write a Stalinist ‘self-criticism’.
A 'world exclusive clip’ from Roman Polanski’s new movie, an adaptation of Robert Harris's novel The Ghost. This scene tries to make a publishing meeting look as thrillerishly thrilling as a national security briefing or a gang of bank robbers planning one last heist. Though I suspect that outside the movies national security briefings and plots to rob banks are more like publishing meetings than the way they're represented on screen.
The victory at the Oscars of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker over James Cameron’s Avatar was generally perceived as a good sign of the state of things in Hollywood: a low-budget, independent film overcomes a superproduction whose technical brilliance cannot cover up the flat simplicity of its story. So Hollywood is not just a blockbuster machine, but still knows how to appreciate marginal creative efforts. Well, maybe. But it’s also the case that, with all its mystifications, Avatar clearly takes the side of those who oppose the global military-industrial complex, while The Hurt Locker presents the US army in a way which is much more finely attuned to its own public image in our time of humanitarian interventions and militaristic pacifism.
It's one of those ironies of history: a by-product of the clerical revolution in Iran was the emergence of a new wave of Iranian cinema. Kiarostami became the most celebrated auteur in the west, but he was part of a much larger creative and critical community. They view each other’s work at rough-cut stage, they comment on scripts, they suggest actors: there is a strong sense of solidarity. The cinematic language is varied, the interior destiny of each filmmaker is different, but even the self-contained Makhmalbaf family benefits from being part of a larger group. Watching their work one can see the influences that stretch from Rossellini, Fellini and Godard to Kurosawa, Ray and Hou Hsia-hsien. I’ve always regarded one of this group, Jafar Panahi, as the country’s most fearless filmmaker.
Betsy Blair, a good friend of the London Review, whose charmed life was recently remembered in the New York Times’s 'The Lives They Led’, died last March. She once wrote a piece for the paper about informers, the FBI, the Hollywood blacklist and what you get when the FBI finally releases your file.
Most reviewers thought Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona was a fabulous return to form. The film even won the director a belated Oscar. I found it hard to reconcile the general praise with my own sense that the movie represented the most catastrophic artistic collapse since Ben Jonson’s ‘dotages’. That sense has been confirmed by Allen’s new film, Whatever Works. I wanted to love it, because I have loved so many Woody Allen films. But as in VCB, the characters are reduced to crude sketches of embodied attitudes, resembling no human being who ever lived or ever will. One of them is a ‘romantic’: we know this a) because he lives on a houseboat and b) because on several occasions he tells someone so.
They’re always at it, the entertainment-industry minebots, sinking down their boreholes, and sometimes, out it gushes, unbelievably thick and fast.
Jacques Audiard’s new film, A Prophet (which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and best film at the London Film Festival), is a prison thriller, yes, but an odd one. In the best scene our hero, Malik, is handcuffed in a car, being taken by a rival gang through the countryside near Marseille to the beach for negotiations (he’s on day release).
At the Basingstoke Odeon the other night, in an almost empty cinema, I counted six advertisements for different kinds of booze (two brands of vodka, one sweet liqueur, one bourbon and two beers, as the John Lee Hooker song doesn't quite go), three or four car ads, a couple for war-fantasy computer games and one recruiting for the Royal Marines. I resisted the urge to get drunk, get behind the wheel and dream about killing. The army recruitment spot came immediately after one of the computer games; they weren't easy to tell apart. But the sly slogan for the second game was a sobering corrective: 'As close to war as you'll ever want to get.' The movie that followed, Jennifer's Body, has been a massive flop. This is largely because the target audience, as the ads at the Odeon would seem to bear out, has been teenage boys and young men.
One of the many silly books being published for Halloween is The Horror Film Quiz Book. The questions are organised by film, though it might have been as well to categorise them according to difficulty. They range from the absurdly easy – 'who directed the original Psycho?' or 'For his main female lead roles Hitchcock chose girls with what hair colour?' – to the uttery impossible for anyone except the most committed horror nerd: 'What type of chainsaw was used in Texas Chainsaw Massacre?' Winter evening fun for all the family.
A strange thing can happen to film directors with a genuine style. It doesn’t always happen, but it often does: their life begins to impersonate their films. It is more typical to think of the process happening the other way round: John Ford is a drunken Irish brawler at heart, so he makes pictures imbued with the experience of hard-nosed pugilists transplanted from the poteen-stills of County Galway. But I’m just as interested in how artists can be shaped by the things they make: Orson Welles becomes a version of Charles Foster Kane; Visconti becomes a victim of betrayal; and Werner Herzog turns year by year into a grizzly Nosferatu who is totally creepy but also cuddly. To whatever extent Roman Polanski has his own filmic style, his life has impersonated it surreally.
If you made plot-straightening notes after Pulp Fiction, or ran Memento backwards, and still feel the world isn't ordered and explicable enough, take a look at this obsessive-compulsive wonderfulness, and weep with joy. (via Metafilter)
I wonder if Silvio Berlusconi, for his next coup of reactionary lawmaking, is considering a repeal of the 1971 legalisation of divorce. Before 1971, marriage in Italy really was more or less a case of till death did them part, though not many people resorted to the methods of Marcello Mastroianni's character in Pietro Germi's 1961 black comedy, Divorzio all'italiana.
I can’t have been the only one who was delighted when Barack Obama outed himself as a Trekkie while on the campaign trail last year, flashing Leonard Nimoy the Vulcan salute and assuring a Wyoming audience that despite his criticism of the bloated Nasa budget, the space programme was important to him: ‘I grew up on Star Trek. I believe in the final frontier,’ he told them. My president's a geek. More than that, Star Trek is a celebration of curiosity and self-improvement – and not a little socialist. Money has been abolished by the 24th century: ‘The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity,’ says Captain Picard. But an old piece in the LRB by Tom Shippey says that I have it wrong.
Jenny Turner recently wrote in the LRB about Stephenie Meyer's series of vampire novels and the film based on the first of them, Twilight. '"I wish I could be a vampire," I actually said out loud at one point.' It's a sentiment few people are likely to express after seeing Tomas Alfredson's beautiful and disturbing Låt den rätte komma in, which goes on general release in the UK today as Let the Right One In. It's set in a suburb of Stockholm in the winter of 1982. Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), an ethereal blond 12-year-old, the only child of separated and neglectful parents, is being bullied at school.