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Tuesday, 28 March 2017

French Film Festival (7) - Barrie Pattison gets a surprise from LES PREMIERS, LES DERNIERS/THE FIRST, THE LAST

Actor-director Bouli Lanners' Les premiers, les derniers/The First, the Last (France, 2015) is a surprise. I was sitting there thinking where do they expect to find an audience for a film about grubby losers looking for a stolen cell phone in Belgium’s urban Fringe blight - empty highways, abandoned warehouses, isolated farms and hotels - kind of like Eraserhead with Miklos Jansco straight line horizons? 

Then about fifteen minutes in, I realised I was enjoying it more than anything else I’d seen in this event. It’s actually surprising and endearing - and funny.

The grubby, none too bright characters converge. Albert Dupontel, in a personal best, and Lanners (both in Le grand soir) are retained by heavies to retrieve a stolen cell ‘phone and pistol, which turn out to be in the possession of  a marginally responsible pair of kids in road worker gear. The duo encounter Philippe Rebbot as Jesus. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, is interrupted by finding a mummified corpse which requires the attention of retired undertaker Max Von Sydow and an orchid growing Michel Lonsdale.

Michel Lonsdale, Max Von Sydow
Lanners’ heart puts him in hospital. Local nasties get sorted out for doing obscene fat man jokes in the seedy bar and Suzanne ClĂ©ment as one of those isolated farm women (La Grande Illusion, The Defiant Ones) that inhabit serious movies, drives off with Dupontel’s keys. Her shot gun is handy for taking out a dying stag. Rebbot, fresh from church and wanting to buy duct tape retail at the warehouse pulls it all together.

There proves to actually be a plot concerning a snuff movie which leads to a shoot out between a couple of gangs of hard men. By the time we get to the ending, with our heroes setting out on a new Odyssey we become actually quite involved with them.

Lanner’s El Dorado also runs to a pet dog and Jesus as characters. He proves to be a unique talent. Lonsdale and Von Sydow just have to breathe heavy to demonstrate what being great actors is all about. The 'scope technical work and the support cast, who have been around without attracting attention before this, are uniformly excellent.

That shot of Rebbot heading towards the three pylons on the hill is a nice companion to the ending of Being There.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

French Film Festival (6) - Finally, Tavernier's epic doco A JOURNEY THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA

Bertrand Tavernier
Finally watching Bertrand Tavernier’s three hour plus Voyage a travers le cinema francais at a session of the French Film Festival was not a little trying. The session due to start at 8.10 pm on a Sunday night was initially slightly hampered by the young door moppet’s need to keep spectators out while a cleaning of the theatre took place. Then followed 25 minutes of excruciating blow hard French advertising material mixing the odd trailer for other FFF ‘entries’ with endless puff about language courses, perfume, Renault cars and more. On and on it went and the audience was clearly attuned to it. Arrivals were still occurring right up to the very moment when the feature started at 8.36 pm. The credits were still rolling through at about 11.50 pm which given other reports makes you wonder if there are different versions of the film floating round. A steady trickle of exits were no longer present.

Jean Sacha
There have been plenty of opinions passed about Tavernier’s film, a diary of his film life from early childhood to somewhere in the sixties.  Barrie Pattison was the first to comment on this blog but others have mentioned it. From Becker to Sautet with side trips to lesser known figures like Edmond T Greville and the, to me, unknown Jean Sacha and his Eddie Constantine movies, Bertrand bobbles about talking direct to the camera and incorporating the odd bit of informational background. 

Georges de Beauregard
One such is the time devoted to the activity of Georges de Beauregard and his cottage industrial Rome-Paris Films. Film shot in the office shows Jean-Luc Godard on the phone and Georges de B. supposedly overseeing it all. One possibly tall tale has Claude Chabrol chuckling at a wheeze they pulled whereby Claude’s L'oeil du malin, France, 1962) was made for half the budget proposed thus enabling filming to be entirely funded by the German distributor’s advance. Still they also reported that at the first session of the film’s commercial season there wasn’t a single paid admission. What fun it must have been. 

Georges left a legacy of some forty films with maybe a good quarter of them forming a solid part of the backbone of the national filmography. Tavernier’s doco makes me especially want to see Pierre Schoendoerffer’s La 317eme section a film which here at least has eluded attention in its day and since.

I have long thought that if ever anybody wanted to try a different model of film-making beyond that of the deadening method whereby bureaucrats timidly allocate money for endless rounds of script development on a safety first basis, then you could do worse than backing a couple of producers like Georges de B, or Pierre Braunberger or Anatole Dauman. Simply tip a bucket of money their way, hope for the best and privatise all the guesswork. It would be more fun and eventually the piper’s tune would be called. 

The Duvivier Dossier (54) - Ken Wallin reports on Henri Alekan (1909-2001) and a note on Duvivier's ANNA KARENINA

Alexander Korda's production of Anna Karenina  (UK, 1948) with Vivien Leigh was remastered and issued on DVD in 2007.

Although I've had a copy for quite some time, it was filed and unviewed until the spate of Duvivier reviews on Film Alert last year reminded me to check it out.  Well, it didn't feel as stodgy as it seemed on tv  decades ago, but its not a major work from Duvivier. Of his English language films, Tales of Manhattan (USA, 1942) would be my pick.

Vivien Leigh is a subdued yet ultimately very affecting  Anna, but she is paired with a dull Kieron Moore as Vronsky instead of Laurence Olivier as Korda had wanted. The film thus fails to convey any real passion. Ralph Richardson makes such an outstanding Karenin that he garners more sympathy than the lovers with his subtly shaded performance.

Duvivier's Anna does have its outstanding passages however, and these mainly involve the train stations and journeys, the recurring dream portent of the railway worker (tapper of wheels!) and the culminating suicide under the train. The effectiveness of these sequences owes much to the brilliant camerawork of Henri Alekan, who creates a palpably brooding nocturnal atmosphere of snow and ice (also rain at times), steam and isolated pools of light. See the the smooth transition from train miniatures using steam to our first first glimpse of Anna through a snow encrusted train window for example. Or savour the high angle shot of Anna crossing the station platform beneath a swaying lantern just before boarding her last train.

Henri Alezan
Alekan is a fascinating case of a brilliant cinema photographer who worked exclusively in Europe, I think, though with many English language films to his credit made either in England or with American and English directors on European locations , Roman Holiday (William Wyler, USA, 1953) a well known example. Other films he photographed that stand out for me are his earliest, the two Rene Clement WW2 films La Bataille du Rail  (France, 1946) and Les Maudits (France, 1947), and Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete (France, 1946).  I can't see any other work with Duvivier in his filmography. Just after Anna Karenina, in 1949, Alekan shot Une si Jolie Petite Plage for Yves Allegret which also makes outstanding use of weather for in this case a postwar noir ambience.  I was very pleased to finally catch up with it in restoration at Cinema Ritrovato in 2013.

Alekan worked with directors Carne, Losey, Dassin and Wenders among others over the decades and I've seen most of these films at some time and found them visually impressive (whatever else they achieved). I am wondering what readers of the blog might recall and could cite as impressive work from Alekan. I am curious myself about Woman of Evil/Le Diable Souffle (France,1947) by the often interesting Edmund T Greville. Has anyone seen this? Alekan's last work in the 1990s with Israeli film maker Amos Gita also appears little seen but maybe someone has?

Final word on Duvivier's Anna Karenina; The DVD image is as good as it gets before graduating to Blu-ray (has this been done?). Apart from a restoration comparison the extras are on Tolstoy's life and legacy rather than on the film itself.

Friday, 24 March 2017

On Blu-ray - A restored edition of a major film in the South Korean filmography, Lee Myung-se's GAG MAN and some other thoughts

Gag Man
The DVD and the Blu-ray Disc (BD) were/are technology from a decade or more ago. Yet for the arch enthusiast, collectors seeking to have personal collections of the highest video and audio quality especially, those formats remain the choice. The advent of Blu-ray has not quite fulfilled all dreams mainly I suspect because collectors cant be convinced to rebuy ever more titles in a format which while offering upgraded quality doesn’t offer it at prices that warrant wholesale replenishment. But whatever the reason, BD and DVD remain the preferred format and such alternatives as holding thousands of titles in hard drives are a second level method for storage, confined in most cases to unrestored movies and titles obtained through what David Hare calls ‘backchannels’.

‘Backchannels’ is the where super-enthusiasts with a techo bent and possibly infinite patience (for preservation) and love (for such things as fan subtitling) come into their own and good luck to them. While ever the only copy available happens to be from a damaged 16mm print located in a backwoods film exchange, a TV station that has converted to digital or a place where films are taken to be disposed of by fire or the like then the collector will accept it for the sake of current completeness. Who knows when some real rights holder will dig down into their cellar and come up with the negative of Sidney Lumet’s A View from the Bridge. In the meantime all we have to go on is something on Youtube.

But, I digress. All this is prompted by observing the randomness of how the retrieval and restoration sector goes about its business. So let me start here. Until only a few days ago, I have never been aware of the entrants for Bologna’s Annual DVD Awards. The winners have been known but not the entrants or the finalists. Maybe the Cineteca always released a list like this of the thirty finalists that will judged by the all male white-haired jury again in 2017. Whatever, it causes me to wonder whether this is the first time anything from the Antipodes has ever got this far in the competition. The superb selection of shorts by Kiwi experimentalist Len Lye and a restoration by the NFSA of Philip Noyce’s Aquarius festival doco Good Afternoon from 1971 have both got through into this group.

Look around the list of the finalists though and you discover just how random the whole process is. If you were choosing to restore something would it be these films or would it be one of a million others. Everyone would have their own thoughts and nobody can keep up even with knowing what’s on offer notwithstanding the efforts of a few, most notably Jonathan Rosenbaum in his inevitably endlessly rambling columns of his Global Discoveries on DVD  which feature in the Canadian journal Cinema Scope.

Lee Myung-se

So, another quick segue, what can I say about Gag Man,  a new Blu-ray issued by the Korean Film Archive, a copy of which was sent to me by Tony Rayns who contributes an essay in English to the booklet which is included in the package. Gag Man was made in 1989 and was the official debut of Lee Myung-se. Lee has made nine features all up, the last M being made in 2007. Only a couple of years before that he had a mega-hit with the thriller Nowhere to Hide.

Gag Man is presented as one of the first films by a young director influenced by things that have taken place outside the country of origin. It’s easy to spot the homages to Chaplin, Coppola, George Gershwin and Michel Legrand. In most cases Lee has simply swiped their music. New Waves land everywhere and this film, along with early films by Jang Sun-woo and Park  Kwang-su, is a clearly defined moment in the progress of South Korean production from the long time hidebound and protected Chungmuro studio cartel to the somewhat more freewheeling production conditions of today where everything from smart student feature productions to a sector of indie work heavy on oppositional politics seems to vie for attention.

Gag Man’s story concerns a young comedian with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and a burning ambition to move on from compering the show in some dive night club to writing a script for a movie. Early efforts to attract the attention of a famous director have some funny bits of business around a movie studio. But throughout its two hour length the film keeps returning to the lack of reality. The comedian and the two cohorts he enlists in his schemes take on all comers but that’s their ambition on display. The end has a sadder feel which I wont spoil notwithstanding that it’s probably near impossible for most to get hold of the disc. Along the way, the trio turn into amateur bank robbers and spend much time daydreaming about bright futures all the way to Hollywood. It’s funny and sweet and its trio of leads have an easy sense of timing. You don’t get the impression they are amateurs struggling with the technicalities of acting.

The Rayns essay naturally provides an enormous amount of background material on the conditions of production of the day, the national politics, the restrictions on young smart talent and especially on how radical the film was in its time. It spends some very useful effort considering the nature of the daydreaming structure and the fact that at no stage are we ever quite sure just what is ‘real’ for both the audience and the trio.

The fact that it has been the subject of some loving restoration work by the Korean archive would seem to be a further indication of the film’s importance in the national filmography. The Korean Film Archive has also uploaded the film onto Youtube.