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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Vale Seijun Suzuki

Suzuki died on 13 February and the first I heard of it was today via Ben Cho's Facebook post with this message.

RIP the master Suzuki Seijun ... He left the world so many great films, where do you begin?

SEVEN SINNERS restored - Ben Cho reports on the premiere screening at GOMA in Brisbane

First thing’s first.  There are some cinephiles who will dedicate significant amounts of time to the American silents of early 20th century cinema and blunt their critical faculties just to wallow in the nostalgia of theatrical performances and mood-setting tints. Maybe in the age of cinephile gluttony, where there is a staggering amount available online to anyone with a decent internet connection, the prospect of seeing something rarely seen by others, like a rediscovered silent film, is a cause to get behind and show you’re somehow a cut above all those online commenters arguing on behalf of Joao Cesar Monteiro films or the work of Kajiro Yamamoto.
Whatever the psychology behind this championing of even the most tiresome (and often tiring) silents, there must have been some cinephiles who walked into the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art’s (GOMA) program (on Sunday 20 February) of rediscovered silent classics ready for a masterpiece. Did the world premiere of Seven Sinners deliver on that promise? Not exactly but it’s a cracking comedy; frequently funny, well-paced and Clive Brook and Marie Prevost are terrific as leads.
While I only saw Ernst Wendt’s ok-but-overlong The White Desert (Germany, 1922) and Seven Sinners (Lewis Milestone, USA, 1925) in the program, neither could be said to rank amongst the best of their era. Having said that, Seven Sinners really is a great discovery by Joel Archer and Ron West and will delight audiences as it makes its way to other festivals and home-video formats. (Click this link for an earlier extended report on the discovery.)
World premiering to a decent crowd (tickets were free), Seven Sinners was long-thought gone until a print was found in the collection of West who used to run the Pomona Theatre on the Sunshine Coast. Warner Brothers got hold of the print, scanned it at 4K and then the Academy Film Archive reconstructed the film to best resemble what original audiences would have seen, using press reviews and stills to fill the gaps, given no copy of the screenplay exists.
There is major damage in parts of the film but freeze frames and freshly produced title cards have been inserted to bridge the narrative gaps and thankfully there are very few jumps in the plot; the general thrust of the film is only somewhat halted by the missing material, involving a fight between Clive Brook and John Patrick.
The film’s irresistible premise places a bunch of competing thieves in a mansion over a long weekend as they all try to rob the place. All end up getting trapped inside with a cop patrolling outside. The fun quickly unfolds as each thief adopts a fake persona (butler, cook, house guest, doctor, maid) and fraud-upon-fraud builds as they try and outwit each other for a jewellery haul from the mansion’s safe. There are some humorous gags involving scarlet fever but some of the best jokes involve the fake cook’s atrocious meals and the poor guests who have to consume them. The ending is straight out of Hollywood with its sentimental re-establishment of the moral order but there’s still a witty touch as Brook and Prevost go on the straight-and-narrow by setting up shop as a burglar alarm company.
Milestone would later go on to direct everything from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Purple HeartOf Mice and Men to The Front Page and even did some of the aviation scenes in Hughes’ Hell’s Angels. Brook also went on to a long career in front of the cameras including roles in Cromwell’s Scandal Sheet, von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express and Underworld, Cukor’s Tarnished Lady and a few turns as Sherlock Holmes. Prevost’s career didn’t end so happily although she appeared in a few Lubitsch comedies and many Mack Sennett shorts. After being dropped by Warner Brothers in the mid-twenties her career began to slide and was soon plagued by depression and alcoholism. She died at age 38 from alcohol-related illness and with virtually nothing to her name.
One final special mention should go to the superb work of David Bailey on GOMA’s 1929 Wurlitzer organ. He provided a note-perfect accompaniment to the action on-screen. Having seen his previous performances at GOMA silent screenings, Bailey really is a critical element in immersing audiences in a film’s magic and has a gifted knack for enhancing mood through his work.

Photos below taken during the screening by Ben Cho

GOLDSTONE and Ivan Sen the big winners at the Film Critics' Circle Awards

Breaking, mostly, the spell that Hacksaw Ridge had on voters for the only other awards for Australian films, Ivan Sen and his movie Goldstone took out the cream of the prizes at the Film Critics' Circle Awards presented in an occasionally raucous evening at the Paddington RSL Showroom tonight (Feb 21). A good time was had by all, but especially by Goldstone producer David Jowsey who was up and down like a yo yo accepting the awards for Best Screenplay, Best Music, Best Director and Best Film. Quite a haul. The Best Actor Award to Aaron Pedersen, the star of the movie was accepted on Aaron's behalf by his brother Vinnie who gave a splendid and very heartfelt speech.

It was as usual, quite a night, opening with a tribute to David Stratton timed to coincide with the release of his own movie. This was followed by an onstage interview between Strat and the droll FCCA Patron, Oscar-winner Adam Elliott. Adam was one of two Oscar winners in the room, the other being John Seale the ace cinematographer.

All up, a splendid evening and if you want to know a view or two of Goldstone you need look no further than a click here for the Film Alert review by Max Berghouse following the the film's screening as the Opening Night selection of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival or you can read the program notes on the film contributed by Tony Rayns for the film's screening at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival written after he also saw the film at the SFF Opening Night.

Table number 17, on which yours truly was seated, won the quiz. This was assisted by a special knowledge of Oz sports movies by a couple of Victorians who could supply the answer to a question about Bruce Beresford's The Club (Australia, 1981) which provided the answers "Fitzroy". as well "Newtown". Nobody but nobody in the room knew of John Duigan's connection with Australian aviation. Rod Quinn's quizzes are bastards. Table 17 was successfully wrangled during the quiz by producer Jo Dyer. Her film Girl Asleep was nominated for Best Film and several other prizes but didn't win anything which I thought was a bit of a pity.

Monday, 20 February 2017

New Indonesian Cinema - David Hanan writes about the publication of his latest book and some events in Melbourne

Australia’s pre-eminent specialist on Indonesian cinema David Hanan, currently the Adjunct Senior Research Associate, Film and Screen Studies, School of Media, Film and Journalism Monash University, Melbourne has just published a new book and has sent in the following note

My book Cultural Specificity in Indonesian Film: Diversity in Unity has just been released as an eBook by Palgrave Macmillan. A hard-cover edition follows in late March. 

Click on the link following to The Palgrave website, for early reviews/endorsements of the book.

David also advises of an event of great interest taking place in Melbourne on Thursday 23 February.

Garin Nugroho
Book Presentation at Panel Discussion with the great Indonesian director Garin Nugroho at the University of Melbourne.
I will be presenting an eBook copy of his book to the Indonesian director, Garin Nugroho, at the conclusion of the panel discussion about the background to Garin's latest film, Setan Jawa, being held this Thursday, 23 February at 5.30 pm at the Sydney Myer Asia Centre at the University of Melbourne.

(Garin, incidentally, is featured shooting a film in the pictures(s) on the cover of my book.)

Details about this panel discussion are at the following website (registration required if you wish to attend):

Screening of Garin Nugroho's Setan Jawa in Hamer Hall at the Victorian Arts Centre, this Friday 24 February at 7.30 pm
Garin's recent film Setan Jawa, a silent film reportedly influenced by Murnau's Nosferatu will be screened in Hamer Hall this Friday, with musical accompaniment jointly by a gamelan orchestra from Central Java, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

For more information about this screening, see

Hoping you have time to attend one or other of these events, if you are in Melbourne.

David Hanan

FYI: Purchase of Palgrave Macmillan eBook editions costs less than AU $20 THIS WEEK ONLY
Palgrave this month have a sale of all their eBooks, at 14 Euro ( AU$19.50) each. The sale ends on 28 February. So, if you wish to obtain a personal copy of my book (or any other Palgrave eBook), they can be purchased as an eBook cheaply this week at about one sixth of the normal price. 

Information about this short-term offer is on the website above.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - Five - Chalk and Cheese - NORTH BY NORTHWEST and PSYCHO

Cary Grant, North by Northwest
After the personal revelations of Vertigo, Hitchcock returned in North by Northwest (1959) to relatively lighter and more customary ground albeit with a vengeance. This is a flawlessly executed chase narrative, virtually the apotheosis of a form largely identified in film with Hitchcock. Exhilarating and unendingly rich in performance detail, this espionage thriller clearly benefits from the presence of Cary Grant in top form, beguilingly charming but with an edge, in the last and best of his quartet of outings with Hitch; James Mason and Martin Landau (another openly gay character) are fruitily malevolent as the villains; Jessie Royce Landis (the mother who stubs her cigarette butt into an egg in To Catch a Thief ) reprises her acerbic star turn as Grant’s mother, aiding and abetting his abductors in an hilarious sequence where she just cannot help sneering in disbelief at his cries for help; and Eva Marie Saint finally gets a role befitting her talents as a morally ambivalent glacial blonde really and truly in the Grace Kelly mould who generates suitably edgy erotic tensions with Grant.

Literally traversing a great deal of territory, this sharply written (Ernest Lehman), witty, cross-country pursuit becomes a peg on which Hitchcock hangs one intoxicating location set-piece after another.  These episodes are set in train by a richly comic episode of Grant’s being forced by his abductors to drink a bottle of whiskey then drive around hairpin bends and plunging cliff faces culminating (by way of a very funny star turn tailor made for Grant’s gestural skills) in a totally incoherent explanation of these bizarre activities which confounds the police and delights the audience.

The attention to formal architectural patterns in Hitchcock films, undoubtedly arising out of his early training in film set design, serves North by Northwest well and has been much raked over by Hitchcock scholars. The credits sequence with its criss-cross directional grids, the showy vignette at UN headquarters involving overhead shots of the building and grounds, the fascinating Frank Lloyd Wright-like house jutting out of the edge of Mount Rushmore all attest to Hitchcock’s meticulous planning of the kind of visual detail that makes North by Northwest such a thrilling and memorable roller-coaster ride.

The auction sequence and, more especially, the celebrated crop duster episode are further exercises in Hitchcock’s knowingness in juxtaposing terror with the most mundane details of daily life. In the latter case an isolated rural bus stop, a field of corn and a plane “crop dusting where there ain’t no crops” turns into a sustained nightmare in broad sunlight for the hapless Grant and his unsuspecting cinema audience. Like Saboteur (1942), the film’s climactic scenes are built into a national monument; in Saboteur its the Statue of Liberty  which serves as the backdrop to the final struggle between victim and victimiser, Mount Rushmore in this film. Hitchcock is nothing if not perversely manipulative in the visual connotations he sets up for his audiences.

Grant, Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest
North by Northwest is really a compendium of Hitchcock’s spy thriller obsessions: the search for identity (Will the real Kaplan and Lester Townsend please stand up?); romantic betrayal and divided trust (all of the ambiguity built into the paradoxical behaviour of Eva Marie Saint towards Cary Grant at various points of the film represents the most complex and extended exploration of this theme in a Hitchcock work); victimization of the innocent; the interchangeability of good/evil, heroes/villains, and so on.

The "Frank Lloyd Wright" House, Eva Marie saint, James Mason, Martin Landau
North by Northwest
After the expansiveness of North by Northwest with its breathtaking colour visual design, flamboyant use of landscapes, and extroverted Herrmann score came Psycho (1960), an extraordinarily radical departure from any of Hitchcock’s previous work. Photographed significantly not by Robert Burks but in stark black and white by John L Russell, whom Hitchcock had used in his TV series, Psycho gives us the darkest side of Hitchcock’s genius, a Hitchcock in extremis.

John Gavin, Janet Leigh, Psycho
Instead of the usual trappings of the thriller, Hitchcock moved directly into out and out of horror film territory, complete with an imposing Gothic mansion, a swamp full of nasty secrets, some very distressing violence and a monster. In many respects Hitchcock has a lot to answer for. The film, uncharacteristically shot on a shoe-string, has had a detrimental long-term effect on the genre it exploited (it really spawned the splatter movie and encouraged lesser film makers increasingly to substitute skill in evoking terror through withholding rather than revealing detail-a la Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur-with graphic in-your-face explicitness).

In other respects, Hitchcock’s decision to follow this path has been well and truly vindicated. Psycho retains its awful, unsettling, gruesome power in spite of its lesser imitators over the last four decades. It may be read as a very black comedy (Hitch himself publicly stated “it was fun”) or as a “raging, murderous shout”. It’s actually a lot of both. It pushes Hitchcock’s voyeuristic techniques and subjective camera stylistics to the edge. Its sensual violence was upfront and shocked many of his admirers. Even the mischievously ironic dialogue so typical of Hitchcock’s playful winks at his audience (“Mother’s not quite herself today”) skirted the boundaries of accepted taste in 1960.

Anthony Perkins, Psycho
But mostly the film contains scenes of great formal power-even beauty-despite the nasty schlock/horror content. Some of the contributing factors to the film’s strong impact are: Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling score; George Tomasini’s razor-sharp editing; the calculatedly remote, gothic, Grand Guignol setting with its grotesque piece of Victoriana towering over twelve empty motel rooms; and especially, Anthony Perkins’ nervous, unsettling, bird-like presence photographed in bizarre angles amidst the “stuffed birds” d├ęcor of his parlour.

The atmosphere of Psycho is unsettling for its audience right from the opening establishing shot where the subjective camera (using the audience as its eyes) tracks forward and peers into a shabby Phoenix hotel room where a pair of furtive lovers (Janet Leigh and John Gavin) have been using their lunch break for a quickie and are now quarrelling about whether there is a future to their relationship. Desperate to escape her tawdry circumstances, secretary Leigh is drawn by chance into a crime while Hitchcock effortlessly controls audience complicity in her actions (there’s no contest: the scumbag on the make from whom she fleeces $40,000 under the anxious gaze of colleague Patricia Hitchcock richly ‘deserves’ his reversal of fortune). Hitchcock further compounds audience complicity in closely recording her flight into the night with a battery of subjective visual/aural devices-including such obvious suspense tactics as her tense, prolonged encounters with the creepy cop and the
garrulous used-car salesman; frames-within-frames suggesting she is being tailed by unknown forces or authorities; mirrors capturing her dualities as she fights with her dark side and her conscience; her mounting panic as the night lights become progressively blinding and unbearable, the audience sharing her terror via the eerie tracking shots of the car’s forward movement alternating with big close-ups of Leigh’s strained face and nervous hands with the soundtrack relentlessly recording her stream-of-consciousness fragments in voice-overs.

Heavy rain finally forces her into the Bates motel, isolated because the highway has been re-directed. There follow the famous encounters with Anthony Perkins and, remotely, his mother.

The parlour sequence itself is the only fully developed scene between Perkins and Leigh and serves as a model of how Hitchcock plays with his audience until it is squirming with discomfort and uneasy anticipation. Something is very out of kilter here-the bizarre angles immerse Perkins in and identify him with, his stuffed predatory birds on a visual level. The threat to Ms Leigh is not properly grasped by her (why would it be?) and she remains cool throughout the scene, handling Perkins’ strangeness with fine contrasting aplomb. The wonderfully edgy script by Joseph Stefano emphasizes Perkins’ halting, occasionally stammering delivery of his lines at length; his over-reaction to, and misreading of, Leigh’s humane suggestion that his mother be cared for really sets the alarm bells ringing for the audience.

The whole scene tips over into Perkins’amazing and deeply unsettling speech (“We’re all in our own private traps…we scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other and for all that we never budge an inch…”) which catches his unpredictability and frightening mood/tone shifts. This in turn paves the way for the shocks that almost immediately follow, Hitchcock seating his audience all the while on a knife edge.

Anthony Perkins is revealed, not unsurprisingly given Hitchcock’s carefully prepared preliminary planning, as a creepy peeping tom closely observing Ms Leigh’s body parts as she prepares to shower (clearly Ms Leigh is about to become the latest of a long line of victims in cabin one of the Bates Motel.). The audience’s only identification figure to this point in the film has been Ms Leigh and following Perkins’voyeuristic activities, “mother”saves him from himself by dispatching Ms Leigh into the hereafter in what is one of the most brutal, seemingly senseless, graphic and brilliantly filmed murders on celluloid. The disorienting effect on the film’s audience is total…where do we go from here without the key to our narrative point of view?

The Bates motel and its mysteries are, perversely, never fully revealed. Tthe swamp, it is hinted, contains much more than Marion’s car and the $40 000. Hitchcock’s imagery is endlessly resonating, ruminating as it does over the key rooms of the Bates mansion and Norman’s childhood, witnessing another pointless murder, and finally through the revelations in the cellar disgorging its human monster created through a family history rooted in troubled sexuality. In the final sequence, Norman has become his mother and, from his straitjacket, contemplates a fly on the wall. The very final image is breath-taking piece of visual sleight of hand. In a very fast lap-dissolve, Hitchcock merges Perkins’ now hollow eyes and his mother’s skeleton face with Leigh’s car being dredged up from the swamp. It is one of the most arresting and distressingly concentrated images in cinema history.

Anthony Perkins’ magnificently bizarre characterization unfortunately dogged him for the remainder of his career-no following act could ever have been halfway as impressive, although he was certainly capable of subtle and layered acting vide Pretty Poison, meeting his match with the irrepressible Tuesday Weld; Leigh also contributed a detailed, intelligent performance (watch closely what she captures through her hands on the wheel of her car during her flight into the night); Gavin and especially Miles are given excellent, fleshed-out roles as the audience identification figures attempting to unravel the mystery of the Bates motel; but some of the minor vignettes are equally in tune with the film’s off-centre mood, including Martin Balsam as the ingratiating private eye who meets his doom in the Bates house and John McIntire as the county sheriff whose commanding basso profundo adds its folksy observations about the dark doings chez Bates.