May 31, 2010

Twenty-nine years ago

At the risk of this blog turning into an obits column, a quick and timely reminder: Patu! by Merata Mita (1942-2010) can be seen for free, in full but in YouTube-sized chunks, at the NZ on Screen site. I’d argue that Patu! is still the most important documentary ever made in New Zealand, and the definitive visual record of the protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour (the definitive print account is surely Geoff Chapple’s 1981: The Tour, a book written with new-journalistic you-are-there verve and energy; it’s sadly out of print and hard to find). Patu! was unashamedly partisan but then this was an event that no one over the age of 13 – with the possible exception, of course, of John Key – failed to have a strong opinion about it. I should know: I was 13.
While working for TVNZ, Merata conceived of a 25-minute documentary on the anti-apartheid movement's campaign. She was motivated by a moral duty to "raise awareness of the racial aspect of the tour". The project was seen to be too much of a political hot potato, and Mita left TVNZ to finish what would develop into a feature film.
Once the tour started, sports grounds and suburban streets became battlefields, as clashes escalated between police and the highly-mobilised protesters. Filmed over the winter of 1981, several camera operators (including industry heavyweights) contributed their time free of charge and became foreign correspondents in their own country, capturing on-the-run footage of the tour clashes.
Ironically, one of the filmmakers who volunteered their time was Roger Donaldson. As protesters in bike helmets squared off against police armed with riot shields and batons, it seemed that Roger's vision of a rampant fascist state in his film Sleeping Dogs was being enacted in real life.
The poster above is from Christchurch City Libraries’ small digital collection of 1981 anti-tour posters. Small but valuable, I guess. I’m sometimes struck by the idea that such an epochal and divisive event has left so few cultural traces behind: the Patu! documentary; Chapple’s book and Tom Newnham’s equally hard-to-track-down Of Batons and Barb Wire and local accounts, such as Juliet Morris’ With All Our Strength, a document of the anti-tour movement in Christchurch, plus a couple of memoirs from a couple of cops; more recently, a really good autobiographical essay, “Test Day”, in Elizabeth Knox’s The Love School. But there isn't much else around. Where are the feature films, the novels? If this was our 1968 – as this very good backgrounder says – then compare this relative dearth of cultural material with the abundance that came out of France after/about 1968 or the US from the same era. Maybe New Zealanders just wanted to forget.

May 30, 2010

Dennis Hopper 1936-2010

An epic Senses of Cinema review of Easy Rider and its long aftermath, posted only a couple of weeks ago, ran like an advance obit. Dean Brandum on the career rehabilitation of Dennis Hopper, and the subsequent weakening of whatever strange force was attached to him during his years on the edge:
After a complete breakdown on the set of the women-in-prison variant Jungle Fever (1984, Theumer) in Mexico in 1983, Hopper underwent detoxification and rehabilitation and, having proven himself to be clean, sober and his erratic behaviour a thing of the past, he let it be known he was ready to resume gainful employment. But to become a settled and responsible member of the Hollywood community was not as simple as returning to work. In order to be accepted and embraced, Hopper had to prove his application to the cause through a process of initiation, whereby he could exorcise the demons of his personal and cinematic past on film. Three of these films were released in 1986. Hoosiers (David Anspaugh), a conventional and sentimental sports-redemption story in which Hopper took a supporting role as a near-derelict alcoholic who cleans himself up to be present at his son’s big game. A veritable press release in celluloid, Hollywood and the media, always enamoured with a comeback story, were even more taken with so public an admittance of personal and professional debasement. Granted a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his performance, perhaps not quite enough work had been done to win the statuette.

Blue Velvet
(David Lynch) presented an opportunity to show the old Hopper on screen – a debased, pill-popping, psychotic aggressor and abuser of women. Much of the media of the time related to Hopper’s insistence that he was the character of Frank Booth and had the ability to channel his horrifying persona. Yet it was made clear that the channelling was just that, the demons were locked away and never to be released, except in a controlled state for the sake of the art of others. For River’s Edge (Tim Hunter), Hopper was willing to denounce his Easy Rider persona and fame. Another supporting role, this time as a pathetic, drug-addled, aging ex-biker with a Harley Davidson lying in pieces on the floor of his rundown hovel; he spends his days hanging with a group of miscreant, directionless teens, their life a wasteland of lost hope and no future. It could well be not only an apology for Easy Rider and its effects upon the youth of the period, but also an admission of his part in the downfall of the New Hollywood.
 And very little of interest after he got his head sorted out. But there's no mention in the above of his limpid, almost feminine turn (“opaque”, says David Thomson in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, which isn’t right about everything but is mostly right about Hopper) in Wenders' The American Friend (1977; pictured). In his short essay on the film in the Faber collection Wim Wenders: The Logic of Images, Wenders doesn't even mention Hopper by name, saying merely that his Tom Ripley -- for The American Friend is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, later a vehicle for a more muscular, self-assured and extroverted Ripley, played by John Malkovich -- is "less unscrupulous, more sensitive" than the one Highsmith wrote. I like to think that Hopper could only have played it at such a point in his life: he came to Germany directly from the set of Apocalypse Now; in the Coppola film, he is on a babbling speed-high, in the Wenders film, the soft, sad wash-out of his comedown.

This is a very good Hopper obit, from Glenn Kenny. Maybe the only other one I've seen so far to praise The American Friend, as well as mentioning his small part as the hospital patient near the end of Alison Maclean's unjustly underseen Jesus' Son.

May 14, 2010

Time, among other things, was destroyed

State Cinema, Christchurch, c.1977. "Time, among other things, was destroyed" -- Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City. The art deco facade has been concealed for decades by the white fibre glass panels of a duty free store; the ghost city of memory is hidden beneath or behind the current one ...

May 10, 2010

Andrei explained

Chris Marker films aren’t easy to see here -- maybe anywhere, but especially here. I own Criterion’s excellent La Jetee/Sans Soleil DVD and I saw The Last Bolshevik on faded VHS via Videon in Auckland a few years back. Other than that, you can find two of his essays on film-makers as DVD extras: One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich on the Artificial Eye two-disc set The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion and his Kurosawa film A.K. on a Ran special edition. No video stores in New Zealand would have any more than that and nearly all would have less -- or none. The New Zealand Film Festival lists just three Marker films -- the less well-regarded Level Five, plus Arsenevich and The Last Bolshevik -- in its programme over its entire history, which goes back to the 1960s. Unless their online archiving is faulty, they have never run La Jetee (accurately, “one of the strangest movies ever conceived, and also one of the most beautiful and sad” in this career appraisal) but film societies have run it (right here in Christchurch, 1972). No sign of Sans Soleil in the festival either. In the art world, Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery had Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men a couple of years ago. And that might be the extent of it.

So you savour what you can.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich is Marker’s Tarkovsky film (J Hoberman: “The most sustained and heartfelt tribute one filmmaker has paid another”). Marker’s footage was shot in 1985 and 1986 but the film seems to have been completed and released only in 1999, as a French TV special, hence its length (55 minutes). The English narration is by Alexandra Stewart, whose crisp voice Marker fans will instantly recognise from the English language version of Sans Soleil. But no matter who reads it, the Marker voice -- in a literary sense, not a literal one -- is recognisable too: erudite, humane, curious, critical of hypocrisy and power.

This documentary might still be the best -- the most accessible, the most concise -- primer or briefing available for anyone heading into that Tarkovsky universe. Marker clearly knew Tarkovsky well, both as artist and human being -- assuming there’s a difference. Some of his footage is of Tarkovsky on location in Sweden for
The Sacrifice, choreographing that intricate and dazzling late sequence in which the house burns down, the man runs off, the ambulance comes, all in one long complex take -- this footage of Tarkovsky directing is invaluable. Seven months later in Paris, Marker filmed Tarkovksy on his death bed (he died of cancer at 54 in 1986) in fly-on-the-wall scenes that never feel maudlin or exploitative.
But I like this intimate stuff less than I like Marker’s observations of the work. Marker is open to the importance of the inexplicable, both inside the films -- of three levitation scenes in three films, only one is “explained” (by a space station’s zero gravity) -- and outside them. The latter is Twilight Zone territory: during a séance, the spirit of Boris Pasternak is said to have told Tarkovsky he would direct seven films -- just seven, but they would be good ones, and of course he did; there is the mystery of a boy and a tree being the first image in the first film (Ivan’s Childhood) and the last image in the last film (The Sacrifice). Across seven films made over 25 years in Russia, Sweden and Italy, and set in different eras, Marker looks for and finds cohesion: those levitation scenes, recurring shots of paintings, recurring dogs and horses, endless rain, with that rain often one of the four elements that Marker sees as always woven into the films -- rain and fire at once in a famous scene in The Mirror, all four elements together in the epic tracking shot we saw Tarkovsky and cinematographer Sven Lindqvist set up for The Sacrifice. There is an emphasis on the muddy earth, the human shot from slightly above in nature not from below against the sky, which means that Marker is explaining the material stuff Tarkovsky put on film as much as he is decoding the enigmatic plots or translating the metaphysics -- again, assuming there’s a difference (enigmatic? I’m sure I understood The Mirror less the second time I saw it than I did the first). And this observation in the Marker voice-over, after a bit about Kurosawa and a shot of some grey rain from Stalker, which could make you think about why Von Trier dedicated Antichrist -- with its brutal considerations or maybe criticisms of Christianity’s nature/women/sex problems -- to Andrei Tarkovksy:
Like the Japanese, a physical relationship to nature. There’s nothing more earthy, more carnal than the work of this reputed mystical film-maker. Maybe because Russian mysticism is not that of Catholics, terrified by nature and the body. Among the Orthodox, nature is respected. The creator is revered through His creation.

May 6, 2010

My dreams are very reasonable

TRUFFAUT: It's one of your most poetic pictures. It's even more poetic than dramatic.
HITCHCOCK: I had a terrible actress in it. But she's beautiful. Lots of interesting technical work in that picture. When I wanted the girl to look mysterious in the churchyard, we shot it through fog filters. There was sunshine but it was made ... not diffused, but a mistiness put across.
TRUFFAUT: This is one of the pictures that gives the feeling of a dream. Except if you find the question an idiotic one, do you dream a great deal?
HITCHCOCK: Yes, but my dreams are very reasonable. I was once standing on Sunset Boulevard in a dream, where the trees are, and I was waiting for a yellow taxi to take me to lunch. But no yellow taxi came, because all the cars going by were 1916 vintage. I said to myself, it's no good standing here waiting for a yellow cab because this is a 1916 dream. So I walked to lunch instead.

Some 12 and a half hours of the legendary Truffaut/Hitchcock tapes are in MP3 form here. The above is from the Vertigo episode, just before Hitchcock launches into a speech about the mechanics of the plot and -- well, yes -- necrophilia.

May 5, 2010

"Colin Firth is wonderfully transparent"

Colin Firth in A Single Man. We can almost forgive him for Mamma Mia. Almost.
But the real star of the movie is pictured above.

May 4, 2010

Not even death knows how long it's going to take

The fanfare is stirring nevertheless. It's life and death from the start -- or rather life staring death in the face. Death is going to win, but not even death knows how long it's going to take. Nobody, the Indian who tries and fails to dig a bullet out of Depp's William Blake (whom he takes for the reincarnation of the poet Depp's Blake has never heard of) speaks of "the white man who killed you"; "I'm not dead," Depp says. Nobody doesn't laugh. Young's guitar speaks for him, just as Nobody insists William Blake will now make his poetry with a gun.
-- The third of Greil Marcus' ten reasons why Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack was the best music for the dog days of the 20th century (Salon, 1999).

May 3, 2010

Chad Taylor

I used to read Chad Taylor in Rip It Up in the 80s when I was still at school and he wasn't much older. He seemed like a natural and fully-formed talent, talking up Japan or Propaganda -- I might be guessing about the latter -- when everyone else was worried about post-punk authenticity. Or something like that. He was easily as good as the British music writers we used to idolise.

I haven't read his novels -- I mean to, and Departure Lounge sounds like a good one to start with -- but I've been really enjoying going through his blog, especially its film entries. Eg on Herzog's Bad Lieutenant:
It's so great to see a movie that shuts up and gets on with being a movie: mid shots, naturalistic lighting, single-take performances and real fucking acting. Cage's performance is balanced by subtle turns from Tom Bower, Jennifer Coolidge and Eva Mendes, and challenged by quirky showboating from Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif and J.D. Evermore. In fact, thinking about it, Bad Lieutenant has a huge cast and they're all good: Herzog has told the story by using people. The consequences are tragi-comic and the result, for all its gravity, is a delight.