Tuesday, July 29, 2014

2009 Toronto Film Festival Report - Part 2

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2009)

Big Eyes (Uri Zohar)

The Festival kicked up some controversy by establishing a new “City to City” showcase program and putting the spotlight on Tel Aviv: cue protest letters, denunciations, op-eds, etc. Well, this may not be the weightiest contribution to that debate (not that I really think any of them were) but I’ve been to Tel Aviv and I think it’s a fine city that well deserves to be spotlighted. Much of the time there you could imagine yourself to be in the most tolerant, peaceful place in the world, and if that’s a superficial impression that ignores the underlying complexity...well, you know what, New York isn’t all Times Square and Central Park either. Are there aspects of Israeli policy that would benefit from constructive debate? – sure, but focusing so intensely on a goddamn film festival programming choice that even its detractors seemed to acknowledge was basically well-intended…I just thought it was puerile. The Tel Aviv movie I went to see, the 1974 Big Eyes, just deepened this impression, because by its very nature it’s an education: in focusing on the historically and politically charged Israel, or on one’s pre-conceived notion of what a “Jewish state” might look like, you miss the day to day reality of people just hanging out and trying to make their lives work and, of course, behaving badly.

Big Eyes stars its director Zohar, a big star at the time (who subsequently underwent a conversion and reportedly now devotes himself to the Torah), as Benny Furman, a basketball coach, married with two kids, but a compulsive chaser of other women. The movie, shot in grainy black and white, certainly mythologizes the character somewhat, lapping up the sleazy fun of his endless scheduling conflicts and lies and evasions, but it doesn’t look away from the pain he causes. Except for the names, a closing wedding sequence, and a brief news story glimpsed on TV, you could be almost anywhere. Except that knowing you’re in Israel, at a time barely removed from 1967, lends an inherent existential charge to Furman’s actions, and the hard edge to Zohar’s expressions frequently seems tinged with weary self-disgust.

Les herbes folles (Alain Resnais)

Resnais is 87 this year, and if my fantasy Nobel Prize for cinema had been instituted, he would have won it decades ago; films like Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel are central to any account of how the medium established itself as art. He’s still working at a steady pace, and it’s understandable if his films are less exacting now; astonishing though how with every new work he still manages to create a fresh cinematic space. In recent years he’s worked often with theatrical properties and with musicals, presumably stimulated by their preexisting constraints (not that you get the impression Resnais is easy to constrain). Les herbes folles is a broader creation though, with an intimate story at its centre, but for example making rich use of exteriors (his last film Coeurs never stepped outside), and it has airplanes!

He sticks to his practice of using familiar actors; his wife Sabine Azema plays a dentist whose purse is snatched; an aimless retiree played by Andre Dussollier finds her wallet and returns it to her via the police. He starts to communicate with her, to the point that she goes back to the cops to have him back off; later the dynamic shifts though, and the pursuer becomes the pursued. The canvas expands to draw in another dentist (Emmanuelle Devos), Looney Tunes references and a broken zipper (carrying huge symbolic weight here), before the action leaves the ground figuratively and ultimately, perhaps, in several other senses too. Meaning that Resnais’ ending could be seen either as being vibrantly alert to the continuing possibility of creation and reinvention, or else as being plain nuts.

 Well, you won’t be surprised I subscribe more to the former interpretation, not that it’s a sure thing. I’m not sure Les herbes folles communicates any specific insight, if that’s your thing, but it overflows with alertness and affection for the idiosyncrasy and unpredictability and often-mysterious longing of human personality and the strange structures and mythologies in which it ties itself up; it’s also quite beautiful to look at, and very quirkily funny at times. Sure, you can say it’s an old man’s film, but as he and Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer and others keep on proving, cinema remains a more than welcoming country for old men. If they’re French at least.

Air Doll (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

After just six movies, Kore-eda has already made it to the Festival’s Masters bracket (although the selection criteria there often seem a bit arbitrary). My favourite movie of his, of those I’ve seen, is Nobody Knows, a chronicle of abandoned children that’s true both to the situation’s inherent abuse and cruelty and to its peculiar freedom; Kore-eda’s coolness sometimes seemed contrived there, but his film’s subtlety played in my mind for days afterwards. Air Doll is an unabashed fantasy, about a blow-up sex doll who suddenly comes to life (“finds a heart” as she puts it, Wizard of Oz-like) and starts wandering around Tokyo while her owner’s at work, even finding herself a job in a video store. Kore-eda casts off his reserve completely here, creating a film of considerable charm and poignancy. Many of us might be inclined to regard a sex life built around such an item as being, to say the least, sub-optimal, but Kore-eda is alert to the potential beauty in loneliness, in the overlooked, in the garbage, even ultimately in senseless death; to the delicacy of human interconnections; to the possibility that despite all its problems humanity might retain a mystical capacity for transmigration. The film also has some pleasantly gentle humour, a plethora of appealing details (Kore-eda’s worked out the contours of his fictional universe exceptionally well) and a very imaginative sex scene.

Some of that sounds similar to what I said about Les herbes folles, but the trouble is, you know, at the end of the day Kore-eda’s film is still about a blow-up sex doll that suddenly comes to life. I would never deny the capacity of great cinema to spring from the least obviously promising roots, but Air Doll never casts off the feeling that a definite ceiling exists on what such a concept could ever realistically achieve (the recurring metaphor, that most of us in our different ways are as empty as she is, basically doesn’t seem like a whole lot). Much as the air doll inevitably suggests an inability to find a real date, Air Doll inevitably suggests an inability (however well disguised) to find a real concept.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

2009 Toronto Film Festival - Part 1

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2009)

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar)

“Films have to be finished,” says the director of the film within Almodovar’s film, “even if you do it blindly.” The fact that the director actually is blind adds to the statement’s resonance, but doesn’t it also make it seem a little crass? Well, maybe just over-enthusiastic then, for Almodovar is certainly one of cinema’s great enthusiasts. His films are highly entertaining, although with minor variations they’re usually entertaining in much the same way, and I’ve yet to have any desire to watch any of them a second time (Live Flesh sticks in my mind as my favorite, but it might just be that this was my first discovery of him in his lusher latter-day mode). He’s a great creator of unique structures, placing flashbacks within flashbacks and films within films, gleefully celebrating complications of gender and desire and health and economic circumstance; this restlessness can seem though as if he’s always turning away from something before it gets really difficult.  The pleasure you take from his films is usually similar to what you get on completing a particularly challenging and aesthetically dazzling jigsaw, which is to say that if you really wanted to appreciate the picture, you wouldn’t have chopped it up in the first place.

All of that said, Broken Embraces is as engrossing as his best (although a little too long).  The blind director spins the steamy story of how he got to be that way, involving a love affair 20 years earlier with his lead actress (Penelope Cruz), while making a movie financed by her elderly husband. It refers to dozens of other movies (explicitly or otherwise) and clearly delights in its characters; Almodovar’s facility in conveying his pleasure at his creations (and at his own luck) is one of his most endearing traits.

Backstory and Cinema Museum (Mark Lewis)

Lewis is previously unknown to me, but he’s a notable multimedia artist (Canada’s representative at this year’s Venice Biennale), and this rich, stimulating program of two short documentaries links to an upcoming series at the Cinematheque. Backstory illustrates the longstanding device of rear projection (where material shot with actors in the studio is foregrounded against a previously filmed external backdrop); in the current Cinematheque program, Lewis cites its invention as the point when film “became fully and definitively ‘modern.’” The interviewees – filmed, in an example of form reflecting content, against an ever-changing series of rear-projected locations – are all members of a longstanding family business: in their heyday they just did one job after another (in the 80s in particular they owned everything from the Rocky movies to The Naked Gun) but in the digital age they struggle to get anything going at all.

The film is mainly a work of anecdotage – the father and son jawbone about everything from past love affairs to Sylvester Stallone’s directorial ineptitude, but they don’t address their contribution other than as craftsmen.  As such it’s an entertaining piece, and oddly beguiling – the visual illusion clearly works even though the entire film is devoted to reminding us of it, embodying how cinema not only survives deconstruction but even thrives on it.  The relationship of light and focus and positioning in Lewis’ images gives the film a textured structure of a kind that, whether because of new technology or relative indifference to composition nowadays, seems inherently old-fashioned and rather poignant.

Cinema Museum takes us through a cluttered archive of cinematic artifacts in London (it’s called a museum, but the vast majority of the contents – in the manner of those stacks of boxes that sat in your cellar for decades  - don’t even seem to be practically accessible, let alone being formally displayed). The curator takes us from room to room (the building used to be a workhouse, where the young Charlie Chaplin briefly resided) – moving past books, cans of film, posters, random old signs and fixtures from long-destroyed movie houses – chattering away (with enthusiasm, but no particular insight or finesse) while the camera sometimes follows along, sometimes wanders off, in a series of extended takes. Cinema itself is secondary here to the medium’s immense capacity for generating ephemera and brands and traces of various kinds; until recently at least, the medium’s inherently social nature allowed (if not demanded) that it function as much as architecture and science and cultural engine, and if one so chooses (and many do), the detritus of these collateral processes becomes as mesmerizing and consuming as the images themselves (and with the advantage that the images can’t be grasped, whereas an old “House full” sign certainly can be). The museum does have some (marooned-seeming) artifacts from recent movies like Chicago, but belongs overwhelmingly to the past, embodying a physicality that again is surely diminishing in an online world. Lewis doesn’t necessarily suggest this necessitates a decline in what cinema can mean or achieve, but virtually everything we see in the film connotes an inadequately catalogued loss.

L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea)

Another great body of cinema’s mythology lies in its what might have beens, in films dreamed of but never realized, or even more tragically, actually started but never completed – Orson Welles, as I’ve written before, fascinates his followers (like me) almost as much for his stranded fragments and cul-de-sacs as for his “official” body of work. In 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known for The Wages of Fear and Les diaboliques, began work on what was to be his masterpiece, L’Enfer. The plot was relatively straightforward – a man is consumed by jealousy at his wife’s imagined infidelities – but Clouzot intended to create a new cinematic language for the husband’s inner landscape, to tangibly depict the contours of inner torment and delusion. With a generous American-backed budget, he launched into the project in style, carrying out extensive tests, and then descending on his lakeside location with a massive crew. But once he got there, he seemed to lose his way (“searching with 100 people around him,” as someone puts it), endlessly reshooting scenes already carried out or merely freezing in indecision, and his always tough manner with actors became destructive, so that lead actor Serge Reggiani stormed off the set, never to return. Clouzot soldiered on, but then suffered a heart attack, and L’Enfer was dead.

The footage survived in storage however (although missing a soundtrack) and this documentary – also drawing on interviews with surviving participants, and using new actors to provide vocals for some of the scenes - gives a terrific sense of what might have been. Much of the footage remains stunning, and the film would surely have enhanced lead actress Romy Schneider’s already iconic standing, although there’s also a fair chance the movie would mainly be viewed now as a somewhat dated and maybe overwrought curio. Its final sentiment is that “you have to see your madness through” (a reasonable restatement of the Almodovar dialogue I started with), and if Clouzot didn’t quite manage that, his labors at least now find a more coherent ending.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Movies on tap

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2008)

Andrew Wagner’s Starting out in the Evening is uncommonly satisfying for such a knowingly “small” film. It stars Frank Langella as Leonard Schiller, a recently-retired professor of English who published, years earlier, four mostly-forgotten novels and hopes to complete a fifth. He’s approached by Heather (Lauren Ambrose), some fifty years younger but a throwback, in love with literature, determined to write her master’s thesis on Schiller and in the process perhaps to redeem his reputation. After initial resistance he agrees to help her, and a friendship of sort, maybe more, develops. Meanwhile, Schiller’s 40-year-old daughter (Lili Taylor), unmarried and getting desperate for a child, rekindles a past relationship with a genial activist (Adrian Lester).

Starting out in the Evening

The movie sticks closely to these few characters and a handful of others, and to a few Manhattan blocks; Schiller has spent his whole life in this milieu, and whatever expansiveness his art may possess, he’s moved past almost all spontaneity. Langella is terrifically precise, but for me the revelation was Ambrose, who I never really registered on Six Feet Under. She’s radiant, you can’t look away from her, but she’s also somewhat gawky and overdone and just a little too much. It’s a brilliant portrayal of someone who for all her certainty is highly malleable and not all there yet; in ten years’ time, she might be entirely different. When you think about it, this is much rarer in movies than it should be – even teenagers dole out wise cracks and presence as if they came out of the womb that way (does the protagonist of Juno, for instance, suggest any real capacity for becoming anyone other than she already is?)

The central subtlety of Starting out in the Evening, and again it sounds like a small thing if I write it this way, is the notion that Heather, perhaps truly Schiller’s biggest admirer and even his biggest hope, nevertheless fundamentally fails to grasp his work or the nature of his personal and creative maturing. We never hear a word of anything he’s written, but we understand that his oeuvre breaks down between two emotionally highly-strung early novels drawn from his own experience, each with a strong female character inspired by his wife (who was killed in an accident after the second book) and two more sprawling, objective works. Heather can’t find a way into these latter two and views them as a sign of lost direction, but the more mature Lester character, with no pretentions as a literary critic, evaluates things the other way round. We’re clearly meant to take this as the fairer view I think. No matter how bright her gaze at him, Heather doesn’t seem truly to see Schiller as he is; she steals an old photograph of him from his office, seeming to think she can somehow conjure up that long-vanished figure.

But then Schiller is a dreamer too, still chasing his characters around the page, unable to conceive of a day that wouldn’t largely be spent before his typewriter. Their dreams don’t mesh, nothing about them ultimately meshes (the contrast between his big slow-moving body and her lithe one is visually very striking, not in a leering sense, just as a seemingly insurmountable demonstration of worlds that can’t possibly intersect, even if they both at various times – but never quite at the same time – dream otherwise). But we don’t see the literary world very often in movies – there are lots of filmic characters who are writers, but mostly as a plot convenience – and there’s something very touching about the milieu here. As the film deftly shows, and as we could all figure out, the tightness and claustrophobia of it generates some bitchiness and backbiting, but that’s just people looking for validation.

As you can tell, I was very captivated by the film’s craftsmanship, and I haven’t even mentioned all of the strands. There are several keenly observed moments of readjustment – see for example the wonderful moment where Heather unknowingly shatters a Schiller reverie by asking a waiter what he has on tap. And anyway is there a phrase more often heard in life, but correspondingly less on screen than “What do you have on tap?” Well, maybe that’s just my life…and hence just my kind of movie.


A big film masquerading as a small one, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield depicts (again) the end of the world, or at least Manhattan, as we know it, this time via a Godzilla-like beast of astonishing destructive power. The conceit, and not a new one by now, is that we only see what’s captured on a particular handheld video camera, wielded (with great diligence in the circumstances) by one of a group of stylish friends whose partying is horribly interrupted. This generates a fairly gripping overall atmosphere, although the basic narrative is more contrived than it needed to be, even given that it’s about, well, a monster. More than in the recent I Am Legend, which couldn’t resist the adult playground potential of a post-disaster New York, there’s a real sense here of a lifestyle and attitude being comprehensively ripped up and buried. Of course, at the time we were told that had happened on 9/11 too. You could almost imagine Cloverfield was made by someone regretting our subsequent return to equanimity/complacency, deciding to raise the stakes, big-time.


Persepolis, directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, is based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name and tells of her childhood in Iran during the transition from the old imperial to the current militant fundamentalist regime, with a mid-teenage sojourn in Vienna. The film too is an animation, with very little colour; mostly it’s blocks of ungraduated black and white, with bodies indicated by blobs and faces by kindergarten-quality features. It actually works well, particularly because the style amplifies the shapeless anonymity that’s imposed on women by the regime. There’s a funny visual gag about Marjane in a still-life class, with herself and the other shrouded students drawing a female model of whom virtually nothing can be seen except a nose. “She looks the same from every angle,” bemoans the protagonist.

At other times Marjane is outspoken, flaunting the rules, not always realizing the full decrepitude of a woman’s place in such a culture; she’s a mild rebel but not a melodramatic one, and the movie itself communicates a similar balancing. It’s a loosely structured work, tracking her journey through sexual discovery, a failed marriage, and ultimately the threshold of freedom and maturity (but with the sadness that leaving her home country, for all its compromises, means the loss of belonging). The film is French, so comes with voices by Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux and others, providing a further layer of cultural oddity. It didn’t spark any huge reaction in me – once you’re clued into the basic nature of the project and the tone, you start to coast along with it after a while – but it’ll certainly be one of this year’s more accomplished curios.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

Quick reviews of a plethora of summer movies.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Even more than most mass-release films, this comes packaged as a major-league pop culture event, by virtue of the purported Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie romance. If true (and admittedly, this may be pure subjectivity on my part), the film sure makes it look as if it’s her that has him around her little finger. She just smoulders here, although compared to the classic female smoulderers of the Golden Age it’s a lightweight, disembodied kind of attribute. The film itself, about a stagnating married couple who find they’ve both been leading secret lives as assassins and then have to carry out contracts on each other’s lives, sporadically has the potential to be a warped commentary on the oddities of modern marriage, but the two key words in what I just said are “sporadically’ and “potential.” It gradually heads into incoherence and gleeful excess, crushing whatever “touches” the director Doug Liman (a long way from the highly engaging Swingers) was trying to bring to it. Still, it seems unfair to me to lump this in with something like Charlie’s Angels, as a few writers did; there’s a human core in there, albeit buried under innumerable bodies.

Cote d’Azur

It’s easy to take a film like Cote d’Azur for granted – it’s utterly light and fluffy, involving various couplings and uncouplings among a French family on their summer break. These couplings are both gay and straight – one sometimes suspects that the makers meticulously plotted a 50/50 ratio in both directions. In this sense (and in the use of nudity, for another), the film feels calculated at times, but it’s purely giddy at others – it contains a couple of utterly nutty musical numbers. And its main recurring motif consists of guys getting caught masturbating in the shower. But we know there are many places, not so far from here, where this happy film might be denounced as sick and perverted. How can you not be in its corner?

Howl’s Moving Castle

Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki is one of film’s most unique talents. His animated films are completely bizarre – when I watch them I hover between awe and bemusement, constantly asking myself how anyone ever came up with this stuff. The visual style is simultaneously naive (in the familiar style of anime conventions) and dazzling (you’ve never seen sights like this before). The films convey considerable humanity and liberalism – they’re bursting with transformations and realignments in which Miyazaki rejects physical and temporal limitations and conventions about how heroes and villains work. At the same time, Howl seems like the most sweepingly romantic of his films that I’ve seen (I’m not going to attempt even a cursory plot summary). It’s completely fascinating, and yet I wonder if the films’ immense idiosyncratic assurance doesn’t confine them to a second tier of interest – one marvels at Miyazaki’s facility, but then at what else?

Mysterious Skin

Gregg Araki returns after a long hiatus with a film about two teenage boys – both molested years earlier by their Little League coach, one of them now a hustler, the other haunted by repressed memory. The film has some highly disturbing scenes, setting out the range of emotions (from contempt to desperation) implicit in child abuse; it’s frank about showing how the victims’ immaturity might subsequently allow the memory of the encounters some twisted allure, which only continues the pattern. The film is glossy and sumptuous, often carrying the impact of a classic melodrama, but at the same time seems utterly disillusioned, ultimately offering no better answer to the human mess other than to hope at some supernatural means of transcendence (while acknowledging this as a mere illusion). It’s not as kinetic and viscerally thrilling as I recall Araki’s earlier movies as being, but its mastery of seduction and repulsion is perfect for the material.

Layer Cake

The latest in a long line of modern British crime thrillers, this one is a bit more restrained (on all of gruesome violence, flashy camera tricks, and colourful profanity) than many of its predecessors, which unfortunately just makes it duller. Daniel Craig plays a drug dealer caught up in a complex web of intrigue – he’s a useless, amoral, self-satisfied character who in this movie’s context passes as the symbol of refinement; the film dutifully ticks off all the stock elements around him. The genre’s abundance seems to me to indicate something very neurotic about concepts of masculinity in Tony Blair’s Britain, but there’s no awareness of that here (for a far more intriguing counterpoint, see Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead from last year).

Batman Begins

Christopher Nolan’s supposedly mature and intimately considered version of the Batman myth is only slightly more satisfying than the norm – in fact the studious attention given to justifying the various elements of Bat iconography often only serves to show it up more effectively for the crock that it is. Nolan certainly isn’t ultimately able to resist big silly action scenes, and he handles them more murkily than they demand; his notion of intelligent motivation relies on an endless amount of windy mumbo-jumbo. And Christian Bale is merely dour as Bruce Wayne. This version may be relatively dark, but the depiction of festering Gotham City is vague and the movie has almost no sexuality (fine in say a Spiderman movie, but surely an evasion in seeking to illuminate this particular super-psyche). Still, the prevailing standard for this kind of thing is so mundane that Nolan’s effort does leave you relatively impressed – little about it is actively silly or pandering, it’s just limited.

Land of the Dead

George Romero’s fourth film in his zombie series has a more mainstream cast and seemingly greater resources than the previous movies, and for much of the way this seems to generate a blander result – the zombies are getting more intelligent now, making for a more conventional set-up and structure. This version presents a city so secure and complacent that the zombies are almost forgotten (its fate is of course inevitable) in which capitalist exploitation has reimposed itself after the fragile allegiances of the previous films; in the end Romero posits that the bond between the normal working stiffs and the zombies may end up stronger than that between the ever-perpetuating hierarchies of mankind. At such times his old radicalism seems as strong as ever. The film is highly pacey and entertaining – it’s one of the few films you wish had been longer, to allow a more thorough examination of the city’s undercurrents. But even so, the film is a much more satisfactorily “adult” use of genre filmmaking than Batman Begins.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Missing movies

Writing recently in the UK Guardian newspaper, prompted by the rediscovery of two lost Peter Sellers comedy shorts from the 1950s, Xan Brooks expresses his fascination at “the idea of the films that get lost; that vast, teeming netherworld where the obscure and the unloved rub shoulders, in the dark, with the misplaced and the mythic.” He notes: “Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation estimates that as many as 50% of the American movies made before 1950 are now gone for good, while the British film archive is similarly holed like Swiss cheese.” The British Film Institute has a section on its website dedicated to the 75 most wanted British films, asking members of the public as well as collectors and archivists to “check attics and cellars, sheds and vaults” in search of Alfred Hitchcock’s second film as a director, Errol Flynn’s screen debut, three early works by Michael Powell, and seventy others. Although such attic searches would obviously be extreme longshots, success from such measures wouldn’t be unprecedented; as Brooks notes, if not for the storage room of a Norwegian psychiatric hospital, the world wouldn’t have as complete a version as we do of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of the most highly prized films in history.

Where’s Parsifal (and who cares!?)

I entirely share Brooks’ fascination with this aspect of cinema, of how it reminds us that even the swaggering industrial stomp of the blockbuster is built from the most fragile of commodities, transient successions of images; if we can shut out a film by closing our eyes, then why shouldn’t the world send it into non-existence by turning its head. Many of the lost films date back to more haphazard times – the missing Powell movies for instance were 1930s “quickie” efforts that by all accounts barely seemed to count for much even as they were being made, so it’s not hard to see why everyone forgot to think about posterity. But others belong to the 60’s and 70’s, and the most recent is Where’s Parsifal, a reportedly bizarre 1984 comedy featuring Tony Curtis, Peter Lawford and Orson Welles (one commentator on the Internet Movie Database suggests the film can actually be found on ancient Australian videotapes, but maybe that’s no better than being lost in an attic).

Of course, momentary buzz aside, it’s a bit strange to be excited by (for instance) the rediscovery of a lost Peter Sellers film unless you’ve actually seen all the Peter Sellers films that are already available, which I imagine not many people have. For virtually any star or director you can name, a lot of the material that’s not actually lost might as well be, given how difficult it is to access. I’ve written before how the Internet has been a source of wonder in remedying some of this, albeit only in a rather chaotic way. I was recently startled when Peter Watkins’ 1977 film Evening Land recently popped up on Mubi.com, as I’d read in the past on Watkins’ own website that “The only known surviving 35mm copies of this film (two) are in the archives of the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen. On rare occasions they may be loaned out to other Cinematheques, though their quality is not the best.”

Evening Land

Since then, he provided an update that the film was released on DVD in France, but nothing suggested it would be available here any time soon. The Mubi print seemed to derive from a Toronto-based distributor which has worked with Watkins in the past, Project X Distribution, but its website hasn’t been updated since 2009. As I watched the film (the quality of which looked fine), I couldn’t help thinking its reappearance might be that of a phantom, capable of being snatched away at any moment.

I wrote about Watkins here several years ago (you can find the article at http://torontomovieguy.blogspot.ca/2012/04/peter-watkins.html) noting among other things that “his critique of mass media malignity becomes ever more relevant as the standard of our public discourse grinds relentlessly into greater trivia, shrouding the mass erosion of quality of life and prospects for sustainability.” Evening Land fits entirely into that theme, taking what’s usually termed a “docudrama” approach to depicting the (fictional) upheaval after a Copenhagen shipyard signs a contract to build hulls for French atomic submarines: the workers’ rights to strike and to other means of public protest crashes into the immense governing interest in maintaining Denmark’s industrial base and its place within Europe (defined at that pre-expansion point by what we now think of as the old Europe). Watkins crams a lot into the film, and one can easily get lost within it, but that’s a deliberate strategy too I think, mirroring how the populace misses the incremental shifts that gradually shift the nature of power and influence. Hindsight tells us that democracy didn’t crash as rapidly as Watkins clearly expected it to, but if he was a pessimist on the timing, maybe that only speaks to the self-preserving refinement of the influences he diagnosed. It’s shocking that his work isn’t better known and more consistently accessible.

The Amorous Misadventures of Casanova

Talking of Tony Curtis, I recently watched another film from his fading star period, one which might surely have gone the way of Where’s Parsifal and yet somehow survives, a mind-boggling 1977 European mishmash called The Amorous Misadventures of Casanova, among other things (shifting titles are a common feature of such misbegotten projects, as if limply throwing darts at a target without a bullseye). Sometimes it’s called Some Like it Cool, which exactly points to how Curtis trashes his legacy here. He plays both an aging Casanova with performance problems and a younger lookalike; the film sends them on a strenuously intertwined plot of mix-ups, usually involving the bedroom; much of the time, you have the impression of merely watching a tired man delivering his anachronistic quips, propped up by a conveyor belt of boobs.

And yet (that’s right, even for a farrago such as this you can find an “as yet,” if you’re a true optimist) by its very nature, the film embodies a kind of joy in cinema that’s extinguished now, a faith in the notion that the very presence of a Star, doing some vague version of what he’s always done, is inherently magnetic; and in the allure of pretty titillation. I don’t think it can ever have been entirely true, because such films never seemed to do much for the career of anyone who appeared in them, but the notion persisted for a long time, before being gradually killed off by home video and then the Internet and the new attitudes that came with them. Watching The Amorous Misadventures of Casanova, I kept wondering how anyone thought that what I was looking at was good, but I suppose that’s the wrong question – no one thought it had to be good, it just had to be. And how easy then for such a film, maybe ten years or even a day later, to cease to be.