Film – M

There are some films which are so powerful that they leave you shattered, staring exhaustedly at the titles and then the DVD welcome screen.  This is one of those films and would easily make it onto my Desert Island Films list.

M is the story of the hunt for a child killer in inter-war Berlin.  The film opens with a sequence in which children are playing and singing a song about a child murderer much to the mothers’ concern.  Sure enough, a young girl is taken by Hans Beckert [played by Peter Lorre] and we see the mother’s growing fear and panic as the other children in the area arrive home from school.

The police are under pressure to find the killer and launch a huge manhunt.  The local criminals feel the heat from the hunt as their business is disrupted and they also launch a manhunt, eventually catching Beckert and holding a court case.

Peter Lorre M

Fritz Lang, by then famous for Metropolis, Dr Mabuse and Frau im Monde, made M in 1931, during the rise of the Nazi party and Nazi paranoia was noticeable as one studio head prevented filming from starting as he thought the film, tentatively titled “Mörder unter uns” [Murderer Among Us], was about the Nazi party.

This was Lang’s first film made with sound and already you sense that he is using sound creatively, rather than to just provide the sound of dialogue or action.  The sound here is a key element in the structure and dynamic tension of the story.  There is no music other than the motif of the murderer whistling Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King as he approaches his potential victims and this must be one of the earliest uses of this tool to give notice to the audience of the threat.  Sound is often used to indicate an action or occurrence before it reaches the screen and, with a nod to the coming importance of sound to cinema, it is a blind man who identifies the murderer from the sound of the whistle rather than from a visual description.

Although this film is now more than eighty years old its subject matter is still relevant but its treatment is more mature and sophisticated than much of the tabloidesque discussion offered today.  The crimes are obviously horrific but the murders are not shown and suggested by, for example, a child’s bouncing ball and lost balloon.  There is also some sympathy created for the murderer who is shown as someone who is ill and cannot help themselves.  How can a society hold a person responsible for something that they cannot control and therefore punish and possibly kill them?

The film is available to watch here for free at Archive.org

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Film – The Beasts of the Southern Wild

We’d just got home from Christmas in the UK and we needed a film to see.

Part of living here is that I live in a bit of a bubble.  I am generally disconnected from what’s going on in the UK [apart from the football, obviously] and I only have a basic awareness of what’s going on here in France too.  This disconnection is a cultural one too and is a little frustrating, but I guess I’m the only one who’s going to burst it.

Anyway, we saw that this film was on, and after a pretty cursory glance at what it was about, we went.

The film is set in the Deep South of the US in a largely independent community called the Bathtub in the Louisiana bayou.  The story is told by Hushpuppy [in a great performance by Quvenzhané Wallis], a young girl who is daughter to the sick Wink and a mother who has disappeared.  Hushpuppy’s worldview is formed by the lessons from the community’s teacher and from her father’s own slightly distorted worldview and less than mainstream parenting style.  Hushpuppy is becoming sensitive to the world around her and is keen to listen to the heartbeat of the living things around her.

There’s a lot that this film doesn’t tell you about its setting and the people in it.  Are the things you are not told important?  Not hugely but you cannot help but make links to the society after Hurricane Katrina and the feeling of isolation that the people in the area must have felt.

Not only does Hushpuppy live in the independent community, she lives in a raised static caravan separate from her father and also from what is happening to him.  This film is the story of the community’s reaction to a great storm and of Hushpuppy’s reaction to the disintegration of the community as her father’s health deteriorates.

The film is a magical realist demonstration of ideas and images, richly set and wonderfully filmed on location.  It is based on the play  Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar.  It doesn’t suffer from being an adaptation that is still seemingly on the stage.  This is a journey that you experience and make willingly alongside the fiery, feisty and strangely worldly-wise Hushpuppy.

And the aurochs?  In  Hushpuppy’s imagination these are wild, horned, hairy black pigs inspired by Husphpuppy’s teacher’s tattoos and apocalyptic lessons on climate change which the eventual storm can only reinforce.  Again, the fact that aurochs are extinct wild cattle is unimportant – this is a world on the edge, precariously so, as seen through the eyes of a young girl as she comes to terms with her independence.

I loved this film. Give yourself over to its mystery and to its imagery and its strange message of hope and make of them what you will.  It will be worth it.

Film – The Hobbit

The idea of a quest has long been a feature of literature and story telling.  From Gilgamesh, to Odysseus, to Aeneas, to Galahad and Lancelot, to Don Quixote and even through to Holden Caulfield.  The characters go off in order to resolve something and generally find themselves changed.  Or sometimes dead.

And so we come to the latest Peter Jackson film of a Tolkien work.   Bilbo Baggins, a homeloving, peaceful hobbit, is recruited to go on a quest with a gang of dwarves [or dwarfs although, technically, the plural of dwarf is dwarrow] and off we go.  There are, as you’d expect, orcs, elves and the suchlike. And adventures.  Well, I say adventures but this film is about as exciting and carries as much threat as an episode of Miffy.

I’ll cut to the chase.  I hated this film.  It bored me rigid.  And it bored me rigid for a long time.  It looks spectacular and I can only applaud the people who have imagined the scenes and worked to make them appear as “real” as they do.  But spectacular will only make up for so much of a lack of immediacy in story-telling.  The technology is impressive as far as the CGI is concerned but again I struggled to find 3D interesting.  This technology still hasn’t developed into anything beyond a gimmick and, in my view, will never cover for anything in the cinematic experience that is lacking in terms of plot and character.  Since the development of film, I can only see the introduction of sound as being a monumental shift in story-telling and film-making.

The original book is three hundred pages long.  This film is part one of three and I was in the cinema for three hours.  I would expect to have read much of the book for myself in that time.  This film is bloated and stodgy, even in the scenes that are supposed to be exciting.  Here’s an example:  The dwarves are captured by goblins.  The scene is fantastic and a triumph of CGI.  Thanks to Gandalf they make their escape.  And off they go slashing and stabbing and running through an incredible scene of rope bridges, and rocky underground paths, fighting thousands of goblins. ” Wow!”  you say as they charge about.  But they carry on charging about and slashing and stabbing.  And carry on, and on, and on and well, you get the gist.  It goes on for so long that it’s fair to assume that they’re all going to get through it and so the sense of threat is lost.  But still they go.  On and on.

And this happens over and over.  There’s little in the way of character here [a flaw shared with Tolkien] and so it’s hard to really care whether the dwarves succeed or not and the excitement is not exciting so the film really starts to drag.  Tolkien was heavily influenced by early English, Norse and Icelandic sagas.  These stories are short, immediate, believable and engaging.  This film and many of Tolkien’s works are the very opposite.  They are plodding, repetitive and tedious.  So I guess Jackson is true to his source material. And that’s not always such a good thing.

Smog and fasting

Yesterday was the festival of karva chauth.  During this festival married women in Northern India fast from dawn to moonrise to ensure the safety and longevity of their husbands. When the moon is first sighted, the husband offers his wife the first bite of food.

The women often rise before sunrise so that they can eat a good meal to see them through the day.  Some women even go without water which, even though Delhi is not super hot right now, it’s still hot enough to make that tough.  Depending on where you are, there are a number of possible rituals, but either way, the woman may well dress up in fine clothes and the man offers something, often something sweet before a decent meal. He sometimes also offers a gift too.

Unfortunately for the women, there was a terrible smog in Delhi yesterday.  It irritated my eyes and my throat on the taxi ride from the airport, never ind having to spend a day in it.  It was one of the worst days ever for pollution levels in Delhi.  It was hard to see the moon.  The wives and their husbands had to go to the flyovers and the open spaces to try and see the moon.

Eventually the moon was sighted and the couples could retreat from the pollution and feast.  The more traditional took a home-cooked meal and the more modern sought out a restaurant.

Eskimo Sunglasses

Not only is it a top pop band name, this is a proper subject.  Of course the people of the arctic regions need sunglasses.  Snow blindness, or   photokeratitisis to use its proper name, a terrible thing and these sunglasses will reduce the amount of UV light reaching the eyes and improve vision, allowing the people to hunt more easily and to basically live in the blinding whiteness of the region.

I know that Eskimo isn’t really in favour anymore and that really I should use the proper names, Yupik or Inupiat [or Inuit], but Eskimo Sunglasses is the better band name and title.

Anyway, here are some pictures of some of the sunglasses that have been made and I think they are fascinating and beautiful as well as very important for life in the Arctic snow, before us civilised folk get round to destroying it all.

The sunglasses are made from either ivory from walruses or from wood.

 

Old Bering Sea, Alaska 400-800 CE

These are from the Old Bering Sea, Alaska and were made in around 400-800 CE

Punuk Islands, 800 - 1200 CE

Punuk, 800-1200 CE

Punuk, 1100 - 1300 CE

Punuk Islands, 800-1200 CE

The four examples above are from the Punuk Islands and were made in around 800-1200 CE

Alaska, circa 1850

These are wooden sunglasses from Alaska and were made around 1850.  They have a small visor or peak and the eye holes are much more narrow

Alaska circa 1860-1880

These are slightly more recent than the ones above.  The eye slit is more narrow and it is much longer, giving a greater field of vision.

[film] The Cowboy and the Frenchman

Well, here’s an odd little film.  Le Figaro decided to celebrate its 10th birthday by inviting a number of directors to make some short films.  The directors included Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard and, for this one, David Lynch.

This is The Cowboy and the Frenchman.  Slim, the foreman on a ranch, is played by Harry Dean Stanton in his first role with David Lynch.  Slim, Pete and Dusty encounter a Frenchman [of all things], on their ranch.  Slim is “is almost stone deaf from two thirty-odd-six rounds which went off a little too close when he was thirteen and a half.”

I don’t know why but people who are deaf or at least hard of hearing seem to feature regularly in Lynch’s films.

Anyway, the cowboys capture the Frenchman and they find him to be suitably bizarre and fascinating.  The Frenchman who is appropriately called Pierre and who wears a beret explains that he met some very friendly people in New York who gave him some multi coloured pills which made poetry come to life and rainbows and small animals appear.  Then everything disappeared and he found himself being followed everywhere by a Native American.

The cowboys then decide to search Pierre’s bag and they discover bottles of red wine, pictures of the Eiffel Tower and Brigitte Bardot, some cheese, a plate of snails and a plate of French Fries  Basically this is a film of contrasting stereotypes;  Pierre with his beret, his thin moustache, his love letters, his poetic reminiscing for the wonders of the USA and his treasures and the cowboys with their ignorance and fondness for shooting birds and snakes, for wrestling cattle and for enjoying life around the campfire.  There are even girls dancing the can-can and singing harmonious Western melodies.

The film is shot in a suitably Lynchian style in which character traits and behaviours and exaggerated to the point of absurdity.  The acting is also suitably and purposefully simple which almost verges on clumsiness and this highlights the absurd and the farcical nature of much of the film.  The cinematography is also wildly and entertainingly amateurish and the music is a stereotypical honky-tonk piece.  This is not a classic by any definition but it is an amusing little diversion for twenty-five minutes and shows David Lynch’s light-hearted side more clearly than any of his more recent movies.

If you would like to carry on your David Lynch and France adventure, then there’s always Silencio, his bar at 142 rue de Montmartre.  Not only does this place look incredible, Molière is supposed to have been buried there, and Zola printed his famous J’Accuse article here too.  The great socialist Jean Jaurès, who has loads of streets named after him across France, was assassinated in the cafe over the road as he tried to head off the actions that took Europe into the First World War.