Archive for October, 2009


A state-sponsored fatwa killed the cat

No-One Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi, 2009)

We’ve all done it. We’ve all sat in some pub or café, where our afternoon off is spolit by Coldplay or Robbie Williams or whoever blasting out of the speakers, and joked that it must be nice to live in a hard-line Islamic state where there’s a blanket ban on dreadful pop music. But in those countries you’re not allowed to go to the pub, you’re not allowed to make music without prior vetting from the government, you’re not even allowed to walk your dog.

Mr Ghobadi was refused a permit to film the film he’d been planning. So, without bothering to apply for the permit he went into the streets of Tehran and spent two weeks filming what he saw. The outcome is No-One Knows About Persian Cats, an interesting hybrid of pop video, teen drama and documentary. Its semi-improvised, shot-on-the-fly mood gives it an energy and freshness that recalls the French New Wave (the wide-eyed, endearing  adulation the Tehran kids have for Western rock mirroring the Cinematheque kids’ love of Hollywood).

The fast-and-loose storyline concerns songwriting partners Ashkan and Negar. Ashkan is the muso who slaves over his mixing desk, lyricist/vocalist Negar is going through her Joy Division/Franz Kafka phase (oh to be young!). Like all kids with a dream they’ve put their wares up on MySpace, and they’ve been courted by concert promoters in Britain and France. They have greater obstacles, however, than the usual hurdles of public apathy and label conservatism; Ahmadinejad’s goons tend not to give out the necessary permits to record Western music, nor visas/passports for the young to defect westwards.

People sometimes flourish in the most adverse circumstances, and their outlaw status gives musicians a determination and a solidarity. Our heroes are introduced to Nader (Behdad, apparently the only professional actor involved), a well-connected ligger/bullshitter on the scene who makes it his mission to get them and their music out into the world. Cue a tour of the Tehran Unislamic music scene, as Nader introduces the pair to people who may be able to help in some way- usually an excuse for each group to perform a song.

The variety of styles is surprisingly broad. We see aging jazz men, a metal band who rehearse in a farmshed (“The cows have gone crazy. They won’t eat, drink or give milk”, grumbles a farmhand), a grunge act whose dad turns off the electricity when he worries that people will hear. A singer-songwriter plays his soul-searching melodramatics to the primary school class he teaches, with close-ups of the children listening intently and enjoying; shades of Les 400 Coups. I particularly liked an angry rapper whose song had the chorus “Allah, wake up! Can’t you see we’re all trash?”

Mostly the script is paper-thin. Nader will be giving the kids a piggyback on his motorbike. “Where are we going today?” “We’re going to see this psychedelic folk band. They know a few people and I think they can get you a permit to go into a recording studio”. Then the act take their turn to play a song, which is intercut, MTV style, with montages of street life. Youths doing wheelies on bikes, flower sellers, crowded trams, Ayatollah billboards, rats running through junkie squats. Between scenes we also get some great skyline shots of Tehran.

Where the script is fleshed out a little more, it can be very funny. Two scenes jump out in particular. “Mash David” is a scatty old bloke in an attic room who Nader approaches to obtain fake passports for his pals. On request he can recite his prices. Iraqi visa, $50. Afghan visa, $5. European visa, $1,000. American visa, $8,000. Exemption from military service, $10,000. Nader tries to sweeten the deal by offering him bootleg DVDs, but David didn’t like the last lot. What sort do you like, then? “Action! Action! 100 killings and no romance!” The girl before Negar and Ashkan has come for a passport. “We’ve mis-spelt your surname. But that’s ok, the world is a shambles.”

Another scene sees Nader hauled before the authorities for the bootleg DVDs and possession of alcohol. We see Ashkan’s view of the encounter, peeping through a door ajar in the police station. Both men are cross-legged on the floor, only Nader on camera. His performance is hysterical over-the-top and fabulous. You say I drink alcohol? Smell my breath, then! Lean over! These DVDs are quality European cinema, they’re not blasphemous. Watch some! Here, take this one, I guarantee you’ll like it! His tantrums terrify the offical and get his hefty fine reduced by 90%.

But all these characters need to watch their back for the most trivial offences. Perhaps the worst affront is the policeman who snatches Ashkan’s ancient dog from his car window and rides off (“A dog outside? That’s filthy, brother!”). The cast-and-director Q&A after the film revealed that on his return from receiving an award at Cannes, Ghobadi was locked up for a week. Most of the people involved dare not go back now.

Once the kids have recruited a full band and got them up to speed, they’re ready to play a gig in their rehearsal garage before heading off to Europe and glory. Instead of stage lighting, Negar gives a candle to each of the 200 punters. What they don’t know is that David has been arrested, hence the passports and visas will not be forthcoming. Nader has reacted by going on a huge bender at a drink-and-drugs party. Ashkan finds him as is trying to wake him up when the police raid the building and Ashkan falls out the window.

We’ve been given a premonition of this in the first few seconds of the film, when we see a blurred image of a bleeding figure pushed on a hospital trolley. This scene is reprised at the film’s end. But with most of the film and the people in it so bright, breezy, warm and enthusiastic, this darker turn comes as a genuinely unexpected punch in the gut.

On the whole, Persian Cats leaves the viewer with plenty of food for thought. It’s very immediate, very now, and in years to come it will serve as an excellent document of its time. A lot of people thought we might see a revolution in Iran this year after the rigged election, and the film makes it clear that something’s got to give between the religious fundamentalists and the pop-savvy kids that they’re lording it over. All the girls in the film obediently keep their headscarves on, but they also wear Converse trainers and devour illicit copies of the NME.

In the Q&A afterwards, the director stressed that this was his favourite of his four feature films; because it wasn’t really his film or his art. The film, and the art, was that of the kids in Tehran. This is one country that’s worth keeping an eye on.


Plan 9 from David Lynch

Dune (David Lynch, 1984)

Was having a badly-needed spring clean of the hovel this morning, and I came across a whole stash of free DVDs from newspapers that I’d never got around to watching. One of these was a David Lynch. Eraserhead I found haunting, The Elephant Man a bit too liberals-patting-themselves-on-the-back, but mid-80s Lynch means Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks; i.e. absolute mastery. I’m no sci-fi enthusiast but I was keen to see what David Lynch did within the genre.

What can I say? Dune is bloody awful. Good things are the decor, costumes, some of the visuals, photography from English new wave titan Freddie Francis; even if there’s no fucking chance whatsoever that whatever life forms that are around in 8,000 years time are going to dress like dignitaries of the Hapsburg Empire with lovely blow-dried Nick Rhodes haircuts.

Bad things are… everything else. Here we have a series of epic novels compressed into a two-hour film, and it’s impossible to follow. Characterisation is one-dimensional, lots of ham acting, people are miscast, and worst of all it’s boring. Dog’s dinner of a film. About halfway through I consciously gave up on the film, and from then on I was just waiting for the end.

Apart from everything else, one of the odd tricks employed by the film is to mix up actual dialogue with the articulated thoughts of each character. For example, the Duke’s partner Jessica will ask someone “What happened to your wife?”. Then, her lips not moving, we will hear her say to herself “He’s hiding something from me!”. I can see what they were trying to do- create a multi-faceted world where nobody’s motives can be taken at face value. But the trick is intrusive, very distracting, and doesn’t quite work. Shouldn’t the actors be able to convey their thoughts and feelings through, er, facial expression and body language?

Not knowing what else to say, I’ll try my usual trick of talking you through the film. We start with a head-shot of a pretty girl, dangly earrings and her hair in Princess Leia buns, before an outer space backdrop. In a rambling monologue (“Oh yes, I forgot to tell you…”) she tells us that it’s the year 10191 and she’s the daughter of the Emperor wot runs this universe. More or less everyone depends on the spice of the planet Arakis, which “extends life” and facilitates space travel by allowing people to “fold space”.

Cue neo-classical titles. Gotta love the Albertus font. A robot voice outlines the geo-political situation in 10191 for us; there are four main species on four main planets, each of whom is playing the other three off one another, but they all have unfamiliar sci-fi names and we don’t quite grasp what’s going on. The Emperor supposedly presides over everything, but with the supply of spice under threat he receives a visit from the Spice Guild.

In a lavish, golden room whose decor is a Gaudi-esque imitation of coral reefs, lots of generals in nice uniforms confer. The Emperor (José Ferrer) murmurs to the Reverend Mother (Sian Phillips), a bald lady in Tudor costume, that “I shall want telepathy”. The room empties as the Spice Guild are announced- a lot of chaps in chemical suits surrounding a big black tank. In the tank is a gigantic blob (Geri Halliwell) that exhales red fumes. It resembels a massive brain with eyes, a mouth, and minuscule arms.

Blob tells Emperor that he’s not happy. Emperor reassures Blob that one of the planets was building a secret army to take over the planet wot the spice comes from, but he’s getting their rival planet to occupy Planet Spice. Blob tells Emperor he will be required to kill Paul Atreides, and for God’s sake be discreet about it.

The Atreides live on Caladan, a planet characterised by raging seas hurtling onto ragged rocks. Paul (a young Kyle MacLachlan, as rosy-cheeked as a Tory front-bencher) is sitting in a wood-panelled room, checking an astral map on a laptop, when in walk Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell and some bloke in furs with gigantic bushy eyebrows. Without turning he identifies the three by their footsteps. Lt. Gurney (Stewart) puts him through some sparring and we get 80s-tastic graphics, in which their limbs and torsos become encased by blurry, floating rectangles. Paul is going into battle soon and he needs to take his manoeuvres more seriously.

On Arakis, the spice planet, there are worms of up to 500 metres long; that’s where the Atreides lot are headed. Paul is put through his paces against a robot column that comes from the ceiling and has dozens of arms and swords. Lots of ducking and diving from MacLachlan. He steps outside to see his father the Duke. We establish that he’s the Atreides’ best man and much depends on him. “The sleeper must awaken”, urges the Duke.

Paul has a dream/premonition with views of Arakis, Sting laughing and vowing to kill him, and some girl. His mum Jessica lets the Reverend Mother into the palace and gets told off. She was told only to bear daughters to the Duke, so that the Atreides might be linked to their Harkonnen enemies by a political marriage, and she disobeyed. “You were my greatest student and my greatest disappointment”, mutters Phillips. She puts Paul through a test. He has to put his hand into a box that burns his flesh, and if he takes his hand out he will die. Paul passes the test and there’s some vague talk of him maybe being “the one”.

Over to Geidi Prime, home of the Harkonnen. It’s more industrial; scaffolding and lurid green light, rows of stormtroopers in gas masks. Everyone has ginger hair and their leader, the Baron, is a  fat pantomime villain whose face is disfigured by hideous boils (get the feeling that there are goodies and baddies here?). He shouts and storms about like Leo McKern, levitating when he’s particularly excited. His aides are a few fat blokes and Sting, doing a decent pop-eyed Macolm McDowell impression. The Baron wants to control the spice and has a traitor amongst the Atreides who’ll help him.

Paul, his parents and a pug dog are leading a convoy of ships to Arakis. They enter the planet through a baroque golden doorway. Bit of incomprehensible, 2001-ish special effects. The Atreides take charge of the planet and have to contend with all the booby traps and suicide squads left by the Harkonnen. The Duke hears a report about the natives of Arakis, the mysteious Fremen. These are dudes with luminous blue eyes, and there are lots more of them left than they’re letting on and they could be helpful.

Soldiers queue for meagre water rations. Dr Eueh (Stockwell, with a comedy scouser perm and moustache) x-rays captured Harkonnen rebels and has an exhange with Jessica which idenitifies him as unstrustworthy. Paul is attacked by a flying needle that comes out of the wall, and a Fremen housemaid tips him off that there’s a traitor in their midst.

Paul & the Duke meet Doctor Kynes (Max von Sydow, did you really need the money that badly?) who has the blue eyes and shows them “still suits” for outdoor expeditions; they trap your sweat and breath, purify it and make it drinkable. There is no natural moisture on this planet. They go out in a buggy to see spice mining in action. Dr Kynes detects one of the giant worms that defend the spices nearby, and the Duke orders all the miners out. The worm destroys the mine, Dr Kynes is impressed at the Duke’s compassion.

Walking about the compound, the Duke is shot by Dr Eueh, who is our traitor. He’s disabled all their defences because of a personal vendetta. He has nothing against the Duke, and gives him a poison capsule for the inevitable moment he meets the Baron- it will emit a gas and kill them both. The Harkonnen troops attack, there are lots of explosions and battle scenes. Are we bothered?

The Baron shows up, spits in Jessica’s eye and orders his men to dump her and Paul in the desert, where the big worms will eat them. The Duke is conked out and uses his capsule to kill the Baron’s doctor by mistake. Jessica talks with a lion’s growl that hypnotises the toughs who are taking her and Paul away. They get control of the ship and land at the planet’s south pole. After a boring chase by a giant worm, they meet a colony of Fremen that includes the girl from Paul’s dream. Love at first sight.

To further transcribe this bollocks would be to waste your time and mine. Paul becomes a guerilla leader for the Fremen and they disable all the spice mines (“He who can destroy a thing, controls that thing”; is this an argument for the nuclear deterrent?). Jessica gives birth to Paul’s little sister, a telepathic five-year-old who dresses like a muslim woman. There are interminable shoot-em-up battle scenes, in which the obligatory rewrites of Holst’s Mars, The Bringer of War are spolit by grinding guitar solos being laid over the top.

Paul becomes some sort of Warrior Messiah (MacLachlan may be perfect for the unsure boy prodigy, but Warrior Messiah he is Not) who conquers everything and everyone, culminating with his defeat of Sting’s mockney punk rocker in a duel. It’s all silly, pompous, devoid of any characterisation at all, and with no apparent awareness of how meteorically silly it is. That Lynch was able to follow up this catastrophic, epic folly with Blue Velvet leaves me altogether bewildered.

Perhaps I should leave the last words, as does the film itself, to that telekinetic little sister; “And how can this be? He is the Quidzath Zaggurat!” That’s one thing to call him.


Fiddling while Rome Hepburns

Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)

For a few weeks now I’ve been suffering with a fairly heavy cold, amongst other things, and a light, breezy classic was about as much as I could cope with this weeekend. Audrey Hepburn’s most famous role –Breakfast at Tiffany’s, of course-  had her as a hillbilly pretending to be a socialite. It was a back-to-front variation on her breakthrough role, as here she’s a monarch pretending to be a truant from school.

It’s the stock fairytale, prince & pauper scenario that’s fuelled countless films. She walks through a market, sits at a cafe and other commonplace things that we all do every day. The magic comes from knowing it’s the only chance in her life she’ll get to do any of this. But this film about the joys of absconding is moralistic, and has a work ethic; being sated by a day off, Princess Ann returns to the palace, now ready to accept her lot in life.

Gregory Peck’s hack also goes on a journey of self-improvement. He hangs around “Anya”, hoping to sell the story, until his conscience gets the better of him and he realises he doesn’t have it in him to betray the sweet kid. Unlike Tiffany’s the film goes against our expectations and keeps the love unrequited, each going back to their world and their duties. It’s a dignified, neatly poised finish in the vein of Lost in Translation.

Historically, what makes this neat little comedy important (apart from AH bursting onto the screen) is the extent of location filming. It must be one of the earliest mainstream Hollywood films to get out of the big studio sets and into the city streets. The great cinematographer Henri Alekan shows Rome off at its most touristy and photogenic, but it’s a start. I recently wrote about Carol Reed’s The Man Between, filmed in the ruins of Berlin, and it looks like Rome had a considerably better war than the Jerries. That or Rome was rebuilt in a day. One can only envy the relative scarcity of traffic and/or overcrowding.

After aerial postcard views of Rome and a stirring, Respighi-esque orchestral score, we meet Hepburn’s princess in a newsreel showing her European tour. London, Amsterdam, Paris- her home country is not specified. We catch up with her in a plush ballroom full of footmen in gowns; Ann is shaking hands with an endless procession of Papal representatives, Indians, Hungarians &c.

In a mischievous, slightly Bunuelish touch, Wyler shows her bordeom by repeatedly cutting to close-ups of her feet under her gown; steeping out of their shoes, wiggling toes, scratching her leg. When her shoe falls over, all of her entourage is horrifed. The General helps her stand up, her enormous gown covering the errant shoe, and they waltz onto the dancefloor- the others following their lead. Now that’s breeding.

Ann dutifully dances with all sorts of pallid posh mannequins until it’s time for bed. “I hate my nightgowns. I’m not 200 years old”, she complains as her governess pulls her away from the window. The sounds of music and revellery drift up. The governess reads out Ann’s packed itinerary for the next day; factory visits and all that. Hepburn nibbles on a cracker (and nobody can eat a cracker quite like her), the tears welling up. Eventually she cracks, and screams as she pounds her fists into the mattress. The doctor is called out to give her a shot of morphine.

In bed, Ann contemplates the friezes of Venus in the four corners of her ceiling, then gets changed and sneaks out. From below, the camera shows her traversing the bannister around the edge of the ceiling; then from above, sneaking out of the palace and into the back of a goods truck. Euphoric music and clinking bottles as the truck exits the palace gates, giving a view of young couples on scooters, pavement diners, and Rome’s fountains. Hepburn is thrilled. This is real life!

Meanwhile, Joe Bradley (Peck) is bowing out of a late-night poker game with his American pals. Lots of smoking, loosened neckties. The morphine has hit Ann and Bradley finds her sleeping on a wall outside the Forum. Hepburn is quite feline, nonchalantly quoting Shelley in her sleep as Bradley tries to rouse her. She is, as ever, the vulnerable little girl that men want to take care of. Tough guy Bradley hails a taxi and gives the girl a slap.

“Where do you live?”

“The Coliseum.”

The taxi driver gives us a madcap cameo as both he and Bradley try to offload the sound-asleep girl onto each other (“I have bambino at home. You know bambino? Waah, waah”). When the cabbie mentions the police, Bradley decides to take the girl home as a last resort. Nowadays he’d probably be getting the lubricant out by this point, but this 1953 and Gregory Peck is a Gentleman. His place is a cramped, boho attic room; he demurs when the girl asks for help undressing and makes it clear that she’s on the couch, not the bed (maybe not such a Gentleman, then).

Bradley goes out for some air, allowing Ann a chance to sort herself out. When he returns she’s in bed and he tips her onto the couch. They wake to church bells at noon the next day, and Bradley is horrified- he was meant to be interviewing that princess at 11:45. After drinking coffee from the hands of a typist girl, he goes into his editor’s office and tries to bullshit him. What did the Princess think of European integration? “She said it would have two effects; the direct and the indirect.” The furious editor shows Bradley a newspaper annoucing the Princess’ illness and cancellation of her programme; Bradley realises he’s got the girl in his flat. How much would the editor pay for the most private and intimate thoughts of the Princess?

He has the concierge guard his door and his military drills are attracting kids by the time Bradley shows up. Gentle music as he studies the sleeping Hepburn and lifts her back into bed- the love story is being telegraphed. Half-awake, the Princess murmurs about the man in her dream; “He was strange, and so mean to me… it was wonderful” (she likes it rough). A glimpse of the ceiling, with a boiler instead of Botticelli, wakes her up. Ann realises where she is, how she’s spent the night, takes a few moments to soak up the realisation and consequences; then decides she likes it.

Bradley runs “Anya” a bath then calls his photographer Irving (a bearded Eddie Albert) from a payphone. Fun-loving Irving has a model at his place and protests that he’s “up to my ears in work”. Hepburn gets scolded in Italian by the cleaner and when she makes her excuses and leaves, the concierge spots Peck lending her some cash- he too seems to assume the worst. Peck follows from a distance as Hepburn enjoys herself passing scooters, cyclists and workmen in the streets.

Hepburn steps into a barber’s and has her long flowing tresses chopped off- she looks much better. The barber asks her to come dancing and she’s delighted that people fancy her; they’re seeing the girl and not the title. Buying a gelato, she enjoys her anonymity as much as the camera enjoys panning down the Spanish Steps. Meanwhile, at the Trevi fountain a primary school teacher catches Peck trying to mug one of her pupils for her camera.

Now seems an appropriate moment for Bradley to “bump into” Ann and suggest that they spend the day together. Ann says she’s playing truant and her father is in PR, Bradley says he’s a fertiliser salesman. I suppose they’re both telling the truth in their own ways. They meet Irving at a café and Peck’s face is priceless when Hepburn blithely orders champagne. As Ann smokes “her first cigarette”, Irving produces a hidden camera inside a lighter. They’ve struck gold. We cut to a plane from Ann’s homecountry, from which scores of Thomson Twin detectives emerge. “These men are supposed to be inconspicuous”, moans the general.

Peck and Hepburn ride through Rome on a scooter, he pointing out sights. Her spirits raised, Ann tries to ride off on the scooter herself and there follows a silent slapstick scene as she knocks over street painters, the police give chase, etc. We see the three in the station, gesticulating wildly and trying to mime their way out of trouble. Wagner’s bridal march blasts out as we deduce their story; we were trying to get to the church on time. They make a very gay threesome (in the old-fashioned sense), but it’s delicious to think that the two men are at present duping the Princess.

It’s during a slow dance, at a jazz concert by the Tiber, that Bradley begins to melt; Ann raises her head from his shoulder, gazes wide-eyed and whispers “Hello”. He looks distinctly awkward when she reflects on their day together and how “unselfish” he’s been. Irving is delighted when Ann dances with the barber from earlier, and makes sure he gets plenty of shots. The party is curtailed by a carful of the Thompson Twins detectives and a neatly-choreographed punch-up, where most of the goons end up in the river and Hepburn smashes a guitar over the head of one, beating The Clash and The Who by a good few years.

The two lovers are confirmed as such when they swim to the other shore and kiss. After the first snog they’re both terribly bashful, but it’s back to his place and Ann’s turn to have her conscience pricked. The news bulletin on the radio tells of her citizens’ grave concern at the mystery illness that has kept her from fulfilling her duties. Bradley drives her to round the corner from the palace, and they part amidst tears and kisses. He looks shaken.

At the palace, we see that this assertion of independence has turned the little girl into a woman. When her entourage attempt to give her a royal bollocking, Ann faces them down effortlessly; and she doesn’t want any crackers for supper either. Watching the sun come up in his bedsit, a preoccupied Bradley is visited by his editor. He’s decided that he has no story to tell. When Irving buts in, he is told to “go home and shave”.

The Princess’ appearance before the gentlemen of the press is rescheduled; Bradley and Irving are two of the many who filter through into a stupendous hall with vertiginously high ceilings and walls crammed solid with paintings. Questions from the floor are answered with impeccably impenetrable diplomat-spea, until Ann is asked which city was her favourite. “All of them… no, Rome”. At the end she steps down from the platform, announcing her wish to meet some journalists. The assembled hacks from Japan, France, Canada are touched by her gesture but we know her real motives. Irving sneaks her the many action photos that were meant for the exposé.

The final shots see the camera wobble a little, then pull back through this vast hall as Bradley -having waited for the hall to clear and wondered if the Princess might reappear- strides out, smiling. He turns back at the threshold, hesitates with a forlorn gaze and then walks out of the frame. He’s lost his love, but one senses that it’s been a wholly positive experience with no regrets. A love that is only for one night can never go stale or sour, but can instead be idealised for all time.


What a piece of Werck is man

Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)

A weighty adaptation of a weighty novel -both Hungarian- that came recommended by a friend. It’s challenging stuff, very dreamlike and disturbing at once with its own inner logic. I got the sense that if I’d been watching it in a cinema I might have come out raving that I’d just seen a masterpiece.

The most striking thing about the film is its look. The B&W photography is as crisp as an early morning’s fresh snowfall. It’s Anton Corbijn meets Sven Nykvist meets kitchen sink new wave. The takes are very long, very slow, technically brilliant and repetitive to the point of near-hypnosis. The film credits seven different cinematographers, which I guess makes Tarr a proper auteur.

It’s set in a remote Hungarian town. One or two of the household objects suggest that we’re in the present day or very recent past, but really it could be any time in the past 500 years. The location is hermetic and timeless and the story has the feel of a dark fairytale or fable. The people with which Tarr populates the village reflect this too; they have slightly exaggerated features, none more than idiot savant Janos (a sickly, bug-eyed Lars Rudolph) in the lead role.

The logic that the story follows doesn’t really make sense unless you’re living within the world of the film; think of Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient. Plainly put, everyone is very worried about the circus that’s coming to town and what it will lead to. The “circus” consists of a giant whale in a lorry, and a “Prince” who will at some point make a public appearance; the latter is reputed to bring a “godless, monstrous” message with him. After they come into town, town becomes a battleground between destructive rioters and authoritarian forces.

This being Hungary, one’s instinct is to take it as a crossword puzzle and work out what’s being allegorised. Late communist-era fears about the repressed breaking out? What’s the whale besides a nod to Moby Dick? The DVD extra is an interview with Tarr where he does get asked. He says politics is a “dirty game” (good for him) and there’s no allegory attached. As he went to such pains to give his film a universal, timeless quality, I suppose specific labels are the last thing he wants for it. The whale may be a riddle without an answer, like the 2001 monolith; evidence that there’s something more to life and this world, but that that something is beyond our comprehension.

Poor innocent Janos is rather caught in the crossfire between his uncle Gyorgy, a reclusive composer/musical theorist, and the estranged auntie Tunde (Hanna Schygulla looking, unsurpisingly, more grande dame than the dishy blonde you remember from all those Fassbinder films). It seems that some time ago, it was Tunde or the music and the music won. She fills the void by acting as mistress to the chief of police and trying to set up a quasi-blackshirt organisation that will “restore order”. Gyorgy gets blackmailed into putting his good name behind the movement and canvassing for signatures. He mutters something about “smashing the slut’s skull”, then complies dutifully.

The opening scene is particularly beautiful. We see a coal fire doused by the dregs of a pint, then the camera pulls back to show the landlord of a small, shabby bar announce closing time. His elderly clientele are either wobbly on their feet or falling over. One portly chap slowly walks towards the camera and addresses the off-camera Janos; “Show us.” The tables and chairs are pushed against the back wall. Are we in for some folk dancing?

Instead, Janos picks out three volunteers and demonstrates (as one imagines he is asked to every night) the movements of the sun, earth and moon. The camera slowly circles the four men, Janos choreographing his inebriated yet childlike actors with great care, until he stops them and describes the effects of a total eclipse in poetic langauge. It’s funny, but there’s an awesome mystery to it as the drinkers listen in hushed reverence.

Eventually the barman strides through and holds the door open, the camera focused on his beady scowl. Janos walks home through this sleeping town, down the middle of the road, with the camera before him and a gentle strings & piano score. He wakes Gyorgy from his armchair and puts him to bed, whilst we get a tour of the uncle’s comfortable big house. Thence to the post office, where he makes tea before starting his paper round. Outside,  the circus truck edges slowly down the street and its shadow engulfs every one of the cottages to its left. All the shots of empty streets at night drip with atmosphere and existential dread.

Janos has a second uncle at the post office. As he drinks his tea, we listen to a sorting woman spread gossip about the ill omen of this Prince. Very slowly (of course), the camera nudges closer to her until Janos is forgotten and we’re close enough for the grille the woman is behind to have disappeared. A third uncle in a hotel lobby makes similarly grim prophecies to Janos whilst lighting cigarettes with a flourish.

In the main square the next day, the lorry is ready to open. There are clusters of men all through the square, few of them talking. All is shrouded in dazzling white light and mist. The back door opens noisily, from within we hear Cabaret-type music as an old man brings out a desk, chair and cash box. Janos is the only one who goes in to see the whale. He stops at the eye, does one circuit and leaves with a slight shudder. An acquaintance tells him the whale “will lead to trouble”.

Janos lives with Lajos, his fourth uncle, and his room is like a prison cell. The walls are rotting and there’s a vast map of the cosmos above his narrow single mattress. He boils a tin of stew on a camping stove. Enter Tunde; Janos tries to protect Gyorgy, citing his ill health, but the threat of Tunde’s suitcase is enough to have the old man out on the streets. After an endless shot of Janos and Gyorgy walking into town, the villagers begin to tell the pair their troubles; there’s no heating, no transport, and now this Prince is adding insult to injury. To Janos’ disappointment, by the time the sigantures are collcted his uncle is too tired to see the whale.

As he crosses the square, a man grabs a stammering Janos by the scruff of the neck and threatens him. The clusters of people are now lighting fires. Tunde is with the chief of police, who is in his cups and sits on the bed shouting. She sends Janos on an errand- put this man’s kids to bed then snoop around the square; who’s there, what are they talking about? As Janos leaves, the couple dance to military music, the chief waving his gun aloft.

The chief’s house is a mess, his young sons are playing the same record we just heard at Tunde’s. Janos can’t control them; one screams threats of violence, continuing after Janos leaves, the other spends the entire scene bouncing on the bed and incessantly banging saucepan lids. This repetitive scene is very similiar in feel to Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small and is genuinely horrible to sit through.

The bonfires in the square are raging; Janos slips inside the lorry to look at the whale (“see how much trouble you’ve caused”). He overhears an argument between the circus proprietor and a thug who represents the Prince. The former discovered the Prince and gave him his artificial title, but the latter asserts that the Prince is now much bigger than the circus and cannot be dictated to. Eventually the Prince speaks- we only see a shadow on the wall but he looks/sounds like a dwarf. He’s a Hitlerish megalomaniac who wants to incite his followers in the square to revolution. Janos runs and we see flames, smoke and explosion from behind the houses that line the square’s exterior.

The next extended take is of a crowd marching, all carrying clubs. Over a long period of time the camera ascends above them to show how many people there are, then descends back to eye level. The dreamlike manner in which it’s lit and depicted defuses the tension a little, makes you feel drugged. Eventually the men burst into a hospital, tip patients out of their beds and beat them savagely. Lack of a soundtrack again distances us, but the mindless nihilism is once more akin to Herzog’s dwarfs. The camera looms through the corridors until we meet a naked old man standing up in a bathtub; the theme music starts and the rioters shuffle out with heads bowed. The spell has been broken.

The camera rotates around an ornate ceiling, then descends in a downward spiral to reveal Janos reading a notebook containing the Prince’s speech and an account of all the rioters did (“We didn’t find the real object of despair, so we rushed at everything we came across with wilder and wilder fury”). He sits in a room filled with smashed-up washing machines and fridges- a looted shop? Outside, soldiers and tanks have arrived in town. Tunde is pointing to a map and giving orders to the generals.

Janos emerges and finds the dead body of uncle Lajos. When he gets home, he hasn’t the heart to tell Lajos’ wife. She tells him that the army are after him; leave town and hide. Long shot of Janos running along the train track out of town, until a helicopter passes over, returns and hovers- taking photographs of a motionless, petrified young man. 

Cut to Janos on a hospital bed, wearing a white smock. Gyorgy is at his side, telling him that Tunde and the police have commandeered his house but “if” Janos comes out, Gyorgy can put him up. Janos doesn’t seem able to hear- he stares into space and emits a range of yips and whimpers. Gyorgy walks home and checks out the remains of the whale, leaving us with a deep sense of pity and injustice over the fate of that nice boy.

Having been sacrificed that the largely unsympathetic villagers might recover their own sense of stability, one could perhaps say that Janos is a Christ figure of sorts; but his lot at the end of the film leaves us with a particularly pessimistic brand of catharsis, if any.


Une histoire compliquée

Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

I haven’t written about any Godard films yet, and it’s probably about time. Two or three years ago I had a big Godard phase during which I watched most of the films from his golden age, but he made so many in the 60s that there are still a few major ones I’ve yet to see. His stuff is so packed with content that it can dazzle and I needed to view this one twice before I got a grip on it.

Pierrot le Fou would be a good introduction to Godard as it bridges his early and later stuff; it’s simulatenously a farewell to the pulpy pop stories and an indication of where he was heading to. The film is bursting at the seams with ideas and it conveys a sense of tension. Its range of references are voraciously diverse; people are always recounting anecdotes, spouting cod philosophy. Narrative cinema about a murder, robbery or other maguffin is no longer big enough to contain his curiosity, his restless impatience.

The references to Céline might be a clue towards the form of the film. No doubt it seemed odd to namecheck a persona non grata fascist novelist in 1965, but the defining character of Céline’s books was always their avant-garde style. Chatty, digressive, cut-up, he embraced argot and paid less heed to plot -or basic sentence structure- as he went on. They said that he had “blown a hole in the ceiling” of stuffy classical literature. With his vaulting ambition to experiment and push out boundaries, Godard was trying to do something similar to cinema.

The film does still (just about) employ a criminal-couple-on-the-run storyline, but in the loosest sense possible. The interest is elsewhere and when the plotty action bits take place, poetic voiceovers and jarring soundtracks are placed over the top; it’s easy to miss what’s actually happening. Like Le Mépris it has lovely photography of the Mediterranean coast; sunshine, bright primary colours, lots of beach hotels and motorboats. It also resembles said film in that it’s preoccupied with the end of a love affair, the impossibility of a man and a woman getting on with each other long-term.

The film casts Godard’s most iconic actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, just as his marriage to the latter was ending. This is another cause of the restless feeling; in moments of tranquility the two leads agonise over the unknowability of one’s lover, their failure to truly understand one another.  Amidst all the culture and politics some personal stuff is being worked out here. 

One could say that it’s a clash between Old Godard and New; Marianne (Karina) throws herself into the Bonnie & Clyde routine and wants intrigue, action, dancing and music. She rows with Ferdinand (Belmondo) because he’s put aside childish things and wants peace and quiet in which to read, write and think. She suggests Monte Carlo, Vegas or Miami for possible destinations, he prefers Athens or Florence. 

Politics don’t quite dominate the film, but they are already barging into places we wouldn’t normally expect them and throwing their weight about. Although it has nothing to do with the characters or the story, there’s a tourettes-like compulsion to talk about the Vietnam war. Politics would soon take centre stage for my two favourite Godard films, La Chinoise and Weekend, before the tension between his Maoist callings and the set-up of commercial cinema got too much and he had to pack it in. It’s when the tension was at its greatest, though, that he produced his most thrilling work.

We begin with playful credits, an alpahbet soup of neon letters as mournful, noirish music with a touch of Bernard Hermann plays; this theme will recur throughout. Belmondo reads a poetic voiceover about Velazquez as we see girls play tennis, JPB in a bookshop, a sunset over a harbour.

Ferdinand is disclosed sitting in a bath, reading about Velazquez to his little daughter. The painter lived in a blighted time- at the King’s court he was “surrounded by idiots, dwarves and invalids”. One senses that Godard is inviting us to draw comparisons. The flat is luxurious. Ferdinand’s nagging wife tells him he must come to her parents’ tonight to meet a man from Standard Oil who might give him a job. Her friends bring Marianne, the babysitter- a schoolgirlish Karina with her hair done up. Ferdinand starts ranting to the bemused couple about Balzac and Beethoven; with a quick blast of the Fifth, they head out.

At the party, suave guests (almost Marienbad dummies) recite bland advertising blurbs about different products in lieu of conversation. Everything is put through filters of blue, red, green. In a famous cameo, Samuel Fuller tells Ferdinand that cinema is “love, hate, action, violence, death- emotions”. A couple of women with cocktails and fancy necklaces are topless. All look languid and bored, but none more than Ferdinand. “You speak too much, listening to you is tiresome”, one of the ladies tells him.

Ferdinand goes home early and offers the doe-eyed Marianne a lift home. We see them sit in a fake car on a stage set and we learn that years ago, the pair were lovers. Ferdinand tells her he’s been “too lazy” to divorce his wife. Marianne doesn’t want to recount her life story and turns on the radio- atrocities in Vietnam. She confesses her love, Ferdinand plays it cool; fag in mouth, eyes on the road.

The next morning, Marianne is walking around her bare flat and cooking breakfast for Ferdinand, who’s smoking in bed. There are prints of Modigliani and Renoir on the wall, plus magazine photos of African soldiers, rifles everywhere and a bloodied corpse in the other room. In a dressing gown Marianne sings a love song whilst Ferdinand struggles to look tough and indifferent.

Most of these more conventional scenes are linked by voiceover segments; a piece of dramatic music, Belmondo and Karina sharing fragments of conversation or some abstract poetic images, and action shots interspersed with a mélange of classic paintings, cartoon strips and other random images flashing before us. One such segment appears here; we see a man discover the body, Marianne concuss him with a bottle, and the lovers flee Paris. We’re able to discern from the voiceover that Marianne is somehow mixed up in arms trafficking to Angola, and needs to find her brother Fred (like Holly Golightly). On the road the pair embrace their newfound outlaw status by punching out three petrol station attendants.  

Now Marianne is driving and Ferdinand looks redundant. “Have you ever killed a man? You won’t like it,” she warns him. In a voiceover segment we see them stop in a small town and learn that the police are in pursuit. They need money and decide to tell the townspeople stories about some esoteric historical subjects, such as William of Orange’s nephew. The villagers introduce themselves to the camera; a Hungarian refugee, a redhead shopgirl, an old man who’s working as an extra in a film.

To throw off the police, they want to get rid of their car by faking an accident. Fortuitously they come across a capsized car with two corpses and decide to set fire to their own. “It must look authentic, this isn’t a film”, scolds Marianne. The soundtrack is filled with birdsong as we see a long shot of smoke from the car filling the sky, Ferdinand and Marianne disappearing into a field of crops.

Next is the surreal image of the two, in a suit and a dress, wading down the middle of a river. They’re carrying a comic book and a toy monkey (because we’re all big kids?). They steal a sleek convertible from a garage and soon they’re at the south coast. The radio plays sprightly baroque music, Karina’s hair looks blondish in the sun. She accuses Ferdinand of missing his wife; he smells death “in the landscape, women’s faces, cars…”. They sleep on the beach. Marianne points to the Man in the Moon, whom Ferdinand tells her is off; the space race has got him pestered with Lenin and Coca-Cola and he’s going to leave both “to shoot it out”.  

At this point, Godard decides to turn the film into Robinson Crusoe. They have a cabin, Ferdinand keeps a journal of their “hunting and fishing” and they indulge in light agricultural work. He has a parrot who sits on his shoulder, Marianne has a baby fox whom she lets lick her plate. The camera trained on her, Marianne looks away guiltily as she promises never to leave, then gives us a shy smile. Ferdinand reads Céline to Marianne then addresses the camera with a rasping old-man’s croak, talking about the novel he’s got planned. He tells her off for bringing home a record; “You’re only allowed to buy one record for every fifty books. Literature is above music”.

Ferdinand is thriving. On a forest walk, he asks to borrow Marianne’s lipstick and uses it to jot down his ideas. Marianne feels estranged and moans about her boredom whilst stamping along the beach (“You talk to me with words and I look at you with feelings”. “Feelings are no good, you need to have ideas”). As well she might, Marianne soon gets fed up with all of this and tries to change the film back to Old Godard. She’s bored of living in “a Jules Verne” story and longs to go back to being in “un roman policier”. To do this, they’ll need to raise money from the tourists (“ésclaves modernes”).

To entertain the American tourists in Nice, they put on a little play about (what else?) Vietnam. With a bottle of bourbon and a general’s hat, Belmondo points a gun and shouts “Oh yeah! New York! Oh yeah! COMMUNISTE!”. Her face painted bright yellow, Karina snaps and whines in mock-Chinese speak. The watching American sailors declare this to be “damn good”. Afterwards each confides to the camera. Marianne wants to go dancing; Ferdinand doesn’t understand her and she just wants to live a bit. “Who cares if we get killed?” Standing amidst tall crops, Ferdinand muses on this “age of double men” and how he’s never quite sure what his girlfriend is thinking. Welcome to our world, pal.

After this interlude, the nominal story rears its head in the form of a dwarf who has something on Marianne. In blazer and tie, carrying a walkie-talkie and a bottle of Coke, he trains a gun on the camera and threatens her with a napalm bath “comme a Vietnam”. Ferdinand visits a café where a familiar-looking chap tells him, “Last year I loaned you 10,000 Francs and you slept with my wife,” before walking off grinning. I’m guessing it’s a reference to a Belmondo film I have forgotten or never seen. When he walks into their flat, the dwarf is dead; Marianne has stabbed him with scissors. Two gangsters show up and torture him in the bath-tub; we see details of a painting as we hear him being overpowered and beaten.

Ferdinand sits down on train-tracks, but jumps away at the last moment. A Karina voiceover informs us that he couldn’t find Marianne anywhere. We see him in a cinema, with J-P Léaud and a sailor. There’s a newsreel of Vietnam and Ferdinand dozes off, then starts reading. He only gains interest in the cinema screen when Jean Seberg shows up; now that’s definitely a reference to an old film.

In Nice harbour, Ferdinand chats to the exiled Queen of Lebanon (don’t ask me). When she leaves, Marianne turns up and professes delight to have found both him and her “brother” Fred. He reminds her they are wanted for murder, then reluctantly agrees to rejoin the “tale of sound and fury”. They board a speedboat; the adoring camera is fixated on Karina, sunlit sea and a flapping French flag behind her, as she answers Ferdinand’s practical/banal questions about the truth of her background and all this gun-running stuff.

On a beach, Marianne tells Fred that “he’ll do anything I want”, then the film drags itself through the rushed motions of plot/action in an extended voiceover sequence. Belmondo and Karina comment on the images and compare them to stock clichés from novels as the two gangsters drive around, a suitcase is exchanged, and Belmondo has another skirmish with them. “There’s no reason why soft thighs and breasts should stop you from killing everyone”, Marianne tells us as she shoots the gangsters with a long-distance sniper gun. We see her grin in satisfaction.

They meet in a bowling alley; Ferdinand has two plane tickets for Tahiti. Marianne agrees but we don’t quite believe her. Soon she’s back on the speedboat kissing Fred; they pull out from the harbour just as Ferdinand arrives, and he’s left to hear some crazed random tell a very funny story about the record that has haunted him all through his life. It’s playing in the background; Ferdinand insists to the man that he can’t hear a thing, but he hums it to himself as he hitches a boat ride to the offshore island.

He shoots Fred and Marianne (Le Mépris again), then carries the girl to bed and tells her “It’s too late, you brought it on yourself.” Her face is covered in blood. Crazy with grief, a bawling Ferdinand paints his face blue then ties two bundles of dynamite around his head. After the fuse is lit he has a moment of clarity (“Shit, what an idiot I’m being!”) but cannot see to stamp it out. The camera pulls back and we see an explosion on the coastal rocks. The camera calmly moves right to take in the sea, the horizon and finally the sun. There is silence, before our stars share one last whispered voiceover; “It’s ours again. Eternity.”

The film is slightly overlong and Godard can be like Herzog in that you have to sit through an amount tedium to get the inspired bits of brilliance that one just doesn’t see most films; and it is a quite brilliant ending, with images that will stay with me. However it’s belligerent, it points a great big arrow towards my favourite period of Godard and it’s a film with one hell of a lot on its plate- and more still to say, if you listen. I watch stuff like this and come away thinking what a travesty it is that A bout de souffle is his best-known film.

One aside- I remember that one of Kenneth Williams’ more angst-ridden diary entries describes a visit to the cinema for Pierrot Le Fou. He was deeply wounded that when asked “Who are you?”, Belmondo jokingly replied “un homosexuel” and got a big laugh from the crowd. At one point in the film, Karina does indeed ask Belmondo who he is. I’m fairly certain he answers, “un homme sexuel”.

October 2009
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