Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand

I was going to write a new post on films recently seen, but I can't concentrate. I also said to myself I'd never put up posts of a personal nature, but right now, I don't care, I'm breaking that rule. If you don't already know, an earthquake hit the city of Christchurch, New Zealand midday yesterday (22 February). I haven't lived there for over ten years, but it's still my home city, my place of birth. My family are fine -  I spoke to my brother last night, everyone's OK, and the damage is not too bad where they are. But the only images I have etched in my head right now are of places I know, familiar parts of the city I grew up in, all ripped to pieces. It's all quite surreal. And disquieting. And upsetting. I cried watching images of the devastation on the news last night. I've been happy to live away from my place of birth for years, and I've said I'll never return to live there, only to visit occasionally. But one's birthplace seems to hold a stronger power than I ever knew, and to see Christchurch looking the way it does right now hurts a lot more than I expected.

Normal transmission will resume very shortly. Just wanted to write something down today, because I simply cannot concentrate on any task at hand right now.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Sweat and Blood

THE PHENIX CITY STORY (Phil Karlson; USA; 1955)

This brief blog post is my second contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. There's a whole slew of bloggers, all scribbling furiously to raise funds to restore Cy Endfield's film noir classic The Sound of Fury (1950), for the Film Noir Foundation. The blogathon runs from Feb 14 to 21. Browse all the other posts, being collated by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren, and flick some moolah to the Foundation!! It's terrifying simple - just smack that button below, it'll take you to where you wanna go.
Sometimes not knowing the framework behind the story of a film can add real salt and pepper to the viewing. This was definitely the case when I first saw The Phenix City Story. The film depicts a struggle between the 'good honest townsfolk' of Phenix City, Alabama, rising against the corrupt 'peddlers of vice' who have marked the city as one of sin, degradation, and turning blind eyes. It culminates in the murder of a recently elected Attorney General, Albert Patterson, at the hands of the crime syndicate who feel suddenly threatened by this man's ability to coalesce public opinion against these syndicates. The first twelve minutes of the film are devoted to a news report on the murder of Mr Patterson, and the history of crime in Phenix City. Several folks are interviewed by a reporter, and these interview segments, plus the declamatory reportage directed straight-to-camera by the dapper reporter, all felt to me, at the time of first viewing, so wonderfully realistic. Filled with halting speech, interviewees who are too shy to look at the camera, the occasional slip or stammer, this fake documentary segment bristled with an unpolished energy that fascinated me. But it was not long after seeing the film that I learnt that the whole story around Phenix City as “Sin City, USA” and the murder of Albert Patterson was entirely true. And, thus, the report at the beginning of the film, helmed by true-to-life journalist Clete Roberts, was also a true blue documentary. And returning to the film a second time, it became a little more obvious, a little clearer that this was 'real'. Clete Roberts states that there was “no careful rehearsing of speech” for his candid interviews, and heck, right after the report is over and the credits for the film roll, there's a whole spiel flashed up on the screen thanking the inhabitants of Phenix City for allowing this film to exist. I didn't see these signs as signs of the 'real' – I happily fooled myself into concocting the film as an elaborate fictionalised tale with pseudo-documentary flourishes. The opening segment, seen with new eyes, is still unusual and fascinating, a wonderfully odd choice to initiate a film. But, I like that I still have the trace of my original mis-viewed understanding of this opening section still pulsing within my vision.

The fictionalised story of Phenix City that takes up the remainder of the running time is surprisingly brutal, frank, and bloody. This is an extremely raw film, where absolutely no-one is exempt from savage attacks. Women get beaten up and bloodied, children get slapped, and in one horrifying scene the corpse of a young black girl is flung from a car. There's countless close-ups of sweaty faces, scores of scenes where people are pounded and pummelled, and yells, shrieks, and wailing are drizzled through the soundtrack. Yet, for all its coarse and brutish textures, the film derives a huge amount of vigour from being so brazenly forthright. This is not a lazy or hastily spliced film – the early sequences that introduce each character are deftly painted and woven together. The story is built from passing one character to the other – we meet a young man doting on a girl at a cheap and plain casino, and then pass to the club owner, who then visits his old lawyer pal, who then picks up his son from the airport....and from this concatenation of scenes, a certain momentum is picked up as each of these characters' lives intertwine and knot around each other. This film is predicated on crescendoing pace and rhythm, peaking and peaking and peaking, waiting for that right moment to explode.

But the film is perhaps most appealing as a docu-style traipse through small-city USA in the 1950's. We are driven through the main streets at night, allowed to soak up the seedy atmosphere, the tacky neon lights, the authenticity of night-time street bustle. Characters walk us through the streets, letting us mingle with the small but active crowds. And we drift through plain offices, functional and dull-looking clubs, ordinary homes. There's a strange pleasure to be had in seeing the mundane and quotidian parts of a city.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Back in the Cold, Black Silence

BLAST OF SILENCE (Allen Baron; USA; 1961)

This blog post is my wee inaugural contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. After the rousing success of last year's Film Preservation Blogathon, this year's efforts are for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who endeavour to restore Cy Endfield's film noir classic The Sound of Fury (1950). The blogathon runs from Feb 14 to 21. Check out everyone else's blog posts, being collated by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. And donate to the Foundation!!!! It doesn't hurt. Hit the big ol' button below.

Arriving at the tail-end of the supposed heyday of film-noir filmmaking, Allen Baron's Blast of Silence comes across as an early mutation of the film noir blueprint, a kind of twisted bastard child born from years of pent-up celluloidal anger, violence, and paranoia. This is one heck of an awkward, angular, and abrasive film, it's beauty derived from unremitting seediness and grime. The inauguration of the film seems to be taking noir to its very literal extreme, offering a black screen and the words of a narrator intoning in a tough-as-nails hard-boiled way “Remembering out of the black silence. You were born in pain.” The black screen steadily reveals an ever growing aperture, and as we hear a woman's strangled screams, a smack, a baby's cry, and the narrator referring to the lead character's birth into the world, the film is born into the world, via the locomotion of a train, and the aperture reveals a tunnel. In one moment, the birth of the main character is conflated with the birth of the film, which is conflated also with the very birth of cinema itself (trains and cinema forever intertwined through Lumiere's L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat).

And right from the outset we are introduced to two key components of the film – the relentless barrage of words spouted by the unseen, unknown narrator, and the pain, anger, and hate he talks of in his first few sentences. Frankie Bono, a hired killer originally from New York and now working in Cleveland, who comes back to New York around Christmas time to perform a routine hit, has his every action commented upon by this ceaseless voice. This continual chatter indicates some kind of psychosis, a voice in Frankie's head that can also begin to drive the spectator mad as well. The narrator spews forth a torrent of thoughts, almost all of them alluding to anger and hatred, and a preference for loneliness and coldness, emotional and physical. “You were born with hate and anger built in. Took a slap in the backside to blast out the scream and then you knew you were alive.” It's clear the narrator is talking to us as much as he is talking to and about Frankie. This inability for the narrator to shut up is annoying yet unusually appealing - here is a film that actually seems to want us to feel like we're being goaded, poked, and prodded, a film that suddenly seems to be speaking to us and telling us how damn painful the act of living is supposed to be.

Even the simplest of exchanges are imbued with savagery and petulance. The ubiquitous noir scene of the hitman meeting the anonymous messenger is presented here as a game of surreptitious physical torment, with the messenger jabbing Frankie repeated and violently in the ribs with a finger, and Frankie ending their exchange by treading firmly on the messenger's foot. Except for key moments, rage is hardly ever visibly etched on any characters face, yet the films seems to boil and bubble with constrained volatile emotions. Frankie meets an old female friend and his ice-like clarity starts to dissipate. As his emotions surface, his only way of expressing them is in a forced and brutal manner, meaning that when he tries to embrace her and woo her, he ultimately ends up trying to rape her. This seems to prove the narrator right – emotions, in this world, are best left cold, dormant, unexpressed, and unattended.

The gritty, darkened city is of course a key trope in film noir, but never before has a city been portrayed so synaesthetically. New York can be felt and smelt. Greasy food, mouldy apartments, early morning air – scenes exude scents and textures. And as Frankie's mental state seems to unravel, the sounds, rhythms, and textures become more intense, culminating in a near-hallucinatory moment in a night-club, where a bongo-thwacking beatnik sings of being “dressed in black all the time” and driving the cinematic rhythm into clipped paranoid snippets of eyes, limbs, and mania.

And before you start considering this film to be bleak as all hell and not worth the time, let me say just how cinematographically elegant this film often looks, even in all it's ugly ungainliness. I'm reminded here of an incredible long take of Frankie, walking a silent street in the early dawn, starting as barely a pinprick in the distance. During the course of a minute or two all we see is Frankie walking – yes, the narrator's still there, but the voice becomes a mosquito-like buzz as the scent of dawn seems to stretch to the nostrils, and that eerie quiet of early-morning city-streets emanates from the screen. Frankie keeps getting closer and closer, until his trench-coated bulk dwarves the screen and consumes us entirely. Back again, and briefly, to black.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

List Addiction - From Citizen Kane to Kill Bill Vol. 1

For the past four or five years, I've had this little ritual that I perform in the first month of every year. I slaughter a chicken wait, not that ritual, must not talk about that one.

Ever since I ambled across the They Shoot Pictures Don't They? website about five years ago, I have pored over their two regularly updated lists, the Top 1,000 Greatest Films of All Time and the Top 250 Films of the 21st Century, and worked out my own “haven't seen them yet” lists. I'm anally retentive enough to have a document that I regularly amend, listing all the films I haven't seen yet from these lists. Remove the films I've seen, add any new additions from the annual updates, and I'm set for another year.

I'm a sucker for film lists. Yes, they're problematic – they reinforce canons and ignore the unheralded. But I usually forgive a list for its shortcomings if it introduces me to films I'd never heard of previously, or never considered watching in a hurry. The first time I came across the Top 1000 list on TSPDT, there were scores of films that I simply had no idea about - films that I still haven't seen (due to inaccessibility), like Limite, Sugar Cane Alley, Il Sorpasso, The Childhood of Maxim Gorky. Filmmakers I'd barely heard of, like Mark Donskoi and Luis Garcia Berlanga. The list has encouraged me to watch films that have utterly blown me away – Hitler: A Film From Germany, Touki Bouki, Zorn's Lemma. Yes, the lists have also lead me to films that gave me a headache, but hey ho, small price to pay, this is always going to happen in the world of cinephilia. (Example; why is The World According to Garp on the list? This film is a great example of turning a pretty good novel into a messy, incoherent puddle of visual dribble. And Babe has entered this years Top 1000 list as a first time entrant? What the fuggin' what? Thank god I've already put myself through the hell of seeing this execrable film years ago).

And I guess that IS one problem with building a wall of cinephilia based on lists – you get addicted to the idea of conquering the list, watching everything on it, and therefore forcing yourself to watch films you really have no desire to see. Its easy to become obsessed with the lists, and viewing choices are limited only to films from those lists. There are scores of films I have put to one side in favour of watching a list film, saying to myself “I'll watch this some time later, once I've finished with the lists.” Thankfully, I'm far less obsessed than I was a few years ago. I first created a list from the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die book in September 2005. At that stage I was woefully lacking in my 'classic Hollywood' background, and had always avoided the horror and musical genres. I think my tally of films to watch was around 450 or so. For about 2 to 3 years, almost every film-viewing choice was based on knocking films off the list. When I introduced the TSPDT lists in late 2006, it tripled my obsession. I think it was nigh-on impossible to squeeze in any other film than ones on the 3 lists I had created. I still refer to these lists now, but I've gotten a handle on the obsession and am happy to work on them a little more slowly now, knocking them off bit by bit while enjoying once more the art of browsing for ANY film to watch.

For the record, and perhaps as a note to myself here as much as anyone else, I have the following totals for films yet to be seen on each of the 3 lists:

Source                                                                             Films Remaining
1001 Films You Must See Before You Die                  67
TSPDT Top 1000 of All-Time (Jan. 2011)                   213
TSPDT Top 250 Films 21st Century (Jan. 2011)        53

I'm also anally retentive enough to keep a tally of films that I haven't seen that have dropped off the TSPDT lists each year. The stats are as follows:

TSPDT Top 1000 of All-Time (Jan. 2011)
Last Year in Top 1000           Films To See
2010                                          18
2009                                          26
2008                                          48
2007                                          47
2006                                          13
2005                                          22

TSPDT Top 250 Films 21st Century (Jan. 2011)
Last Year in Top 250             Films To See
2010                                          6
2009                                          15
2008                                          11
2007                                          15
2006                                          16

Bored yet? One more stat, then I'm outta here. Taking into account that some films cross over into other lists, the grand total for all lists combined is 570 films to view. Bugger all, really.

The link to the TSPDT Top 1000 of All-Time is here.

And the link to the TSPDT 21st Century Top 250 is here.

If you haven't seen 'em before, have fun.