Monday, 10 August 2015

Movies I Have Seen An Unhealthy Number of Times

(Inspired by Hadley Freeman’s book on 80’s movies, some of which she’s seen way too many times, and most of which were written and directed by John Hughes. None of mine were.)

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1974) Loosely based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, Elliott Gould shambles his way through early 1970’s Los Angeles. The photography, by Vilmos Sigmund, is gorgeous, and the script, by Leigh Brackett, has a memorable line or exchange in every scene. I saw this twice in the week it came out at the Odeon in Exeter, and haven’t stoppped watching it since. The critics didn’t like Altman’s Marlowe when the film came out, but as time has passed, this movie has become a legend. It’s flip, cool and has a great payoff at the end.

Dog Town and Z-Boys (Stacey Peralta, 2001) I once contemplated a post called “Everything I Know About Excellence I Learned From This Movie”. I didn’t write the post, but I probably used the thought as an excuse to watch it again. Tony Hawk, or whoever the New Guy is now, can do tricks that the original Z-Boys would never have thought possible, but the point is, these guys were the first to work out how to do an arial spin out of a swimming pool. There were no half-pipes in your local council playground like there are now. And they were better then than almost all the kids at the park or even on the South Bank are now. Above all the story is about how to get good at something, and the importance of looking good while doing it.

The General’s Daughter (Simon West, 1999) From the opening shot you can feel the heat, the humidity and the weirdness. John Travolta is a maverick undercover army policeman who happens to be there when the General’s daughter is found dead. Showing a total lack of judgement, the Army puts him in charge of the investigation. He gets teamed up with Madeline Stowe as a fiesty female detective, with whom he had an previous affair. “Brussels. We’ll always have Brussels,” Travolta reminds her. James Woods as a gay PsyOps colonel, a bondage dungeon, a painting cat and a bunch of great lines, plus an outstanding performance from Travlota. “My father was a drunk, a womaniser and a gambler: I worshipped the man” he tells Woods with all sincerity. Great lines, glowing photography, fantastic sets, and justice triumphing at the very end.

Grand Prix (John Frankenhiemer, 1966) In fifty years, nobody has made a better film, or produced better live-action footage, of motor racing. And that includes all the on-board cameras in Formula One for television. The 1960’s were the last decade of gentleman’s motor racing: the season was about ten races long, with most in Europe, one in America and one in South Africa. The film’s version of the Italian Grand Prix was eerily prescient of the actual 1967 race, when Jim Clark lost a lap and made it all back up to take the lead, and John Surtees in the Yamura Honda really did win by overtaking out the last corner before the finish line. Everything else is pretty much fiction. Frankenhiemer followed the actual F1 circus from race to race, and many real racing drivers make cameo appearances. I watch it when I’m feeling down, and it never fails to lift me up.

Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, 1996) I came out of seeing this movie when it was released and felt more alive than I had for several years. It was the mid-Ninteties and I was in early recovery, but I saw a lot of other movies then that didn’t have that effect. The film alludes to Basqiuat’s drug-taking, but doesn’t get the sheer scale of his debauchery and chaotic behaviour. You have to read the books for that. Schnabel was making a film about Basquiat’s art and the art scene in New York at the turn of the Eighties, so I’m with him on leaving out Basquiat's excess. My favourite passage starts with Anina Nosei visiting Basquiat’s flat and looking at his drawings, and moves on to him producing his first great works in the basement of her gallery. Apparantly, Basquiat’s estate wouldn’t let them use originals, so Schnabel and his assistants re-created his paintings for the movie. Compare this with the documentary, Downtown 88, and it looks glossier, but has the same feel. Schnabel did a good job.

The Great Contemporary Art Bubble (Ben Nicholson, 2009) I liked Dan Flavin’s stuff before I did my O-levels. I have the catalogue from the Kinetics exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (I think half London went to that one). For some reason I lost track of art in my thirties and then made a concerted effort to catch up again in my Forties. I have been on the Contemporary Art Society coach tours. What changed in the time I was away was the importance of the art market, especially for contemporary art. The major buyers are hedge funds, investment houses and other rich people, plus own-account art traders, and for them, it’s a business. They could lose a few million on their holdings of, say, Gerhard Richter, but then they could lose just as much on their holdings of General Motors or HSBC. And Ben Nicholson does a top job of taking us round the players in the market circa 2008, most of whom are still major players and artists now. There’s lots of art on display, lots of interviews and the odd bit of self-indulgence. Just the sort of thing I like.

Last Seen Wearing (Inspector Morse S2) (Edward Bennet, 1988) In which by some miracle, a bunch of English actors and film crew channel the exact cynicism of Raymond Chandler to perfection. The cast is ridiculous, from Suzanne Bertish at her most controlled, to a young Liz Hurley, and John Thaw playing Morse at his most depressed, cynical and despairing. “Well, they put me on these things when they smell a corpse. One file... anyone. Two files... Ainly or McKay. I'm the three file man... No, she's dead.” Set in the well-off upper-middle classes and oozing with Morse’s dislike of them, in the end, it’s about a man pulling himself out of his own despondency and solving the case. It’s about privilege and dishonesty and a side rip to London where we can see a flash West End estate agent showing tenants round Chelsea Harbour. (Cutting edge stuff at the time.) “We ought to be able to arrest him for his taste, but we can’t,” comments Morse.

Civilisation: The Skin of Our Teeth (Kenneth Clarke, 1969) He wouldn’t be allowed to get away with this episode now. Clarke was the last of the great Hegelian art critics, for whom “culture” meant Greece, Rome, the Catholic Church, and above all the Renaissance. In this episode he looks at the coastal and island Christian communities of the post-Roman days, and it’s the light and images of those islands and beaches that triggers a whole bunch of childhood memories of English coastal holidays for me. Was Clark right? Did Western civilisation survive because of these isolated monasteries? No. Mostly it survived because the Arabs in Constantinople preserved and developed the literary legacy of Greece and Rome for hundreds of years while the European world seemed to be suffering a minor Ice Age that sapped the life out of it. Love or hate Clarke’s thesis, the imagery of this episode conveys the beauty and spirituality of those remote locations.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell,1994) Every scene has a great line. It looks fabulous and everyone is pretty. The prettiest people have the most problematical love lives. Yep, it must be a Richard Curtis movie. It’s basically a contemporary costume drama starring Hugh Grant looking gorgeously foppish and English, which is why the rest of the world loved it, with a sharp portrayal of the love life of an attractive young man about town, which is why I loved it. The critical scene is “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”, in which we see Grant’s previous girlfriends, who are the most shallow, shrill, awful bunch of women ever collected round one table. Without that scene you’re going to spend the whole movie wondering why Grant hasn’t been snapped up by some well-bred Eight. With it, you know what he’s avoiding. And if you haven’t had a morning scene like the ones with Andie McDowell in the country pub or the Ritz - but maybe not in such glam locations or with Andie McDowell - then, my friend you do not know the bitter-sweet tastes of love. The most gorgeous shot in the whole film is looking downstream on the Thames just before we cut to Grant and McDowell in her hotel room. (“I think I can resist you: you’re not that cute”. Yea right.)

I could add a whole bunch more that fall under ‘slightly less obsessive’: The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979), An American In Paris (Vincente Minelli, 1951), The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963), Heat (Michael Mann, 1995), A Few Good Men, (Rob Reiner,1992), Thirteen Days (Roger Donaldson, 2000), Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, 1999), quite a few more I can’t remember right now, and of course the entire post 1980’s contemporary films of Eric Rohmer.

What if anything on earth links all of these films? The leading character is usually an attractive single man, who is an outsider with something to prove to himself if not to others. The main obstacle to achieving his goal is his own temperament - there’s a sequence in Grand Prix with James Garner and Toshiro Mifune about exactly that - and once he learns to overcome his own weakness, he gets the girl (Four Weddings), wins the Championship (Grand Prix), solves the case (Last Seen Wearing, The Long Goodbye), wins the trial (A Few Good Men). That’s one theme.

The other is about deciding to commit oneself. In The General’s Daughter, Travolta has to decide to be a policeman first and an Army man and maverick second; Basquiat has to decided to come out hiding when opportunity - in the form of Annina Nosei - comes visiting, and then throwing yourself headlong into the work; Dogtown (and The Great Escape and The Warriors) is about the unexpected rewards of excellence achieved for its own sake, and the value of having a bunch of Bros dedicated to the same thing.

An American In Paris is almost the opposite of all this: it’s a film is about a bunch of modestly talented middle-aged dreamers who will never really make anything of themselves (except the French stage star, who has, if that’s your idea of artistic success). It’s about and for all the middle-aged men who haven’t quite succumbed to the living death of normal life but can’t really break out into the life they want. It says that if you do that, you’ll have to wait for Leslie Caron to change her mind at the last moment and come rushing back to you. Which is why those are called “fairy-tale endings”.

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