Documentary of the week: The Epic of Everest (1924)

 

In 1924 a group of English climbers set out for a third attempt on the highest mountain in the world. The expedition has become almost mythical in the English imagination, for the deaths of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in unknown circumstances near the top – had they reached the summit, the first men to do so, and were on their way down? – taking on added fascination with the finding of Mallory’s body just over 10 years ago. And so the story has been mythologised and contributed  hugely to the creation of the sub-genre of ‘men (and occasionally women) v mountains’ action literature, sped on its way by Mallory’s much quoted reason for his attempts on Everest – ‘Because it’s there’ . A member of the expedition, himself obsessed with Everest, was Captain John Noel, who took along a movie camera, and the BFI have just released this beautiful restoration of the film he made.

Unimaginable to carry along a camera and equipment of the size film-making would demand. Of course, almost all of it, like the rest of the gear, would be carried by Sherpas, the then little known people who provide lots of the interest of this film – apparently chirpy, strangely coiffeured people and their butter-smeared children, their monasteries, their music, are portrayed with a smidgeon of condescension but also admiration for their strength and bravery, providing what must have been at the time useful ethnographic information. Almost more ethnographically interesting are the Englishmen themselves, in their tweed jackets and thick-knit socks, as if setting off for an autumn hike in the Lakes, their pipes and scarves and tea brew-ups, and their undauntable enthusiasm in godawful conditions. A world away from the hi-tech equipment today that makes a trip up Everest attainable for anyone reasonably fit with enough money.

But it’s the mountain, it’s sheer whiteness and dream-like shapes, which at times makes this look like fanciful early sci-fi, the light and the snow moving over it and the little black human shapes against it which look quite literally ant-like, that make this a mesmerising film. As the expedition nears the summit and the camera has to stay behind and trace those dogged little figures from increasing distance, a feat proudly announced in the inter-titles as the most long-distant filming ever, the film becomes increasingly austere, as we watch first a rescue of one advance party too fatigued and frost-bitten to get back to camp themselves, then the last attempt to the very top as the two figures of Mallory and Irvine disappear into the distance and the pure white of the snow. Finally on the third day sleeping bags are laid out by the man following them, a prearranged sign to those below, dark against the white snow, ‘Give up hope’.

Heroic failure of not quite making it, or tragedy of an achievement being forever unknown …  together these conspire to give this story many resonances beyond pure documentary.  Elements of home video, exotic people and stunning landscapes combine. Add the superb soundtrack of ‘electronic music, found sounds, western and Nepalese instruments and vocals’, by Simon Fisher, giving sounds of wind, the rumbling grind of snow and rocks and profound stillnesses, and the result is unselfconsciously poetic, a truly great experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Curtis Hanson 1945-2016

Curtis Hanson, whose death at 71 was announced today, was a Hollywood director whose work often managed to transcend standard Hollywood fare with a distinctive emotional intelligence and the ability to coax superb performances out of his actors. His tour de force is L A CONFIDENTIAL, in which Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe, and a superbly scary James Cromwell gave performances as good as any in their career, while Kim Basinger won a Supporting Actress Oscar. It’s film noir in the high Hollywood style, without being pastiche. There was  less spectacular fare, like the much admired WONDER BOYS, or Meryl Streep’s excursion into  untamed nature in THE RIVER WILD. From 2005,  IN HER SHOES stands out for the three great performances by its female leads, and despite being dismissed as lightweight in several quarters, its slow-burn development proves unexpectedly complex and satisfying. Here’s the review I wrote at the time.

IN HER SHOES

OK, it’s real chick flick territory, the story of two sisters so unalike in every way, it’s even difficult to believe they really are related at all. Maggie (Cameron Diaz) is an empty headed party girl, glamorous, jobless, who lives off other people. Rose (Toni Collette) is a high achieving lawyer, brainy, compassionate, sensitive, and, we are supposed to believe, dowdy and unattractive. The only problem here is that while Cameron Diaz is certainly uber-sexy, Toni Collette’s Rose is hardly unattractive either, which downscales the contrast between the two somewhat. All they seem to have in common is a shoe size, on which hangs the rather tangential title of the film. Shoes are very special to Rose, who gets pleasure from buying them because, unlike clothes, they always fit and do not centre on her body shape. She has looked after her sister in all her scrapes and failures, and there is a genuine loving bond between the two, but Maggie goes one step too far when not only does she borrow and ruin Rose’s favourite pair of shoes, but beds her man. So far, so predictable. But two very good performances by these two actresses and the director’s bravery in giving their story time to develop transform this what seems at first a hackneyed tale into a human story that bobs and weaves its way around schmaltz mostly successfully.

A background of family tragedy and mental illness is revealed, and though the inadequate father and his somewhat caricatured second wife do not really ring true, Collette and Diaz are impressively believable, damaged in their different ways.   Maggie goes off to Florida to meet her unknown grandmother, Shirley MacLaine, who reminds us what a fine talent she has for understated, naturalistic acting.  A bevy of elderly actors, foremost of whom is Francine Beers as Mrs Lefkowitz, provide sparky wit at the retirement village, a background to our discovering the true character of Maggie, who it is revealed has literacy problems, and a self-esteem as low as her sister’s.  OK, so maybe being given the confidence to read by a blind, dying professor is verging on the fairytale, but her reading of the fine Elizabeth Bishop poem The Art of Losing is very moving – either it’s a great poem (it is) and a fine performance (it is) or I’m a sucker for sentiment (pass).

Meanwhile Rose has found herself a genuinely nice man, and discovered that there is life outside proving oneself through work. Without the sisterly love she can’t be truly happy, but the reconciliation is not easy.  Unfortunately the film goes all Hollywood on us with a final emotional wedding scene, and the second poem is a step too far, but the warmth and emotions generated in general by the film are not to be scorned.

Seen at Cinema Days, Milton Keynes, October 2005 

 

 

 

 

Café Society

Woody Allen

Going to a new Woody Allen is always a nervy business. There’ve been so many failures and disappointments over the last 10 or more years that you just don’t know if you’re going to sink back in pleasure into your seat or hide behind it in horror at what this once great film-maker can do. I’m pleased to report that Café Society is one of the former, a light and beautiful concoction of nostalgia that begins by bringing a smile to your face and ends on an unexpectedly poignant note. The café society (rather strangely named, with its connotations of European rather than Californian high life) is that of 30s Hollywood, a milieu from the past that that Woody is perhaps more comfortable and skilled in presenting than his patchy forays into contemporary life. The deco buildings and glossy people come from a land of lost Hollywood where he can make a pact with us that gangland can be seen as a bit of a joke and it’s kind of ok for sensible, likeable young women to opt for a pleasant sugar daddy over a more genuine relationship with a contemporary.  As always with nostalgia, it’s for something that never really existed, but none the less potent for that.

Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfmann is a perfect Woody surrogate, a jittery, unworldly young ingenu sent by his family to get a job with his successful Uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) in Hollywood, the East v West Coast conundrum at the heart of many of Allen’s films. Even his shoulders are geeky. Carell is perfect as smooth but human agent to the stars. Most perfect of all is Kristen Stewart as his engaging assistant Vonnie with whom Bobby falls head over heels in love. Suiting the 30s fashion to a T, she manages to be both astoundingly beautiful and totally ordinary, quite a feat.

Tempered by the flames of unrequited love and Hollywood socialising, Bobby returns home to join the family firm, where his brother Ben runs a successful club. In his white suit, his new-found earnest sociability and his useful Hollywood contacts he’s good brother Michael to Ben’s Sonny, who is in the habit of tipping rivals into a concretey grave, a tendency his family turn a cheerful blind eye to. Back home it’s a cramped Jewish New York household familiar from Radio Days and Stardust Memories, with Ken Stott, stout and grumpy, particularly good and surprisingly convincing as father of the family.

The humour is gentle, not laugh-out-loud, the poolside Hollywood mansions and swanky New York clubs, with snippets of conversation name-dropping Bette Davis or Adolphe Menjou affording fun for anyone with a fondness for the old times, and all the pleasure of easy-on-the-eye folk going about their slightly ridiculous business. But in the end it turns imperceptibly into a bit more than that, an understated melancholy for a lovely past, airbrushed though it might have been, and the final frame shows Bobby turning into a dark outline against all that light, reconciled but forever dulled by his loss.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, September 2016

 

 

Happy Birthday Mr Herzog! – Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

One of my favourite film-makers is 74 today, so here’s a review of one of his most enjoyable films (and that’s saying something) from 2010.

A curious and long-winded title, and though this takes the bare bones of Abel Ferrara’ s 1992 cult film Bad Lieutenant, it’s in no way a remake (in fact Herzog claims not to have seen it). In the earlier film Harvey Keitel’s coke-snorting, gambling, raping and cheating cop inhabits an almost Graham-Greeneian universe of morality, a diseased world where redemption is a serious notion. Our bad cop here, punished apparently by fate or whatever for a (probably uncharacteristic) good act, that sets him on the road to addiction, skitters crazily through a world of misrule where nothing makes any sense morally and the keen unblinking eyes of cold-blooded creatures – from the snake that slithers through the dark water of New Orleans’ dereliction at the beginning to fish prettily swimming in the aquarium behind two hapless humans in the closing shot – keep watch over the warm blooded follies of the human protagonists – lord what fools these mortals be.

New Orleans cop Terence McDonagh’s act of bravery in saving a prisoner from a flooded jail in the hurricane’s aftermath chronically damages his back and he soon (or was he already?)is addicted to anything he can gets his hands on and his nose into for the pain. He’s got every trick in the book to get his gear, from misappropriating confiscated stuff from police stores to jumping on hapless couples leaving clubs with a bit of ‘personal use’ on them. He’s got huge gambling debts too (nice laid back performance by Brad Dourif as the increasingly alienated buddy who takes on his bets) which he once more tries to sort by misusing his police position. His dad is in rehab and his stepmother drinks beer all day in their tumbledown Louisiana house. Then there’s a dog to look after… Lucky he’s got a compliant girlfriend (Eva Mendes). Meanwhile he’s in charge of a nasty murder case where a family of five, small players in the drug world, have been killed. All these factors, grim as you like or highly comic, whirl around a tortuous, mazey narrative as Nicolas Cage stumbles lop-sided (with his bad back), menacing and mischievous like a modern day Richard the Third, manically laughing at his own jokes, threatening old ladies, and increasingly resembling a hero of the silent film with his wild hollow eyes, flaring nostrils and exaggerated demeanour. (Think Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger.) It’s as bravura a performance as he’s ever done, and a great addition to Herzog’s gallery of crazed heroes, from Aguirre to Grizzly Man. You almost feel that actor and director are seamlessly going mad together. And maybe they’ve taken you along with them, as what at first seems a normal police film becomes a deconstruction of one. Are we all participating in the bad lieutenant’s dream? Those iguanas…

When it comes the fauxest of faux happy endings, you just want to laugh at the deliriousness of it all, and especially when there’s a reprise of the delightfully zany Shea Whigham’s trippy bad ass -it’s all a bit like the end of a panto when your favourite acts come back on stage. Herzog’s world is ultimately an amoral, tragic free for all, of monsters and obsessions, where nothing has any meaning and evil is rewarded as often as good, but we can take delight in the oddness of it all, and rarely more than in this latest film.

Seen London, 2010

The Childhood of a Leader

Brady Corbet

And so you stagger out of the cinema, battered, shaken and perplexed by the experience. Was it a great film, as some people say? Was it an awful film, as more than one think? The  superb, splintering score by Scott Walker, and Lol Crawley’s fabulous cinematography combine to make an enormously powerful visceral experience, the atmosphere of gloom and foreboding so strong one yearns for light and space. But what is Corbet actually saying here?

The ‘childhood’ is that of the terrifying young son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and his gloomy European wife (Bérénice Bejo), observed at the time of the post-World War I peace conference at Versailles in 1919.  Various grim-faced suited men flit in and out of the house of this most dysfunctional family, including journalist Charles (Robert Pattinson). Darkness and obscurity rule, many conversations are on the edge of inaudibility, and we’re not always quite sure what we are witnessing – are the Wife and Charles exchanging meaningful glances? What is the Father talking about with the governess so intimately? The only clear and evident events are enacted by the son, played by the phenomenal 10-year-old Tom Sweet, inexplicably dressed in the skirted nursery clothes of children of the time much younger, and with chin-length wavy blond hair, and more than a look of the beauteous Tadzio from Death in Venice about him. Not surprisingly, and especially when he’s mistaken for a girl by one of the visitors, he is deeply mixed up and throws ‘tantrums’, the occurrence of which form the sections of the film. After one of these he locks himself in his room and, now wearing a man’s dressing gown, takes in effect psychological control.  He’s certainly a terrifying child, first seen dressed as a (very convincing) angel for a nativity concert at the local church, then immediately chucking stones at the churchgoers as they leave. (Young Mussolini apparently did something similar) And his ‘tantrums’ are quite something, though I’ve seen worse in Tesco’s.

But where the film falls down is in failing to make any real connection, realistic or poetic, between this dark, in every sense, childhood and the consequences of political process being carved out.  Is his later appearance, as ‘Prescott’ (a name finally revealed, and one that unfortunately has quite other resonances to British ears) the megalomaniac fascist leader, a direct product of this sometimes repressive but not loveless childhood?  In which case we don’t really see the process of his becoming this creature, he’s bad from the start. Is he a mere representation of what might be seen as the lawless id of the group of nations whose egos are destined to make seriously bad decisions about the terms of the treaty, leaving fertile ground for the resentment of the dispossessed vanquished? Whose son is ‘Prescott the Bastard’ really, and does it matter?  In the end the film spoils itself by obfuscation and a rather lazy and simplistic pretence of cause and effect.And this is a serious fault. But it’s a thrilling and physical and scary ride, an assault on all the senses. Corbet’s second film will be very interesting.

Seen Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, August