Reviewed today: The Masque Of The Red Death, Sweet Charity, To The Ends Of The Earth, White Riot.
12.00pm: Sweet Charity [trailer]
Regular readers will know that I have a complicated relationship with musicals. As far back as this site goes, I've always been slightly disappointed with musicals on stage (particularly when they're the worst thing to appear on the London stage in several decades) but always been a firm believer of them on screen (even when they're crudely fashioned by people with no money). "But didn't they eventually film Mamma Mia?" you ask. "Shut up," I reply. Anyway, the British Film Institute is about to go musicals crazy, with a UK-wide season being trailed before every LFF film this year: treat this restoration of a 1969 classic as a curtain-raiser to it.
Sweet Charity’s an odd musical for us to be catching in the traditional Sunday afternoon archive slot, because we saw it on stage just a few months ago at the Donmar Warehouse: the last production there from outgoing artistic director Josie Rourke. It was the first time I'd ever seen the show, and I was attracted by the big names behind it - original choreography by Bob Fosse (this film adaptation of his Broadway original ended up becoming his debut as a film director), a book by Neil Simon (rewritten here by Peter Stone), and a series of songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields that would become mainstays of my mum's Radio 2 listening in the 1970s (Hey Big Spender, Rhythm Of Life). It's the story of Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine), a dancehall hostess searching for love with a series of men of varying degrees of unsuitability: feckless Charlie (Dante DiPaolo), heartthrob actor Vittorio (Ricardo Montalban), and claustrophobic Oscar (John McMartin).
It’s played and danced with the terrific energy you’d expect from Fosse, though some of the directorial flourishes have dated badly, notably the use of freeze frames and focus blurs for scene transitions. My main problem with it - as was the case with the stage version - is the ridiculously fragmented plot, which it's possible is a flaw in the original Fellini screenplay it's based on. The whole thing plays as a series of disconnected episodes, with the central character acting as the only thread between them. For example, if I hadn’t seen it on stage recently, I’d have assumed that the Rhythm Of Life number had been cut and pasted in for no reason other than to give us ten minutes or so of Sammy Davis Jr at full blast. It just appears out of nowhere as a standalone burst of fabulousness, and once it's over it's never mentioned again. To me, the entire show feels like that.
Still, even though the sequences don't really hang together, there's no denying they're great sequences. This 4K restoration has scrubbed up as beautifully as you'd hope, and comes with the bonus of an alternative ending - though be honest, when you're told they filmed an alternative ending for a musical, you can guess almost instantly which will be the sad one and which will be the happy one. The cast all do the things they do best, with MacLaine in particular making sense of the role of Charity in a way that Anne-Marie Duff couldn't quite manage on stage earlier this year: she's fragile in the dramatic scenes, but ballsy in the songs, and always makes the transition between the two totally believable.
3.15pm: The Masque Of The Red Death [trailer]
Another restoration for a Sunday afternoon, though one with a somewhat different tone. One of Roger Corman's legendary adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe is introduced here by none other than the CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Dawn Hudson, whose archive is partly responsible for restoring the film. Along with all the usual background to the restoration process, she throws in one tantalising bit of information: when the film was originally released in 1964, the American censors cut out all the sex and Satanism, while the British censors cut out all the violence. Hudson assures us that in this version, everything has been put back: "all the sex, all the Satanism, all the violence." They should use that line on the posters.
We're in olden times, and the Red Death is running rampant across the land, causing entire villages to expire painfully in showers of blood. It's not a problem for Prince Prospero (Vincent Price): he’s locked himself and his mates safely inside his castle, and anyone who calls around asking for shelter is cheerfully riddled with arrows by his guards. On his way to the castle, he’s picked up a couple of survivors from one of those dying villages, including a young Jane Asher: as Prospero is a terrible person, not to mention a worshipper of Satan, he has plans to make the villagers part of his nightly entertainment.
I can kind of see how censors could have trimmed the sex and violence here (though I don't remember being quite this much of it when I read Poe as a teenager). But I have no idea how you'd edit a version of Masque that removed the Satanism: it's pretty much fundamental to the whole thing. Still, not to worry: we have a complete version of the film now, and it looks beautiful, with Nicolas Roeg's cinematography being given all the loving care it deserves. The use of colour is astounding, and on this viewing I finally made a connection I never had before: Peter Greenaway must have had this film in mind when he made The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, with its colour-coded rooms and the camera gliding sideways between them.
Best of all, it still works as a horror film some five and a half decades later. The escalating sense of dread is carefully maintained, and never feels like you have to give it some leeway for being made ages ago. Price is quite obviously having the time of his life in one of his most wicked roles, with Patrick Magee giving him a run for his money as the not-quite-as-wicked Alfredo. You could argue that in this day and age, the subplot involving 'tiny dancer' Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw, aged 8) rings all sorts of alarm bells that it perhaps didn't in 1964, but it's best not to think about that one.
6.15pm: White Riot [official Facebook]
It's a four-film day today: probably the only one we're going to have this festival. Something's got to give to make our schedule work, and in this case we have to leave just before the start of White Riot's post-film Q&A. We're there just long enough to see the director take the stage - Rubika Shah, who appears to be a mere child - and be asked "when did you first hear about Rock Against Racism?" If we weren't running out of the building at that stage, we might have given our own answer to that question, which would be WHEN IT WAS BLOODY HAPPENING. I guess this is going to happen to us a lot from now on: young directors are going to make documentaries about events we actually lived through, and treat it like ancient history. Don’t mind us, we’re just going to have a short mid-life crisis and be right back.
We’re back. Looking pretty good for a film that was apparently only finished two days ago, White Riot is primarily - as you may have worked out by now - the story of the Rock Against Racism movement. In 1976, outraged by Eric Clapton’s support for Enoch Powell, an activist called Red Saunders wrote an angry letter to the music press. (I love its final line: "who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you...") The letter started a debate, which led to a group of people providing a practical cultural response to the rise of the National Front: putting on gigs where black and white bands played on the same bill, and letting mixed audiences see that they weren't so different from each other.
I was aware of all that: what I didn’t know was that RAR also had a smartly designed fanzine called Temporary Hoarding, which introduced readers to other political hot topics of the time, such as gay and lesbian rights and the situation in Northern Ireland. We get to see lots of interesting-looking pages from the zine on screen for a couple of seconds apiece, and you find yourself just want to hit a pause button and read them for a bit. (Maybe one for picking up on Blu-ray, then.) The film covers the ups and downs of RAR, its supporters and its enemies, all the way up to their most famous event: the 1978 march and gig in Victoria Park.
That whole idea of events that you remember now turning into history... I can see how for a young director like Shah, it's morbidly fascinating to document how openly racist Britain was in the 1970s. For those of us who lived through it, it's bloody terrifying to remember what it was like, especially when you factor in the suspicion that we might be looping round to that all over again. What gives you hope is seeing Saunders and his small crew, now all drawing their pensions, and feeling the sense of community and joy they had in their work both then and now. The music is great, obviously, but the people you’ll meet in this film are just as inspiring. Even Jimmy Pursey, eventually.
8.20pm: To The Ends Of The Earth [official site]
We have to leave the Q&A for White Riot early because we've got to head out to Kensington and the French Institute, whose Cine Lumiere has long been the central hub for French cinema in London. Which leads me to wonder: when was the last time I saw a French film at Cine Lumiere at the LFF? I honestly can't remember. In recent years I think I've seen more Japanese films here than any other nationality. So it makes vague sense that we’re catching a Kiyoshi Kurosawa joint here tonight.
Kurosawa's had an odd career as a director. Around the turn of the century he made his name with an initial burst of cerebral horror films, but since then he's dabbled in several different genres, and seems to have been generally ignored by the west as a result - the last film of his I can remember seeing was the salaryman drama Tokyo Sonata, and that was over a decade ago. I went into this one not knowing what a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film looked like these days: I certainly wasn't expecting the sort of commercial light drama that you can find in Japan Foundation touring programmes every February.
To The Ends Of The Earth was apparently commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan: The Belated Birthday Girl notes with amusement that they've chosen to commemorate this with a film about people behaving undiplomatically. We follow a small TV crew travelling through Uzbekistan - reporter Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), three Japanese and their local fixer - as they shoot material for a travel programme. By day, Yoko is standing in lakes looking for nonexistent fish, or eating undercooked food, while sexist Uzbeki men leer at her from a distance. She has the evenings to herself, but her attempts to get to grips with the local culture end up being equally unsuccessful.
Quite a lot of this film is incredibly resonant, at least to me. On a shallow level, the glib banalities of Yoko's reporting are a perfect pastiche of current Japanese TV (and maybe not just Japanese). But Kurosawa also accurately captures the feeling of being in a foreign country and struggling to connect with it, and the frustration that comes when you fail. The way Yoko falls back on the impersonal anonymity of supermarkets after a traumatic experience in a bazaar rings incredibly true. There are a number of subtle ways in which we’re tipped off that what we’re seeing is Yoko’s subjective view of the country, rather than the way it actually is. But as the film moves into its second hour, it strains just that little bit too hard to emphasise the ideas we’d already picked up from the first hour, and it ends up repeating itself too much for comfort.
On the whole, To The Ends Of The Earth is worth watching, but be prepared for a patchy experience. Also - to take us round full circle to the beginning of today - be prepared for a musical. Or, at least, a film where a performance of a song has an important role in the story. Mind you, it’s an old Edith Piaf song, so at least we've finally got some justification for showing it at Cine Lumiere.