1.30pm: Paths Of Glory
Stanley Kubrick's restored 1957 classic appears here as yet another of the LFF's Treasures From The Archive, with a touching intro from his wife Christiane in which she laments that "it should be old-fashioned now, but it isn't". And she's right: his tale of the horrors men inflict on each other in wartime is still as desperately relevant today as it always was. It's set in France at the height of the First World War, as General Mireau (George Macready) orders his men into a pointless attack on a German anthill, a decision that costs them hundreds of their lives. As Mireau ordered the push primarily for the purposes of his own career, he needs to find a scapegoat when it fails, so he selects three soldiers almost at random to be court-martialled for cowardice ("if those sweethearts won't face German bullets, they'll take French ones"). It's up to the cynical realist Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to defend their lives at the trial, but the cards are all stacked against him.
My love for the work of Stanley Kubrick has been well documented elsewhere, but even his biggest fans would tend to agree that his main problem has always been one of emotional distance. He's a keen observer of how human beings behave under pressure, but he's always just an observer and nothing more, never really engaging with his characters. That's certainly not the case with Paths Of Glory, one of the few Kubrick pictures that successfully aims for a gut reaction. Its intention is to make you feel as enraged by the injustice of the trial as Colonel Dax is, and it certainly succeeds at that - it could almost be considered manipulative, if it wasn't done with such consummate skill. Sure, Kubrick's technical ability is, as ever, the key evidence of his genius (those tracking shots through the trenches, thirty years before Steadicam, still look astonishing today), but it's the emotional engagement that lifts this film to even giddier heights. Inevitably, Kirk Douglas' fierce integrity plays a huge part in making this work, and you can see why he was considered the template for Real Men in the 50s.
As for the restoration (courtesy of UCLA), it's interesting that the sound is the element that comes off best. Even in the eighties, when virtually every film in the world was being made with a stereo soundtrack, Kubrick still worked almost exclusively in mono. It's just another manifestation of his legendary control freakery - the more audio channels a projectionist had to balance, the higher the risk that Kubrick's sound design would be compromised. No risk of that when everything's coming out of one speaker, of course. But with a soundtrack as detailed and evocative as that of Paths Of Glory, you can see the director's point, and for a 1957 film this sounds almost eerily perfect.
Henry Nxumalo (Taye Diggs) is a sports reporter for Drum magazine, a periodical based out of Sophiatown in South Africa in the 1950s. Sophiatown was one of the last townships to feel the full force of apartheid, but the clampdown on civil liberties is just starting to come into effect there. Up until now, the closest Henry has come to political involvement has been a friendship with Nelson Mandela. But under the guidance of Drum editor Jim Bailey (Jason Flemyng), he starts taking on more socially aware work, specialising in the dangerous end of stunt journalism - working on a prison farm, getting himself locked up in jail for a couple of days, and so on. All of this makes him a local hero to the extent that he's known as 'Mr Drum', but it also makes him a number of enemies.
It's a shame that this screening at the Ritzy in Brixton is more notable for the chaos of its opening few minutes than anything else. Director Zola Maskeo talks briefly about how he used to live down the road from the Ritzy when he studied in England, and thanks Lord and Lady Attenborough, no less, for their continued support of African cinema and their presence in the audience tonight. And then the curtain rises on the film, and we get the first few seconds of Yu-Gi-Oh: The Movie before the projectionist quickly turns it off and spends the next five minutes loading up the correct reels. Drum is entertaining enough to watch, and Taye Diggs carries it well enough, but the movie always seems to be holding back - that gut reaction that drove Paths Of Glory simply isn't there. There's no real sense of threat in the story, as Henry always seems to get through his assignments without much trouble, up to the point where he suddenly doesn't. Ultimately, it feels like a very competent TV film, and it had the potential to be so much more.
Everyone thinks the Americans do high concept cinema better than anyone else, but I've always found that the Belgians can produce fairly attention-grabbing one-line pitches, particularly for the films that make it onto the festival circuit. At LFF 2000 we had Les Convoyeurs Attendent, about a Belgian family's attempt to break the world record for door opening. And now we have Aaltra, which is described in the LFF programme as "deliciously mordant black comedy and the ultimate wheelchair road movie." You're hooked, surely?
The two main characters are played by the film's writer/directors Benoit Delphine and Gustave Kervern: one of them is an uptight businessman, the other one is a lazy farmer, and they live next door to each other. The businessman loses his job and his wife in the same day, and gets into a fight with the farmer, which climaxes in a bizarre tractor accident that leaves both of them without the use of their legs. Surprisingly, they end up forming some sort of bond with each other, as they set out on a marathon wheelchair trip across Belgium. The businessman is doing it to follow the motocross championships as they move from town to town, while the farmer is heading to the headquarters of Aaltra in Finland to claim compensation for their malfunctioning tractor.
The writer/director/stars have come up with a truly original movie, shot in incredibly contrasty black and white Cinemascope (so contrasty that occasionally the subtitles are impossible to read). It's so original, in fact, that it takes quite a bit of time to tune into its wavelength and its rhythm. Once you're in sync with it, though, you're hooked, primarily because of a series of beautifully timed sight gags, none of which I would dare spoil here. The two leads are fabulous characters to watch despite themselves, and the film isn't afraid to make them unsympathetic for the sake of a good joke. By the end I found myself curious to see it again, unsure whether the first half of the movie really is less funny, or if it was just the time it took me to become accustomed to it: I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and go for the latter. Delphine and Kervern deserve additional praise for one of the most hilariously chaotic Q&A sessions I've ever seen here, giving tag team answers in a combination of French and pidgin English that reduce their translator to a giggling wreck.
Grim irony of the day: one of the screens at the Odeon West End is wheelchair accessible, one of them isn't. Guess which one Aaltra played in?
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