1.00pm: Roman Holiday
Once again this year, Clyde Jeavons of the BFI's Archive Unit is here to present a number of restored movie classics: and William Wyler's fifty-year-old Rome romcom is the perfect viewing for a Sunday afternoon, not to mention a fitting tribute to the late Gregory Peck. Princess Ann - and if that name didn't throw Briitish audiences for a loop back in 1953, it sure as hell does now - anyway, the Princess (Audrey Hepburn) gets utterly bored with her lot during a European tour, and sneaks off into Rome one night to see what real life is like. While there, she's befriended by American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), whose professional desire to make his name with a princess-on-the-run story is slowly overtaken by desires of a different sort.
It goes without saying that the digital frame-by-frame cleanup of Roman Holiday makes it look quite ravishing: Wyler's shots of 1950s Rome are luscious even with the budgetary limitation of black and white. Sneakily, the opening fake newsreel has been left unrestored - maybe Wyler didn't intend that sequence to have a distressed look, which is naughty, but it shows off the amount of care that's been lavished on the rest of the film. As tends to be the case more and more, the restoration was driven by the need for a DVD release: so if you want to see how good the film looks now, you can find it in your local shop. (Or buy the Japanese special edition, which comes in a gift box that includes a Roman Holiday mobile phone strap, which is a very Japanese thing to do.)
The DVD is no substitute for the opportunity to see the film on a big screen with an audience, though, as it points up the comedy beautifully. Take the early scene where the Princess loses a shoe at an official function, and the staff go though a subtly hilarious pantomime to sneak it back on again without anyone noticing: it's terrifically underplayed, and gains immeasurably from the presence of an attentive crowd. In fact, in an age of jerrybuilt romantic comedies, it's a pleasure to be reminded that there used to be a time when these things were lovingly constructed by craftsmen who didn't feel the need to treat the audience like idiots. The final scenes, which toy with possible outcomes before subtly revealing that there's really only one way Roman Holiday could end, are particularly impressive on that score.
Oh, and yeah, it's a pretty good cast too. Hepburn is delightful in her first big acting role, Peck looks terrific throughout in an Edith Head suit, and Eddie Albert provides solid support throughout as Irving, Bradley's photographer chum. No matter what Fellini may have tried to persuade you in La Dolce Vita a decade later, I think we have the first real paparrazo right here.
4.15pm: Save The Green Planet!
Earth is under attack by aliens from Andromeda! And only bee-keeper Lee Byung-Gu (Shin Ha-Kyun) and his tightrope-walker girlfriend can save the planet from this menace. Byung-Gu's research has led him to believe that the boss of a chemical company is one of Andromeda's key agents, and so he takes steps to ensure that this agent is neutralised. This all has to be done in secret, of course. Because to an uneducated observer, it would look like Byung-Gu is just some maniac strung out on methamphetamines who kidnaps and tortures people in his spare time. And that's not the case at all. Is it?
Jang Jun-Hwan's comedy is so far off the wall it's practically a chimney. The frenetic style of the camerawork and editing takes a little bit of getting used to, but eventually convinces you that this is a film where absolutely anything could happen: and once you realise that and come to accept it, you're in for a wild ride. There are sequences and plot twists in here that recall the imaginative frenzy of Jeunet and Caro in their pre-Hollywood sellout days, only with a much nastier edge to them. Certainly a couple of people were running out of the cinema when Byung-Gu started greasing up a steam-assisted rectal probe - because unlike many other movies, there's a very real chance that you'll actually get to see it put to use. In a year when South Korean cinema has been going from strength to strength, with a number of crime thrillers from the country getting released here, it'd be nice if a less obviously commercial prospect like this one could get a British airing too. Sort it out, Tartan.
Dogville's a typical small American town at the height of the Depression. Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), Dogville's resident novelist and philosopher, has taken it upon himself to lecture the townspeople on their moral shortcomings, but to little effect. What he needs, he thinks, is an 'illustration'. What he gets is Grace (Nicole Kidman), a young woman who's just arrived in town trying to escape her mysterious criminal past. Tom suggests to the good folk of Dogville that if they are as good as they think they are, then they can take this stranger into their midst and make her feel safe. A moral lesson enuses, for all concerned.
I'm liking the work of Lars von Trier a lot more these days, and I suspect a lot of that comes down to his making Breaking The Waves: the worst film of the nineties (don't argue), and the one where his reputation as a torturer of women in general and actresses in particular stems from. This reputation wasn't helped by Dancer In The Dark, which despite its innovative camerawork and musical trappings was basically the same story of a naive woman sacrificing herself for the good of others. It isn't giving too much away to say that in Dogville, Nicole Kidman takes on the same role as Emily Watson and Bjork did in the earlier films... but there's a difference. Her two predecessors had a layer or two fewer of skin than anyone else in their respective movies, a vulnerability that laid them open to all the horrors the director could throw at them. (Emily Watson's vulnerability being infinitely greater than that of Bjork, which is part of what makes Breaking The Waves so sadistically unbearable for me.)
Grace, on the other hand, isn't so obviously set up to be knocked down again: her character doesn't have that same level of naive abusability. In fact, her character doesn't really have anything, and nor does anyone else's: the inventor of the Dogme 95 manifesto has managed to come up with a film that's even more stripped down to the bone than those experiments of a few years ago. The set, for example, is a huge open stage representing the entire town, the buildings represented just by chalk lines and minimal props. It's a very theatrical environment, calling to mind the RSC's television version of Nicholas Nickelby in the early eighties, which simply allowed TV cameras to roam the bare stage of the theatrical production. It works incredibly well as a design strategy in Dogville, most notably in the central scene where an act that's theoretically taking place secretly behind closed doors can be seen throughout the entire town.
But the rest of the film is as minimalist as the set. The dialogue serves no purpose other than to keep the story moving: what little subtext there is comes from John Hurt's sardonic narration. What results is effectively 178 minutes of pure narrative, without most of the other trappings we associate with contemporary cinema. Thankfully, that narrative is very strong, with von Trier's cynical sense of humour well to the fore, and those 178 minutes simply fly by. A solid ensemble cast gives this material the treatment it deserves: Kidman, while fine, is just one element in a universally excellent collection of performers. There's no denying, however, that there's something lacking at the centre - Dogville is a glittering shell of a movie that allows the viewer infinite scope to decide what's actually inside. There's a case to be made for interpreting it as an attack on American morals and values (particularly in light of the heavy-handed end title sequence), but your interpretation may well depend on what you bring to the film.
One of the things I brought to Dogville was an undying hatred of Breaking The Waves, and a vague sense that Lars von Trier may be trying to make a career out of retelling just one story. Which is what makes the final half hour of the new film so enjoyable for me, as it feels like a direct response by von Trier to those criticisms. Dogville is already a very different film from its predecessors, as the theatrical approach and the narration moves it away from his trademark hyper-realism into the realms of fable: but those final scenes take it into wholly other territory. My one concern is that the ending seems to be so much of a response to von Trier's former detractors that he might just be taking the piss out of us. You know what he's like.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Fog Of War
The Belated Birthday Girl - The Fog of War feels very much like a man knowing he's nearing the end of his life, and trying to make sure he is remembered in the way he wants. Almost, but not quite, like a confessional, or a making peace, owning up to mistakes, but distancing himself at times from some of the worst decisions he was obviously party to. Robert McNamara, former US secretary of state for defence under Kennedy and Johnson, is interviewed by Errol Morris, and for the most part we just get McNamara, with Morris's voice only intruding on the rare occasion. This also contibutes to the feel that it is very much McNamara's story being told - which fits in with McNamara's frank admission that he tries always to answer not the question he was asked, but the one he would like to have been asked. This, and other points, show that the modern political press manipulation and spin doctoring is nothing new. There is a lot of interesting material in this film, the archive footage used to great effect. Particularly illuminating were some of the taped conversations between McNamara and Kennedy, and subsequently with McNamara and Johnson. The closeness of McNamara to Kennedy, and the trust which Kennedy had in him, came over in stark contrast to a definite disrespect I felt Johnson seemed to have for him. The film is structured around 11 life lessons, and several of them are scarily relevant to today's leaders - perhaps George W. Bush should have had to watch this film before taking action against Iraq.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Michael Raeburn is a white Zimbabwean film maker who, in 1969, managed to get himself expelled from his country, then known as Rhodesia, for his first film, Rhodesia Countdown. This film, a piece of agit-prop, as he himself describes it, was strongly opposed to white minority rule, and the "countdown" in question was to war. Now, Raeburn has managed to get himself expelled from his country again with his latest film, Zimbabwe Countdown. Both were screened back-to-back, apparently the first time even Raeburn had seen them that way. Zimbabwe Countdown is more of a documentary, showing the recent and sudden collapse of Zimbabwe from being an almost model post-colonial African country to one characterised by bloodshed and chaos. Raeburn said that his aim in making Zimbabwe Countdown was to say more than you normally get on the news about the situation in Zimbabwe. To me, he was only partially successful here. His closeness to the subject, his definite anger, may be what made him not able to give enough of a sense of how Mugabe went from being someone he respected to someone he thinks of as nothing more than a dictator, wanting to hang onto power in any way. In the discussion afterwards, Raeburn said how he had 75 hours of footage, and it was almost impossible to edit it down to 55 minutes. Perhaps if he had a longer film to express himself in, that might have helped, and perhaps his aim to make something he can get seen (he's selling it to Eurpoean and US television) is working against his desire to get the information into the film. Or perhaps however long you gave him, he would always feel unable to get that pinned down. Either way, it was a worthwhile film, but, to me, a partial failure.
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