Tuesday, 19 July 2016

vs Ian Fleming's "Dr No"

"Dr. No" by Ian Fleming

Once you get past the misogyny and the racism - which you can’t because neither are particularly subtext - the problem with reading James Bond is that James Bond is a dick. His plans frequently require innocents getting killed; he generally blames the women; he is unable to treat women as adults; he antagonises and insults his captors instead of playing clever; he sulks when he doesn’t get his way. 

As presented by Ian Fleming, if this is an exemplary example of their agents it is a wonder the British Secret Service resolves anything. Head of the Secret Service, M, seems equally dickish, apparently only happy throwing his agents into serious danger without proper forethought. Assumedly, he is meant to be the stern paternal type, but he too seems like an idiot. For example, in “Dr No”, M16 agent John Strangways fails to send his daily message to headquarters: Fleming goes into great detail how Strangeways follows stringent routine every day, mentioning how even the keyboard he uses can pick-up his particular typing technique so recognise whether anyone unauthorised is making a report, etc, etc; and yet, when Strangways fails to report in one day, his superior M’s first reaction is to simply dismiss the matter on the assumption that Strangways has eloped with his female co-agent. It is only because Bond needs an easy assignment to help him recover from a previous mission that M thinks he might as well send someone to investigate, despite being certain that Strangways has simply done a runner for some sex. If I was a secret agent, I would surely hope for a little more concern and support. 

And when Bond arrives in Jamaica to pursue the disappearance, he arrives to find they have provided him with Strangways’ car… not so good at secrecy and subterfuge, this Secret Service. Well, let’s not forget that Bond uses his real name all the time upon arrival anyway. Most hilariously, when finally captured by Dr No – in a secret base that treats its prisoners like hotel guests – and his captors ask him for “next of kin”, he gives them M’s real name, we are told. And before that, he simply arrives in Jamaica and assumes Dr No’s guilt due to a mixture of xenophobia and local gossip; oh, there are certainly clues for concern about Dr Julius No, a Chinese-German, and his army of Chigroes (that people of mixed Chinese-Negro heritage, according to the book) but Bond jumps to the conclusion that the Doc is up to no good on his reclusive island almost from the off. He hires a local boatman, Quarrel, as his sidekick – not sure what training and qualifications Quarrel has for such covert operations, but…. - and Bond manages to survive a couple of assassination attempts, most memorably one involving a poisonous centipede crawling over his crotch and up his body. But what to do about being such a recognisable target in Strangways’ car? Well, Bond gets Quarrel to hire a couple of look-alikes to drive around in the car to see what happens: and the unfortunate impersonators are both promptly murdered. How about that? 

Anyway, Bond convinces Quarrel to take him over to Dr No’s island, despite the native’s fear of a dragon that is meant to prowl upon it. It is here, apropos of nothing but happenstance, that Bond meets his love interest Honeychile Rider. She is on the beach, collecting shells to sell. But this complicates things: what is what Bond to do with this luscious lovely? And more, how can he possibly ignore the deformity of her broken nose? Yes, the book stresses, this is such a “deformity” for a female; but luckily, like all other disabilities, after a while you hardly notice it! And this is exactly the kind of thing to distract Bond on his adventures. For her part, Honey has had a tough time of it, orphaned and raped (and that’s how the nose was broken) and now living off of her own wits. She has managed to avoid Dr No’s army and collect her shells for some time, and yet as soon as Bond turns up, she becomes a simpering female, clutching to him for protection. She is out of her teens and yet there is a passage where Bond takes time to wrestle with his conscience about whether to treat her as a “girl” or as a “woman”. Well, Fleming evidently makes the decision and for the rest of the book she is simply “the girl”. Doesn’t stop them from closing the book by having what she amusingly (and degradingly) calls “slave time”.

Fleming is quoted as saying, "I write for about three hours in the morning ... and I do another hour's work between six and seven in the evening. I never correct anything and I never go back to see what I have written ... By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day."  And it shows: the plotting is purely whimsical, its consistency wavering, the plotting and ideas the kind to be expected from a hormonal teenager with all the cruelty, lack of discipline and unintentional humour that comes from that. We are a long, long way from John Le Carre’s George Smiley.

Dr No himself is a remarkable construction, the result of extensive plastic surgery and other physical modifications, let alone the fact that he is “one in a million” with his heart on the right side of his body (which saves his life). He is a heady mix of Chinese-German ancestry, Fu Manchu super-villainy in a Jamaican island hideaway. He also seems to think that Bond is the only one worthy of hearing his masterplan, which means he probably needs to get out more. Well, he thinks this one moment and then tells Bond he is not as clever as he thinks he is the next - which is both true and in keeping with the inconsistency of Fleming’s characterisations. For example, one minute Honey is a resourceful and admirable female presence and the next a weak sex interest in need of Bond’s protection; and the next she has the presence of mind and stamina to wait out an awful mass-crab attack. Bond is meant to be a super-agent, but that doesn’t mean he won’t sulk when imprisoned by a super-villain and when his plan to acquire a weapon falls flat (a plan, it might be mentioned, that features Honey getting a manicure). In one moment, Dr No’s soldiers are ruthless and efficient killers; the next they are intimidated and dissuaded from raping Honey by some vague and unfounded threats from Bond. It is all a little up and down and all over the place. It is as patch-work at Dr Julius No himself.

And it may well all be fun enough if its misogyny and xenophobia didn’t lead the book by the nose. These are not incidental traits as much as a watermargin through every viewpoint, and Fleming is simply not a good enough writer to circumnavigate these weaknesses. If you are not that way inclined, these might be insurmountable obstacles to enjoyment.

It is true that the film of “Dr No” manages to mitigate many failings of the book. M treats Strangway’s disappearance seriously from the start; there is much more detective work from Bond in the first half which is necessarily padded out more, particularly with assassination attempts. Bond is a jerk still, but he is also witty and far more enigmatic; more an anti-hero. The film is no less silly, but it delivers its nonsense with some flare. It is indeed remarkable to see how many of the defining traits of a Bond film are all present in his cinematic debut: the Bond-down-a-gun-barrel inset, the groovy opening titles, that theme tune, a sense of the  tongue-in-cheek rather than the campiness that would overrun the series later: all this dresses up Bond in a far more appealing aesthetic. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016


Radu Jude, 2015, Romania-Bulgaria-Czech Republic-France

Radu Jude’s film gives voice to a community that has been unrepresented in cinema in a similar way to Embrace of the Serpent; in this case, the Romani people bought and sold as slaves during the 1800s. It uses primary sources to elaborate on truth with fiction which to me, like ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ and ‘The Witch’, makes this more convincing than claims to “based on a true story”. ‘Aferim!’ ~ an Ottoman Turkish expression translatable more or less as  kind of “Bravo!”, but give it a sarcastic spin ~ is set in Wallachia 1835 where a policeman is sent to track down a runaway slave. This policeman, Costandin (Teodor Corba), sets off across Wallachia with his teenage son and it is obvious very soon that he is an abusive, bigoted braggart and that the boy Ionitā (Mihai Comānoiu) is haphazardly but blindly trying to follow his father’s example.

It is when they get a hold of the runaway slave, Carfin (Toma Curzin), who then starts to tell them stories that colour in his humanity that conscience is poked at. It would seem that, yes, the slave is guilty of having an affair with his master’s wife, but it was the wife that seduced him; and also his worldly experience goes far beyond that of his captors. So, perhaps, maybe, he doesn’t deserve death as punishment and they should let him go, Ionitā suggests? It’s not that Costandin disagrees but he’s too afraid of losing the position he has and wrongly assumes holds more influence than it has: he says, rather, that he can persuade the master to mitigate the punishment to a near-death beating. But by the end, the punishment having been horribly meted out, it is obvious that he is dimly aware that he has no power other than that associated with his feudal masters, to do their bidding and that all along he has wallowed in the licence to brutality that allows him without really questioning. If his son so blindly follows his father’s ways afterwards is not known, but it’s obvious that Constadin himself is unlikely to change. He is the middling authority that carries out the prejudices ordained by the rulers. This is brought to the fore when Constadin wonders if people will say a good word about them in a few hundred years: a moment that’s perhaps a little self-conscious but also evidence that maybe this character does have doubts. But he’s too busy enjoying the power of privilege and practicing a casual racism it allows and deluding himself he’s doing good.

Aferim!’ as much about human cruelty as an ingredient of history as ‘Hard to be a God’. Having taken incidents and speeches from primary sources only amplifies this argument, as if it was ever in question. Slavery and racism are the backbone of society here with little active kindness on display for mitigation. Indeed, the point is surely that bigotry has always propped up cultures. Few scenes are as despairing as the runaway boy Tintirc (Alberto Dinache) begging for his slavery. It is a beautiful film, defined by Marius Panduru’s black-and-white photography where there are few close-ups, the general view being of mid-shots and panoramas, which keeps the audience at an observer’s distance. ‘Aferim!’ is darkly funny and accessible as a typical Western narrative structure, but it has a documentary feel and neo-realism that is totally European. A demonstration of how discrimination is timeless and a deft character study set in a credibly cinematically recreated past

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Battlestar Galactica

Glen A. Larson, 1978, USA

An obvious 'Star Wars' rip-off that nevertheless owes much to others such as ‘Star Trek’, ‘Space 1999’, war films and even – with one shot of a planet’s underground caverns – ‘Forbidden Planet’. It certainly grabs from everything it can, being part of a whole post-‘Star Wars’ pulp sci-fi boom featuring the likes of ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’, ‘Flash Gordon’, etc. ‘Battlestar Galactica’ wins no awards for advancing the themes and cause of science-fiction. We are in the future where people have names like Starbuck, Boomer, Casseopia and Athena, where every little boy wants to be a starfighter and where good humans fight bad aliens. The politicians are self-indulgent buffoons, helping the enemy by making all the wrong moves. The family and the military are the only saving graces in this world. Unadventurous ethics, plot and characterisation aside, this is decent and campy if undemanding entertainment. No, it’s not good but it does have charm, although much of this now must be to do with its datedness. The Cylons are perhaps better conceived and certainly more unique than Stormtroopers, perhaps akin more to ‘Dr Who’s Cybermen in pace and attitude.
They certainly make immediate impression with their vocorder voice, aura of humming and their silver armour causing incessant lens flares. They don’t quite break out into the Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ but they’re definitely of their time. It’s open to debate which are the scariest (me, I was always disappointed to discover that Stormtroopers were just men-in-suits rather than androids/cyborgs/robots).

The spaceships look good – agreeably well-used look rather – and John Dyskra’s special effects are above average (vapour trails in space!), yet its origins in television dominates throughout the plotting, uninspired camerawork and especially the clunky dialogue. The streak of tele-sentimentalism simplifies its outlook on family, loss, children, and cute robot dogs. Structurally, having been cut up from episodes of the television series, it starts with a climax, slows down for subplots and build-up, than goes out with a big-ish showdown.There is some welcome mystery when the ‘Galactica’ stumbles upon a desolate planet and discovers a casino, and some ghoulishness is provided by the alien Ovians, but this is absolute pulp. There’s some pretence to a mythical quest, to Noah’s Ark, to the desperation of refugees, and luckily – if less profitably – lacks the born-again subtext of ‘Star Wars’ ‘the Force’. If anything, despite being inferior, ‘Battlestar Galactica’ shows-up ‘Star Wars’ pretensions, if that’s possible, but also its strengths. ‘Star Wars’ is, for all its flaws, the better film because it has a magic ingredient that makes it work. But having said, for all its cutesy trimmings ‘Battlestar Galactica’ is more mature, being a much darker and troubled tale of humans fleeing murderous robots that only want to wipe them out.  Desperation leads this story rather than an ol' fight between 'Good versus Evil'  and,  for all its cutesy trimmings, that makes this premise more interesting  and one that the updated ‘Battlestar Galactica’ series of the early 2000s could run with.


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Hervé - "Bang the Drum"

My friend Lewis Rose is the director of this video for Hervé's "Bang the Drum". Moody, sleazy, funny.


Various links:

The art of Fortunio Liceti:

Serious chat about trivial things: Graphic Policy Radio talk "Captain America: Civil War"

Interview with "Embrace of the Serpent" director Ciro Guerra.

A brief history of horror...

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Straight on till Morning

Peter Collinson, 1972, UK

Peter Collinson’s* ‘Straight on till Morning’ is a totally different creature to ‘Fear in the Night, the film it was doubled up with under the “Women in Peril” strapline. It’s like Hammer as filtered through Nicolas Roeg and Harold Pinter and owes far more to ‘Peeping Tom’ than Hitchcock or Robert Bloch. This is no bad thing. It is a flawed but fascinating chamber piece whose cross-cutting to other tangential and related scenes broadens this serial killer story into a story of how girls get lost in post-Sixties London culture. 1970’s ‘Permissive’ provides another example of this Little Girl Lost scenario.

Public humiliation and the retreat into fantasy underlies the odyssey of ugly duckling Rite Tushingham as she tries her luck in the big bad world to look for someone to make her a mother. This leads her to pretty boy Peter’s neverland, at the end of a road straight out of ‘Coronation Street’ and British neo-realism. In Peter’s world, beauty is rewarded with murder. Shane Briant plays Peter with a mixture of aloofness, poses, articulate gentleness and eloquent bullying. It’s best when Briant reveals through expression how immature, confused and bewildered Peter is. We don’t know why he does what he does, and it is obvious that neither does he.

The undeniably bleak, cruel and nihilistic qualities of the film have brought it some vitriol and dismissal, which reminds me of reaction to Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Bad Timing’, and both are open to accusations of misogyny and outright cruelty. Even if the Peter Pan allusions don’t quite take flight, ‘Straight on till Morning’ has much say on the random mercilessness of the world and the hopes and dreams of normalcy that take people there. It is genuinely disturbing and troubling long after it has finished, and there really aren’t Hammer films one can say that about.

*        Probably best known as the director of ‘The Italian Job’.

Fear in the Night

Jimmy Sangster, 1972, UK

Fear in the Night’ is a pretty rudimentary thriller with a “twist”, conceived to go along with a Hammer Studio's “Women in Peril” double-bill with ‘Straight on till Morning’. A woman recovering from a breakdown is going to live with her husband in a boy’s school far out in the country, but just before she leaves she is attacked by someone with an artificial arm. What the film does offer is some excellent direction by Jimmy Sangster and solid acting. Sangster delivers a gripping opening sequence, a school setting which is both eerie and slightly surreal,  some framing that rivals Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, some excellent segues, and a taut attack-chase sequence that verges on the dream-like. Ellipses manage to muddy the otherwise obvious ‘Diabolique’ plot and characterisation with some fine performances from Peter Cushing, Judy Gleeson, Ralph Bates and Joan Collins that gives the procedure weight. Hammer was frequently about plot standards invigorated with excellent details. ‘Fear in the Night’ also gives a great iconic image of the wonderful Cushing wearing a pair of shattered glasses, and it is his back-story alone that provides the genuine chills right up to the end and after.

Hard to be a God

Trudno byt bogom
Aleksei German, 2013, Russia

Hard to be a God’ falls somewhere between Tarkovsky and ‘Zardoz’. By which I mean it contains leanings towards brilliance, campness, pretentiousness, indulgence, uniqueness, something genuinely bonkers. The comparison with Tarkovesky isn’t a stretch at all since since ‘Stalker’ was based on the book ‘Roadside Picnic’ by the same authors, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: ‘Hard to be a God’ is based upon their 1964 novel. And ‘Stalker’ provides a good example of the science fiction of  ‘Hard to be a God’ which is free of any visual clues that might obvious symbolise an otherworldly setting. There are no futuristic vistas, for example, no alien designs; just people saying and acting bizarre things(although you may note that the costume Don Rumata wears looks like the remains of a spacesuit). It was directed by Alexei German and completed by his son Alexei German Jnr upon his father’s death in 2013.

It’s a medieval science-fiction scenario, which you can’t say about too many films, in which a group of astronauts have landed on a planet that seems trapped in its Dark Ages, bent on killing anyone they deem intellectual. This is why people act like “The Fool” from a play, with added killing. These astronauts aren’t meant to interfere with the development of this society but, of course, they do and have. One, calling himself Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), is already bearing a “Godlike” status simply because he is more focused and alert in a land of violent idiots. This therefore makes him more successful in his violent outbursts even as he loses himself to the cacophony of squalor and craziness all around him as he tries to blend in. The fact that he has apparently gone so successfully native is another reason it may be hard to distinguish the sci-fi basis as he behaves much like those around him.

Disgust is one of its main attributes: every scene wallows in mud and liquids, people smearing themselves with gunk; a face can’t get a close-up without someone else touching it, or someone else picking its nose; it’s a wonder any skin appears clean in some way at all. And this is before the gore kicks in. Long takes nod towards not only to Tarkovsky but also Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokoruv, but there is none of the stillness of Tsai Ming Liang. Each scene is bursting with people, filth and the surreal, through which the camera glides following a plot that almost comes to the surface. There is a war nbetween The Blacks and The Greys and Don Ramata is looking for someone…  Much dialogue bears non sequiturs and it quite likely that even as you are being dazzled by the madness onscreen you will moments where you will be thinking “What?”, “Why?”, “Who?”, “Really?” and “W.T.F.?”. It makes little concession to easy plotting, even if the story is simple when spelt out. But dazzling it is. The cast propel themselves into the muck with vigour in the manner of over-eager amateurs who think such wallowing is vibrant acting (and similarly, you can also say this of Di Caprio in ‘The Revenant’): but I don’t want to claim the acting is amateurish because that isn’t so. Merely that the gusto creates some of the aforementioned campness and indulgence, but it knows what it’s doing. Think then of the dense production design and affectations of Peter Greenaway mixed with the black-and-white austerity of Embrace of the Serpent’.

But that is the meat of this, for the story takes secondary importance to the catalogue of grime and cruelty. It is a treatise on man’s penchant for stupidity and barbarism, even as it indulges in a feudal social structure. IMDB quotes a synopsis by Svetlana Karmalita for the Rome Film Festival that says,

This is not a film about cruelty, but about love. A love that was there, tangible, alive, and that resisted through the hardest of conditions.

But it is  about cruelty, surely, as to deny this is to ignore a central ingredient; and it is not so much about ‘love conquering in the worst of times’ as showing a context where affection doesn’t stand a chance. It is about bringing to life a crazed crowded scenario that you might find in old, renowned paintings. It is about failure; it is about how religion and blind faith can facilitate malice and obstruct progress. It is about the failure of colonisation and where the native culture is too overbearing to be changed by one man, no matter a self-proclaimed God.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Embrace of the Serpent

El abrazo de la serpiente

Ciro Guerra, 2015, Columbia-Venezela-Argentina

Ciro Guella’s film is a mesmerising journey into a long dead world of an Amazon in the midst of colonialism, based upon diaries by scientists Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes. Naturally ‘Heart of Darkness’ and the films of Werner Herzog will come to mind , but there is a formal elegance,  uncanniness and style here that has little to do with Herzog’s more neo-realist aesthetic. Gorgeous and haunting vistas of black and white cinematography by David Gallego segue into one another, occasionally crossing timeframes to tell the tale. 

An ailing explorer (Jan Bijvoet) goes into the Amazon jungle and enlists the help of a native, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Boliar) to find a legendary flower, supposedly capable of curing disease. Years later, another explorer with the same objective also enlists the older Karamakate’s assistance, sparking memories even though Karamakate has forgotten some of the rituals he used to know. 

It’s a stark but soulful excursion into a world where white men bring madness and death with little to counter that this is what they symbolise. The second visit to the Spanish Mission where a mad self-appointed messiah has taken over is the material of a horror film, for example, but ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is only interested in this as part of the texture. In this world, the native fables where celestial animal spirits come to Earth (and where the title comes from) are a poetic tonic to the unforgiving nature of the white man’s religion. Karamakate is aware he is of a dying consciousness, one of the last of his kind and in the end it is all he can do to accept this with a few acts of defiance that will deprive the colonists of the jewels of his people.

Karamakate proves a fascinating character that easily quashes apparent “noble savage” archetypes, a character resistant to typical Western interpretations, always critical of other Amazonians that have befriended the white man. The importance of this film giving a rare voice to the Amazonian tribes-people has been officially recognised as it 

bears tragic witness to colonial atrocities that have ravaged natural resources, devastated indigenous populations, and broken a link between ancient wisdom and Western man's exploitive madness. Accordingly, the Governor of the Guainía Department, one of the locations used for the film, decorated Ciro Guerra with the Order of the Inrida Flower for “exalting the respect and value of the indigenous populations, likewise giving the Department recognition for tourism and culture.”

A haunting and haunted world is evoked and alienation is a near tangible thing, not only in Karamakate’s isolation from the world as the last survivor of his tribe, but also in the Spanish mission’s decent into madness. Karamakate does not appear to have let loneliness and isolation bring on such madness: he is clear of thinking and opinion and radiates a natural pride. He goes on the white men’s excursions for his own reasons and makes little concession to them. 

Time is fluid as the narrative slides from past to present, via as much by the river as by memory. By putting the past foremost the film puts it on an equal level with its present rather than relegating it to “flashback”. Although the editing does not fracture time and find associations and symbolisms by juxtapositions in the style of Nicolas Roeg – ‘Walkabout’, say – Guerra exhibits a similar awareness of the bond between editing and time. By the time it seems to go a little ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (it’s only colour sequence), it has long been evident that ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is also about film as a transcendent, hallucinogenic experience. It’s a film that evokes memories, dreams, the fluidity of time and a lost culture and refreshingly seems scornful of traditional white narrative norms. 

Beautiful, strange, tapping into the potential for film to give voice to everyone, even those long gone. An exceptional achievement.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The War

Jon Avnet, 1994, US

Elijah Wood gets top billing, even over Kevin Costner, as a boy who builds a tree-house. The tree-house and his long-running feud with the kids of another family are a metaphor for war, and Vietnam in particular. ‘The War’ starts promisingly, although loaded with rites-of-passage clichés, such as The Summer That Changed Everything... The all-wise nostalgic voice-over... children dancing to songs a’la 'Stand By Me'... It also bears the flashbacks, dead friends and guilt of Vietnam movies. Costner is the Vietnam veteran, back from hospital and a breakdown, full of war stories that have driven him into pacifist principles. Costner ends up too earnest; ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ still offers the best “good dad of (Southern) peace” archetype, but unlike Atticus, this dad can still be relied upon to use violence when his son is threatened. And so many conservative mythologies are tediously re-enforced, such as the dead that become guardian angels and wishes that come true, etc.

Mostly, despite some appealing moments, the film suffers from a lack of subtlety. A racist teacher is a caricature out of a Joe Dante satire and is treated to a long, unbelievably uninterrupted rebuke from the sassy black girl she picks upon. In fact, the underused black characters have the best personalities, where the adults are a bit too earnest and the kids don’t get to breath from under the contrived scenerios. The building of and the fight for the tree-house also promises more than is delivered, accompanied by an appealing seventies soundtrack left over from an ‘80s ‘Nam film. Slowly the film descends into predictability and, for the last half an hour, is almost unforgivably patronising and obvious: for example, there is no need for the sound of helicopters over the battle for the tree-house to make the point.

Although there is nothing truly disagreeable with Avnet’s film, its earnestness and self-importance work finally to undermine its strengths and to waste Costner at his most appealing and a cast of highly talented child actors (the wonderful Lucas Black – Caleb Temple from the TV series ‘American Gothic’ – has an all too brief showstopper when he beats up the bigger Wood with a devil’s shit-eating grin). almost unforgivably pat, and conservative in its resolution, the War unfortunately shoots itself in the foot, ending up neither a knowing children’s film with adult themes or an adult film with something new to say about childhood.