Farewell Ken Russell (1927-2011)

One of my favourite film festival memories is a screening of Savage Messiah (1972) at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh at the 2010 EIFF with director Ken Russell in attendance. As a teenager in the early 90’s I had stumbled across a video copy of his 1986 movie Gothic with its lurid cover of a beautiful woman in a nightgown with a tiny red demon balancing on her chest.
My kind of film I thought. I had no idea then this was Russell the art lover recreating a painting by Henry Fuseli. I was a kid. The Lair of the White Worm (1988) also satisfied. Any film featuring Amanda Donahoe offering Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg as a sacrifice to a giant snake has to be admired. 
By this time Russell’s reputation was in decline and the mainstream media caricatured him as a naughty eccentric. Oddly enough he became more familiar to readers of the tabloid newspapers thanks to his primetime adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1991) which made fantastic use of Sean Bean and Joely Richardson’s naked bodies. There was even a brief appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007, but the film industry ignored him.
In recent years though there has been a growing appreciation of Russell’s career. Pleasingly much of this re-evaluation has been led by the Sight and Sound crowd. Russell was one of the most visually inventive directors Britain has ever seen, a pioneer of the drama-documentary, and the Romantic spirit. The Savage Messiah screening was part of this reassessment and the film may well be his masterpiece.   
The Devils (1971) is rightly celebrated and will receive a DVD release soon but not sadly in the form Russell originally intended. 
Then there’s his great work for the BBC’s arts series Monitor, especially ‘Pop Goes the Easel’ (1958) which captured the emerging youth culture which would come to dominate the 1960’s. 
Yet the film I reached for when I heard of Russell’s death was one he regarded as a hack job. Harry Saltzman hired Russell to direct the third Harry Palmer movie. Billion Dollar Brain is one of Ken Russell’s best films but tends to be ignored by fans of spy movies for being too unusual, and also by fans of the director for being too conventional. 
Wrongly considered a failure, Billion Dollar Brain mixes the conventions of the spy genre with a dreamlike atmosphere. There are hints of the direction his career would take as the camera closes in on yet another painting, or moves around a blistering orchestra performance of Shostakovich’s music as Harry is brought face to face with an old ally. There is also a lovely performance by Francoise Dorleac as a double agent.
This was Dorleac’s last movie. She died in a car crash shortly after filming finished. Composer Richard Rodney Bennett provides a haunting theme which often announces her arrival onscreen. “I will show you the secret places I used to go as a girl. I will take you to the paths of the forest” she says to Palmer. Who could resist?

Though Russell struggled for funding in his later years he did make one final memorable contribution to cinema history. In the little-seen portmanteau movie Trapped Ashes (2006) Russell’s segment ‘The Girl with the Golden Breasts’ is a typically outrageous effort about a woman whose cosmetic surgery leaves her with a pair of vampiric breasts. 

Moneyball – Baseball Manager 2011

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon Copyright 2011 Columbia Tristar

Don’t know much about baseball except Bull Durham (Ron Shelton 1988) is Kevin Costner’s finest hour, and the game’s romanticism, love of nostalgia and its working class history fulfil the same function in the American psyche as football does in Britain. Nowadays both sports are all about the money. The team with the most cash usually wins. The game is rigged to favour those who can afford it. Everybody else is making up the numbers. Moneyball is the first great movie about modern sport, unsentimental in its approach, often deconstructing the old-fashioned myths about baseball, yet still despite itself being in love with the game.

In 2002 Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) found a way to challenge the system by using statistics to find players who were highly effective but overlooked by the bigger teams. In the movie Beane teams up with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young economics graduate from Yale, the duo built an unfancied team of challengers to the super-rich New York Yankees. Brand is a composite character based on a number of people in the book ‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game’ by Michael Lewis. We see Beane having meetings with his team of scouts who blab on about physicality and even on one occasion why players with ugly girlfriends don’t have the confidence to play major league baseball.

 As with The Social Network (David Fincher 2010) Aaron Sorkin, here co-writing with Steven Zaillan, is more interested in showing how the differing factions involved in this story interact with each other. Beane’s new ideas naturally enough encounter resistance most notably from his team coach, played by an unrecognisable Philip Seymour Hoffman, who initially refuses to follow his manager’s lead. The on field action is almost a sideshow to the behind the scenes activity.

We only ever see excerpts on TV, or hear radio commentary. Beane doesn’t even watch the games himself, leaving just before the action starts. Half the time he is shown driving around in his car. Pitt is remarkable in his best ever performance combining movie star charisma with a melancholic edge. Hill too is good as the geeky numbers expert who is surprised when somebody actually listens to him. Bennett Miller’s direction is subtle recalling Steven Soderbergh but without any of his showiness. 

Baseball movies are about as popular in the UK as football is over there but Moneyball is riveting. Oddly enough it reminds me of Football Manager back in the days before the 3D match engine when friends would look at the screen and wonder why I was obsessed with a game which appeared to be made up of spreadsheets. If some bright spark could take Beane’s theory and apply it to Scottish football and smash the tiresome bullying influence of the Old Firm that would be very welcome.

Classic – Cria Cuervos (Carlos Saura 1976)

Cria Cuervos is Saura’s finest film. As well as being a condemnation of fascism, it is a fascinating study of childhood and memory. Ana (Ana Torrent) witnesses her father dying, after he has just had sex with his mistress. Ana believes she killed her father by putting what she believes to be a deadly poison in his glass of milk. As she washes the glass Ana encounters her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) in the kitchen who affectionately chides her for still being awake so late.

It is only later that we realise this is wish-fulfilment on Ana’s part as her mother died a few years ago. These appearances are not unusual. Ana is a thoughtful child whose daydreams merge into reality and are as tangible and emotionally affecting as actual events. Geraldine Chaplin also plays the grown-up Ana, but interestingly only appears twenty minutes into the film. Normally when a filmmaker uses flashbacks they begin in the present and work back the way, but Saura wrong foots the audience by starting in the past. Using Chaplin in dual roles means there is a visual link between past and present and between mother and daughter.

The adult Ana first enters the film when her younger self is examining her poison, although it is really just a tin of bicarbonate soda.

“One day when my mother was cleaning, a tin fell out of a cupboard; she gave it to me and said, Ana.”

At the mention of her name the child turns and looks towards the camera as if her mother is directly addressing her at that moment, although the voice we are hearing is her as an adult recounting a memory. The camera then pans right as if drifting through time and allowing the child and the adult to occupy the same space.

Films that use an older protagonist looking back on their past often end with some form of self-discovery, or a moment of revelation. This is not the case with Cria Cuervos. Although Ana is aware her childhood has had a profound effect on her life, she still does not know why nor does she understand her behaviour. Did she really want to kill her father? She is not sure and will keep looking back for the answers she seeks. There is no closure, though anybody who has really grieved will tell you that there is never closure.

Saura managed to get Cria Cuervos past the censors despite being critical of Franco. Though the dictator died during production, his regime remained in power. Women in particular are shown to be traumatised in a society that expects them to be dutiful wives or just as dutiful mistresses. Ana’s grandmother is catatonic, unable to move or speak, her mother suffered from a deep depression her husband refused to acknowledge, while Ana describes her own childhood as being “interminable, sad, full of fear.”

Ana’s mother gave up a promising career as a concert pianist to marry her father. It was not a happy marriage, for as well as being a philanderer he had little interest in his wife’s feelings. In one memorable scene Ana and her siblings dress up in adult clothes and play at being grown-ups. They re-enact an argument they must have witnessed between their parents, with Ana as her mother and her older sister Irene as her father. The father makes no attempt to understand his wife’s anguish, but instead tries to placate her, before eventually blaming her for her depression.

The grown-up Ana is always seen in medium close-up against a spare background. It is never clear where she is, or what is going on in her life. It is as if she is trapped in limbo, unable to move on from the past. As a child she was wilful, imaginative and individualistic but now she seems defeated.

Ana Torrent also starred in Victor Erice’s wonderful The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), another tale of a child pondering the meaning of death, and she is just as astonishing in Cria Cuervos. Geraldine Chaplin brings an ethereal air to the lost mother, as well as rawness to the troubled, grown-up Ana. Chaplin remains one of the most fascinating and beautiful women ever to appear onscreen and deserves to have the kind of exalted reputation her Doctor Zhivago co-star Julie Christie enjoys.

Snowtown – The Most Memorable Film You’ll Want to Forget

There are only a couple of hundred residents in Snowtown and not much in the way of local amenities. The local bank shut down in the late 90’s and an outsider from Adelaide rented the premises. John Bunting stored barrels containing the dismembered bodies of eight people in the bank’s vault. They were filled with acid which presumably Bunting thought would dissolve the remains. Instead he was inadvertently preserving them by using the slower acting hydrochloric acid. The police were suspicious when Bunting’s associate Robert Joe Wagner was linked to three missing persons-reports and began investigating the duo. This led to them the bank where they found the barrels along with their killing tools. These crimes were nothing to do with the townsfolk of Snowtown, but now Bunting’s handiwork carries their name.
As does Justin Kurzel’s movie Snowtown which is one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It is an endurance test, particularly during a prolonged strangulation which is horrifying in its intimacy. Yet Snowtown is undoubtedly a moral work, never glamorising Bunting (Daniel Henshall), but instead showing how this amiable soft spoken outsider was able to manipulate a teenager into becoming his accomplice. We see everything through the eyes of Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) as he learns his matey new father figure is in fact a ruthless killer targeting homosexuals or those he suspects of being paedophiles. There are no characters offered to the audience to provide some kind of respite from this horror, no scenes of policemen putting together a case, or any sense of moral order . We’re trapped watching Jamie slide into the abyss.
Jamie might be 16 but he’s already worn down, a rape victim, easily led. Had somebody else gotten to him first they might have been able to point him in the right direction but he’s easy pickings for a manipulator like Bunting. The lives we are shown in this grim sunless suburb of Adelaide seem empty and hopeless. Save for a scene where there is a dance in a local pub and director Justin Kurzel uses slow motion for a moment making the scene strangely poignant. This is the only moment of compassion on show in Snowtown.
Maybe the film is more bearable for it. Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant imply these murders were emblematic of a disenfranchised underclass feeding on each other. They have no interest in making us care about these characters. The deaths of Clinton Trezise and Michael Gardiner don’t fit into this pattern. They are not in the movie either as both men were murdered before Bunting met Jamie. The details are heartbreaking though. Trezise had slight learning difficulties but was apparently happy and excited to be living on his own for the first time. Gardiner was only 19-years old, openly gay, and liked to dress flamboyantly. They were missed. Not by many it seems, but they were missed.

Underrated – Kafka (Steven Soderbergh 1991)

Prague 1919. Insurance clerk Kafka (Jeremy Irons) investigates the disappearance of his friend and colleague Eduard Rabin. Eduard was sent by his employers to The Castle, an appointment he kept, but never returned from. Gabrielle, Eduard’s lover and a member of an anarchist group draws Kafka into the mystery by trying to recruit him into her organisation.

Although Kafka rejects her offer his interest in Eduard’s disappearance is piqued. Kafka discovers others have gone missing after being sent to The Castle, including a noted surgeon, Dr Murnau (Ian Holm). Now there are strange creatures wandering the streets of Prague at night and Kafka is being followed by the enigmatic Inspector Grubach (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

James Hawes referred to the presentation of Franz Kafka as a solitary withdrawn figure as the ‘Kafka Myth’ in his 2009 book Excavating Kafka.  Kafka was apparently a sociable and charming figure until his health began to decline. However Dobbs uses a similar approach to David Cronenberg in his William Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch (1991) in the same year combining parts of the author’s life with his fiction.

Kafka did work for an insurance company and wrote through the night. There are hints in the film of his troubled relationship with his father and his inability to commit to a relationship. There are allusions to his work most notably in the presence of The Castle, which in Kafka’s fiction is unknowable, and unreachable, but here reveals its secrets, although they are fairly banal compared to Kafka’s nightmares.

Steven Soderbergh won huge acclaim and the Palme ‘D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his debut movie Sex, Lies and Videotape. Following up such success with his second film was always going to be difficult and making a black and white semi-fictional biopic of Franz Kafka using techniques borrowed from German Expressionism is probably asking for a kicking. Kafka was initially released in the US in 1991, but it would be another three years before it briefly turned up in a handful of UK cinemas.

Although Kafka is regarded as a miserabilist his writing is often very funny. The masterful short story ‘The Rebuff’ is barely half a page long, but skewer’s the romantic longing of both sexes with a perfect aim. The preference for films about, or based on work by ‘serious’ writers, and few are taken as seriously as Kafka, is that they be serious.

Witness the austere and lifeless version of The Trial (David Hugh Jones 1993) with the perfectly cast Kyle MacLachlan trapped in a lousy production, just as surely as Josef K is trapped by the law. Lem Dobbs screenplay for Kafka has plenty of humour and Soderbergh has essentially placed the great novelist in a highbrow zombie film, like The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949) crossed with George Romero. Maybe this seemed incongruous to some critics, but it is closer to the spirit of Kafka’s work than they realise.

My Favourite Films About My Ain Folk

I’m a Scot so I thought I’d list my ten favourite films set in my homeland. They are arranged by date rather than by order of preference. 

I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell 1945)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is on her way to the Hebridean isle of Killoran (a made up place, filming was done on Mull) to marry a rich industrialist. Joan’s materialistic approach to life is challenged by her experiences in Scotland. Especially when she begins to fall for a fellow traveller, a Naval Officer played with such remarkable charm by Roger Livesey you find yourself pointing at the screen saying “him, that one, you stuck up posh bint.” The whimsical elements are never overdone by Michael Powell and the suggestion the Scottish landscape can have a profound effect on a visiting outsider was revisited by Bill Forsyth in Local Hero (1983).

Whisky Galore (Alexander Mackendrick 1949)

Though sometimes attacked for being twee and patronising Whisky Galore is much more cynical than its reputation suggests.  Mackendrick’s dark worldview which would be most evident in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is present in this Ealing comedy too.  The pompous incomer Captain Waggett tries to apply the law and prevent the islanders raiding a stricken vessel but the locals run rings around him.  Wagget’s choice is simple, assimilate or leave. 

Culloden (Peter Watkins 1964)

A sober antidote to the romantic myths that have sprung up around the battle at Culloden, Watkins tells the story from the perspectives of everybody involved.  The Highlanders are starving and ill prepared. Lowland Scots fight for the Crown believing it is in the best interests of Scotland.  This was no glorious failure but a tragic waste of life.  A pioneer of the drama-documentary Watkins used handheld cameras and non-professional actors to give a sense of realism.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder 1974)

 Holmes and Watson take the sleeper train to Inverness to solve a case involving a beautiful amnesiac, a sextuplet of missing circus midgets, and the Loch Ness Monster. Sinister locals warn them to stay away from the Loch. Such encounters are unlikely to happen to anybody visiting these days. Loch Ness is Scotland’s answer to Disneyland; though unlike Uncle Walt, our monster never existed. Just kidding Walt Disney’s Estate. A ruined masterpiece, United Artists cut great chunks out of the film.  Miklos Rozca’s score is one of his best. Robert Stephens is perfect as Holmes; world-weary, and funny, he is wise enough to know love is best avoided whenever possible but still can’t help himself. 

Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)
 Orson Welles 1948 version is the more imaginative, but Polanski’s brutal approach suits Shakespeare’s play. It’s a disturbing film; the violence is intimate and gruesome.  Given events in his own life before he made this film you can understand why Polanski never held back. Jon Finch’s understated Macbeth attracts criticism from the theatrically inclined because his speeches do not soar, but it’s a great film performance.  Bizarrely Macbeth remains the only film to be financed by Playboy Magazine, which may explain why Francesca Annis spends half the film naked. Still at least she wasn’t wearing bunny ears and a bobtail. I still can’t believe our English teacher showed this to us when we were kids. 

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy 1973)
Scotland’s weirdest film is a horror musical contrasting Scots Calvinism with old fashioned folk rituals. Morally upright copper Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is summoned from the mainland to help search for a missing girl on an island. Trouble is nobody seems to know anything about the girl. The locals are clearly nuts, even the ones who aren’t Lindsay Kemp. There’s bawdy singing in the local pub, couples fornicating outside it, and Christopher Lee wandering around in a kilt. I swear I’ve seen three different version of this film and I’ve no idea which works best. A cinematic one-off, unsettling in its use of locations and quite how anybody thought they could replicate this either through a remake or a sequel is beyond me.

My Way Home (Dir. Bill Douglas 1978)

Douglas is one of Britain’s great lost film directors and this is his finest work. My Way Home is the final part in a trilogy based on Douglas’s own childhood. Jamie’s harsh upbringing was the focus of My Childhood and My Ain Folk. Now 17, he is used to feeling worthless, being hit, or being patronised by those higher up the social ladder. While carrying out his National Service abroad, Jamie is befriended and drawn out of his shell by an upper-class Englishman. Jamie’s realization that he can fulfill his artistic intentions is one of cinema’s most moving and hopeful coming-of-age stories.

Gregory’s Girl (Bill Forsyth 1981)

Hard to pick between this and Forsyth’s Local Hero, but Gregory’s Girl just shades it for its originality. Gawky schoolboy footballer Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) makes the mistake of telling his coach that football is only a game. Blasphemy! As punishment he’s put in goals and his place in the team goes to a girl, Dorothy (Dee Hepburn). Gregory is smitten, but unfortunately he is as hopeless off the pitch as he is on it. Forsyth isn’t so much interested in football, as the pains of adolescence and the humour he can derive from both. It’s also as far as I’m aware the first Scottish film to be set in one of the New Towns that sprang up in the late 70’s.  
Highlander (Russell Mulcahy 1986)
Handsome, French-accented antiques dealer Russell Nash has a dark secret, he is Scottish. MacLeod has been around for a few hundred years and now resides in New York.  While its quirky star Christopher Lambert is generally considered to have attempted the worst Scottish accent at the movies, his detractors are missing the point. This is a movie about an immortal engaging in an ongoing battle through the centuries to win a mystical prize. There is no need for realism. Besides, Lambert is not the first Scot to speak with a French accent; Mary Queen of Scots for instance, was more Catherine Deneuve than Cathy from Kelvingrove.  If you are snobbish about watching action movies, content yourself with viewing Highlander as mediation on being an emigrant; you can leave your homeland behind, you can change your name, you can decapitate a whole bunch of people, but you’ll still find yourself day-dreaming about the place you came from.
Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay 2002)
Few films have captured the longing to escape from a small-town existence better than Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel, Morvern Callar. Supermarket check-out girl Morvern awakes to find her boyfriend has killed himself. On his computer is a finished novel which she claims as her own. Keeping his death a secret, Morvern makes some money by winning a publishing deal and travels abroad. The film has its flaws. Warner’s novel is very funny but Ramsay has yet to show any signs of having a sense of humour at all.  Samantha Morton’s decision not to attempt a Scots accent means Morvern sounds like she’s an incomer rather than a girl who’s never been far from her hometown.  Despite this Ramsay fashions an elliptical, near wordless gem, in which Scotland feels like the loneliest place on earth and life is elsewhere.


2046 – Film Journalism Course Application

This review was written in late 2004 to gain entrance onto a postgraduate course on Film Journalism run by the BFI.  It is written in the style of the BFI’s house magazine Sight and Sound.  The application was successful.

1966- Chow, a writer, returns to Hong Kong and makes a living selling articles to the local press.  Socially, his life becomes a series of parties and one night stands.  After an encounter with ‘Lulu,’ a former lover, Chow is inspired to write a story titled after her room number, 2046.  On his return, he finds Lulu has gone, so he offers to be the new tenant.  2046 is not ready so he accepts 2047 instead.  Street riots in Hong Kong lead to a curfew being imposed, so Chow stays in his room and writes, using his own experiences as the basis for his novel.  Bai Ling, a beautiful young woman, moves into 2046.  Chow attempts seduction, but Bai Ling resists.  A relationship eventually develops, but Chow ends it when Bai Ling asks to spend the night in his room.  Miss Wang, the landlord’s daughter is forbidden to see her Japanese lover, so Chow acts as an intermediary.  Miss Wang and Chow spend time together working on writing projects.  Chow writes his novel from the perspective of Miss Wang’s lover, only to realise he is writing about himself.  Chow changes the title 2047 and his novel becomes a science-fiction story about a train that can take people on a journey through their own memories.  Bai Ling and Chow meet in a restaurant.  Bai Ling gives him the money to pay the bill.  Back at her apartment Chow returns her money and walks out on her.  Chow’s voiceover informs us 2046 is a place no person can return from.

   “Why can’t it be like it was before?” asks Bai Ling (Zhang Zhyi) of her emotionally distant ex-lover, a feeling that might also be felt by fans of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) to which 2046 is a sequel.  Pulled from the Edinburgh Film Festival at the last moment by the director so he could re-edit, 2046 has built up such a high level of expectation it is difficult to see how it can satisfy.  Especially as on a first viewing it is far more elusive than its predecessor.  Ever since Days of Being Wild (1991) and through films like Chungking Express (1994), the martial-arts epic, Ashes of Time (1994), Fallen Angels (1995) and Happy Together (1997), Kar-Wai has created films evoking a particular mood of romantic despair. 
   Essentially about the writing of a novel entitled ‘2046,’ the film works best as mediation on memory and how the past experiences can have a profound effect on a person’s behaviour.  “All memories have traces of tears,” says the narrator of Chow’s novel.  Chow uses a science-fiction story as a metaphor for his own emotional isolation and his retreat into the comfort of writing.  2046 becomes a state of mind formed by romantic loss.  It is the inability to move on, instead focusing on what has been lost and reliving those moments, either in the mind, or by re-creating the relationship with other people. 
   Chow (Tony Leung Chui-Wai) ended In the Mood for Love amongst the ruins of the Cambodian temple at Angkor Wat having followed a Chinese tradition of whispering away a secret.  In the final shot Tony Leung has an expression combining hurt with anger, as if Chow has whispered away part of himself and is now as desolate as his surroundings.  2046 is set a few years after this moment and Chow has become a cynical womaniser.  Despite his attempts to treat his affairs as nothing more than pleasurable activities, Chow finds himself reminded of his relationship with Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) from the previous film.  Chow take another lover called Su Lizhen (Gong Li) and gives her a passionate farewell both know is really meant for the other woman.  Miss Wang helps with his writing as Su Lizhen did, but nothing beyond friendship develops between them.  A recurring sequence in In the Mood for Love saw Chow and Su Lizhen in the back of a taxi, with intimacy growing between them each time it is replayed.  There is a similar sequence in 2046 with Chow and Bai Ling, only this time he is fast asleep and it is only her who is falling in love. 
   Sequels are often accused of simply repeating a storyline, but Wong Kar-Wai may find himself being criticised for making a film that is too different from the original.  Those hoping to see Maggie Cheung paired together with Tony Leung again may be disappointed by her brief wordless appearances here.  But Cheung’s lack of screen time suits the film, with her absence haunting the narrative, just as her absence haunts Chow.  It would make little sense in trying to replicate In the Mood for Love’s rapturous love story.  2046 is about what happens afterwards, the bitterness of regret and the painful memories left for those who cannot move on.