The Lazy Man’s Odyssey: 300 Films in Lockdown (16-20) - whynow

This week’s films are: Time Bandits (1981); Man With A Movie Camera (1929); Sunset Boulevard (1950); The Moment of Truth (1965); and Master and Commander (2003).


In this time of self-imposed ostracism for the good of the realm, having ‘projects’ becomes less of an afterthought, and more of a requirement. We’re now well into our weeks indoors, so my – like everyone’s – standards have somewhat slipped.

As a project, I thought I would try to watch the more than three hundred films on Roger Ebert’s ​Great Movies​ list.

Of those ~350 I’ve probably seen around fifty. These are your classic Pulp Fictions, and Scarfaces. I will hold back until a more advanced stage from ​re​watching names on the list – regardless of how much I want to – and attempt to give you, the discriminating reader, a thought or humble opinion on each of them. I hope you will forgive my zero effort in trying to describe the plot or characters of these films – if you want to see them, read about them.

Like last week, four Great Movies, and one not-Great-Movie-but-great-movie – only in order to keep sane.

Monday

Time Bandits,​ Terry Gilliam, 1981

Probably the least known of Terry Gilliam’s works, ​Time Bandits​ is joyful, original, and a completely successful exercise in multiple world building. The effects are sleek, the characters well-developed and memorable (it’s rare for you to remember the names of most, if any, character in a film), and the arc is pleasing.

I won’t write too much, because the next few are dense stories, with a lot to unpick.

There is a surprising star cast comprising most of the Monty Python lot, Sean Connery, Ian Holm as a hilarious Napoleon. A good way to start the week.

Tuesday

Man With A Movie Camera​, Dziga Vertov, 1929

On this edition of Hard Film Tuesday we’re taking a look at a movie from 1929. It is prefaced with:

This film is an experiment in cinematic communication of real events. Without the help of intertitles, without the help of a story, without the help of theatre, this experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of literature…

There are some compositions with two, or sometimes more, superimposed images that I genuinely thought impossible for the time, and executed as well as a modern movie could, or should.

The only recurring figure – not a ‘character’ – is the Man With the Movie Camera.

This Man is seen filming much of the movie. There are shots of how he does it – lying flat on the ground in a busy roundabout, securing the tripod and himself to the top of a speeding truck, hanging in a basket over a waterfall. We see a hole being dug between two train tracks, and later a train racing straight towards the camera. Ebert talked of being ‘reminded that when the earliest movie audiences saw such a shot, they were allegedly terrified, and ducked down in their seats.’

We’re reminded of the French New Wave’s celebratory chest bang of: ‘cinema is life at 24 frames per second’ – but we leave realising that the – or our – story really only begins with the editing.

Wednesday

Sunset Boulevard,​ Billy Wilder, 1950

Billy Wilder’s film is the portrait of a forgotten silent star, living in exile in her grotesque mansion, screening her old films, dreaming of a comeback.

Gloria Swanson was no old crone when she played this role, only 53, but with her grasping talons, her theatrical mannerisms, and her grandiose delusions it is the portrait of a woman who’s fear of ageing has killed off any remaining sense of youth. Indeed, when the camera momentarily shows her skin through a magnifying glass, we are taken aback by how smooth it is. William Holden tactfully inhabits the tricky role of the writer half her age, who allows himself to be kept by her. It’s a classic story of a character who thinks his mental fortitude is enough to keep him safe, but actually needs as much care as the people who he thinks he’s better than.

The whole film is overshadowed by the dark Hispanic mansion that is Norma Desmond’s home. It is like her – forgotten, obscure, once an epicentre for celebrity – now just her and her butler’s home. There are wisps of Miss Havisham from ​Great Expectations​, who sits in her house criticising and signing photographs of herself from imaginary fans, as well as Mrs Danvers from ​Rebecca​ who patrols her house silently. There are photographs of her everywhere, a constant reminder of her youth.

Like Mrs Danvers, we never see her feet for the duration of the film, she glides across the rooms, phantasmagorically.

Sunset Boulevard is for me one of the best dramas made about cinema, along with ​Cinema Paradiso because it sees through the illusions, even if Norma doesn’t. The most famous line of the film has to be quoted, by order of law. When the penniless writer first greets the silent star inside her mansion, he says:

‘You used to be big’
‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’
‘I knew there was something wrong with them.’

Thursday

The Moment of Truth​, Francesco Rosi, 1965

First things first: this isn’t an easy film to watch, unless you enjoy bullfighting. A significant portion of The Moment of Truth‘s running time consists of man vs. livestock action, and it ain’t pretty. The blood runs very, very red, and there’s more shed here than in a Tarantino dream.

There are some terrific wide-screen compositions, both inside and outside the matador’s arena.

If nothing else, this film is as real as it gets. Most major sequences aren’t staged or faked with trick photography of any kind; the players seriously put their lives on the line to confront real bulls on screen. They are simply well-edited, the moments that could not be shot in front of a ten thousand strong wild audience interspersed in with the genuine bullfighting. The cast (most aren’t ‘actors’ in the job sense, though they act as well as RSC-trained veteran) come dangerously close to getting mauled and gored, as they gracefully manoeuvre and evade the animals. Perhaps most striking (though to be expected from this kind of film) is that the bulls themselves are hurt on-screen with the camera lingering on their agony.

The film doesn’t make any moral decisions for us, and does not pass judgement on this sport. The main character, Miguelin, works only for the money – even the celebrity doesn’t sit well with him. His relationship with the bulls is, similarly, never told to us – but rather shown in his reactions and movements around them. It is a film about celebrity and wealth, seen through the lens of sports.

As portrayed in the film, bullfighting on foot became a means for poor, able-bodied men to achieve fame and fortune, similar to the role of boxing in many countries. When asked why he risked his life, one torero reportedly answered, Más cornadas da el hambre (“[There is] more goring from hunger”).

The most outstanding part of the film, for me, was the concept of treating cinemascope (an anamorphic lens​ series used for shooting ​widescreen​ movies) in a documentary, verite way, moving the camera through crowds, extreme closeups, and extreme wide shots. It’s a gut punch to the senses. I was taken back to the arena scenes of Gladiator – much as the toreadors wouldn’t want you to see it that way (they consider it an art) – it is as much a blood thirsty, pugnacious sport as those Antiquity fights (though the bloodlust comes much more from the crowds than from the performers).

The film has a look and style that’s at least halfway like a documentary. Photography is rather pedestrian-looking, and there are a lot of distant shots. It looks incredibly gritty and real, and though we are part of the mass of spectators at times, we actually occupy a much more intimate position within Miguelin’s circle.

Friday (non-Great)

Master and Commander​, Peter Weir, 2003

These Friday films are becoming necessary to cushion the intensity of the previous days. Funny that these ‘Great’ movies are all difficult to watch. surrealism, I moved to the super-realism of Peter Weir.

The attention to detail in this film is astounding, not only does every actor convince you of his place on that ship, but the set of the boat is so well done that like any successful production design you feel as if you understand the way the whole boat comes together. By the end, you know the officer’s quarters, the dining room, the deck, the surgery – intimately.

And Russell Crowe. Ah, Maximus. I think the reason Russell Crowe has historically been such a draw to movies is that – just as he takes care of his ship’s crew in the film – he takes care of his audiences, he takes them with him on his adventure. You feel safe in his hands, like you’re part of his crew, and you’re really out there, thousands of miles from home, on a lone ship in a titanic ocean.

It made a decent enough amount of money at the box office for a film that cost 150 million dollars to produce, but didn’t ​generate that monstrous, rapid income that warrants a sequel​. For me, it’s a shame that a film that goes to extreme lengths to depict actual, fascinating history in tiny details or vast set pieces, a film rooted in Napoleonic history, about the Age of Sail, the Age of Discovery, ends its journey after a single film, when the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is now nearing its sixth instalment.

For you eagle-eyed ones, you’ll notice the film was released in 2003, the year ​Return of the King effectively destroyed the Oscars. ​Master and Commander ​was left with a measly two, losing all other twelve categories to ​Lord of the Rings​.

It is part of a small group of films that has an entirely male cast. Not a single lady – bar some uncredited Brazilian natives – is in the film, nor do their presences seem entirely missed by the crew. ‘To our wives and sweethearts … may they never meet’ is the modus operandi.

There is a clear, fascinating jealousy that Crowe’s captain has for the unseen Admiral Nelson, one that reminds us that this boat is alone on its mission, in contrast to the armies of ships in conflict in Egypt or the Channel, or that we are used to seeing in modern swashbucklers.

But the stakes are high on the high seas.

Thoughts after the first month:

  • It’s interesting how most films before 1980 have extensive beginning credits, and then end right after the last frame of the film. I’ve grown a lot less tired of sitting through five minutes of credits before a film has even started (especially if its some sexy Japanese script), but there is something to be said for the five minutes after a film has ended where you can mindlessly watch the credits while confronted with the enormity of what you have just watched.
  • Sounds cliché but you really start to see the films and shots that have been pillaged by modern directors.
  • Restoration (especially Criterion Collection) Blu-Rays of old films are extraordinary and I’d love to know exactly how you take a piece of film, that is on a film reel, (in my mind that means it’s set in stone, no?) and make the picture ‘better’. For ​Man With A Movie Camera they re-recorded a score but all the others have crystal sound quality for sixty year old films.

Next week, we’ll take a look at ​Se7en ​(David Fincher), ​The Treasure of the Sierra Madre​ (John Huston), and ​Groundhog Day ​(Harold Ramis).

Rampa  They Will Be