The Lazy Man’s Odyssey: 300 Films in Lockdown (21-25) - whynow

This week’s films are: Se7ven (1995); Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948); Groundhog Day (1993); and National Gallery (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.

I’m still hoping to watch the more than three hundred films on Roger Ebert’s ​​Great Movies​​ list. Like last week, four Great Movies, and one not-Great-Movie-but-great-movie – but only in order to keep sane.

Monday

Se7en,​ David Fincher, 1995

Though I might be wrong – I imagine of all the films we’ve spoken about so far, this is the one the most people have seen. There’s a reason for that – which is that it’s just fucking great.

So with even less energy than usual, and vis-a-vis my preface there’s no real use overviewing the film – let’s launch straight into the few (original…) comments on the movie.

In its base form, Seven is a film noir buddy police drama. But what could become a routine cop caper is elevated by the evocation of dread mythology and symbolism. ​Seven​ is not really a very profound film, but it provides the convincing illusion of one. Most mainstream thrillers seek first to provide entertainment; this one intends to fascinate and appall.

The other thing I noticed was the camera movements (though – ironically – that is the opposite of what Fincher wants you to do). In most of his films he never uses steadicams, ​The Social Network ​only has one steadicam shot, ​The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ​has a handful, and ​Fight Club ​hardly has any. Fincher’s camera is inextricably linked to the movement of his actors. Watch closely, and you’ll notice even the most minute shuffle forward on the sofa, someone entering a room, or even a shrug is exactly synced to the movement of the camera.

This camerawork is regarded as impersonally, coldly omniscient, which I think is wrong – because what these shots do is effectively lock you into the behaviour of the characters. You feel as someone moves around the space that they are in – and it means that when the steadicam is whipped out, you REALLY notice it. I refer of course to the infamous final scene of Se7en, where John Doe’s character (in control of the scene) is filmed from a hauntingly still tripod, while Mills (Pitt) (not in control of the scene, at all) is filmed on jarringly unstabilised steadicam. Simple stuff, done right.

Tuesday

Aguirre, the Wrath of God​, Werner Herzog, 1972

‘Beware the quiet man, for while others speak, he watches and while others act, he plans and when they finally rest… he strikes’. No movie character has this quote applied to more fittingly than Aguirre, the quiet, menacing protagonist of this eponymous film.

Loosely based on the historical character of Lope de Aguirre, a Spanish conquistador who styled himself ‘Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, King of Tierra Firme’, his final expedition down the Amazon river in search of the mythical golden Kingdom El Dorado is the basis of the film. It is a vision of madness and folly, counterpointed by the lush but unforgiving Amazonian jungle. As their rafts float further and further downriver, tensions flare, humanity breaks down and insanity prevails.

Herzog does not hurry their journey, or fill it with artificial episodes of suspense and action. What we feel above all is the immensity of the river and the surrounding forest – which offers no shore to stand on because the waters have risen and flooded it.

This is a film that is as infamous for its intense shoot as for its content – which is why I’ll dedicate a paragraph to the relationship between the troubled lead actor, Klaus Kinski, and his director, Werner Herzog. It is testament to their relationship that they both came minutely close to actually murdering the other on several occasions over their five film collaboration – but would each time return to shoot the next project. A famous apocryphal story of Kinski being made to act at gunpoint in the middle of the Amazonian jungle comes from this film – though what apparently happened was that Kinski, irritated by the noise from a hut where cast and crew were playing cards, fired three gunshots at it, blowing the tip off one extra’s finger. Kinski decided to leave the jungle location (over Herzog’s refusal to fire a sound assistant), only changing his mind after Herzog threatened to shoot first Kinski and then himself.

It’s impossible to talk about this film without talking about their relationship because so much of the film is watching this open world map of the Amazonian basin open further and further – and on a film where everything was shot chronologically, and Aguirre is the silent lead, the experience of the actors in this case ​is ​the experience of the characters.

It’s possible to write so much more about this film, it’s an exercise of creating a character with only a expressions and physical acting (and few words), it’s a rare film about ‘great’ themes – the search for everlasting glory, rather than wealth, it’s a film about men who commit the sin of pride by daring to reach for it, and are crushed by the implacable universe.

Wednesday

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,​ John Huston, 1948

I think the great lesson of ​The Treasure of the Sierra Madre​ is the effect civilisation has on the behaviour of man. Some people are only as good as their luck dictates them to be. How can you be a ‘good’ man, when an invisible hand socks you in the face at every street corner?

Dobbs and Curtin (Bogart and Tim Holt) are a couple of down on their luck Americans stranded in Tampico, Mexico. They are not classic movie heroes. They are poor men, in search of gold to pay for women, drink, and pleasure.

It has probably the most brutal bar fight I’ve seen. This is not some Red Dead 2 saloon fight, this is a gruesome brawl, complete with muffled sounds, actual painful-looking falls, sweat and blood, smashed glasses, and genuine pain on their faces.

It is slightly comparable to ​12 Angry Men,​ where a time of unbearable stress brings out the true colours of people. The Jury want to get out of there as soon as possible, without hesitation. Bogart as Dobbs is probably someone who in civilised society is no better than what he can get away with. His descent into uncontrollable paranoia is frightening on the screen, one of his best performances, and his laughter and teeth are images that will not leave you hastily.

The sound is vital, which is why the Blu-Ray is so much better (sorry to keep banging on about the bloody Blu-Rays), the silence of the mountains, the blare of the wind – phwooaar.

What happens to the men and their acquired treasure in the Sierra Madre mountains is almost unimportant. In a place far from civilization and far from law – the Almighty God they so often call upon does have a wicked sense of humour.

P.S. Re-reading this piece I realise that ‘​ Aguirre’ ​and ‘​ Treasure’ ​come on consecutive days and they are too similar in scope to not comment on. They both play games of ​‘Operation’ ​on their characters, prodding them, hurting them, pushing them to the limit of what a human can take. They both also share a strong sense of humans ​uneasily accommodated by the land, the land occupies the stage and then humans edge tentatively onto it, uncertain of their roles.

Thursday

Groundhog Day,​ Harold Ramis, 1993

It’s funny, because I think when most of us saw this film when we were much younger, it stayed in our minds as a well-made romantic comedy. What I had forgotten – or more accurately – never realised, was how well written it was.

I was taken at the quality of the screenplay. I didn’t notice the first time. But on repeated viewings (like reliving Groundhog Day), I was impressed at the story created by the writers. It is much more than witty jokes and riffs arranged around a gimmick. You look at the list of this film’s awards: there are numerous British awards for writing. It wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar – which is in no way a badge of quality for a film – but the jokes feel as fresh now as they did then.

The reason your suspension of disbelief works so well is that the film has an internal logic and consistency rarely found in screenplays. No joke is disposable, the scenario is well-explained and developed, and as you laugh your merry way along, the philosophy underlying the film takes over your imagination.

The humour of the imprisonment of reliving the same day, with no consequences, will never go out of fashion.

Friday (non-Great)

National Gallery​, Frederick Wiseman, 2003

It is difficult to condense an 180-minute film into a few thoughts.

National Gallery​ is an ungodly protracted documentary about the day-to-day running of this institution. The film revolves indiscriminately around the people working at the gallery, from the board of directors, to the frame makers, to security guards. Through this succession of different jobs, we imagine a self-sufficient web of people and pieces – and everything that comes between them.

The board meetings are a fascinating, if not necessarily edifying, view of the top dogs. Questions of exclusivity versus accessibility in light of budgetary considerations are discussed at meetings; there are ​lots​ of meetings. The decisions that establishments have to make in order to grip the public’s interest are not easy – what lengths do they go to attract visitors, and at what price to their institution? The epitome of the traditional comes from the director, who spends twenty minutes arguing that charities should not be able to project their logos on the façade of the gallery at the end of the London Marathon – because it whores out the institution’s walls to what he sees as advertising.

We pay visits to restorers scraping away tiny slivers of paint with scalpels, Q-tips, eye-droppers. We mark the fragility of time’s passing on art realising that there are effects that you have to live with, and guard against, but ultimately methodical technical intervention will be called upon to ‘save’ the work from ageing and deterioration.

Ethical problems and compromises come into question. The question of lighting the frame of a newly-purchased triptych held me spellbound: there is a shadow that obscures the top 1/4 of the painting. This, again, is in no way edifying for the Gallery. The entirety of Christ’s head is hidden, and we hear the director say: ‘it’ll have to do’. Listening to Nicholas Penny, the rumpled-haired Museum Director in a lecture taking a stab at Poussin – admitting that he is not sure if he likes the work, but is always intrigued by it, is brilliant.

The camera whips us outside the Museum to see the community waiting patiently in the cold to see the Da Vinci exhibition ‘Painter at the Court of Milan’ (2012). We are never far away from the human response to art – the intensity of the onlooker’s gaze, the curiosity, confusion, delight, horror and interior peace that art can inculcate.

Wiseman just lets his camera roll; he never uses voice overs. The filmmaker is always invisible – others, never him, conduct interviews. The interviewees never look once into the camera, most probably because they are looking at a camera that is not actually filming, while a hidden one (probably an iPhone or handheld camera) is doing the actual work. Frederick Wiseman allows us to be the fly on the wall in a usually bug-proof space. The film could have been edited on iMovie; indeed the font used in the credits is an iMovie font. It is brilliantly simple.

The painstaking process of running a gallery, shown to us in miniature in a three-hour film, perhaps also laughing behind the screen at us, that we are struggling to sit in cinema seats for three hours, while there are people scraping off paint millimetres at a time.

Each job, as basic as it might seem, is important and they all work fluidly together. Each artwork has a presence with an individual history and personal narrative imprinted on its essence – and like life itself this documentary is thrilling, enigmatic, complex and a singular jewel in the crown of documentaries.

Next week, we’ll do a proper British week, and take a look at ​Meantime (​ Mike Leigh), ​Made in Britain​ (Alan Clarke), and ​My Beautiful Laundrette ​(Stephen Frears), among others.

Rampa  They Will Be