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Archive for the ‘Stephen Mullen’s film reviews’ Category

By Stephen Mullen

This is very near and dear to my heart. For my money, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the best show ever on television.

What was it? A sketch comedy show, made by a group of writers and performers (and a doctor) from Cambridge and Oxford, plus an American animator, aired at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s on BBC; some of it was recorded in front of a studio audience, but this was augmented with material shot outside the studio, as well as animation. It ran 3 1/2 years, 45 episodes in total. After it ended, the troop continued to work, together and separately; they made a compilation film from reshot versions of some of their best sketches, a way to distribute the material in those pre-video tape days (and before the show went into syndication, in the US at least); a couple years later, they made an original film, a spoof of King Arthur tales (and Eisenstein), that became much more of a success. Somewhere in here, the show was picked up by PBS in the United States, and soon became a hit, which encouraged PBS to start picking up other British comedy shows. They also made records, right from the start, and went on to make more films, to perform live and so on, generating a fair amount of product. However these things were received when they were made, by the mid-70s they were part of the culture, and easy to find – on radio, syndication, by word of mouth. By the end of the decade, and into the 80s, Monty Python had sunk very deep roots in youth culture, here in the USA at least. For me and most of my pals, anyway: you walked around high school and college quoting them and stealing their jokes, you watched the reruns on PBS and you scrounged up the VHS of the Holy Grail and watched that, over and over and over, you wore it out, you bought the records and listened to them, you sang the songs (sit on my face and let my lips embrace you!), you learned the names of philosophers and cheeses and many, many synonyms for death, you heard of things like Watney’s Red Barrel and Biggles and Algy that might not otherwise have jumped the pond, you made jokes about your idiom, you learned what litotes was, you picked up many excellent insults (sniveling little rat faced git), and years later, you saw Godard’s Weekend and recognized half a dozen Monty Python bits. Well, I did. (more…)

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opening

By Stephen Mullen

Dekalog is a 10 part television series, made in Poland in 1988, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski, written by Kieslowski and Krzystof Piesiewicz, his frequent writing collaborator. Each episode in the series is dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, though the links are often quite free. The series is, in practice, more like a film cycle than television series – each episode is self-contained, linked only in their relationships to the commandments, and the setting, a large apartment complex in Warsaw. (And the filmmakers and crew.) Kieslowski conceived of the films as 10 separate films. He did not conform to TV conventions: recurring characters in an ongoing story; the need to pace the stories to match the way TV is watched, in the home, with the phone ringing and tea boiling and so on. Indeed, since 1989, Dekalog has been treated more like a film, or group of films, than as television. This is understandable: the films were distributed theatrically outside Poland, and Kieslowski himself was an established filmmaker when they were made, and his subsequent works made him a major art house figure internationally in the 1990s. He is a filmmaker first, and so Dekalog is treated as part of his film career. This is probably even more the case for Dekalog than for other TV shows made by people established in the film industry. David Lynch and Twin Peaks comes to mind – a series made by an established film figure a year or so after Dekalog, that, however congruent with Lynch’s career, is still seen primarily as a television show. Of course, Twin Peaks did play by the rules of television – a continuing series with characters and a through-plot and so on – which certainly helps explain the difference. But the fact remains, Dekalog’s origins in television is seen as somewhat incidental to what it is.

I don’t really mean to dispute that – Kieslowski’s own remarks and ideas about the show push criticism in that direction; I have certainly always thought of these films that way myself. But it is interesting to consider how they do relate to television, as an art form, as a social force, as technology. The strongest link to television, I think, is the way Dekalog is structured around the home, the family, the domestic space. Television is a domestic form of entertainment and art – it exists in the home, to be watched in the home; Dekalog is centered around the idea of home. Far more than other Kieslowski films, which are often about individuals making their way in the world, or at least about how people live in public, outside the home, Dekalog is almost entirely rooted in domestic spaces. When it leaves the domestic sphere, it either brings it in through other means (as the ways the domestic ethical problems of Episodes 2 and 8 are discussed in a class in Episode 8), or makes the loss of the home a felt absence in the story (Episode 5 can be seen this way.) The apartment complex where the series is set may seem to be just the device linking these stories – but in fact, those homes become central to the stories being told. The importance of children in the series, and the importance of relationships between parents and children, is an obvious theme – but these themes are themselves part of the series’ emphasis on the home. Home as family, as social space; home as physical space, actual buildings and rooms; home as symbolic space – a place of safety, rest, protection. Almost everything in the series hits one of those themes. (more…)

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by Stephen Mullen

(I’m sorry this is going to look like a homework assignment – but this is a show that feels a bit like a homework assignment, a textbook at least. That isn’t a bad thing, of course – it’s meant to be informative as well as moving and entertaining, and it is, all of those things.)

What is it?

A historical documentary about the American Civil War, broadcast on PBS in 1990, and a huge success. (Largest ever audience for PBS, apparently.) It made Ken Burns a household name, and elevated Shelby Foote, in particular, to new levels of fame. There are 9 episodes, about 10 hours altogether, with around two hours devoted to each year of the war, with an hour for the build up and an hour of aftermath. It is straightforward history, using primary sources (period photographs and texts by contemporaries) to provide the base for narration and commentary. It digs into the primary sources – Burns’ method of showing photographs, panning and zooming around the photo, to pick out details, became iconic, and has entered the language (thanks to photo and video editing software). Texts are read, with similar attention and care, by actors, many well known (Jason Robards Jr., Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, etc). The show was very effective as well as popular, and for a while, seemed to be the definitive historical documentary. That, I am sorry to say, isn’t quite the case anymore – I will return to that a little later.

How is it as History?

It is quite good. It is essentially an introductory overview of the Civil War; it would make a good textbook in a basic history class. It is, to start, actual history – primary sources and commentary; everything is rooted in those sources, and in analysis by people who root their work in primary sources. It’s clear about what is sourced and what is not, and what the sources are, as clear as a television show is going to be. It is a good introduction to the war – it tells what happened, it explains it well, it covers a wide range of experiences of the war. That is important. It is not strictly military or political history: it works in the home front, the day to day lives of solders, technology (of war, medicine, communication, and so on), it covers the role and place of women in the war, it attends to the experiences, attitudes and actions of blacks – slaves, ex-slaves, and free blacks. It is quite good at conveying the lived experience of all these people, on both sides of the war. It is an introduction – if you want details on the technology of killing, or the state of medicine, or the political machinations north and south and overseas, or details about campaigns and battles and strategy and tactics, you will have to go elsewhere – though often, you can go directly to the writers and books being discussed. You can do worse than go to the sources the show presents – read Frederick Douglass or Abraham Lincoln or Mary Chestnut or Grant’s Memoirs. And there is certainly an abundant literature dealing with the Civil War. (more…)

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anna
by Stephen Mullen

Alphaville is the first Godard film I ever saw, way back in the mid-80s. I saw it on a double bill with Alexander Nevsky, if my memory is accurate after 30 odd years. I remember liking Nevsky, though finding it all a bit strange; but Alphaville was a revelation. I had ideas about what Godard was supposed to be like – he was supposed to be difficult, possibly blasphemous (this is back around the time of Hail Mary – which I think was the second Godard film I ever saw, and came a bit closer to what I had been led to expect.) Instead, I saw this astonishing science fiction noir…

handlips

It is a beautiful film, with its rich play of light and dark, its bodies in rest and motion in overlit antiseptic spaces and dingy dark hallways, its faces, its eyes, especially Anna Karina’s face and eyes. It’s an overpoweringly romantic film – I walked out enthralled by Eluard and the staging of his poetry, Anna Karina’s voice, the light and dark, hands and faces, the strange contrast between Karina and Eddie Constantine – that sequence is, by itself, one of the most romantic, achingly sensual, passages ever put on film. I had never seen anything like it then, and haven’t seen much like it since. But what might have been even more surprising was how funny the film is. Full of jokes, full of wit, visual, verbal, jokes coming out of the material, the references, the performances, staging, the setting. (That machine that asks you to insert a coin, then gives you a thank you token.) It’s always serious, but never takes itself seriously – a pretty universal trait in Godard’s films. They are funny – they are full of serious things, conversations, ideas, images – but they are packed with jokes, visual and verbal puns, in jokes, references and allusions that become comical in context. (And it gets even funnier when you start spotting the things Monty Python stole – it’s tattooed on the back of their neck!) It was a fine introduction to Godard – it conditioned me to look for beauty, romanticism, sensuality and wit, as well as Deep Thoughts and Art. (Which it has; don’t discount that.) (more…)

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doubles

by Stephen Mullen

Science Fiction can come in many forms. There are the big world building SF stories imagining whole worlds different from ours, however rigorously they might work out how they got to be different. Think Metropolis, Star Trek, Brazil, Children of Men. There are smaller world building exercises, where something alien or some invented technology is dropped into the world, and we see how the world reacts: think The Thing from Another World, or Under the Skin, or Midnight Special. But there is another type that isn’t, really, about world building at all. In these stories, something is changed – technology, usually, something that doesn’t exist in fact – and it is used to tell an intimate story, about a small group of people, with no direct implications for the world at large. (Though with indirect implications, maybe.) The Face of Another, a 1966 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, from a novel by Kobo Abe, is this kind of story. It is science fiction because of one detail – the face itself – a detail used to justify what is mainly a psychological study, with horror overtones.

The story is this: a man (Okuyama) is burned in an accident, his face ruined, forcing him to wear bandages the rest of his life. He broods, alienated from his wife, his co-workers, everyone. He has a doctor, a psychiatrist who dabbles in science (making prosthetics) who says he will make him a face that will look exactly like a real face. He does so, all the time speculating on how this different face will change Okuyama’s psyche. Okuyama puts it on, and starts establishing a second life – but his ultimate intention is to try to seduce his wife with the new face. He tries it and it works all too well – he is horrified at her unfaithfulness. (He has made himself jealous.) When he confronts her, though, she says she knew all along, and thought he knew – thought this was a shared masquerade, to get past the complications of his bandages. She thought he was being considerate of her. (He is not considerate of anyone.) After that, whatever claims he had to sanity are gone – he attacks a woman in the street, and when the doctor bails him out, put him out of his misery – and then? Good question. This story is intercut with another story, a young woman with a terrible scar on her face, probably from Nagasaki, though half of her face is beautiful. She suffers and becomes increasingly anxious about the coming of another war, until she pulls her hair back and walks into the sea.

fixing

hair

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romance

by Stephen Mullen

The Island of Lost Souls is another of those films that might be more horror and adventure yarn than science fiction, though it is certainly science fiction. The basic plot is SF – a mad scientist in his lair, short-cutting evolution with surgery and cellular manipulation, creating monsters to roam the world – though none of this is given a lot of weight. Dr. Moreau’s fictional science is treated as the given of the story, and they move on from there. But the film is also science fiction at a more significant level. The horror themes (monsters, body horror, the slippages of identity and so on) run alongside themes more associated with science fiction: man vs. nature; science’s attempts to control nature, with mixed results; the question of progress, whether progress is necessarily an improvement, whether it is reversible, and so on. These themes run all through the film, they are embedded in its style as much as its story; the story, the film, present a microcosm of dystopia, and a dystopia very much made by human attempts at science. Its science fiction is wrapped around its horror tropes and vice versa – working very well at both.

Criterion’s edition of the film contains an interview with Gerry Casales and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, taking about the film’s influence on their ideas and music, its relevance to 1970s Akron, and so on. What did they see in it? They talk about Ghoulardi (who showed it on late night television); they talk about Kent State (where they were students at the time of the shootings); they talk about de-evolution, about the film and its look (its masks, shadows, monsters) and its themes, and what it meant to them. They mention a strange fact – how this film set on a lost jungle island in the south seas looks like what’s outside their doors – 5 o’clock at the Goodyear plant, says Mothersbaugh. It’s true – the film has a strong dose of German expressionism in its veins, and the beast men emerging from one of Moreau’s stone doors and passing a wall where their shadows loom as they shuffle out of the shot, bent knees and backs, look like factory workers shuffling out after their shifts. The same image turns up in another 70s era rust belt song, Pere Ubu’s “Heart of Darkness”: “Image object illusion, go down to the corner, where none of the faces fit a human form, nothing I see there isn’t deformed, maybe in a secret lab works Dr. Moreau” – it’s less the images of deformity that catch you, than the beginning – go down to the corner – this is what it looks like, now, today, Cleveland in the 70s.

shadowbeast

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cityscape

by Stephen Mullen

Things to Come, released in 1936, a collaboration between H. G. Wells, Alexander Korda, William Cameron Menzies, and a host of illustrious others, is a bit of an odd duck. Gorgeous looking, with stunning imagery (pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and utopian), even more stunning montage sequences, fantastic music, and – well, a star-studded cast, doing what they can – and preachy, static, abstract, with characters designed to Make Points, all of it Deadly in Earnest and political – all at once. It’s a case of too many cooks – creating a wild pot luck of – metaphors…

Try again:

HollyWar

The best way to look at it is to realize that it is an advertisement. Propaganda. An advertisement for Wells’ book (The Shape of Things to Come), though probably more for Wells’ ideas, his political schemes. The concept of the book is that it is a transcription of a history book from 2105 or 6 that an otherwise very clever man attached to the League of Nations has dreamed of reading over the past few years, writing down as much as he remembers in the morning. He told HG Wells about it, then died, in 1930 – Wells got the notes together and made them into a book, and when the events of 1930-33, described in the dream book, all proved true, Wells decided to publish it (in 1933 or so). The film, then, is an adaptation of this book – given some cinematic touches (it is a book of history, dry, rather impersonal history at that), like characters and drama – but not a lot. The characters are types, put in typical situations, where they make speeches to one another….

But as an advertisement, for the book, and the ideas, the style is perfectly natural. Like ads and propaganda, it may have characters and stories, but they are distinctly abstract – types, there to state the ideas they are advertising, directly and explicitly. “15 minutes can save you 15% on car insurance;” “we don’t approve of independent sovereign states.” These people and stories, most of the time, are completely swallowed in the technical displays around them. The technical displays of Things to Come certainly swallow its characters. It is monumental and grand, and dominated by its montage sequences – spectacular montage sequences, brilliantly stitched together series’ of beautifully staged and shot images, tightly edited to the music. They are dazzling: the opening Christmas/War montage – the sequence of the start of the war – the bombing of Everytown – a couple sequences showing the long progress of the war – and an orgy of machine porn (I mean, what else are you going to call it?) showing the building of the new, underground, utopian Everytown. (more…)

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