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Sunday, 29 November 2015

Andre De Toth - Noel Bjorndahl delves into his notes on an unsung master to remind us of three classics

I've had De Toth on my radar for many years. I put together the brief set of notes below a few years ago and should expand them into a more detailed account because I love this man's work: Important Hungarian/American director who made some significant Film Noir contributions and an impressive body of bleak Westerns many with Randolph Scott . Sarris includes De Toth among his “expressive esoterica” and fittingly describes his “most interesting films (revealing) an understanding of the instability and outright treachery of human relationships”. He is a master of tight, cramped action sequences in confined spaces.

DAY OF THE OUTLAW
Day of the Outlaw is an austere black and white western set in a small community in the bleakest of snow scapes where Burl Ives as a vicious outlaw on the run takes over until he is finally challenged by rancher Robert Ryan.. De Toth’s direction is as cold as the ubiquitous snow. Ryan, as usual, delivers a magnificent performance of contained steel; Burl Ives’s part is showier but no less well-judged. Their final shootout in a blizzard unleashes De Toth’s claustrophic mise-en-scene at its most extreme. Along with the ridiculously neglected Ramrod, this is De Toth’s greatest contribution to the western.

RAMROD
One of the most bitter of all range war westerns, Ramrod is an early example of Andre De Toth's muscular intensity that characterises all his work in the genre through the string of very satisfying Randolph Scotts in the 50s to the extremely bleak Day of the Outlaw (1959). Joel McCrea is just fine as the initially weak cowpoke who tries to keep peace on the range in the face of two rival camps, one led by rancher's daughter Veronica Lake (in a ferocious, chilling performance) and the other by tough hombre Preston Foster, who loves and is rejected by her.

De Toth handles the complex plot and screenplay with his usual sharp explorations of shifting allegiances and betrayals of trust; Don Defore's edgy performance as McCrea's erstwhile friend is pivotal in embodying the film's dark mood and tone which some commentators have labelled noir.





PITFALL
Pitfall is a low-key work about a very suburban, very married insurance claims man (Dick Powell) who is drawn into a dangerous relationship with noir icon Lizabeth Scott (in one of her most nuanced performances). Raymond Burr is around as a private eye equally infatuated with Scott. Jane Wyatt is the wife attempting to reclaim her husband from Scott's clutches. Like all of De Toth's better films, it’s about betrayal and shifting allegiances-its low key virtues are impressive.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Current Cinema - serious young cinephile Shaun Heenan reviews The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Jennifer Lawrence
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is the definition of a critic-proof film. It’s the second half of the final movie in a series with a built-in audience carried over from the popular novels. It gets the same box-office whether or not it’s any good, because fans who are three movies deep are going to watch it no matter what, and there’s no reason for anybody else to jump in right at the end of the story. Despite this, those already invested will find themselves in good hands here, as Mockingjay Part 2 is the best in a series which has improved upon itself with each instalment.

The film opens shortly after Part 1’s cliffhanger ending, finding heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in hospital following an attack by mind-controlled love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Stoic soldier Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is the other side of the mandatory love triangle, which has always been one of the series’ least interesting elements. From here, the plot moves quickly towards an assault on the highly-defended Capitol, with the specifically-stated goal of killing Panem’s cruel ruler President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

Katniss has been chosen as a symbol of the revolution – a capably violent but genuinely compassionate mascot – and much is made of her involvement in propaganda. Even her final mission begins as a PR exercise, as a film crew joins her on a fictionalised warzone expedition, well behind the front lines. Alongside this examination of wartime machinations, the film also offers a number of creative action setpieces, as the team activates various traps strewn about the city. The best of these is a well-crafted horror sequence set in the city’s sewers, where the group is relentlessly attacked by eyeless creatures. Don’t take your kids to see this.

Now that it’s complete, it’s safe to say The Hunger Games is the best of the recent spate of post-Harry Potter YA novel adaptations. They’re all more or less the same movie (oppressive government, armed revolution) but this franchise has succeeded through fine casting. There are a lot of real actors in here giving real performances. The head of the rebels is played by Julianne Moore, her opposite number is the aforementioned Donald Sutherland and even young lead Jennifer Lawrence is an Oscar winner. On a sadder note, this film will be the final screen appearance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who still had four roles ready for release when he died in 2014. He was one of the great actors of his generation, and he brings quiet confidence to his role here as a manipulative advisor.

Mockingjay Part 2 is a strong ending to a relatively strong series, but you already know if you’re likely to see it. It’s fair to take umbrage at the increasingly-common trend of franchise films being split in half to double the box-office take (Harry Potter, Twilight, arguably The Hobbit), but in this case both halves make a strong impression as standalone films. Nevertheless, it would be nice if that never happened again.



A Cinephile's Diary (1) - Peter Hourigan reports on his week - the first of a continuing series

SUNDAY:     – 
Ramin Bahrani
I had just watched two items from Werner Herzog’s filmography, when the invitation came to keep a Cinephile’s diary for a week.  So I should start with Lemonade Wars and Paper Bag. I was exploring them on YouTube because my film discussion class this week will be talking about 99 Homes from Rahmin Bahrani, and I was checking him out on line.  These two shorts show him wearing his social commitment openly on his sleeve, and it’s interesting that his circle includes Herzog who appears in both.  Lemonade Wars is a perfect companion for the feature, didactic, but then it looks like it’s been made to make kids aware of how capitalism works to exploit and defeat the rest of us.

Looking ahead at the week, there aren’t any specific cinephilic highlights planned, so it’ll be interesting to see where the  inspirations that decide my viewing come from.  Sunday night, I watch two films at home. The back story for the first started when I came across one of those lists populating the net at vulture.com.

These lists have become so ubiquitous that they’re often very questionable – and this one is no exception.  (Is Mother India really a musical?)  But I’ve watched several things in the last few weeks because of this last, including Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan) about  which I was a bit dubious at first, because I’m not really into Bollywood musicals.  But I have to confess I loved it – exuberant, quite moving, imaginative numbers, fabulous over-the-top colour.  So, I confessed this joy to our resident Bollywood expert, Adrienne McKibbins, who drew something else to my attention – Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love,  and an interesting article about it on indiewire.
 
So, there’s now this version that is not a director’s cut, but the musical fan’s cut that the director thinks is better than his. And it’s on YouTube. So, I had to watch this. I was surprised how few of the songs I knew, though I thought I had a good knowledge of the Cole Porter song book. The stars are clearly not professional 
musical performers – but they’re enjoying themselves, and taking themselves seriously in an attractive “Let’s put on a show” way.  Certainly not a dud, but in this cut very watchable.
 
I’m not sure where my next item of viewing came from, but I must have read some reference that induced me to buy The Unspeakable Act  (2012) by Dan Sallitt. But whatever that spur was, I’m 
glad of it. It’s an American Indie, about a young 17 year old girl, with a bit more than a crush on her older brother who’s about to 
go away to College.  There aren’t many films that immediately 
come to mind about brother-sister relationships.  Of course, two of the best are the hot-house films by Visconti and Cocteau, Sandra and Les Enfants Terribles. But this is more interested in how one sibling has to re-define the relationship as they pass from 
adolescence into young childhood.  Its style is uncharacteristic 
for an American film – so restrained it almost disappears back into itself.  But this suits the film, 
which has a  refreshing but quiet directness (which Adrian Martin comments on in his liner essay.) 
This theme matches one of the themes in Eugene Green’s La Sapienza, where two siblings need to readjust their relationship at this point of their maturity. But this comparison also points up the 
greater richness in La Sapienza[i]. This has several other themes playing through the film as well, all of complexity and  imagination, and all four major characters are presented in depth. Any could 
become the focus of the film.  In Unspeakable Act, it’s really only the sister who we really get to 
know.  However, one of those films that makes you feel excited that there are still these new 
discoveries to be made.
 
MONDAY -  
out to a real cinema to see 99 Homes again, to prepare for my
class later in the week. I’m glad to see Rahmin Bahrani at last 
getting some cinema screen time here – after all this is his fifth 
film, and all the preceding works have been more than just 
satisfying.  In fact, I used his first film, Man Push Cart (2005) for several years as a teaching film for senior secondary media 
students. In this new film his political and social awareness is 
very much to the front, but it’s much more than just a political 
piece of preaching because he takes us so strongly into his three main characters.
 
And tonight, perhaps made curious by A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence appearing at ACMI I checked out Roy Andersson’s first film, A Swedish Love Story from 1970. A much more straightforward film, but it has a charm. He’s already 
handling a broad cast, looking them over with his distinctive, 
somewhat off-centre visuals and observations.
 

I’ve also “cleared” several films I’d recorded off SBS.  A few weeks’ back I read Christos Tsiolkas’ review of The Lobster in The Saturday Paper and thought it was one of the best reviews I’ve read for a long time. This pointed me today towards Dead Europe directed by Tony Kravitz from a Tsiolkas book I haven’t read.  It’s an interesting and ambitious film. Its scope is vast geographically and thematically. But the film is weakened by some inadequate performances in a few of the small, but still important minor roles, which have the effect of leadenly pointing up these themes.   Meanwhile all I’ll say about Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator is it’s really not my type of film.  It has the exuberance and pace of full confidence in its pulpy story, but I’m not its demographic.
 
TUESDAY.   Other things in my life – a class I’m doing on Ancient Egypt late morning, and the end of year get together of my book group.  But in between of course a Cinephile fits in a film. If I saw the original Argentine film I don’t remember it. Billy Ray’s remake The Secret in Their Eyes is certainly diverting, but ultimately disappointing. Some years back I used his Shattered Glass with secondary students, and I like the way it tackles important issues. It’s one of the best films I know on journalistic ethics. But this new films flubs it on ethics, and its resolution falls back into the good old American Vengeance format, and ethics, law and society are all finally less important than one person avenging herself.
 
WEDNESDAY   Cinematheque for my cinephile addiction today, and the final night of the Miklos Jancso set.  Tonight The Red and The White and My Way Home.  Seeing six in fifteen days is probably some form of masochism.  I respect his incredible power with his choreographed actors, horses and camera over the vast Hungarian plains.  But I rather feel I’m doing a penance watching them, rather than really getting caught up and involved. 
 
THURSDAY   The focus for my day, was my evening discussion class on 99 Homes. During the day, I prepared by picking up a few extracts from Bahrani’s earlier films, and it was a pleasurable indulgence to revisit them – especially his first Man Push Cart. I also looked again at several of the shorts 
on YouTube, which is where I started this week. Lift You Up made for a project sponsored by Mont 
Blanc pens, is from his very empathetic side, where in about 8 mins he builds a beautiful portrait of 
an elderly man with such a wonderful outlook on life.  The class itself went well. Everyone loved 99 Homes. I was interested that several of the members, when they commented on the performers 
commented first on Andrew Garfield.  In a lot of the write-ups first mention often goes to Michael 
Shannon. His is a powerful performance, often dominating the screen as his character dominates his part of the world. But Garfield’s performance is surely even more wonderful, cutting right into the 
being of this man who under pressure from the system makes that deal with the devil.

After the class I had time to look at a disc that arrived yesterday. Often new releases sit on my shelf 
for weeks, but this I had to see straight away. I’ve never forgotten the impact of a rock opera I saw in London back in 1970, Catch My Soul created by a music producer, Jack Good. Billed as the ‘rock 
Othello’, it moved the story from a garrison in Cyprus to an army fort in Texas. It was a transition that worked brilliantly, with the stage set of the fort resembling the original Globe Theatre, and the racial tensions of the story resonating strongly.  When I saw the news of this new BluRay release, I was 
surprised because I never even knew it had been filmed, back in 1973.
 
But not really a viewing experience that recreated that first wonderful memory. Some surprises in the credits.  The film was directed by Patrick McGoohan, the only film he directed. And Conrad Hall was cinematographer.  These aspects of the film are really good. But it seems that between the London production and the film, Jack Good “got Catholicism” and the whole focus of the story changed. The film takes place in a commune near Sante Fe, with Othello becoming the priest and Iago the Devil, and religious iconography abounding.  It’s not a happy transmutation, losing the focus of the 
Shakespeare original and not replacing it by anything really of much worth.  The score is still 
effective – Richie Havens is the Othello character, the photography is great, and it looks like all the 
cast who took part in the desert party had a great time. I’m sure they were stoned all the time!
 
FRIDAY    Not much time to indulge my Cinephilia today, but I did watch the recent Masters of 
Cinema release of Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth. It’s a well packaged disc, and Tony Rayns’ hour 
long talk on the film is packed with information and insight. 
 
          In the Intray of the emails, was the results of Sight & Sound’s Top Ten for 2015, a warning that over the next few months we’ll be inundated with everyone one and their dogs coming up with their 
lists. S & S’s lists are interesting because they’re upfront about how it is compiled and it is backed up with several hundred individual lists to  become lost in.  I haven’t had time to really start taking them all in, but a first reaction – there are certainly a lot of “brave” choices  in the S & S  list that I’m not 
expecting to see appear in the nominations for Oscar!  Not far behind came the Cahiers list – several overlapping titles.
 
SATURDAY. 
Kon Ichikawa
Today to a combined House Warming/80th Birthday. 
There weren’t any filmies there – but most had 
seen The Dressmaker! Some, twice.  Oh, well, they liked 
it!  And 80th birthdays don’t go late, so I was able to get to a 9pm screening as part of the Japanese Film Festival here of Kon Ichikawa’s Conflagration. It’s a long time since I saw this, but it’s still a great film. How wonderful, too, to 
see it in a beautiful 35mm print, filling the huge ACMI 
screen.  ‘Scope is always wonderful on this screen. 
 
And that was my week in film. 
              






[i]  A week later an interesting point.  I made the link between this film and La Sapienza.  And now I’ve noted that Adrian Martin wrote the essay for The Unspeakable Act, and put La Sapienza in his Top Ten for 2015.

Friday, 27 November 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (37) - Max Berghouse reviews The Impostor

The Impostor (aka Strange Confession).  Producer & Director Julien Duvivier, Script, Marc Connelly and Julien Duvivier,  Music, Dimitri Tiomkin 
Cast: Jean Gabin (Clement/Maurice Lefarge), Richard Whorf (Lt Varenne), Alan Joslyn (Bouteau), Ellen Drew (Yvonne), Eddie Quillan (Cochery) and Peter (van) Eyck (Hafner). Universal Pictures, USA, 1944, 92 minutes

This American-made studio production is generally credited as terminating the Hollywood careers of both star and director. This seems worthy of comment. Jean Gabin was just one of many many European actors "stranded" in Hollywood, the bulk of them central European Jews. Most of these actors were fairly proficient in English whereas Gabin was not. And certainly not on the evidence of this film, where his limited grasp of formal language and idiom, accentuates a relatively wooden performance. His English certainly improved in the post-war period but it seems generally acknowledged that his career was set back by about a decade. Both he and the director very much wanted Hollywood success (who wouldn't?). Equally, while being by no means unattractive, he was not handsome in the general Hollywood mould and to some extent his lack of Hollywood success matches that of a similar actor: Maurice Chevalier, a decade before. By contrast and by way of example, Charles Boyer conveyed the smoothness of the boulevardier which American audiences would expect of a French actor. 

Lastly from the studio's perspective (although this is purely conjecture on my part), by 1944, with the war being clearly won, and with the gradual and then increasing return of better-known actors returning from war service, they would have been little need for such a problematical quality as Gabin. Similarly the film is generally credited as destroying any hope of a future that Duvivier had of a continuing Hollywood career but I shall deal with this issue below.

The plot is almost exactly the same as Raoul Walsh's Uncertain Glory (USA,1944). Both concern errant men seeking redemption by service in war to their country. Clement (Gabin) escapes from death row and almost immediate execution by the guillotine when his prison is bombed by the Germans at the very beginning of World War II. He escapes along with many other stranded French soldiers (played presumably by American actors who were considered unfit for military service) to the French Congo at Brazzaville where they construct a new camp in the jungle as a prelude to action against the Germans who were incidentally about 2000 miles away in Libya. 

Setting the action in the colonial jungle provides the opportunity of displaying a more or less imaginary colonial landscape of sun helmets, very long shorts with long socks and some assorted docile black people. It is very hard to take this seriously but it is no worse and no better than many other films of the period. After all what did the average viewer in Boise Idaho know about the French colonies? It is a mixture of studio sets, footage of American woodland, presumably photographed as stock footage in the Californian mountains, some stock footage of genuine jungle and imaginary jungle. All quite typical.

Clement distinguishes himself in service, rising in the ranks to officer level and thus looking very distinguished wearing a Sam Browne belt. Not only is this "interlude" excessively long, it destroys any chance of real connection between the incipient plot of Clement as murderer (even one revealed as having had no real chance at life – of course there has to be some excuse for his crime!) and the denouement of his ultimate exposure and punishment. At the beginning Clement is a man without interest in life and this might be considered reasonable in view of his unhappy upbringing, even if this is simply described by him rather than experienced by us. Whereas Clement derives real purpose and apparent fulfillment in action with his buddies and for "the cause". Yet at the climax of the film, he sacrifices himself in circumstances that may not have been necessary and seem contrary to the enlightenment he has received in service to date. These are infelicities in plot and script which I think would have been corrected were not the director his own producer and scriptwriter.

A major inducement for the director to seek employment in Hollywood was to gain access to the studio system and its infinitely greater resources than those of his home country, France. Within the standards of the time, this is fully shown in the film I saw: the print is exemplary and crisp with clearly delineated gradations of light and shadow. There is only one battle scene, at the climax and perhaps for a film which would have been perceived as a "war film", the general lack of action would have told against audience reaction. That said this climax is exemplary, as least as so far as it concerns the French forces who seemed to be, at least partly in real-life surroundings (whereas their German counterparts are just as clearly in a studio) and done on a considerably larger canvas than I have ever seen before with Duvivier.

The film has only one female actor, Ellen Drew and she is competent. As ever the director extracts much better performances from men.


Certainly not a great film but eminently worthy of being watched by those committed to this director' s oeuvre.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Resurrectio/Resurrection - Barrie Pattison begins a trawl through the work of Alessandro Blasetti

Alessandro Blasetti
Sometimes being a film freak works out. I just watched Ripley’s beautiful but Italian only sub-titled disc of Alessandro Blasetti’s 1930 RESURRECTIO, the first (sort of) Italian sound film.

Blasetti is brushed off because his best work is mainly in the void between CABIRIA and the point where (American) critics discovered “Neo Realism” during the post WW2 occupation. He was the man who was responsible for my finding Marcello Mastroianni in his fifties Sophia Loren movies and the director of the first dubbed movie I ever saw - FABIOLA. Suspect qualifications?

On the evidence which is only now surfacing Blasetti was however one of the most interesting film makers of the early years of sound. His take on talkies was different from the work being done around him and much more assured than debut films from China, Portugal, Australia and other out of sight centers. He tells the story in visuals backed by noise and music, only going into synchronized speech when the camera moves in on the characters’ conversations. In RESURRECTIO several of the best scenes are voiceless - the bus ride
and Lya Franca at the Concerto Sinfonia. It is put together with imaginative devices like the reminder visualization of the pistol inside popping on and off her dropped bag, handed back by the beat cop who doesn’t check it, or dissolves between close-ups and the consequences.

Lya Franca & Daniele Crespi
The star turn is the juxtaposition of vampy Florica Alexandresco got up in  grotesque high fashion and Franca in her cloche hat or shop girl uniform. Franca also comes appealingly out of Camerini’s nice GLI UOMINI, CHE MASCALZONI opposite De Sica a couple of years later. She stands out. There’s little in the way of information about her and, like the other more theatrical leads, she vanishes from the scene after these few films. Veteran cameraman Montuori will later shoot LADRI DI BICICLETTE and his camerawork is impeccable, outside of one clumsy fog bound exterior early on, which may have been knocked out by an assistant. Discounting a couple of dodgy opticals the work is remarkably sophisticated for people who had never faced these challenges before.

You can count sound films then as good as this one on a saw miller’s fingers but RESURRECTIO vanished even in it’s home market. Blasetti has been ignored despite his skill and versatility and it takes determination to locate his best work. The fun part is finding it paying off.


Resurrectio, Italy, 1931, 64 minutes. Direction, Script/Alessandro Blasetti, Dialogue/Guglielmo Zorzi, Producer/Sefano Pittaluga, Cines Produzione
Cast: Lia Franca/the girl, Daniele Crespi/Pietro Gadda, Venera Alexandrescu, OLga Capri, Aldo Moschino, Giorgio Bianchi, Aristide Baghetti, Umberto Sacripante, Giuseppe Pierozzi.

Vale Setsuko Hara - Quentin Turnour remembers

Cinephile and archivist Quentin Turnour offers an additional personal thought. 

Tokyo Story
I was never much for her skills as a an actress, or her essence (Tanaka Kinuyo does it for me in skills and range, the mysterious Mizukubo Sumiko for essence). But how she came to be the emblem of Japanese post-war women remains essential in making sense of that time in Japanese culture and its movies - and their balance-finding between public ambition and domestic duty, their moments of insistance and withdraw (... and I still see it just a bit in many Japanese women I know who work successfully in their film industry now). That's the mystique that animator Kon Satoshi was trying to explore in his partially biographical Millennium Actress (Japan, 2001). 



And speaking of mystique, of course she made up a part of what Ozu meant for western fans, beyond the director's technical skills.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Vale Setsuko Hara

A memory.

Alexander Payne burst out of the Jolly Cinema in Bologna way back in 2013 and said almost to the entire crowd. "My god. Did you see Setsuko Hara in that movie". The film was Kochiyama Sochun (Sadao Yamanaka, Japan, 1936). She played a character named Onami. She is the last person listed in the credits in the Bologna program book and the accompanying notes by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordstrom make no mention of her role or her appearance. Their focus is on the director Yamanaka and the film's place in the firmament of early Japanese sound films. In the swirl of a four films a day event I cannot of course for the life of me remember anything beyond Payne’s exclamatory moment!

It was not Hara's debut, that occurred in Tamerau nakare wakodo yo (Tetsu Taguchi, Japan, 1935) I suspect not a film that even any of the cognoscenti will have seen. 

Her lasting contribution though was made in the six films she made for Yasujiro Ozu and we should be grateful to the DVD company Criterion for immediately posting a wonderful essay by the late Donald Richie titled Ozu and Setsuko Hara.


Hara had not acted for close to fifty years but she is as luminous as ever and will so remain.


Defending AFTRS - An update on the Film School's activities prompted by the arrival of the new CEO

In response to a note I sent to the then Arts Minister drawing his attention to the information contained in the most popular and widely read post on this website (which you can find here), a Federal Government official wrote in reply:

“As the national screen arts and broadcast school, AFTRS continues to adapt to the changing demands of the industry in order to provide advanced education and training to meet the evolving needs of Australia’s screen and broadcast industries. AFTRS has been rated as one of the best film schools internationally and the Australian Government is proud to support its commitment to nurturing young artists. I note that AFTRS students have the opportunity for training in all facets of film and television production and in radio broadcasting, and it is notable that almost all graduating radio broadcasting students are employed in their chosen field.”


To make it easy here are some relevant paras from that earlier post:

In the ten years between 1993 and 2002, the Australian Film, Television & Radio School produced 29 graduates who have directed 55 feature films.

In the ten years between 2003 and 2012, the School produced 3 graduates who have directed 5 feature films.

AFTRS began life as an elite institution intended to find and develop the most talented would-be film-makers. Much has always been made of that extraordinary group of young people who were in the first so-called Interim class designed to get the thing up and moving including Phillip Noyce, Gillian Armstrong, Chris Noonan, Graham Shirley and James Ricketson. Whoever conducted the search for would be students did an amazing job. Later years saw a panoply of talent find its way to the school and benefit from the national largesse involved in training of the highest order. There was much envy at the resources, physical and financial, devoted to AFTRS from film schools in the outlying states which had to battle on with much more limited resources. But such is the way for elite training institutions.

Among the initiatives for which AFTRS could devote resources was that for the dedicated training of indigenous film-makers, initially held in 1991, 1993 and 1994. Over the next seven years AFTRS trained a whole generation of Indigenous filmmakers including Rachel Perkins, Warwick Thornton, Ivan Sen, Catriona McKenzie, Adrian Wills, Beck Cole, Steve McGregor and Darlene Johnson – all of whom were selected for the immersive, conservatory-type training courses in merit-based competition along with other applicants.

What was achieved? Well, this may smack of a bias towards elitism, but what was being aimed at was the production of film-makers who would make the highest quality films. They would win international as well as local prizes. They would be invited to the world’s great film competitions, in Europe most especially, where each year perhaps fifty films are identified by the international program selectors and endorsed by the international critical and distribution communities as the best on offer for this moment of time. This is an expensive process and one fraught with risk at many steps. A poor or sub-standard faculty, unsympathetic administrators, reductions in government funding and lots of other external factors can seriously and continuously blight an institution’s general level of achievement.

People are now taking a serious look at just what AFTRS did in the distant past and what it’s up to now as a new CEO arrives to take charge at a time when the school, from the start of 2015, apparently headed in a new direction.
I don’t think the Federal Government official’s reply quoted above really got to the nub of the matter but heck they get a lot of complaints about everything these days and signing off these things, and in the process defending the Government and its institutions, is what they are paid to do. Been there and done that myself.

So.....AFTRS – the here and now.
New CEO Neil Peplow has arrived from the UK and is now part of the here and now. Since he arrived AFTRS has already been subject to some interesting recent developments.  First of all one thing has been completed. The departing departmental head Ben Gibson has now been appointed to run the Berlin Film School and according to a report in Inside Film has completed a research project for AFTRS Council documenting the nature and use of screen Master of Fine Arts degrees. Whether this has already been considered or is to be considered when a full Council has been assembled is not known.

I should explain that at this time it should be noted that although AFTRS legislation prescribes that it shall be governed by a Council of Nine members*, at present it has only five. It has no Chair (Professor Julianna Schultz has apparently departed after only one three-year term) and two of the current five members - the CEO and the staff elected rep - are drawn from the School staff. This is not as a rule the way to manage a major tertiary institution. Needless to say, no Council Member is raising any sort of public peep about this situation nor is the Labor Opposition, the Greens, the Clive Palmer group, Nick Xenophon, John Madigan, David Leyonhelm or Bob Katter to name forty. AFTRS affairs do not rate highly on the public interest scale.
Those remaining Board Members are currently unable to take any decisions that might materially affect what’s happening at the school. However some action has been taken. The School has posting on its website a survey regarding industry skills and is seeking to have both companies and individuals respond. AFTRS explains this thus: AFTRS is issuing a call to employers and professionals across film, TV, radio, VFX, animation, brand management and interactive sectors to provide insight into the education and training needs of the screen and broadcast industry.In a constantly changing media landscape, AFTRS' Industry Skills Survey will identify immediate priorities as well as signpost future needs and trends. As the screen and broadcast industries continue to be disrupted by new technologies and distribution platforms, it is essential that the necessary skills and talent needed to adapt are identified and addressed to ensure future growth and innovation.AFTRS is asking for you to tell us what skills you or your employees need both now, and in the near future. The online survey is quick and simple to complete and AFTRS will publish the findings in 2016.

So AFTRS would claim it is looking forward.

The essence however of the most popular post ever published on this blog was that whatever the future may hold, the past shouldn’t be dumped. The educational protocols that produced such an array of quality feature film directing talent from inception to around the early 2000s (hard to put an exact date on it) was overthrown and AFTRS has stopped producing talented directors able to advance quality film-making in  Australia. One statistic would seem to sum up the major changes wrought at the institution. Until 2007, AFTRS was graduating around 60 per year in Film and Television. Since 2008, the School has been graduating approximately 180 to 250 per year in Film and Television.
AFTRS is certainly not looking back over its shoulder to examine just what it might have been doing right or wrong since the early 2000s, the subject of the post mentioned above. But as one harbinger of just how it sees itself, AFTRS has put up a news item  in which it lists 23 AACTA nominations for AFTRS alumni for their work across film & TV including Best Film and Best Director in 2015.

So here’s this year’s list of AACTA nominees, taken from the AFTRS website.

·         Best Film: Sue Maslin (The Dressmaker), Robert Connolly (Paper Planes)
·         Best Direction: Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker)
·         Best Original Screenplay: Robert Connolly, Steve Worland (Paper Planes)
·         Best Cinematography: Steve Arnold ACS (Last Cab to Darwin)
·         Best Editing: Andy Canny (Cut Snake), Margaret Sixel (Mad Max: Fury Road)
·         Best Sound: Alex Francis (The Dressmaker)
·         Best TV Drama Series: Tony Ayres (Glitch)
·         Best Direction in a TV Drama or Comedy: Shawn Seet (Peter Allen - Not The Boy Next Door Ep 2), Kriv Stenders (The Principal E 1)
·         Best Screenplay in TV: Jacquelin Perske (Deadline Gallipoli Part 1)
·         Best Sound in TV: Rainier Davenport, Annie Breslin (Redfern Now - Promise Me)
·         Best Original Music Score in TV: Antony Partos (Redfern Now - Promise Me)
·         Best Short Fiction Film: Kelrick Martin (Karroyul)
·         Best Feature Length Documentary: Gillian Armstrong (Women He's Undressed)
·         Best Documentary Television Program: Jo-anne Mcgowan (Between a Frock and a Hard Place), Kelrick Martin (Prison Songs)
·         Best Direction in a Documentary: Kelrick Martin (Prison Songs)
·         Best Editing in a Documentary: Andrea Lang ASE (The Cambodian Space Project - Not Easy Rock'n'roll)
·         Best Sound in a Documentary: Dan Miau (Life on the Reef Ep 1)
·         Best Original Music Score in a Documentary: Antony Partos (Sherpa

Of note however is there are only two nominations for an AFTRS graduate from the past thirteen years. One is Sue Maslin, producer of The Dressmaker,  who successfully  completed an AFTRS Master of Screen Arts and Business in 2013. At that time she was already an established producer with 3 features, 2 feature length docos, 4 docos and 2 shorts under her belt. The other is Alex Francis, a 2012 graduate who has been nominated for best sound.
Over those thirteen years AFTRS received Government support of $282.7 million.
*There are nine members of the Council, specified under the Act:
·         three members appointed by the Governor-General
·         three members appointed from convocation by the Council
·         the Chief Executive Officer, ex officio
·         one staff member elected by staff each year

·         one student member elected by students each year.

Monday, 23 November 2015

On DVD (11) - House of Mystery - Alexandre Volkoff and Ivan Mosjoukine's 1921/22 serial

Alexandre Volkoff
Among the many confessions I have to make about what I have and haven't seen is that I have seen almost nothing of the work of Alexandre Volkoff and his collaborator and lead actor Ivan Mosjoukine. Others have known of them for decades. Earlier this year I got a first glimpse when I watched a bootleg of their The White Devil (France, 1930). Wikipedia has much information on Mosjoukine, including some most interesting near-gossip  that I cant possibly verify but I assume it's pretty accurate. 

Even before I knew anything of these people MOMA in New York had devoted  a season to Films Albatros  the introductory note for which is still on the MOMA website  though the essay referred to at the end no longer seems to be available. A pity.

Even earlier Flicker Alley issued a DVD box set titled French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928, which I now find Dave Kehr reviewed in glowing terms even before the MOMA season . in his New York Times video column.  It's hard to keep up.

Silhouette shot from House of Mystery
Still the emergence early this year of House of Mystery did set a few pulses racing including the judges of the DVD competition at Bologna. More attention should have been paid. Before that had occurred however I now also find that Kristin Thompson wrote a long essay on the blog she shares with David Bordwell which you can find here. at Observations of Film Art /. 

Ivan Mosjoukine in House of Mystery
Here's a key para  Like so many of the major French films of the 1920s, especially the Impressionist ones, La Maison du mystére combines a sentimental, old-fashioned story with unconventional stylistic devices: unusual pictorial motifs, beautiful cinematography and design, and imaginative staging. It is probably this visual interest that led to the film’s original acceptance by reviewers and to its enthusiastic reception by modern historians and silent-film buffs.


What more can I say.

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (36) - Max Berghouse reviews Diabolically Yours

Diaboliquement Votre (Eng "Diabolically Yours"), Dir: Julien Duvivier, Scr: Jean Bolvary, Roland Girard and Julien Duvivier based on the novel "Manie de la Percecution by Louis C Thomas.

Cast: Alain Delon (Pierre/Georges),  Senta Berger (Christiane), Peter Mosbacher (Kim) and Sergio Fantoni (Freddie). Italian/French/West German co production. 93 minutes. 1967.

This is the director' s last film. He was fatally injured in a car crash shortly after production finished. Normally in the case of a director who has some knowledge of impending death, one would anticipate his final film or films to have at least some meditation on the prospect. There is absolutely nothing of the sort here in what should be considered a perfectly competent "European style" (translation more or less "art" film) made very much in the fashionable style of the late "swinging 60s" by a director with every expectation of continuing his lifelong work of pretty much one film every year.

It is only his second film in colour and he and his director of photography (Henri Decae) show a much more subtle use of the potential of colour than many directors of the same period. Colour is natural towards very slightly washed out without any of the psychedelic intensity of some comparable films. The credits at the beginning of the film seem somewhat lighter in mood than the film we get to see. It commences with a very well produced point of view seen of a "motor-vehicle" screaming down a country road to be ultimately involved in a crash. Some critics have alleged that this is a sign of carelessness by the director in that such a car crash could not have so seriously injured the protagonist (Pierre) without at the same time injuring Christiane, his wife. Yet the engine sound is one of a motorbike (at least to me) so I don't think this criticism is warranted.

Criticisms like these are fairly easy to make because the general plot is substantially unbelievable. It seems to me no more unbelievable than many, many thrillers I have seen in my life and as I am writing with the expectation of the latest James Bond film being released, I submit this latter is a perfect example of a film in which non-believability is effectively pasted over by action and movement. The real problem is that as a thriller, this film moves relatively slowly and methodically: it is a "slow burn". I make the gratuitous comment that a multi-nation production with lead actors each speaking a different native tongue, cannot necessarily have helped fluidity and continuity.

Following the well executed crash, the scene shifts to a hospital where the protagonist called by his "wife", "Georges" has his bandages removed after a three-week stay in hospital. The protagonist is Alain Delon whose face, freed from bandages, appears to have 5 o'clock shadow and absolutely no bruises. Even pandering to the fact that the actor, an extraordinarily handsome man, and at the height of his star appeal, would presumably not have wished to look "more human" i.e. physically damaged, it is a very real lapse. All I can say is that if I looked half so good as he at this moment, at any time in my life, I would be a happy man indeed. He is suffering from amnesia and taken home to his country château by his wife (whom of course he doesn't recognise), a place of outstanding luxury which again he does not recognise.

I had now best reveal the plot. (Spoiler Alert). The "wife" together with her lover, wish to procure the death of "Georges" (whom we subsequently learn is a washed out alcoholic former soldier, Pierre). France then was a country which had quite rigourous identity procedures and everyone carried an identity card. So it would have been manifestly easy for Georges to ask to see his wallet. By killing the apparent Georges, the real Georges and Christiane will be able to escape the fraudulent consequences of the real Georges' behaviour in the Far East.

Slowly but certainly methodically, matters proceed by continuing incidents that don't add up. It would not be correct to say that these are heightened as they proceed. Instead they accumulate. Because of this substantially flat and linear development, it is easy to see why many critics found the plot generally creaky. I was inclined to share this view but on reflection I wonder whether the plot is the significantly important part of the film. Georges/Pierre has to content with a completely solitary search for self. Who am I? What is the nature of identity? What is it like to confront a generally hostile world without even the certainty of knowing who I am?

The feeling of nihilism this causes one to confront, seems to me to be quite consistent with the increasingly darkening pessimism of the director. And because the action is played out in a "flat" fashion, with each threatening incident following another, but not heightened one to another, it seems like real time. There is no breakthrough in understanding, Georges is left to try and work out what is going on from a panoply of incidents, none of which makes any particular sense.

Assuming my interpretation is correct, then this is a quite serious film, wrapped in the envelope of a standard thriller. So while I don't consider it exemplary, I did consider it a very worthy, perhaps fitting, finale to the director's career.

Duvivier in my view generally extracted better performances from his male rather than his female actors. Alan Delon to me appears adequate but it is really very hard to imagine such a good-looking man, the bulk of whose work has him playing very much a commanding/in charge figure, as a man out of his depth. There are some scenes which show him outdoors in a pale blue tracksuit which I thought made him look like a child just out of bed in his pyjamas! Perhaps he was! I don't think the 60s style which I guess is very accurate does the film any particular justice although it may be that it is just too recent to be seen as "historical".

Senta Berger who has had an outstandingly long and successful career in both theatre and cinema, is very weak. This may be language or it may be the effective mannerisms of a "filmstar" rather than actor. All the other actors are adequate.

There is a subplot which goes nowhere of a sadomasochistic, nonsexual relationship between Christiane and Kim (the Chinese manservant). Little effort was made to make the German actor Peter Mosbacher look convincingly oriental.

There is a "surprise" ending which most viewers will see coming but it allows for the possibility of multiple interpretations of what will come after the film ends. This is typically European and something I find very satisfactory, but others may not.

The sets are perfect for the period. The château for example while French baroque as to the exterior has modern (for the 60s) furniture and fittings. All the scenery is perfectly captured by the great cinematographer Decae. Musical score by François de Roubaix is equally competent and assured.

"Assured" and "professional" seemed to me the most characteristic aspect of this wholly worthwhile film.