‘Tree of Life’

If you want to see a film with a clear narrative, or indeed, one with any kind of an identifiable narrative, then I suggest you avoid ‘Tree of Life’, Terrence Malick’s new film.

At the end of the film, at over two hours, no mean investment of time, the friend I was with said, really quite loudly, ‘what a load of pretentious b%ll$cks’ and most people around us smiled.  Not a voice was raised against the view.

I was tempted to conduct a straw poll at the door.

‘Did you enjoy the film?’

‘If not, why did you stay until the end (bearing in mind not that many people actually did leave before the end)?’

My answers are:  I didn’t enjoy it, but I stayed because I kept hoping that something might happen soon, and by the time I realised that nothing was going to happen, I’d already invested so much time in it that it seemed a shame not to see it through to the bitter end.

Before I went to the cinema I had read a couple of reviews of the film, and it is clear that opinions of different film critics veer from the wildly enthusiastic to the bored to death.  I think it depends how like an advert for a mobile telephone network you want your portentous movie interpretation of the Book of Job to be.

My preference is for films that tell me a story rather than illustrate a metaphysical belief, and I spent the  first half an hour of the movie stifling a screaming plea that someone give me a fast forward button.

At best I should tell you that the film is an impressionistic display, containing many beautiful and striking images.  The beginning shows  a mother, standing in a modish 1950s styled house, receiving, by telegram, news of a son’s death.  At a noisy airfield a father receives a phone call he can barely hear, presumably telling him the same news.

From their grief the film them departs into a nature film of exploding stars, rushing water and, eventually, dinosaurs.  Yes really, dinosaurs; set against roaring classical music and breathy, pretentious voice over reciting platitudes about the choice between grace and nature.

It just fell short of showing the history of evolution in real time.

Finally it returned to the family story:  a stern father trying to teach his sons to be strong, and a rather effete but sweeter mother, barely any dialogue and not much by way of continuity.

It was a puzzle to me which son had died, which son grew up to be Sean Penn, who drowned as a boy, how the mother got into her fancy big house, why Fiona Shaw bothered and who was the boy with the funny shaved scar on the back of his head.

I also only discovered after reading a review in the Observer that the dinosaurs weren’t fighting, as I had thought, but were, to the eye of the fond reviewer, being kind to each other.

I was losing the will to watch by the time we had to view a long scene of barefoot people on a beach reaching their hands to the sky.  Thankfully the final exploding volcano sequences were much briefer than those that had gone before.

There may be a good story in there somewhere, but I couldn’t see it.

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‘Potiche’

‘Potiche’, meaning approximately, ‘trophy wife’ is a French comedy set in 1977.

I went to see it knowing nothing more than that, other than it starred Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, and made the choice solely on that basis.

For the first thirty minutes of watching I kept telling myself that it must be more than it appeared to be, otherwise Catherine Deneuve wouldn’t have spent her time on it.  And gradually, its silly charm won me over.

It’s a parody and pastiche of life in that period.  The colours are bright pastels, the cars are the boxy shapes from childhood, and the attitudes are ancient pre feminism.

Deneuve plays the trophy wife, Suzanne, believing herself happy, looking after her bad tempered and unfaithful husband, taking her morning run in curlers and red tracksuit communing with ‘nature’ and writing little verses in a notebook she has in her pocket.

When her husband’s intransigence precipitates a strike in the umbrella factory originally started by Suzanne’s father which he now managed, he suffers a heart attack.  Suzanne is forced to step into the managerial breach, and with the help of the communist Mayor, Deputy played by Depardieu (twinkly and tender, but now looking to be twice the man he was in his prime), turns the factory around.

When her husband recovers, Suzanne is not prepared to relinquish control and family schism ensues.  Excluded from the factory, Suzanne stands for election to Parliament and defeats the Depardieu character.  She sails into the future, a glamorous politician perhaps modelled on the Thatcher look, but singing a love song to her supporters at her victory rally.

Much of the pastiche is painted in very bold bright strokes with not much subtlety.  However, if looked at as a satire of French contemporary  political life, it is perhaps easier to understand why a stage farce from the 1980s has been produced now.  At a time of deep conservatism poking fun at old fashioned roles raises some interesting questions.

At one point Suzanne’s husband says of the workers ‘if they want more money, they have to do  more work’, and there is an echo of some of Sarkozy’s recent pronouncements.  The focus on the role of the wife, is also a hint at the rather conflicted views of the Sarkozy marriage and how it has been thrust into the news in a way never before experienced in French political life.

But leaving that to one side, watching Deneuve and Depardieu doing a ‘Saturday Night Fever’ parody on an illuminated flashing disco floor, at the Badaboum night club is worth the price of admission alone.

Let the first half hour or so wash over you, and let the silliness win you over.  Remember it’s French, and their comedies always have a different tone to British and American ones, savour all the cinematic references they manage to squeeze in, and you may find you have a smile on your face by the end, when Deneuve starts to sing.

The Walker

Why hadn’t I heard of this film before?  Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it’s an intriguing small chamber piece that I caught by chance on the iPlayer last week.

Woody Harrelson plays Carter Page, a  discretely gay Washington DC companion to a coterie of  pampered wives of powerful men: the ‘Walker’ of the title.  He entertains his ladies, Kristen Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin at a weekly canasta game laced with delicious insider gossip.

The conversation is all trivial, the meaning is conveyed through the silences and the turned away eyes and slight movement of sealed lips.  Trusted by his ladies, Carter even acts as chauffeur to KST when she makes her weekly visits to her lover, a lobbyist.  When one day, she reappears only a few moments after she entered the house, they discover that the lover has been murdered.

Loyal, and as he says himself, ‘not naive, but superficial’, Carter protects KST and pretends to the police that he is the one to have discovered the body.  He then finds himself the main suspect and target of prosecutors trying to boost their own political standing in DC.  To save himself, with the help of his young lover, Carter has to investigate the crime himself.

While the murder plot is the engine of the narrative there is nothing of the ‘thriller’ in the movie; not a single car chase of gun fight.  All the events are seen through the eyes of Carter who has spent his whole life hiding his emotions the scion of a wealthy southern family, he is a gentleman and it is that code that dictate his behaviour, even when he finds himself dropped by his ladies ‘That’s the sound of every door in Washington closing.’

Carter’s father was a prominent senator who investigated Watergate.  Although many year’s dead, Carter finds himself constantly measured up against the outstanding public reputation of a harsh and unforgiving  parent.  Ultimately he finds that, despite way his ladies treat him when the scandal is swirling around him, he is a more loyal friend than his father had ever been.

I found his quiet acceptance that despite his loyalty, his desire for nothing other than to provide entertaining company, that the DC establishment would close ranks against him, touching.  Wives return to husbands and unpleasantness is swept away, and those on the outside will never understand the unholy bargains that have been made.

The movie is a tapestry of fabulous interiors.  The weekly card game is in a large heavily draped and carpeted hotel function room; Carter’s apartment is an immaculately tidy vision of good taste, Chinese silk robes displayed on the walls and an elaborate inlaid multi compartmented cabinet for his toupee; his lover, a photographer inhabits an urban style loft filled with steel and computer equipment and screens.

As this film seems to have left very little wake behind it, it must be to minority tastes, but if you enjoy understated acting and minimalist dialogue, then give it a try.

‘L’Heure d’été’ (Summer Hours)

‘Summer Hours’ was made in 2008 as part of a project to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Musée D’Orsay with some involvement of the museum in allowing the use of its artefacts in the film.  But that was only the initial prompt from which the film is launched into an examination of the value of artwork in all its forms.

I watched this film a couple of days ago on the television, always a test for me of the strength of the narrative energy of a movie; I frequently abandon them at home where if I’m not fully engaged it’s too easy to switch over or walk away for a cup of tea.

The film is about a family, and what happens when the holder of the historic artefacts around which they have negotiated their lives, dies.

Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche and Jérémie Renier play siblings, only one of whom lives in France; the other two are in New York and China.  When their elderly mother dies they have to decide how to handle her legacy. During her life she has kept her house and its contents as a shrine to her uncle, a fairly well respected painter; but it is his collection of furniture and ‘bric a brac’ as well as two Corot paintings which are of the greatest value, and in which the Musee d’Orsay has expressed interest.

The elder brother, the only sibling living in France, assumes they will retain the house in tact, as it always has been; but for the other two, with lives and families of their own outside France, this is a luxury they cannot afford.

Because their mother has done no estate planning, they face a huge inheritance tax liability.  To sidestep this, their lawyer advises them to give some of the more valuable furniture and paintings to the museum in lieu.  For the collection to be accepted the authorities have to be satisfied that it has enough cultural worth.

The film opens with a scene of the grand children running laughing through the gardens of the house during a rare family get together to celebrate the mother’s 75th birthday, and ends with one of the teenagers running in the garden while her friends have a loud party in the empty house just before it is transferred to new owners.

Although their parents talk about wanting to save the family legacy for their children, the message seems to be that the youngsters aren’t that interested in it; that they prefer to run forward, rather than be burdened by the weight of history.

In between the slavish devotion of the mother to the estate, and the grandchildren’s indifference, the film shows us every shade of appreciation of the ‘value’, monetary, emotional and cultural, of art and things.

Each of the siblings is attached to particular pieces, a sketch for the eldest, a silver engraved tray for the sister, but as two Corot’s can’t be  spilt in three and they are so valuable they have to be sold.  The ugly vase with the green blobs always disliked by the mother, but retrieved from the back of the cupboard for the ever present bunches of wild flowers by the housekeeper, turns out to be rare and valuable, but the family gives it to her anyway.

The house shabby and a bit ramshackle even from the beginning of the film is dark and cold during the scenes when the valuation team from the museum descends to rummage in the cupbards and examine the pictures on the walls, before wrapping the best pieces in bubble wrap.

I particularly enjoyed a scene in which a committee sits to discuss whether the collection is sufficiently important and coherent to accept in lieu of tax.  One person says ‘It’s always the same story.  You say it’s vitally important and very valuable and then you store it in a warehouse because you already have too much stuff to display.’

But finally we do see some of the furniture in the museum, tidy and polished, but barely looked at by the busy, bustling groups of tourists late to pick up their tour bus.

It’s a melancholy tale, but an interesting meditation on the things we have around us and the value we attach to them.

‘Toy Story 3’ downstairs, ‘A Single Man’ upstairs

Last week I enjoyed a novel experience of movie consumption; a form of compare and contrast that, left to my own devices, I might not have thought about.

Over a period of two days I watched ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘A Single Man’ in two parts each.  ‘Toy Story 3’ with my friend’s children downstairs before supper, and then, after the children were all in bed but before the long day caught up with us, ‘A Single Man’, upstairs.

The only things these films have in common are the circumstances in which I watched them and the fact that I enjoyed them both.

I had seen ‘A Single Man’ before at the cinema, but it rewarded a second viewing, as I saw new moments of dry humour as well as more of the layer of melancholy that clothes the film.

It was my first viewing of ‘Toy Story 3’, and I must admit that, while watching it with 4 children is probably what you’re meant to do, I didn’t catch every step in the adventure.

One interesting aspect of the experience of viewing these two film juxtaposed with each other is that the animated cartoon made me cry while the story of a bereaved man, frozen by grief which affected me with a feeling of deep melancholy, didn’t.

It set me wondering.

Am I manipulated into tears by the sentimental in the polished Pixar product?  Or is the sleek direction of Tom Ford too cold and distant to involve me emotionally?  What do my tears mean anyway?  Will I remember the melancholy of ‘A Single Man’ longer than the tears at the end of ‘Toy Story’?

When we were still only a few minutes into watching ‘Toy Story 3’ the children told me ‘Mummy cried at the end, but it’s not really sad.’

She then said ‘I cried twice!’

So I laughed when the children did at Buzz speaking Spanish and romancing the cowgirl, and I paid special attention when they told me ‘the next bit’s really good’ and was aware of them watching me out of the corner of their eyes as the end of the movie approached.

And sure enough I developed a sentimental lump in my throat when the toys all joined hands as they approached the incinerator, and then real tears when Andy said good bye to them all.

All the children laughed at the funny way adults behave when it’s not even sad.

‘A Single Man’ is, on the other hand, profoundly sad.  Colin Firth’s performance is extraordinary.  He shows a person overwhelmed by grief but refusing to show it to the world. Instead he closes down and seeks to impose order on everything, with tidy drawers in a tidy house where his clothes are laid out meticulously, and where he is so anxious not to create a mess when he shoots himself that he cocoons himself in a sleeping bag.

Maybe the identification with that dread of being alone and bereaved is too great, and that weeping along to the film would  somehow trivialise the depth of emotion?

I have no idea.  I wish I understood the psychology of it, but I shall be observing my reactions to film more closely in that regard in the future.

Cue Music

The news of the death of John Barry gave the news outlets an opportunity to play extracts from his great repertoire of movie music.

In amongst the ubiquitous orchestrations of the James Bond theme were two snippets which had far more resonance for me; the theme to Born Free and that of Midnight Cowboy.

Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers seemed to be in every film I saw when I was small, but I expect that is a distortion of memory.  I only have to hear a tiny excerpt of the ‘Born Free’ music though and I recall the sun-drenched landscape, the clipped cut glass accents, the safari suits and rattling Jeeps (probably mixed in with a few stray memories of ‘Daktari’).

I think I may have even wanted a lion for a pet for a while, (not as much as I wanted a chimpanzee like Cheetah, though.)

But it was the sound of the soulful harmonica of the theme from ‘Midnight Cowboy’ that really threw up a welter of memory.  I saw the movie as part of a double bill, with ‘The Graduate’ at La Scala, the cinema in Helensburgh.  It was probably in about 1976, when films had longer lives in the cinema than they do now; and Helensburgh was the kind of small town where everyone knew who’d seen what at the pictures; and they weren’t shy about telling you.

That would still be true, if Helensburgh had a cinema now.  La Scala was demolished years ago and there is a hole where it used to be; it’s so small it’s hard to believe that it was the footprint of the old flea pit.

Music is such an evocative thing.

It started me thinking about those music tracks that I associate with particular places or times in my life.  The first that come to mind are quite an odd collection.

When I should have been studying for my ‘O’ Grades, I listened to Jethro Tull, ‘Living in the Past’, endlessly, my back leaning against the radiator in my bedroom reading and, sometimes, doing my homework.  ‘War and Peace’ was the book of the moment and so whenever I think of the story of Natasha and Pierre, I have Ian Anderson and his flute as the soundtrack.

Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans of Swing’ album takes me straight to a room in a student hall of residence at the University of Limoges.  For much of the academic year I spent there I had only two or three tapes – one of the other ones was Billy Joel’s ‘The Stranger’, but I’ll not admit to having listened to that in the last 30 years.

Nena’s ‘99 Red Balloons‘ is the first house in London I shared not long after I started work.  For six months one of my house-mates had it running on a near continuous cycle.  I wonder what ever happened to Nena?  But not enough to search online.

A friend and I bought The Pretenders ‘Singles’ on tape when we were on holiday near Arcachon in France and hired a car that unexpectedly had a tape deck, and so we listened to the tape for the week driving from sea to vineyards and back.  Those songs will forever conjure a splendid lunch in Medoc at which a half bottle of local wine was served to us with as much ceremony as any grand vintage.

Play Nina Simone ‘Greatest Hits’ and Simple Minds ‘Good Music from the Next World’ and I’m right back in my flat in Moscow, lying on the grey velour Italian sofa, under my Mexican rug, trying to ignore the hideousness of the Russian chandelier.

There are so many examples; I suspect this subject will recur.

I wonder what tracks will conjure now to me, in the future?

REM ‘Imitation of life’,  probably…..

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