Monday, 31 August 2015

Disco and Atomic War

Disco and Atomic War is an Estonian documentary - with some amusing later renactments, (so I suppose it is a documentary-drama, but a comic drama, if that).

In the film, Jaak Klimi, who is the director, tells of how his childhood in Tallinn - and that of most of his playmates, and their parents - was greatly enhanced by being able to watch Finnish television. The authorities try to stop them, but ingenuity wins out, so that each time some new jamming method is introduced, the citizens work out a way to get around it. The scenes showing the various subterfuges that are thought up and how they are put into practice are very funny.

Similarly amusing is the plot line that runs through the film about Klimi's relatives from the south of the country, where Finnish television is not accessible. One holiday they come to stay with Klimi's family in Talliin and join them in their weekly viewing of Dallas. After their return to the south, he has to write weekly letters to keep them up to date with developments on the programme. These are read out to ever larger groups of country people, the Dallas addiction spreading like wildfire, even without access to the moving screen

Meanwhile, the Soviet goverment and its proxy in Talliin tries to mitigate the influence of Finnish television, unsuccessfully. In an interview towards the end of the film, the former Soviet puppet leader of the government, who now lives in Moscow and has not set foot in Estonia since his downfall, blames Finnish television more than anything else for the end of Communist rule in the country. The illogic of this argument does not seem to strike him - or any of the other stooges we see, in clips taken from footage filmed down the years, blaming the West for its propaganda, rather than noticing that the state of affairs they have created is the problem, the existence of a better life in the West merely the perceived solution to that problem for many of their citizens.

The film is wonderfully wry and very charming. It made me feel old, seeing footage of events during the Cold War and realising that it all looks a very long time ago. I don't feel anything like nostalgia for those days, but I do wish things had turned out better since everything changed.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Le Petit Amour/Kung Fu Master

I watched this film because I'd seen Agnes Varda speak at the Frieze Art Fair in London some years ago, and her talk had made me interested to see her films - clearly not desperately interested since the time that elapsed between seeing her and watching one of her films was quite lengthy, but nevertheless interested enough when the opportunity arose.

In all honesty, I was momentarily disappointed when I realised Jane Birkin was the lead actress in the film but, once I got over an initial mild nausea provoked by her fey way of speaking,I realised she wasn't actually too bad.

She plays a woman who lives alone with two children - a fifteen-year-old daughter and another of about three. The woman falls in love with a friend of her daughter's - a rather small adolescent boy, also fourteen or fifteen, whose parents have gone away and left him with his grandparents. The boy's main interest is an arcade game called Kung Fu Fighter, in which the player must rise through various levels to free a maiden trapped at the top of a house.

The film wasn't made so terribly long ago - 1988 - but I doubt a film about an adult falling for a child would be made at all these days. We have become unable to look at relationships between the generations without fear. In Varda's movie, morality scarcely enters into the story, which in any case is about a love that is barely sexual, (possibly that is not the best choice of adjective I have ever made, in the context - I should point out that there is absolutely no nudity in the film). Our judgment is not invited and Varda provides none of her own.

This did not surprise me since at her Frieze talk the director came across as gently tolerant of the oddness of humanity, and this film plays out in a similar tone. There is a sad charm to the whole affair. The film seems to be less interested in portraying a transgressive relationship than in providing a glimpse of the bumbling nature of human loneliness and the clumsy attempts to find and give love that sometimes result.

Clearly, the viewer knows from the start that no good will come from Birkin's character's odd attraction, but, so far as one can tell, apart from to herself, no real harm results either. Perhaps this is a wicked impression to create in a film - today, I suspect that might be the general opinion. However, watching the movie, I was persuaded that connections that are out of the ordinary need not be depraved or profoundly damaging, provided they spring from love and kindness and a wish to make a connection between two unhappy souls, rather than from a purely physical desire to corrupt young flesh. As I write these words, I feel I am pushing against a sea of horrified reaction. I doubt if anything I say will persuade anyone that there can be nuance in this sphere. I'm not even sure if there can be. All I can say is that the story is somehow innocent and the film is not without charm.

Looking backward afterwards, I also realise that the opening sequence, which is my favourite in the whole film - you can look at it here - pretty much sums up the entire film. For both characters, the episode in their lives that brings them together is really just a time when they are finding someone to love. Oddly, even in this uneven relationship, it is the woman who is somehow the weaker party.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

I had doubts about this film before I went, but I loved it, I should point out though that all my opinions of it are coloured by comparison with the original, so I am not exactly judging it as a freestanding entity.

The casting was what worried me most before going. I thought the actress taking the Bathsheba part might be a bit wispy for the role - although, looking back at the 1967 version, I now see that Julie Christie was pretty peculiar in the role and Carey Mulligan actually makes a better fist of it. Even better was Michael Sheen as her rich, unrequited suitor, a more poignant performance than Peter Finch's in the earlier film, I thought. The landscape was gorgeous, the character of Troy was allowed more complexity than in the original. In a way, Matthias Schoenarts as Gabriel might be seen as a bit of a mistake, in that it is hard to imagine anyone would actually turn him down at any stage, whereas Alan Bates somehow managed to be the right man in the end without straining the audience's belief when Bathsheba rejects him at the start.

I wondered about some of Bathsheba's costumes in the current version. Her work dress appears to be made out of denim, which I had imagined was a recent import to the English speaking world as clothing. I presume though that this is a sign of my ignorance and research proves that denim was the fabric used for work clothes for women at the time the novel is set.

The film is entertaining and beautiful to look at, the landscape shots are lovely and several sequences involving characters galloping about on horses almost inspired me to start riding again.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Woman in Gold

Yesterday we went to see the film called Woman in Gold. It is about Maria Altmann, a woman whose family thought that they were Austrians but discovered that, as far as the majority of Austrians were concerned, they were Jews. As a result of this terrible misunderstanding, they were robbed, driven from their home and deprived of all rights and property.

Maria Altmann is not a fictional character but a real person. When she discovered, following her sister's death, that the Nazis had stolen a portrait of her beloved aunt, painted by Klimt, which ever since had hung in the Belvedere Art Gallery in Vienna, she decided to ask for it back. The film tells the story of what happened next.

The Austrian arts ministry and the authorities supposedly in charge of restitution of property stolen by the Nazis obstructed Altmann at every turn. They are portrayed as pantomime villains, particularly at a certain point when they are sitting in a row in a courtroom and the camera pans on their absurdly wicked expressions. This is a bit laughable, but it is hard to see how else they could have been presented, given the way they actually behaved throughout the case - and, sad to say, some Viennese do have a disturbing way of presenting themselves as caricatures - of selfishness, at the very least.

The case is balanced in the film by the fact that Altmann is helped by other Austrians, who are all too well aware that their country carried out terrible injustices and wish to make amends. The contemporary story is intercut with scenes that recreate the life of Altmann's family before the Nazis took over. These reminded me very much of the writings of George Clare in a book called Last Waltz in Vienna, which I recommend to anyone interested in trying to understand what happened to Jewish families in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss. The Altmann family scenes are very affecting, and the shots of Vienna during the first days of the Anschluss bring that time all too vividly to life.

The script is occasionally a tiny bit clunky, but the acting is very good - Helen Mirren seems to be channelling Peggy Ashcroft's wonderful performance in Caught on a Train in the opening scenes. She is excellent - even in the first scene, at her sister's funeral, she brilliantly conveys fine emotional adjustments with facial expression alone. The rest of the cast are also very good, especially the man who plays the young Maria's father. The backdrop of Vienna is, as always, beautiful, although I did wonder, at one point, whether it was likely that, while filling in the time during a short adjournment in a court case in the centre of town, the characters would really have decided to go all the way out to the Prater, or whether their presence there might have been staged more for cinematic than authentic reasons.

 Interestingly, there seems to be a wide divergence between the view of audiences, of whom, according to the Rotten Tomatoes site, 82% liked the film and the critics, of whom only 34 % did. The critic of the UK Telegraph said of the film:
"...opportunities are missed here to explore the conundrum, controversy and morality of the art restitution struggle"
and many of his colleagues seem to agree that the film doesn't provide enough debate about issues to do with Austria's past wrongs and what is meant by ownership when it comes to art. One critic even tries to argue that it is doubtful whether anyone can actually "own" a painting.

This stuff strikes me as fairly decadent relativism, which all too easily leads to arguments about how we can't really condemn Hitler because he had an unhappy childhood and how Nazi treatment of Jews has to be understood in the context of the time - or something.

Such arguments are rubbish. Nuance has its place but, when humans have behaved with systematic and widespread cruelty against other humans, it is important that their wrongdoing is acknowledged, without excuses. These things should not be forgotten or explained away. They need to be remembered, because humanity is often capable of being completely depraved, and we all need to be vigilant, if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Anyway, we really enjoyed the film. It is a good yarn, with interesting central characters. It is about an art work, but it is not an 'arthouse' movie. Since it never aspired to be that, it seems extremely unfair to attack it for its failings as one.


Surprisingly, after many twists and turns the painting was returned to Altmann. Although the movie does not tell us this in its main story arc, in the credits it explains that she subsequently sold it, with a stipulation that it be always on display and available to the public in a New York gallery. Some people attacked her for that, arguing her fight for restitution had been all about money. These critics entirely and utterly miss the point, I reckon. At a time when freedom was taken away from her and her family, their belongings were stolen. Mrs Altmann had no duty to the belongings. They were things that her family had bought, to do with as they chose. The case was not about who was the best custodian of a valuable piece of art; the case was about returning things that had been stolen. The painting always belonged to Altmann and her family. Indeed, had they not commissioned it and paid for it, it would not exist today. The ultimate justice was not merely to let her have it back, conditional on her understanding how lucky she was to have it; the ultimate justice lay in acknowledging that the thing was hers all along and thattherefore she had a right to do with it whatever she liked.

Friday, 17 April 2015


I have only one thing to say about this. Or rather I have only one question.

Why the toothbrush scene? Who thought that was funny? I'm still shuddering.

This film should have a horror rating, because of that scene.

It was, of course, far more schmaltzy than the books, and the temptation to draw an analogy between the bear and other, less cuddly unauthorised immigrants proved irresistible - but at least a faintly plausible explanation for the presence of Mrs Bird in the household was provided, which it never was in the books.