Film 2020: Back to the Future Part II

It should almost be a mantra by now, that middle films in a trilogy are the weakest ones because they are denied the focus of a beginning or an end. The Back to the Future Trilogy fares better than most because it isn’t telling an integrated story over three films but rather a succession of complete but interlinked stories consecutively. This allows Part II to stand up on its own to a higher degree than most such films, and it does go into territory unenvisaged by the first film before dropping back into its original scenario. But it not only tries to go to too many places for a single film, but its complex storyline ends up depending entirely too much on the first film for it to really stand alone.

We begin at the end of the first film, except that it’s not re-used footage, because Claudia Wells isn’t reprising the role of Jennifer Parker and has been replaced by Elizabeth Shue (and I didn’t notice, that’s how alike they made her). The whole thing has been re-shot, practically identically, except for an additional couple of shots to show Biff Tannen seeing the hover-DeLorean disappear.

Both Director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale have gone on record regretting tying their own hands by having Jennifer accompany Marty and Doc to the future of 2015, and as a result, Jennifer is quickly dumped on arrival (one reviewer declaring this an act of rampant misogyny), though she does get her own sequence when 1985 Jennifer Parker is taken to the home of 2015 Jennifer McFly and her family and sees just what a future awaits her, and it’s not good. Clever, maybe, with Fox playing himself aged up thirty years, his near-identical loser son, Marty Jr and Marty Jr’s sister Marlene, dragged up. But things have… er, will have gone disastrously for the McFly family, thanks to Marty’s newly-introduced inability to handle being called chicken, which in 1985 or somewhen close, caused him to accept a challenge to a drag race in which he suffers a hand injury that denies him his future as a major rock guitarist and turns him into George McFly version 1 (and Marty Jr. into a total klutz and loser that comes over as if on stupid drugs throughout.

But Doc has dragged Marty into his future to keep things from getting worse. Marty’s near-exact resemblance to his son (which ought to be weirder than its played given that I infer very strongly that Marty hasn’t yet had sex with Jennifer. or maybe I’m just extrapolating too much, given I have written about a very similar situation in my Tempus Infinitive novel) should enable Sr. to impersonate Jr. to turn down an offer to join in a robbery organised by Griff (Biff generation three). If unchecked, both McFly children wind up in jail.

The film introduces the ‘chicken’ motif here to generate another slapstick chase around the modernised Hill Valley town square, ending with Griff’s gang being arrested for massive criminal damage and, once Jennifer is retrieved, heading home.

Thus will end phase 1. Zemeckis didn’t like this bit at all, as he hates all films that try to predict the future. The tone was to present a normal scene, neither dystopia nor utopia, so as not to wind up looking stupid when set against the real 2015 when it hove into view, though a great many technological developments were accurately foreseen. However, the look, in terms of fashion, were outlandish to a degree that I can only think was deliberate – Marty Sr. wears two ties, side by side – and that visual idiocy undermines the whole sequence.

It was no doubt this lack of enthusism for the Future that led to this phase being so brief, and the film’s ostensible purpose being achieved so quickly. The whole treatment tries to have fun in itself in a slightly mechanical fashion but it can’t escape a sense of relief at being a McGuffin for the real story.

Because Marty buys a souvenir of 2015 in the form of a Sports Almanac giving ALLmajor sporting results from 1950 to, don’t look now, 2000. Ought to be able to make a buck or two betting on foreknowledge. Doc, of course, won”t let him do it, but the argument takes place in the hearing of old Biff who, whilst Doc and Marty are recovering an unconscious Jennifer who’s shocked by meeting her 2015 self, he steals and returns the Time Machine.

So Doc and Marty return to 1985, dump the shocked-out Jennifer on her porch swing to keep her out of the rest of the film, and go back to normal. Except that this isn’t 1985, it’s 1985A, and for the middle sequence we are granted a tour of Hell, as Zemeckis and Gale go wild on the complete Pottervillisation of Hill Valley.

You see, old Biff went back to 1955 to pass the Almanac onto his high school self, who makes billions betting on sure things and makes over Hill Valley into his crude, vicious and stupid self. Along the way, he has secretly murdered George McFly and coerced Lorraine into marrying him (not to mention having monstrously large – and unconvincingly plastic – breast implants fitted: Lea Thompson sells herself as a broken woman, an even worse alcoholic than the first Lorraine), and once Marty starts asking about the secret almanac, tries to kill him.

Guess what that means? Back to 1955, November 12 to be precise, the day of the dance and the initial return to the Future in film one, giving the film its cast iron climax as Marty has to retrieve the almanac from Biff without interfering with any of the events of that day, or even being seen by George, Lorraine, Doc or ‘Calvin Klein’.

It’s a well put together slapstick, though it runs a bit long, and through too many setbacks to fully work. Marty has too many setbacks to overcome, all the while flitting around the edges of, and in between, the first film’s setpieces, which we see from different angles. It’s very clever and the whole sequence  is played with conviction, but the problem is that at least one viewer was sat there admiring how clever the film was without getting into the story as a story as opposed to an exercise in ostentatious smartness.

Still, all’s well that ends well, with the disturbed past left without further disturbance, the Almanac burned and the ‘real’ (i.e. disturbed) 1985 resolving itself around Jennifer who, let us not forget, has been left sleeping on a porch swing for two-thirds of the film (maybe that guy was right…)

Now, contrary to what I said last Sunday, Back to the Future was made as a standalone film, the ‘cliffhanger’ ending being just a piece of fun. Part II came about as a deliberate attempt to cash in on a massive commercial phenomenon, so the fact it’s as good as it is, despite the flaws, is a testament to the people involved. But Zemeckis and Gale were ambitious. There wasn’t just going to be a sequel but an entire trilogy and, in parallel, Part III was being filmed. We just need a link.

Doc’s in the hover-DeLorean, trying to negotiate the high winds that precede the storm to land safely and pick up Marty. And just as Marty’s warning him not to get strucck by lightning, he’s struck by lightning (that is so bad writing) and disappears. Leaving Marty stranded in 1955.

But at that very moment, as it starts to absolutely pelt it down with rain, a car drives up behind Marty and a mysterious stranger, who turns out to be from Western Union, delivers a letter they’ve had since 1885 with instructions to deliver it to the guy who looks like Marty on this spot at this exact time. It’s from Doc who, as foreshadowed a couple of times, is in the Old West. That’s where we’re heading next, once Marty races into town and finds 1955 Doc who, having just sent Marty back to the future, sees him back within ten seconds and faints in shock…

Back to the Future Part II, as you’ve now seen, is at one and the same time a discreet episode, and part of a sequence of adventures that ultimately add up to a long story. It avoids several of the pitfalls of a middle film, but its convoluted story, and its own internal crossings between three distinct time periods (four if you count the reshot opening, which takes place in 1985 instead of what the film calls 1985A, ignoring the fact that 1985 is itself an A-version).

Ultimately, whilst it’s good in parts, it tries to be ultra-clever with its time manipulations that are meat and drink to the SF fan, but which the film deliberately treats simplistically for fear of losing its audience. And having been conceived as an attempt to replicate a big hit instead of a genuine enthusiasm for what happens next to the characters of the first film, it creates limitations for itself that it can’t exceed.

Four of the first film’s five stars return, though Lea Thompson only has a very limited amount of screen-time, bolstering the misogyny argument. Crispin Glover turned down a reprise, alleging he was being offered a fee less than half of the rest of the cast: hence George McFly was dead in 1985A, and the extremely limited use of George in other parts of the film were made-up of either previously unused footage from the first film, or a very-heavily made-up Jeffrey Weissman, whose only extendedappearance was spent upside down. Glover sued the Producers and won a verdict that led to Screen Guild rule changes prohibiting things such as these to manipulate an actor’s apparent appearance.

So: back to the mantra about the middle film. Unfortunately, it still applies. But, as we all now, third time pays for all. It’s Old West time next Sunday…

Film 2020: Back to the Future

It’s Trilogy Time again, three in a row between Working Sundays, though not in the sense of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Though the Back to the Future trilogy does tell a complete story over its three parts, it is closer to the James Bond series in spirit in that each film is complete in itself.

Back to the Future is a personal film in two respects, firstly that it’s one of the few that I took a young lady out to, though that turned out to be our last date (which I don’t hold against the film), and secondly that it’s events in the past exactly cover my birth: I popped into existence the night before the big climax.

I hardly think I need to describe the contents of the film. Michael J. Fox, then starring in the TV sitcom Family Ties, and filming that during the day, plays teenager Marty McFly, whose friendship with the eccentric inventor Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown (Christopher Lloyd) sees him sent back in time thirty years, to 1955. Marty has to enlist Doc Brown’s help to go back to the future, which isn’t going to be easy given the massive gulf between the two eras scientific levels. He also has to avoid interfering with the past so as to jeopardise his own existence, which he does by redirecting his teenage mother’s interest in his bullied loser father to himself (cue slighty queasy incest theme that hs both Marty and the film nervous).

The film, which was a deserved massive success, was directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who came up with the original concept when wondering if he’d have liked his own father had he been in high school with him. The script went through several iterations and was shopped around for years before being produced under Steven Speilberg’s aegis. It is as slick and carefully assembled as any of Speilberg’s projects, a completely commercial film with nothing on its mind but entertainment, combining drama and comedy with that touch of the fantastic. Nothing wrong with that: I enjoyed it in 1985 and I’ve enjoyed it this morning, though more than thirty years on I’m aware of the aspects that haven’t worn well.

In it’s way, the film has become two historical studies, since the world of 1985 is as foreign and strange to us as that of 1955 and, to be frank, a lot less convincing. So much of that side of the film has become incredibly dated: Marty’s constant travelling around by skateboard, his sleeveless quilted jacket (and the consequent, now totally-unfunny jokes about him being a sailor because he’s wearing his life-preserver), the DeLorean car, the hair-styles, Huey Lewis and The News – but then ‘The Power of Love’ was horribly naff at the time.

And the film now seems very slow-paced for an action comedy. Though a scene in which Marty pretends to be an alien called Darth Vader, from the planet Vulcan, was cut for length, few Directors in the Twenty-First century would allow scenes to take so long to develop.

Fox is clearly having the time of his life playing Marty, who is clearly an outsized reflection of the actor, brash, self-confident, busy. That produces the film’s only false note: at the start, Marty’s band is rejected within seconds for the School Battle of the Bands contest, leading to Marty’s instant decision to quit music, and his fear of rejection. This intended to be a reflection of his father George (Crispin Glover), a put-upon weakling bullied by his Supervisor Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), but once we see Marty in action in 1955, it becomes increasingly implausible that he should be so vulnerable.

In fact, the acting standard is consistently high throughout. Glover is a miracle of ineffectuality throughout, down to his near-total lack of physical co-ordination: you expect him to fall over all the time. Wilson is actually the weakest link here, playing his bullying role with evident glee, only for the role to be insistently one-note. Lloyd has a wonderful time, overacting from start to finish in a role that demands being played as an OTT eccentric: mad scientist, anyone.

The heart of the film, to the extent it has one, belongs to Lea Thompson, as Lorraine, Marty’s mother. We meet her as a bloated, fat-suited, vodka-drinking frump, discontented, unfulfilled, a blob whose interest in life has expired. Lorraine has rewritten her own history to portray herself as the archetypal virgin, brought to life by her first kiss with George at the School dance, disapproving of Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells), just for phoning him (the hussy!).

But though she first appears to be the pedestalled virgin of her reconstructed memory, the young Lorraine is an absolute doll (which is why they cast Lea Thompson) who pursues Marty throughout the film (or Calvin as she calls him, since he has his name written on his underpants: Calvin Klein), drinks beer, smokes and claim to have ‘parked’ with several boys. No, she’s not a floozy, just a rather more real teenage girl.

And she met George McFly when her father knocked him down in his car and brought him into the house, went to the dance with him, and fell in love on their first kiss. Only now Marty, still in shock at meeting his father when he’s the same age as him, automatically pushes him to safety and gets hit by the car himself. So the fair young Lorraine meets him instead and immediately develops a case of the hots that nothing Marty can go to insert George into her life and her arms can overcome.

The incest aspect of this is plyed very gingerly, with the intention being to only focus on the jokey idea of a mother having the hots for her son. The attraction is only ever one way, and Thompson plays it straight and serious, but Marty is wierded out by the whole idea, only reciprocates to the extent the plot deands of him and in their only kiss is not so much an unwilling as a terrified participant. The film is so anxious not to put a serious toe over the line that the kiss is shot in such a way that we don’t see Lorraine and Marty”s lips meet.

Of course Marty’s going to go back, and of course there’ll be thrills and spills and last minute dramas about it, plus the unikely sight of Doc getting 1.21 GW of lightning-spread electricity through him without getting flash-fried (this is not that kind of film but even so…), but the irony is that whilst Marty succeeds in bringing his parents together (and reversing the erasure of his elder siblings and himself from existence), this can only be done by George standing up to Biff for the first time in his life. So, in order to repair the past, Marty has to break it again.

And he returns to an idyllic 1985 where his parents look and dress in modern clothes, are confident and happy and still obviously humping each other all over the shop and Biff Tannen’s an oily auto-repairman. In short, everything has changed for the better, except Marty himself.

That the film is a purely commercial product and an expected success was demonstrated by the closing scene, which sets up the sequel, with Doc returning from thirty years in the future in a DeLorean that’s now a hovercraft, to spirit Marty and Jennifer off with him to help save their kids… That’s confidence for you.

Back to the Future is still a good fun, unpretentious, enjoyable movie that despoite everything I’ve said still holds up admirably this far into the future. And I will always love the scene where Marty, invited to play guitar with the dance band, teaches them ‘Johnny B Goode’. That bit may be trite, but when Fox launches into a guitar solo that encapsulates the history of rock, via Townsend, Hendrix and others I can’t remember, only for the crwd to stare in shock, it’s still a glorious joke that I love seeing, over and over.

Film 2020: The Wicker Man (Final Cut)

Yes, we have been here before, as far back as the second week of Film 2018, two Januaries ago and in another lifetime. That, then, wasthe Director’s Cut, the most extended version of The Wicker Man that could be floated, a mix-and-msh of texturesand film quality. The Final Cut is the 2013 print, approved by Robin Hardy, at a length between the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut, but made from a discovered print of reliable quality, and cut to Hardy’s intended sequence. In his eyes at least, if not those of Anthony Shaeffer, this is the definitive version.

It’s also my most recent DVD, delivered yesterday and selected for viewing this lockdown sunny Sunday morning because it’s a Working Sunday and I’ve not been able to get completely out of it, so a familiar film comes as a bonus.

Except that it wasn’t familiar, not familiar at all, which came as a lot of a shock.It wasn’t so much the extended introduction, of Howie in his Church on Sunday, singing lustily, reading a strident lesson, followed by an extended and very beautiful flight across the Wesern isles to Summerisle, as the film itself. There was a brightness to the print, and all the colours more vivid and sharp without ever seeming unnatural or artificial. It was as if every cel had been washed and wiped and was freshly printed.

The result was a film that looked like something I’d never seen before. I was no longer familiar with it, no longer blase. And I’ll swear there were different shots, that scenes looked different, that little bits of extra footage were replacing those with which I have looked since become accustomed to seeing. I was alert and focussed, no longer taking anything of the film for granted, no, not even the most famous and established sequences.

And I’ll swear the soundtrack has been refreshed too. Offscreen dialogue, background chatter, kept coming through clearly.

It was like watching a new film entirely, and after the two previous cuts I have, both of which are on the other DVD set, this version had something they don’t, not in the same quality. The Final Cut feels like an integrated version, something entire and exact. Robin Hardy has described this as the closest there is, or will be, to his original vision, and assembled in accordance with his intentions.

Is there still a complete, original cut to be found? It’s long been claimed that the master was buried in an M4 pylon. Robin Hardy believed it was gone for good. Christopher Lee remained confident that the print still existed, in an unmarked can somewhere. Maybe one day I’ll watch the full film on a Sunday morning and marvel at home thing work out.

If that ever happens, it had better be soon. Of the film’s five stars, it’s writer and director, only Britt Ekland is still here to see a thing like that happen, and she hated her time making the film, though it doesn’t show in her performance.

And once again, I must mention just how brilliant Edward Woodward was as Sergeant Neil Howie. It’s an immense performance, and must have come as a revelation to the 1973 audience who knew him best from the title role in the dirty, gritty, espionage series Callan (I, being only eighteen when the film appeared, had not not ever have seen any episodes of Callan, though its reputation has always been high). And Woodward himself thought this to be his best performance, and it is.

It’s nice to see something you know so well through new eyes. One day I’m going to have to watch the Directors Cut and the Final Cut and compare the two (I have both a DVD player and a laptop that I can set up side by side: that’d be fun in itself). If I do, I’ll write about the experience.

Film 2020: One of our Aircraft is Missing

Even an eleven-disc DVD boxset of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films can’t encompass all the good ones (though it could if they dropped They’re a Weird Mob for this). One of our Aircraft is Missing was an official Propaganda film, created on behalf of the Ministry of Information, made and released in 1942. Because it was made by The Archers (naming themselves as such for their fourth film as a team) it stands out as a masterful piece of realistic film-making, a determinedly naturalistic piece that represents to perfection the attitude to the War.

One of our Aircraft is Missing took its title from a phrase that regularly appeared on BBC radio news broadcasts (where it was more usually “…has failed to return”, which was thought to be too downbeat). It appeared between 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and can be seen a part of a spectrum running between the three films.

The film reverses the scenarion of 49th Parallel, which depicted the German survivors of a submarine trying to get across and out of Canada, rguing among themselves and gradually losing crew members at each stage. Powell and Pressburger apply the same structure to the six-man crew of a British bomber, shot down over Holland whilst returning from a successful bombing raid on Stuttgart: the Brits stick together as a team and are aided by the Dutch to evade the Germans and return to England.

The film was made in black and white, and whilst its production standards are generally high, those scenes shot in darkness have a grainy, rough look to them that helps blur the aerial shots, and especially those of the raid which are of table-top models, and integrate these into the story. It’s an entirely low-key affair, without a music score, which takes its own good time in developing its story and eschews melodrama and violence until the very end, where there is first a fist-fight in a cellar, and then – the only direct gunfire – a sentry on a swing-bridge firing a fusillade of shots at the sextet paddling a rowing boat furiously out to sea.

Needless to say, the six airmen are a mixture of types. Pilot John Glyn Haggard (Hugh Burden) is an ex-diplomat and the only Dutch-speaker in the crew, second pilot Tom Earnshaw (Eric Portman) is a sheep farmer from Halifax, navigator Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams) is an actor, wireless operator Bob Ashley (Emrys Jones) is a professional footballer, forward gunner Geoff Hickman (Bernard Miles) never explains his civvy street profession and rear gunner George Corbett (Godfrey Tearle), the oldest of the crew by some ditance, is a baronet and is actually Sir George, though the crew usually only refer to him as George and whereas, in the plane on the mission, the hierarchy is by military rank and role, on the ground the six men are equals, with Sir George’s seniority, and his army experience in the First War placing him in a leading role.

A film like this is necessarily very masculine, but Powell and Pressburger were encouraged to write strong female roles among the Dutch resistance. Pamela Brown plays Else Meertens, an English-speaking schoolteacher who is the crew’s first point of contact, and a sternly suspicious one at that, deterined not to be taken in by German spies seeking to infiltrate the Underground: there has been no report of a crashed plane in the Netherlands that night.

This much is true. In a slightly contrived manner the film introduces itself by B for Bertie, due home at 04.26, flying along empty and crashing to its destruction in collision with an electric pylon ai 04.3. The film then rolls back to cover the mission from the start. B for Bertie delivers its bombs on target but is hit by an anti-aircraft shell, knocking out its port engine – not on the model, mind you. When the starboard engine packs up, everyone bails out, only for it to pick up again and get the plane, without its crew, back to England. all to set-up this nevertheless invaluable scene.

Else sets the wheels in motion to get the five airmen (Bob Ashley is issing but is found playing football) across country to the coast, via a series of passes for travel, each for different circumstances, getting the airmen closer to a route of escape. First to attend church – Catholic, much to the bruised feelings of Earnshaw and Hickman, who are both Chapel – then to a bethrothal party, to the football match where Bob is reunited (including a neat little passive Resistance stunt of which Gandhi would have been proud) and lastly hiding in a provisions truck taking them to Jo de Vries (Googie Withers in an untypical role).

Mrs de Vries is another Resistance leader, hiding in plain site as a Nazi supporter, bitterly hating the British for killing her husband in an air-raid – he is alive and broadcasting from London as an announcer on Radio Oranj. Jo (pronounced Yo) is a determined, capable, highly-organised figure in the underground network that gets stranded British airmen back to Blighty, and both she and Else are figureheads for Holland, under duress but never conceding. Both get mini-speeches of defiant determination that their country will not suffer rule indefinitely. We threw the sea out of Holland, Else angrily proclaims. Do you think we will suffer the Germans?

It’s only now, so close to the end, that the Archers allow physical danger to intrude. Before this, the Germans are a tense background presence, an ever-present but only potential danger: an officer stalks into a silent church during Sunday Mass, says nothing, looks round, retreats. Now the escape is threatened by three Germans who have discovered Jo’s wine cellar, and its wine, and who have to be overcome in a brief fist-fight if the rowing boat is to be allowed to leave. The final punch is a glorious left cross, swung by, of all people, Sir George. And where everbody gets a handshake from Jo, he gets a hung, about which he grumbles that that’s one of the disadvantages of age, as that’s the only reason he was so favoured!

Ah yes. I spoke before of Aircraft being on a spectrum between 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Whilst the parallels with its predecessor are obvious, the connection to Blimp lies in a line of dialogue cut from the film, a brief conversation between George, the eldest, and Bob, the youngest, in which George tells Bob that he is what the Baronet was when he was younger, whilst he is what Bob will be when he is older. There’s an entire film in that line, commented the editor who cut it out, David Lean. That film was Blimp.

The rowing boat escapes the river, though not without shots being fired, during which George, at the tiller, is shot. It’s done with magnificent underplaying, a stiffening, a stifled grunt and  determination to stick to his task. Nevertheless George is seriously wounded, enough so that he can’t be moved from the German rescue buoy in the North Sea where the crew take shelter (a war innovation only dislosed during film causing a re-write for which Ministry permission was necessary). So the Navy tow the whole shooting mtach back home!

At this point a caption annunces tha this was the end of the story but the Actors – a quick credit list – and the Technicians – another list – wanted to know what happened afterwards. So we jump three months. recovered Corbett reports for duty and joins his crew, who are glad to have him back. The six are reunited, to fly another, more modern, roomier bomber, this time on a raid on Berlin.

There are other Archers films but there but, with one possible exception, the ones I’ve seen don’t match up to the body of work in the boxset, plus Aircraft, and the ones I haven’t seen don’t look to be appetising. This, however, deserves to be ranked among the second level of Powell and Pressburger’s ouevre. It’s a propaganda film but, so far as such  thing may be possible, it’s an honest one. It even allows Jo de Vries to cast the German’s in a more human light, as an unhappy people who want others to like them, unable to understand why, in the midst of all their parading as the masters of the world, they cannot find friends.

And incidentally, in a small role as the Priest, it gives a film debut to Peter Ustinov.

An excellent experience, and a slice of history. It may not be a masterpiece, but in that excised line it became responsible for one.

Film 2020: Blazing Saddles

I first saw Blazing Saddles in the Burnage Odeon, forty-six years ago, in the year of its release, and I found it hilarious. The only film i found funnier in the whole of the Seventies came the following year, with Mel Brooks’ sequel, Young Frankenstein, which I had the advantage of seeing just after Granada TV had rebroadcast the first two Frankenstein films, giving me the advantage of a very fresh recollection of everything it parodied.

I also remember seeing it in North London, in 1977 after finishing my Solicitors’ Professional Exams. I originally went in to watch one of the myriad post-Sylvia Kristel Emmanuelle films that I found so dull and unarousing that I left to go to the gents and returned to a different multiplex cinema screen, showing this film.

This must be the dozenth time, minimum, that I’ve seen the film, and I think the magic is starting to finally wear off.

It’s still a hopelessly sprawling satire that lands all its jokes either on or close to the target, though the transgressive nature of its prolific use of the N-word has ceased to be particularly funny and is now growing irritating. It still spreads its wings comedically wide – the hanging scenes, with the Charles Laughton-esque Boris, and that killer line, ‘Thith one’th a doozie’, still explodes on sight – but the beans scene has finally passed the point of amusement.

The film satirises every cliche of western films it can, sometimes with a serious point, as in the inherent racism of the white West but more often for nothing but knockabout purposes, and it’s still a masterpiece in the unexpected with its multi-layered ending not so much breaking the fourth wall but ensuring there isn’t a big enough piece of it left for a mouse to stand on, but I find myself with curiously little to say about it and nothing in the least bit originally.

Perhaps it was a poor choice for today, a deep past trip too close to the one I fell down last night, or maybe at last you can have too much of a good thing. Blazing Saddles was fun again, but I am too tired to respond as I have always done before. To all those who are no longer here to watch how you entertained us, may the sunset you ride off into be chauffeur-driven, like Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder.

Film 2020: Comedy of Innocence

Very well then, I confess, I was wrong. It is possible to place Isabelle Huppert front and centre in a film and it be tiresome, dull , shapeless and boring. And for her to be completely unconvincing in it.

What then is so wrong with Comedy of Innocence that I should commit such apostacy? A simple answer would be all of it, but that’s hardly satisfactory. Though a clue may be had from the Wikipedia synopsis of the story, which describes Huppert as Ariane and Charles Berling as Serge as being husband and wife and parents of Camille (Nils Hugon), with Denis Polydades as Pierre, Serge’s brother, despite Ariane frequently introducing Serge as her brother and Pierre very clearly referred to as Camille’s father. That such a colossal blunder could be made is not an indicator of clarity.

What, basically, is the story? Camille, whose ninth birthday is being celebrated at the start of the film, suddenly announces that Ariane is not his real mother, that he’s been staying with her too long and wants to go back to his true mother. This is Isabella (Jeanne Balibar), a somewhat detached woman living in a rougher part of Paris, who lost her own son, Paul, two years earlier to drowning. Camille/Paul recognises her immediately, and she him. Ariane… well, that’s where a synopsis breaks down. Ariane lets things develop, as if she’s not totally sure of her grounds in the face of the obvious affinity between her son and his ‘mother’, to the extent that she moves Isbella into her own home, and virtually agrees to share the oy with her.

The middle of the film is an endless succession of scenes with no real progression and no discernible development, until Isabella, having been unofficially commmitted to an asylum under Serge’s direction, runs away with Paul/Camille. Even this leaves Ariane virtually inert and hopeless until Alexandre, Camille’s previously thought to be imaginary friend, turns up as a junior league deus ex machina with all the film videocassettes Camille’s been accumulating throughout the film, which show Isabella grooming him to accept her as his real mother, the re-incarnate of her Paul.

Yes, crazy bitch, I know. This finally spurs Ariane into action, though the news that a Theatre Director of her acquaintance has been killed in a car accident causes her more overt emotion. She traces Isabella and Camille only for the other woman to claim it hadn’t worked out, she was bringing Camille back to Ariane, he’s chosen her as his real mother. Oh, and by the way it wasn’t really her fault.

Which is then demonstrated when Ariane goes back to the videocassettes and, just as she’d only previously picked out at random the ones in which Isabella grooms Camille, now she watches the ones she’d randomly missed out, in which Camille picks out and grooms Isabella to groom him.

See, there was nothing fantastic or supernatural about any of it, just the massive and complex manipulation by an eight year old boy of a number of adults of greater life-experience, intelligence and emotional nous than him, not one molecule of which any of them uses. I’d wanted to watch a film that didn’t deal with the fantastic but this film didn’t touch earth anywhere in its 98 minutes.

What made the film worse was that there simply was no idea of a story to it in the sense of a development that could be completed, to one degree or another, to present a conclusion. The longer the film went on, the longer and longer it seemed to go along, as if the Director was struggling to find somewhere to bring things to an end whilst being unable to let go of things.

The film was directed and co-written by Chilean exile Raul Ruiz, who has indicated that it is, in some form, an analogy for the disappeared children of his country, but any level on which that was a part of the film was inaccessible to me.

So, for the first time I have bought a DVD that stars Isabella Huppert and I will not keep it. Such things demonstrate the breadth of life and the shattering of certainty, wich is a more interesting story than anything I’ve watched this morning.

Film 2020: Donnie Darko

For a third successive week I’ve watched a film dealing with the fantastic, though Donnie Darko has virtually nothing in common with Adele Blanc-Sec or The Incredibles. Indeed, I have watched it, for the first time, through a succession of moods that had little bearing upon one another and, having read the Wikipedia plot-line on top of it, have been left wondering if they and I have watched the same film.

If we’re going to try to anchor the film’s story to any kind of reality base, it would seem to be this. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhall), a mentally disturbed teenager attending school in middlesex, Virginia escapes death through sleepwalking when an engine that fell off an unidentifiable jet plane crashes into his bedroom. Donnie is having visions of Frank, a giant rabbit, who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

The film traces events throughout the town in which Donnie is involved, at and about school. Donnie is evidently considerably smarter than everyone else around him, especially at his school. The town itself appears populated with god-fearin’, common or garden middle Americans who are the kind of suburban monsters of normality that we see all the time in films like this, hidebound, blinkered, scared of imagination.

Under Frank’s intructions, Donnie has flooded the school by breaking its water-main and set fire to the home of an inspirational guru/snake-oil salesman, exposing him as a child pornographer.

This indirectly leads to his mother, Rose (Mary McDonnell) having to take the school’s dance troupe to a competition in California. Whilst the rest of the family are away, Donnie and his older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhall), who’s just been accepted for Harvard, host a party. Donnie’s younger girlfriend, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), recently arrived in Town under the Witness Protection Programme, arrives disturbed that her mother has disappeared: they have offscreen sex for the first time before the confused Donnie leads her and two of his friends to the house of Grandmother Dearth (I’ll explain about her later).

They disturb two classmates attempting a robbery and Donnie and Gretchen are attacked, only to be released when the thugs panic at the arrival of a car driven erratically by Frank, Elizabeth’s boyfriend, dressed (for Halloween) as a rabbit. Frank drives over Gretchen, kiling her. Donnie shoots him through the eye. He takes Gretchen’s body home, takes one of the family’s cars and drives them out of town.

A vortex forms over the town. It rips an engine off the plain bringing Rose and her daughter Samantha back from California, which drops through a wormhole in time, dragging Donnie with it, back to his bedroom where this time he is not sleepwalking, and is killed. Everyone wakes up from dreams. Gretchen, who has never met Donnie now, cycles past the house and waves obscurely to Rose, who she has never met, onscreen anyway, in either timeline. And that’s it.

Obviously, if that’s the reality-based summary, it’s still considerably weirder than anything reality usually has to offer. Taking the film as a science fiction story, the explanation is that we have been watching an altered, and therefore fictional reality in which all the strange stuff happens. In terms of my own writing and the terms I use, at some point, at or very near to the start of the film, Donnie slips into a fractal micro-verse of contingent reality that eventually terminates, resetting to mundanity at the end.

Or you could equally describe the entire film as a hallucination/dream taking place in the last remaining seconds of Donnie Darko’s life before he is crushed to death by the jet engine. That, ironically, makes more sense.

Where the Wikipedia summary goes wrong for me is in ascribing everything in the film to the Altered Reality post the original engine crash. But the film starts in the dark, just before dawn, of Donnie having sleep-walked, or rather cycled, woken up and cycled home in the early light. We see him going through his motions, he’s already under the care of psychiatrist Dr Lilian Thurman (Katherine Ross) for reasons never given, but hinted at being a pre-film incident. Only on the second night does he sleepwalk out again, to the golf links, where he’s saved for the fugue that the film then enters.

I dunno. The film doesn’t make it easy for us to like Donnie, who in its early stages is a little monster of anger and hatred that some of usquickly conclude deserves a serious lashing with a belt. Donnie never actually becomes likeable, though when you see his intelligence pitted against teachers who have surrendered all ratiocinative thoughts to this simplistic horse’s ass of a guru, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayzee, bringing the clown to manipulative life with frightening ease), you quickly start to sympathise with him.

His relationship with Gretchen (Jena Malone), the new girl in town, herself running from an old life she’s had to leave behind her, arises from a white knight moment, leading her away from the two thugs. In fact, when we are allowed to see beneathh Donnie’s teenage jerkiness, we see him more sensible, thoughtful and plain balanced in his attitudes than the common or garden jerks around him. Though we have to get this in the context of a discussion about the sexual preferences of The Smurfs, which rather detracts from the point.

Ultimately, in the Altered Reality, Gretchen dies, indirectly as a result of Donnie’s actions. In this reality, hapless through he is at times, Donnie is the stone thrown into the pool. Outside it, once time has wound back to obliterate this fractal micro-verse, she has never met Donnie at all. Inside it, she hasn’t met his parents and the nature of her and Donnie’s relationship is such that I cannot for a second believe he would have introduced her to his mother, so their mutual waves, as if they are crossing both realities momentarily, is the biggest crash to the film’s internal logic.

Overall, I don’t think the film works as a story. It creates atmosphere, it manages some convincing effects on a borderline budget (Frank the Rabbit embraces Classic Dr Who level costume deliberately), it is strong on mood, but writer/producer Richard Kelly is far from perfect control of his material. Not everyone can create confusion with the skill of David Lynch: Kelly cannot suggest the level of underlying coherence-if-we-could-only-see-it that distinguishes Lynch’s work.

I did promise to explain Grandmother Death, so here it is. She’s a very old, senile woman, constantly crossing the road to look for mail in her mailbox, who is nearly knocked down in the road by Eddie Darko’s car before we go into the Altered Reality (foreshadowing Gretchen’s fate). In the Altered Reality, she is Rebecca Sparrow, former nun, former teacher at Middlesex school, who wrote a book, The Philosophy of Time-Travel, that predicts everything that happens to Donnie. Because of her age and appearance, Donnie nicknames her Grandmother Death.

I’ve left a lot out of this review, including the excellent performance of Beth Grant as Kitty Farmer, gym teacher, chief monster and proselityser for the guru, Drew Barrymore as Karen Pomeroy, the English teacher who gets sacked for teaching a Grahame Greene short story, and the use of Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’ at the party, in a re-mixed version that only came out seven years after the film’s setting in October 1988.

Overall, I think this film will end up back in the Charity Shop, when and if they re-open, but for 50p it’s given me things to think about, even if at the end of the morning I don’t think that much of them. I think I’ll choose something a bit more down to earth next Sunday.