Film 2018: Local Hero


Local Hero was Bill Forsyth’s third film as writer and director and his first to move beyond working with the Scottish Youth Theatre (though the connection is not entirely forgotten, with John Gordon Sinclair and Caroline Guthrie having minor but amusing roles). It stars Burt Lancaster, in a typically graceful role, though the film actually belongs to the unlikely duo of Peter Reigert and Denis Lawson, the latter of whom doesn’t even get billed as a star.

Like Forsyth’s first two films, the story is about, and largely takes part in Scotland, in the fictional fishing village of Ferness on the West coast. Knox Oil, a big American company owned by Felix Happer (Lancaster), plans to build an oil refinery in the only suitable place, Ferness. ‘Mac’ Macintyre (Reigart), a skilled negotiator, is sent to buy the place, everything between both headlands and up to a mile inland.

Mac is your fish out of water, complaining from the outset at having to actually go to Scotland: he calls himself a telex man (seriously dating the film or what?) and that he could wrap up the deal in an afternoon by telex. In Aberdeen he finds local Know representative Danny Oldsen (a young and fresh-faced Peter Capaldi) wished upon him as an assistant. They also meet and admire, Oldsen especially, a marine biologist named Marina (Jenny Seagrove in a dark-blue swimsuit).

The pair drive westward to Ferness. Forsyth adds a Brigadoon touch, having the pair stuck in mist after hitting a rabbit with the car (Oldsen names it Harry, Mac Trudy, after his ex-, and whilst they think they’re nursing it back to health, they end up with it being served to them as Casserole de lapin). After a night in the car, in the mist, they wake to a beautiful coastline and clear air. The nod to the magical village, which is accessible only once a year, sets the tone for the externally idyllic village, set in a place of immense beauty, and gives us expectations that Forsyth will quickly puncture.

You see, this tine, enclosed village, this home to families whose roots in the land go back centuries, this backwater of peace and stillness, where people do all that’s needed and time ceases to be a concern, can’t wait for the Americans to buy them out and make them stinking rich.

That’s the central joke of the film, and one that negates the traditional tension that stories of this kind tend to portray. Mac and Oldsen book in to the hotel, run by Gordon (Lawson) and Stella Urquhart (Jennifer Black), a married couple with a healthy appetite for each other that, in keeping with Forsyth’s approach, is treated as a semi-comic, semi-admirable joke. Gordon also turns out to be the Chartered Accountant Mac’s here to negotiate with, playing things cool on behalf of the village, who all want the money: Gordon’s just doing everything he can to make sure that they squeeze out everything they realistically can, rather than undersell themselves.

But it all takes time, and that’s the point. Mac begins as the fish out of water, chafing at having to work to Scottish pace, with nothing realistically to do except to hang around and wait, and gradually let the atmosphere of Ferness seep into him. His problem becomes that Ferness is unspoiled, that he is there to spoil it irrecoverably, that he doesn’t want to see that happen, but that the villagers want it passionately.

Typically, Forsyth throws in a Russian fishing boat captain, Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a regular and celebrated visitor, not to mention a closet capitalist whose portfolio Gordon manages, to remind Mac that the villagers lead a hard life, that the money he represents is a godsend to them, making life incredibly easy for them, and that at the end of the day they have the right to make decisions for themselves. Mac remains troubled however. He even offers to swap lives with Gordon: Gordon can have Houston, the Porsche, the salary and the stocks, Mac will have Ferness. And Stella, of course, don’t forget Stella.

I’ll come back to Stella, and Marina, and Caroline Guthrie’s part, but the story demands a twist. We’ve been expecting all along, because there’s always one in real life, and stories like this demand one to make them into stories as opposed to still pictures, but with everything going swimmingly, Gordon discovers the hitch; the beach itself, four miles of seafront, is owned by old Ben, the beachcomber, Ben Knox to give him his full name. Ben is played by Fulton Mackay, the third named star, in gently obtuse bucolic manner. And Ben won’t sell. There has to be one.

Ben’s attitude is that he needs to work the beach for its benefit, and it is his living. The idea that the money he could make by selling it would make him secure for the rest of his life doesn’t seem to penetrate. Not need to work: We  all have to work, he chides, gently.

We’ve already had the nod to Brigadoon, and without being in any way explicit we’re being invited to see Ben in a mythical light too, a protector of the beach, its guardian. He’s not the only figure we’re invited to see in such a subtle light: Marina keeps popping up out of the water, in ankle to neck wet suit, appearing to the faithful and besotted Danny. She’s proposed a marine biology study for the bay, and is convinced Mac and Danny are there to study its financial aspects. Even after Danny confesses about the refinery, she’s blithely convinced it won’t happen. And, like the water goddess we’re meant to see her as, she has webbed feet.

Everything’s being set up for a fairy-tale ending. Mac has a second task, direct from Felix Happer himself. Happer’s obsessed with astronomy and his legacy (which is played on in an unfortunately weak and unfunny strand in which his psychiatrist practices humiliation therapy). He wants a comet to name after himself and wants Mac studying the skies in Scotland. Mac starts off ignorant and bemused, but ends ignorant and enthused by the sight of meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis, the latter of which triggers the film’s denouement.

Again, there’s a gentle hint towards the mythical. Ben’s refusal to sell threatens the whole deal. The villagers start to converge on his beach hut at eve: give them pitchforks and flaming torches and the place could be Castle Frankenstein. Something bad could happen, but not in this film. Enter Happer, Burt Lancaster, arriving by helicopter, literally the deus ex machina, which means ‘the God in the machine’.

Happer’s here to see the skies Mac has raved over, and to talk to Ben, Ben Knox. We don’t get to hear that talk but when Happer emerges, the onshore refinery is dead. An astronomical institute instead. The gangling Oldsen seizes his chance to push Marina’s proposal, inverting the whole prospect: a happy ending. Ferness will remain unspoiled, there’ll still be money in it, though we sense that that will be less all round than for the refinery. Oldsen will stay on with Happer to plan things, Mac is sent back to Houston. That day. Danny, the non-swimmer, commits an act of propitiation, swimming out to greet his goddess with the glad tidings of her worship (though she promptly dives beneath the water).

The ending is deliberately downbeat, with a comic twist that is never more than wry. Mac, who’s come to love Ferness, is wrenched away. We sense it will be his Brigadoon: once gone, he can never return. Clean-shave, suit-and-tie, refusing a private farewell with Stella, helicopter, plane, return to his empty, modern, cold apartment in the Houston night: it’s overbearingly miserable which makes the last touch – the Ferness phone box ringing unanswered, impliedly Macs call – too slight to overcome the melancholy.

It’s not that the ending is bad: like the irony of the title, which makes the ultimate stranger Mac, who isn’t even of Scottish extraction despite his name, the ‘local’ hero to the villagers of Ferness, the ending is an ironic inversion of the theme: the village is not spoiled but Mac is. Completing the under-structure of myth, Brigadoon has been saved. Mac is the sacrifice that preserves the way things should be.

Watching Local Hero the first time, I eagerly expected more of the fun I’d had out of Gregory’s Girl, but these are two different films. Forsyth is dealing with adults and a much more adult situation, and whilst there’s a mild comic inflexion to much of the film, especially in the background, the humour aims more for irony than out and out laughs. The film’s deliberately slow, which sometimes, especially in its American sequences, drags. I’ve already mentioned the abusive psychiatrist, Moritz, which is a crashing mistake, and I’ve got to be honest and say that I don’t find Peter Reigart convincing, especially in his voice: for an American, his American accent sounds like a bad attempt at faking it. Reigart’s lack of energy plays true to the overall feel of the film, but given what he is, it’s unconvincing, especially in the American segment, at the beginning. Reigart has no dynamics, which detracts from his absorption into the life of Ferness less impressive: he comes over as ready for a rest, making the village’s quasi-mythical conversion of him less impressive.

I said I’d return to the ladies, MesDames Seagrove, Black and Guthrie. Watching the film this time, I was struck at just how much a male-dominated film it it (and by extension Forsyth’s first two films are). Apart from a middle-aged shopkeeper with an implied relationship with Victor, these are the only female roles of any note in the film and Guthrie (who was Carol in Gregory’s Girl) has a minimal part as the village’s spiky-haired punk girl who tries to get off with Danny at the ceilidh.

So that leaves two women. Of the two, Seagrove gets the better deal, as the biologist-cum-water goddess. The lady was a beautiful young woman, long hair, clear blue eyes, a slim figure, but she’s out of the loop as far as the story is concerned. With the exception of a few seconds in a lab-coat, and a slightly longer scene in a beautiful gown, she’s only ever seen in swimsuit or wet-suit, in the water. Seagrove looks lovely, plays otherworldly, and after her introductory scene, interacts with  nobody but the gangly, inexperienced Danny (Capaldi makes him into a miracle of loose-limbed unco-ordinated movement, a gem of a performance).

And Jennifer Black gets even less. She’s ever better than a background figure, cool, composed, always fully in control, but she’s nothing to do with the story, despite a last minute attempt to portray her as the Boss. All Stella has to do is stand around, looking pretty, at which she excels, with a natural understated charm that shines through big cardigans and ankle-length practical skirts.

Whereas Seagrove’s Marina was always intended to be a slightly unrealistic character, the film does fall down in failing to capitalise upon Stella, or indeed offering any kind of substantial female role, even though it suspends itself between two very masculine cultures.

So: a film mostly of parts that, for me, never quite wholly coalesce. Still, I wouldn’t get rid of Local Hero, even despite its bloody soundtrack, lauded by many but not me because I mostly cannot stand Mark Knopfler. It was the third of four Scottish films by Forsyth, that led to David Puttnam taking him to Hollywood and basically crashing his career terminally. I think this film stands testament that, limited as it sounds, Forsyth was at his best as a Local Hero.

 

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Film 2018: 12 Monkeys


It shocked me to realise that 12 Monkeys, the only other Terry Gilliam-directed film in my collection, dates from as long ago as 1995, and that this is only the second time I have watched the DVD. I remember first watching it, alone in my house, all lights out, recreating the effect of the cinema as best as I could, and being drawn completely into what was unfolding, realising what I was about to see and the inevitability of things being drawn together in a tight, seamless conclusion. The effect was powerful. In the light of a Sunday morning, with darkness out of the question except on my laptop screen, 12 Monkeys had exactly the same effect. Why did I leave re-watching this film so long? Setting myself this series, to watch a DVD each week, was clearly a valuable idea.

12 Monkeys is nominally a science fiction film, and given that it involves the future, time travel and an apocalyptic event, it’s clearly an accurate description. But, in part due to the limited budget ruling out elaborate effects, and Gilliam’s election to use, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly for thematic reasons, a similar kind of Heath Robinson-esque technology for the future, this doesn’t feel like SF to me. Indeed, it’s more about the working out of a puzzle, from inside out, in plot terms and considerably more about people’s perception of reality and what it is.

The film stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt, who was a supporting actor when 12 Monkeys was being made but a massive superstar when it was released. Willis is James Cole. In the future, after an apocalyptic virus has wiped out practically the whole of humanity, and a handful of survivors scrape by underground with a kind of hybrid technology unadvanced beyond 1996, Cole is a criminal, violent and aggressive, who ‘volunteers’ to go above ground (in highly sterilised and biohazard protected gear with much disinfecting before and after) to take specimens from a surface world abandoned to the animals.

Cole’s ‘crimes’ are never specified. From a recitation of his aggressive tendencies, we may extrapolate that they are likely to be a refusal to obey orders in a tiny world dependent upon people doing what they are told in order not to upset a fragile ecosystem, but the film isn’t here to explore that. Instead, as a successful ‘Observer’, Cole is to be sent back to 1996 Philadelphia, just before the spreading of the lethal virus that wiped out the human race.

You will immediately spot the anomaly of a future in which technology has visibly regressed from this 1996 cut-off point but which has developed effective, if imperfect, time travel, but by the time the film reaches this point, its atmosphere has long since drawn you in: you are eager to discover what is going on and the time travel aspect is introduced sufficiently early that it is taken for granted because we are at this moment in the future, and the fact it is only thirty years ahead has not yet been disclosed.

Cole makes the point, especially when Dr Katharine Railly (Madeleine Stowe) diagnoses him as delusional, imagining himself as a would-be saviour, that he is not here to change the past: the past cannot be changed, it has happened. He is here to observe it, to find and contact the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, the people responsible for the dissemination of the virus. He wants to get the virus in its pure form, take it back to the future (our future, his presence), where it can be studied to enable humanity to return to the surface.

The time travel process is imperfect: instead of Philadelphia, in the last quarter of 1996, Cole arrives in Baltimore, early 1990, naked and disoriented (I did not count the number of times we see Bruce Willis’s naked arse but it was plenty). From here on in, Cole is a shambling, often violent, hulking but perennially confused figure, off balance at almost every moment, even when at his seemingly most directed. Willis is frankly superb in the role.

In Baltimore, he meets Dr Railly who tries to treat him, to free him from this delusional mental construct, or diversion, as the film, metafictionally, defines it. Stowe is understated in her part, which of the three leading roles is the most passive, until late in the film. She has the unglamorous task of being normal, which is always a drawback in circumstances such as these. Stowe’s room for overt performance is constricted, making her assumption of the role, and its inherently cool and collected nature, all the more impressive.

Cole also meets fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Goines is hyperactive, volatile, agitated, almost to the point of caricature as an old-style ‘loony’. He’s also intensively charismatic, one of those individuals who, if he could tone the overt irrationality down, could lead thousands on crusades. He befriends Cole, tries to help him escape. Jeffrey plainly comes from a rich family, and will not be in this kind of state institution for long, only until his father finds out. His father, we don’t learn now, is a highly regarded biologist conducting experimentation on animals. He creates viruses…

Cole’s ‘escape’ is truncated and he is heavily restrained, but that doesn’t stop him from escaping for real, when he is beamed back to his present. His mission has been a complete failure but he is given a second chance. The time travel blips again, sending the naked Cole into French trenches in the First World War, where he takes a bullet to the leg and is photographed, before bouncing to November 1996, but still in Baltimore.

This very short interlude has nothing to do with the story. We know that time travel is imperfect, given the six-and-a-half year miss on Cole’s first trip, but this excessively wrong diversion and is unexplained rectification are left unexplained because there isn’t an explanation. The film needs Cole to have been in 1917 for a turning point further ahead. Once again, however, the film has gripped its audience so tight that we go along with it because we still only have the edges of the puzzle and we are seeking pieces to go into the middle of it.

Six years in in Baltimore, Katharine Railly has just published a book about insanity and apocalyptic visions. She gives a talk about it and signs copies, including one to a rather creepy individual, played by David Morse, who gets brushed aside when he says the ones with the visions are the heroes and humanity is insane. Outside, getting into her car, she is ambushed by Cole and forced to drive him to Philadelphia.

Railly tries to deal professionally with her capturer, to talk him down calmly, to get him to see that his talk of the future, of humanity’s impending annihilation, is purely delusional.Gradually, she loses some of her fear as he makes no moves to hurt her. Music thrills him. There’s a leitmotif of a news story, a nine year old boywho’s gone missing in the middle of a cornfield, just like Cole, six years before. He’s presumed fallen and trapped down an abandoned mineshaft and a massive emergency rescue operation is getting bigger and bigger: Cole dismisses it as a prank, the boy is hiding in an abandoned barn.

In Philadelphia, Cole finds an address, a small-style animal activists group. He’s supposed to have left a message, a voicemail on the number given him, picked up and played, unrecognisably, back to him. This is the headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, who did it. Who is their leader? Jeffrey Goines, now working for his virologist father, no longer institutionalised but still crazier than a fruit loop.

By now, a certain amount of Stockholm Syndrome has set in. Katharine’s turned down at least one cast-iron chance to escape, she’s dug the bullet out of Cole’s leg, she’s alongside him, but after the Goines confrontation, with Secret Servicemen ad the like closing in, she signals for help. And Cole vanishes again.

Things are on the turn. In his resent, Cole is pardoned, freed. Still he wants to go back. The trauma has him believing Katharine, believing he’s delusional, that the ‘future’ is a construct. Partly he’s fallen for her, but he’s fallen for the ‘past’, for music, for air that, to him, is fresh. He manages to get himself sent back again, only this time he thinks he’s manipulating his delusion: he wants Katharine, or someone, to cure him.

Only, just as Cole has undergone the undermining of everything he believes, so too has Katharine. It begins with the news, with the discovery of the nine year old boy in an abandoned barn, the announcement that it was a ‘prank’. In an instant, Katharine Railly’s worldview crashes, irrecoverably. The analysis of the bullet she dug out of Cole as being pre-1920, and her discovery of his photo in the trenches are just the icing on the cake, the final blows to a belief she’s trying desperately to reinforce but which has already been destroyed.

She goes after the animal Rights activists but they’ve barricaded themselves in. Jeffrey is planning something. He’s even nuttier than before. It involves his father’s lab…

Cole reappears, seeking help. Katharine rents a room in a hooker hotel, trying to get him to realise he was right all along but they’re disturbed by a threatening pimp, outrages that she’s trying to cut in on his territory. Cole smashes him up, cuts out the teeth in which the tracking device is implanted, if there is such a thing and not a delusion (Cole is uncertain, Katharine less doubtful, but the audience knows the score).

Then it crashes again. She rings the number he has, returns visibly giddy with relief. It was a garbage removal company, leave a voicemail, they come take your garbage away. She was so giddy, she left a message about the Twelve Monkeys, about how they did it. She’s repeating it to Cole, proudly. But he repeats it to her, shocking her into silence. He’s heard it before, in the future. It’s the message that was the basis for his being sent back.

Thoroughly shocked, and convinced of what is soon to follow, Katharine changes their appearance, plans a flight to the Florida Keys. Cole has never seen the ocean, he went underground aged eight. It’s like a honeymoon for them, though the romance is more a thing of desperation, a situation that leaves room for the two of them only, dictated by ruthless logic rather than mutual attraction and desire. He acquired hair and a moustache, she goes blonde and short dressed. She becomes the woman from Cole’s dream.

Cole’s dream. It’s in an airport. It starts the film, it reoccurs, different every time. There’s a square suitcase plastered with shipping labels. Katharine running, screaming silently. Passengers panicking. A man with a gun being shot, falling to the floor. An eight year old boy watching this. I’m ahead of the film now, interpreting the dream as not being a dream but a memory.

Katharine and Cole head for the airport. The Twelve Monkeys have struck. Only, they’ve not released a virus, they’ve released the zoo and stuck Leland Goines in a cage. Animals roam the city. It’s surreal. It keeps breaking into Cole’s head, echoes of his first above-ground expedition.

In the airport, Cole leaves a voicemail, explaining that the Twelve Monkeys weren’t behind the virus, it was someone else. He’s not coming back, he’s saying here, don’t look for him. Practically instantly, his cell-mate Jose homes in on him, presses upon him a gun. Someone’s got to shoot Katharine. Got to follow orders.

Katharine’s buying tickets. Someone pushes past her with a familiar square suitcase, plastered with shipping labels. he’s touring the world, a sequence of cities across the globe. A sequence that is the exact sequence of outbreaks of the virus. It is David Morse. Or, as we now know him to be, Dr Peters. Assistant to Dr Goines at the Virology lab. His case is full of biological substances, in test tubes. he breaks one open, waves it under the nose of the guy checking baggage. It’s already too late.

Too late too. Katharine recognises him, urges Cole to stop him. Not understanding why, Cole starts to run, dragging out the gun Jose just gave him. Peters runs. Police shoot. Cole is shot through the chest and falls. A screaming Katharine enacts his dream, runs to him. He dies in her arms. All in front of an eight year old boy who will, in thirty years time, regurgitate what he has seen as a series of dreams, unaware that he has just watched himself die.

On the plane, Dr Peters settles into his seat. The woman next to him grumbles about the shooting, about the world. She’s in insurance, her name is Jones. As she leans into shot to shake Peters’ hand, we recognise her. She is the chief of the scientists who instruct Cole, thirty years into the future.

It’s an ironic ending, though the film’s last shot is on young James Cole’s eyes. There’s been speculation about ‘Dr Jones’s presence. Cole’s job all along was to find the people behind the virus so a scientist could go back to analyse it and produce the antivirus for the future’s future. Has he therefore succeeded? But ‘Dr Jones’ in 1996 is significantly younger than in the future. Is this coincidence? Is her remark that she’s in insurance to signify that she intends, after all, to change the past, perhaps by killing Peters? But he has already released the virus in Philadelphia: since this is Jones’s younger self, and Peters has infected himself, he has now infected her and the future will change as a consequence. But how can it, given that it has already inserted itself into the past, by Jones sending Cole back…

12 Monkeys was only the second film of Terry Gilliam’s directing career that he had not written, or co-written himself. The film was inspired by the 1962 French short, La Jetee, written by Chris Marker, which was optioned for a remake, and the script was written by David and Janet Peoples (David Peoples also scripted Blade Runner and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgotten). Gilliam brings a visual style to a complex script that operates on many levels and has considerably more subtle moments than even those I’ve chosen to highlight. From the outset, from the initial dream sequence that we learn is no dream, the film enthralls, and leads us, constantly demanding answers, which it delivers in rapid-fire sequence at the end, by which time we have spent two hours in a fugue state where the reality of the film has overtaken our personal reality.

I have found it hard to shake off the emotional state of mind the film created, where uncertainty was nevertheless concretely underpinned by inevitability. Some critics claim that this and Brazil as part of a dystopic trilogy of Gilliam films completed by The Zero Theorem in 2013: i shall have to definitely consider the latter for any putative Film 2019.

Film 2018: Entre Nous


There was a very simple reason – two, in fact – why I bought this DVD, in an ex-library Region 1 copy (it being seemingly scarce). The first and most salient reason was Isabelle Huppert, but after watching La Lectrice, I could not resist the idea of watching a film that co-stars her and Miou-Miou.

However shallow my motives, I was repaid by finding that I  was watching a superb film, deeply affecting and beautifully written, directed and, of course, acted. I was also surprised to find that I had seen it before, or at least part of it, though there was only one scene in the film that I recollected, strongly enough to remind me of the time and circumstances of that first viewing.

Entre Nous is the name by which the film is known, and which is on the box, but in the credits it titles itself Coup de Foudre. I hope I don’t have to explain to you the more famous title, but for those without the advantage of a 1971 Grade 4 O-level in French, the alternate title is usually translated as ‘Love at First Sight’, though a more literal translation would be Blow (or Bolt) of Lightning.

The film is co-written and co-directed by Diane Kruys and is very heavily autobiographical, being a naturalistic, undramatic and ultimately sympathetic representation of the break-up of Kruys’ parents’ marriage in the early Fifties after her mother fell in love with another woman, with whom she lived until the end of her life.

Huppert is Lena (Helene) Weber, a young Belgian Jew orphaned a couple of months earlier in a 1942 prologue. The film starts in the Pyrenees, with a coach whose roof is loaded with cases and trunks traveling through bare and quiet countryside. Only when it reaches its destination do we find that it is full of Jews being herded into an internment camp.

Lena escapes quickly thanks to a marriage proposal from Michel (Guy Marchand), who is guaranteed release and can take a wife with him. Lena takes the opportunity, though she is angry to learn his surname is Korski, doubly marking her as Jewish at a time when it is exceedingly dangerous not to be able to pass for gentile. As soon as they’re out of the gate, they’re arguing, or rather she’s arguing and he’s making the best of it. Despite their immediate incompatibility, the adversity of their situation throws them together, and the pair make the best of it, eventually settling in Lyon, where Michel works long hours in his own garage to provide a decent life for them and their two daughters, Florence and Sophie. Michel still loves Lena, and he adores and is brilliant with the girls, who obviously adore him. Lena has accepted her lot and is getting on with it.

Intercut with this long establishing sequence, but given less time because she is the outsider, is the story of Madeleine (Miou-Miou). Madeleine is an altogether livelier, more self-confident and energetic character, but she has a more direct tragedy to experience. She’s married young, she and her husband are madly in love, and are art students together under Raymond Carlier (Robin Renucci). But Carlier is arrested (for reasons never stated but this is during the War). The students mass to support him, shots are fired from an upper storey, Carlier tries to stop the shooting. Madeleine is cut off. Her husband breaks cover to try to rescue her, but is shot in the back, dying in her arms.

We jump to Lyon in 1952, a show by children in the school. Lena is attending to watch her daughters perform. So too is Costa Segara (Jean-Pierre Bacri), whose rather whiney son Rene is refusing to wear his mother’s Red Indian feathers. Costa dumps his son on Lena until his mother arrives, late: this is Madeleine, bright and talkative, her refusal to accept convention quickly signalled by her spending most of the first half of the film wearing slacks, as opposed to the below-calf length skirts and dresses that Lena and the other women wear. The two women become friends.

The rest of the film is about the growing strength of that friendship which, at an undefined point, turns into love between the two women. We neither see, nor are properly told about the circumstances under which Madeleine married Costa, who is a would-be actor/mime who otherwise busies himself with dubious get-rich-quick schemes that have a Black Market or quasi-criminal air to  them and which all fall apart.

Nowhere does the film make a point in the way of making a point. Kruys simply shows us the lives the two women lead. Madeleine has an outlet for something above and beyond the everyday facts of her marriage, in that she still has a creative aspect, in her sculpting, but Lena has nothing outside her marriage, and whilst she was ‘content’ to live her life like that when it was a matter of contrasting it with how things might have been, the advent of the more adventurous Madeleine opens her eyes to the possibility of other things.

From that point onwards, she begins to grow away from the honest, hard-working, devoted, but extremely limited and loutish Michel. Or, to put it a more nuanced way, she begins to grow, having never before had the soil in which to grow, nor perceived its absence.

And it’s clear too that Madeleine and Costa are not suited to one another, though she gives more overt support to him than we see Lena give to Michel. There’s one hilarious scene when Lena joins Madeleine for the premiere of a mime-show by Costa: Lena starts laughing helplessly, Madeleine joins her, Costa starts supplementing his mime with comments about the laughter which is coming from one source only, until everyone is having hysterics and it’s incredibly funny too, though of course it ruins the mime.

Tellingly, the scene is prefaced by Lena and Michel, dressing to attend the performance. Lena is wearing a quite slinky little black dress, loaned her by Madeleine, and Michel doesn’t like it, claims it makes her look like a prostitute, he can see her panty-line. In her first break from submissiveness, Lena hitches up her skirt and wriggles out of her panties: no more panty-line. Michel refuses to go, though significantly he’s waiting outside, in the pouring rain, when the women leave, with Costa.

The two women share intimate confidences and, whilst Lena and the girls are on holiday, she lends Madeleine a key to meet Charlier privately. It’s for a discussion about an exhibition of Madeleine’s works but when Michel returns, lugging a refrigerator upstairs to surprise Lena, he surprises Madeleine and Charlier, dressing after getting out of bed. Typically of Michel, he thinks of Madeleine as a loose woman and kisses her passionately, assuming she’ll just take her clothes off again. She, however, is completely unmoved.

Ironically, it is the two men who set in motion the events that catalyse the breakdown of both marriages. Michel lends Costa a sum of money for his latest scheme, which turns into the usual disaster, leaving Costa unable to pay. Unwilling to let the inevitable breakdown of the relationship between the two men affect her relationship with Madeleine, Lena steals the money from Michel’s garage, to give to Madeleine, to give to Costa to give to Michel.

Unfortunately, Costa assumes Madeleine’s reasonably wealthy parents have bailed him out again, and when they deny it, it leads to a big row and Madeleine walking out. She stops overnight with the Lorski’s, though the sleeping, exhausted Michel knows nothing of this. The two women talk after Lena makes up a bed for Madeleine, and the latter talks about a divorce. Lena says that she wants to kiss her.

It’s the first and the only explicit statement of the lesbian theme to the film. We don’t see any kiss, then or later. The pair share a bed (really, two singles, pushed together) after visiting a fashion show in Paris, but there is no sexual play. But this is, if anyone’s missed the implications thus far, part of what was classed as ‘lesbian cinema’, and it is based upon a true story.

Madeleine decides to leave Costa and stay in Paris. She wants Lena to remain with her but, concerned about her daughters, Lena returns to Lyon. She’s only in Paris because she told Michel she’d stolen the money to pay for a marble headstone for her mother’s grave in Belgium and he’s insisted she go check on the work. As the film progresses, Lena has gradually started to wear more attractive, fashion-conscious clothes. When three soldiers on a weekend pass enter her carriage on the train, she attracts the attention of one who she allows to caress and play with her until she comes for the first time ever (though she doesn’t understand that until she’s enlightened by Madeleine, with whom she shares the experience, incllluding her awareness that the other two soldiers were watching them). But Costa has driven to Belgium to check up on Lena…

When his temper subsides – he has already slapped Len across the face one, in front of Madeleine, after she forgot the younger girl, Sophie, and left her at a bus stop – Michel agrees to finance the dress shop Lena has long dreamed of, but on condition she never see Madeleine again. Lena intends the separation to only be temporary, and meanwhile writes to Madeleine in Paris, without rreplay.

This is because Madelein’s job in Paris for Charlier was nothing more than a secretary. Broken, she has spent three weeks in a mental home then gone back to her parents, refusing to let Lena know, humiliated by the thought of her friend seeing her defeated like this. This is where the film’s balance shifts: it is now Lena who s the positive one, the determined one, the active one, driven by love to find and restore Madeleine.

Which precipitates the end. The shop opens. Lena makes a good start. but Michel, anxious to share the opening day with his wife, arrives to find Madeleine there. He goes berserk, smashes the place up. He gets home to find Lena has gone, and taken the kids.

There is a final scene, at a beach house where the two women and the three children are staying. Michel plays with the children, happily. He’s accepted that the marriage is over. Lena will go to Paris with Madeleine. A final few lines, a written coda, explain that ‘my father never saw my mother again’. But the end of the film belongs to Michel, not trying to escape his fate, but asking the one question that Lena has avoided all along: what about me? He loved her, he loves her. What about him? What future has he?

It’s a powerful and pertinent question and it ensures the film’s honesty. Yes, he’s limited, intellectually, and emotionally simple, but he fell in love with Lena on sight, and probably saved her life. He’s saved her many times over, stayed with her, worked for her. These are not reasons for her to be in love with him – Lena has never loved him, save in body – and gratitude is not the basis for a happy marriage, though it can be the basis of a comfortable, even a contented one (though not a contemporary one).

It’s possible to see Lena as a villain, though Michel is the more apparent one, with his anger and his petulance, except that Entre Nous doesn’t sink to villains, or heroes for that matter. Lena has acted selfishly throughout, concerned only for her own interests, her own possibilities, and showing no care for her husband’s life or his world, and his desperate tears are one outcome of this. She has no answer for him, is indifferently silent. But just as there’s no denying that he is the sacrifice to this ending – Costa’s final appearance is on stage, acting, successfully – there’s equally no denying Lena’s need: is a man in a desert selfish for wanting water?

I was moved by the film’s closure, by the words ‘my father never saw my mother again’. But I was deeply absorbed in all of it. The film conveyed a sense of place and time to perfection, but more importantly it told it’s story truly and without overt drama, except where it was needed and where it could make the most impact. everything about the development of Lena and Madeleine’s relationship, the close friendship, was unremarkable in that it was completely natural. Of such things does life consist, but for some of us by such things are we sustained, and may grow.

Film 2018: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?


Whenever I watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I always remember the words of R. Fiore, reviewing the film for The Comics Journal: “When you see a man walk on water, you don’t complain that he gets his pants cuffs wet.” I also remember going to see the film for the first time, with my girlfriend and her son (the same team that went to watch The Princess Bride) one Sunday morning at the old Odeon in Manchester, one of the last few films I saw on a properly big screen.

There’s a case to say that this is one of those films that is at its best on first viewing, despite the immense level of detail that’s only observable on repeated viewings (for instance: I don’t remember catching a background shot of the Seven Dwarves, pickaxes on shoulders, emerging from a subway station, before today). That’s because the film starts with something that, no matter how pre-warned you have been, you cannot visually comprehend until you see it.

The opening of the film is a cartoon, straightforward, line-drawn cartooning in the classic style. It’s presented as an R. K. Maroon Studio cartoon (nod to Bugs Bunny there), with an introduction loudly echoes the Warner Brothers shorts and a ‘storyline’ firmly built on a Tom and Jerry-esque sequence of domestic disasters. It’s supposed to be the latest in a series pairing Baby Herman and Roger Rabbit, one a baby innocently getting himself into dangerous situations, the other his babysitter, getting serious slapstick punishment saving the baby from danger.

It’s highly reminiscent of the classic style, though it lacks something of the tightness of the works of Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, and the underlying premise (a rabbit for a babysitter?) lacks the logic of the best cartoons (Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Roadrunner and Coyote).

But this is wet cuffs stuff, because after three minutes of this, a fridge drops on Roger’s head, producing little bluebirds, flying around whistling, and an angry Director yells cut, the scene unfolds into three dimensional live action, Roger gets yelled out because the script called for stars, and if you were any kind of average, everyday person in 1988, your jaw is currently somewhere about the floor and the film has you in the palm of its hand and can do anything with you.  Because you knew the film was about human beings and cartoons interacting with each other, and you might remember Uncle Remus singing “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” or Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse, but never before had you seen it done so completely, so comprehensively, so unbelievably real.

After that, you don’t really need a story. Just watching the impossible will do to keep you in your seats for the rest of the film, especially as the film offers several moments that are a vintage cartoon fan’s wet dream, the stuff of which private fantasies are made, because for a golden moment, rights have been acquired that put Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny on scree together in the same scene and, more glorious than that and, thrown in early on to blow away any residual resistance, a scene with Daffy Duck and Donald Duck competing in playing pianos (though apparently the original sequence was storyboarded by none other than Chuck Jones himself, who savagely criticised Film Director Robert Zemeckis for ruining it by insisting on directing it himself instead of leaving it to Animation Director Robert Williams).

The story is pretty simple. Embittered and alcoholic Private Eye Eddie Valiant (played to near perfection by Bob Hoskins, whose only failing is that on a couple of occasions his American accent slips) is hired to investigate claims that Jessica Rabbit (voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner: boy, that woman could vamp!) is stepping out on Roger with Marvin Acme, the gag king and owner of Toontown, the (un)real estate where the Toons come from. Eddie gets the evidence and Marvin gets a safe dropped on his head. Roger is the prime suspect and turns to Eddie to save him from the frame. Eddie swore off representing Toons after one killed his brother Teddy five years ago but won’t take being played for a patsy. The whole thing is a get rich plot by the soon-to-retire Judge Doom, whose jurisdiction covers Toontown. Freeways are coming and the Judge foresees getting very rich off service industries serving motorists: he plans to wipe Toontown off the map, and the Toons with it, to build the first.

As plots go, it’s simple. It’s an affectionate spoof of a classic film form, without being any deeper than it need be to let us wallow in the idea of a world in which Toons exist side-by-side with us. There are enough references and cameos here to keep a cartoon buff happy for years, whilst providing an equal amount of fun to the less committed audience, who only want to be reminded of the fun they had as kids.

Basically, it’s Disney and Warner Brothers and outside of that there’s not much more. Betty Boop, originated by Fleisher Studios and owned by Harvey Films since 1958, has a scene with Eddie, Tex Avery’s Droopy, created for MGM plays a lift attendant, but Screwy Squirrel (also Avery) only gets a mention and Woody Woodpecker gets an unportrayed and unnamed laugh. And to be honest, the original characters created for the film aren’t up to the level of the ‘performers’ who fill in the spaces: I have to say that, a dozen viewings along, I am finding the hypercrazy Roger and his “p-p-p-p-p-please” a tad irritating. But we’re back at the trouser cuffs again.

Christopher Lloyd as the forbidding Judge is also superb, with his air of cartoon menace overlaid onto genuine human greed and malice. Like Hoskins, he was far from the first choice, and Tim Curry was considered very seriously until Disnet decided he was just too scary (you can certainly see that). They’re the only two principal human roles, with Turner bringing Jessica to admirably subtle OTT life, and Charles Fleisher (sadly, no relation of Max Fleisher) as Roger.

I’m going to take one last trip to the cuffs and echo one aspect of the film that not so much jarred as mildly irritated even when I first watched the film with M*** and D****, and which everybody attributed to the involvement of Steven Spielberg as Executive Producer, and that’s the portrayal of the Toons as creatures that exist to make people laugh, which is not a problem in itself until it’s tied to the quasi-deification of laughter as a cure-all for the world.

But Who Framed Roger Rabbit? simply has too much in it and going for it for these to be anything but quibbles, easily ignorable. From that moment when 2D cartooning becomes 3D like you and me, we are walking on water, and if film special effects are even better yet thirty years later, who cares? And it preserves some of the very last work of Mel Blanc, and is all the more special for that.

And obvious though it may be, the film ends with one Porky Pig, giving us the only possible line on which this can end, and which I’m going to blatantly steal: Th-Th-Th-That’s All, Folks!

Film 2018: Walkabout


I had decided upon something serious this week for my film viewing, but Nic Roeg’s Walkabout is more dream-like than documentary. Though there’s a story, of sorts, to it, it’s more a state of mind or a state of being, that begins with a tragedy and ends with a double tragedy, all of which are handled in a low-key, emotionally neutral manner, reliant primarily on vibrant, surprisingly colourful and natural images.

Surprisingly, for a film that is essentially a three-hander (and in which the third of its central trio is not introduced until over a half hour into the picture, it has an incredibly young cast in which Jenny Agutter – fresh from her virginal success in The Railway Children – is the oldest, and she’s 17, playing what I’ve now learned is a 14 year old girl. David Gulpilil, playing the Aborigine boy (and miscredited as Gumpilil) was only 16, and playing his first film role, whilst Agutter’s younger brother was credited as Lucien John but was actually Director/Cinematographer Roeg’s 8 year old son, Luc, and was bloody good with it.

There are so many ramifications to this story that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. The ‘plot’ is minimal. John Mellion plays an unnamed man, married, wife and two children, an Englishman emigrated to Australia – Adelaide is mentioned once or twice – but seemingly determined to bring his children up as English, as identified by their straitened natures and the English-style school uniforms both wear (though Agutter’s skirt would have been considerably too short for the home country, even in 1970). For reasons unexplained, but which we may infer from his brief, silent scenes in the City, he goes mad. Driving his children into the Outback for ostensibly a picnic, he starts shooting at them: Agutter drags her brother into hiding. When they refuse to come back, he uses petrol to set the car alight and shoots himself in the head.

The two children set off across the Outback, Agutter keeping her brother from the reality of what has happened. They are utterly unequipped for life in the desert. Even when they find an oasis, dirty, muddy water that nevertheless refreshes them, it dries up overnight, leaving them helpless.

Agutter is gently insistent on their being English, and keeping up standards. Some of it is sensible precautions against the sun that is horrendous for their pale complexions, but there is the “We don’t want to look like tramps” aspect: Agutter retains her school hat and blazer throughout, and her tights until nearly halfway through the film, young John his full school uniform, cap, blazer, satchel, shirt and, incredibly, tie.

Whilst they’re stranded at the dried oasis, Gulpilil arrives over a sand-ridge. He is on what the pre-film title card has defined: In Australia, when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the WALKABOUT.

The English siblings are also on a Walkabout, except that their’s is not deliberate and they are not aware of it. That will dictate their end.

The Aborigine boy is lean and lithe. He is also practically naked, and well as richly, deeply black. He speaks no English, but talks in his native tongue. Agutter is immediately English with him, assuming that he MUST understand her, because she needs him to understand her. John, less inhibited by his background, is able to convey certain things by mime. He’s also not hindered by a nascent sexuality that creeps in between the slim, long-legged white girl and the near-naked black boy.

Roeg is never direct about that, preferring to let the camera do that part of the telling, supplemented only by a few shots  of Agutter and Gulpilil’s faces, and by one of the film’s few cutaways to other folk: meteorologists in a not-too-distant part of the Outback, working on weather balloons etc., where the attractive blonde, who we very clearly see is wearing stockings and suspenders, is the overt object of every man’s attention.

Gulpilil leads the two children. There are occasional encounters between him and other white folk, though the boy and girl do not get to see these, each of which emphasise the gulf between the arrogant, intrusive white Australians and the Aborigines who are part of Nature in this inhospitable place.

Roeg foreshadows the tragic endings and amplifies this theme in the film’s most lyrical and controversial scene. Left by the boys at a beautiful, remote, rock-surrounded deep pool, Agutter takes to the waters and swims naked, turning and twisting in the water like a pale fish. The whole thing is beautiful, and not just because Agutter was (and still is) very beautiful, but because she has allowed herself to give in solely to the pleasure of the cold water over all her skin, free from expectations and reservations forced on her by the presence of others, or by her own upbringing. It is one of only two times Agutter is allowed to be completely natural.

And Roeg intercuts Agutter sliding through the water with Gulpilil, in his entirely different way as lithe and graceful, delicate and almost formal in his movements, which are dedicated to hunting: hunting and killing animals, kangaroo, with explicit spearing and dismemberment.

It’s after this episode that Agutter starts responding more openly to Gulpilil’s evident masculinity, and the film starts moving towards its climax. The Aborigine leads them to an abandoned farm, which at least provides the girl with the illusion of civilization: walls, roofs, rooms, shelter. He shows the boy a road.

He then paints his body with signs, decorates his face with a white clay mask that is initially fearsome. So it is to Agutter, who is on her own, washing, topless. Gulpilil dances, a strange creeping and leaping mating ritual dance. Agutter has been edging nearer to her sexuality, but she is still too young, too reserved, too restrained. She panics, running into another room, frantically twisting away as she struggles to get her school top over her wet torso.

Still Gulpilil dances. Agutter recovers her self-possession when her brother returns and she’s no longer alone, even though it’s already been clear even to those of us completely ignorant of such rituals, that he will not touch her, will not even enter the farm until she accepts him. Agutter doesn’t know that. She wouldn’t even know how to signal that acceptance if her sexuality hadn’t been scared right back down inside.

It goes on all day, under the sun. Gulpilil tires, drops the foliage he’s been wielding, lacks the strength to pick them up. To the English children, he’s become part of the landscape. Agutter has already brushed him away, plans to go on alone the next day. They sleep. His dance falters.

In the morning he’s not to be seen. Agutter automatically starts to lie: he’s gone home, that was his dance of farewell. Maybe by now she believes herself. But her brother knows better, knows that he’s dead, like their Dad. He leads her out back, to where Gulpilil’s body, the white clay markings cracked, ants already on his cold flesh, hangs from a tree.

Agutter shows no reaction to the death that she has caused, by not understanding, not communicating, not even trying to communicate, for it was his job to understand automatically. She brushes an ant from his chest, and then turns away, all practical and civilised, looking forward to plates and tables and knives and forks, sleeping in sheets, pop music radio, wearing her own clothes. She takes nothing of the Outback, of their survival, with her.

At the ‘town’ they discover, there is nothing for them either, a broken ruin, and abandoned mine town, a single, surly caretaker with no time for them.

I said there were two tragedies at the end of this film, didn’t I? The little boy disappears, and we are left to wonder about how this experience will affect him.  But we have not finished with Agutter.

We’re back in Adelaide, another businessman, in suit and car, much younger than Mellion, returns to the same apartment block where the children’s family lived. In a lower floor apartment – the stratification of the block in age and status is deliberate – is cooking at a stove. She reaches out for a cigarette, takes a quick drag. It is Agutter, older, maybe twenty-two. The businessman arrives, hugs her, starts talking about Office matters. After a moment, Agutter’s eyes go vacant and she tunes him out. He realises sheisn’t listening, asks her what’s wrong, to which she replies, nothing, and he resumes, and once again she tunes him out.

This is the girl who, for all her flaws and inadequacies and her inability to merge into her surroundings, survived her Walkabout, and came out of it with nothing. Now she has merge into her surroundings properly, become an Australian housewife. She will never say, do or think anything out of the ordinary again.

But in her daydreams she is fourteen again, and back at the rockpool, and all three are there and all three are naked, and there is an unforced joy and contentment between them that this woman will never experience again in her life, and that is unreal in her daydreams, an idealisation of what never happened. And that is so sad. With uncanny rightness, for it is so English a verse, as we watching this trio in their Eden, we hear A E Houseman’s words:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Walkabout was a commercial failure when it was released, but has always had critical acclaim. The scenes of Jenny Agutter swimming nude, and appearing topless, were treated as shocking in the press, fresh as she was from The Railway Children, in which she’d been the perfect English Rose, the lovely and innocent Victorian girl whose only male interest was in her Daddy: virginal Roberta strips off was the Press’s reaction n an era when the prurience wasn’t quite so overt. Agutter even said that she hadn’t realised just how much the camera could capture.

The scene has only become more problematic since, particularly since the Sexual Offences Act 2003 prohibited the distribution of sexual material featuring people under 18, which had the potential to drive the film underground, illegal to sell without a Certificate. But the BBFC decided the scenes were not ‘indecent’ and Walkabout was re-certified. (It would have been embarrassing if it hadn’t, given its inclusion in the British Film Institute’s 2005 list of ‘Fifty Films to see before you’re 14’.)

The film is on dodgier ground with the scenes of killing, dismembering and cooking animals. The depiction of inflicting pain or terror on animals had been illegal in Britain since 1937, but the film passed because, to quote Wikipedia, “the animals did not appear to suffer or be in distress”. And the fox enjoys the hunt as well, doesn’t he?

At the end of the day, Walkabout is, if it is about any one thing, the inability to communicate. Even between the two children: Agutter represses and lies, John is in a big boy’s adventure in his head. Neither communicate with the land where they live: once they reach a ‘town’, they turn themselves back into good, fully-uniformed schoolchildren as if they had never been anything else. Perhaps I’m wrong in speaking of three tragedies: the entire film is tragic in every moment.

But its reputation is justified, even with the hunting. I have never been to Australia, though I have cousins living there. I don’t doubt that Adelaide, if that is the city we see, has changed somewhat. The land behind and between is still the same. I would still like to see it, only from a safe distance, and not from a black Volkswagen Beetle. Not even with Jenny Agutter.

Film 2018: Up


The Film 2018 season is about taking Sunday morning to watch one of my fifty-two single film DVDs, in no particular order, and then recording my thoughts about them. It’s about setting a regular time aside, when I can let myself sink into the experience. Some films are ideally suited to it, others less so. Up is ideal for one but not the other.

Because Up is not the kind of film to subject to deep analysis. It’s a film about emotion, that plays on those emotions in a simple, yet moving manner. It’s a film to respond to with the heart and not the head. And it’s a Disney/Pixar animation, a thing of computer creation and voices.

But we already know that Pixar are in the business of telling real stories. That they can involve us as deeply in characters that are nothing but pixels as any character-driven film with the greatest of directors and the most subtle of actors. Because this is animation, it first does so by elementalising the experience, stripping it down to the most basic of stories, allowing a broad-brush approach that would be laughed out of the cinema if tried with actors. And the best of such films then add their own layers of subtlety, especially effective on the caricaturised players, who are not real in any sense of the word but whose possession of real expressions allows the emotions to play through with a focus all of its own.

Ah, look at me there. I’m arguing that Up is not to be deeply analysed but there I am, analysing away like mad. Do I contradict myself?  Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

But the truth is that Up is to be felt. Everyone calls attention to its opening sequence, which brings to life a life, two lives. Though the film is about Carl Fredrickson (brilliantly voiced by Ed Asner), the beginning of the film is about a joined life, Carl and Ellie, a stocky, shy, mostly silent little boy and a whip-thin, over-active, non-stop chatterer of a girl, in whose presence Carl is silent because she talks so much there’s never any silence for him to fill, but because there’s a lifelong awe to him that she loves him and has chosen to share her life with him.

She is the livewire, he the earth, and the house that flies on balloons, first carrying Carl within it, as if a womb, and then has to be held from floating away by him as he struggles determinedly to get them both to where they want to go is a wonderful metaphor for their life, their marriage, their love, and the terrible, everyday tragedy of one outliving the other, unable and unwilling to forget that life that was two and now is one, forever incomplete.

Everyone says it, and I’m no different, nor are my eyes any drier than yours, but the film’s spare, simple, silent evocation of a plain life made rich by being shared plunges deep inside. This is for the adults in the audience, not the kids, one of those few places where – after those first few, noisy, giddy moments – Pixar abandon one half of their audience to speak to the other alone.

It sets a tone on the film that remains undisturbed, notwithstanding the increasingly fantastic elements that comprise the ‘plot’. It explains why Carl is no grumpy, so isolated, so determined to hang onto his past and die in it. But the visible encroachment of the ‘real’ world around his little old house sparks the leap into fantasy: Carl takes to the sky to go to South America, to Paradise Falls, to where he and Ellie always dreamed of going but never went.

It’s absurd, it’s impossible on every sort of level, yet because we are in animation, and Carl is an unrealistic figure from the start, the film carries us past the rationality that we’d apply to a cast of actors, and we ourselves undergo one mighty bound and are free, heedless of reality.

All that weighs Carl down now (wait till later) is Russell. Russell is a fat little Asian kid (he’s just Asian, in the same way that Carl’s an old man, which is brilliant) who’s a keen and eager Wilderness Explorer (presumably the Boy Scouts wouldn’t give permission). Russell suffers from a neglectful father – the film drops in a single, natural line that establishes his parents are divorced and that Russell’s Dad is taken up with his new wife/girlfriend – and he’s throwing all the energy that would normally go into the father-son bond into becoming a Senior Wilderness Explorer, for which he needs just one more badge: Assisting the Elderly.

Carl doesn’t want assisting or Assisting. He just wants to be left alone. But when his house floats away, it do so with Russell on the porch, so Carl has someone to join in his adventure.

Which leads too a fantastic Lost World plateau in Venezuela, a thirteen foot tall. brightly coloured (female) bird called Kevin, a pack of talking dogs including one dumb one called Dug who adopts Carl, must to his disgust, and an unscrupulous, fanatical, long-lost explorer, Charles Muntz, Carl and Ellie’s hero and the catalyst for bringing hem together in the first place.

Up then plays a second emotional card that in lesser surroundings would come over as manipulation. Carl rejects everybody and everything to drag his dream to Paradise Falls at last. Like all journeys, he hasn’t thought about what comes next: the journey is the goal of itself. Almost immediately, he reads Ellie’s ‘My Adventure Book’, reabsorbing their shared childhood and stopping at the ‘Stuff I’m Going To Do’ page.

Everything after that has always been blank: they never did any of that. But for a first time, Carl notices something beyond the page he’s always regarded as a barred gate. Ellie has filled the book with the adventures she had, that meant most to her, and it’s photos of their life together. At the end is a final message, of thanks for an adventure that’s ended, and an instruction to have a new one.

It’s as if Ellie’s spirit finally animates Carl, their lives becoming the one they always might have been but for practicality. Carl’s been in the fantasy ever since he blew up the first balloon to lift the house, and now he’s given licence to live it instead of ignore it and try to make it leave him alone.

From there to the end, and beyond, Carl pits himself against superior forces and experience and wins, saving the day for everyone. He returns home, adopting Russell as a surrogate grandson, filling the role of the forever absent father, and becoming a Wilderness Explorer leader himself. A last series of photos leads into the credits, showing Carl and Russell in the life Carl and Ellie, childless, never had, and finally one set in, of course, Venezuela, for real.

Meanwhile, the little house sits at Paradise Falls, empty, but at peace.

Look at me. A film for the heart, not the head, and still the head has had twelve hundred words of its say. And there are thoughts I’ve left out, so as not to over-complicate matters, though I really must say that Jordan Nagai was utterly superb as the voice of Russell. Evidence then that Up works on every level you choose to approach it. Pixar at its finest. Sunday mornings and Film 2018 time at its finest.

Film 2018: Miracle on 34th Street


The original, 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street is one of those classic films of which people usually say ‘they don’t make them like that any more’. To me, it’s a little more than that: I firmly believe they can’t make them like that any more.

At heart, this is a simple, intentionally heartwarming story about a Department Store Santa in the run up to Xmas, who believes himself to be the real Father Christmas, and acts like it. He refuses to push the more expensive gifts on children who only want simple toys, and he recommends customers go elsewhere for better and more suitable products.

As a result, he faces a Court hearing to determine competency: is he suffering from dementia and should be committed to an asylum? He becomes a national cause-celebre, and more importantly he becomes a test for a seven year old girl’s overly cynical heart, leading to a conclusion that is one of those mad, improbable things that gloriously reject logic and law, as thousands of boys and girls’ letters to Santa are delivered to the Court, enabling the Judge to rule that as the US Post Office, a Federal Service, is charged with delivering letters only to their true recipient, the old man is who he says he is: Father Christmas.

And if that strikes you as a rather cynical attitude, there is a final scene that overcomes any doubts to fill the film with a Christmas magic of the traditional, can’t-explain-that kind.

This kind of film can only work if the audience approaches it with complete acceptance, in innocence and the desire to believe. And it can only succeed in doing so if everyone associated with the film adopts the same approach. A moment of knowingness, a moment of irony, the least hint of the wink that says this kind of nonsense is all very well for little kids and the hard-of-thinking but you and I know better, don’t we? and the film is lost. We no longer make audiences that can adjust themselves to that level of accepting innocence, for we have been long poisoned by the world, and by filmmakers who can no longer even counterfeit that belief.

Miracle on 34th Street has been remade twice, once in the Seventies, as a TV film with Sebastian Cabot in the main role, and again in 1995, starring Sir Richard Attenborough. Oddly, I saw both the original and the TV version the same Xmas, with BBC showing the film and ITV the remake within three or four days of one another.

Leaving aside the differences between a colour TV version, and the twenty-six years of film advances separating the two, it is already obvious why no remake can match up to the original. Edmund Gwenn plays Kris Kringle as a sweet, overly decent gentleman, a Santa Claus in all respects except when he is disgusted at the drunk Santa letting the kids down, but Cabot plays Cabot, irascible and more short-tempered. I have never seen the Attenborough version and will take great care never to: though I can imagine him playing the role completely straight, I cannot imagine the film allowing him to, or matching him: we would be lucky to get away with no worse than thick dollops of over sentimentality over it. Even as early as 1973, it was not possible, and we have gone farther than far since then.

Though the film stars Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, its two standout performances are Edmund Gwenn (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) as Kris Kringle and a seven year old Natalie Wood as Susan Walker. Gwenn plays his role as the man who looks and acts like Santa Claus and who believes that he is utterly straight. He is in every way decent and kind and the walking representative of the Xmas Spirit.

The story starts on Thanksgiving with the famous Macy’s Parade. Their Santa Claus has been drinking and the affronted Kringle takes his complaint to the story’s Events Director, the highly efficient Mrs Doris Walker (O’Hara), who sacks the man on the spot and offers the job to Kringle, who is then employed to play Santa in the store until Xmas.

That he calls himself Kringle and doesn’t provide a formal age or next of kin outside eight reindeers worries her and the Toy Department manager, Mr Skillhammer, especially after he starts sending shoppers to Gimbels to buy the things Macy’s haven’t exactly got. But it’s magnificent publicity for Macy’s, which thrills Mr Macy and starts a competition among all the stores to celebrate the Heart of Xmas.

Dorisis a very efficient, common sense woman, bringing up her daughter to be completely practical, and not to believe in fantasy or fairy tale: Doris is divorced after an early marriage. And Susan is very smart and sensible and most unchildlike, which rather confuses their friendly neighbour, junior partner Fred Gailey (Payne), who is interested in Doris. The Walkers become a pair of test cases, with Kringle set on winning Susie over and Fred her mother.

The fly in the ointment is store psychologist Mr Sawyer, a bad-tempered, mean-minded, self-important toad who invests his energy into getting rid of Kringle. He provokes Kringle into a decision to expose him to Macy when Sawyer confuses the good-hearted Albert into thinking he has a guilt-complex. Kringle is decoyed out of the store and into a mental test that, disspirited by Sawyer’s lie that Doris has helped set this up, Kringle deliberately fails. Gailey gives him heart and represents him in a full hearing over his committal, resigning from his firm to do so and provoking a quarrel with Doris.

The trial is a delight, especially when Gailey calls the DA’s young son to the stand to testify that he believes Santa Claus exists because his Daddy told him so and he wouldn’t lie. But to Kringle, the vindication is that Susan has come round to believing in him, and so too has Doris.

Natalie Wood is superb in her part, as a grave, over-serious child gradually allowing herself to be convinced that the world is more than the practical place her mother has taught her to believe in. Wood’s facial expressions sell her part in the story perfectly: no wonder she became a star in adult life!

But though the expected miracle takes place in Court, allowing a relieved Judge to dismiss the committal, and though Doris is able to row back on her anger at Fred’s recklessness in throwing up his job and his security for a fantasy, the case is not yet finally proven for little Susan. The Xmas present she wants is a home, a particular house, and impliedly the family that goes with it. And that Kris Kringle can’t place under her tree. Even Doris’ attempt to teach her to be patient is met with another wave of cynicism.

Until Kringle sends Doris and Fred a different way back, past a house that has Susan exploding with delight because it’s past ‘her’ house, a house for sale, with a sleigh in the yard, and a mother who’s suddenly being kissed by a successful lawyer who she now has an excuse to marry…

…and in a corner of this empty house there’s a cane. A cane suspciously like the one carried by Mr Kris Kringle, officially recognised as Santa Claus…

It’s the perfect ending to a perfect film, of a kind we cannot make any longer because our instinctive cynicism bars our way. But we used to make them, and we have the DVDs to remind us, and to prove that we did used to be able to be innocent, and that for a time at least we can still open ourselves up to what we once were, and remember what we have lost,