Films – number one!

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2 days in Paris

Film Buff is back to help you get through the lockdown!  He’s finished the alphabet, and if you missed the entertaining articles, you can find them all here.  

The next stage is films starting with numbers.  Here’s the first one.

My quiz question last time was what exactly is the symbol of the US First Infantry Division?  The answer is The Big Red One, in the title of the war film directed by Sam Fuller (their uniform includes a large red 1).  But I can’t talk about that here, due to a self-imposed rule that my number films must have the number at the beginning of the title: it’ll also have to be a proper number, rather than its equivalent in words.  So no The Magnificent Seven; nor yet Se7en, or The Seven Samurai, or Seven Psychopaths, or Seven Men From Now, or Seven Days in May, or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and certainly not The Seventh Seal; but definitely The 39 Steps (eventually – despite my draconian rule I won’t even get as far as 10 in this first instalment).

So I won’t include many of the films referenced by Jeremy Lion in his classic version of The Twelve Days of Christmas drinking song: on the eleventh day he works his way down from Ocean’s Eleven through Police Academy 8 and Four a Few Dollars More and finally Two-omb-raider, before not finishing with Alan Partridge in The Wild Pear Tree; 12 Angry Men, and indeed 10 Angry Men (‘two of them just calmed down’) and 8 Angry Men (‘two more of them found some Prozac in a bin’) feature in his last verse.  (Jeremy Lion is really Justin Edwards, who memorably appears in Paddington as the policeman who on being told that the missing person is a bear complains that that doesn’t give them much to go on.)

2 Days in New York

Anyway: 2 Days in Paris is a very entertaining and genuinely funny film directed and written by and starring Julie Delpy (who I always think must be Lindsay Duncan’s lovechild), with a fine parade of racist Parisian taxi-drivers and some intelligent stuff about jealousy and so on.  2 Days in New York is maybe a bit less successful, because it’s sillier, but it’s still worth a watch.  Chris Rock is perhaps not quite right for his part, but the obviously talented Delpy is nicely wacky as Marion; the father (played by Delpy’s real father) is as good value as he was in the earlier film.  The visiting sister causes some great catfights, and there are nice cameos by Dylan Baker and Vincent Gallo.

3.10 To Yuma

Delmer Daves’s original version of 3.10 To Yuma is a fine film, nicely directed with some good shots in striking black and white, lots of which have the camera ascending or descending to open out and/or foreground the scenes.  It’s taken from an Elmore Leonard story, with a good script (and a theme song by Frankie Laine).  Jaunty, charismatic outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), over 40 but still passing himself off as a young man to pretty Emmy (Felicia Farr), gets himself caught because of that dalliance; Van Heflin’s rugged Dan Evans needs cash to survive and needs to impress his family, and so volunteers alongside town drunk Potter (Henry Jones) to try to get Wade on to the 3.10 from Contention City as the tiny Bisbee community comes together in classic fashion.  The tension around the passage of time plays out as in High Noon, and there’s good interaction during the two-hander captivity as the pair wait in the hotel, with Wade trying to bribe Evans, playing on his nerves lest his gang arrive, and teasing him about money for his wife.  Predictably, Evans’s local helpers melt away when push comes to shove, but he knows his duty, and manages to see it through and is rewarded by the rain that will save his ranch.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Not at all similar is 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days: this effective abortion drama is hardly Vera Drake (let alone 9½ Weeks), either.  There’s a sense of the general grind of Soviet-bloc Romania in the establishing first half-hour (and resolutely dreadful customer service throughout), but the focus narrows down to the termination and its consequences, and is unremitting and unblinking – literally, in a series of well-acted, extremely lengthy takes.  Often these takes marginalise the victims – for example as the ironically-named abortionist Mr Bebe explains what’s what not to Gabita, the patient, but to her friend Otilia; as we watch Gabita as Otilia is being raped; as we watch Otilia at a birthday party while she and we wonder whether Gabita is dead or dying after the procedure.  If cigarettes are on the black market, abortion will be too.  And sex then becomes a commodity to pay for its own consequences.

5×2

In his 5×2 the always interesting François Ozon makes what could have been a fairly banal story of a relationship, a marriage, and a divorce into something which is not only more intriguing but also implicitly reflects upon the art of film (or at least our usual experience as cinemagoers) through the simple expedient of presenting five lengthy snapshots in reverse chronological order.  So first we see Gilles (played by Watford’s two-time manager Quique Sanches Flores) and Marion (Britain’s Haydn Gwynne) finalising their divorce and then going to a hotel room together; Ozon’s usual frank treatment of sex here sees her change her mind, and him none the less go ahead and essentially rape her, evidently the more bitter about their split and having a prurient interest in her subsequent lovers.

Moving back in time, we then see some of the earlier tensions between the two of them, with their young son; and when Gilles’s gay brother and his boyfriend come over, Gilles says he has never cheated on Marion (she makes no such claim) before saying that in fact he did once – and tells a tale of an orgy where she encouraged him and she watched, although she sheds a tear now as he relates the gay bit of that episode.  Soon the couple are back to suppressed bickering over the clearing-up and pointed remarks about their respective attitudes to romance and about the importance of trust.

By the middle sequence, the appearance of Gilles (actually played by Stéphane Freiss) has rather changed, while Marion (actually Valeria Bruno Tedeschi) looks similar throughout: and we see him not rushing to attend the difficult birth of their child, and perhaps suggesting that the baby is really a darker one in the incubators as her parents turn up – Michel Lonsdale then rowing with his wife while Gilles sits in the car park, at best talking to Marion on the phone.

By now you’re looking in each segment for what it was that made things go wrong by the time of the previous one; but the segments are tableaux, really, and generally resist a definitively signposted logical development; the reverse chronology makes each of them theoretically but not convincingly explicable by the next one – pointing up how things are easier to show and to follow when films respect the usual order.  This way around, somehow, the potential reasons seem more provisional and in fact multiply; and the film itself becomes more compelling as it approaches its literal anti-climax.

At the wedding in the fourth chapter, do we detect a slight hesitation before his ‘I do’?  Their joy at the party is undercut by what we know will happen later/what we have seen earlier, as well as by the Deer Hunter-style soundtrack which recalls the fateful spilt wine at Stephen and Angela’s Jewish marriage in that other film.  Gilles is too drunk for consummation, and Marion goes outside to a soundtrack of a lovely thing dying in Smoke Gets in your Eyes, seeing her parents, who we know will come to hate each other, happily together.  But then there’s a rather disappointingly hackneyed scene where a swarthy stranger chats her up and tries to kiss her, and she resists and then gives in – in some way, at least.

So was the marriage doomed because of an infidelity on her part (there’s a similar plot in the recent BBC drama The Split)?  Did he worry that the child was not his?  Did she leave him because of that orgy, or because of his callous attitude to her pregnancy?  We then look in vain for clues in their first encounter – while he was on holiday with a snipy girlfriend (Valerie), Marion, his co-worker, turned up; Gilles suggests that having sex with Marion would turn his girlfriend on, but it seems that it is him that gets excited, forcing himself on the girlfriend, in the face, again, of her partial reluctance – before his rather immature interest in Marion’s private life precedes the two of them going into the sea together but not yet a couple (but perhaps with the shortcomings of Gilles’s attitude to women dooming the whole thing even before it starts).

It’s not just the achronology which dislocates here; it’s the discontinuity between the fragments and their deliberately under-analysed individual content.  There is no simple explanation of the failure of the marriage, and that’s probably true in real life, too: it’s just in films that the complexity of reality is ordered into a tendentious linear sequence.

Talking of which, on we go to 7th Cavalry.  There are two potentially interesting storylines in this Western: the officer who missed the massacre at the Little Big Horn because he’d gone to collect his bride; and his redemption by volunteering to lead a ragtag band of soldiers to retrieve the officers’ bodies in the teeth of opposition from the Sioux and the Cheyenne (the presidential order to retrieve the corpses running up against the Indian belief that the graves of their victims are sacred to their tribe).  But the script and the direction aren’t really up to it.  It’s slow and ponderous, as if needing to pad out even its mere 75 minutes.  An example comes after Captain Benson (Randolph Scott), ‘the man who wasn’t there’ at Custer’s Last Stand, has already proceeded in a leisurely way back to Fort Thomson with fiancée Barbara Hale only to find it deserted: a 360-degree panoramic take is snail-like, not a patch on Herzog’s mesmeric effort in Aguirre, The Wrath of God; and later even the horseback chase of a brave and the subsequent fist-fight drag on; there are two sequences of the raising of the Stars and Stripes which also just go on too long.  A sense of drama is absent, too, from the enquiry into what went wrong for Custer; from the attempted mutiny when the soldiers are encircled; and from that encirclement itself, and its lifting when Custer’s riderless reserve horse Dandy (not Victor, nor yet Comanche) turns up to spook the natives.  Support includes Jeanette Nolan, whose set-piece speech at the start about how Benson should have been there instead of her dead husband is left to fall flat; and Jay C. Flippen, who utters the memorable line ‘the Indians out there, they think they own the country’.

8 Mile

8 Mile inevitably (in spite of the brilliance of his winning lyrics) develops into a slightly tedious hagiography of someone rather like its star Eminem, not shy to speak of his genius and to celebrate his triumph in a storyline which has him reversing his choking defeat in a rap contest by embracing his own white trashness – this is built up a little like a traditional musical, with a question of will he/won’t he come out the winner at the long-awaited public performance (you get the same thing, for example, in Saturday Night Fever and Strictly Ballroom).  A prototype of Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, Eminem (looking like a cross between David Thewlis and Jordan Henderson) gives a vibrant performance as Rabbit, Curtis Hanson having him begin the film practising his rapping in the mirror like De Niro in Taxi Driver and picking up lyrics from the rhythms of everyday life.  It tries a bit, and fails, to undermine the ghetto culture, with the expressed horror of guns taking its place alongside a zany drive-by paintballing in desolate Detroit; it deprecates homophobia while replicating it; it’s relentlessly aggressive even when seeing the cause and hopelessness of the surrounding violence.  The treatment of race is interesting – despite Rabbit’s having black friends, in the end the rap contest pits white against black: and the Douglas Sirk film Imitation Of Life which is sampled here itself revolves around a black girl pretending to be white … .  Kim Basinger plays the mother; Brittany Murphy is there mainly to show how funny and sexy Rabbit is; Omar Benson Miller’s role is like Forest Whitaker’s in The Crying Game.

Better by half is .  Fellini’s masterpiece begins with an astonishing dream sequence, with cars crowded into a tunnel, a packed bus with limbs hanging out, a frenzied escape from the smoke-filled car, the driver floating away; and then people trying to tether him, before he plummets to the ground.  This is just the first of a number of arresting fantasies: the funniest is maybe the harem, where the director escapes an acute moment with his wife and his lover to enter a scene in which all of the women he has known are preserved to serve and adore him, just having to move upstairs when they become too old; or maybe the shorter summary execution of an annoying critic.

The director, Guido Anselmi, is played by Marcello Mastroianni and is undertaking an unlikely rest-cure while surrounded by the potential cast and crew of his next film; he seems at a turning-point in his career, harassed by an impatient studio, blocked, but also in a mid-life marriage crisis, the apparent endgame of which is being played out as his wife watches screen tests of an actress playing herself alongside ones of his lover.

The whole thing is delightfully self-referential, becoming the true granddaddy of films about directors and the films they are making: there are things like the producer explaining to the director that a character would never be able to meet a cardinal, whereupon the director does; sequences whose meaning and value is immediately explicitly questioned, with the weaknesses of the director highlighted; people telling him what his film’s about or should be about, how it should be less opaque, less self-indulgent; and with hilarious improbability it involves a spaceship, surely distancing Anselmi from Fellini at the very moment that everything else seems to be conflating the two of them.

This culminates triumphantly following the declaration towards the end that there will after all be no film, which the critic hails as the right decision, since it is the artist’s duty not to present anything flawed, to say nothing if it is not perfect – receiving the final response that it is precisely the director’s confusions, inconsistencies, and idiosyncrasies that he actually must present to give a faithful account of himself – with all of these elements rolled out in a final joyous carnival.

Alongside this are Fellini’s standard themes of sex, love, religion (Catholic guilt), politics (sketchy), family (childhood, lost parents); the beach, fat women, and the often tawdry travelling players or musicians or magicians, who take their place among the shallow members of the film industry.  There’s an attempt here to give real, if stereotypical, depth to the figure of the wife (played by Anouk Aimée) and others as tragicomic, desperate, compulsive, artificial entertainers from down the ages.

The film has Claudia Cardinale, Barbara Steele, and Ian Dallas (now a Sufi leader and allegedly instrumental in Eric Clapton’s writing Layla); Madeleine is played by Madeleine Lebeau, the one who sang so emotionally and patriotically in Casablanca.  Seen now is a clear influence on so many other films – Day for Night, Stardust Memories, The Singing Detective, Synecdoche New York, etc..  Just try to find a version with good subtitles: they were terrible in the one I saw when I last re-watched it.

And today’s quiz question: from what film does the following line come – ‘You’re just going to list a whole lot of film titles with numbers in them.  I could do that, sure.’  Answer next time.

By Jem Whiteley