V-films – Part One

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Yes!! Against the odds, thanks to some diligent film-watching which has been assiduously focused towards the wrong end of the alphabet, I can offer you not one but two blogs on films beginning with V!! And all this without resorting to V for Vendetta!! Or devoting all of this first part to Vertigo – but I will start with that one, since it’s regularly voted the best film of all time.

I wouldn’t myself go that far, but Vertigo is never less than interesting. The opening Saul Bass titles are characteristically striking, this time colourful geometrical spirals like Kim Novak’s hair and James Stewart’s vertigo; and there’s a good dream sequence later. Stewart is incapacitated like he is in Rear Window, psychologically later on but physically as well at the start. We get another set of iconic US locations, here San Francisco (it’s as if Hitchcock was going round North America, sponsored by the tourist board) – but with the McKitterick Hotel looking quite similar to the house behind the Bates Motel in Psycho. Until the twist is slightly awkwardly revealed, the plot seems quite bizarre: the heroine genuinely does seem to be haunted, and to die just as the romance blossoms: and the hero then seems to be deranged in obsessing about someone who at first really doesn’t obviously seem to be the same woman, while still seeing her in other people. Both hero and, apparently, heroine exhibit psychological problems – while hers are counterfeit, his are real: acrophobia plus melancholia and guilt complex (as Hitchcock’s usual tame psychiatrist explains), the latter resulting in a period of mental illness nearly as long as the wife’s in The Wrong Man. The apparent immorality of the hero falling for his friend’s wife is ultimately excused, since she wasn’t Mrs Elster (and the husband was the immoral one). And the Hitchcockian perviness is mostly under control here, limited to an early gratuitous focus on bra design (alluding to Howard Hughes) and then to the obvious fact that Stewart has undressed Novak after her suicide attempt.

My loyal readership will be well aware that I enhance (or pad out) my material by including box-sets. A Very English Scandal is a three-part treatment of the Jeremy Thorpe/Norman Scott story (which would seem barely credible were it not apparently true – although you still think that a court might find the evidence of Bessell and Scott and the others involved in the murder conspiracy unreliable). The whole thing is made worthwhile by an unexpectedly good performance by Hugh Grant as Thorpe and the perfect casting of Ben Whishaw as Scott. A decent Russell T. Davies script helps, rather more than the direction by Stephen Frears which at times contrives to be both inappropriately jaunty and pedestrian. Also misjudged is the incidental music, alongside some bafflingly bowdlerised versions of contemporary stuff. There’s solid support from Alex Jennings as Bessell, and the likes of Jason Watkins, Monica Dolan (very good as Marion Thorpe), Blake Harrison, David Bamber from High Hopes as Boofy Annan, Adrian Scarborough as George Carman, besting the underwritten Patrick Marber as the prosecuting counsel, Steffan Rhodri (Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey), and even Michele Dotrice, 45 years after her first appearance as Betty in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, as Scott’s landlady friend.

One other way of finding a larger number of V-films than you might imagine is to go French; but please don’t be tempted by Les Valseuses, which is really quite an unpleasant film. It inevitably stars Gérard Depardieu, and also Patrick Dewaere, and portrays sexual abuse as something that women actively desire (the shampooingneuse is quite willing to be touched up to give the men good luck, and then to be educated in sensuality by them; the nursing mother is turned on when Dewaere takes over from the baby – all this showcased by a jaunty Django Reinhardt soundtrack). You rather worry what will happen to Jeanne Moreau when she appears, and although the relationship and the eventual threesome (a perverse take on Jules et Jim, of course) is relatively touching, the mode of her suicide is indeed particularly abusive and unlikely. Her son then appears and finally sparks the shampooingneuse; and finally Depardieu and Dewaere deflower a very willing teenager whose positive response to the two cannot but be supposed to echo that of the audience (but not of this viewer).

One further way of finding a larger number of V-films than you might imagine is to include documentaries. The gravelly voice of Peter Coyote is well-fitted to the narration of The Vietnam War, a compelling, would-be-and-probably-is definitive TV treatment of the subject. It starts off by confirming how long it took the US to come to terms with this war (something I have always believed is reflected in Hollywood’s slowness to produce films about it), and the early episodes have nice juxtapositions – for example of demonstrations in France against its war there as the pre-history is told, edited next to the same later in the US. They explain the pressure on President Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, to be seen to be standing up to Communism; and include frank admissions from ex-CIA men of how wrong they were about (a) the domino effect; (b) the South Vietnamese governments; and (c) the resolve of the Vietcong. We move on to stuff about President Johnson thinking he had little political capital because he was parachuted into office by the assassination, as opposed to having won an election: this is part of a sometimes indulgent tendency here to think the best of politicians, seeing them as taking agonising decisions for good reasons, rather than seeing him as using the war to gain short-term popularity, with facile crowd-pleasing about the imminent defeat of the usual unprecedented global threat to America, while hiding the real scale of the country’s involvement and knowing that the war was futile and unwinnable. Episode 5 has a nice example of the heavy toll in pointlessly taking Hill 875, eerily echoing Men in War, the 1957 film about Korea, where it is Hill 465, and showing how little had been learnt from that recent history.

The closing episodes link nicely to Watergate – Nixon’s paranoia and use of his ‘plumbers’ relating in part to his fear that someone would discover that he had torpedoed the peace process to get elected in the first place (by getting the South Vietnamese to stymie the negotiations, so avoiding a Democrat triumph, in Johnson’s last days, for his Vice-President and successor candidate Hubert Humphrey). They also perhaps too simplistically chart the economic failures of the Soviet-style economics after the North Vietnamese victory (surely the legacy of the war, and the US trade embargo, were significant contributory factors alongside ideology): and it’s light on whatever economic or military/industrial complex self-interest lay behind the US’s attempted hegemony in the first place. Somewhat surprisingly, it only implicitly highlights the significance of the war as the first one played out on TV (giving rather more prominence to the role of the print media). But these are minor cavils, interesting in themselves in revealing the US’s ongoing failure really to get its head properly around the whole thing – seeing the plight of the victors as being due to the failure of Communism reminded me very much of Al Gore’s knee-jerk defence of the capitalism that is causing the climate change he is so passionate about reversing.

I may have mentioned that one way of finding a larger number of V-films than you might imagine is to go French. Vivre Sa Vie was Jean-Luc Godard’s third feature, after A Bout de Souffle and Une Femme Est Une Femme: he dedicates this ‘film in 12 tableaux’ to B-movies, but it’s slightly hard to see why – in terms of content, it’s closer to a would-be exposé or sympathetic documentary about prostitution (complete with voice-over Q&As in scenes 8 and 9 about what it’s ‘really’ like). The final scene, in which Nana (played by virtual Russian novel Anna Karina) is gunned down when the trading of her goes wrong, is perhaps closest to that Hollywood genre, alongside the general trope of the fallen woman, but that ending is cursory (as if Godard couldn’t think of another way of closing the film) and as unconvincing as both her initial descent into prostitution and the way the life-style is portrayed as being largely normal. In general there may be some ground-breaking nudity but that again is cursory (anonymous women seen through doors that Nana opens), and the matter-of-fact-ness about prostitution still observes censor norms; and because of that, but not only because of that, the film rather sanitises and even romanticises prostitution (Nana looking gorgeous throughout, no drugs, little violence, no really unpleasant customers, no sex, really, at all).

This rather uncomfortable content runs alongside what seems nowadays typical or even parodic of some French films of this era, however new they seemed at the time: the doe-eyed gamine talking portentously about suicide, responsibility, life and so on – not least in an improbable philosophical conversation with some bloke in a bar (Brice Parain) in scene 11; plus the cypher-like, impenetrable men, one ostentatiously reading Poe (the short story The Oval Portrait, about a painter’s perfect picture of his wife, who dies as he finishes it) – as if Godard’s not really interested in them at all but is fascinated by the girl and thinks we will be, too (in scene 9, her dancing on her own is frankly tedious). The technical innovations here could also be seen as dated self-indulgence (alongside playful withholding of plot elements/background, and self-reference (the idea of her saying lines, wondering about getting into films)), but in fact that’s where the abiding interest and value of the film seem to me to lie. Godard is renowned for playing with the connection between sound and vision, but it’s really striking here: the opening scene has Nana and Paul conversing at the bar and we see only their backs, in a long take, their faces in the Folies-Bergère-esque mirror as indistinct as what they’re saying (there’s a similarly off-beam conversation that Nana has in the street with Yvette, in scene 5 – and in 7 a conversation with Raoul where the camera angle shifts, him blocking her out (against a disconcerting backdrop of a static Champs-Elysées, before he kisses her and they exchange cigarette smoke)).

The use of chapter-titles (although adumbrating Tarantino, here they are more like traditional French fiction in noting the various sub-elements that will make up the forthcoming sequence) underscores how film is a fictional artifice, but the deliberate blurring of the kind of dialogue that is usually presented with unquestioned clarity is a fine subversion, as are other aspects of the disconnect between image and soundtrack (scene 2 starts with extérieur, traffic – but in total silence (the sound is similarly absent or intermittent in the outdoor scenes at the start of 10 and 11)): it shows that although film is something we usually accept as a straightforward recording of a kind of reality, it is in fact a manufactured representation whose constituent parts can be deconstructed as easily as they are constructed (a great example is in 5 where the sound and vision mesh, but not realistically, in a staccato panning to the sounds of gunfire outside the bar). It’s ironic, though, that to a greater or lesser extent the use of English subtitles undermines the subversion by making the dialogue clearer than it is in the original (in 12 Godard himself replaces the sound of a conversation with French subtitles); and that his repeated use of long takes (as in scene 2 in the record store) tends to imply the presentation rather than the problematisation of a slice of real life. One scene has Nana going to see Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; in another she drives past queues for Jules et Jim. There’s a Michel Legrand score that makes the whole thing seem like The Go-Between; an odd, traditional touch for a film whose lasting impact lies in undermining convention.

My difficult quiz question from last time was: can you identify the V-film that features a character called Professor Brian O’Blivion? This is Videodrome, a typically weird film by David Cronenberg (coming between Scanners and The Fly). It seems to begin in a future where the TV gives you a personalised alarm call, but in fact it’s set very much in the then present, when porn was soft and on niche cable channels and videocassettes, but now torture/snuff stuff (‘with no plot’) appears to be able to be pirated via huge programmable satellite dishes. Niche channel owner Renn (James Woods, ideal for his director, with his blank face and semi-dissociated air) is intrigued and soon comes across not only Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand (rather good, even in a role that requires her to say that she likes to watch the extreme stuff to get in the mood, and to like being cut and pierced and burnt and whipped) but also Professor O’Blivion – an odd visionary who explains that TV has now become the retina of the mind’s eye, equivalent to reality for those who experience it: he runs the Cathode Ray Mission for derelicts who have no access to it. He is dead, only existing on tape, but thereby able to warn that Videodrome (which can be transmitted with any image, not just snuff) creates tumours that produce the hallucinatory symptoms; although elsewhere it is described as working via the violence that opens up receptors in the brain; or some kind of right-wing plot to purify the nation by exposure to Videodrome, or global conspiracy, controlling Woods and playing him like a video recorder like it could control others in the future.

There’s a particularly nice and clever sequence in the middle when it’s not clear what’s hallucination and what is the surface story, and generally the special effects are wonderfully inventive and gruesomely effective, particularly the vaginal stomach slit into which cassettes can be slotted and other things, particularly guns, emerge – but it burns itself out rather into a shooting of the bad guys followed by induced suicide. Though the plot could it appear to be something about the use of porn as a cover for other evil, or the danger of more and more explicit and violent material, or simply the influence of TV and video, the overall story is too incoherent and irrational to bear any symbolic interpretation; Cronenberg is probably in any case at his best when creating worlds that escape logical explanation and play with, or play along with, filmic convention while not really bothering with it, concentrating instead on the hallucinatory effect and the horror: as here in his nice intercutting of fantasy violence as Woods succumbs, in the pulsating cassettes, and in those extraordinary prosthetic flights of macabre fancy.

An even stranger film, perhaps, is Viridiana. Buñuel’s films are, of course, usually unusual, but this seems to me to be unusual for him and its overall lack of coherence can’t be put down to quirky surrealism or subversion. You tend to think of this as an early one, though it’s 32 years since Un Chien Andalou: the first part is very much what you might expect, as the eponymous novice leaves the convent to visit her uncle (Fernando Rey, of course). There’s the characteristically cursory Buñuel set-up, followed by the sexual/religious transgressive: at times what this style most reminds you of is pornography, as only the barest elements of realism are used to usher in the indulgently pervy and the outrageously fetishistic (so here on her arrival Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is seen undressing, spied upon; then invited to milk the cow’s teats; we see Rey cross-dressing, before her barefoot sleep-walking; and him dressing her up as his dead wife, as part of his fantasy of marrying his niece). It looks as if she might become unable to leave the house, like the people in The Exterminating Angel (which Buñuel directed a year later); she’s drugged and there’s a quasi-necrophilic scene (quasi because she’s asleep not dead, and he doesn’t), again in the sight of the watching girl. In the event she does leaves the house but has to return to it after the uncle hangs himself with the girl’s skipping-rope: she renounces the convent but, saintly, takes in cripples and waifs and strays.

This leads on to what is essentially a completely different (and less subtle and indeed slightly hackneyed) film in its second act, as Viridiana finds herself now with her uncle’s hitherto disowned son, a moderniser who inherits and moves in with his common-law wife (who soon moves out). There is some link between the two parts in that the son is also a Lothario, moving in on both Viridiana and the maid – with the latter, the camera panning away at the moment of seduction (in a parody of Hollywood tact), across the exaggeratedly crowded attic, to a rat on to which a cat is rather obviously thrown (‘Envoyez le chat!’ as Truffaut’s doppelganger, the film director Ferrand, orders in La Nuit Américaine, deconstructing Truffaut’s own direction of a scene in La Peau Douce).

The point about the tension between the religious and the practical/financial is driven home with a scene where the angelus is spliced with robust building work; and when the cousins go off to the town, the indigent residents take over the opulent house – leading to a kind of Last Supper tableau, freeze-frame and posed, as a woman flashes the company (but not with a camera). The meal becomes drunken and debauched, with the leper and others trying on the bridal togs, and when the principals return it ends in the attempted rape of Viridiana, the murder of her assailant, the burning of her crown of thorns, and later the cousins and the maid playing cards … .

The point is surely not that you shouldn’t give charity to the destitute lest they abuse it: but it’s not obvious what the point is, or what the link between the two halves is. Whatever, it’s the earlier bits that best demonstrate the particular talents on which Buñuel was to bring to bear more successfully ten years later in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Alongside the Hallelujah Chorus and the Mozart Requiem, Buñuel makes highly unlikely use here of the 1950s rockabilly track Shimmy Doll, by Ashley Beaumont.

And finally your quiz question – in which V-film is Frankie Avalon told ‘Belay that noisy horn?’ Or to put it another way, guess the title of an early 1960s US V-film with a naval theme … .