My Architect (2003)

My Architect (2003)

In the preface to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray, he makes the famous statement that “all art is quite useless”. Not so architecture, an art form that can be both admired and functional. Time, though, is a great leveller, condemning some art to the past while elevating others. The works of Louis Kahn (1901-1974) receive this treatment in My Architect (2003, 116 mins), a documentary of his son Nathaniel Kahn‘s journey to better understand the man who died when he was eleven. The Richards Medical Research Laboratories, once lauded on newsreel as Kahn’s greatest achievement now seems a monstrous carbuncle to those who use it today.

Kahn’s death was a bit of a conundrum. Following his return from project work in India, he suffered a heart attack and died in a New York toilet. His address was scored out on his passport and his body lay unclaimed in the city morgue for three days. Despite his career and the high profile of his work, he was half a million dollars in debt. The subsequent obituary noted that he left behind a wife and daughter. No mention was made of his children from two other relationships that he concurrently maintained. It’s this exclusion from his father’s publicly known life that begins this film.

The twenty-five year distance between Kahn’s death and making the film is not fraught with the problems expected, namely that his contemporaries would also be dead. Luckily, architects appear to be immune to death and some of those appearing here (I.M PeiPhilip Johnson, and, for six-degrees-of-separation fans, Kevin Bacon‘s father, Edmund Bacon) are, if not already there, pushing nonagenarian status. Johnson calls Kahn a true artist while Bacon, famous for his role in rebuilding downtown Philadelphia, appears less enthused by Kahn’s seeing individual flourishes while neglecting the larger picture (“all brutal, totally insensitive, totally impractical”)

Bacon’s dissent aside, the overall sense is one of warmth (and why wouldn’t it be in a film about a son wanting to understand his father?) but that sensation comes not from the editing but the words of all the others interviewed. The women who he maintained away from his own marriage never themselves married and still look back favourably on the architect. Frank Gehry attributes his first works to his reverence for Kahn. Old friend Robert Boudreau is lost for words when Kahn fils reveals his heritage. Even a group of career cab drivers seem pleased to take a trip down memory lane without their meters running.

There are two stories running parallel here. That of the son learning of his father and then there’s the story of the father himself which, debts aside, can be held up as an American success story. As a three year old in his native Estonia, he burnt his face with hot coals, and the scars stayed with him through life. Later his family emigrated to America, where he would draw and play the piano for money. Architecture finally came as his calling, although it wouldn’t be until he was almost fifty that his undistinguished career would get the inspirational injection it needed, thanks to a residency in Rome where he learnt from the ancient monuments that endured millennia. No longer would he attempt to emulate the glass fronted buildings leading the new architectural wave; instead he would make ancient buildings for the modern world.

The buildings are certainly unique and Nathaniel Kahn makes an effort to visit them throughout the film. Most vivid are the Phillips Exeter Academy Library for its undramatic exterior which gives way to a beautifully exposed interior and the Salk Institute, which I.M. Pei declares “will stand the test of time”. While time (in the terms that architecture needs to prove its worth) is not possible within a shooting schedule, Kahn does treat us to a lovely time lapse sequence of the building. A young boy plays over the central canal, the sun sets, the building lights come on in phosphorous green, and a portentous sky is reflected in the water. The architecture here is not just the shapes and materials, but how it ties in to the world around it. And not just ties in but shapes it, as evidenced by the tears of Shamsul Wares as he contemplates how the beautiful Bangladeshi parliament building gave the country a home for democracy. Such forward-looking is what ultimately allows the son to say goodbye to the father.

As an inspiration and vaunted as one of the modern greats the sacrifice taken to reach such architectural heights must certainly have been Kahn pere‘s family life — or families’ lives. “Are we a family?” Nathaniel asks of his half-siblings. The answer may be as unclear as their image of him as father, but there’s food for thought in whether a family should be defined by blood or by choice. The blood is certainly there, but notions of familial unity may ultimately be personal.

It’s suggested that certain attributes (being short, ugly, and Jewish) may have driven Kahn internally, such soul-searching ultimately leading to his artistic drive and unique vision (“symmetry, order, geometric clarity, primitive power, and enormous weight”), and his family life being secondary because true artists don’t have discipline. But the story of Louis Khan appears to be one of the older themes around; that of man versus nature. Indeed there’s a voiceover of Kahn eulogising on the power of art to recreate and inspire wonder (“Truly the work of art is one that tells us that nature can not make what man can make.”) The story of Nathaniel Kahn and his father may have been one borne of nature, but it takes an artist to tell it.

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The Expendables 2 (2012)

The Expendables 2 (2012)

If The Expendables (2010) left the burning question of why it even existed, what further reason is there for The Expendables 2 (2012, 103 mins) to exist? Well, apart from making studio shareholders enough cash to roll around in, the only possible reason (wishful thinking, here) must be to correct the wrongs of the first. The most notable difference is that Sylvester Stallone is no longer behind the camera (that duty now with Simon West, of 1997’s Con-Air) and this is immediately an improvement. Where Stallone’s The Expendables, in all its ridiculousness, still wanted to play itself straight this sequel is much more knowing in its sending up of the genre and is better for it.

Excepting Mickey Rourke, the old crew are reunited here. Stallone returns as Barney Ross with main banter buddy Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) by his side. Dolph Lundgren‘s crazy Gunner Jensen is as mad as ever and Jet Li‘s Yin Yang (making only a brief appearance before bailing out) is still the butt of jokes. Surplus to requirements, Randy Couture and Terry Crews both resume their minor roles to round out the original squad. But there’s more, this time, as we also meet Billy The Kid (Liam Hemsworth) and get some female representation from Maggie (Nan Yu).

Part of the problem with the The Expendables was that we never got to know much about the characters. They were muscular guys with guns; what else did you need to know? However, the lack of background plays to the detriment of this movie’s set-up, namely expecting the audience to care for a character that they have been introduced to only a few scenes before. What misfortune befalls this character leads to a revenge story being spun out of some nonsense about Soviet plutonium barrels buried in a Bulgarian mine, with Jean-Claude Van Damme (as Vilain) as villain.

The story drifts from one shoot-out to the next, but The Expendables 2 feels as if it’s less about the action than it is the cameos. Whereas in the first we got a brief scene between Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, here they rack up more screen time, happily trading each other’s catchphrases, no doubt to the delight of the action audience, and getting down and dirty with some weaponry. Charisma Carpenter returns briefly, providing some home life continuity. But the big appearance here — and given recent press releases about who has and hasn’t signed up for the third, big appearances are no doubt the reason that future films in the franchise will exist — is Chuck Norris‘s lone wolf, Booker.

Compared to the gravel-voiced meatheads that comprise the main team, Norris, softly spoken and with a thinner build, seems a far cry from the typical action hero, but he’s a dab hand with a gun and, if the Chuck Norris Facts internet meme is to be believed, the hardest badass in the universe. Therefore it’s fun to see the man himself acknowledge these in the movie’s world. The humour in seeing him deliver one of his own facts is arguably one of the highlights here, especially as much humour still comes from that age old action movie staple: the corny quip (i.e. “Rest in pieces!”).

While there’s not much for most of the cast to do (this is still very much about Stallone and Statham) the action scenes do come across better. Fight scenes no longer consist of the split second shots that marred the first, and therefore we see here actual physical endeavours being undertaken. Jet Li, whose martial arts were ridiculously underused previously are here given a chance to shine. But, think action movie, and it’s less about the action than it is the crazy weaponry, and that is bountiful too.

While guns, explosions, and prolonged fisticuffs are par for the course in such movies, there’s no reason why it should be presented at a cartoonish level. Yes, The Expendables 2 knows it’s aping its cinematic lineage, but in a world where serious things happen (Vilain enslaves a village to retrieve the plutonium from a mine) can’t there be any consequences (for anyone) other than the villain’s eventual death? Is the world at large blind to such goings on? Where has this Vilain guy appeared from or are we just expected to accept he’s bad and go with it? And, once the Expendables roll into town, who’s going to clean up their mess?

These may just be the questions of a mind meandering, uninspired with death after death of unnamed goons. And that may be the issue here — that the movie is not interested in being more than it can be. Why would it, when the story is secondary to the cast and the audience is assured? But the questions keep on coming because the mind, in trying to disengage, needs something to do and The Expendables provides no viable food for thought. Mantras of must kill bad guys and must get revenge leave little to mentally chew on.

If there was a way of blocking sentient thoughts while watching this then maybe it could be enjoyable. There’s some laughs from the occasional meta-humour and it loves a big all-guns-blazing set-piece, but overall it feels like a revolving door where actors come and go based on other commitments, with the storyline dictated more by availability than coherence. If this continues into the next instalment (which is more than likely) then we have a franchise that maintains interest by increasing its stable of flat characters rather than developing what it already has.

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Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Now into six decades of making films, Woody Allen is showing no signs of slowing down. Some recent films have name checked and featured European cities — Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight In Paris (2011), and To Rome With Love (2012) — but Blue Jasmine (2013, mins) sees Allen return Stateside and delivering a story spanning both coasts.

Cate Blanchett plays the eponymous Jasmine (real name Jeanette Francis), a New York socialite who has never had to want for anything in life thanks to Hal (Alec Baldwin), her high-flying husband, more in the Bernie Madoff mould than genuine businessman. However, as the film opens we see her land in San Francisco, moving in with her sister (they were both adopted, although from different biological parents) in order to get her life in order. What has happened between this extravagant lifestyle, funded by the dreams of others, and an almost desperate need to start over is what gradually unravels throughout Blue Jasmine.

Jumping between two timelines (the New York backstory and the west coast present) Allen aligns them not just with Jasmine as uniting thread but through looking at the women’s relationships. While Jasmine had Hal, her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), has Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a loose-tempered mechanic who, were it not for Jasmine’s visit, would be moving in. As if this doesn’t cause tension enough, Jasmine’s class snobbiness comes to the fore, berating her sister for her choice in men, somewhat rich coming from a woman who’s own husband was a crook.

If money corrupted Hal, it has also corrupted Jasmine, albeit in a different way. As someone living a life of parties, designer brands, and never having to worry about anything the descent to Ginger’s level — of poor neighbourhood, hyperactive kids, and actually having a job — is difficult to comprehend and adjust to. Deep in debt, thanks to Hal’s fake companies in her name, she still flies first class without quite knowing how.

Regardless of adaptability to her new situation, she does try — a job as a dentist’s receptionist, with the dentist heavy handed in his amorous after-hours approach; a computer class at college to learn how to study interior design from home (rather than just study interior design at college). Life, when you have concerns, is difficult and, rather than be strong she opts instead to jump on the first chance she gets back into her old life when she meets diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) at a party who thinks her the ideal trophy wife for his senatorial aspirations.

Almost every scene in Blue Jasmine sees Blanchett’s anti-heroine play some part, and the superlative performance dominates the movie. She flits easily between her superficially smiling socialite, her claws-out disdain of the lower classes, and the broken, fragile woman whose world has spun out of control. Whether it has spun out of her control is one of the many ambiguities Allen provides throughout the movie as much is made of Jasmine’s ability to see only what she wants. Was she, therefore, complicit in Hal’s Ponzi schemes or, like so many others, an innocent victim?

What one can read, if anything, into the eastern-flavoured names of our San Francisco trio — Jasmine, Ginger, Chili — is perhaps open to debate, but what’s certain is that the result is a fragrant broth of light-hearted comedy with darker moments. Interestingly, the comedy comes not from the two stand-ups Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay that take supporting roles, but from its mocking of the superficial elite thrust into the real world and its alien nature. What this new world holds for Jasmine is uncertain, but it’s that way for us all.

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Following (1998)

Following (1998)

“The following is my explanation,” begins our narrator (Jeremy Theobald), as he looks to give an account of his recent shadowing exploits to an inquisitor (John Nolan). The shadowing involves picking people at random on London’s streets and following them around, seeing where they go and what they do. However, for the main character in British noir Following (1998, 70 mins), a struggling writer looking for inspiration in people, his following becomes an obsession and, even with self-imposed rules in place, he can’t help getting involved further, which leads him into a shady underworld of crime.

With no budget, the film is financially a million miles away from the budgets Christopher Nolan would later work with in Inception (2010) and his Batman trilogy (2005 – 2012), but here we see that his interest in identity and non-linear narrative was already well developed. The narrator shows up one minute with long hair and beard and then is clean shaven the next. In one scene his face is beaten up, and the following scene sees it intact. As a straight narrative it is arguable that Following may not have worked as well because the jumbled scenes give hints at what is to come without ever implying where we are in the narrative and creates a sense of mystery. For a story being recounted, this format may be an accurate portrayal of such a telling, as the mind does wander, hinting at what it to come or shooting off at tangents to fill in the back story.

The narrator (credited as The Young Man, although he gives his name as both David Lloyd and Bill in the film) gets in too deep when one of his tails (Alex Haw) turns out to have known he was being followed. He introduces himself as Cobb, a burglar, and begins mentoring him on how to break and enter. Cobb, however, gets his kicks not from stealing but from invading lives, understanding them, and messing around with them. In one house he tucks a pair of woman’s underwear into some trousers for the imagined fallout it may cause. “You take it away and show them what they have,” he says, on the subject of interrupting lives.

The Young Man returns to the scene of one crime, finding himself more and more intrigued by a blonde woman (Lucy Russell), especially now that he has stolen photos of her. While they begin a relationship, there is always, lurking at the back of the mind, her previous partner, a club owner (Dick Bradsell) with interests in operations criminal. How Cobb reacts to his student getting involved with their targets is to be expected, but the overarching narrative is far more complicated and Following becomes a game of who knows who, who’s following who, and who, ultimately, will come out on top.

While the overall story may seem a bit contrived, it works on its own terms. It feels reduced to the barest bones it need be to tell its tale and that is likely due to budgetary restraints. This is, after all, a movie made before a career was born. Shot completely in black and white on 16mm film, the cast is presumably friends and family, some of whom would go on to acting careers while others would never act again. There’s no money for special effects (what’s off camera is infinitely more horrific anyway) but what there is is a whole lot of heart and playfulness. Its limited locations never inspire a sense of claustrophobia and its non-linear nature leaves clues for repeated watching. When the ending comes all the strands knot together and these interrupted lives are shown what they had.

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The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968)

The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968)

“Poetry”, to quote Poe, “is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.” And poets the world over have sought to distill their vision and experience into this most compressed of forms. Sadly cultural exchange has seen few renderings of Sayat-Nova, a 17th century Armenian troubador, in English, which makes difficult a wider understanding of this bard’s work in the context of Sergei Parajanov‘s The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968, 78 mins), a biographical tale that dispenses with regular storytelling and instead takes a more audacious approach.

At the heart of the film is a new cinematic language, like what Dziga Vertov once delivered in Man With A Movie Camera. Here Parajanov practically dispenses with a linear narrative — though not completely — and instead offers a fascinating series of images. The narrative is fairly simple: the young Sayat-Nova grows up, joins a monastery, becomes old, and dies. However the execution makes a poet of Parajanov as he delivers scene after scene of intriguing events. Books, previously dripping with water, are left on a roof to dry in the sun. Musical instruments, those tools of the troubadour, both levitate and spin. It’s beautiful to watch but understanding of the story is difficult and, based on the abundance of symbols on offer, wide open to interpretation. Scenes are likely inspired if not by its subject’s poems or the images within those poems, then by a strong connection to Armenia’s valiant history.

The first nation to adopt Christianity, religion is an important aspect of life in Armenia. Sitting where it does geographically, it has faced considerable historical attacks by way of Islamic invaders, not to mention suppression via Soviet state atheism. Sayat-Nova was put to death for refusing to convert and in doing so he embodied his nation, a people who for centuries had faced down the enemy and remained fiercely Christian. And The Colour Of Pomegranates is generous with religious, historical, and national imagery that, to the lay viewer, is likely to pass unheeded. They certainly passed with little comprehension here, although that’s not to dismiss the enjoyment possible. Near the beginning the youthful poet holds aloft a skull in a helmet and covers his eyes. A memento mori, perhaps, as the poet comes of age to recognise the finiteness of life, but also a reference to Saint Vardan. Does one need to understand the latter when the former is a valid interpretation?

Away from the visuals, the sounds also provide interest. There’s little dialogue between characters and, in fact, little character to these characters, who stand silent staring at the static camera or move in rhythmic patterns. Further confusion comes from the acting of Sofiko Chiaureli, charged with six roles, including a younger incarnation of Sayat-Nova. When there is talking, it’s typically takes the form of wisdom, perhaps observations from Sayat-Nova’s poems. But the human voice is not just limited to speech and, throughout, there is a variety in the soundtrack, ranging from religious chants through folk songs with some elements calling to mind Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Gesang der Jünglinge.

How, then, does one appreciate a film they are never likely to understand? To simply go with the flow would be the answer. The story need not be so detailed to enjoy what’s available. And in The Colour Of Pomegranates there is an experience like few others in film. As a biography of a historic poet, you will likely leave knowing no better about his life. As a film exploring what cinema can do and be, there’s much fruit for the taking.

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One Million Years B.C. (1966)

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

It’s said that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a toss up between dentistry and running a beauty parlour, given the perfect teeth and hair on show in One Million Years B.C. (1966, 95 mins). However, historical accuracy need not be of any concern here for this “story of long, long ago, when the world was just beginning” is a prehistoric fantasy, its feet firmly planted outside any known past. Straight teeth, styled hair, and perfectly fitting bikinis are — pedants be damned! — allowed.

A remake of One Million B.C. (1940), this movie begins like a nature documentary as a narrator describes the scene and introduces us to the Rock People, an extremely underdeveloped tribe who hunt in groups and communicate with the most basic of grunts. Amongst the tribe is Tumak (John Richardson) who, one day, is cast out from his people to face the horrors of what the narrator describes as “a hard, unfriendly world”. Bizarrely, for all the help said narrator provides in introducing characters, he soon disappears, never to be heard from again, leaving the rest of the story to the viewer.

What Tumak finds out in the wider world forms the basis of what this movie really appears to be about: the special effects and excellent stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen, he of other classics like The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958), and Clash Of The Titans (1981). There’s large lizards, giant tarantulas, and dinosaurs ; one after the other. What little story One Million Years B.C. provides leads Tumak to the Shell People, a slightly more advanced tribe with knowledge of paint, cave art, boiling water, and even some rudimentary dialogue.

With this new tribe is arguably the most famous aspect of the movie: the iconic Loana (Raquel Welch in her infamous fur bikini). Essentially it’s a boy-meets-girl story, though there’s not much beyond that. Events are sequential, one thing leading to another with little acknowledgement to what has gone before. However each does at least demonstrate some aspect of their character. The actors seem to have a good time with little script, jumping and whooping in their loincloths. The use of a few nonsensical words acting as cave man dialogue does limit the amount of storytelling that can be achieved.

Even outside historical fact there are some silly issues around the set design with regards to the prehistoric world that has been created. Networks of caves house cave men and, a few evolutionary steps behind, ape men. But in a world where the most advanced technology presented is the spear, who carved all the steps? But such questions are not the sort of mysteries a movie like this seeks to put in place. Instead it just rumbles along on its own logic and, like its characters, it doesn’t say much.

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The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010)

Into a prolonged hostage situation in the Gulf of Aden come a team of mercenaries. While this opening hostage rescue in The Expendables (2010, 103 mins) appears tense, any expectation of gritty, thoughtful action is soon dispelled when a single shot comically cuts a Somali pirate in half. But that single shot isn’t enough to solve the problem at hand. Therefore, after a hail of bullets, knives, and kung fu kicks rains down on the remaining pirates, all that’s left are the hostages and the eponymous Expendables. As manifestos go, it certainly gives warning of what little to expect of the movie.

That preliminary shootout introduces us to the characters. There’s Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, acting and directing), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), and Yin Yang (Jet Li). If they are the A Team, then the B Team support are Toll Road (Randy Couture), Hail Caesar (Terry Crews), and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren). None of these men has a back story, although there’s a plot strand following Christmas, his lover (Charisma Carpenter), and her other man that seeks to give viewers something different to focus on, but it’s dispensed in two scenes and impacts the story not a jot.

The movie’s main plot revolves around killing General Garza (David Zayas), the puppet dictator of a Latin American island state. The job comes in a scene whereby Stallone gets together with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Willis is Mr Church, the man with the job. Schwarzenegger is, like Stallone, a mercenary, only he knows the situation on Garza’s island and rejects outright the opportunity. A scene like this must be the action fan’s wet dream, putting together three action movie legends for the first time. In its short duration, we get sly knowing jibes at each other with some cute banter thrown in (“You guys aren’t gonna start sucking each other’s dicks, are ya?” asks Church).

With the exception of Tool (Mickey Rourke), one liners are the only dialogue the guys in this film trade. It’s macho-to-the-max, empty and with little substance. Although many of the cast made their name in eighties action flicks, and this movie is a tribute to those days, there is little to suggest in the serious delivery that much has moved on since. The movie overall may not be serious — explosions, gun porn, and hyperbolic fisticuffs — but the way it’s played certainly is, even if done in a knowing way. It’s a give-the-people-what-they-want sort of film, and in this Stallone comes up with the goods as regards pulling an action movie together from a range of men who would typically take the lead in their own vehicles.

But if Stallone is giving the people what they want in The Expendables, the question must surely be why do people want this? Pyromaniacs aside, who’s eyes light up at the thought of meaningless explosions? Who punches the air when a bad guy dies? Who cheers on the good guys? Who doesn’t demand more from a film? Because in a film like this it’s never a question of if the protagonists will survive an encounter, but purely when they will. The audience knows that, whatever the story, the outcome is assured. Who wants to go into a movie and know how it ends?

While a man can stand around firing an unlimited barrage of bullets all day, much of the actors here have seen better days. Most of the physical action is delivered in quick succession of cuts that are too frenzied and make it difficult to recognise any athleticism. In this, perhaps the eighties action hero has had his day and, with the likes of Jason Bourne and James Bond‘s continued appeal,  Stallone and contemporaries are a few brain cells short. There’s no emotional connection with any characters, nor any underpinning motivation. There’s no thrills in the big budget set pieces nor any real danger in anything that happens on screen.  Ultimately there’s no rhyme or reason for this movie to exist.

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Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

The summer of love — and free love at that — was two years gone but its echoes were still reverberating around the world. It was 1969. The year of Woodstock. The year of Easy Rider. Students protested with sit-ins; musicians with bed-ins. Goodbye, Columbus (1969, 101 mins) may as well have been walking on the moon with its wholesome students and concerns about premarital sex.

Adapted from Philip Roth‘s 1959 debut of the same name, it follows the summer relationship between Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin) and Brenda Patimkin (Ali MacGraw), two Jewish teenagers in New York. When they first meet it is at a country club; Brenda asks Neil to hold her glasses while she swims he wastes little time in asking her out. The relationship that follows is quick to blossom, although issues of class rear their ugly head with her parents’ probing questions as to what he does for a living.

Neil’s working in a public library is a far cry from the other man in Brenda’s life — her father (Jack Klugman). He was once like Neil but through determination and hard work has pulled himself up into the nouveau riche via his own business. And in moving on up the money ladder (affluent suburb, big house, maids) he finds himself able to look down on others. The ultimate paradox of his family is their attempts to assimilate into wider society. They cling onto their heritage — evident at the wedding of Brenda’s brother Ron (Michael Meyers) — while simultaneously trying to hide it with nose jobs.

Neil, with his background, likewise can’t assimilate into the Patimkin family, partly due to their resistance to him. The mother (Nan Martin) is particularly hostile, questioning him about everything; while the father prefers a more pragmatic approach, recognising the relationship as merely a summer liaison that will end when Brenda returns to school. There’s sex aplenty (don’t let the parents know!) but, as in any coming of age story, some point has to be reached where a lesson is learned. In the case of Goodbye, Columbus it’s the thin line between love and lust.

While the film works well as story of two lovers who come to realise their relationship for what it is, it isn’t without some minor problems. At one point Neil goes to stay at the Patimkin’s for a fortnight. While it’s discussed, it’s never explained why he needs to and therefore disorients the story. Also, infidelity to Roth’s source creates a pretentious cartoon of Ron, the character who in repeatedly playing a recording of his school’s valedictory speech gives the film its title. Although it’s sprinkled with Roth’s original dialogue, it does occasionally take leave from the story, but presumably that’s the challenge of bringing a first person narrative to a third person delivery.

When Neil is at work a young black boy regularly visits the library to stare at Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. “That ain’t no place you could go, is it?” he asks of the Pacific paradise. Swap Tahiti for the Patimkin family and there’s Neil’s issue foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to see a guy get the girl and lose her, not through any fault of his own, but because he never really had her. There may have been a summer of (free) love, but it comes at a cost.

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Knife In The Water (1962)

Knife In The Water (1962)

Aside from some earlier short films, Roman Polanski‘s debut Knife In The Water (1962, 93 mins) is unique amongst his work in that it’s the only one in his native Polish. Well received, it became the first Polish film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards, although Federico Fellini‘s eventually secured the prize. While both may start in cars, the roads they travel along could not be more different, as Polanski keeps his story grounded in reality.

Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) is a sports writer who, in so far as one can in post-war Poland, appears to have it made; a car, a boat, and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), a wife many years his junior. One day, when driving out to the boat, they come across a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). While Andrzej would happily drive on, he suspects that Krystyna would have shown more compassion. After an ill-tempered rant, Andrzej cedes to his wife’s sympathy, although only because he senses an opportunity to play a game. The hitchhiker first joins them in the car, then on the boat.

The journey that follows sees the two men play a macho game of oneupmanship, which devolves into a serious battle for Krystyna’s affections. For all his physical feats (e.g. shimmying up a mast), the young man is naive and unskilled. Matters maritime lead to derision from his challenger. Conversely, what Andrzej lacks in youth, his experience compensates. His practical, patronising approach is his way of impressing.

In more intimate moments, we see the trio come together, eat, talk, and play more simple games. One of these sees Krystyna perform a song as forfeit to losing. Andrzej concerns himself with the radio, listening in to a boxing match, while the lyrics she sings capture the essence of their marriage (“Joy has faded and our love’s gone sour.”) His lack of interest in what she has to say underpins the unhappiness of their relationship.

Such subtlety is at the core of how Polanski works in Knife On The Water. What the characters lack in verbal interaction, we learn so much more from body language; a quick glance here, a smile there. Even a dearth of subtitles does not detract from what’s being said due to both context and the physical actions that accompany. For the two younger stars, who were new to acting, their turns are well-played (although Malanowicz does appear less youthful than is suggested) and Niemczyk’s older Andrzej flits between smugness and authoritarianism that, by the end, has slipped into confusion and fear.

Away from his actors’ performance, the cinematography is beautiful. Shot in black and white, the composed images capture so many shades of grey. Even on a small boat, where one would expect limited flexibility for a film crew, Polanski manages to provide shot after shot of unique angles; sometimes overly crowded and claustrophobic; other times open and empty. Beyond the trio, we see clouded skies, hints of land on the horizon, but no other glimpse of nature. No fish in the water, no birds in the sky. At times the boat sailing through this barren world is accompanied by Krzytsztof Komeda‘s jazzy score, led by Bernt Rosengren‘s sultry saxophone, which adds spice to the film’s sense of menace.

The titular knife belongs to the unnamed boy. Forewarned by the title, each appearance it makes creates a sense of dread, brought on by not knowing how it will be used. When it hits the water the sexual tension that has been growing on board comes to a head. We do not see the knife actually in the water — Polanski gives us only the splash but it makes ripples that, for everyone, will change their life.

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Nikita Kino (2002)

Nikita Kino (2002)

In 1960, the father of experimental film maker, Vivian Ostrovsky, discovered that his siblings were still alive and living in Moscow. It had been forty years since they had last met. Although one died soon after the initial visit, a routine of annual travel was put in place where he would take his family from “carnival-crazy Brazil” to Russia to visit the extended family. It could only have been that way as the Russians were forbidden to leave the Soviet Union. Nikita Kino (2002, 40 mins) gathers together Ostrovsky’s collection of 8mm film footage of those visits and mixes it with other film media to create a video collage that’s somewhere between a memoir and a travelogue.

Her old footage is not that interesting. People sit on benches and chat; take food from the oven; or sit about on grass, smiling at the camera. We never know who is who, and it doesn’t really matter as Ostrovsky instead elects to provide a voiceover narrating what was going on at the time. Early on, as she describes how the relatives’ warmth helped extinguish the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia the situation created, we see the first instance of other footage enhancing the narrative. Tape reels recording and a room of women listening in on headphones and scribbling away. And Ostrovsky’s recollection of “a raincoat man” tailing them shows that, though not entirely noticeable, surveillance was happening.

The breadth of surplus footage used is impressive. Films, news reels, documentary, music, propaganda, and other found footage. The extensive use hides that there likely wasn’t much family footage, but it is cleverly used to either riff on a theme from Ostrovsky’s narrative or to slyly undercut it with contradictions. In a country sans advertising but replete with propaganda, we see what we are meant to see. In a clip from a Soviet movie, we are allowed to see its players dressed up to echo western cinema, albeit showing off how Soviet ideals make the more utopian society. But this propaganda is swept away (“The outside was never like the inside. What you saw in the shop window could never be found inside.”) to show us what lay underneath the falsehoods.

Beginning with ramshackle Soviet housing, Nikita Kino continues lifting the veil on Soviet society — restaurants, dance halls, and industry — with supplementary footage and recollections. The contemporary space race is seen, and it’s sometimes a wonder how they got a man into space with all the parading that had to be done, both military and athletics. And while there are positives about the society — women being able to work any career; to divorce and have abortions — there are darker elements too, most notably that Ostrovsky’s family passports carried ‘Jewish’ as a nationality and, two decades on from the Holocaust, segregation was still a way of life:

Jews had to be smart to get into kindergarten. Bright to get into the best schools. Brilliant to get into the right universities. And supermen to be allowed a military career.

Throughout the short film, the accompanying music flirts with various styles, with gypsy music blending into the martial. While sometimes comical it can turn the mood to solemn in a beat, and this, in the same way the found footage does, helps enhance the experience and the storytelling. For all its linearity — the narrative spans 1960 to Ostrovsky’s father’s death twenty years later — the delivery is nicely abstract and plays with the arrow of time so as not to be episodic. Ostrovsky jumps around, from one theme to the next, meandering into the paradoxes of Soviet life where everyone is individually unhappy but happy as a whole. At one point a young man in Yerevan waves to the camera; footage of Nikita Krushchev smiles and waves back.

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