A Film For December: Caravaggio

My last film for this year is Derek Jarman’s fictionalised account of Caravaggio’s life from a young man until his death in 1610. Told in a segmented fashion, it opens with Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) lying on his bed dying from lead poisoning, his faithful and long-standing companion Jerusaleme (Spencer Leigh) is with him as he looks back over his life.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a violent man living in violent times. Running with a hot tempered bunch who’s motto was ‘without hope, without fear’ he was a drunk, gambling, brawling character who rose from a teenage street hustler to a convicted murderer. But at the same time his painting caught the eye of Cardinal Maria del Monte who nurtured his artistic and intellectual development, managed to keep him out of prison and kept him painting.

Using friends and people he met in the streets as models, his paintings shocked with their sense of realism; sacred figures were shown in modern dress and in modern settings always with the emphasis on poverty. This realism was heightened by his extreme technique of chiaroscuro, darkening the shadows to produce stark contrasts of light and dark. The Italian painter and biographer Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613-1696) says of his:paintings:

He went so far in this style that he never showed any of his figures in open daylight, but instead found a way to place them in the darkness of a closed room, placing a lamp high so that the light would fall straight down, revealing the principal part of the body and leaving the rest in shadow.

These humanised portrayals of Christ brought him both fame and notoriety.

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A Film For November: Throne of Blood

    Shrouds of mist rise over a stark landscape as two horseman ride towards us – it can only be Macbeth, and it is, at least the basic plot. But in this 1957 film, shot in black and white, Akira Kurosawa has moved the action from 11th century Scotland to feudal Japan.

    Returning to their lords castle through ghostly Spiders Web forest, samurai warriors Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) encounter a spirit who predicts their futures. Firstly Washizu will become Lord of the Northern Garrison, secondly he will become Lord of Spiders Web Castle and thirdly Miki’s son will succeed him. When the first part of the spirits prophecy comes true, Washizu’s scheming wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), urges him to speed up the rest of the prophecy by murdering his lord and usurping his place. Fed by his wife’s thirst for status, his own ambition and sense of insecurity see him transformed from a respected warrior to a power mad dictator, willing to do anything to retain the throne.

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    A Film For October: Sunset Boulevard

    Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a struggling screen writer fleeing from the insurance men who want to re posses his car. He reaches a seemingly derelict mansion and hides his car in the garage. Of course he gets out to have a snoop around and is met by the butler who takes him inside. The house is owned by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) a forgotten silent-screen star, now almost a recluse, hiding herself away except for the odd game of bridge with a group of other ‘waxworks‘!

    Once Norma realises she has a screenwriter in the house she asks Joe to read the script she’s been writing for a potential film about Salome – a film in which she’ll star, and see her triumphal return to the screen. Needing the money Joe agrees, but once he’s moved in, the full extent of her demented fantasy world becomes clear.

    Written and directed by Billy Wilder in 1950, this was utterly gripping right from the start. Narrated by Joe as a flashback to six months earlier this was thrilling and intense, ghoulish and at times bitterly funny as it dramatises the rejection by tinseltown of its once brightest star.

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    A Film For September: La Ciénaga

    If I was asked to sum this film up in a sentence it would be that this is the kind of film where the loo seat is always left up.

    In the opening scene of La Ciénaga (The Swamp) a group of adults are drinking around the swimming pool of their summer house, the camera swoops in and around them focusing on separate body parts as if it’s another character. Mecha (Graciela Borges) collects some glasses but falls drunkenly. None of the adults come to help or even seem to realise what’s happened, it’s the children watching through a window that pull the glass out of her chest and take her to the hospital.

    Mecha’s friend, possibly her cousin, Tali (Mercedes Morán) comes to stay with her own children. There’s now quite a crowd in the stifling heat. Ages range from middle age to young adult to teenager and child. The house is shabbily decadent; the maids are Collas, Indians and accused of stealing; the pool is always filthy; there’s a festering quality to the sunbathing on rusty metal chairs. In the sticky, uncomfortable heat no one wears many clothes and they all sprawl around in each others beds doing nothing for a lot of the time.

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    Three Films For Summer

    As a teenage punk in Singapore, Sandi Tan dreamed of cinema. In 1992, aged 20 she and two friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique take a film production course and make a film about a teenage assassin with the help of their lecturer Georges Cardona as director. At the end of filming Cardona held on to the film reels while the three travelled abroad for university. But Strangely the whole film goes missing only to turn up, 70 cans of 16mm film in 2011, 7 years after his death.

    Shirkers is a documentary about making and losing the film, made by Sandi Tan in 2018. She uses interviews with people involved in the film making and people who knew Cardona as well as original footage. What makes this so interesting though is her creativity. She lives in an oddball universe with a boundless imagination that’s playful, stylised and kitschy. The three friends have found a way of reclaiming their story and turned it into a Sundance Festival winner. I was reminded of the recent Sparks Brothers film, which I loved.

    Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is Pedro Almodóvar’s crazy take on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play The Human Voice. Pepe (Carmen Maura) is distraught when she discovers that her lover Iván (Fernando Guillén) has left her. It’s a gaudy, chaotic world of rapid fire dialogue, telephones and cab chases as Pepe tries frantically to track him down. Iván’s son Carlos (Antonio Banderas) turns up with his ghastly girlfriend Marisa to snoop about the apartment which they’d like to rent and Pepe’s friend Candela arrives on the run from the police because she’s got herself mixed up with a terrorist cell. But in amongst the fast paced action Pepe has made a jug of gazpacho, she’s laced it with sleeping pills and left it innocently in the fridge. This was madcap fun, Spanish style.

    In 2005 the German director Werner Herzog made this extraordinary documentary, chronicling the life and death of Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell spent thirteen summers in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska and believed that he had a special understanding with the bears. Grizzly Man uses sequences from video footage shot by Treadwell in the last five years of his life together with interviews with friends and family to explore his belief.

    The footage is beautiful, the foxes and bears playing around him are stunning and the way his friends talk about his relationship with the bears is almost reverential. But park officials saw his familiarity with the bears as, at best misguided and at worst dangerous for both him and the bears. In his fair-minded narration Werner Herzog sees him as sentimental about the bears and nature and I thought explored this controversial man in an incredibly diplomatic and gentle way.

    A Film For May: The Woman Who Ran

    Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo, this 2020 film from South Korea follows Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) as she visits two old friends and then meets another by accident in a local arts centre. She’s been married for five years and now that her husband has gone away on a business trip she finds herself alone for the first time. It’s an incredibly simple premise that is played out in three separate sections.

    In the first one Gam-hee meets an old friend who is now divorced and enjoying her single life, in the second her friend is a more urbane, dance producer who has a crush on an architect living in the flat above but is being pestered by a man she had a one night stand with. The third person she meets while out to watch a film and is now married to a man that Gam-hee once dated. In each situation the conversation is so natural we could be in the room with them, as their chat wanders from clothes to men to moral questions it’s full of the hesitations and evasions of normal speech.

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    A Film For April: It Happened One Night

    What a gorgeously fabulous film this is. Directed by Frank Capra in 1934 It Happened One Night set the tone for screwball comedies to come and was the first film to win all five of the big academy awards. Best director, actor, actress, picture and adapted screenplay.

    Spoilt heiress Ellen (Ellie) Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with King Westley, a fortune hunting rogue. Her father who sees King for what he is wants the marriage annulled and Ellie escapes his control on a Greyhound bus to New York where she plans to meet her new husband. But on the bus is an out of work newspaper reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who recognises Ellie and gives her a choice. Either she can give him an exclusive story and he’ll help her get to King or he’ll tell her father where she is. Obviously Ellie agrees to his demand and fun and adventures ensue.

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    A Film For March: I Am Cuba

    Made in 1964 this collaboration between the Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, the writer Enrique Pineda Barnet and the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, I Am Cuba is set during the last days of Batista’s government and the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Told through four allegorical vignettes, this is clearly propaganda for Castro but with Raquel Revuetta as the voice of Cuba there is a dreamlike almost hallucinogenic feel to the film as the camera swoops and dives from buildings to sugar fields that makes it as absorbing as it is beautiful.

    Opening with tranquil images of fertile land and palm trees we move to the city for the first story about Maria (Luz Maria Collazo), a young women making ends meet by working as a prostitute in one of the many bars. The American businessman who buys her company asks to see where she lives and after the glamour of the casino he finds himself lost and disoriented among the slums of Havana as he tries to make his way back to his hotel.

    from Life Magazine 1954
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    A Film For February: The Double Life Of Véronique

    Written and directed by Krzystztof Kieslowski, this enigmatic mystery drama from 1991 is the story of two young women, Weronika in Poland and Véronique in France. Born on the same day, they look identical and share the same musical talent. Unaware of eachother’s existence they sense a spectral companion and believe they share an emotional bond with someone they don’t know but suspect is there.

    The first part is based in Poland and we follow Weronika in Kraków and witness her beautiful singing. One day as she’s walking home she sees a group of girls, her own age getting onto a bus. One of them is taking photographs of everything she sees, randomly through the window. Weronika sees Véronique and we know that Véronique has her doppelganger on film. The first part finishes with the collapse and sudden death of Weronika during a musical recital and the story moves to Véronique in Paris. She feels an intense sense of loss and abruptly gives up singing, she doesn’t know why, just that she must, and she begins teaching music to young children.

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    A Film For January: After Life

    Every Monday a group of recently deceased people are checked in at a small mid-century nondescript building where a group of councillors meet them and explain why they are there. They will be there for a week and must choose one single memory that they can take with them into the after life.

    Over the next few days they meet and chat with their assigned councillor to identify and describe their memory before the memories are staged, filmed and screened. Their souls are then free to move on taking with them their chosen moment of happiness to be with them for all eternity.

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