Thursday, 28 April 2011

He shoots, they score

If you're looking for an alternative to the royal nuptials, Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin is rereleased tomorrow in what looks like a beautiful restoration. Films as various as Brazil and The Untouchables have paid tribute to the famous scene on the Odessa Steps and it continues to be relevant. Though Eisenstein is said to have felt his film should be rescored every decade, this new print revives the first, 1926, soundtrack.

Before their fantastic ballet The Most Incredible Thing, orchestrated by Sven Helbig, Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe created their own score for Potemkin. Premiered on a drizzly evening in Trafalgar Square seven years ago, the British pop duo were keen to play up the location's importance as a site of protest.

Tennant wrote a little piece a few years later to accompany a free Guardian DVD release of Battleship Potemkin. In it he explained how to cue up their soundtrack to the film: 'You have to pause the CD during the second scene. It goes on for nine minutes and we thought our music was a little repetitive and edited it. But if you start the film again on the track/scene Drama in the Harbour, the film and CD will sync right up to the end.'

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Roo shoot

The 17th London Australian Film Festival opens at the Barbican in a week's time and one of the highlights amid the week-long programme must be a rare screening of Wake in Fright in the Dark Side of Down Under strand. Notorious for its inclusion of a violent kangaroo hunt, Ted Kotchefff's 1971 movie was long thought lost until a negative was saved from a bin in Pittsburgh marked 'for destruction' a few years ago.

A teacher dreams of leaving his remote posting to meet his girlfriend for Christmas but instead is lured into an outback town's hellish backroom culture. Donald Pleasence - who else? - emerges as an alcoholic nemesis, and there are turns from Chips Rafferty (who also appears in one of Michael Powell's last films, They're a Weird Mob, 1966, set in Australia), Jack Thompson and John Meillon (who starred in the first two 'Crocodile' Dundee movies).

Kotcheff went on to direct the original Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) and Weekend at Bernie's (1989), before apparently settling on episodes for the softcore Red Shoe Diaries series. The wildlife slaughter, we are assured, was filmed as part of a monitored cull but still manages to pack a kangaroo punch.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Kate expectations or, what's in a name?


Friday the marks the passing of Kate Middleton to Catherine. Prince William will be aware of the import of his fiancée's first name - it's not for nothing William Shakespeare named the main role Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew around 420 years ago.

Despite the play's inherent misogyny, its message has carried enough resonance to be worthy of more recent adaptations, notably Cole Porter's musical Kiss Me, Kate (filmed - in 3D! - in 1953) and teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), starring Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

There's another Catherine in Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962), where Jeanne Moreau's character first marries Jules (Oskar Werner), with whom she has a daughter, but seduces Jim (Henri Serre). The trio set up home together but she finds herself thwarted at being the centre of attention as Jim tries to extricate himself from the situation and her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

It turns out she slept with another man on the eve of her wedding to Jules to punish him for a perceived slight and, when Jim returns to his lover Gilberte, she throws her continued adultery in the men's faces. 'She's usually sweet and generous but when she feels unappreciated she becomes terrible and violently goes from one extreme to the other,' we're told.

Flighty and capricious, secretive and headstrong, 'She'll never be happy here on earth,' the boys decide. The trouble lies in the name: how to reconcile traditional Catherine and modern Kate. (There are real-life icons, too, from Katharine Hepburn to Kate Moss.) Now Ms Middleton is moving from the latter to the former, royal courtiers must be hoping it's the Kate escape.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Luc Besson's debut: Le dernier combat

French director Luc Besson famously swore he would only direct 10 films but The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec - based on the comic books by Jacques Tardi and due out in the UK tomorrow - will be his thirteenth, with at least two more in the pipeline. (He's also writer-producer on the Taxi and Transporter series.)

Many of the tropes familiar from his movies were already in place for 1983's Le dernier combat (The Last Battle), his remarkably assured, near silent, first feature. Its opening shot is of a man shagging a blow-up doll, which slowly deflates: it establishes the search for (heterosexual) sex in a vogueish, post-apocalyptic, black-and-white world by the character, played by co-writer Pierre Jolivet, who also co-scripted Besson's follow up, Subway (1985).

For his first films Besson kept quite a team around him: cinematographer Carlo Varini shot Le dernier combat, Subway and The Big Blue (1988), while editor Sophie Schmit worked on the first two. A couple of Besson regulars share the screen: ageing character actor Jean Bouise (Subway, The Big Blue) and Jean Reno, cast in the slow-brute role that would become familiar to him in Subway, The Big Blue and, most successfully, Leon (1994). There are echoes, too, of the penchant for slapstick humour rife in those movies - the dumb show and prat fall being particular favourites - and a reflexive reaction shot used for comedy.

Besson's sense for visual setpieces is immediate - despite budget restrictions, some flying sequences reflect the visceral pleasure the director clearly feels when diving in The Big Blue. Soundtrack regular Eric Serra is already in place (there's a gag with a screwed up tape here reprised in Subway's opening chase), pleasingly experimental at rare moments, otherwise pure lounge.

As a young teenager, Subway was one of the first films to open up the possibilities of cinema to me, and when I was a student in Paris I caught a repertoire screening of Le dernier combat in a cinema off the Champs-Elysées and sought out different versions of The Big Blue, including a giant projection at Le Grand Rex and one with scenes I'm sure have still not been included on any DVD edit I've seen. I haven't seen any of his films since The Fifth Element in 1997, a run that includes Joan of Arc (1999) and Angel-A (2005); forthcoming feature The Lady, about Aung Saan Suu Kyi, sounds simply alarming.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Books galore: Newfoundland in fiction

I have developed an unwitting penchant for literature set in Newfoundland. The first book I read set in Canada's eastern province was The Shipping News (1993) by E Annie Proulx, my fascination cemented by the remarkable work of another American writer: Howard Norman. In what could loosely be termed a trilogy, from The Bird Artist (1994), through The Museum Guard (1998) to The Haunting of L (2002), he toyed with the themes of parental death, infidelity and murder, set mainly in Halifax (Nova Scotia), St John's, the largest city of Newfoundland and Labrador (as it is now), a distant presence.

Despite its size, I don't remember much of Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998), other than a vague sense of disappointment that put me off attempting his follow up, The Navigator of New York (2002). Now, a Canadian friend has introduced me to the truly wonderful Galore by Michael Crummey, another local author. Recently available in Britain (thanks to New York's Other Press), Galore tells of the various residents of fishing town Paradise Deep, trading in a rich history of community and storytelling. Part one is biblical in its fecundity, part two so poignant you have to stop every few pages to draw breath. Nevertheless, I raced through it with a pleasure I haven't experienced from many recent reads.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Revolutionary spirits: three London wartime hostelries

1. The French House
Frequented by the French Resistance in London, Free French leader Charles de Gaulle is said to have come up with his call to arms after lunch upstairs. Ironic, perhaps, that the pub was set up by a German, who sold up at the outbreak of World War I to a Belgian family who named it the York Minster before it settled on its current title.
49 Dean St, W1D 5BG

2. De Hems
A meeting place for the Dutch Resistance in World War II, the pub owes its name to a Dutch seaman who bought the premises in the 1890s and set it up as an oyster bar. It retains a Dutch theme, serving Low Country food and beers.
11 Macclesfield St, W1D 5BW

3. Ognisko Polish Club and Restaurant
Donated by Prince George of Kent to the Polish Resistance in the Second World War, a recent review in the Telegraph is singularly uncomplimentary.
55 Exhibition Rd, SW7 2PN

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Tintin in Arabia Part Two

Land of Black Gold was begun in wartime although frequently interrupted until a colour version emerged in 1950, set in Palestine. At the instigation of UK publishers Tintin's arrival in Haifa - and prompt arrest by British police controlling the then mandate - was changed in a third edition (1971) to the fictional location of Khemed, ruled by Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab, excising a rich historical seam. (Michael Farr's book Tintin: The Complete Companion, 2001, illustrates the changes, as well as showing many of Hergé's pictorial sources for the stories.)

The early petrol explosions that instigate the adventure still sparkle, as do the book's night-time desert scenes and the comic mirages experienced by bungling detective duo Thompson and Thomson (in part reprised from Cigars of the Pharoah, where they made their first appearance); Oliveira de Figueira and Sheikh Patrash Pasha both reappear, alongside villain Dr Müller (from The Black Island, 1938, 1943, updated 1966). Working alongside Sheikh Bab El Ehr, whose acts of sabotage are destroying the country's reputation as an oil provider, he aims to acquire Khemed's petroleum industry for western corporations.

This is the most atmospheric of the Arabian books - and one of the most atmospheric of the entire series - full of telling behaviour. Fans of Tom McCarthy's novel C won't be surprised to learn the author picks up on the misreadings in the book in his study Tintin and the Secret of Literature. McCarthy is particularly drawn to Tintin as an avatar for the century of communication: 'Forget journalism: what Tintin actually does is send and receive radio messages. This is his job on the boat in Land of Black Gold... Some of Hergé's most striking images are not of characters or actions but of radio masts, wires casting signals and antennae picking them up. In both Cigars of the Pharoah and The Red Sea Sharks Tintin floats on the ocean while transmissions billow and swirl around him.'

In The Red Sea Sharks (1958), the last of Tintin's adventures to be set in the Middle East, Bab El Ehr (a name embodying miscommunication: babbler) seizes power from Emir Ben Kalish Ezab, while the emir's spoilt son Abdullah, introduced in Land of Black Gold, takes centre stage. The book is again terrifically relevant, as Captain Allan is now engaged in human trafficking (giving rise to an an image riffed upon in bleak but very funny new film Louise Michel). Nor can Hergé resist a visit to Petra, Jordan's rose city, another setting for Indiana Jones, of course.

As Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier write of Emir Ben Kalish Ezab, 'it is clear the man is a self-centred autocrat, no better than Bab El Ehr... Is he supposed to be on our side merely because he sells oil to us? Is restoring him to power the happy ending the book suggests...? The whole dynamic of the western world's dealings with the Arab world is appropriately captured, if not resolved, in The Red Sea Sharks.' Perhaps even, as they note, in a way its author had not intended.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Tintin in Arabia Part One

Much ink has been expended on racism and anti-semitism in Hergé's Tintin books. As the Belgian author's draughtsmanship improved so did his knowledge of the world; in these tumultuous times, and ahead of Steven Spielberg's much-vaunted screen version, I wanted to pick out the Arab themes in his oeuvre. The best artists manage to anticipate events, and this could be said of Hergé's development from two-dimensional characterisation.

The intrepid boy reporter first travels to North Africa in the fourth Tintin adventure: Cigars of the Pharoah (black-and-white edition 1934, colour 1955). After the message locations of the problematic earlier books (in the Soviet Union, Congo and USA), Egypt offers an ideal setting: full of iconic landmarks and mythology loved by children. Surprising, then, that our hero should be framed for smuggling heroin, of all things.

Hergé is extending his palette here, notably in a drug-fuelled dream sequence, while pursuing the nonsensical leaps and bounds of the adventure format. In Tintin: Hergé & His Creation, Harry Thompson says the adventure was originally called Tintin in the East, with the first half dubbed The Cairo Affair, before the action moves to India. It introduces, too, a series of characters who recur in the Middle East stories: Sheikh Patrash Pasha (a Tintin fan, it turns out), entrepreneur Oliveira da Figueira - though Portuguese, he is reminiscent of the enterprising fixers you so often encounter in the Levant - and media mogul Rastapopoulos, who becomes one of Tintin's stock enemies.

The latter's sidekick, Captain Allan, and the mysterious sign of Kih-Oskh recur in a parallel work, The Crab with Golden Claws (1941, 1944), one of the books Hergé created under German occupation. Famously, it includes our first encounter with bibulous Captain Haddock, the series' most beloved character, who helps Tintin escape from the attentions of Allan Thompson aboard their drug-smuggling ship, the Karaboudjan. Tintin and Haddock crash land an airplane in the Sahara, where the captain suffers hallucinations from his suddenly enforced temperance, before saving them both from attacking Berbers with the usual choice phrases: 'Rats! Ectoplasms! Freshwater swabs! Cannibals! Bashi-bazouks! Caterpilllars!'

The duo are rescued by the French Foreign Legion - a staple of any boys' own adventure - before they make their way to Morocco. Hergé had to add four beautiful full-page illustrations when the 62-page Casterman edition came up short, including a chase in a local market that could almost have served as the template for a scene in Tintin fan Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In one of the punning names that would get Hergé into trouble on another occasion, the episode's baddie is Omar Ben Salaad (loosely 'lobster salad' when said in French).

To be continued... Tune in tomorrow for Part Two!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Underground cinema 2: the Paris Métro on film

Fred Cavayé's tremendous Point Blank is due to be released in the UK 20 May and I can't recommend it highly enough. The French thriller (which I suspect will be marketed so as to mask its nationality and maximise its audience) features a great chase scene in the Métro, so I thought I'd follow up my post on films in London's Underground with a look at movies set on the Parisian tube network.

Appropriately enough for the city of love, romance features highly - from The First Night (1958) by Georges Franju through to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie (2001). In Bande à part (1964), Jean-Luc Godard's trio of Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey invent stories for a sad-looking man on the Métro, while fellow nouvelle vaguer Francois Truffaut caught Le dernier métro (1980) with Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve in wartime.

Louis Malle acknowledged social unrest in his adaptation of Raymond Queneau's Zazie dans le métro (1960), when ingenue Catherine Demongeot arrives to find the underground barred by one of the system's endemic strikes. Bernardo Bertolucci also stayed above ground in Last Tango in Paris (1972) for those memorable shots of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, where the Métro crosses above the Seine between the Eiffel Tower and the posh sixteenth arrondissement. Those views are replicated in Gilles Mimouni's stylish 1996 thriller L'appartement, featuring Vincent Cassel, Romane Bohringer and Monica Bellucci.

In another thriller, Jean-Pierre Melville mounted a chase in the underground, intercut with indicator bulbs lighting up on a tube map, in Le samourai (1967), starring Alain Delon. Peak time for Métro movies came in the 1980s with the cinéma du look when first Jean-Jacques Beineix burst onto the scene with Diva (1980), which features a chase through the Métro, on and off trains and up and down escalators - on a postman's scooter!

Luc Besson uncovered a world of bag snatchers, bodybuilders and pop wannabes down there in romantic comedy-thriller-musical Subway (1985), starring Christopher Lambert and Isabelle Adjani (pictured). Paris is always amenable to directors using its public spaces and so it was for Leos Carax' beautiful and audacious homeless romance, Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) - the most expensive French film ever.

The city's authorities were happy to close the bridge at the movie's heart for some filming but delays meant that shooting had to continue on a set recreated, with requisite Métro station, in the south of France. In a particularly brutal scene, Carax regular Denis Lavant runs through those iconic white-tiled corridors tearing down posters emblazoned with the image of his missing girlfriend, Juliette Binoche, before setting fire to the bill-sticker himself. It's a wonder Binoche doesn't stay clear of the Métro: she gets her carnet out again for Michael Haneke's Code Unknown (2000), which uses a confrontation with a young man on a train to examine similar racial themes to those in Hidden (Caché) five years later.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Underground cinema: London's tube on film

London’s tube is the oldest underground system in the world, so it’s not surprising that filmmakers have dwelt on the horrors that lurk beneath the city’s crust, including alien spaceships (Quatermass and the Pit, 1967) and sleeping dragons (Reign of Fire, 2002). In classic British horror film Death Line (1972), Donald Pleasence’s investigation into deaths at Russell Square leads him to inbred, plague-ridden cannibals trapped underground following a cave-in back in 1892.

Tottenham Court Road station is the scene of a memorable chase in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) while Franka Potente discovers the dangers of dropping off on the last train home in Creep (2004). Appropriately, director Ben Hopkins views commuters almost like zombies in The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz (2000).

Londoners’ propensity for (urban-)myth making began as early as 1935, when rumours started to circulate that the disused British Museum station was haunted by the ghost of one of the institution's (Egyptian) mummies; a national newspaper even offered a reward to anyone willing to spend the night in the closed station. There were no takers.

The story appears to have sprung from that year’s hit Bulldog Jack, which features a supposed tunnel from the old station - renamed Bloomsbury in the film - to the historic museum. The film, starring Ralph Richardson and Fay Wray, features a climactic chase scene aboard a runaway tube train.

Zone extension: Manhunt, Passport to Pimlico, Sliding Doors, Tube Tales.

More fictional stations: Crouch End (Shaun of the Dead), High Holburn (Bulldog Drummond), Hobbs End (Quatermass and the Pit) and Vauxhall Cross (Die Another Day).

Tube blunder: Going to Heathrow on a train marked Cockfosters - the other end of the Piccadilly Line (The Rachel Papers).

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Armless fun or, the cricketing kings of limb

A post of five unknown London pleasures on the great Great Wen blog recently piqued my interest. In it Peter Watts notes, 'in 1796, Montpelier Gardens in Walworth hosted a cricket match between 11 one-armed Greenwich pensioners and 11 one-legged Greenwich pensioners. Interest was so great that a fence was broken and spectators fell through a stable roof.' The scorecard is here.

Pete kindly sent me links to a couple more such matches: one between wounded army veterans at the Oval in 1862 - 'One Arm v One Leg', as the poster advertises - and another from 1858.

Then there is this on a South African site about an 1861 match between 11 one-armed and 11 one-legged men played at 11am in Peckham Rye. 'The players... played more like madmen than sober rational cricketers,' says the correspondent, who marvels at their lack of protective wear. 'What is a blow on the knuckles to a man who has lost an arm or a leg, who has felt the surgeon's saw and the keen double-edged knife?...

'Well, I suppose the fact is, that men don't think much of misfortunes when they are once irretrievable, and that these men felt a pleasure in doing an eccentric thing, in showing how bravely and easily they could overcome an infirmity that to some men appears terrible. After all, one thinks, after seeing such a game, one-legged and one-armed men are not so miserable as people imagine.'

It's a wonderful report, with beer and the heat adding to the 'Holbeinish fun'. And the outcome? Ultimately, 'the one-legs could not get at the ball quickly enough, their fielding was not first rate, the one arms made a gigantic effort... and won.'

POSTSCRIPT You won't be surprised to learn that a much darker literary take on this physical juxtaposition comes in a Georges Simenon novel: The Door (1962). In this remorseless portrait of jealousy, Bernard, whose hands were blown off by a mine, lives happily with his beautiful wife, Nelly, until he becomes convinced she is having an affair with their new downstairs neighbour - who is confined to a wheelchair. To say the outcome is bleak hardly covers it.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

London by bike

If ever you're looking for a whirlwind tour of central London's best-known public spaces, may I recommend this tour from Disney's 15-year-old, live action version of 101 Dalmations. The two-minute sequence features Jeff Daniels being pulled by his dog Pongo from Soho Square, through Leicester Square, apparently in the wrong direction (spot the old Swiss Centre in the background), across Trafalgar Square, to Green Park via Burlington Arcade, ending up in St James's Park Lake.