Thursday, 28 March 2013

The long films' Good Friday

Easter weekend's here, so what better time for me to rework this piece I did for Little White Lies (Feb/Mar 2007) ahead of a lengthy visit to the cinema...

During my university finals I stayed in every Saturday night, but not because I was swotting for my exams. For 13 weeks, in a quietened house, I sat in front of the television for the second part of Edgar Reitz's Heimat chronicle - all 25-and-a-half hours of it. On its Munich premiere, in 1992, it broke the record for the longest film ever screened commercially. And that’s after the first Heimat (pictured), which was also broadcast on BBC2, came in over 15 hours long.

You’ll have guessed that for me, length does matter. Some films are long because of the tradition they come from - Bollywood in the case of popular crossover film, Lagaan (2001), which is nearly as long as the cricket match at its centre - or their source, although in the case of Sergei Bondarchuk's eight-hour War and Peace (1967), reading the book might be quicker. Lost in Hollywood history is Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) - reputed to run up to 10 hours but cut by the studio to something nearer two and never seen in its intended glory again.

The master of the extended film is French director Jacques Rivette. His 1961 début, Paris Nous Appartient (1961), a tale of paranoia among avant-garde types that plays like a zombie flick for intellectuals, is 140 minutes long. By 1971 he hit the big time, literally: Out One runs to 12 hours, cut to a relatively prolix three-and-a-quarter hours in 1974. The same year's Céline and Julie Go Boating positively fizzes along and is the unlikely inspiration for Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (pictured, 1991) is a ravishing portrait of the relationship between the artist and his muse. For pretty much four hours you get to stare at a naked Emmanuelle Béart. It's certainly one of her best roles, as it makes the most of her incredible beauty and a steely, defensive, character beneath. Michel Piccoli is the artist with whom she shares this watchful dance; the passions may be muted but what emerges on screen is absolutely devastating. And this is the glory of long films: to get as much under the skin of something as you ever can; this is cinema where viewers are afforded space to think.

In Beyond the Hills, currently showing in cinemas, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu builds up a claustrophobic picture of life at an isolated, orthodox monastery using repetition and long takes. Hungarian director Béla Tarr is celebrated for his long takes: for the first 17 minutes of his seven-hour magnum opus, Sátántangó (1994), you don't see a human face - only a group of cows in a farmyard. It's an opening that could be said to be reflected in Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' wonderful Post Tenebras Lux - 25 scenes over two hours, and a dog called Bela, coincidentally.

None of these directors expects you to watch without a break, as attested by screenings of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - late last year at the BFI Southbank - or four and a half hours of Rauol Ruiz' The Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) - at the Curzon Soho. I watched Beyond the Hills and Post Tenebras Lux at London's Renoir cinema, in the Brunswick Centre, the same place I saw a revival of Jean Eustache's three-and-a-half hour The Mother and the Whore (1973) a generation ago. The Renoir also hosted the final part - thus far - of Edgar Reitz’ Heimat trilogy.

Heimat (1984) is a tightly controlled family drama spanning Germany's 20th-century experience set in the north-Rhein region of Germany: the Hunsrück. Eight years later, Reitz turned to the youngest son of the clan’s university years in 1960s Munich; the memories of friendships and adventures are so strong that I’m sure they’ve even replaced some of my own student time.

Like Wolfgang Petersen's five-hour - in its uncut version - Das Boot (pictured, 1981) and contemporary Italian family drama The Best of Youth (six hours), which won the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes in 2003, Heimat was made for TV - as was Lars von Trier's brilliant, lengthy hospital-set spooker, The Kingdom (1994) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-and-a-half Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), adapted from the book by Alfred Döblin.

In 2004, Reitz felt there was enough left to explore in his overarching theme of belonging to make the whole a trilogy. Heimat 3 - six full-length features - begins with the fall of the Wall but is strangely depressing, perhaps mirroring the writer-director's difficulties in getting it made. 'It took five years of fighting for the funding,' he told me at the time, 'and now it probably wouldn’t work at all.'

Despite this pessimism, Reitz is said to be working on a fourth instalment in the Hunsrück, but what he has already achieved has left an indelible mark: these places, faces, even accents will stay with you forever. It is already over 52 hours long - or an hour a week for a year. That’s as much as I do yoga. Mind you, I could do with a stretch now.

Related post: diving into submarine movies

Monday, 25 March 2013

Anatomy of a film: En cas de malheur

Always astute over financial matters and his reputation, Belgian writer Georges Simenon was acutely aware of the lucrativeness of cinema and its power in extending his readership. His novels were often adapted for cinema soon after publication - for instance, the years 1932 and 1933 saw the release of three films based on Maigret novels, all from 1931, the year of his big, 'bal anthropométrique' launch: La nuit du carrefour (directed by Jean Renoir), Le chien jaune and La tête d'un homme.

By the time Simenon's 1956 novel En cas de malheur was filmed, in 1958, 30 of the author's books had been adapted for cinema (only about a third of them Maigrets). Starring Jean Gabin opposite Brigitte Bardot, the film - whose title was translated as Love is My Profession - caused a stir for its nude scenes (pictured below), and is a good deal racier than another version 40 years later with Gérard Lanvin and Virginie Ledoyen, En plain coeur (In All Innocence), directed by Pierre Jolivet - Luc Besson's collaborator on Le dernier combat (1983).

Typically for one of Simenon's romans durs, En cas de malheur (In Case of Emergency) is written in the first person, as a married lawyer, maître Gobillot/Farnese, reflects on his affair with a young criminal; both films begin with the bungled jewellery store robbery that throws Yvette/Cecile (the names are updated for the more recent film) in his path. Aware she's about to be arrested for the crime, in both films Yvette pulls up her skirt to try to entice the lawyer to take her case (Bardot and Gabin, pictured top), though the scene is much more explicit in the book: 'She wore no pants. That was the first time I saw her thin thighs, her rounded childish belly, the dark triangle below it, and for no precise reason the blood rushed to my head.'

From then on, the 1958 film is surprisingly explicit: the first time he visits her, he comes too soon; once established in lodgings by Gobillot, Yvette institutes a ménage with her maid - a situation familiar from Simenon's own domestic life, where one maid is said to have asked another, 'On passe toutes à la casserole?' - both scenes are dropped in the 1998 version. (The maid in Claude Autant-Lara's original film is played by Nicole Berger, a beguiling presence who starred in an early Eric Rohmer short but died in a car crash aged only 32.) Yvette may be doing her best to keep Gobillot's interest alive, but there's surely also a hint of a lesbian aspect to her relationships with female accomplices and flatmates.

Jolivet's version is much less sophisticated than its predecessor: Gobillot's childlessness is highlighted in an awkward scene where his wife (Carole Bouquet) receives some adoption documents; and while Bouquet's role is more conventional, in the 1958 version, Edwige Feuillère portrays the same character as her husband's equal, who humours - even encourages - his affairs until they get out of hand. There's a lovely scene where Feuillère nevertheless hides her glasses quickly from her husband; one of that film's best images sees her flinging a giant bouquet of flowers meant for the mistress all over her husband's desk in the apartment that also serves as his office, a detail taken straight from the book. (The set up of their bedrooms, connected by a shared bathroom, is also pure Simenon.)

Where the 1998 film struggles most is in the portrayal of the lawyer: he is not supposed to be jealous when Yvette reignites an affair with someone of her own age - only Gabin can carry off Gobillot's knowing, stubborn insouciance. He's helped by some great lines and the 1958 film has some other nice touches, including the Middle Eastern music that blares in the miserable hotel where Yvette's young lover lives. The two films have completely opposing finales and yet, being Simenon, the outcome is the same - but only one ends with a haunting shot worthy of Casablanca's close.

Related: the lure of Psycho's opening scene

Monday, 18 March 2013

Dive! Dive! Dive! Sub movies

Film4 seems to have its submarine-movie jones on at the moment, so I thought I'd dig up and rework an old piece on the genre I did for Little White Lies' Marie Antoinette issue (Oct/Nov 2006).

'Dive! Dive! Dive!' Is there any more evocative word in cinema, especially when repeated three times? We all know what comes next: periscope down, the sonar's ping, red light reminiscent of a photographer's dark room. The submariner's life is one of numbers, too: distance to target, torpedo tube one, distance from the ocean surface, ever-rising pressure levels.

If you think about it, depth charges and silent routine have been imprinted on our minds through only a handful of films. One of the best is The Enemy Below, starring Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens - all the regulation words and images are present and correct.

There's the man who cracks amid it all - who can't take it any more - he even tries to climb up the conning tower and open the hatch when they're under water. He's talked down by captain Jurgens: 'It is part of our work to die; we are not going to die. Do you believe me? Do - you - believe - me?' He does.

There's a great shot just before this point in the movie: the crews are absolutely still in the middle of the Atlantic waiting for the tiny noise that gives the other away. One US soldier is shown playing noughts and crosses while another is fishing over the side of the boat. Audaciously, the camera travels all the way down his line to focus on the sub, paralysed on the seabed. Here, the German crew is playing chess.

Incidentally, it's no coincidence sci-fi movies share much with submarine movies - that slim metal tube floats precariously in an alien environment. In the same way a U-boat's hull might give way - fatally - at any moment, so, 'The engines cannae take it, Cap'n.'

Geoff Dyer, whose Zona, about Tarkovsky's Stalker, is out now in paperback, itemises the distinctive tropes of the submarine movies in his memorable 1998 e-novel Paris Trance ('e', in those days, for ecstasy). Characters Luke and Alex pore through the pages of listings mag Pariscope for the best way to experience the city of (flickering) light, only to discover they're surrounded by Cassavetes films.

So these movie buffs escape instead in a love of submarine films. Their list of themes fills a page of the book (p33 in the Abacus paperback edition, if you happen to have one to hand), and they come to one vital conclusion: 'Essentially you're a Second World War man?' 'Through and through.' No Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October for them.

Made in 1957, The Enemy Below exemplifies what makes this genre so special: it's not the rakish fashions, the thrill of the chase or the heightened sense of claustrophobia - no, it's because these films consistently humanise the enemy. Like no other, the WWII sub flick is as interested in the other side as the heroes we're ostensibly backing. Could this be because the two sides are at different levels? This literally isn't a level playing field.

As captain Jack Hawkins tells his deputy after a gruelling chase in The Cruel Sea (1953) : 'Number One, this is quite a moment: we've never seen the enemy before... They don't look very different from us.'

Director Wolfgang Peterson extended the form for his groundbreaking 1981 TV series, Das Boot. Here we see the war entirely from the point of view of the German crew; as in The Enemy Below, a young Nazi ideologue onboard is humoured like a wilful child: wrongheaded, but what can you do? Here again is the captain portrayed as mythical seer, a man whose experience and guile will see his men home alive.

This is the best bit: the Second World War submarine film is visceral Battleships, a bloody mind game played out, usually by two mutually admiring leaders. As Jurgen Prochnow's captain declares at a crucial moment in Das Boot: 'Jetzt wird es psychologisch, meine Herren' - 'This is where it gets psychological, gentlemen.'

Submarine movies Operation Petticoat and The Bedford Incident screen on Film4 in the UK this afternoon from 1.20pm. Painting 'Torpedo... Los!' by Roy Lichtenstein can be seen in Tate Modern's retrospective of the US pop artist, which runs until 27 May.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Soho Crime around the world

I'm a huge fan of New York publisher Soho Crime's output - particularly the translated fiction. Their catalogue covers detective thrillers from Japan to Norway. Here are some of the picks - dates are for original (foreign-language, where appropriate) publication:

Cara Black - PARIS
American author Cara Black is as impressively prolific as Janwillem van de Wetering (below) - her Aimée Leduc is a half-French, half-American private detective who throws herself into her cases, alongside dwarf, computer expert sidekick René Friant. The novels travel the arrondissements of Paris, imbuing each book with the atmosphere of the individual districts. 
WHAT THEY SAY 'Murder in the Marais provides a richly textured journey into the dark side of the City of Light.' - Linda Grant
CHECK OUT Murder in the Marais (1999)

Akimitsu Takagi - TOKYO
Another excellent translation - by Deborah Boehm - which brings Akimitsu Takagi's traumatic The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) up to date. Set in the aftermath of Japan's loss in the WWII and the destruction of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a trio of detectives try to crack a case of tattoo theft. Do also try Seichi Matsumoto's excellent Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1961)
WHAT THEY SAY 'Clever, kinky, highly entertaining...' Washington Post on The Tattoo Murder Case
CHECK OUT The Tattoo Murder Case

Helene Tursten - GÖTEBORG
Helene Tursten's Inspector Irene Huss is a judo-practising cop to rival Sarah Lund in a series of procedurals that marches in the steps of Swedish innovators Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
WHAT THEY SAY 'Huss is quickly becoming one of the most satisfying lead characters in the thriving world of Swedish crime fiction.' - Booklist
CHECK OUT Detective Inspector Huss (1998)

Janwillem van de Wetering - AMSTERDAM and beyond
Dutch Zen-adherent Janwillem van de Wetering's many mysteries feature police duo Grijpstra and De Gier, as well as their boss, the Commisaris. The books present a thoughtful view of Dutch policing and venture further afield - to New York, Japan and one-time Dutch colonies, including Aruba and Curaçao. Questioning and even mystical.
WHAT THEY SAY 'He is doing what Simenon might have done if Albert Camus had sublet his skull.' - John Leonard
CHECK OUT Outsider in Amsterdam (1975), The Japanese Corpse (1977) and The Streetbird (1983)