6th February: Bullhead (Michael R. Roskam, 2011)
The first good film for me for 2013 and a good start of the year. It is divided between being an art film and a gene crime movie, but completely avoids the dangers of both. It is not vague minimalist European cinema of this decade, its Flanders location distinct and a sense of uniqueness to the characters within it, and thankfully avoids the fetishisation of violence that exists in many films of now even if Bullhead has its cringe worthy moments. It has a welcome and surprisingly deep streak of humanity within it where, despite the repellent actions of the characters including the titular one, played excellently Matthias Schoenaerts, you can still see them as flawed human beings. Schoenaerts’ character is a literal bull, violent and mindless at times but at other moments completely sympathetic, his subplot of his traumatic childhood, rather than becoming a trite inclusion as I feared it would be, adding to the scrutinising of masculinity throughout the movie. For his debut, Roskam has started off his career perfectly with this.
7th February: The Story of A Three-Day Pass (Melvin Van Peebles, 1968)
Another debut, another perfect beginning for a director’s career, but viewing this one lets me see more to a man only known by most people for Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). Following a black American soldier in France (Harry Baird in a great performance) as he is given a three day leave to travel the country, he meets Miriam (Nicole Berger, also great but sadly, at such a young age at 32, dying in a car crash not long after this film) and embarks on a romantic relationship within those days. What could have turned into a conventional story is a breath of fresh air from Van Peebles; when it feels like it is going to turn into the most generic of narratives about race and racism, the director-writer makes it a sweet drama instead where ethnicity is tackled in a far more subdued and thoughtful way as a subtext alongside the main romance. It’s also an utterly playful film, part of the French New Wave and implementing inspired uses of jump cuts, editing and duplicating Baird to interact with himself in place of internal monologues, all of which adds to the story. I may be seeing more of Van Peebles’ work through the year, but after this film even Sweet Sweetback... will be an entirely brand new for me upon re-watching it.
8th February: Blood Thirsty (Jeff Frey, 1999)
If you want to see the lowest of the low, this is it. A new tenant at an apartment realises the female owner has a desire for drinking blood, not as an actual vampire, but an addiction to cutting willing participants and consuming their blood through the wound. A potentially great idea, but shot on cheap video camera and with only one real set in the apartment itself, I did prepare myself for something bad yet I wasn’t expecting this. It is the dullest type of drama where for all the plot and fractured relationships between the women and the apartment owner’s boyfriend, it is just lifeless and as the plotting gets more and more melodramatic it becomes dumber and insufferable. It’s flirting with mental illness, and especially self harm, eventually becomes offensive and was the final straw to put this as one of the worst films I’ve seen. Even the potential of this being softcore, with a lesbian twist, is worthless, the sex scenes being abrupt, up-close images of arms and legs scored to some of the worst music you can hear. I am willing to see the worst of cinema, as the ongoing season shows, but I wish I could forget this one.
9th February: In Absentia / The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer / This Unnameable Little Broom / Rehearsals For Extinct (Stephen and Timothy Quay, 2000 /1984 / 1985 / 1986)
As a Jan Švankmajer fan, I have somewhat dismissed (neglected) about the twin animators Stephen and Timothy Quay, whose influence from Švankmajer goes as far as the short film above, part of a documentary about the Czeck director. That short I’ve included helps far more so to show what the Quays’ work is like, and as I am re-seeing their filmography, they’ve shown to be a lot more rewarding for their artistry and imagination in these shorts. In Absentia, based on the real life case of Emma Hauck, a married woman who was put into a mental institution, is the best of the ones mentioned, a disturbing collage of visuals and sound that creeps under your skin as you view it. All I can really say is that you, the reader should investigate these films as soon as you can.
10th February: Vertigo (Alfred Hitckcock, 1958)
I may need to rewatch this again for a third time, but upon revisiting it Vertigo felt like an immense disappointment. It looks beautiful, and Bernard Herrmann’s score is exceptional, but its plot isn’t that interesting and takes too long to establish its narrative. Against Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Psycho (1960) it doesn’t hold a candle to their quality upon this viewing, despite its lush melodrama and James Stewart trying to twist his well known image into something more ominous. I do wonder, even if I fall in love with this film on another viewing, whether its positioning as the best film ever made by Sight & Sound magazine may prove to have been a bad decision in hindsight, again letting another film (like Citizen Kane (1941)) become a museum piece and not really connecting to the beauty of cinema’s eclectic nature. I was disappointed by the plainness of the whole 2012 poll, only having any real interest in the odd and unconventional individual choices by critics and directors that would (sadly) never get into the top 100 list as the results were collected together. That poll probably coloured my viewing of Vertigo this time, but it has to be considered, in hindsight to the negative reaction to the film, whether canonical lists like this ever actually succeed or just completely undermine the point of cinema as an artform and entertainment. At least with individuals’ lists the writer allows themselves to open up about their personal tastes, while the overall results of a poll usually become predictable and, relaying on a numbered tally, may not necessarily mean they are the films that the voters hold the closest to their hearts. I may have been disillusioned by the American critic Armond White since last year, but his words on the Sight & Sound poll that Vertigo’s victory “merely replaces Kane to show a new era’s unoriginal taste and obsessive interest in pathology and soullessness that’s been building in certain film cliques at least since the film‘s 1996 reissue...” feels like an alarm bell in my mind warning me of the inept laziness of cinematic culture. Yes, because of the poll I rewatched the exceptional masterpiece Man With A Movie Camera (1929), deserving its day on the podium by being on that list, but the fear that this poll turns great cinema into celluloid taxidermy, with some added “herd mentality” to quote White again, is discomforting.