Monday, 31 January 2011


'Once you permit those who are convinced of their own superior rightness to censor and silence and suppress those who hold contrary opinions, just at that moment the citadel has been surrendered.' Archibald Macleish

'To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries.' Virginia Woolf

'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.' Jorge Luis Borges

A librarian, Josie Werner (Barbara Stanwyck) dedicates her life to the flourishing and development of a library in a small town called Queen of All Souls, Texas. It is 1954. Despite efforts to censor and diminish the library by several successive mayors and various townsfolk, the shack-like construct survives all winds. The collection, due to the work of Werner, swells, and begins to receive national attention as a bastion of liberal learning.

The attacks on Werner grow however; her relationship with a black man (Titus Chambers) is examined, and her past as a young unmarried woman with a series of romances is repeatedly held up as evidence of the impropriety of her books. The fact that she is played by Stanwyck means that we both believe that any story about her may be true, and love her for it.

And just when we seem set on a path of anguishing town politics and individual bravery (shown, perhaps in the form of impassioned speeches in a courtroom setting, or a defiant entrance into (or exit from) a town meeting), an apocalyptic plot twist sets us on our bums, the deus ex machina being an actual nuclear apocalypse. The Russians and Americans set on a path of mutual destruction, and those above ground have only hours of unburnt air left. All recriminations are deemed petty, and the town pulls together to begin the evacuation.

The film thus folds back on itself, and breaks at the middle. The second half of the film bears little relation to the first. The constant is Josie and her bloodymindedness. As convoys leave the town, heading for potentially safer mountains and bunkers, she refuses to go. She shows no panic, but slips into a quiet silence as she organizes her books. When asked why, she doesn't explain. Weeping relatives come to try and persuade her to join them in one of the protective areas. Mankind needs people like you. We need you. She refuses, saying that someone must tidy the books. Stanwyck's natural defiance here rings like huge deep bell, no trace of trebly spite, just true and low.

If Josie's reasons are unclear to us, they are to her too; indeed, McCarey seems to be attempting to figure out the meaning of a life's work during these slow minutes, in the increasingly empty town and near-silent library. The examination is a clear-minded one that still comes up with no answers, as if McCarey knows that his own position as a credible and brilliant artist might be secure (a director of Duck Soup and The Awful Truth bends and scrapes to no-one in any just celestial Hollywood cafeteria; if such artful shepherding of Marxes and Cary Grants and Irene Dunnes is not a karmic get-out-of-jail-free card, one wonders what might be), but also that this means absolutely nothing.

Nearing the end, Josie writes a letter:

'I don't believe that good people make the world better. And often times they make the world worse, despite themselves. Isn't that why the planet is dying? Good people making mistakes? But you should still try. One bad person can do so much damage that it takes generations to repair. But all the good people in the world I think keep the world afloat. And they shouldn't have ever worried about betterment or evolution because- what's changed? In 10000 years? Textural things. That's all. But human nature seems to be the same. Self-destructive.'

She then rips it up with a laugh so dismissive that we, the audience, feel ridiculousness at the weight with which we might have received her words. They are meant for us, there is no-one else left for Josie to talk to. But they are hollow, mere platitudes (perhaps even stolen, half-remembered from another production); an attempt at making retrospective sense of a decision (and many other decisions, millions of them across a life) that needs no explanation. Because there is none. McCarey spares us the fiery end we know is due, cutting away from Stanwyck as she smiles into the distance, dreaming of the twenty-four (and more) variations of the note that she could have written, all plausible but too pat, somehow; no line is big enough to suffice, to be more than a scratch in the dirt.

The Library At The Queen Of All Souls Directed by Leo McCarey Produced by Leo McCarey, Jerry Wald Written by Mildred Cram, Leo McCarey Starring Barbary Stanwyck, James Earl-Jones, Ray Milland 20th-Century Fox Release Date US: March 1955/ UK: Aug 1955 102 mins Tagline: 'Just Because You Didn't See It Coming Doesn't Mean You Don't Have To See'

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


Bobby Hope (pronounced /huːp/, like hoop, but with a slightly Dutch 'y' sound in between the two o's, like a crooked nose being framed by two ever-open eyes) has made over a thousand films. He does so despite most having never been seen by anyone outside of his family. He also writes novels, cinema criticism and plays, shoots videos and documentaries, and hosts a cable access television show. He busks at at street fairs, dances at festivals, and takes photographs for exhibitions that take place on the side of the street. He does all of this despite being ignored. Talent be damned: Bobby Hope is a hero.

In Elvis Has Left The Bill (1982) he looped echoing fragments of Presley songs over images of an Elvis Impersonator in a diamond-encrusted coffin; this was punctuated by shots of a young lady at a table, her date keeled over on his plate, the raven-haired fatty possibly dead. Waiters pick their way through a mountain of peanut-butter-filled baguettes to give the girl a distressingly huge check. It seems li- [... And there I must interrupt myself.

I'm stepping from behind the curtain, breaking the performance to attempt a performance of a different kind: plain-speaking. Like any attempt to breach the fourth wall it will no doubt run the risk of seeming 'artificial' rather than 'honest' (the latter being perhaps the most misunderstood and incorrectly used word, with the most misunderstood and overpraised meaning), and that is fine too, because it has to be.

I'm momentarily compelled to explain myself (a rarity; I'm attempting to cherish it and embrace what comes naturally to others). Perhaps it was due to a concern that the Fictional Film Club, which may seem like a whimsical diversion, might need a defence, a manifesto, a stance to explain its significance to me. But here I am, on the stage, alone, facing the baited breath of both of the audience members, and I'm unsure. I clear my throat. 'So I'm speaking with some reluctance, knowing that there are at least twenty-four possible aspects of any single statement, depending on where you're standing at the time or on what the weather's like'. That's Harold Pinter. So is this:

'If I were to state any moral precept it might be: Beware of the writer who puts forward his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt about his worthiness, his usefulness, his altruism, who declares that his heart is in the right place, and ensures that it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass where his characters ought to be. What is presented, so much of the time, as a body of active and positive thought is in fact a body lost in a prison of empty definition and cliche.

This kind of writer clearly trusts words absolutely. I have mixed feelings about words myself. Moving among them, sorting them out, watching them appear on the page, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about wrds which amounts to nothing less tan nausea. Such a weight of words confronts us day in, day out, words are spoken in a context such as this, words written by me and by others,the bulk of it a stale dead terminology; ideas endlessly repeated and permutated become platitudes, trite, meaningless'.

Words lie. Especially those of other people. FFC fan William Self:

'I like the Fictional Film Club because I like the idea of a complete dictionary (with footnotes, and appendix) of something that cannot be complete; a dense map, thousands and thousands of hours of work, that is striking in its nonsense. But one that at any point may yield a dangerous clue or a few seconds of the most gorgeous melody you've never heard, before sending you stumbling down a dark passage again, lost.'

The FFC may be nonsense containing my deepest thoughts. It may serve as a diary written in a code that I do not understand, it may be a series of dreams that reveal significance seldomly. It may be a huge joke at my own expense, or an epic folly. Or a smaller, less glamorous one. (At this point, one of you might cough in the darkness, a cough that suggests that you don't come here for this kind of thing. In response, I might throw out a pun or fashion a balloon animal, but as you both are sitting in different parts of the theatre, your responses might be totally different. One of you might (might) laugh at the line, while the other mishears (mish-ears); the balloon animal from one angle might be a delightful puppy that enamours one of you, but it causes the other to leave, convinced I'd made a blasphemous shape. Which one did I make? I'll ask myself later and find out.)

Years end, and it seems right to mark them: I'm not superstitious, but I'm working on it. 2010 saw flickers of FFC in the real world: the unrighteously righteous Teeth of the Sea (and you should bookmark these boys and not only listen to their records but listen to the records that they listen to, read the books that they read, watch the films that they watch... recorded this piece of sublime madness:

After reading this:

An interjection into the real world, perhaps, or another layer of fabrication. Who can say?
My intent is vague. I'll continue faking an inner vision until I convince myself that I have one. Explanation, or lack thereof, is over. Now back to the picture. I'm sorry it's nearly over.]-eed, one would not quibble with the judgement. A. House Is Not A Homo (1984), his documentary investigation of self-described 'church leader and ambassador for heterosexuals' Andrew House (who was predictably arrested with five rent boys in Las Vegas in 1979) certainly brought him more attention. Since then he has fluctuated between iconoclastic surrealism (A Cake of Sleep (1987) and Jesus and His Apostrophes (1990)) and sober documentary (Dumb, Dumb and Full of Dumb (1988) and Charlie Sheen: Piss Factor (2007). What comes next for Hope? Who knows.

Elvis Has Left The Bill Directed, Written and Produced by Bobby Hope Starring Bobby Hope, Louise Hope, Johnny Hope Snood Films Release Date US: Oct 1982 26 mins Tagline: None.

Friday, 7 January 2011

THE SEARCHERS (Lars von Trier, 2009)

[This review is a near word-for word rewrite of Gavin Smith's review of Gus van Sant's Psycho in the February 1999 edition of Sight & Sound, with all references to those films replaced by ones to John Ford's (or Lars von Trier's) The Searchers. A cover of a piece about a cover of a film.]

Lars Von Trier's remake of John Ford's canonical 1956 film The Searchers - in which Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in the original, Vincent Cassel here) pursues kidnapped-by-the-Comanche niece Debbie (Natalie Wood then, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey now)- isn't the self-defeating, perverse exercise it might seem at first glance. It's more a work of 'metacinematic' research. By remaking The Searchers, the film-makers have managed to replay formally notions of transgression and difference that manifested themselves in Ford's original as themes and subtexts. So Von Trier's The Searchers is both more and less than a remake. More in the sense that it literalises the notion of remaking by copying or transcribing Ford's 1956 film, less in that it denies the standard remake strategy which demands that the remake transcend its origins by revision (Cape Fear, Scarface, True Grit).

On the contrary, Von Trier's The Searchers, with its ritualistic attention to detail, could be described as a re-enactment or, as he has suggested, as the equivalent of a cover version of a classic song. But critically, given that contemporary cinema has been permeated by the strategies and tactics of the original film, von Trier can neither reproduce the effect Ford's film had on its contemporary audience - its impact - nor escape the burden of its place in film history. If a theme of Ford's The Searchers is the terrible power of the past and how it blights the present, then it is doubly so for von Trier- indeed this becomes the new film's organising principle. The weight of the past on the present and the loss of autonomy afflicting Ethan Edwards becoming Von Trier's point of departure for this radical project.

Director and cinematographer (Chris Doyle of Chungking Express fame) have imposed on themselves a set of extremely tight expressive constraints to minimise deviation from the original movie. Their film uses the same score, is more or less the same running time and, most crucially, employs the same screenplay. If anything, von Trier's strategy is subtractive rather than additive. Although several anachronisms are wilfully permitted to survive, Frank S. Nugent's original script has been subtly abridged and pared so that, despite several enigmatically superfluous added lines, there is even less dialogue here than in the already sparse original.

On the other hand, given that the original derived much of its power from exuberant and colourful landscapes, von Trier's film employs a no-frills black-and-white shooting style and therefore has a completely different effect. And although many scenes are reproduced exactly, this is by no means a shot-for-shot remake. Many shots only approximate those in the original, and in general the pacing seems faster - dialogue is more clipped, shot duration more varied. In many instances, though, there are significant embellishments: Ethan's arrival scene (the opening sequence), is now a full minute longer and although many shots are identical, it includes a number of new images (a close-up of Martha's dilating pupil as she sees her brother-in-law and former lover; a blurred Martha's-eye-view of Ethan entering the house; a fleeting, enigmatic image of billowing storm clouds). Von Trier and Doyle's shots, even those reproduced exactly from the original, seem comparatively casual and indefinite, lacking the vibrancy, deliberation and measurement of Ford's. And the two films have completely different senses of space, particularly interior space. It is in such distinct yet unquantifiable differences that von Trier's inquiry or research finds its form. The same is true of the film's determinedly muted, enervated tone and air of inconsequentiality.

von Trier's The Searchers is fundamentally an investigation of the expressive and thematic possibilities of nuance. Given the same script and more or less the same visual architecture, casting and direction of actors become key. Sure enough, von Trier gets considerable mileage from the redeployment and reassignment of character values, enough to achieve a small but significant shift of meaning. Rather than using the modern equivalents, he selects actors who largely counter or contradict the original cast's qualities and associations. An example: the substitution of Gael Garcia Bernal for Jeffrey Hunter as part-Cherokee Martin Pawley, Bernal's boyish cheek making Pawley seem less naively earnest, and although he always seems foolishly brave rather than tough, one suspects he might match up physically rather better to Cassel than Hunter did to Wayne.

Vincent Cassel's non-American status is a matter of record (lending all manner of ironies to his character's discussions of the Texas Rangers, the South, and America), and he emphatically does not project the same blunt power that John Wayne brought to the role of Ethan Edwards; how could he? His Ethan lacks Wayne's weary (but buried) guilt, his own melancholy apparently due to a seemingly mounting sense of entrapment by his mission. Where Wayne's Ethan maintained a careful distance from Pawley, treating him with bullying machismo, Cassel's sadism is slyer and somehow more sexually complex.

However low-yield the shift in meaning von Trier accomplishes proves to be, it's enough to justify the experiment: same film, different meaning. Where Ford's search is conclusively resolved, at a price, von Trier's is ongoing, chasing its tail, losing its tracks in the sand. Which is a far more honest, if depressing, forecast.

The Searchers Directed by Lars von Trier Produced by Meta Louise Foldager Written by Frank S. Nugent Starring Vincent Cassel, Gael Garcia Bernal, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård IFC Films 119 mins Release date UK/US: Nov 2009 Tagline:'The Search Will Never End'