Thursday 29 July 2021

F for Fake (Verites et Mensonges) (1973)


F for Fake

It is time for my last movie of 1973. Finally. When I started this year, the canals where I live were frozen over and now it is the tail end of summer. Five months. But 1973 has also been a great year in movies and there has been so much to watch.

“F for Fake” is, I am afraid, not among the best of the year. It is just too self-indulgent for my taste and, well, rather chaotic.

The background of this strange movie is that Orson Welles was hired to edit a documentary by Francois Reichenbach about an artist who forged famous paintings, Elmyr Hora, but in the process the stories covered were developing and apparently this became Welles own project. As such he made it a meditation on fakes, faking and fakers. What is real and what is fake and what does it even mean?

It is not even a documentary anymore, instead bits of stories are thrown up which may or may not be real. Everybody involved are to some extent cheats and we end up doubting if anything we have watched has any credibility at all. And we get an awful lot of Orson Welles himself.

It is almost hopeless to discern any structure in all this, but the main threads are these:

1.       Elmyr Hora is a Hungarian art forger on Ibiza who can copy any painting and sold these as the real thing.

2.       Elmyr’s biography was written by an English journalist, Clifford Irving, who told the story of the forger, but was himself denounced as a forger for an autobiography on Howard Hughes.

3.       The art dealers who bought Elmyr’s paintings, sold them on with a huge profit and Elmyr saw very little of the money, the cheat being cheated.

4.       Welles himself hoaxed the American public with his radio show “War of the Worlds”

5.       A story is told about Oja Kodar, a Hungarian woman, who befriended Picasso and got him to make 22 paintings of her. When they were sold, Picasso were ready to denounce these as fakes, but did not recognize any of these.

All these stories are intertwined and rather than focusing on the stories, Welles constantly as the unreliable narrator returns to the idea of the fake, which in turn becomes very meta.

This insubstantial idea is both its strength and its weakness. By constantly tearing us away from the stories we are kept off-balance, and it is difficult to actually understand the story, but that is also the point. We should not fully understand the stories, just the element of the fake. This works well for some time, but 85 minutes is a long time to be kept off-balance with stories only half told, disjointed information and the constant reminder that we should not believe anything.

In a sense the film works so well that we get absolutely nothing out of it. Everything and everybody are miscredited. For entertainment, for wealth or for simply being a pathological fraud.

The honest truth is that I got so confused in the monotony on the fake theme that I started to get bored and that is never a good thing. A good deal less Welles, much less pontification and a semblance of structure would have done wonders for an idea and a story that deserves to be told.

A recommendation? Maybe. This is not for everybody, but I guess one should watch it, at least once.      

Tuesday 20 July 2021

The Harder they Come (1973)


The Harder They Come

Yea mann, the first Jamaican movie, and not a bad entry, not at all.

“The Harder They Come” is not only the first Jamaican movie on the List, it was practically the first movie to come out of Jamaica and brought with it the reggae music to the rest of the world. As such it made quite a splash and the soundtrack is possibly even more famous than the movie. I knew a few of the songs up front, particularly “You can get it if you really want”, though I had no idea they were from this movie. The above song was used for years as the theme song for a larger Danish travel agency, so imagine my surprise when this was what met me upon inserting the DVD.

The story is about Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff, the reggae icon), who is a dude just come into town (Kingston, presumably) from the countryside to try his luck. His only skill is to sing and that is not in high demand. He gets employed by a priest who eventually kicks him out for dallying with a girl in his care. Then he gets a chance to record a record (the title song “The Harder They Come”), but is paid off with a lousy 20$ by the producer. When he complains, he gets blacklisted.

Then Ivan tries his luck as a ganja courier and that seems to go well until he starts killing people. Hunted by the police he now becomes something of a hero among the poor and his record is suddenly a hit. This only lasts until heavily armed police forces catch up with him.

It is a movie that portrays the difficulty of getting anywhere when you are at the bottom in Jamaica. The “You can get it if you really want” song is sort of a mockery on the hopelessness of not being given a break and that crime seems like the only alternative to poverty. This part of the movie shows a different part of Jamaica than the paradisic beaches and holiday resorts that most people would have known at the time. It is rough and tough, but by presenting this honest picture it also hit a nerve with the locals who saw themselves in the movie.

In all this grime, the movie also presents a vibrant culture and music scene, an energy and resilience that lifts people, if not out of their misery, then at least making it bearable. This part is absolutely captivating and worth the admission all by itself. It is rumored that attending a screening of this movie is a party in itself with the viewers engaging in this culture. Something I really have to try.

The music is the true highlight of the movie. It is constantly there, and though many songs are repeated, it does not matter, the reggae grove is infectious and sits with you for a long time after watching the movie. I find myself humming the tunes to distraction and it makes me happy.

The downside is that for large chunks of the movie I had no idea what was happening and only a plot summary on Wikipedia gave me the outline, but that is a technical issue. The language of the movie is Jamaican patois and really thick at that. I do not understand much more that the “Yea mann…” Because of stupid Brexit custom rules I bought my copy from Amazon Germany and this copy only had German subtitles and this just made me really confused. I seriously have to find me a copy with English subtitles.

This is a movie you get for the soundtrack, but eventually the movie itself will win you over too. Highly recommended.


Monday 12 July 2021

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)


Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

The backstory on the making of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is one ripe with controversy. Sam Peckinpah apparently managed to run afoul on everybody and their mother and the project sort of exploded. There is a theatrical version, largely disowned by everybody, a preview version, hailed as a masterpiece and special edition with a bit of both. My copy appears to be the special edition, but I am not too certain as the cover of my copy is in Polish.

Somehow, though, I guess it would not matter too much to me which version I had been watching. The general impression is likely to have been the same. Peckinpah was very nostalgic about the old West, but his vision is in my opinion a very depressing one. His is a dirty, disgusting land, populated by unsympathetic characters who drink too much, shoot too much and generally ride their own horse too much. I disliked every single character with a vengeance.

The story is a rehash of the old Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid story, only in this rendition, because this is the early seventies, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) becomes some sort of a Robin Hood character, standing up against big business and the corruption of the Law. It does not change that Billy is a reckless murderer who cares very little for other people, but generally does (and kills) anything he likes, simply because he can. In this way the story follows the same pattern as “Badlands” and countless other movies. The freedom of the criminal to enjoy himself and do whatever he likes as some sort of ideal. I have never really understood this device.

The Law represented by Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is just as unlikable. He is not just a tough copper, but a sell-out former gangster who is wearing a badge in return for security and representing the corrupt law as shaped by the criminal, financial interests. Pat used to be a friend of Billy, but now Billy has to die so Pat can get old in peace.

The setup is a duel between two bad guys and while they kill left and right before they finally meet, the showdown is completely anticlimactic.

I get the impression that in order to milk this story for the umptieth time they had to find some new angles and add layers, but that is all it really is, dressing on the cake. The story is just what it is and these layers only serve to slow down the story to a glacial pace. A good example is the weird inclusion of Bob Dylan into the movie. He made the score, which is all right, but for some reason he has to be in the movie as well. We see him a lot, like really a lot, but as a character with no name, no function and no influence on the progression of the story. He is just so much filler.  

Technically I have no problem with this movie. The cinematography and the acting is as good as it gets. It is the sentiments behind it I do not get. If the objective is to describe a rotten place full of rotten people with rotten motives, it is doing a brilliant job. I am just happy I am not there.

Curiously, now I come to think of it, this movie must take place not too far from where “Breaking Bad” was set. That was a series I liked a lot even though it works on many of the same ideas. Strange that this worked well for me and this movie did not.

I am quite convinced there will be many fans of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”, the themes are very popular, but I cannot honestly recommend a movie I did not like myself.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Amarcord (1973)



Frederico Fellini has been hit or miss for me. Most misses, though. With “Amarcord” he is getting a big hit.

There is no plot as such in “Amarcord” instead it is a series of vignettes throughout a year, from spring to spring, in the small town of Borgo San Giuliano at the Adriatic sea. This place is populated by a host of… somewhat eccentric people or maybe they are just being Italians. This is not a satire on them but more like a loving and probably slightly accentuated memory of a past life.

The most recurrent character is that of Titta (Bruno Zanin), a teenage boy. His family is dysfunctional in that particular Italian fashion where they both love each other dearly and constantly tries to tear each other’s heads off. Both Titta’s father Aurelio (Armando Brancia) and his mother, Miranda (Pupella Maggio) are equipped with very short fuses.

The school is pretty useless and the children seem to be spending a lot more energy on pranks than actual useful study. Religion is not much better. What the children are much more interested in is what exotic events go on at the fashionable Rimini Grand Hotel and especially any story involving Gradisca (Magali Noël), the strikingly red-haired hairdresser.

The town has its blind musician, the clowning vendor of anything, especially tall stories, a crazy prostitute, and a historian who serves as our guide and tells of the historic background of things, though he seems to be mostly interested in Roman era ruins.

The population of this village is very excitable. Any event whatsoever gets everybody into a frenzy, bonfire, car race or well, anything really. The entire village jump into boats and sail off to sea to watch a new and giant ship steam off to the high seas.

My personal favorite scene though is when Titta’s family picks up uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia) from the insane asylum to take him on a picnic to a farm, presumably belonging to the family. On this outing Teo climbs a tall tree where he sits for hours, shouting “I want a woman!” (“Voglio una donna!”). Armed with stones he throws them at anybody who climbs the tree to get him down. Finally, orderlies from the asylum comes to take him down. The dwarf nun, climbing the ladder, may be the donna he was crying for.

All these vignettes are charming and full of life and feeling. Certainly, these people are half nuts, but that is what makes them so likable. Even the visiting Fascists cannot suppress this anarchy, though they are described as not a little nutty and juvenile themselves. There is a feeling that this places is caught in a time pocket where the outside world, not matter how hard it tries, cannot fundamentally change anything and yet there is a nostalgic aura as if, alas, this place is now only a memory.

I think this is the thing that ties all of this together as a whole and makes it work. There is a sense of paradise lost here. A dysfunctional paradise, perhaps, but precious nonetheless, and that is the feeling I am left with at the close of the movie.

It feels as if Fellini for a change forgot many of his normal notions of narcissism and extravagance and instead employed his considerable talents to just making a portrait of this community and thank you for that. A movie like “Satyricon” could not be more different from “Amarcord” and I would say he redeemed himself with this one.

By far the best Fellini movie in the catalogue. Strongly recommended.