A Personal Rambling on Why I Watch Film

21 Aug

In 1895, workers were filmed leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon – for all of 46 seconds – by Louis Lumière himself. Now, one hundred and twenty years later, the films of the Lumière Brothers have been restored in 4K, presented in Cannes, and will soon be released in a Blu-Ray collection. Has there been another physical product in the intervening years that’s mere existence poses as many questions about cinema?

To attempt to review the included films would be a pointless exercise akin to critiquing the strokes of a Palaeolithic cave painting. Having not been around for even twenty of those 120 years, I’m unable to transport my mind back in time and experience them like the audience seated in the Salon Indien du Grand Café did in Paris on that December evening.

Instead, my first memory of the cinema involves a shipwreck, talking gorillas and Phil Collins. Yes, I’m speaking of Disney’s Tarzan, which seems on the surface to be worlds away from those black and white shorts that were filmed and projected by the Lumière Brothers. But like that first public presentation in Paris, my viewing of Tarzan had animals, plants, comedy, the sea, a baby, people. With less than 50 seconds per film to work with, the Lumière Brothers nevertheless managed to capture key elements of a film that I would see over a century later. Indeed, almost certainly their biggest error was (allegedly) calling cinema “an invention without any future”.[1] (Perhaps they would have seen things differently if Phil Collins were around back then to soundtrack their works?)

If you were to run La Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon and Disney’s Tarzan side by side (has that ever been done? Probably not), you would probably instantly notice three things that differ between the two – colour, sound and animation. I’d suppose that most children are introduced to the cinema through animation, with most films produced in that medium – in the West at least – being aimed at younger audiences. ‘Cartoons are for kids’ is not an uncommon assertion to hear, but it was the medium of animation that introduced me to the wider world of cinema and its bottomless well of treasures and riches both well-known and forgotten.

Though this didn’t happen in the cinema, but in my living room. I can’t remember when I first caught an airing of Dragon Ball Z, the anime adaptation of Akira Toriyama’s manga series, but I can still remember excitedly watching it on Toonami after school. Even in what was almost certainly a censored form for UK TV, it was an eye opener – there was violence, there was death, there were energy beams getting shot out of the characters’ hands. What it lacked, as I noticed when I recently revisited it, was much (if any) sense, but my prepubescent attention span didn’t concern itself with such matter. Other anime series followed Dragon Ball Z in my TV diet, most notably Naruto – adapted from the Masashi Kishimoto manga series that only (finally) ended last November (the anime series is still ongoing).
But it wouldn’t be long before I encountered not TV series but films and, in hindsight, it’s unsurprising that these would be the films of Studio Ghibli. I can’t remember when exactly I first saw the likes of Spirited Away or  but I would guess that almost a full decade has passed and yet my sense of admiration and bewitchment, wonder and awe, delight and intoxication that I get every time I see them remains undimmed.

The films of Studio Ghibli were a stepping stone to an exploration of the wider world and the wider history of cinema in general, which ultimately leads me back to the Brothers Lumière. For me, watching the films of the Lumière Brothers doesn’t make me think as much about what they actually put on the screen but rather, or perhaps inevitably, the invention and medium as a whole. What am I seeing? What is a film? Why am I watching it?

In a recent interview with Little White Lies, Greta Gerwig was asked what she loves about movies to which she responded that they “takes the physical and makes it spirit.”[2] I thought that this was a brilliant response, at once managing to communicate why it is so many of us love cinema and, yet, also conveying how difficult it is to do so.

Everyone who watches film has a different relationship with it; each of us having our own film DNA with a catalogue of every film we’ve seen woven into our individual, cinematic genetic code and each of us has our own reason for watching them. Viewing the film is also an individual experience, as each set of eyes views it having each already catalogued a different set of life events. Some will watch Casablanca having already loved and lost, others will watch it having never loved at all.

Studies have shown that we most closely associate the eyes with our sense of self – with what makes us human. Or, in a manner of speaking, that we see the eye as the window to the soul. Some populations have been noted as having been fearful of being photographed, of being on film, afraid it would do them harm; in the language of the Kayapo tribe of the Amazonian rainforest, “akaron kaba” means not only “to take a photo” but also “to steal a soul.”[3] While this, on the face of it, sounds a bit bonkers, it may not be going too far to say that the relationship we have with film is similar to a Faustian pact. We may not be making a deal with the devil, but we are offering our soul on a platter and inviting the film – daring it – to change something about us.

The great Cesare Zavattini certainly believed it could, saying that it is “the art that best permits me to know and thus to love my neighbour. But what is my neighbour, if not first what is closest to me?”[4] How does it do this? I come to the words of theorist Henri Agel, who wrote that “the camera is at once a microscope and a magical mirror; not only does cinema recreate a face, but it extracts everything that was virtual, it brings into the world that which was obscure or hidden.”[5] Simply put, cinema extracts the hidden truth – truth 24 times a second, as Jean-Luc Godard may put it – from the world and amplifies it, projecting it on a screen. I come back to lumière – the surname of the brothers but, also, almost too fittingly, the French word for light. As Agel says, cinema both shines a light on places that may be hidden to our own sight and recaptures it – presenting it in a packaged, digestible form; it allows us to learn about the world and see it through the eyes of others, enabling us to appreciate themes and events from different points of view.

Of course, it would be doing cinema a disservice to portray it as a mere educational experience and it is certainly not treated as being so by the moviegoing public at large. That is, in many cases, a side effect. Cinema can be a means of escape, of entertainment, and here I will again quote from Agel:

Some will say that this is true of all the other arts and in particular of the dramatic art. But there is something the cinema adds to the theatre, which gives a particular importance to the relationship between the original work and its film interpretation. This is the role played by the pictures themselves. Their intensity, intimacy, diversity and-to get to the core of things – their power of enchantment recreate in a way the universe of daily life. With all this, the cinema can be the best and worst of things. From a sublime source it can derive a ridiculous vision and, with the same power, it can produce a fascinating vision from something that has no true value at all. It can lift a character who is rather wretched in himself to the highest degree of ideal and mythical existence, transfigure him and make him a hero. By brutally projecting on the screen a crude and heavy image of an authentic hero, it can depoetize him and even abolish him as a hero.[4]

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is ultimately the relationship between what is on screen and the reality that we bring to it that gives the medium its power and thereby “[allowing] us to extend our knowledge of life and our ability to express the world.”[6] And, I would add, enhancing our enjoyment of it. That is the best answer I can give for why I watch film.

[1] Hill, K. (2013) International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum: Auguste Lumiere & Louis Lumiere. Available at: http://www.iphf.org/hall-of-fame/auguste-lumiere-louis-lumiere/ (Accessed: 20 August 2015).

[2] Monks, S.K. (2015) Interviews: Greta Gerwig. Available at: http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/features/interviews/greta-gerwig-31350  (Accessed: 20 August 2015).

[3] Moraes, R. (2011) Capturing Souls. Available at: http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2011/05/12/capturing-souls/  (Accessed: 20 August 2015).

[4] Agel, H., Giraud, R. Celluloid and the Soul. Yale French Studies. 1956. No. 17, Art of the Cinema. pp. 67-74

[5] Agel, H. Le Cinéma a-t-il une âme? Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1952. (pg. 6)

[6] Quicke, A. Phenomenology and Film: An Examination of a Religious Approach to Film Theory by Henri Agel and Amedee Ayfre. Journal of Media and Religion. 2005. 4:4, pg. 242

The Dark Knight Rises

24 Jul

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

So begins Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities – a key text for Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan in crafting the long-awaited final instalment in The Dark Knight Trilogy which is even directly quoted during the events of the film. The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) a hermit and his chiropteran, vigilante persona long dormant after taking the rap for the murder of Gotham’s district attorney Harvey Dent. The fact that the seemingly-incorrigible Dent had been successfully corrupted by The Joker into the monstrous Two-Face has been hidden from the public by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and instead the authoritarian Dent Act has been passed in his name and, in the intervening years, succeeded in cleaning up the streets at the expense of due process.

Along comes a storm – Bane, a hulking, physical presence that is unlike anything that Batman has faced before in Nolan’s trilogy. He’s not as much of a psychological opponent as The Joker was in The Dark Knight (though he probably is more intelligent) nor is he as memorable but he pushes Batman’s body more than any of the caped crusader’s previous foes. As a domineering force that you wouldn’t be surprised to find mentioned somewhere in Dante’s notes, you’d be forgiven for not recognising the man behind Bane’s punk-Vader mask as Tom Hardy who completely submerges himself in the oddly-charismatic character.

Bane’s plan to destroy Gotham taps into the zeitgeist more than you may expect going in. A Robespierre-like figure, he preaches fairness, urges Gotham’s people to overthrow those people at the top of society’s ladder and, in one memorable set piece, launches an assault on the stock exchange. While the script was in all likelihood written before the Occupy movement came about, it doesn’t look upon any wannabe revolutionaries who want to enact a modern-day Storming of the Bastille in a positive manner. Which brings me to one of the film’s failings – Nolan fails to give us any indication of the effect these events have upon the ordinary people of Gotham. Do they go along with it? We’re not given any indication that they do but we’re not given any indication of resistance either. It’s as if they weren’t there at all but then, of course, there would be no one for Batman to save.

However, Batman/Bruce Wayne is not alone. His loyal butler, confidant and surrogate father Alfred has stuck by him, trying to prise him back into society after years of reclusiveness. In The Dark Knight Rises, the character really has his chance to shine and Michael Caine musters some of the best acting we’ve seen him do in recent years. Joining him by Wayne’s side is Selina Kyle, a slinky seductress and feline felon who is played purr-fectly by Anne Hathaway. Catwoman in all but name, she’s one of the most memorable aspects of the film which unfortunately doesn’t dedicate enough time to paw into her character in more depth. A more law-abiding new addition is police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an orphan who surprises Bruce with the revelation he’s figured out his secret identity. He proves to be a worthy ally who’s beliefs and virtues are on the same wavelength as Bruce’s own.

Rounding out the list of important new cast members is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) , a business partner of Bruce’s as well as a romantic interest. However, they don’t have nearly enough screen time together for a relationship to be plausible, never mind believable which leaves certain events in the film feeling a little emotionally hollow. Indeed, The Dark Knight Rises, just like it’s much-lauded predecessor, is not without its flaws: dialogue often feels overly expository; pacing is inconsistent; there’s an occasional descent into cliché. However, these can mostly be overlooked due to the fact that the film is unadulterated escapism of the highest order. Christopher Nolan has taken an adolescent genre and transformed it into a trilogy that feels operatic in its austereness, intelligent in its themes, engrossing in its narrative and is simply entertaining.

Certainly, in an era where many, if not most, blockbusters are just plain infantile, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has been a shining beacon – lighting the way for what can and should be done with Hollywood’s millions in a time where, for cinema, the opening of A Tale of Two Cities does seem incredibly apt.

Moonrise Kingdom

29 May

Over the sixteen years since his debut feature Bottle Rocket, indie-posterboy Wes Anderson has honed and perfected his trademark idiosyncratic, arch style. If directors were associated with food products, Anderson would almost certainly be the love-it-or-hate-it Marmite – those who love his style really love his style and those who don’t find each and every film he makes irritating and insufferable. I, for one, fall firmly into the former category, having never seen an Anderson film I’ve disliked – including his latest, the 60s-set Moonrise Kingdom which is Anderson’s feature-length entry into the love-on-the-run genre that he previously touched upon in The Royal Tenenbaums when Richie and his adopted-sister Margot run away to the Natural History Museum.

This time there are no museums and no awkward family ties to put a downer on things. Moonrise Kingdom follows Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphaned boy-scout and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who feels unloved by her two lawyer parents (played by two Anderson staples – Bill Murray and Francis McDormand) as they run away together on their island-home of New Penzance, sparking a crisis in the community. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), along with Sam’s former scout-comrades, are charged with tracking them down and, in typical Anderson fashion, all involved experience some-sort of self-discovery.

Sam is a character in the mould of previous Anderson protagonists – bespectacled, spunky, full of wit and charm. Suzy on the other hand, is more reserved – a bookworm who uses binoculars to observe people from a distance. They both desire the love that they’re not being given – Sam, due to the fact he’s and orphan; Suzy, due to the fact her parents have forgotten how to love each other as well as their rebellious daughter – and they find it in each other.

Gilman and Hayward, who both make their debut in the film, give strong performances and translate the honesty and sincerity of the script to something believable and utterly captivating on screen – even if they don’t always appear comfortable delivering the lines they’ve been given. The only other actors that I’ve seen do such a commendable job in conveying young love are Ann-Sofie Kylin and Rolf Sohlman in Roy Andersson’s sadly underseen masterpiece, A Swedish Love Story. 

Whether or not Wes Anderson has seen that film, I can’t say but his films always wear their inspirations on the sleeve and Moonrise Kingdom is no different. By far the most prominent of these is Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou – the nouvelle vague’s take on the love-and-the-run genre. In both films, the couples set up camp on a beach, however, Pierrot le fou was much less romantic than Moonrise Kingdom where the beach is the setting for the film’s most amorous scenes.

More subtlety, the film evokes Terrence Malick’s debut film Badlands – another decidedly unromantic love-on-the-run. Ironically, while Sam and Suzy are much younger than their counterparts in either film, their romantic tryst is much more mature. In Badlands, the use of Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer as the main musical theme lends a sense of juvenility to the featured romance but in Moonrise Kingdom, the soundtrack is used for entirely different ends.

Anderson always carefully crafts the soundtracks for his films and in Moonrise Kingdom it seems especially emblematic to the action and themes of the film itself. In the beginning of the film, we see Suzy’s three brothers avidly listening to a record of English composer Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra which showcases the capacities of each section of the orchestra – the original theme is deconstructed then reconstructed into a fugue which could represent the structure of the film itself – the ordered community dissolves into chaos which thankfully manages to reconstruct itself.

Another Britten piece with a presence in the film is Noye’s Fludde, an opera adaptation of one of the Chester mystery plays which Britten stipulated be performed by amateur children in a non-theatrical setting, preferably a church – this time the Church of St. Jack on New Penzance. During the production, Sam and Suzy first meet and Anderson, who films it beautifully with candle-light, could not not have picked a better opera to stage. A riff on the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, it emphasises cooperation, togetherness and love – perhaps the main themes of the entire film.

Another notable musical selection is that of Françoise Hardy’s Le temps de l’amour to accompany Sam and Suzy’s mating dance on the beach – one of the most romantic scenes I can remember from recent years. The song states (in French) that, although love lasts forever, it is still too short – it is no wonder that the young couple are desperate to be together, rather than apart.

Perhaps even more important than the sounds are the visuals and for his latest production Anderson has decided to shoot with 16mm (aka Super 16). Anderson has always had a rather Tolkien-esque attention to detail and Moonrise Kingdom allows him to extend this to the outdoors much more than he has before. The visible grain gives the image depth and a vérité feel that contrasts with Anderson’s dollhouse-like composition but, I’m pleased to say, everything works perfectly, meshing together into a delightful synthesis of picturesque beauty.

Anderson is perhaps the modern master of what Michael Powell termed “the composed film” where each element is given careful consideration and, whether complimenting or contrasting, come together into a harmonious whole. Moonrise Kingdom is certainly Anderson’s most technically accomplished film and may even be his best. At a paltry 93 minutes, I was left wanting more – not because there was anything missing but because I was enjoying the world on screen to such a degree that I didn’t want to leave and perhaps that, more than anything else, is the highest praise I can bestow on a film.

The Hunger Games

24 Mar

I’ve sat through a lot of ‘young adult’ adaptations over the past few years – from the mediocre Harry Potter series to the plain awful Twilight saga – and The Hunger Games trilogy, adapted from the bestselling novels by Suzanne Collins, is being touted as their successor in the business of harvesting the pocket money of so-called ‘tweens’. However, almost shockingly, The Hunger Games is actually good. I’d even go a bit further than that – it’s great!

Directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), The Hunger Games is set in the futuristic, dystopian nation of Panem, named after the Roman method of subduing a population into harmless docility ‘panem et circenses’ or ‘Bread and Circuses’. Here, the entertainment takes the form of the titular Hunger Games where two young citizens (one male, one female) of each district, picked at random, are sent to participate in a televised fight to the death. The plot is quite evidently influenced by everything from the myth of Theseus to the aforementioned Ancient Rome to, controversially, the Japanese novel/film/manga Battle Royale. However, the film more than stands its ground, perhaps because its critique of reality television and themes dealing with oppressive, manipulative governments are worryingly timely.

The Hunger Games focuses on Katniss Everdeen, brilliantly played by Jennifer Lawrence who was Oscar-nominated for her role in Winter’s Bone, who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister and represent District 12 in the arena. Katniss is one of the most memorable heroines of recent memory – a relatable character who’s plight, whether it is the struggle keeping her family alive back home or her struggle to survive in the games, is emotionally engaging. In a time where heroines seem to purely exist as psychosexual objects, Katniss is a breath of fresh air. Joining her as the male tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) who, unbeknownst to Katniss, has harboured a crush on her for several years – which, when revealed, clearly doesn’t please Katniss’ friend and hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Stylistically, the film is very impressive. Director Gary Ross has managed to envelope the film in an atmospheric malaise – an ominous tone of dread that manages to accentuate the most important themes that The Hunger Games deals with. In order to make the film suitable for it’s target PG-13/12A audience, the violence has been toned down but this has the effect of necessitating some stylish techniques in order to properly get the message across. The use of sound – or lack of – tautly conveys the fear and disorientation Katniss experiences; the handheld camera work during the games implants you into the arena, giving you an insight into the horrifyingly sadistic government tool as a contestant would experience it and the editing of certain scenes, such as the rebellion in District 11, made me think that it was Battleship Potemkin for the modern teenager.

The only negative I have regarding the film is that the CGI looked surprisingly primitive. In 2012, where entire films can be constructed from CGI, there really is no excuse for not managing to conjure up a convincing fire. The only explanation that I have is that they ran out of money but there was never any question that this film was going to be a resounding box-office success. However, unusually, this film is a blockbuster that is intelligent, interesting and very well-made. Time will tell if Ross manages to successfully adapt the two sequels which, as books, were noticeably weaker than the first entry but – as the menacing President Snow (Donald Sutherland) chillingly states, hope is the only thing stronger than fear.

Yi Yi

11 Mar

Despite losing out to Lars Von Trier’s polarising musical Dancer in the Dark for the Palme d’Or at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and A Two), which managed to pick up Best Director, is almost unarguably the better film. An intimate, epic portrait of the middle-class Jian family, Yi Yi focuses on individuals from three different generations – the middle-aged NJ (Wu Nien-Jen), the teenaged Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and the young Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) in order to provide a commentary on life itself. At the centre of the story is NJ’s comatose mother-in-law (Tang Ru-Yun) whom the family have to care for and converse to.

As the world-weary businessman NJ, Yang cast the famed actor/director/screenwriter Wu Nien-Jen who gives an impressive performance with subtle but powerful emotion. In contrast to his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) who undergoes an explosive emotional breakdown, NJ’s mid-life crisis is inward and reserved. It is a malaise that’s sparked when he encounters his former love, Sherry (Ko Su-Yun), who attempts to get back into his life. The attraction between them is undiminished but NJ cannot decide whether or not to let her back into his life – hindered by what kept them apart 30 years ago as well as his current martial vows. On top of this, he cannot seem to reconcile his honest nature with his naturally dishonest occupation.

Concurrently, his daughter Ting-Ting has entered a relationship with Fatty (Pang Chang Tu) whose stark realism contrasts with her optimistic view on life. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Yang dazzlingly contrasts, parallels and intertwines their first date with what is taking place in Japan between NJ and Sherry through the use of one of his trademark techniques – poetic overlapping. Like the doubt that NJ carries over entering a relationship with Sherry, Fatty still hasn’t fully recovered from his relationship with Ting-Ting’s friend Li-Li (Adrian Lin).

Ting-Ting carries a burden of guilt over her Grandmother’s coma as she collapsed while taking out the trash which is normally Ting-Ting’s job. During a particularly affecting scene, Ting-Ting opens up to her comatose Grandmother – deploring the unfair nature of life and begging her to wake up.

However, nearly every character in some way, shape or form is responsible for the Grandmother’s accident. Through his masterful direction, Yang implements chaos theory into this microcosm of everyday human life – demonstrating how even the slightest action can have consequences.

Perhaps the only truly innocent character in this yarn is the young Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) who has an almost uncanny ability to see life as it is. The musings of his childish mind are unwittingly deeply philosophical meanderings that reverberate at the core of the film. Yang-Yang’s epistemological questionings address the film’s themes of perspective and truth. He asks his father “Can we only know half the truth?” and later we discover he has a collection of photographs of the back of people’s heads – something that we can never usually see. His childish actions make sure that the film never gives him omniscience but rather shows that the mind of a child can view life without the trappings of egocentricity.

Sadly, Yi Yi was to be Edward Yang’s last film. He died in 2007 from colon cancer, at the age of 59. However, Yi Yi is perhaps the perfect last hurrah that shows a master still at the height of his powers. His stylistic techniques (such as his unparalleled use of reflections) imbue the cinematography of the film with a lyrical beauty that is reflected in the epic saga he depicts. Bookended by a wedding and a funeral, Yi Yi is a work of intense humanism – a eulogy to life itself, no matter how ordinary.

Children of the Night: The Vampire Film at 90

4 Mar

Ninety years ago today, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was premiered in the Marmorsaal of the British Zoological Gardens. Nosferatu was an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel Dracula and Stoker’s widow successfully sued for copyright infringement and almost in succeeded in destroying all prints of the film. For all intents and purposes, Nosferatu was the first vampire film and over the years hundreds more have followed in its wake.

Lord Ruthven, one of the first vampire figures in English literature, was based on the genuine Lord Byron – one of the leading figures of the Romantic movement and one of the original ‘bad boys’ of popular culture. As one of his lovers described him, Lord Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know” and that is the typical stencil of a vampire – physically attractive but not someone you’d necessarily want to settle down with. Indeed, the earliest cinematic vampires weren’t of the supernatural variety we know today but simply ‘vamps’ – now more commonly known as femme fatales.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire provided the title for the 1915 film A Fool There Was which featured Theda Bara as a femme fatale who seduces a Wall Street lawyer. The film earned Bara the nickname “The Vamp” and rocketed her to stardom, spawning imitators across the globe including Pola Negri who became one of the most popular stars of the silent era and is today known for her many collaborations with Ernst Lubitsch.

With Murnau’s influential Nosferatu, the cinematic vampire evolved into the blood-sucking supernatural beings that we all know today but they retain the metaphor for repressed or forbidden desire that was present in the femme fatale figure. However, the femme fatale figure didn’t disappear from the screens, in fact they didn’t reach their peak until the 40s and 50s where they were a staple of American film noir.

Over the past ninety years an immeasurable number have been produced with varying quality and Count Dracula himself has the distinction of being the most portrayed fictional character in cinema with over 170 film appearances. So, which of these are bloody good?

Nosferatu

In F.W. Murnau’s landmark vampire film, Max Schreck gives a chilling, career-defining performance as Count Orlok (aka the eponymous Nosferatu) – a nobleman, analogous to Dracula, who has a certain hunger for human blood. Orlok has the distinction of being one of the most unattractive vampires in cinema, with a positively repulsive appearance. Rather than the more elegant vampires that followed, Orlok was animalistic and conveyed what giving in to your carnal desires would reduce you to – Murnau’s way of conveying that sex or the lust for it was the source of evil. Nosferatu‘s eerie, gothic atmosphere retains it’s haunting qualities nine decades on and remains one of the defining masterpieces of the silent era. It’s also worth watching Werner Herzog’s stylish remake/adaptation, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, which features Klaus Kinski in the title role.

Dracula

Of all his 170 films, Count Dracula has never been quite as iconic as in this 1931 Universal adaptation where he’s played by Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s performance is generally regarded as the definitive portrayal of the Count with his authoritative screen presence and measured pacing (not to mention his accent) proving a match for the character’s cadaverous nature. Perhaps only Christopher Lee has come close to matching Lugosi in the role but the latter remains the best.

Vampyr

After directing what is a prime candidate for the greatest film of all time, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer turned his hand to sound – and horror. With a disorientating atmosphere that straddles the border between reality and nightmare, Vampyr features a series of mysterious – and possibly supernatural – killings and stars Julian West as a traveller who has to come to terms that there may be more than just heaven and earth. Deemed by Alfred Hitchcock as “the only film worth watching…twice”, Dreyer’s unsettling tale is now regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Black Sunday

Possibly the finest film to come out of the Italian horror renaissance, Mario Bava’s debut feature Black Sunday concerns a vampire/witch who was put to death by her brother, only to return 200 years later to feast on her descendants. With impressive expressionist visuals and a unsettling and genuinely creepy narrative, Bava’s atmospheric horror is one of the finest vampire film.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders mixes together fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland and vampire folklore into a horror/fantasy where the supernatural becomes surrealistic. Jaroslava Schallerová plays the titular Valerie who’s nascent sexuality puts her in danger from the town’s adult inhabitants who are all after her “magic earrings”. One of the most radical depictions of vampires in cinema, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a mindbending Czech tour de force.

Near Dark

Recent Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow directed this vampire film in the late 80s. A tale of a farm boy who reluctantly becomes a member of a family of vampires when a girl he meets turns out to be of the undead variety, Near Dark is a western/horror hybrid that has an almost poetic poignancy and features some beautiful cinematography. It remains the finest example of vampiric romance (I’m looking at you Twilight!).

Cronos

The feature film debut of Guillermo del Toro, Cronos is a chilly spin on the vampire tale. It concerns Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) who stumbles upon an extraordinary alchemic device in his antique shop that holds the promise of immortality but dying millionaire Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) is aware of the device’s existence and will do anything to get his hands on it. Like the vast majority of vampire films, Cronos focuses on forbidden desire but rather than concerning itself with sexuality, it’s an atmospheric exploration on the perils on immortality. Who wants to live forever?

Let the Right One In

One of the standout films of the noughties, Let the Right One In is set in an eerie, atmospheric Stockholm suburb in the 80s where a 12-year-old outcast, Oskar, befriends his enigmatic neighbour, Eli, who turns out to be a vampire. Tomas Alfredson reinvented the vampire film with this touching realist fantasy where the vampirism is symbolic of a boy’s pent-up rage at his tormentors and loneliness.

And The Oscar Didn’t Go To…

26 Feb

83 years since they began, the Academy Awards still hold an aura of awe and amazement that’s normally reserved for big sporting events. This is almost impossible to comprehend because this is the organisation that deemed such drivel classics as CrashDriving Miss Daisy and Cimarron to be the finest cinema had to offer in their respective years. You can’t please everyone but the Academy rarely pleases anyone. Here’s my expose of the Oscar’s 5 most glaring errors…

Citizen Kane

Nominations: 9

Won: 1

Best Picture Winner: How Green Was My Valley?

To be fair to the Academy, they gave Citizen Kane a very impressive 9 nominations. However, for what is now regarded as the greatest film of all time to only win in one category – Best Writing (Original Screenplay) – seems quite shocking. The results were undoubtedly down to the influence exerted by William Randolph Hearst, the powerful media mogul who the film was based on. He tried desperately to suppress the film and thankfully failed. It’s very telling that almost all contemporary references to Hearst are in the context of the film. As The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance put it – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. Valance, one of the best Westerns ever made, was also snubbed at the Oscars but in the year that brought us Lawrence of Arabia and not, in the case of Kane, How Green Was My Valley?it’s much easier to get your head around. The only reason to watch the incredibly dated How Green Was My Valley? is to see what bested Citizen Kane.

The Third Man

Nominations: 3 

Won: 1

Best Picture Winner: All About Eve

Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Carol Reed’s The Third Man was slightly ignored at the 23rd Academy Awards. It garnered three nominations – Best Director, Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Film Editing – but Best Picture eluded it Harry Lime-style. This would have been easier to tolerate if Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard scooped the top gong but the award went to the admittedly iconic but still rather average All About Eve. The Third Man has a connection with the aforementioned Citizen Kane in the form of Orson Welles who gave one of his greatest performances as Harry Lime. To the eternal shame of the Academy, Welles, despite being one of the best actors and directors to ever have walked the promenades of Hollywood, was continually snubbed  and won only two Oscars – one for writing Citizen Kane and the other a non-competitive honorary award.

Singin’ in the Rain

Nominations: 2

Won: 0

Best Picture Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth

In the year when Cecil B DeMille’s lavishly overindulgent The Greatest Show on Earth took home Best Picture, now-perennial favourite Singin’ in the Rain was shockingly overlooked. The Greatest Show on Earth is now recognised as one of the worst Best Picture winners though Steven Spielberg does credit it with inspiring him to become a filmmaker. Everyone else has since recognised The Greatest Show on Earth for the bad egg it is and Singin’ in the Rain as a toe-tapping, feel-good musical masterpiece – the balance of the world has been restored.

Vertigo

Nominations: 2

Won: 0

Best Picture Winner: Gigi

Of the four films directed by Alfred Hitchcock to be nominated for Best Picture, only Rebecca won (and arguably, it should have been The Great Dictator). The Academy didn’t nominate what are today recognised as his greatest works – Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds and Vertigo – for Best Picture and in a year where the nominees were universally poor, Vertigo didn’t just deserve a nomination – it deserved to win.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Nominations: 4

Won: 1

Best Picture Winner: Oliver!

In 1969, the Academy wanted to apologise to Carol Reed for the injustice that was the lack of a Best Picture nomination for The Third Man so they gave his musical based on the Broadway musical based on the Charles Dickens classic Oliver! a whopping 11 nominations – of which it won 6. Now, I have a bit of a soft spot for Oliver! and it’s musical numbers are so toe-tapping that your buttocks will not even notice the 153 minute duration but the film that should have unequivocally swept the board is Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey. They did give Kubrick what would be his only Oscar – for Best Visual Effects – but that doesn’t seem quite enough for a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Shockingly, they didn’t give his earlier masterpiece, Paths of Glory, any nominations either.

 

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