Rainer Werner Fassbinder had made 40 feature films before his death at the young age of 37 in 1982. Fear Eats the Soul (1974) is a film that stares, right from the opening scene. Decent people have to bear it and get on with their lives. Fox and His Friends (1975) is possibly the most autobiographical of Fassbinder’s films with himself in the lead role as a gay man who wins the lottery, moves in with his lover and tries to live his life before it falls apart in front of him. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) co-stars Hanna Schygulla who appears in half of Fassbinder’s films. Schygulla is the new lover of costume designer Petra, their world is closed, taking place entirely in Petra’s house. The heartache, despair and beautiful moments like the dance to The Flamingos ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ haunt the memory. Fassbinder based Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) on the making of his previous film Whity (1971). Lou Castel is a crazy and hot-headed actor turned director. A wide-shot of Schygulla and other dancing around a battered Castel perfectly capture the madness. Hanna Schygulla stars in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), her beauty, pose and determination make her incarnate of Fassbinder. His camera captures the despair and willfulness of his characters head-on. There isn’t a filmmaker who makes films more personal than him.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger believe in dreams. It is clear in the films of theirs that I’ve seen that they have created their own world within each film. I first saw A Matter of Life and Death (1946) I found that it was bursting with ideas, ahead of its time. Love is at the centre in all of the films. In I Know Where I’m Going (1945) Wendy Hiller is determined like all of their protagonists. In The Red Shoes (1948) I was reminded how Douglas Sirk used colour, effective and contrasting with themes. Moira Shearer’s red hair, Anton Walbrook’s ghost-like face. David Mamet wrote of his favourite film starring his favourite actor, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) starring Roger Livesey. Deborah Kerr plays three roles; her red hair and her beauty are crisp and full of life. The bell of the convent in Black Narcissus (1947) is right on the edge of a cliff. A lecturer of mine wrote her Ph.D thesis on the vivid and luscious landscapes in Powell and Pressburger films. Deborah Kerr is a nun, Clodagh originally from Enniskerry Co. Wicklow of all places! There is a fast-cut of Kerr reacting that reminded me how Nic Roeg edits, such precision. The images in my head of this film are starling close-ups of faces and eyes, the sweat on Kathleen Byron’s face and the convent disappearing into the mist, the film’s final image. The films of Powell and Pressburger continue to inspire in their dreamlike tranquility.
Nic Roeg films have taken us to London, the Australian Outback, Venice, New Mexico, Vienna, Vancouver and back to London. He co-directed his first film Performance (Roeg and Cammell, 1970) with Donald Cammell in his hometown of London, Roeg lives not far from Turner’s house in Notting Hill. He turns 87 this August and from what I’ve seen he is full life and humour. He began as an assistant cameraman in the early 1950s, becoming a cinematographer in the 1960s, working with the likes of David Lean and Francois Truffaut. I’ve been reading John Izod’s Jungian study of Roeg, The Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind (1992), I find half of it difficult to grasp but the other half is fascinating. Roeg also wrote a book, a memoir of sorts, The World is Ever Changing. It is a joy of ideas and wealth of experience, structured like one of his films. Credit must given to the wonderful screenwriters such as Paul Mayersberg who wrote The Man Fell to Earth (Roeg, 1976) and Eureka (Roeg, 1983) and Allan Scott who wrote Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973), (with Chris Bryant) Castaway (Roeg, 1986) The Witches (Roeg, 1990), Cold Heaven (Roeg, 1991), Two Deaths (Roeg, 1995) and Samson and Delilah (Roeg, 1996). All of which are literary adaptations. Dennis Potter who adapted his television play Schmoedipus (Davis, 1974) into Track 29 (Roeg, 1988). Roeg and Potter were a partnership made in heaven, each are interested in human discourse and themes of alienation and time. Bad Timing (Roeg, 1980) was Yale Udoff’s first screenplay, further themes of alienation and time, Theresa Russell’s character writes “I wish you could understand less and love me more. I wish you would not defining”.
Performance was the beginning of Roegian editing, time going forward and back. The final image of the car driving away into the distance with voodo music is enigmatic, one of the great endings of all-time. Then again so many of Nic Roeg’s endings are great. John Barry’s score of Walkabout (Roeg, 1971) might be his best, poignant and soulful. Walkabout’s script was 14 pages long, it is about tone, mood and the breathtaking cinematography by Roeg himself. The ending of Walkabout moved me deeply when I first saw it, A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad took me beyond the end credits. I was lost like Jenny Agutter was. Don’t Look Now is Roeg’s best known film, it about a couple who lose their child, then go to Venice so that Donald Sutherland can restore a church. Pino Donaggio’s score is first solemn then starling. The film knows fear only too well.
In New Mexico a world away from Venice, David Bowie is The Man Who Fell to Earth, it is the beautifully simple story of an alien who comes down to earth looking for water to save his planet, he becomes an alcoholic. Roeg’s narrative structure is unique and ahead of its time. He wrote a sign for audiences going in to the see film, saying ‘go in with an open mind, it won’t connect up like you might expect it to’. Bowie’s thin figure and Anthony Richmond’s spacious cinematography give the film its own world.
I spent an afternoon in Vienna with a friend searching for the apartment of Theresa Russell from my favourite Roeg film Bad Timing it was sadly demolished for a shopping centre still in early stages. Re-watching Bad Timing recently cemented in my brain its soul, uniqueness and the touch of that Roegian juxtaposed editing. In one scene in a POV shot Art Garfunkel looks as a nurse speaks to him, she stares at us, whilst Harvey Keitel appears in the foreground, he winks at Garfunkel. Everything about it is Nic Roegian; uncomfortable, bizarre and stupendous. Garfunkel and Keitel both wear black suits, Roeg juxaposes the two with a picture, Garfunkel puts it up on his wall and Keitel takes it down. Roeg and ex-wife Theresa Russell made seven films together. She told Nic that he has such bad timing with the producers, that’s where the title came from. Russell starred as Gene Hackman’s daughter in Roeg’s next film Eureka, a film that after seeing it a few times I still struggle to piece it together. There is a wonderful courtroom scene in which Russell states to her husband Rutger Hauer “You tripped and you stumbled and I picked you up”. I’ve gone back to that scene many times, I think it’s Russell’s finest moment.
Insignificance (Roeg, 1985) with Russell as Marilyn Monroe is interesting, but it loses me in its ideas. Oliver Reed is a great actor but Castaway isn’t one of Roeg’s films to revisit. Roeg contributed a segment for Aria (Roeg et al, 1987), a fictional account of the attempted assassination of King Zog I of Albania to the music of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Russell plays the king. In the opening scene she appears as an actress overlooking Vienna once again. Track 29 may be Roeg’s last great film. It stars Russell once again, in relationship with an older man (common in her film roles) Christopher Lloyd. Gary Oldman at his maniac best may be Russell’s son. Even though Russell is exactly one year and one day older than Oldman, the film is strong enough to edge away from it. Russell’s friend Colleen Camp looks and dresses like Russell. Russell is trapped in a generic lifestyle, her husband struggles to communicate with women, he fears them. In the opening scene Oldman flickers onto the screen on a bridge which is reminiscent of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Oldman even has Bowie’s red hair style. John Lennon’s song Mother blares on the soundtrack, perfectly emphasising Oldman’s rage. This is a fitting contrast to Russell smiling before driving away to escape the madness at the end of the film.
The Witches was the first Nic Roeg film that I saw, I was too young to know much about cinema then. Having just re-watched it it such a bizarre film, it veers towards Ken Russell’s The Devils (Russell, 1971) especially when the hotel is in chaos after an unexpected mass of mice. Some of the witches are clearly men in drag, Roeg’s sense of humour no doubt. Allan Scott gives Rowan Atkinson some fine comic moments. Roald Dahl hated the film’s ending of a recently turned white witch played by Jane Horrocks turning Luke back into a boy. In the book he stays a mouse. There is scene in the hotel where Anjelica Huston sees a child in a painting, she smiles and taps the image with her finger. Horrocks approaches the painting, before she can touch it Huston calls her away. I’ve seeing this film so many times, I never realised that this is a sign of Horrocks’ goodness by attempting to release the child. After the Horrocks walks away, there is a close-up of the painting, the child disappears.
The poster of Cold Heaven has Theresa Russell looking knowing and ever beautiful dressed in black. The film isn’t one of Roeg’s best efforts though Russell is endearing. Her brief voice-over strikes a cord in my memory. Roeg and Russell’s final collaboration together was an erotic short drama Hotel Paradise (Roeg, 1995). I have only seen six of the film’s thirty minutes, it still has Roeg’s touch of fluid camera placement. Roeg’s most recent film is the Northern Ireland set supernatural mystery thriller Puffball (Roeg, 2007) starring Kelly Reilly, Miranda Richardson, Rita Tushingham and a cameo from Donald Sutherland. I struggled with its plot and devious characters. Nic Roeg really was ahead of his time, the most alive of any filmmaker I know. Roeg has said after Puffball that maybe the last film he ever makes will have a happy ending, he had one in The Witches but I’ll go with Track 29’s blissful hysteria, Theresa Russell was made for cinema.
I’ve yet to see Glastonbury Fayre (Roeg and Neal, 1972), Sweet Bird of Youth (Roeg, 1989), The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode, Paris, October 1916 (Roeg, 1993), Heart of Darkness (Roeg, 1993), the rest of Hotel Paradise (1995), Two Deaths (1995), Full Body Massage (Roeg, 1995), Samson and Delilah (1996) and The Sound of Claudia Schiffer (Roeg, 2000).
It was about seven years ago when I first saw The 400 Blows (1959), I loved its view of Paris, its solidarity of going nowhere in particular. After waiting for years, The box set of the five films of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) all co-written and directed by Francois Truffaut was released on Region 2 by Artificial Eye in Britain. The film following The 400 Blows is a short film (part of the feature Love at Twenty) called Antoine et Colette (1962). Antoine gets on well with Colette’s parents, but Colette (Marie-France Pisier) does not share his feelings. Shot once again in black and white Antoine et Colette is a bittersweet chapter in the life of Doinel. In Stolen Kisses (1968), Antoine goes from the army, to hotel watchman, to private detective working on the street and then undercover in shoe shop to a TV repairman. Truffaut seems to having the most fun in the series with this episodic narrative. it’s full of humour. Truffaut’s camera placements are static and knowing. Antoine is close to Christine (Claude Jade) who he has been chasing for two years. “Making love to someone is proving you exist” says a colleague to Antoine. In Bed and Board (1970) Antoine and Christine are married and have a son, Alphonse. Antoine runs a flower stall in the courtyard of their apartment building and Christine teaches violin lessons. Soon after Antoine gets a new job and things get complicated. The last scene is pure comedy, Antoine mirrors the man next door by throwing his wife’s coat and handbag down the stairs when she won’t leave fast enough. Leaud’s natural way with dialogue and general presence make the character watchable regardless of his actions. In the final chapter Love on the Run (1979) (which contains many flashbacks from the previous films) Antoine tries ultimately to sort his life out with what he has. Who knows what ever happened to him beyond that last scene. The opening and closing credits have stills of the characters, Truffaut’s homage to twenty years in one person’s life.
Truffaut said of Leaud “the most interesting actor of his generation. There are actors who are interesting even if they merely stand in front of a door; Léaud is one of them” Mark Cousins said of Leaud “Truffaut’s alter-ego, way better than Brando, Clift, James Dean or De Niro. Nobody acts like him, nobody looks like him. He’s maniac, cheeky, he bursts cinema” Leaud holds a real presence on screen. Antoine shares many similarities with Truffaut, they even look alike. . Doinel coasts through life, he always lives in the present. By making five films Truffaut is simply saying life goes on. Each film is its own film, which is rare to say for a series. Truffaut and Leaud have achieved five masterpieces about life with all its ordinariness and coincidences.
Once every ten years since 1942 Sight and Sound compiles lists from directors and critics for the greatest films of all time. In his book ‘Hatchet Job’ Mark Kermode berates critics’ choices for being ‘black and white foreign films that no one has heard of’. Maybe if you are on the road to find out films that are lesser known such choices will be an education to you. What is the greatest film of all time? Is it The Godfather? Citizen Kane? The Shawshank Redemption? Vertigo? Maybe it’s a black white film from 1979 called L’enfant secret. Australian film academic Adrian Martin tells the story of being in Screen 2 of the IFI in Dublin in June 2001 for a screening of L’enfant secret. Martin said “I dreamed it in my mind of what it could be… I had a strong desire for it to be something great and in fact the film was infinitely greater than anything I had dreamed”. At the end of the film, Martin was asked ‘have we just seen the greatest film ever made?’ He said yes, and still believes it.
I’ve just re-watched Bad Timing, part of me felt like I was watching it for the first time. It is compulsory to watch Mark Cousins’ Moviedrome introduction to it before watching, it’s part of the film. The beautiful and mythical Klimt paintings fit the film like a glove. The constant juxtaposing of time through the images, characters breaking the fourth wall and those close-ups of objects make the film very distinct. My head buzzes with the images, it is a fascinating film, because to remember it is to directly recall the film’s style of editing. Like Le Corbusier said ‘thought is cinematic’. I’d forgotten the amount of the times that the camera zooms effectively and with purpose. The cross-fade between the untidy apartment and it furnished with a piano (accompanied by Keith Jarrett’s mournful music) is astonishing. This and the close-up of Russell’s face on the bridge at the beginning are why I love film, so emotional, so alive.
Note: Maybe if we search more for a film beyond Hollywood, we will come across The Insect Woman, about a woman who won’t give up no matter what is thrown at her. Mark Cousins said “My favourite film, The Insect Woman, by Imamura Shohei, isn’t all that well known, but should be. It’s about a lower class Japanese woman who struggles through life, has a child, and works as a maid for a posher woman. It’s shocking – at one point the Japanese woman seems to suckle her dad. In another, we see a child scald herself with boiling soup. But there are two reasons why I love it. Firstly, its style. The Insect Woman is one of the most beautiful films ever made. It’s shot very widescreen, and the compositions are breathtaking. The scalding scene is done in two amazing shots, one far away from the kid, one from above the stove, with the child out of focus below. The second reason I like it is because of what it says about people. The first shot is an insect scuttling across the land. Then we cut to the woman doing the same. For the rest of the film she scuttles, feral, determined not to give up. To use an insect as a metaphor for a woman is unflattering in a way, but Imamura loves her for her unstoppability, her survival instinct, her glorious forward propulsion. The film moves me to tears and thrills me with its pictorial beauty.”
I’ve just spent six days in five cities and three countries visiting my friends David in Berlin and Dominic in Brno. I started in Berlin where I walked down both sides of the Berlin Wall playing the theme from Wings of Desire on my iPod over and over. Then I went to the Filmmuseum Berlin, I found memories from Marlene Dietrich, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Filmstudio Babelsberg was not exactly open to the public, they have a Film Park next to it, some interesting props like a set of The Pianist and the alien head from Alien and a stunt show with awful sound effects.
I missed my bus to Brno by a few minutes, so waited for the next one, a six and half hour trip to the Czech Republic. The small TVs for the journey had Before Sunrise, which was the perfect watch. I went to Brno Lake which was spectacular like Camden, Maine from In the Bedroom. There are so many wonderful churches in Brno, a little known city for tourists. A day trip to Vienna prompted me to look for Milena’s apartment from Bad Timing, we spent about hour and a half searching. It was a pilgrimage, I kept replaying the film in my head. The address is 2 Schonbrunner Schlosstrasse. It turns out even numbers (2 to 14) where knocked last year for a shopping centre which is still under construction. Disgraceful. The street has changed a lot since the filming in 1979. Richard Linklater shot Before Sunrise here. It’s Michael Haneke’s home, the setting of many of his films including The Piano Teacher and Benny’s Video. I spent my last day in Prague before the airport, very Medieval. I kept thinking of Bill Murray’s fleeting visit here last year. I need to watch the Czech New Wave films like The Fireman’s Ball and Daisies.