Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Story of Film: An Odyssey, part 10: Radical Directors in the 1970’s Make State-of-the-Nation Movies (Hopscotch Films, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The series is The Story of Film: An Odyssey and TCM has been running episodes every Monday night, sometimes repeating them on Tuesday (though not this week!), and I’d been steadily recording them but hadn’t got around actually to watching one until last night. The one I watched last night was episode 10, called (with the typically expansive and absurdist title strategies used for this show) “Radical Directors in the 1970’s Make State-of-the-Nation Movies.” I hope the episode I watched last night is not representative of the series as a whole, for what I saw last night was a surprisingly dull excursion into non-American films of the early 1970’s, some of them relatively famous (Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem — the latter about the only movie I can think of ever based on a piece of writing by Jorge Luis Borges, most of whose works deal so expansively with various levels of consciousness and conceptions of “reality” they are probably unfilmable — Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, one of the few films on this list I’ve actually seen) and some of them lesser known, including Black Girl and Xala by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene (the latter seems especially interesting because it’s a meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss parable about what happened to Senegal once it became independent: the new Black ruling class behaved like the same greedy, power-mad, irresponsible assholes as the French colonial rulers they had replaced), another African film that was essentially an uncredited reworking of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit, a couple of Japanese documentaries (including one about a particular incident in World War II that ended with the film’s protagonist and another war veteran literally coming to blows on camera), a three-part film from Chilean director Patricio Guzmán that began in the early 1970’s as a project about Salvador Allende’s government and ended up featuring real-time footage of the coup that overthrew him (one wonders how Guzmán and his film both survived the maniacally intense repression Allende’s usurper, General Augusto Pinochet, ordered and sustained for over two decades afterwards), and a few other oddball movies that seem like they might be worth seeing.

What disappointed me about this show is that it’s really pretty much just a compendium of film clips, interspersed with a few interviews with some of their directors (Bertolucci was shown sitting in a wheelchair; I had no idea he now needed one!) and a state-the-obvious-with-a-real-sense-of-discovery commentary in a very thick, annoying Scottish accent by the series host, Mark Cousins. One wonders what he did in the earlier episodes, about films whose directors are long dead and therefore not being available for interviews. As an index to what at least one imdb.com contributor has called “films you should see before you die,” this program has its merits; as a serious history of cinema, forget it — though I noted that Cousins seems to go into orgasms every time a director shoots a sequence silent and then dubs in the soundtrack later. “No synch sound!” he says about movie after movie — as if that’s somehow not merely a valid technique but a superior one, one which sets an especially artistic film apart from one that’s just (as Alfred Hitchcock once put it) “pictures of people talking.”