roland barfs film diary week 47
spencer, the french connection, harry and tonto, throne of blood, babylon
PREORDERS FOR MY NOVEL, ROSS HALL, ARE STILL OPEN UNTIL NOVEMBER 26TH (THIS FRIDAY). FOR £20 (ABOUT $27 USD) YOU GET TWO NOVELS—MINE AND EDMOND CALDWELL’S HUMAN WISHES/ENEMY COMBATANT—SHIPPED ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. GENERAL RELEASE WILL BE IN MARCH, BUT IF YOU SIGN UP TO THE PUBLISHER’S SUBSCRIPTION SCHEME YOU’LL GET THE BOOKS IN JANUARY. MY NOVEL DOES NOT DISCUSS ANY FILMS BUT IF YOU ENJOY MY WRITING AND WANT TO SUPPORT ME TO PRODUCE MORE OF IT, PREORDERING MY NOVEL IS CURRENTLY THE BEST WAY TO DO THAT. EXCUSE THE ALL-CAPS BUT I REALLY WANT PEOPLE TO READ MY BOOK. YOU CAN PREORDER DIRECT FROM GRAND IOTA’S WEBSITE. THANKS. TELL A FRIEND.
November 15. Monday. L and I are in Bristol, having come down to the south west to meet L’s mother in Bath yesterday. Much of Bristol is closed on Mondays, so we spend the day vaguely wandering around the city, going to a few bookshops. I buy some Anna Kavan, some Roberto Calasso, and a book on Minoan and Mycenean art. We sneak into the university buildings to use their toilets, then we eat a mediocre bibimbap for lunch. In the early afternoon we go to the Showcase Cinema de Lux in Broadmead, where we watch Spencer (dir. Pablo Larraín, 2021) in a practically empty screen—about four other people in there. I use MUBI Go and it completely baffles the person at the box office. Spencer is a completely adequate psychological period drama, which sits between genres nicely, never quite committing to either the straight biopic or the off-kilter arthouse exploration of mental collapse. Kristen Stewart carries the film, and she does it pretty well for the most part, with only a few moments of awkwardness that make her seem like a glitchy marionette, her jaw trying to work its way around an accent she’s not entirely comfortable with, her eyes and neck muscles twitching like a songbird. I don’t really care very much about Princess Diana, though as someone who grew up in Britain in the 1990s she is obviously an inescapable part of my psychic geology. Spencer, unsurprisingly, makes me feel quite sympathetic towards her and her children, and disdainful towards the rest of the royal family, but then it also reminds me of the fact that she came from a background of unimaginable privilege and was part of the aristocracy and I feel a kind of veering away from my empathetic engagement with the myth-making. Though the royal family undoubtedly murdered her, and that’s pretty fucked up. L has a much closer psychological connection to Princess Di, since they share a birthday (this is why I’ve always felt close to Timothée Chalamet and Gerard Depardieu). Spencer is a pretty solid weekday afternoon movie, which I enjoy and feel pretty engaged by, which manages to keep the anxiety at bay for a while by encouraging me to enter into somebody else’s neurosis for a while. The cinematographer has done an excellent job of depicting how claustrophobic the English countryside is on a winter’s day: the thin oppressive light, the dullness of the air, the mud. It is a satisfyingly confined film, doing good work of showing how expansive corridors and plush furnishings—as well as unending rolling fields and trimmed hedgerows—can feel cramped and confined and oppressive. I guess Princess Diana is kind of having a moment these days, for some reason or another—90s revivalism, maybe?—and Spencer is an adequate contribution to this cultural event. It was more interesting than I expected, and even if it didn’t always work for me it’s the kind of film I like to see: a mid-budget psychological drama about adults struggling with the lives they’ve accidentally found themselves in. Not great, but good enough.
After Spencer we go back to our large anonymous hotel to collect our bags, and then go and drink a cider while we wait for a train to Chepstow. It’s dark when we leave Bristol, a little after five. We cross the Severn into Wales and spend some time waiting on a long and empty platform near Caldicot. In Chepstow we’re staying at a small cottage in the town centre. The town seems to be mostly empty; we go to buy something to eat and barely see anyone. We heat up some oven pizzas and read a little bit, before giving up and turning on the TV. Way down in the channels list is Talking Pictures TV, on which The French Connection (dir. William Friedkin, 1971) is being shown in their nine o’clock slot. Readers of the film diary who have been here throughout 2021 will know that I’ve spent a lot of time on films from 1971 this year, and have also watched a couple of William Friedkin movies over the past months, but for some reason I haven’t bothered to watch The French Connection, even though I’m sure that I’ll really like it and I know that it’s widely acclaimed as one of the great police films of all time. Some films are like that; it’s not exactly that you build up a resistance to them, you just don’t find yourself ever watching them, and the idea of doing so doesn’t really appeal to you. So I’m conscious that this is a gift from the programmers of Talking Pictures TV: this is an opportunity for me to sit down and actually watch it, and to pay attention to it, since there’ll be advert breaks I can use to check my phone if I’m not feeling absorbed enough, and anyway there’s nothing else on. Strange how sometimes you need a series of excuses and justifications to have a good aesthetic experience. Anyway, after accepting my fate and settling in to watch The French Connection I am gratified to find that, inevitably, it’s really good. It’s good for a few reasons, but mostly because it really treads the line of ambivalence that is missing from the majority of crime films that I’ve seen: you don’t know who you want to come out on top, the cops or the French drug dealers. There are a few scenes where this ambivalence is played with to great effect: 1) when Gene Hackman is standing out in the cold with a slice of pizza and a polystyrene cup of instant coffee, looking through the window of a luxury French restaurant while the drug dealers enjoy an extremely lavish meal; 2) when Gene Hackman is trailing Fernando Rey on the subway, and they both keep getting on and off the subway trains at the last possible minute, until eventually Fernando Rey makes his escape; 3) when Gene Hackman is driving a car that he’s stolen, chasing Marcel Bozzuffi who has hijacked an elevated train. In all of these scenes the viewers is compelled to imagine themselves in the shoes of both parties: we’re out in the cold with the pizza and we’re enjoying the escargot; we’re keeping a close tail on a suspect and we’re giving this idiot cop the slip; we’re driving recklessly underneath the city’s infrastructure and we’re about to finally make our getaway. I’ve not really seen many other police thrillers where the viewer’s sympathy is played with so consistently, and this feeling is put to good use at the end, which is another excellent sour ending, a big shrug, a cynical shake of the head and a grudging acknowledgment that nothing we do on this earth actually matters, so what’s the point of anything anyway. Unlike other, lesser films in the genre, The French Connection actually has the capacity to surprise, since there is a feeling (created through the lack of extra-diegetic music and the documentary, cinema verité, style of much of the camerawork) that nobody knows what’s about to happen: there is not the usual sense of rotating through a series of set pieces which everybody involved already knows by rote. It starts without any explanation, no development, just drops you into what’s happening and forces you to catch up, and it works—mostly because it treats its audience like adults who do not need constant exposition. It’s great. It’s a perfect piece of 1970s New Hollywood cynicism, with an excellent performance from Gene Hackman, a nice depiction of New York as a bleak and impoverished hell hole, completely unglamorous and sordid.
November 16. Tuesday. We wake up and walk 14.5 miles from Chepstow to Tintern Abbey and back, up the Wye Valley, through woodland and up some hills, back along the river before climbing up an almost vertical section of Offa’s Dyke and heading back through some villages in the dusk. It takes 6 hours or so, and we spend the last hour hurrying to make it back to Chepstow before it gets dark and before we get too wet. It’s a good walk, and I only fall over once. We probably could have taken more snacks, but we eat some samosas looking over a view of the Wye’s confluence with the Severn and I feel very calm for a while. I even have some ideas for my book. When we get back to Chepstow we return to the cottage and spend the rest of the evening sitting down and groaning whenever we have to move. We eat some macaroni and cheese and I drink some beers and we watch, also on Talking Pictures TV in their nine o’clock slot, Harry and Tonto (dir. Paul Mazursky, 1974). Again, like The French Connection, this is a film that I’ve been vaguely meaning to get around to for some time, but have never felt the urge to actually sit down and watch it. I am grateful to Talking Pictures TV for helping me to cross these two films off my watchlist, where they’ve been for some time. I suppose if I had a television with actual channels I might be able to do this kind of watching more often, but I also think the novelty would wear off sooner rather than later and I would just continue with my current scattershot approach to cinephilia. Anyway, this year I’ve seen two Paul Mazursky films and I’ve enjoyed them both—Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Tempest, both of which have touched on particular soft spots of actorial cathexis for me (Elliott Gould and John Cassavetes/Gena Rowlands respectively). Harry and Tonto is gentler than those two films, more tender and rambling, and it’s a very nice, enjoyable film. It’s about a nice old man, Harry (Art Carney), and his cat, Tonto, who get evicted from their apartment building on the Upper West Side (demolished to make way for a luxury parking garage—this is a film about gentrification) and who find themselves on a cross-country road trip in search of a place to live. It’s a meandering road movie about a series of interactions between characters, a way of exploring generational difference and amiability and tolerance. Harry meets a bunch of different people, including a runaway child, an old flame, a minerals and vitamins salesman, a sex worker (a slightly dodgy scene), a Native American healer (another slightly dodgy scene). He tends to display a friendly openness and inability to be really shocked by anything; there’s no atmosphere of strain or tension or conflict, just a nice old bloke roaming about having a few new experiences. Ellen Burstyn is fleetingly in it, as Harry’s daughter Shirley, who runs a bookshop in Chicago. There’s some polite, amused bafflement at the extreme behaviour of the American youth with their psychedelics and their communes and their skim-readings of Zen Buddhism. It’s the kind of film which seems to be winding up to reveal some essential truth about life, but actually doesn’t really say anything weighty at all, just gently suggests that chance and encounter are the only real events in a person’s life, and that the best way to live is to be open to the surprises that other people might offer you. An eccentric, warm, amiable film about how most people are kind of weird, and in their weirdness are pretty loveable. I like it a lot: there’s something about its lack of ambition and its ease, its wit, its tenderness—basically, its sentimental humanism—which I find nicely compelling. It doesn’t leave much of a mark, but it’s a comforting watch, pleasant and companionable, which is sometimes exactly what you need.
November 17. Wednesday. In the morning we wander around the Chepstow charity shops, where I pick up a rare first edition of a collection of John Berger’s writings on drawing for £3.75. We look at the church, St. Mary’s, which has a Norman doorway and some Jacobean tombs. We get the train back to Sheffield. In the south the weather is unseasonably warm, but as we pass Birmingham the sky becomes comfortingly grey and the landscape is less picturesque. We come home and immediately do some LFD tests, after receiving news that we might have been exposed to the virus: thankfully they are both negative, which unfortunately means I will have to go to work this weekend. I spend some time sitting on the sofa feeling tired and then eventually bestir myself to go to the cinema. I walk to Showroom where I watch Throne of Blood (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1957). The screen is mostly empty. I’m very tired. I drink the beer that I snuck in with me and then, almost as soon as I finish it, about twenty-five minutes into the film, I fall asleep. I wake myself up, and then I fall asleep again. This pattern repeats itself for probably an hour or so: I watch a few minutes of the film, kind of confused about what’s happening, but familiar enough with the plot of Macbeth (of which Throne of Blood is an adaptation) to be able to roughly orient myself in what’s happening, and then I feel my eyes closing again, and I doze off for another few minutes. Eventually, after a while, I go to the bathroom in the hopes that moving around will wake me up, but as soon as I sit back down I fall asleep again. I wake up just in time to see Toshiro Mifune get shot by a bunch of arrows and the forest moving towards the castle, just in time to see the ending. I realise that I’ve manage to see most of the high points of the plot—the prophecy, the wife persuading her husband to murder their superior, the murder, the inability to wash away the blood, the retribution—but I’ve missed all of the linking sections. The parts that I do see I am very impressed with and I feel a little guilty for sleeping through it, but I guess I am more worn out by the big walk I did yesterday than I expected. And maybe it’s not so bad to sleep during this film: my experience is one of repetition and confusion, much like a lot of the scenes that I do manage to see seem to involve: in particular I find the image of Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo) riding through the mist and being completely lost very striking. I guess it’s easy to fall asleep in this film because it uses silence so effectively—it uses music only when absolutely necessary and feels like a kind of empty, echoing space. I mean, that could be completely wrong, and I might have made that up, because I was asleep for most of it. But I still like Throne of Blood, I still have a good time. Apichatpong Weerasethakul once said he likes it when people fall asleep in his films because it’s a sign that they can give themselves up to fantasy and a means of entering a deeper relationship with the images. I don’t know if Kurosawa felt the same way. The only other film I’ve seen in a cinema which I can remember being so sleepy for is Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, which I saw in San Francisco one very very hungover day, with a big comedown, and which I slept through all of except the bit where the house burns down. Sleeping through Throne of Blood was much more pleasant. Maybe I’ll try and make time to actually watch it again some time soon, or maybe I’ll just stick with my weird, half-memory, half-fantasy version of it.
November 18. Thursday. I spend the morning catching up with this diary. At lunchtime L and I go to the opticians so she can advise me on some new frames. We leave without making any decisions. We walk around Endcliffe Park and then come home, where I allow the afternoon to trickle through my fingers in one way or another. I do a very small amount of writing but nothing substantial. As is often the case on Thursdays, I am mostly killing time until therapy, which I walk to in the late afternoon. It’s a good session, as many of the recent weeks have been; I feel like I’m getting a lot out of the work at the moment, which is not always the case. When I get home L prepares some bangers and mash inspired by our watching Masterchef: The Professionals the night before. Then we watch Babylon (dir. Franco Rosso, 1980), which is currently on MUBI. I’ve been meaning to get round to this for a while, and I’m slightly surprised to find myself watching it: I suggest it as a kind of opening gambit in the usual discussion between L and I about what film to watch, and do not expect for us to both agree on it almost immediately. It probably helps that the runtime is 91 minutes. Anyway, I’m glad to finally watch it, because Babylon is a very solid film, very enjoyable and interesting and sharp. Because I am a recovering academic, and recovery is a long road—a life’s work—I still sometimes have these unhelpful impulses when I encounter certain artworks, where I think, oh, that would be really good to teach. It’s very unlikely that I will ever be leading a seminar again in my life, let alone designing a module, but I have these thoughts anyway, and I have them while I’m watching Babylon, which strikes me as the perfect film to teach British Cultural Studies and the work of Stuart Hall. It’s a film about race in Thatcherite Britain, about dub, subculture, ‘mugging’, conflict, poverty, police violence, economic insecurity, crime, injustice, and solidarity. There’s an interesting split in the film between an urge towards a kind of documentary—the filmmakers showing different elements of Black British culture in London, through a series of almost didactic set-pieces (racial microaggressions in the workplace; conflict between generations; transporting, assembling and dismantling a sound system) which feel as though they’re designed to explore the everyday life of the culture—and the film’s plot, which is about the gradual intensification of misery and suffering in the life of the protagonist, Blue, who loses his job, gets beaten up by the police, leaves his parents’ house, and gets into some conflict with some National Front members. But because of the film already establishing the everydayness of police brutality and racial intimidation, Blue’s immiseration doesn’t feel sensationalised: it feels inevitable, normal. The film is successful because it shows how this is an injustice, but an injustice built into the daily functioning of British society, and the difficulties that Blue faces are only a tragedy for him and his friends—the rest of the world doesn’t care. It’s a powerful film, which is made with a real sense of solidarity and love, and I can see why it was banned in the US out of fear that it would incite race riots. And, of course, it would be easy to watch Babylon as a period piece about Thatcherism—not dissimilar to Young Soul Rebels or My Beautiful Laundrette or the softer, more palatable subcultural films made by Film4—but it ends with a kind of aggressive triumph, a refusal to be cowed, which makes it feel as damning of contemporary society as it must have done in 1980. Well worth watching.