Category Archives: Classics

Prospero’s Books

Prospero's books DVDReview

Peter Greenaway’s interpretation of The Tempest.  The title comes from the central motif of the film: the wealth of the knowledge contained in the books is the real key to power.  It’s a Renaissance pantechnicon impressarioed by Prospero’s vindictive id.  Gielgud’s Prospero aspires to be a scholar disinterestedly pursuing knowledge for its own sake but the books are a gateway to an unleashed imagination which can work for either evil or good.  Greenaway’s film is set in a panoptic pleasure dome elaborating its artifice for the purposes of cruel manipulation.  He stylizes the acting within the sets as if he’s trying out tones of voice and body posture.  The effect is a masque moving in real time and we are spectators at this baroque court of historical and surreal pastiche.  The superimposed voices and silent acting are mimes echoing into each other.  In The Tempest there is off-stage conspiracy and this then quickens the tempo, as if Prospero’s theatrical manipulation suffers the outrage of a competing vision hence his anger with Caliban.  In Prospero’s Books Caliban mimes as if he’s the dark side of Prospero but his vitality defies the stilted postures of all the other characters so for me he is the most sympathetic character.  Ariel is all Palestrina castrati and fake cherubs.  This emphasizes the decadence of magic used for caprice and personal power rather than for enhancement of life.  Prospero’s progress through his Neronic court over parquet floors is accompanied by the metronomic music of Philip Glass.  Miranda is just another spoilt and gilded menagerie exhibit.  The Milanese  courtiers wear grossly exaggerated Rembrandt clothes and this enhances the artificiality of their life-denying corruption stranded in Prospero’s Renaissance prison; they are clowns awaiting his vengeance.  Prospero has shown  himself to be little better because his revenge is aesthetic and cruelly elaborate, as if to emphasize Nietzshe’s point that art and cruelty serve each other.  Not only Trinculo and Stephano but all characters are stilted or dumbly statuesque in comparison with Caliban’s graceful dancing.  Amazingly original.


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Viva Zapata!

Viva Zapata posterSynopsis

An Elia Kazan 1952 film scripted by John Steinbeck and made in black and white.  It’s about the Mexican revolutionary Zapata and his battle for peasant land rights against Porfirio Diaz and later dictators.  He triumphs in 1914 and achieves supremacy with Pancho Villa when they meet in Mexico City, but he is no politician and goes back to a more congenial life of fighting for rights.  He is betrayed by his former supporters.


Marlon Brando at this time was the charismatic star of On the Waterfront and here he also plays a hero, Zapata, fighting repression.  This was made during the McCarthy witchhunt  era in America when supposed communists in the film industry were ostracized by Senator McCarthy.  If you played a revolutionary fighting for the rights of peasants and working class people it was presumably not considered a smart career move.  I don’t know how much of this film is historically accurate but it has the familiar narrative of the Robin Hood type hero.  Brando smoulders under greasepaint with eyes orientalized (that wouldn’t happen now).  He shows the character with his limitations up against a manipulative intellectual who acts like he’s been through Lee Strasberg’s school of method acting.  Anthony Quinn plays himself, all manic machine gun mannerisms, the macho child man.

Curiously, for all Brando’s charisma, I don’t really sympathize with his plight as a betrayed hero.  It looks too much like the sort of self-betrayal which could only accuse from simple self-glorifying righteousness.  Brando makes Zapata look self-dramatizing, knowingly going to his death.  It’s like as if Brando is hampered by ambivalence, he cannot make him a martyr yet he admires the man’s heroism.  From a writer of Steinbeck’s quality you expect good poetry and rhetoric in the script.  The actions of the other characters are obvious, but Brando’s Zapata is presented as an enigma, not a straight forwardly simple hero.  Steinbeck says that a self confident people do not need a man on a white horse, and throughout the film he stays with this belief.  I think Brando’s Zapata is illiterate but clever, strong but with a self esteem too extrinsically dependent, heroic but succumbs to self sacrifice.  The reluctant hero is a familiar Hollywood story, it enables you to admire the heroism but not necessarily the cause.  Given its remit, one should not expect a detailed painting but even the rough sketches we get make for an outstanding film.

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Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Classics, Film Reviews


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Film posterSynopsis

Directed by A. Schneider in 1965 and written by Samuel Becket, it’s a twenty minute film in black and white.  It stars Buster Keaton who plays an anonymous elderly man who meets a couple in a shabby bombsite and they tear up photographs.  Then he enters a derelict room.  We only see his back as he keeps moving around the room.  There is a Sumerien picture, photographs, and a mirror.  In the end he sees himself and looks astonished.


Becket wrote this as an illustration of the philosopher Bishop Berkeley’s teaching that to be is to be perceived, “esse ist percipi“.  It’s as if the old man is trying to find or correct something in the room.  He keeps moving about.  Does he try to avoid the metaphorical watcher which could be conscience or memory?  He keeps tearing up photos, so is it resistance to the demands of his past or his emotions, or is it the getaway from the BIG PERCEIVER, either self or God?  Becket acknowledges that our reality is based on being seen, either by others or by ourselves, so we can only bear witness to our own reality.  Buster Keaton was a big star of the silent screen, he was a genius of comedy and in this film we are reminded of his ability to make us laugh: his lugubrious face erupting into dismay and astonishment.  He looks a bit like Dali.  It seems he didn’t understand what Becket was getting at in this film.

If you find Berkeley’s philosophy persuasive then Film acts like reality itself and there is no boundary between this work of art and everyday activity.  Berkeley offered an ingenious solution to the problem of sense data which are the different perspectives we have on any object— a table looks completely different seen from the top or horizontally for example.  We cannot perceive every perspective, what does this whilst we don’t?  Berkeley believed that humanly unsensed sense data must exist in the mind of God (e.g. God hears the tree fall in the forest when no one else does), so this film seems to me to be a silent parable about our relationship with God, which we seek or avoid.  The Keaton character is like Vladimir and Estragon in Becket’s Waiting for Godot, they wait for Godot whereas Keaton has reluctantly found Godot.

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Posted by on April 27, 2012 in Classics, Film Reviews


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The Swimmer

The Swimmer posterSynopsis

Made in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster as the swimmer.  He proposes to get back home by swimming through each of the swimming pools on the way there.  He starts off optimistically surrounded by successful and seemingly friendly people  As he progresses the high summer gets autumnal.  The swimming pool hosts start from the friendly (one is hostile early in the film) to the snobby, then hostile and contemptuous.  He ends up back at his own house and everything is very different.


One of the stars of this film is the swimming pool, the symbol of American affluence and self confidence.  In The Graduate it started as a symbol of Ben’s success, and ends up like bath water lapping his self pity.  In The Swimmer the pools are expensively cleaned, at the end he swims through eye burning chlorine.

Based on a story by John Cheever, it’s a tautly acted and written parable which packs a few morals depending on your interpretation.  Lancaster starts out as an enviable example of the American Dream.  He appears rich and successful and has two daughters and a wife.  His friends are as successful as he is and all is affluent and joyful. The first upset comes at the third pool where he is dismissed by a bitter tirade railing against Lancaster’s snubbing of a dying acquaintance.  We overhear elderly nativists  gossip about Lancaster’s problems and we know there’s something wrong.  Then he meets a young blonde admirer who refuses to satisfy his vanity by turning her childhood crush into a relationship and she is no longer the wholesome innocent she appears to be.  He then comes across a garden party where he is snubbed and learns that his wife sold a treasured possession behind his back.  Then he gets to a former lover who is very bitter with his status-seeking regard and she rebuffs him and tells him he is an inadequate.  Then he gets into a public swimming pool crowded with people.  There he is told about his family’s attitude towards him and he ends up in rain and squalor.

At first among the rich and successful, Lancaster is genuinely positive and thinks the best of people in a Panglossian way, as if everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  For me, this is a jarring note in the story, in spite of Lancaster’s smugness he is also keen to spread happiness. Whatever his misdemeanours, you feel that he is a not an entirely unsympathetic person (unless you read this as a parable about US imperialism).  Even when his bitter ex-lover rejects him, she is ready to help him back to his house.  Lancaster’s character is brittle and proud and his progress through the pools is objectively monitored by seasonal deterioration.  Are the characters at the end too harsh with him?  It depends on the interpretation you give it.  Lancaster’s acting throughout is gripping.  You could read this film as a parable about growing up or about America’s supposed loss of innocence after the Kennedy assassination and about Vietnam.  This film also has the feeling of a nice dream journey into a nightmare.  As he walks away from the garden party the guests line up to see him off.  In the countryside we see the reliable old standby of cinematic dream symbolism: the horse galloping free.

This is a sixties film so it features that other stereotype of that decade: the embittered alcoholic wife/mistress.  At the start the characters talk like Stepford alpha men and women.  People say what’s required of them to sustain the facile optimism of money and high status.  At the end people are cynical and bitter but in a very literal minded way.  The story should evince hope even in the squalid circumstances of comparative poverty but it doesn’t do this.  I think it would be a better film if the moral possibilities in the story had been pursued.  Among the truth telling cynics, Lancaster has the opportunity to get through guilt and remorse to achieve some kind of expiation but it doesn’t happen.  We see a sinister squalor at the end but we don’t know the extent of his culpability.  Those victims of his arrogance achieve vengeance, and like them the film gloats over this person stripped of allusions shown to be living in lies.  The film’s mercilessly non redemptive end is very bleak.  A dark but absorbing film.


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Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies cover imageSynopsis

The Peter Brook film made in 1963 in black and white about war-evacuated British schoolboys marooned on a desert island and their descent into evil.  They victimize a fat kid they call “Piggy” and then turn on Ralph.  They hunt him down until they are rescued.


It curiously replicates the faults of the book insofar as Golding tends not to go into details of desert island survival.  Things get done as if out of cloth, and it is the same in the film, you only see instant results of actions.  This just makes you think of the unseen film set adult supervision and handiwork, so it’s like being at Summerhill school where the kids are compelled to be themselves  This also reminds me of those adult actors playing children in Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, of course the dialogue is stilted and the children are awkward and you wonder what they would be like away from Peter Brooks’ supervision and William Golding’s agenda.

The black and white gives the film a contemporary Starbucks style of coffee house primitivism, the coral seems almost to be sculpted into totem heads and the tropical vegetation looks denser than it would be in colour!  It’s as if this primeval anti-Eden had been given a Henry Moore workover in stone, bone, and wood.  Given the very young age of the school children, I wonder how convincingly Golding’s concern about original sin and natural human depravity can be presented by what looks like a school outing gone a bit haywire.  Jack is like Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, who comes into his own when fiendishly bullying Piggy’s plodding working class decency.  This is well done as Piggy becomes the sacrificial victim of Jack’s venomous class malevolence.  Ralph looks like a C.S.Lewis – Arthur Mee – Enid Blyton jobsworth of baffled Christian forthrightness, which is Brook’s intention.  At times these three look like they’re playing up, as precociously as they can, to what adults expect of them in what looks like arthouse anthropology.  Like the children in High Wind In Jamaica, this film is a corrective to the Swiss Family Robinson wholesomeness of Disney on a tropical island.   It certainly influenced subsequent ‘serpent in paradise’ films like The Beach.

As for Simon, the schoolboy actor can’t be expected to bear the load of moral significance which the book gives him, he can only look like a sulky lad.  As he stares at the pig’s head on a stick, he seems not to be confronting an hallucinatory scary symbol of evil but at a schoolboy prank gone wrong.

An occasionally exiting film (in spite of the arty flute music), but is not totally convincing.


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Kes posterSynopsis

About a northern lad in a poverty- ridden mining area of Barnsley.  He befriends a kestrel and he has problems at home and at school.  The film was made in 1969.


This is Ken Loach and his thing about the ‘working class’.  I remember when this film came out, all the trendies in London loved it.  Of course they would, since it showed a quaint world of picturesque poverty and simple people in the cinematic equivalent of a Lowry painting.  The sixties were infatuated with kitchen sink dramas in their Wednesday plays and so forth.  I love that Monty Python sketch where there is a comical inversion of class roles:  the worker is a successful writer complaining about writer’s cramp and the posh lad is a miner enthusing about coal shovels.  Ken Loach and his leather jacketed squad must have been similarly comically out of place among the ‘real’ people of Barnsley.  Well intentioned it may be, but it cannot avoid being patronizing.  If you can cut these concerns out, then the film is quite poetic.  The boy’s relationship with the kestrel is like T.H. White meeting Ted Hughes in a lost world of rough and self sufficient kids.  The kestrel is a superbly lyrical presence as it soars over the dreary hard world of working class Yorkshire.  I’m sad at the passing of this toughness, although of course in most respects life has got better so there’s no need to be a Monty Python Yorkshireman bragging about the good old days.  The schoolteachers are the insecure cynics beloved of Pink Floyd parody in The Wall.  The observation of school life is funny and cruel, but I felt that the cruelty often wins out at the expense of the humour that’s supposed to balance it out.  Colin Welland is the wise mentor of the boy Billy Casper.  As a teacher you feel that Welland is a disappointed socialist, keen to eke out some potential from his pupils before they end up in an office or a factory.  Casper has story telling ability but this will never be realized as he lives with his thuggish brother.  Casper is routinely bullied so his only outlet is with nature.  For the trendies it must have been like watching some exotic Amazonian tribe, anthropological condescension appears to be an ineluctable aspect of such films.  This reminds me of another Monty Python sketch where a film crew desperately seek out social problems so they can make a documentary, only to find that no-one has any interesting life stories to tell of victimization.

Well meaning, but interesting more as an historical documentary that tell us something about the art of hawking.


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The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man posterSynopsis

About the hideously deformed John Merricks in late Victorian London.  A doctor (Anthony Hopkins) rescues him from a freak’s circus and looks after him in hospital.  It’s about Merrick’s star status in Victorian society after being an exhibit for medical science.  He is abducted by drunks and low lifes then he is recaptured by his circus owner.  He escapes from this into Hopkin’s care.


This is a David Lynch film (made in 1980) and it continues the style of Eraserhead, a film in black and white like the Elephant Man, in which an odd looking guy dreams he’s pregnant and is then devoured.  Lynch at this period, is obviously interested, in a paranoid and puritanical way, with the potential of the body for prudish alienation, decaying in disgustingness. His view of John Merrick (who was really called Joseph Merrick) seems as dubiously voyeuristic and as pornographically intrusive as the horrified viewers of his deformity at the time.  Lynch then seems to draw back and hold Merrick’s condition as a mirror to the equally horrific moral and psychological condition of the Victorian world with it’s prurient self repression, it’s violent sentimentality and its fear of self exposure.  Victorian funereal obsession with ‘oddity’, death, and suffering is graphically illustrated in stygian tones, it puts you in mind of Blake’s lithographs.  It has a mythological power in the smoking mills and the human bodies in the factory tortured by industry.  John Hurt under all that latex, puts on a great performance.  I only occasionally got distracted and thought of a Star Trek ‘Varengian’ with a melted head.  Lynch’s possible self-dislike seems to spare no-one else.  Anthony Hopkins is the doctor who rescues Merrick but Hopkins is more about maudlin self love than self effacing goodness, his ambivalence over his motivations offers only a possible redemption.  He is the hero of unctuousness we have sanctified in our own era’s humourless and paranoid therapy culture.  It makes you long for the inept gaffes of a Ricky Gervaise.  Initially anyway, this doctor exploits Merrick as much as Merrick’s circus owner, played by Freddie Jones as an avaricious, exploitative brute.  Actually this is myth, the real Merrick was never owned by a circus sadist, it seems he was a shrewd businessman who made money out of his condition.  Hopkins is a surgeon, out to make a name for himself so he exploits Merrick for his scientific self advancement.  His academic audience might be more educated than that of the circus but there is still the gratified and horrified stare at Merrick.  Furthermore, Hopkins ensures that ‘polite’ society comes to peer at this Victorian Quasimodo but of course, what they are really doing is admiring their capacity for sentimental condescension towards Merrick.  Lynch leaves us in no doubt of this. They then congratulate their self-sanctifying attitudes in the tortuously self deceptive ways familiar in more benign forms of racism.

Anne Bancroft’s Lilly Langtryish actor, who patronizes Merrick, is hilariously lacking in self knowledge on this point.  Lynch means us to find her superficial.  Merrick is treated as an unfortunate ‘noble savage’ later abducted by the usual hackneyed caste of disreputables, cockney prostitutes, and pub crawling brutes.  When Merrick ends up in the circus, Lynch reminds us of the role of spectacle in Victorian society and how Merrick is punished for the shame and embarrassment he causes in his audience, who become Heironymus Bosch monsters when they’re mobbing him.  From Bergman through to Paul Newman’s 1976 Buffalo Bill film, the travelling circus seems an appropriate backdrop for an outsiders view of social sickness and so it is here Merrick’s fellow unfortunates release him from the circus cage and he finds his way back to Hopkins and his hospital.

The film haunts with dark and claustrophobic places like curtains drawn over guilty secrets in a dark room.  A masterpiece.


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