Friday, October 02, 2009

"Hatari! and the Hollywood Safari Picture" & "The Mortal Storm: 1940 and After" @ Senses of Cinema + Recommendations

I wish to alert Tativille's loyal readership to two new pieces that I have in Issue 52 of the newly (and beautifully) re-designed Senses of Cinema: "Hatari! and the Hollywood Safari Picture" and "The Mortal Storm: 1940 and After". The first places Howard Hawks's late-period masterpiece within the cycle of safari "A"-pictures that seems to have fed off the success of Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton's 1950 remake of King Solomon's Mines, while using a footnote in André Bazin's "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage" as an interpretative key for the mini-corpus. For those who are interested additionally in the subject of Bazin and wildlife, see the highly perceptive Seung-hoon Jeong's "André Bazin's Ontological Other: The Animal in Adventure Films". Likewise, for further reading on the safari film from yours truly, see my Tativille entry on Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey (1966).

The second (playfully, in my own dry prosaic way, I hope) considers Frank Borzage's fine feature within the context of its very strong year of release - a year that I suggest was better than the more widely esteemed 1939, as a stylistic apogee for the decade it followed and as a bellwether of the ten years to come.

While I am writing in abbreviated form, let me also offer my recommendations for three new films that I will not be writing about on this site in detail (because of both time constraints and the lack of inspiring or inventive things to say for each): Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009, Australia), Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (2009, Portugal) and Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town (2008, China). Campion's imagistic return to form once again reverses the object of desire in old-school Mulveyan terms, producing a work that (refreshingly) would have been much more at home in the 1990s, for which Campion was one of the key figures, than it is in our current decade. Maybe not so much new to say, but it says it very beautifully.

The 100 year-old, and still active Oliveira's film is relatively standard for the director's ultra-late period (meaning quite good, if not at the peak level of I'm Going Home [2001] or the valley of The Fifth Empire, 2004), replete with its emphasis on diegesis over mimesis, telling over showing. In other words, it would be more of the same were I to write on this film, as I have with so many Oliveira films in the past. (My wife Lisa has some great ideas on the film that I hope she will share with the blogosphere before the end of the festival.)

Lastly, the nearly three-hour, non-fiction Ghost Town paints a picture - on its often choppy, low-grade DV - of a rural, remote China for which the past sixty years seems to have made little perceptible impact. Rather, the film's location bears a distinctive similarity to much of the rural United States (though not materially) thanks to the central place that the film's evangelical church plays in the lives of a seemingly large segment of townspeople - while its absence elsewhere is equally felt. Both lightly comic in parts and harrowing especially in a third and final act where we have a teenager living very primitively on his own after being abandoned by his parents, Zhao courageously concludes with a highly damning reference to Mao Zedong and implicitly, to a faith in the PRC's material beneficence. Ghost Town is an especially important rejoinder to the "Seventeen Years" cinema being celebrated at this year's New York Film Festival.


Nathaniel Drake Carlson said...

Michael please encourage Lisa to share her thoughts on the Oliveira. I'd love to hear them. And what's with the diss for The Fifth Empire? Sorry but that's an incredible film.

Michael J. Anderson said...


I will continue to plead with Lisa to write up her thoughts, though I am afraid she is rather busy at the moment (so I am not holding my breath).

With the The Fifth Empire, I have no argument to make - other than the non-argument that I personally found it very dull, and that those persons with whom I have spoken about the film generally hold it in relatively low esteem (compared to the director's other masterful work). This again doesn't hold any real weight, though it does reflect, I would submit, the general consensus that it is not Oliveira at the peak of his powers. For those with said opinion, I recommend Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl as a step up. If you like the 2004 film, great; of course I would be thrilled if I was wrong on this one, and there was far more awaiting me in another viewing.

Nathaniel Drake Carlson said...


Hope I didn't offend with my tone. I realized only later that it may have been a bit blunt.

As ever there's room to disagree on these things of course. And I am aware that most don't hold Fifth Empire up to as much esteem as I do. I may be partially biased in my response to it as its subject matter and themes are already of interest to me and I think they're brought out quite well here (both in Oliveira's customarily great mise en scene and in the Jose Regio play itself), building an elegant, powerfully persuasive and rich portrait of the philosophy of nobility at a particular time and place as well as giving serious consideration to one man's vision. This vision is not at all completely criticized or dismissed (that's part of what many got wrong about this picture, wanting to reduce it to some shallow anti-Bush parable). As with all of Oliveira's works of this sort, there is no such outright rejection of principle; all is given ample consideration and irony provides space for reflection rather than any rank dismissal. Beyond that though, I would have to look at it again and closer to get at the specifics of its accomplishment; and honestly, for me, this is really a requirement to do justice to any of his films. Interestingly perhaps, it sounds as though your response to this one was pretty much the same as my own response to Doomed Love.

One good bit of news is that Fifth Empire finally exists on a good DVD with English subs. It's in that massive 21 film box set released last year. I couldn't recommend that higher, though the extra bonus disc of docs was not subbed and that was a big disappointment to say the least.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Don't worry Nathaniel, there really was no problem whatsoever with your tone. And thanks for the reminder about the massive box set!