- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (27/8/2021)
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
(Reviews of Paris Calligrammes; Boys From County Hell; and Around the World in 80 Days)
Cinemas are open again. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is still behaving as though the social distancing guidelines are still in place.
Consequently, the streaming platforms seem set to keep up their good work a little while longer. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, therefore, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.
In their recent docu-epic, Hemingway, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick reclaimed the realities of life in Paris in the 1920s from the Jazz Age writers who had mythologised it. The German film-maker Ulrike Ottinger does much the same for the 1960s in Paris Calligrammes, which takes its title from both the Librairie Calligrammes bookshop and the technique of arranging text to that it forms a thematically related image.
Showing at the Ciné Lumière and The ICA in London, as well as selected independent cinemas across the UK, this is a must for anyone fortunate enough to have seen Ottinger's mesmerising Chamisso's Shadow (2016), or any of the other documentary shorts and features she has produced in a near-50-year career.
In 1962, 20 year-old Ultike Ottinger left the German town of Konstanz to follow poet-philosopher Victor Segalen's advice about exploring the world from different angles. After her self-painted owlish Isetta bubble car broke down on a mountain road, she accepted a lift from five Gitane-smoking gentlemen resembling movie bank robbers, who dropped her off in Saint-Germain-des-Près.
Reminded by Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) of the need not to keep her eyes in her pockets, Ottinger was open to every experience the City of Light could offer her, as she sought to make a career as a painter. She wonders how it will feel to revisit her younger self from the vantage point of her late 70s, but is immediately consoled by the remembered sound of the street cleaners sluicing the gutters on the Place de Furstemberg.
At the start of her first chapter, `Fritz Picard and the Librairie Calligrammes', Ottinger heads to the Rue de Dragon and the antiquarian bookshop that its exiled German owner had named after a collection by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. She had spent hours in this `cathedral of books' soaking up the wisdom of Fritz Picard and the German and Jewish intellectuals who gathered there. The current owners allow her to dress the window with items gleaned from Picard's shelves and she recalls how she would accompany him on jaunts across the city to rescue volumes that had been left behind by those fleeing the Nazis.
As he tells a TV interviewer in 1963, the antiquarian bookseller makes a living by selling his treasures, although he had kept a set of first editions by his friend Else Lasker-Schüler. Ottinger rejoices in the chance rediscovery of Picard's guest book and picks out her own entry, as well as those by Hubert von Ranke, Annette Kolb, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Jacob Taubes, Marino Marini, Paul Celan, Marcel Marceau, Hans Richter, Raoul Hausmann, Tristan Tzara and Walter Mehring, who all did their bit to help heal a brutalised world.
Many of the names will only strike chords with scholars nowadays. But these Dadaists, Surrealists and Situationalists all left their mark on Ottinger and it's impossible not to be moved by the rendition of Mehring's poem from New Year 1941, with its repeated line: `The richest fruitage in the season's yield/Was left to rot upon a German field.'
Moving on into `Friedlaender's Studio', Ottinger recalls learning how to etch with Johnny Friedlaender. Over footage of earnest activity in the studio, she remembers a gay Cuban exile named Alejandro and the people she met through the Friedlaenders' hospitality. We hear Ottinger's first radio interview about the `Israel' portfolio that had been acquired by the French National Library.
In `Saint-Germain-des-Près', Ottinger reminisces about working all day in famous haunts like Le Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, where it was possible to see Simone Signoret reading scripts, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir working on manuscripts, and Jean Rouch and Marceline Loridan planning Chronicle of a Summer (1963). Sporting the toga he had made himself, Isadora Duncan's brother, Raymond, would potter around sharing his wisdom, while budding intellectuals thronged to La Hune, the bookshop that remained open until midnight.
The monochrome footage makes the Quarter seem alive without nostalgising it. Indeed, Ottinger was well aware that Paris was a place of turmoil, as we learn in `My Parisian Friends and the Algerian Trauma.' For the first few months in Paris, Ottinger slept on an air mattress in the flat artist Fernand Teyssier shared with his wife Vanda. He deserted to avoid going to Algeria, as the conflict was detested among the left-wingers who frequented the cafés of Montparnasse. In addition to friends like Alain Lance, Christa Wolff and Volker Braun, Ottinger also discussed the colonial situation with photographer Ré and poet Philippe Soupault, who had fled the Maghreb during the Second World War after being accused of treason by the Vichy government.
As a French Algerian (or `pied noir'), Albert Camus was highly vocal on the future of the country, but was cautious about the prospects of the new socialist regime. They also discussed Jacques Panijels's banned film, Octobre à Paris (1962), which recorded the penurious living conditions of the Algerians in the `bidonville' shanties on the outskirts of the capital and chronicled the brutal suppression by police chief Maurice Papon (who had supervised Jewish deportations during the war) of a demonstration on 17 October 1961 that resulted in the death of between 200-300 people.
As Ottinger points out, no one has ever faced charges over this massacre, which was even hushed up by opposition newspapers. Jean Genet attempted to expose the crime in his play, The Screens, which was courageously staged by Jean-Louis Barrault and Roger Blin in 1966 and which Ottinger regards as one of the cultural highlights of her life. Right-wing war veterans regarded the piece as insulting and attacked the Théâtre de l'Odéon. But the play ran for eight months and Minister of Culture André Malraux attended the last night.
By this time, Ottinger had begun to explore `la nouvelle figuration', which was the French equivalent of Pop Art. In `Pop! My Parisian Experiments With Forms,' she explains how she changed styles after moving into a garret opposite Montaigne's statue near Rue de la Sorbonne. Telling time by the street signs around her. Ottinger threw herself into Latin Quarter life and into her art, as friends modelled for the distinctive triptychs and tableaux-objets that became her speciality.
One picture of Allen Ginsberg was exhibited as jigsaw pieces for visitors to put together. She also put the books she was reading on display. As she moves on to `The Artists of Montparnasse,' Ottinger fondly recalls the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the nearby studios of Ossip Zadkine (whose wooden sculptures fascinated her) and Willy Maywald, the onetime house photographer of Christian Dior who discovered Nico before she became a singer. She also befriended Lou Albert-Lasard, who had drawn the scenes around her in the Gurs internment camp.
On one memorable night at Maywald's, Ottinger had watched a Portuguese circus troupe that had made such an impact that she paid tribute to them in her 1981 film, Freak Orlando. For all she learned while socialising, however, Ottinger was also schooled by the city and its architecture, as she outlines in `The Presence of the Colonial - My Ethnographical View into the World.'
She visits the hair salons that have sprung up in what used to be the garment quarter. Back in the 1960s, however. she would escape the bustle to stroll in the gardens of what was then the Musée des Colonies, which had been completed just three decades earlier. The bas-reliefs on the outer walls of the Palais de la Porte Dorée are fascinating as both works of art and how France viewed its imperial status and the territories under its control. The change of name to the Musée d'Art d'Afrique et d'Océanie and then Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration says much about shifting attitudes since the time when the black-and-white Bastille Day footage included here was shot.
In her twenties, Ottinger had enjoyed mooching around the Jardin Colonial (aka Jardin 'Agronomie) in the Bois de Vincennes. Its monuments reflected the architectural styles of the different colonies and she now finds it hard to look at a tableau dedicated to the glory of imperial expansion without a shamed sense of unease. She feels equally uncomfortable watching the belongings of the last imperial family of Annam and Vietnam family being sold off at Paris's oldest auction house, the Palais Drouot, where she had also bought artefacts in the past.
Musing on the trade in memories and the political systems that engendered them, Ottinger recalls the influence that a lecture on outside perceptions by Claude Lévi-Strauss would have on her when she turned to film-making. Dropping into the Musée de l'Homme in the Trocadero complex that had been built for the 1937 World's Fair, she recalls Jean Rouch's praise for the way the exhibits were laid out and the message they sought to convey. Outside today, on the paved area where Florimond Dufour used to rollerskate to gramophone records, people are more concerned with taking selfies with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
In `Cosmos Cinema - The Cinémathèque Française,' she remembers the grand re-opening of Henri Langlois's cinema in the Palais de Chaillot on 6 June 1963. Here, she saw Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902), as well as the great works of German Expressionism and Soviet montage. She cites the importance to her of Dadaist film-makers like Fernand Léger, Germaine Dulac and René Clair, as well as the retrospectives that Langlois programmed that allowed cineastes to follow a director's evolution.
We see Langlois showing off treasures like Mother's head from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), a hat that had belonged to Mae West and a death mask of Kenji Mizoguchi. Ottinger recalls Lotte Eisner and Mary Meerson attending a screening of F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) and years later giving Meerson some glossy stills from her own films, Laocoon & Sons (1972), The Enchantment of the Blue Sailors (1975) and Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978). She was hugely proud to have been screened in this sacred place and reflects on a postwar German childhood in which she saw mostly French films. Indeed, when she first saw a picture from her homeland, she had protested that it was bogus because it was in the wrong language.
Of course, Ottinger also spent time in the Louvre. Yet, as she notes in `Treasure Chests of the Arts', she often only popped in to check a detail in a Théodore Géricault or a Georges de la Tour painting. She particularly liked the Musée de Gustave Moreau and was often there alone. Years later, she would draw on her visits for a scene in Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (1984).
Her first visit to the Labrouste Reading Room at the Bibliothèque Nationale also left a deep impression, as she felt privileged to sit in its reverential silence and indulge in the fairytale of having any book she requested brought to her seat. The same magic worked in the Cabinet des Estampes, where Ottinger was so taken by the Goya Caprichos that she dedicated a segment of Freak Orlando to `The Disasters of War'.
It wasn't all work, however. Over a clip of Juliette Gréco, Ottinger harks back in `My Parisian Nights' to the nights spent dancing at the Blue Note to the likes of Chuck Berry, Chet Baker, Elvin Jones and Victor Feldman. She also frequented gay bars like Elle et Lui, Le Monocle and Kathmandu, where she saw female impersonator La Grande Eugène (aka Jean-Claude Dreyfus). Another favourite hangout were the chanson clubs, where she saw Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, Eva (aka Eva Killutat), Juliette Gréco and Barbara (aka Monique Serf)
The nocturnal bustle of Les Halles also held a fascination and Ottinger would join workers in the Au Pied de Cochon brasserie. But she also noticed the nuns coming for food for their poor houses and the gleaners searching for something to eat from the scraps.
The Vietnam War was a major topic within Ottinger's circle. In `Political Revolt', she presents her 1966 piece, `Journée d'un GI', On screen, Jean-Luc Godard changed tack with Weekend and La Chinoise (both 1967), while she was impressed with William Klein's Mister Freedom (1968). The Flower Power protests fuelled the May 1968 upheavals, along with the misunderstood belief that Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution was a positive force.
From her window (which was sealed up against the tear gas), Ottinger watched the pitched battles with the police and grew frustrated at the media demonising student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit as a `German Jew'. She recalls the city grinding to a halt following the general strike and the sense that the reforms demanded hadn't been achieved through the downfall of Charles De Gaulle.
Ottinger particularly remembers the sad sight of Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud being driven out of the Théâtre de l'Odéon with nothing more than a cardboard box. This seemed to symbolise the bursting of her own bubble, as politics strained friendships and she left Paris in 1969.
In `Epilogue', Ottinger explains why turning to film made sense to her on an artistic and political level after she made Laocoon & Sons: A Story of Esmeralda del Rio's Metamorphosis with Tabea Blumenschein. She has spent the last half century trying to make art that matters and it's a crying shame that so much of it is hidden away from ordinary viewers who can't afford the inflated prices demanded for the DVD editions of dramas like Ticket of No Return (1979) and Joan of Arc of Mongolia (1989).
With Jacques Dutronc's `Il est cinq heures Paris s'éveille' and Jacqueline Misson's `Dieu, est-il Pop?' still playing in one's head, this 130-minute trip to a rarefied yesteryear contrasts starkly with the brasher recollections of Michael Caine and his pals in David Batty's take on Swinging London, My Generation (2017). Perhaps it would make a better double bill with Nicole Védrès's Paris 1900 (1947).
It could be argued that Ottinger has indulged in a game of highbrow name-dropping that will have even the most scholarly looking up some of the artists, poets, philosophers, activists, musicians, film-makers and booksellers she mentions. But such is the sincerity of her personal attachment to the people and places that her memoir is both compelling and poignant. She owes much to editor Anette Fleming and sound designer Detlaf Schitto for the wondrous images that illustrate her narration. Yet, while it's nice to hear Ottinger's own voice, the versions spoken by Jenny Agutter and Fanny Ardant might help Anglo-French viewers focus on the archival gems without the need to keep looking away to read the not always legible subtitles.
Another small quibble is the inclusion of a snap of Lauren Bacall at a fashion show with Humphrey Bogart, who had died in 1956, six years before the aspiring flâneuse reached Paris. But everything else works splendidly and one can only imagine that the accompanying tome is a delight, as the older, wiser Ottinger cuts her youthful self some slack for being swept away by colonial trappings that many would now seek to cancel. Indeed, she even admonishes herself for closing with `Non, je ne regrette rien', which Édith Piaf had dedicated to the unwaveringly pro-colonialist and avowedly right-wing French Foreign Legion.
BOYS FROM COUNTY HELL.
Before he debuted with Bad Day for the Cut (2017), Northern Irish film-maker Chris Baugh made a short about the myth of the blood-sucking Abhartach and the Slaghtaverty Dolmen. He returns to Six Mile Hill for the feature version of Boys From County Hell and generates a few jolts, as well as the odd dark grin.
Country boys Eugene Moffat (Jack Rowan) and William Bogue (Fra Fee) delight in duping tourists by spooking them at the supposed grave of the local ghoul. Stout sidekick SP McCauley (Michael Hough) is also game for a laugh, but William's girlfriend, Claire McCann (Louisa Harland), shares the view of his undertaker father, George (John Lynch), that he could so with growing up and getting a proper job.
Fate has other plans, however, as a drunken scuffle near the cairn after a night in The Stoker leads to William striking his head on the stone and giving Abhartach (Robert Nairne) a taste of the blood that persuades him to rise from the grave before its tarmacked over by Eugene's widowed contractor dad, Francie (Nigel O'Neill), who isn't one for legends, even when site nightwatchman Charlie Harte (Morgan C. Jones) is among the first victims.
As Abhartach has the power to drain people of blood simply by being in their vicinity, he makes a fearsome adversary. However, Eugene's vanquishing task is made all the more difficult by the fact that William has joined the undead and is being protected in an underground strongroom by George and his timid wife, Pauline (Andrea Irvine).
Writing with Brendan Mullin, Baugh has fun with rules for slaying a nosferatu and stipples the dialogue with witty one-liners. He might struggle with tying up the loose ends and keeping sentiment at bay. But he deftly drafts a social realist subplot about the rural economy on to the vampiric mayhem. Moreover, he's aided in conveying the gritty feel of everyday life by cinematographer Ryan Kernaghen, who also makes the woods, fields, farm buildings and dimly lit village streets feel forebodingly eerie.
Jack Rowan makes a doltishly plucky hero, while Fra Fee shifts adeptly from mate to monster. But it's the contrasting turns of Nigel O'Neill and John Lynch that makes this so affecting. Unaverse to a quick buck, O'Neill regains his scruples in helping his son fight evil, while Lynch succumbs to melancholy before ebbing away from a scenario that may offer little in terms of originality and terror, but which atones sufficiently to take its place beside such droll Irish chillers as Conor McMahon's Dead Meat (2004), Stephen Bradley's Boy Eats Girl (2005) and Jon Wright's Grabbers (2012).
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.
Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days is a couple of years away from celebrating its 150th anniversary. There have been numerous screen adaptations of the adventures of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout since Conrad Veidt and Eugen Rex were teamed by Richard Oswald in 1919. This proved to be the only silent adaptation and the only one in black and white, as Michael Anderson used Todd-AO and Technicolor for the all-star 1956 Oscar winner that paired David Niven and Cantinflas.
Australian animators next took over the tale, with Leif Gram's 1972 cartoon series being followed by a 1988 featurette. It was back to live action for Frank Coraci in 2004, as he sent Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan on their travels. David Tennant will be accompanied by Ibrahim Koma for an eight-part circumnavigation that will reach the small screen later this year. To whet the appetite, Samuel Tourneux has released an animal variation on the theme, which hits UK cinemas in time for the August bank holiday weekend.
Teenage marmoset Passepartout (Cory Doran) wears a pith helmet because he wants to be an explorer. However, his over-protective mother (Shoshana Sperling) disapproves of his ambition and tries to keep an eye on him at all time. A gerbil law officer named Fix (Heather Bambrick) also places Passepartout under surveillance when he pals up with Phileas Frog (Rob Tinkler), who arrives in their quaint coastal town on a surfboard.
Being the boastful type, Phileas bets a gambling addicted shrimp named Herman (Brandon McGibbon) that he can go around the world in 80 days and send back selfies as proof of his progress. Seeing his chance to go on an adventure, Passepartout offers to be Phineas's travelling companion. Naturally, his mom says no. But he goes anyway, amidst rumours that Phileas has committed a bank robbery to fund his trip.
A quarter of the way into the 82-minute story, the voyage finally begins. But screenwriters Gerry Swallow and David Michel have dwelt so long on scene setting that they have barely left themselves enough time to squeeze in the globe-trotting. Consequently. after Agent Fix tries to catch Phileas and Passepartout on the ship taking them across the ocean, nothing else happens for the next 17 days, until they become stranded in an unnamed desert without anyone being any the wiser as to how they got there.
On Day 25, the pair reach a city where Fix hires a weasel in a fez to follow them to the train station. There's a chase through the narrow streets and Passepartout gets wrapped up in a carpet and bounces down some steps before Phileas uses the rug as a parachute to lower them to the ground behind a departing train.
The dogged Fix follows and there's a handcuffed tussle on the roof of the speeding locomotive that ends with a randomly tossed axe hitting the right spot to allow the friends to leap off a bridge. They land unharmed and send a selfie in a bottle. We follow its progress on various forms of transport before it's delivered to Passepartout's mother.
Meanwhile, on Day 31, the intrepid twosome are passing through a dark jungle by torch beam when it dawns on Passepartout that Phileas has little or no idea what he is doing. They argue before falling and landing in a tree, from which they witness a torchlight procession taking the fettered Princess Aouda (Katie Griffin) to her death.
She sassily gives as good as she gets to the snooty snail (Cory Doran) about to sacrifice her and Phileas recognises a kindred spirit. Unfortunately. in rescuing Aouda, the friends send the contraption on which she's being carried hurtling down a sleep slope towards a pit of fire. We shouldn't have worried, however, as they manage to escape in the nick of time and agree to take Aouda along on the rest of the journey.
After climbing up a snowy mountain, a montage depicting rather mundane incidents fizzes away the remaining time to Day 77. The scenic views look good, but they serve no narrative purpose whatsoever. At least the cosy fireside chat shows Phileas and Aouda discovering a mutual love of flies, but there's little hint of tension, as the deadline ticks over into Day 79, with a considerable way still to go.
The trio also still have Fix on their tails, when they enter a picturesque port that contains a museum devoted to Passepartout’s hero, Juan Frog de Leon (Juan Chioran). Phileas has spent the entire trip pooh-poohing the exploits of this intrepid explorer and we learn the reason why when it's revealed that Juan is his father.
When Fix captures Phileas with the help of an angry seagull, Aouda builds a flying machine out of bits and bobs and charges after them. Father and son squabble in freefall, but Aouda catches them and they are within sight of land when Fix and the gull attack.
Everyone splashes into the sea and Herman thinks he’s won the bet. But Phileas and Passepartout scramble ashore in time to claim their victory. Moreover, while in the process of nabbing Phileas, Fix gives himself away as the bank robber and winds up in chokey.
Rejoicing in the pleasingly punning premise of making Phileas a frog. this Franco-Belgian animation owes precious little to the original text and dumps the bulk of the travelling time off screen. Frustratingly, it shows no curiosity for or appreciation of the world around it and contains few palpable perils that might face a frog and a marmoset entering territories filled with hungry predators. Granted, this is meant for young audiences, but the surfeit of cheap-chuckle slapstick and the lack of excitement and the complete absence of suspense will make this a chore for accompanying adults.
This is a shame, as the computer-generated backdrops are rather atmospheric and the character animation is as assured as the voice work. The secondary characters are also well sketched and Tourneux doesn't rely over much on video game-style chase and careen techniques. But the script fails to establish a real bond between Phileas and Passepartout, with the result that the audience is often reduced to spectating rather than rooting for them. Fun in places, but lazily plotted and devoid of thrill and wonder.