Alchemy as film and music combine to create pure gold
JOHN GORE, founder of StokeScreen Film Club with his 57th pick of the films coming to a TV near you (starting on Sat, May 15).
We arrive at the same point as Heinz varieties. When were there 57 varieties? How many can you name? When they added new products to the range, did others drop out? It begs more questions than it answers but after all this time, it remains idiomatic so that is an indication of a successful marketing campaign, I suppose.
We have some delicious titles on offer this week to appeal to all tastes but in particular, there are some of the greatest soundtracks to be seen and heard. Please excuse me while I extol their virtues. (Scuse me, while I kiss the sky).
Paris, Texas 1984 (Film4 23.15 Thu 20 May) pictured above, has not been seen on our screens in well over a year and is brilliantly enhanced by one of the five best scores of all time. This is a heartbreaking romance directed by Wim Wenders in desolate Texan landscapes, telling of a shattered man, a drifter, who returns to Paris to reconnect with his far younger wife. The landscapes are eloquent. Harry Dean Stanton, in his first lead role, gives the performance of his career and Nastassja Kinski matches him with her personal best. The film is sad and human but compelling viewing. Central to this is Ry Cooder’s accompaniment. Played on slide guitar, closely miked and playing directly along to the film, it has a passion and rawness but also a lyrical beauty that transcends both music and cinema. It is an expression of the very essence of being human. This is one of the finest examples of the alchemy of cinema as a fusion of art forms. Prepare to be overwhelmed.
Then, there is Psycho 1960 (Sony Classics 21.00 Sun 16 May), Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary ‘grubby little picture’, as one of the contemporary critics described it. Shot cheap and fast, in black and white in 1960, it turned the thriller genre on its head and heralded the development of indie cinema. It is a spectacular demonstration of Hitchcock as a visual storyteller (lecture available upon request), it takes outrageous liberties with audience expectations, it illustrates Hitch’s very dark sense of humour, and it has ‘that’ shower scene with Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Underpinning the film is Bernard Herrmann’s motoric, Shostakovich-inspired score which comes to the forefront during the murder scene. This was groundbreaking cinema and a direct challenge to audiences regarding what was acceptable to show on screen, in the name of entertainment.
Hitchcock shot this film with a small cast, a small budget from a reluctant studio and on a reduced schedule. He came to it off the back of North By North West and Vertigo, both big screen extravaganzas with iconic Herrmann scores. In Psycho, you get the sense of both director and his composer cutting loose, taking big risks and delivering something startlingly different. It was one of a disturbing trio of films that surfaced in 1960, alongside Michael Powell’s career-suspending Peeping Tom and Georges Franju’s unsettling Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face).
Herrmann cemented himself in Hollywood movie history as starting his cinema career scoring Citizen Kane for Orson Welles and finishing it with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. In between, he worked closely and most successfully with Hitchcock. His scores tell the story of the films in their own right. There is another of their collaborations to be seen this week, The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956 (Film4 14.30 Fri 21 May), a remake of Hitch’s own UK production from 1934. It's cloak and dagger stuff with James Stewart and Doris Day (singing Qué Sera Sera) that culminates in an assassination attempt in the Albert Hall.
And then, as if such things were planned, Doris pops up again, cracking her whip in Calamity Jane 1953 (BBC2 15.00 Sat 15 May), one of the best loved musicals of the 1950s. You'll hear of Jane’s unrequited (secret) love for the Western legend Wild Bill Hickock. You will also get to sing along with The Deadwood Stage. One of the more remarkable events of my programming career was to stage a singalong version of Calamity Jane. Many of the capacity audience had dressed for the occasion.
Another remarkable collaboration between film maker and composer is that of Peter Greenaway and Michael Nyman. Greenaway’s playful murder conspiracy, Drowning By Numbers 1988 (Film4 01.20 Wed 19 May) stars Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson as three generations of the same family, each with their own marital problems. Nyman’s music is equally mischievous and teasing.
One of the biggest selling soundtrack albums ever is the collection of Simon and Garfunkel songs used in The Graduate 1967 (Sony Classics 21.00 Thu 20 May). It is an era defining movie which set the tone for much that was to follow.
For historical and literary pleasures, Tea with Mussolini 1998 (BBC2 16.10 Sun 16 May) wheels out the heavy hitters, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Joan Plowright (again) as the formidable ‘ladies who lunch’ – or, at least, take tea, in Franco Zeffirelli’s autobiography of growing up in Italy in the 1930s. A screenplay by John Mortimer gives the ladies plenty of witty dialogue with which to sparkle.
The House of Mirth 2000 (Film4 01.10 Thu 20 May) is an adaptation of a novel by Edith Wharton, who also wrote The Age of Innocence, which Martin Scorsese filmed. While it would appear that this film was hanging onto the coat tails of that feature, it has a different tone. British director Terence Davies paints a portrait of 19th century New York society, a world we are most familiar with through the writing (and films) of Henry James’ novels. Davies is an unshowy film maker but has gathered a galaxy of Anglo-American stars for this lushly decorated but subdued movie. Gillian Anderson, returning to the UK from the X Files years, leads the cast which also includes Dan Ackroyd, Eleanor Bron, Laura Linney and Elizabeth McGovern, in a time before Downton.
In contrast to this, Testament of Youth 2014 (BBC2 23.20 Fri 21 May), adapts Vera Brittain’s (Shirley Williams’ mum) account of life during WW1, giving a refreshing female perspective of the war, in which she served as a nurse on the Western Front. Alicia Vikander plays the lead with an impeccable English accent.
A more recent war story is Zero Dark Thirty 2012 (ITV4 23.10 Mon 17 May). Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up to her groundbreaking Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, charts the decade long search and final killing of Osama bin Laden. While it was nominated for further Oscars, it only managed technical awards in spite of Jessica Chastain’s charismatic performance as the researcher co-ordinating the hunt.
The Florida Project 2017 (Film4 21.00 Mon 17 May) follows a gang of unruly, almost feral children living in a motel in the shadow of Disney World, Florida. This mirror to the American Dream is rich with irony and gives Willem Dafoe a rare chance to play a sympathetic and positive role.
American Woman 2019 (Film4 21.00 Tue 18 May) is an unknown quantity to me but promises good things. Sienna Miller plays a single mum coping with men and a complicated family life, when her daughter goes missing. Another Anglo-American co-production, this is directed by Jake Scott, son of Alien/Blade Runner director, Ridley.
For no other reason than that it is a damn fine film that I have not seen on the schedule for some time, Billy Wilder’s film noir classic, Double Indemnity 1944 (Sony Classics 18.45 Wed 19 May) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck is worth your time. This defines its genre where the shadows are long and dark and the contents of men and women’s souls darker still. MacMurray, as honest Joe, finds himself caught in a web of intrigue and deceit involving murder and an insurance scam.
Ida 2013 (Film4 02.10 Tue 18 May) won Best Foreign Language Oscar for Pawel Pawilkowski, which is exactly what he said would happen. It concerns a novice, about to take her vows, who discovers dark secrets in her family’s past which she has to face up to. This was the first film he made after he left Oxford and returned to his native Poland where he also made Cold War, shown at StokeScreen back in the days when we could still hug. With luck, that time will come again very soon.
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